Steven Spielberg to Harvard Grads: 'A Movie is a Mission'

The Jurassic Park director, who initially dropped out of college, delivered a rousing commencement speech at Harvard's 2016 graduation.

"When I was 12 years old, my father handed me a movie camera," Steven Spielberg told new Harvard graduates yesterday. "It was the tool that allowed me to make sense of this world."

But Spielberg soon discovered that "this world is full of monsters." 

"What you choose to do next is what we call in the movies 'the character-defining moment,'" Spielberg told the graduates. He said the graduates faced a momentous responsibility not unlike when Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Ray realizes the force is with her. "In a two-hour movie, you get a handful of character-defining moments," he continued, "but in real life, you face them every day. Life is one string of character-defining moments."

When Spielberg was 25, he recognized the importance of listening to his inner voice. "I started paying attention and my intuition kicked in," he said. "I want to be clear that your intuition is different from your conscience. Your conscience shouts, 'Here's what you should do,' while your intuition whispers, 'Here’s what you could do.' Listen to that. Nothing will define your character more."

"Don’t turn away from what’s painful. Examine it. Challenge it."​​

Once he listened to his intuition, certain projects piqued the director's interest, while he found himself turning away from others. "Up until the 1980s, my movies were mostly escapist," he revealed. "I was in a celluloid bubble."

It was The Color Purple that opened his eyes to "experiences I never could have imagined, and yet were all too real," he said. "While making that film, I realized a movie could also be a mission. Don’t turn away from what’s painful. Examine it. Challenge it."

Just before he espoused the importance of education, Spielberg admitted that he had dropped out of college himself. "Sophomore year, I was offered my dream job at Universal Studios, so I dropped out," he said. "I told my parents that my if movie career didn’t go well, I’d re-enroll. It went alright." The director joked that he received course credit in paleontology for Jurassic Park. (Eventually, he returned to complete his degree at California State University, Long Beach.)

In keeping with his own source of inspiration, Spielberg encouraged the graduates to study the past in order to live fully in the present. "I look to history not to be didactic, but because the past is filled with the greatest stories that have ever been told," he said. 

"We are a nation of immigrants—at least for now," he added. "To me, this means we have so many stories to tell."

Watch the commencement speech in full below.

Top article photo credit: Denis Makarenko /

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There are only a handful of directors that can have any movie they want done. When a director reaches that point, it’s interesting to see their choices - especially Spielberg who has a rhythm of doing a visual effects blockbuster followed by a couple of historical dramas, then back to blockbuster.

His upcoming films fall into that pattern of:
BFG (Big Friendly Giant)
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (Historical drama taking place in Italy 1858)
Ready Player One (A young man lives much of his life in a virtual world with lots of 1980s references)
It’s What I Do (Story of a wartime photographer Lynsey Addario who covered conflicts in Middle East and Africa)
Indiana Jones 5

I’m really looking forward to Ready Player One.

May 27, 2016 at 2:56PM, Edited May 27, 2:57PM


Unfortunately even directors like Spielberg struggle to get their movies made at times. It took Spielberg years to get Lincoln off the ground, and it wasn't until Leonardo DiCaprio called and talked Daniel Day-Lewis into playing the lead that the studio greenlit it.

July 22, 2016 at 6:03PM