By KATHERINE TULICH
Steven Spielberg is sneaking an icecream. As he ponders the 20 flavours in a freezer set in the middle of the courtyard of his offices in Universal Studios, he looks at me and smiles. "Don't tell anyone. I'm supposed to be on the Zone diet so I'm cheating," he says with the glee of a boy who's just got away with playing a sinister prank.
"Have one," he offers, but as my hand reaches for one, the director can't help but point me to another. "That is a better one," he says. I comply.
As he continues his discourse on the international joys of icecream ("I've tried icecream in every corner of the world ... my favourite is vanilla with pecans," he relishes) it's easy to forget you are in the presence of the man most often described as a film genius.
While George Lucas may be aloof and James Cameron may be spiky and difficult, Spielberg comes on like the goofy wide-eyed kid next door, excitable and enthusiastic.
It's been a long day of interviews for the uber-director, but he's showing no signs of strain. Apart from sneaking out for an icecream he's been firmly entrenched in the boardroom of Amblin Entertainment, his private sanctuary in the middle of one of LA's busiest studio complexes, talking up his latest film, Minority Report.
Around the corner the sightseers on the studio tour are being snapped at by a replica of "Bruce" - the shark from Jaws.
There's another Bruce at the entrance to Amblin, a smaller version sticking its head out of a wishing well. Spielberg Central has its tongue firmly in cheek - near one wall hangs a sideshow carnival sign, spruiking "Movies while you wait and you wait and you wait".
The rest of the US$3 million ($6.2 million) complex built by Universal for its favourite son in 1982 now houses the headquarters of Dreamworks - the entertainment conglomerate Spielberg heads with former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul David Geffen. Within its adobe-styled walls are a trove of Spielberg trinkets and favourite memorabilia: a miniature T-Rex from Jurassic Park; giant posters of classic films such as Casablanca and The African Queen; and Norman Rockwell originals (not surprisingly, Spielberg's favourite artist).
While Spielberg's occasional partner George Lucas may boast proudly he hasn't made a movie in Hollywood in 30 years, Spielberg embraces it.
"George told me I should come to Australia to shoot a picture, he loved it, and I really owe it to my nanny to go to New Zealand, because she's from there," he says. "But I'm happier working here. There is a hundred years of tradition here, so why try to reinvent the wheel? I love being part of it. I love the fact that the great actors and writers who I've admired all my life worked on the same stages I'm now working on."
Spielberg still feels a tingle every time he gets waved through the entrance of the historic studio.
"I have been coming through those gates since 1967 and I still get excited each time," he says.
Back then, in his summer college breaks, the young Spielberg snuck through the gates every day. Wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase (containing a sandwich and candy bars), he would wave hello to the guard and pray he didn't notice that he wasn't actually employed there.
He sneaked on to sound stages and watched great directors such as Hitchcock and John Ford before Universal's then-president of TV, Sid Sheinberg, offered the precocious kid a contract. At which point he promptly dropped out of college, much to his father's dismay.
"I've always said if it wasn't for Scotty [the guard] ... if he'd stopped me at the gate, I would never have been a director here," says Spielberg.
These days, four burly security guards suspiciously monitor your entrance to see "Mr Spielberg".
Sporting his salt-and-pepper hair and trademark beard, Spielberg is seldom out of his directing uniform of blue jeans, runners, sloppy grey jumper, black leather jacket and baseball cap.
He is also now indisputably Hollywood's most successful director, making 20 films in more than 30 years, including a plethora of box-office bonanzas - Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters, Jurassic Park. His personal wealth is estimated at more than US$2 billion ($4.1 billion) and forever rising.
Despite his success, he finally fulfilled his obligation to his father by completing his Bachelors degree this year. It was hardly gruelling for the adult student - he simply switched his majors so he could include his historic films, Schindler's List and Armistad as credits .
Despite Spielberg's contented personal life - a 10-year marriage to actress Kate Capshaw and a brood of seven kids - he still insists that in every film he makes he is exorcising the demons of his childhood and his parents' divorce when he was 18. Even Minority Report contains familiar themes.
"I still carry my childhood along with me," he says. "I'm old enough now to compartmentalise it - so I consciously try not to go too far back into my childhood, but the subconscious part of me still creates traces of it in Minority Report.
"Tom Cruise has suffered a tragic personal loss - he has lost his child and his wife has left him. It still reminds me of the divorce of my parents. As much as I try to get away from it I still can't avoid it."
There is a lot riding on Minority Report. Being the first time the two Hollywood titans have teamed up is expected to make this US$100 million ($205.6 million) sci-fi action thriller a surefire popcorn hit.
Spielberg and Cruise are long-time friends who have always wanted to work together, but previous projects have misfired. Spielberg was set to direct Cruise in Rain Man but had to pull out to direct the second Indiana Jones film.
In a blockbuster season that has hedged its bets on light sabres with love stories and super heroes with damsels in distress, Minority Report seems downright daring.
It is gritty, unrelenting and just barely manages to arrive at a happy, if somewhat cynical, ending. Based on a 1957 short story by the trippy sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick (who also inspired the films Blade Runner and Total Recall), it proposes a future where privacy is forsaken for the sake of safety.
An experimental crime team is headed by Cruise. They use Pre Cogs (psychics suspended in pools) who predict murders before they happen. Tipped off, the cops arrest would-be murderers before they have committed the crime. It's a system Cruise's character doesn't question until the Pre Cogs target him as a future murderer.
