‘Schindler’s List,’ 30 years later

‘Schindler’s List,’ 30 years later

Our correspondent expands on a long-ago interview with Steven Spielberg

An iconic still from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (All photos courtesy Universal Studios)
An iconic still from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (All photos courtesy Universal Studios)

Seeing Steven Spielberg at the Oscars reminded me that it’s been 30 years since the release of “Schindler’s List,” the director’s groundbreaking, heartbreaking film about the Holocaust.

I’d interviewed him then, in what was at the time a thoughtful and candid conversation that began rather inauspiciously.

When his assistant connected us on the phone, we briefly made small talk before I wondered if, when he sees a script, he immediately sees camera angles and actors where others simply see words. But I communicated my question poorly, asking instead if he realizes his vision is different from everyone else’s.

“I don’t look at it that way,” he told me. “I have a view of things that a lot of people subscribe to, so in that sense I’ve always felt that I have a common view of things.”

I explained that I didn’t mean his world vision was different, but how he visualized scripts and movie ideas.

“You know, that’s interesting,” he said. “I can’t visualize everything I come in contact with. It’s those things that I can visualize and that at the same they make me interested that I take to the next step, to make a motion picture out of it.

“A good example is ‘E.T.’ — it’s a story that I made up 10 years before I made the movie. I had been running scenes over and over again in my mind about what ‘E.T.’ would be like. So when it came time to write the script, I pretty much had made the movie in my head hundreds of times. Turning it into a script was not difficult at all. It was easy for me to visualize that film, because I had an affinity for the subject matter. I can’t decide why I had an affinity for the subject matter, but I did, and it came naturally to me.

“There are other subjects I haven’t had an affinity for, and the visuals, the images, come harder to me. Like ‘Jaws,’ for instance. I had to do many, many storyboards on ‘Jaws’ before I saw what kind of movie I wanted to make out of it. I didn’t know if I was going to make a ‘Godzilla’ film out of the shark, or if it was going to be a kind of allegory, a political parable — an enemy of the people, if you will. I didn’t quite know what to make of it for a while. It was a little hard to get those images to go into the movie camera.”

I was glad he mentioned “Jaws” so early in our conversation. He made so many great movies — “Close Encounters,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but it was “Jaws,” his second theatrical film, that made me a devoted fan. I saw it at the Westwood Cinema and remember one scene in particular to this day.

It was shot from the point of view of the shark as it swam toward the surface, toward an overturned boat, toward Roy Scheider’s movie children floundering in the water. As a shark was about to grab a victim, I grabbed my arm rests and physically lifted my feet from the floor to avoid getting bitten. The shark missed me, but Spielberg has had me ever since.

Film has been providing Spielberg inspiration — and a certain amount of comfort — from the time he was 9 or 10 years old. He was born in Cincinnati in 1947, but grew up largely in Haddonfield and Scottsdale, Arizona.

Steven Spielberg

“I was kind of a nerd,” Spielberg recalled about that period of his life. “I didn’t do sports, and anybody who didn’t do sports and had a skin condition was not very popular.”

Instead, he spent this time making movies with the family’s 8 mm camera. His first films were understandably derivative, heavily “influenced by what I was seeing on television. I was very entranced by television, and I was making a lot of genre films: horror movies, ghost movies, war movies. Just about anything you can make under the sun. They were not forms of expression in any way. They were much more imitative of what I was seeing in the movies and on television.”

Friends and family members usually made up the cast of his movies, which included such works as “Gunsmog,” a takeoff on the popular TV western “Gunsmoke.” “If you came to my house to visit my parents, chances are you’d wind up in one of my movies,” he said.

Judaism, Spielberg told me, was a constant in his childhood home. His parents were observant and kept their home kosher until his grandparents died. “Well, let’s put it this way,” he said. “It was strictly kosher when my grandparents were living with us. When they were not living with us, it was not strictly kosher.”

The family moved around the country as Steven’s father ascended the ladder of the computer industry, and Spielberg often was one of the few Jews, if not the only Jew, in his school. I asked if he felt like E.T., an alien in a strange land.

“No,” he replied. “E.T. was sort of cut off from everything. I had a pretty nurturing family. I had a pretty normal childhood.”

Of course, since then Spielberg discovered that his childhood was a bit unusual. As he revealed in a 60-minute television interview and in his semi-autobiographical film, “The Fabelmans,” mom had an affair with his father’s best friend. His life growing up was anything but normal.

I asked if being an outsider spurred his filmmaking. Did his movies provide self-validation? Was he driven to succeed by a desire to show the kids in the in crowd what they missed?

“That’s a good idea for speculation,” he said. “I’d have to think about that for a while.” He paused momentarily, and then continued: “The truth is that I so love making movies, even making those little 8 mm movies all those years in elementary school, in high school, I never felt I needed to prove anything. I just loved the discovery process so much.

“It was such a passion for me to make a movie and send the films away to a lab somewhere and wait at the mailbox every day for the processed film to come back. Weeks later, I’d get the film and race to the projector and I’d show it against the white wall. I was passionate about it. I didn’t think of it as proving anything to anyone.”

For the most part, he said, “it was just a hobby. It was like other kids who build model boats and airplanes, putting together model kits, flying remote-control planes. To me movies were a hobby. I never really thought of it as a vocation until later.

