A Conversation with Filmmaker Nancy Spielberg
By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
Most modern nations have mythic origins. Italy was born as a result of a she-wolf's suckling of abandoned twin brothers Romulus and Remus. Christian Ireland was born as a result of St. Patrick driving out the "snakes" of paganism. Modern Israel owes its existence to the Four Horseman of the Skies, four pilots who led a nascent Air Force to preserve the fledgling state—a story stirringly recounted by Nancy Spielberg in her new documentary film, Above and Beyond.
From my father I knew the basic story of these Four Horsemen of the Skies, but Spielberg's fine film documents the "real" story, one that is even more amazing than the myth I was raised on as a first-generation American Jew whose father escaped German annihilation and whose extended family tree still buds in Israel.
After seeing the film at its New York City premiere, I had the pleasure of interviewing the film's producer, Nancy Spielberg.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How did reading Al Schwimmer's obituary inspire you to make this film?
NANCY SPIELBERG: It didn't read like an obituary. It read like a far-fetched thriller and it snagged me. I mean, the idea that an American who was a World War II flight engineer could lay the groundwork for building the Israeli Air Force was amazing. I remember reading about his clandestine operations … underground contacts … chased by the FBI …. His story read like a movie, like one of my brother Steven's big pictures, like Catch Me If You Can mixed with Indiana Jones and Band of Brothers. Schwimmer was a visionary—and a real-life hero.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How did your personal history prepare you to tell this particular story?
NANCY SPIELBERG: Truth is, certain things get under your skin without you realizing it. We didn't grow up in New York City like you did. We grew up in Arizona—where neighbors called us dirty Jews. I remember the time when Steven—he was the oldest, I was the youngest—took a jar of Chunky peanut butter and smeared the windows of a particularly nasty neighbor. In the Arizona sun that peanut butter baked onto those windows and had to be scraped off.
In a way, I think storytelling and making movies was an outlet for us. Everyone in our family was a storyteller. A trip to a grocery store could be a great story. Nothing was told in black and white. We told stories in hyper-real colors.
As for moviemaking, Steven was our leader and we were his slaves—in a nice way. We all got paid—even if it was only a piece of Bazooka gum. Steven liked to rent movies. Sometimes he'd show movies in our backyard, using a bed sheet as a movie screen. We'd sell tickets and provide refreshments—it was great!
I'm something of a late bloomer. Growing up, I wasn't politically aware. I didn't know much about Jewish history, not even the Holocaust—it simply wasn't discussed much in Arizona. But after our family moved to California I went to UCLA and met a lot of cool Jews, Zionists, who encouraged me to go to Israel, where I worked on a kibbutz and began to connect with Jewish ideas.
Like I said, I was a late bloomer. I had a fear of failing— and a fear of not living up to my big brother. But, eventually, things came to together for me. Steven loves my film Above and Beyond, which means a lot to me.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative affair. How did the various influences hone your vision of this film?
NANCY SPIELBERG: Roberta Grossman is the film's director. She really embraced my vision. She is so collaborative and creative. Sometimes we tangled, but I trusted her, and I learned to listen to her opinions. She recommended several people she had worked with before—including writer Sophie Sartain and editor Chris Callister—and I thought: why reinvent the wheel? I can join these guys! As it happened, I brought in other people—composer Lorne Balfe from Hans Zimmer's group, and sound editor Larry Benjamin—and everyone worked great together. No egos with this team—one happy family.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Your film has a vibrant You Are There quality that is attributable to a seamless integration of archival footage and new footage, including some computer-generated animation. Was it difficult to blend so many different elements?
NANCY SPIELBERG: It wasn't difficult. It was well thought out. It was Roberta's idea—she's sensitive to colors and hues—and wanted the film to look as real as possible. Our editor, Chris Callister, dug deep into archives. We used what we wanted and recreated the rest. For the flying and battle scenes we shot recreations—without using faces—so we had no need for actors. For our computer imaging we had top-quality experts from George Lucas's company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), who used their "special secret sauce" to dirty, or degrade, the new footage to give it that archival, washed-out look. This is what gives the film's various footage that seamless quality.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The film is filled with wonderful anecdotes and insights. Please reflect on one or two that are especially meaningful to you.
NANCY SPIELBERG: Most meaningful to me are the stories of the five American pilots who are the core of the film. How these guys found their Jewish pride is very special. Harold Livingston starts out very cynical and removed, and when he says, "I'm here to help you people," you can hear how he is distancing himself from them, though it soon strikes him that he is one of them. I love the way his Jewish pride evolved—likewise for the other pilots. Also, I was so moved to see how several of the pilots, after the War of Independence, stayed in Israel, like Coleman Goldstein, who worked for El Al for 32 years and whose son became a pilot in the IAF. That really hit me.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The film has been shown in many places around the world, including Jerusalem. Has the reception been consistent? Have there been occasions where the venue influenced the response? Have you been surprised by people's responses?
NANCY SPIELBERG: The reaction has been—thank God—overwhelmingly positive. I think I was most nervous when the film premiered in Israel. I walked in, knees shaking, thinking: We are outsiders. This is their history. I hope we didn't mess anything up. But they loved it! They were crying and cheering!
I also was concerned about the film's reception in San Francisco. The audience was more of a left-leaning community, and I worried they might criticize the film for its lack of a larger historical context. I also worried they might think the film was too Zionist, too focused on Jewish pride. But they loved it. They seemed proud of the role that Americans played in the story. They felt patriotic. I think our saving grace was the fact that we stuck to the story—the American pilots who founded Israel's air force and helped preserve the new nation. It's an inspiring story.
My biggest disappointment was the response of the European film festivals. They rejected us. They wouldn't give the film a chance. I got the feeling that many Europeans don't like Yankee Americans and Israel.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How has making this film affected your feelings towards the Palestinians, the State of Israel, and the possibility of peace in the Middle East?
NANCY SPIELBERG: When I set out to make this film, I made a conscious decision to not use it as a vehicle for my personal agenda. I felt as if we were creating a historical document and we must be extremely careful to be as accurate as possible. I wanted the testimony of the five American pilots to be the central focus of the film.
We also knew we had to recognize the Palestinian refugee problem. The sad truth is, Israel accepted the UN partition—and the Arabs didn't. Imagine if they had. Imagine how the world might be different. Israel is surrounded by Arab nations that are either controlled by or include large terrorist groups: Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIL. Israel is not against the Arab world. Israel is fighting against these terrorist groups. What would the United States do if Mexico started shooting missiles at us? I don't have answers, but I don't want innocent people killed—not Jews, not Arabs, not anyone.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: What can you tell me about your next film project?
NANCY SPIELBERG: Actually I'm working on a new film called Who Will Write Our History? It's based on a book by Saul Kassow and tells the story about the secret archives of the Warsaw ghetto. Among the Jews who lived there was a group of archivists who dedicated themselves to documenting every aspect of their sorrows and suffering by writing and drawing their experiences. They knew their work would be destroyed if discovered, so they buried their documentation in various caches all around the ghetto—hoping they would someday be discovered and scream their message to the world. It's likely that not all the caches have been found. It's an amazing story of endurance and hope.