There's no more popular moviemaker in the world than Steven Spielberg, and the box office has proved it: Of the top 20 films ever made, he's directed or produced seven of them. Young audiences have played a large part in this success. Many of Mr. Spielberg's films, from ``E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' to ``The Color Purple,'' have children in key roles. And even when his pictures have mostly grown-up characters, they're obviously young at heart, like ``Jaws'' and the Indiana Jones movies.
``Empire of the Sun,'' his latest film, puts a young person right in the middle of the action. The hero is a boy named Jim, who lives in a British community in China - until World War II breaks out, his family splits apart, and he's forced to survive on his own.
Jim is played by 13-year-old actor Christian Bale, who could become a major star now that he's scored a hit in such a major film. He had worked on stage and television before Spielberg found him. But starring in ``Empire of the Sun'' meant a new kind of work and a lot of world traveling to reach the film's different locations. I asked Mr. Bale what places he liked best - and least.
``We spent three weeks in Shanghai,'' he reported. ``Then four weeks in England and seven weeks in Spain. I liked Spain best. Our hotel was right on the beach, and the weather was really nice for filming. But I didn't like China that much. It wasn't unenjoyable, and the first few days were interesting. But it's like going back 100 years.''
During the movie, Bale's character grows from a nice but spoiled 11-year-old to a sturdy, self-reliant teen-ager of 14. He does his maturing under hard circumstances, since he's separated from his parents and keeps having adventures thrust upon him.
Bale had to play all kinds of scenes, from a big costume party to a miserable quest for shelter and food. Which one did he most enjoy filming? He chooses an air-raid sequence.
``That was great, because I had them flying right over my head, about 20 feet above.'' He grins. ``It was really nerve-wracking to begin, because I hadn't realized I'd be that close to them. Often, you wouldn't know I'm there - I'm in the background on this balcony, shouting my head off and jumping up and down. But it was really good fun, with all the explosions.''
``Empire of the Sun'' is based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, who actually lived through experiences like the ones Jim faces in the movie. Filming the story on a characteristically large scale, Spielberg did four months of shooting in Europe and in China, where no major Hollywood production had been photographed before. The cast includes American star John Malkovich and about 15,000 extras.
Although some critics (including this one) have argued with Spielberg's watered-down adaptation of Ballard's fierce novel, ``Empire of the Sun'' is certainly a big and impressive movie, and the filmmakers have seasoned it with authentic details. Bale has been widely praised for realistically capturing the changes in Jim's life as they evolve over three years. Spielberg's talent scouts discovered him during a nine-month search that covered New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as well as England, where Bale lives in the city of Bournemouth.
This wasn't Bale's first role. He's been acting since before he was 10. Performing, he says, runs in his family.
``My mom used to dance in the circus,'' he explains. ``I used to go and watch her a lot. Then my sister got interested. She got a part in a West End play called `Bugsy Malone,' and I saw it a few times. There were boys in it, and I thought, `This looks easy!' So I started.''
Bale soon discovered that acting meant not only being on stage and getting applause, but also studying and training to learn the skills of the profession. Acting lessons, first in a group and then alone, have become a regular part of his life.
``My coach taped us doing our first piece,'' he recalls, ``and then we listened to it a few years on - and it's totally different from what we sound like now. I didn't breathe properly, and I used to rush sentences.'' Now, he adds, he has absorbed his lessons so thoroughly they've become second nature to him. ``It's as if I haven't been trained - as though I'm doing it naturally,'' he smiles.
Starring in ``Empire of the Sun'' meant not only traveling and having new experiences, but also teaming up with one of the world's best-loved movie directors. Bale found Spielberg a pleasure to work with.
``He's really good fun,'' says the young actor. ``That's all I can say, really - he's just good fun to be with. And he's really energetic. He's doing something the whole time. He never stops working.'' According to Bale, Spielberg's directing style is relaxed and flexible - allowing even a 13-year-old actor to have a say in the production.
``He just set out the scene for you, and then left it to [the actor] to decide how to do it,'' Bale says. ``If he liked it, that was all. If he didn't, he'd tell you what he wanted. I think that's the best way, because otherwise you start thinking too much.''
Now that he's had a major taste of the acting life, does Bale think he'll stay with it in the future?
``Yeah,'' he replies, ``I think I will. Before the film, I wasn't quite sure. I got really bored with it sometimes and wished I'd never started it. But now I think I want to carry on and make it my career. But I want to be able to do some drama and then do some light stuff. I don't want to get typecast in heavy stuff.''
Bale also wants to keep living a normal life, like any 13-year-old, between his acting assignments. He doesn't like mixing his two lives - one in the spotlight, and one at home with family and friends.
``I like to keep them separate,'' he says. ``At the moment I'm quite happy, because I'm staying at home, going to school, mixing with all my mates. I'm just being like a normal kid. I'm not really missing the filming. But after a while I get a bit bored and want to go back to it.
``I don't really talk about the film much when I'm not doing it,'' he adds. ``But it's quite a big change in my life. I hope it doesn't go to my head!''