If Hollywood were a monarchy, Steven Allan Spielberg would likely be its king.
At 12, he turned out his first amateur scripted film, with family members as actors, and since then he is credited with producing 136 feature films and television movies and shows, directing 51 and writing 21 films, shorts and video games.
Among them are such blockbusters and landmark titles as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
In “Lincoln,” his latest movie, Spielberg proves that, at 66, his creative juices are flowing as strongly as ever and his mastery of the medium is undisputed.
Last week, after launching his iWitness Video Challenge, Spielberg sat down with the Journal’s Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim and Contributing Editor Tom Tugend for an exclusive interview.
Jewish Journal: Would you have made “Schindler’s List” without your own Jewish background?
Spielberg: I don’t think “Schindler’s List” would have compelled me to the extent that it did, had I not been part of a deeply Jewish Orthodox experience growing up. I was raised Orthodox, then became Conservative and eventually became Reform.
I don’t think “Schindler’s List” would have had the hold that it has had on me had my parents not been such good teachers, and had not my grandparents [immigrants from the Odessa region of Ukraine] risked frightening me to death with horrendous stories of what happened to their friends and relatives in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.
I grew up with all these scary stories as a little kid. And, indeed, learned to count by reading the numbers tattooed on the arm of a Hungarian survivor, in Cincinnati, in 1948 and ’49, when I was 2 to 3 years old. I think the book [“Schindler’s Ark”] by Thomas Keneally probably would not have come to my attention had I not been opened to it. Had I not been, it would not have somehow magically landed in my lap.
JJ: You said the Holocaust stories were so frightening. Did you ever think of turning away, because it was too scary?
SS: No, because kids are drawn to the flame. I was not raised in a Goth period of American culture; I was a normal child, a typical child, who was somehow fascinated by scary stories like that.
JJ: Even though these were really real?
SS: I didn’t know the stories were real, because I was a kid. A kid can’t tell the difference between reality and a story.
JJ: How about as an adult?
SS: I am much more cautious today about what I let in, because I can be hurt. I am more vulnerable today as an adult than I was as a child, because I know more. I know my history; I know what the odds were of global Jewry surviving Adolf Hitler. I know what the odds were against any Jew surviving. As a kid, you don’t know any of that stuff.
JJ: You’ve said that when you stood at the gates of Auschwitz, as you started to film, that the story became personal. Can you talk about that?
SS: When I started shooting the movie, I realized it was not just a film, but that I was about to embark on a personal journey. Everything was going to come to my rescue: everything I knew about the Holocaust, what my grandparents told me, everything I had ever read, all the documents I had ever seen. That I wasn’t going to just re-create a horrible period, the worst period of the 20th century, but I was going to be going through my own rituals, and that I would be growing up awfully quickly in Krakow, during the shooting of “Schindler’s List.”
I just knew after the first day of shooting, that this was not going to be easy. I knew that at the end I would come out a different person than when I went in. I did.
JJ: How did the experience change your personality?
SS: It certainly took me out of my out of my own first-person and made me much more empathic about the third-person experiences of everybody who survived, and especially those who didn’t survive that period of torturous history. So, in other words, I became much less self-involved after “Schindler’s List.”
JJ: When you were first approached about making “Schindler’s List” you said, “Give me another 10 years.” Why was that?
SS: I knew I wasn’t ready to direct “Schindler’s List” when Sid Sheinberg [then president of Universal Pictures] gave me Keneally’s book to read in 1982. I knew I wasn’t ready. I had just made “E.T.”; it had just come out in theaters, and it stood for everything I was up to that moment in time. That movie was about the imagination; it’s not a historical document. “E.T.” has nothing to do with the historical record; “Schindler’s List” does. I wasn’t ready.
I needed to grow up on film, and it took several movies for me to do so. “The Color Purple” is an essentially adult story, and then “Empire of the Sun” — even though it’s about a kid, it’s about the death of childhood, about a kid who loses his childhood because of war. I needed those two steppingstones to really feel courageous enough to then take on the story that Thomas Keneally brought to the world in “Schindler’s Ark.”
JJ: Is there a common theme running through these films?
SS: Yes, it’s about slavery. All four of those films are about enslaved populations and enslaved individuals. And all those films also talk about the danger of doing nothing, the calamity and the ripple effect of doing nothing. And all these stories are about people who take a stand and do something that is not predictable based on not only what everybody else thought the character was, but who the characters themselves imagined they were. And about when they can suddenly change, like Oskar Schindler did, and do something that was so against the grain. His business acumen, his great ability to make money on the backs of others, at the expense of others, and the fact that he changed as much as he did, I think, still perplexes even people who knew Oskar Schindler really well.
JJ: When you finished “Schindler’s List,” you started the Shoah Foundation and the Righteous Persons Foundation. Was this a gradual process?
SS: It was all a gradual process.
JJ: Do you find yourself aspiring to be like the people that you’re portraying?
SS: I think that, yes, but I think that I am a consciously righteous person, but a lot of my heroes were subconsciously righteous people. And everything I have learned about the human condition, and the good in everybody, sometimes the hidden good in all people, is what has made me proactive in my giving, in my philanthropy, in my work on myself to be a better husband and father to my seven children.
Sometimes, it happens circumstantially. You discover you want to be like someone else, so you follow their lead. And that’s what we’re hoping these kids will do with iWitness. They are going to follow the examples set by the survivors, and the stories they are telling, so these young people will be so overcome with a righteous purpose to go out into the world and put something good back in, though a video essay. That’s what we’re hoping iWitness will inspire.
JJ: Your whole thrust requires a great deal of optimism that human nature can change, despite all the evidence of history, where we are prone to kill each other. How are you able to maintain that, particularly in Hollywood?
SS: I think I was born an optimist. My mom is an optimist; my dad is an optimist. I come from a family of good-natured, good-humored people, who, like Anne Frank, said “there’s good in everybody.” And my parents believed that, and taught me that; they taught my sisters that. That’s one of the greatest gifts that my parents gave to me and my three sisters.
I’m optimistic; I’m not Pollyanna. I know how much we can do and can’t do, but I think everybody should try. It’s better to have tried something and not succeeded, than to have stood by and wondered, “What if I had lifted a finger? Could I have made a better choice, that could have impacted anybody’s life?”
JJ: Do you see yourself in the kids that you’re commissioning with iWitness? Do you remember your own innocence as a filmmaker?
SS: More and more, I see myself in my own kids; I see my curiosity that I’ve had all my life through my own children, and my three grandchildren that I’m very close to. And, I still think I am — a child.
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