Interview with Nancy Spielberg: “A Leap of Faith”

Picture: Above and Beyond Filming at Imperial War Museum Airfield, Duxford, England


The 2014 documentary “Above and Beyond”, a film about US pilots who flew for Israel in 1948, put Nancy Spielberg on the map of the film industry. Even though she studied film at Sarah Lawrence College and the New School, and had been working with scripts and writing stories for most of her life, the fear to fail publicly carrying the Spielberg name kept her from going after her true dream for many years until fate knocked on her door.

Driven and inspired by the compelling story of the US airmen who volunteer to help fight Israel’s 1948 war of independence, in an admirable leap of faith, she jumped to a leading role in her emerging filmmaking career with “Above and Beyond”: “Everything that has happened was meant to be” she said.

Recent film projects include “Mimi and Dona”, “On the Map” and current production “Who Will Write Our History?”, the second collaboration with director Roberta Grossman, the true story about the hidden Oyneg Shabes archive in the Warsaw Ghetto which will be released next year.

During the interview, Nancy passionately shared stories about the company’s origins, her family, her work, her future projects and how her long process of connecting to Judaism ended up crossing paths with her rising filmmaking career.

By Dina Szeinblum and Nathalie Levy – Edited by N.Algevis –
Pictures courtesy of Playmount Productions.

Life is all about decisions. Decisions make up who we are, where we’re going and what will be of us. Sometimes, we are faced with life-changing decisions that challenge our characters and transform our destiny. Nancy Spielberg, president of Playmount Productions, made a decision that not only challenged and dug deep into her character but also sparked a new flame in her existence.

Recently interviewed by JW over a delightful brunch in her hometown of New York, she discussed her relationship with Israel, her fascination for her Jewishness and mostly the impact of her work as a visual storyteller.

The cast of pilots, Duxford, England Above and Beyond

JW: Playmount Productions is a peculiar name. How did it all start, what is the connection with your filmmaking career today?

NS: When my brother [Steven Spielberg] began making films when he was 15 or 16, my father decided to help him, so he made a production company. The name comes from the translation of Spielberg. Spiel is play; Berg is mountain. Steven used the production company when he was a teenager, then he forgot about it, so I began using it. I was 57 in 2011 when I started. I said, “Ok! I will just be bold,” and I realized my mother started her career with opening her restaurant at age 57. Suddenly, it was like I almost started a new career.

JW: How was that initial response to your documentary film “Above and Beyond”?

NS: When “Above and Beyond” came out, I had made a small seven-minute sample that leaked by accident and my email address was there. I began receiving a hundred emails from strangers. I thought that somebody had hacked my email!. They were sharing my seven-minute sample with everybody and their thoughts on the documentary and the connection it made for them. I knew it was a great story, but to see that it created such a response was the initial reason I fell in love with the story: it made me very proud.

Later, I got a phone call from the head of one of the largest studios. He said he had just seen Above and Beyond and that he had cried openly. “These guys are heroes. Why don’t people know about this?”. So here is the head of a giant movie studio crying about a film, and it brought out this great thing: We are not just a religion, we are a culture, we are a tribe and we have to embrace it.

“Visual testimonies are a powerful tool
and better than any history book,
better than anything written.”

President Shimon Peres at his interview with Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman. Jerusalem, Israel

JW: How was your experience visiting Israel for the film, and your meetings with former Israeli president Shimon Peres?

NS: When I first read about this story, about these pilots, I decided I needed to do it. I let the fear go away and I said, You know what? I am going to go [to Israel] and do it. I spoke to my lawyer in Israel, who is a dear friend of ours, and he said, “I am friends with Shimon Peres. Do you want to meet him? Shimon Peres was good friends with Al Schwimmer” [father of the Israeli Air Force]. He set up a 20-minute meeting for me. We sat at Shimon Peres’ office. I just wanted to ask a few questions about his time with Al Schwimmer, but the conversation turned very entertaining, casual and especially nostalgic. For over 45 minutes, President Shimon Peres told me story after story after story. You could tell those years were a great time for him. He then instructed me to call this person, do this and do that, and he set me on the right track.

In 2014, when the film was finished, the first place it was played was in Jerusalem at a private screening for the commander of the Air Force and all the pilots. My father, who had almost passed away in 2013, was there too. So here was my father with me in Israel, proud of his little baby girl and her film, in a packed house, with the audience giving the film a standing ovation, and my father crying, and the pilots crying, and I am crying. It was beautiful!

In a later visit, I took my father—genius man, he is 100 now and still the smartest guy I know—to see Shimon Peres. So I had these two great men in a room talking; my daddy, older than Shimon Peres and just as sharp. For me, it was just incredible.

LEFT: Chris Callister and Jessica Katz, being directed in the opening scene, Duxford, England/ RIGHT: Screening, Jerusalem From left to right: Pilot Danny Grossman, Chairman of the World Machal Organization and 1948 volunteer Smoky Simon, producer Nancy Spielberg and her father Arnold Spielberg, 1948 volunteer pilot Lou Lenart.

JW: How was your Jewishness before you began to embrace it, and how did it grow on you?

NS: When I first started discovering I was Jewish, I was 10 or 11. I knew I was Jewish because the neighbors would direct anti-Semitic comments at us but I didn’t understand why. Only when I started meeting other Jews, I understood the connection, but it was a slow process.

My parents were American-born. It is incredible that my grandparents, my uncles, aunts, and my cousins weren’t in the Holocaust. My grandmother was born here in America. I had seen films about the Holocaust, but not too many. In Arizona where I grew up, I didn’t know any Jews. So our family was a bit isolated.

When Steven, my brother, filmed Schindler’s List, I read the book. Then he created the Shoah Foundation, and we were exposed to it. My husband (Shimon Katz) began to help raise money for the foundation, and it made a huge impact on us. Then came Above and Beyond, Israel, and all its influence on me.

JW: How can you define the impact of your work?

NS: Documentaries as visual testimonies are a powerful tool, and better than any history book. To look at something and hear it from the people is better than anything written. I hope this film unifies and helps everyone find some kindness in a harsh world.

Pictures of “Who Will Write our History” courtesy of Katahdin Productions. / Director Roberta Grossman and producer Nancy Spielberg, Camarillo, CA

JW: Speaking about the impact of your work, you are currently working again with Roberta Grossman in “Who Will Write Our History?”. Can you talk about the project and how did you find such an amazing story about the Warsaw Ghetto Chronicles archives hidden in milk cans? 

NS: Roberta found the story. She was completely consumed with the Holocaust.

There is a book of the same name by Samuel Kassow. She read the book and bought the rights to make a documentary about the book.

From the original story, nobody is left alive from that group. We had to dramatize it. Roberta has done a beautiful job, very poetic in some ways.

JW: Besides the launching of “Who Will Write Our History?” in 2018, what other plans do you have for the future?

NS: Among the next few things that we are putting together is a film forum. We are in the initial state, talking about mission statements and putting a jury to decide films that we can help with development and with the distribution. You can make a great movie but it is so hard to get it seen outside of film festivals. You need money and time. If you are going to self-distribute, it is a full-time job. With “Above and Beyond”, it was more work than a [standard] movie.

JW: What would be your message for Jewish Way readers?

NS: I will tell you that the number one thing, no matter what, is to just be proud to be a Jew. We sometimes feel we can’t talk about it that we have to hide it, play it down; it is sad. So I think you have to own your Jewishness. “I am Jewish and I am proud.”

Article Published in JW Magazine Fall 2017
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