Actor Tom Cruise talks about his 20-year membership in the Church of Scientology as he and Director Steven Spielberg discuss the filming of the soon-to-be-released "War of the Worlds." The film, coming out June 29, plays off Americans' fears about terrorism. Spielberg says he has always wanted to direct a "really mean invasion from outer space." Cruise insists, "I just want to help people."
Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg have teamed up for what they hope will be a summer blockbuster. Spielberg, 57, said that before he retires, he wanted to direct a "really mean invasion from outer space."
Mr. Spielberg, no other film director has done more image-building for aliens than you: in your films "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) and "E.T." (1982) you describe them as loveable creatures. In your latest film, "War of the Worlds," which opens in cinemas on June 29, you have aliens from outer space attacking the world. What's the reason behind your change of heart?
Spielberg: I probably became somewhat...
Cruise: ...more daring, am I right?
Spielberg: Yes, there's something in that. I used to be the goodwill ambassador between the aliens civilizations and our own, and did everything I could to prepare the ground for a peaceful encounter. That bored me. I grew up with the science-fiction films of the 1950s and 60s, in which flying saucers attack Earth and people have to resist the aliens with all their might. So I thought: before I retire I should direct a really mean invasion from outer space.
SPIEGEL: Your film "War of the Worlds" is named after the futuristic novel of the same name by H.G. Wells, written in 1898. At the end of the novel it says that Earth is "no longer a fenced-in and safe place to live." Doesn't this sentence exactly describe the feeling that Americans have had about life since September 11?
Cruise: It describes the feeling about life all over the world. We live in a world in which we are able to communicate very quickly in many different ways, and yet we find communicating more difficult than ever. When in fact we need communication more urgently than ever, because the enemies that threaten us are universal: drugs, illiteracy and crime. We have to fight against them together. The film is a metaphor for that battle.
Spielberg: We wanted to make a film in which people join forces, across all borders and despite all their differences, in order to fight against an enemy who is not of a human nature.
SPIEGEL: But the film is set almost exclusively in the United States. Does it really describe a global catastrophe?
Spielberg: It describes a global catastrophe from a subjective point of view. The audience experiences the war from the perspective of Tom's character, from the point of view of an American docker. But we leave it in no doubt that the entire Earth is threatened.
Cruise: Of course audiences in other parts of the world will see the film through different eyes, because they bring with them other world views and political convictions. But I think the sense of fear and threat will become apparent wherever "War of the Worlds" is shown.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you afraid that audiences in some parts of the world may even applaud when they see Americans lying on the ground?
Spielberg: I wouldn't want to speculate about that. We aren't responsible if people perceive the film differently because of their ideology and their aversion to our country.
Cruise: As film-makers we are specifically working against this narrowing of the view, which can lead to the hatred of an entire country, against this xenophobic paranoia. We are concerned mainly with individuals and their actions. For instance, I think one shouldn't always talk about "the government" but about the people who are in the government. One shouldn't always generalize. But if someone hates us from the bottom of their heart, they will see exactly what they want to see in our film.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Spielberg, your plans to make a film of "War of the Worlds" date back to the early 1990s. Would you have made the film if September 11 had not happened?
Tom Cruise, threatened by faceless alien enemies in "War of the Worlds."
SPIEGEL: Won't this film actually heighten that sense of vulnerability?
Spielberg: It probably will. On the other hand, it is hard to image us feeling even more vulnerable than we already do.
SPIEGEL: Is it legitimate for a film maker to not just make use of the real fears of an audience for a film, but actually heighten them too?
Spielberg: First of all you have to use your own fears. When I tackled "Jaws" (1975), I had to face up my own fear of water and sharks. And later that provided and excellent recipe for success again and again; because what terrified me, usually shocked audiences too.
Cruise: That's very true. After seeing the film we feared for our lives, even in the bathtub.
SPIEGEL: With "Jaws" you, Mr. Spielberg, took the fun out of bathing for millions of people. Did you never feel guilty about that?
Spielberg Not at all! On the contrary, I was impishly pleased. The reactions of the public showed me that the film worked and was touching the primeval fears of the audience. The greatest thing a film director can achieve is a film that works on a very fundamental level. Besides, I also increased the pleasure in bathing for many people: after seeing the film, they even organized little competitions on the beaches to see who dared to go furthest.
Cruise: Even my children whistle the theme of the film when they go to their diving lessons. And they haven't even seen the film!
SPIEGEL: When Hollywood's most powerful director and its greatest star get together to shoot one of the most elaborate films of all time, everyone expects a box-office hit. Does that weigh on you?
Cruise: Not at all.
Spielberg: We sleep soundly in spite of that. Ever since "Jaws" I've had to live with this pressure of people's expectations. But if I hadn't been able to stand up to it, I could never have made films like "Schindler's List" (1993), because I would have been too afraid to disappoint my audience. I have moved from the large productions that move the masses to small, personal esoteric projects -- and back again. I would like to continue to swing to and fro between the different worlds of cinema, and challenge myself and my audience afresh again and again.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be a disappointment if "War of the Worlds" grossed less than "Titanic" (1998), the most successful film of all time so far?
Spielberg: It would be an honor.