"I'm telling the audience you definitely need to pee and buy your popcorn before you come in to this one. It's a ride you need to be in from beginning to end," says Spielberg buoyantly.
The director wanted to make a film that may be sci-fi but is as close to a realistic future as he could muster. To this end he hired a group of futurists, sat them in a room and asked them to brainstorm what life might be like in 50 years' time.
"I didn't want to trust my imagination to design a future that was just mind candy - I wanted a future that was attainable and identifiable," he says.
Minority Report portrays a future where cereal boxes greet you with annoying 3D animation, cars travel vertically and horizontally at speeds of up to 225km/h, and police chase suspects on jet packs and disarm them with "sick sticks", which induce immediate vomiting.
But the overwhelming prediction by the futurists was the loss of privacy - not just a Big Brother scenario, but ferocious advertisers and retailers who scan you as you enter a store, greeting you personally with suggestions of what you might like to buy.
Spielberg agrees that although the script was completed before September 11, the issue of privacy the film questions has a contemporary resonance.
"Like the film, there is a scenario right now of, 'Let's bring in all the usual suspects in real life' - some of it is certainly unjustified but a lot is absolutely necessary to protect our country," says Spielberg.
"I feel that history has caught up with our imagination and given us a cold soak of reality."
Both Cruise and Spielberg are returning from the back of what would be considered career failures - for Cruise the self-indulgent Vanilla Sky and for Spielberg, the Stanley Kubrick project AI, which he helmed after Kubrick's death.
But Spielberg is secure enough not to worry about the failures and freely admits he's made some turkeys.
"I get what I'd call buyer's remorse, and if I still have that sinking feeling six months into a picture then I know I have a stinker on my hands," he chimes.
But for the man who once claimed the main measure of his success was that he never had to agree to test screenings for his films before release, he lets slip that Minority Report was extensively tested. He was also willing to take his name off the top of the marquee in deference to the box-office power of Cruise.
"Tom came to me with this project and he is carrying the ball on this. It's his movie and he is the centre of it," says Spielberg.
But Cruise did agree to Spielberg's commands of no salary up front. "He took no money up front at all, not a cent and no guarantee that he will get money if the film doesn't perform," says Spielberg. "Tom Hanks took no cash for Saving Private Ryan but he made a lot of money on his profit participation.
"I haven't worked with many movie stars - 80 per cent of my films don't have movie stars - and I've told them if they want to work with me I want them to gamble along with me. I haven't taken a salary in 18 years for a movie, so if my film makes no money I get no money. They should be prepared to do the same."
While the business of movies gets Spielberg animated - spitting his words out in a half lisp at lightning speed - his tone slips into a softer gear on the subject of family, which is very much on his mind these days.
He apologises for running two hours late for the interview, but there were matters to attend to at home.
"Family definitely comes first," he says. Wife Capshaw has laid down a firm rule that his work should never make him an absent dad, so one of his tasks is to make the kids' breakfasts every morning.
"My speciality is the Dad McMuffin - my version of McDonald's Egg McMuffin," he says.
"I'll car pool and if I'm not directing I just come to the office nine to five and go home for dinner," he says. "I'm also prepared to take long breaks so I can spend time with them. I didn't direct a picture for three years after Saving Private Ryan.
His brood includes his son Max by his first marriage to Amy Irving, three natural children with Kate and two adopted children, both black.
When I ask him about his choice of raising black children in a predominantly rich white area, he launches into a speech that's positively Clintonesque.
"They are being raised in a community that is very tolerant. The American society is all about being a melting pot and accepting our choices. I think they are becoming far more tolerant of our choice of mixed-race adoptions."
But surely being Spielberg's kids must be tough in the playground?
"They were fairly oblivious to it when they were young, I was just dad, but it's getting rougher as they get older," he says. "They don't want me around their friends, they are absolutely mortified when their friends ask their dad for an autograph."
While most dads are content to live their memories of their children with happy snaps or videocam, when your dad is Spielberg, no doubt he's got other plans.
"I intend to put all my kids in my pictures as they grow up ... I had two of them in my recent film Catch Me If You Can - I'm doing it for the sake of memorabilia. It will be great to see my kids at different ages in my movies," he says.
He also gave Capshaw's daughter by her first marriage, Jessica Capshaw, a big break by casting the aspiring actress as a Pre Crime fighter in Minority Report. "It nearly floored her when I said - hey, do you want to be in my movie?"
While Capshaw has been content to primarily be a stay-at-home mum, Spielberg says he owes her one. The two met while filming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which did nothing to improve Capshaw's box-office potential.
"I would love to direct Kate again if we could find something that's really great for her," he says. "I need to apologise to her for all the bad reviews she got for Indiana Jones. If it weren't for me she would have got better reviews, but because her director asked her to scream 16 times more than she wanted she got some clunks. So I owe her a good role."
The fourth Indiana Jones, to be again produced by George Lucas and directed by Spielberg, is set to start shooting in 2004, which will make its star, Harrison Ford, a creaky 62 years old.
"There will be just as much action as the first three and more," Spielberg promises. "It's Harrison ... he's unstoppable, he might get a few more aches and pains this time, but he'll do it."
But there is one film that still stays firmly on the drawing board, the script his sister Anne wrote about their family called I'll Be Home Soon.
"I'm still nervous about exposing myself so publicly - it's so close to my life and so close to my family - I prefer to make films that are more analogous. But a literal story about my family will take a lot of courage," he admits. "I still think I make personal movies even if they do look like a big commercial popcorn films."
* Minority Report opens Thursday.