Steven Spielberg Throws Apple Watch at ‘Sugarland Express’ 50th Anniversary and Remembers Finding ‘Jaws’ Script ‘Sitting Out’ in Producer’s Office

Apple, or at least its technology, was worried about the health and well-being of Hollywood’s greatest director.

In the middle of Steven Spielberg’s Tribeca Festival talk on Saturday, where the filmmaker was celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut feature, “The Sugarland Express,” he was interrupted by his Apple watch with a message that read “It looks like you’ve taken a hard fall.” Spielberg jokingly said “I’m not going to press the SOS [button]” before throwing it on the ground. “I’ll pick it up later,” he said, only to retrieve it a few minutes later when it started issuing some sort of distress signal.

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Before the Q&A began, a taped message from “The Sugarland Express” star Goldie Hawn appeared on the screen, thanking Spielberg and reminiscing about the pivotal moment in her career—and his. The film was released in 1974, just one year before “Jaws,” and even though it received good reviews, Universal pulled it from theaters after two weeks because of lackluster box office results. “You’re the first audience to ever see ‘Sugarland Express’ in 50 years,” Spielberg said to a packed audience at the BMCC in Lower West Side Manhattan.

The three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker told moderator and Variety Executive Editor Brent Lang that he was inspired to make the movie after reading an article with the headline “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde” in a local Los Angeles Valley newspaper, The Citizens News. “It was the story of this couple in Texas, Bobby and Ila Fae Dent who, in order to get their baby back from child welfare, led a multi-car police chase through Texas, and it just seemed like an incredible story,” Spielberg said. He then sent the article to his friends Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins and asked them if they wanted to work together and write a script.

But Universal wasn’t going to finance the film without a big star’s name above the title. “The movie wouldn’t have gotten made without her,” Spielberg said. Beyond her bankability, Spielberg felt that Hawn was a great fit for the role of Lou Jean Poplin, one of the naive cop car hijackers. “There was an element of the character, a bucolic element, that reminded me of the simplicity of Goldie’s heart,” he said.

However, filling out the rest of the ensemble inspired Spielberg and his casting director Shari Rhodes to look much farther afield from Hollywood. “I said to Shari, ‘Can you get some real people to be in this movie? Why does everybody have to be an actor? Why can’t you go into a bar and find Buster Daniels? Find a drunk for me,'” Spielberg joked. “She went into a bar, and she pulled this old guy out.” And he ended up being the well-lubricated passenger in the backseat when Hawn and her on-screen husband Clovis (played by William Atherton) steal a cop car and take a patrolman (Michael Sacks) hostage.

Since most of the film takes place in a car that is being followed by a caravan of police cars, news trucks, lookie-loos and well-wishers, Lang asked Spielberg if he thought of the movie during the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. “I did! I did!” Spielberg replied. “I said, ‘Shit, they’re stealing my thunder!'”

“Sugarland Express” was also the beginning of his legendary collaborations with composer John Williams, and the pair have since worked together on “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List” and many more. “I had been such a rabid fan of John’s scores, I used to collect soundtrack albums since I was a kid,” Spielberg said. “I vowed that if I ever get a chance to make a feature film, whoever this, I assumed he was British, guy John Williams, I want him to be the one to score it.”

He continued, “When ‘Sugarland’ was a reality…one of the first people I got in touch with was John. We met and had lunch and that was the beginning of…this is our 51st year working together.” To which the audience cheered.

Working on “Sugarland Express” with producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown led him to work with them again on “Jaws.”

“They had the galleys of this book in their office just sitting out called ‘Jaws’ I didn’t know what it was I was intrigued, and I went over to the assistant of Dick and I said, ‘Can I read this?'” Spielberg said. “I read it over the weekend and I was floored by it. I asked him if they would consider having me direct this, and there had already been a director assigned to it. Then about a month later when that didn’t work out they offered me the movie.”

In a year, when “Jaws” took a bite out of the box office, everyone would know Spielberg’s name and he’d be no one’s second choice to direct a movie about a shark, some dinosaurs or all manner of visitors from outer space.

Bonus trivia: The baby that Hawn and Atherton are trying to reunite with is played by Zanuck’s son, Harrison.

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