Cruise: We made this film because we felt like it. Of course it should bring in the money that was put into the production. But we have only a limited influence on how successful "War of the Worlds" is ultimately going to be. Maybe there are certain people in the film business who multiply our two names and think they can calculate the box-office takings from that. But we couldn't care less about people like that.
Spielberg: I make my films first of all for myself - and second of all for those who are not good at math.
Tom Cruise has been a Scientology member for 20 years. But lately, he has become more outspoken about his beliefs.
Cruise: What were you amazed about?
SPIEGEL: Why do you go so extremely public about your personal convictions?
Cruise: I believe in freedom of speech. I felt honored to have volunteer Scientology ministers on the set. They were helping the crew. When I'm working on a movie, I do anything I can to help the people I'm spending time with. I believe in communication.
SPIEGEL: The tent of a sect at someone's working place still seems somewhat strange to us. Mr. Spielberg, did that tent strike you as unusual?
Spielberg: I saw it as an information tent. No one was compelled to frequent it, but it was available for anybody who had an open mind and was curious about someone else's belief system.
Cruise:The volunteer Scientology ministers were there to help the sick and injured. People on the set appreciated that. I have absolutely nothing against talking about my beliefs. But I do so much more. We live in a world where people are on drugs forever. Where even children get drugged. Where crimes against humanity are so extreme that most people turn away in horror and dismay. Those are the things that I care about. I don't care what someone believes. I don't care what nationality they are. But if someone wants to get off drugs, I can help them. If someone wants to learn how to read, I can help them. If someone doesn't want to be a criminal anymore, I can give them tools that can better their life. You have no idea how many people want to know what Scientology is.
SPIEGEL: Do you see it as your job to recruit new followers for Scientology?
Cruise: I'm a helper. For instance, I myself have helped hundreds of people get off drugs. In Scientology, we have the only successful drug rehabilitation program in the world. It's called Narconon.
SPIEGEL: That's not correct. Yours is never mentioned among the recognized detox programs. Independent experts warn against it because it is rooted in pseudo science.
Cruise: You don't understand what I am saying. It's a statistically proven fact that there is only one successful drug rehabilitation program in the world. Period.
SPIEGEL: With all due respect, we doubt that. Mr. Cruise, you made studio executives, for example from Paramount, tour Scientology's "Celebrity Center" in Hollywood. Are you trying to extend Scientology's influence in Hollywood?
Cruise: I just want to help people. I want everyone to do well.
Spielberg: I often get asked similar questions about my Shoa Foundation. I get asked why I am trying to disseminate my deep belief in creating more tolerance through my foundation's teaching the history of the Holocaust in public schools. I believe that you shouldn't be allowed to attend college without having taken a course in tolerance education. That should be an important part of the social studies curriculum.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Spielberg, are you comparing the educational work of the Shoa Foundation with what Scientology does?
Spielberg: No, I'm not. Tom told you what he believes in, and after that I told you what I believe in. This is not a comparison between the Church of Scientology, the Shoa Foundation and the Holocaust. I was only showing you that some of us in Hollywood have set out to do more than just be actors or directors. Some of us have very personal missions. In Tom's case, it's his church, and in my case, it's the Shoa Foundation, where I'm trying to help other people learn about the mortal dangers of pure hatred.
SPIEGEL: How do you set about doing that?
Spielberg: I think that the only way we're going to teach young people not to kill each other is by showing them the reports by the survivors of the Holocaust -- so that they can tell them in their own words man's inhumanity to man. How they were hated. How they were displaced from their homes. How their families were wiped out and how by some miracle they themselves survived all that.
Cruise: How did the Holocaust start? People are not born to be intolerant of others. People are not born bigots and racists. It is educated into them.
Spiegel: Mr. Cruise, as you know, Scientology has been under federal surveillance in Germany. Scientology is not considered a religion there, but rather an exploitative cult with totalitarian tendencies.
Cruise: The surveillance is nothing like as strict anymore. Any you know why? Because the intelligence authorities never found anything. Because there was nothing to find. We've won over 50 court cases in Germany. And it's not true that everyone in Germany supports that line against us. Whenever I go to Germany, I have incredible experiences. I always meet very generous and extraordinary people. A minority wants to hate -- okay.
SPIEGEL: There is a difference between hate and having a critical perspective.
Cruise: For me, it's connected with intolerance.
SPIEGEL: In the past, for example when "Mission: Impossible" (1996) came out, German politicians called for a boycott of your movies. Are you worried that your support for Scientology could hurt your career?
Cruise: Not at all. I've always been very outspoken. I've been a Scientologist for 20 years. If someone is so intolerant that he doesn't want to see a Scientologist in a movie, then he shouldn't go to the movie theater. I don't care. Here in the United States, Scientology is a religion. If some of the politicians in your country don't agree with that, I couldn't care less.
Spiegel: Do you think "War of the Worlds" is a religious movie? H.G. Wells praised the wisdom of the creator for creating even bacteria, because in his story the microbes are the ones who finally finish off the aliens. The 1953 movie version even moved the final showdown inside a church.
Spielberg: I think people will either find their personal beliefs confirmed, or they won't. But in particular, they'll be scared and duck under their seat and say afterwards that it was a great experience. We both consciously decided not to end this movie inside a church, a synagogue or a mosque.
Cruise: It's simply not that kind of story.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Cruise, Mr. Spielberg, thank you very much for this interview.
© DER SPIEGEL 17/2005
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