Steven Spielberg

“I had made so many movies by the time I was 16 or 17 years old that it was just a natural progression. There was no one glorious moment of illumination when I said, ‘Aha! I want to be a movie director.’ It just seemed natural that I would take this hobby, continue it into college, and then into the real world — if I could get someone to hire me.”

That didn’t take long. A student film impressed the powers that be at Universal Pictures, who signed him to a seven-year contract when he was 21. That made him the youngest director to land a long-term deal at a major Hollywood studio. At first, he directed episodic TV — “Night Gallery,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Columbo.” In 1971, he made his first feature-length film, a made-for-TV movie called “Duel,” which was released theatrically in Europe, where it garnered several festival awards. His theatrical film debut was “The Sugarland Express,” which film critic Pauline Kael called “one of the most phenomenal directorial debuts in the history of the movies.”

It was his mentor, Sid Sheinberg, president of Universal’s parent company, MCA, who brought a book to Spielberg’s attention when it was first published in 1982. The book was “Schindler’s Ark,” a novelization of real events by Thomas Keneally.

“I think my entire life I have been wanting to say something about the Shoah, because it was such a part of my heritage in my home, through the influence of my grandparents, my parents, my relatives, several of whom were survivors,” Spielberg said.

While he signed onto the project immediately, it took him more than a decade to actually begin filming. “I don’t think I was mature enough to make the film 11 years ago,” he told me toward the end of 1993.

“I was just trying to continue to live out my childhood through my films. But as I started to grow up and have children myself, I began to look at the world differently.”

Spielberg lived a relatively secular life during much of his adulthood, and didn’t return to Judaism until the 1985 birth of his first child, Max, to his first wife, Amy Irving. “I really made a decision at that point that I wanted to raise my children as Jews.” (He has six more kids with Kate Capshaw, both biological and adopted.)

“It’s funny how I came back. I went to bookstores, looking for good kids books about Jewish life, Jewish holidays, Jewish tradition. I couldn’t find any. I was really appalled at the (stet) few books on Jewish affairs there were in major stores, at least back then.

“I was able to find a few books that weren’t too verbose for my kids. But in reading these books to them, I think they were affecting me more than my children. And I remembered the very warm and familiar way my parents and grandparents taught me during all those years when I was a child.

“So I got really interested again, having made the choice to raise my children Jewish, by re-educating myself with the material I was buying for them.”

It was at this point that he took on the film. He’d just finished filming “Jurassic Park” and was planning on editing it in Poland while he filmed “Schindler.” On the face of it, Spielberg was inviting failure. He decided that big-name stars would prove a distraction. Supposedly Kevin Costner was among a passel of stars who wanted in. Instead he chose a relative unknown at the time, Irish actor Liam Neeson.

Mr. Spielberg, on the free side of the barbed wire, in the foreground, directs “Schindler’s List.”

He also chose to make the film in black and white. He told me: “I think black and white stands for reality. I don’t think color is real. I think certainly color is real to the people who survived the Holocaust, but for the people who are going to watch the story for the first time, I think black-and-white is going to be the real experience for them.

“My only experience with the Holocaust has been through black-and-white documentaries. I have never seen the Holocaust in color. I don’t know what Auschwitz looks like in color. Even though I filmed it there, it’s still black and white in my eyes. I think color would’ve added veneer of almost farce.

“And I wanted ‘Schindler’s List’ to be closer to being a documentary than a Hollywood re-creation of Holocaust stories. I just wanted it to be a little bit more realistic.”

He also took no salary for the picture, — the film earned over $322 million on a budget of $22 million — telling me that would have been “blood money.” His share of the profits went to fund the Shoah Foundation, which has filmed the testimony of about 53,000 survivors.

Of course, when we spoke, Spielberg had no idea how successful the film would be. In any case, he didn’t measure success in terms of grosses.

“The best thing that could happen is that next year or the year after that, in junior high schools or high schools, the number of Holocaust study courses grows. That is the best thing that could happen as a result of this story being told now. I say that because the reason history repeats itself is because we never learn from it.

“We don’t know enough about it. What occurred between 1935 and 1945 is so horrific that very few people allow themselves to visualize it or even believe it. I’m not talking about people who are my age and have already made up their minds, who don’t even want to look. I’m talking about the next generation. I want them to look. I want them to look back, so that when they look forward, they’ll never let it happen again.”

In a recent interview about “Schindler’s List” with the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, Spielberg told some interesting stories.

* Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” was not the first attempt to film the story. Leopold Page, who was Thomas Kenneally’s source for his book, had pitched this story to Howard Koch, “Casablanca’s” screenwriter, years before. Koch wrote a script for MGM, and it was offered to Sean Connery before the project was scrapped.

* As with “Jaws,” Spielberg couldn’t find a way into the book. He commissioned several writers to tackle it but was unsatisfied with the results. He offered the film to other directors, including Sidney Pollack, who tried to make cinematic sense of it, but ultimately gave up.

* One of the producers, Branko Lustig, had been a prisoner at Auschwitz, and he showed Liam Neeson the hut where he’d been held as a young boy.

* The more things change the more they stay the same. Cast and crew encountered a good deal of antisemitism from the Poles.

* The filming took a heavy emotional toll on Spielberg. Fortunately, his friend, the late Robin Williams, called him every Friday and wouldn’t hang up until Spielberg laughed.

Spielberg told Feinberg that “Schindler” “is the best movie I ever made. I’m not going to say it’s the best movie I ever will make. But currently, it’s the work I’m proudest of.”

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