Nancy Spielberg on Telling Stories and ‘The Fabelmans’
Nancy Spielberg doesn’t rest on her laurels or her famous last name. The sister of acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg, she is a successful producer in her own right. Among the award-winning documentary films that she has produced are Who Will Write Our History, on the secret archive created by historian Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw Ghetto, and Above and Beyond, about pilots who fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
Nancy, 66, who lives in Riverdale, N.Y., has a hectic schedule. She is currently busy with the release and distribution of her two new documentaries—Vishniac and Closed Circuit. “It’s always a tremendous amount of work getting a film out into the world,” she said.
My connection with Nancy is personal. We met in the mid-1990s, when I was also living in Riverdale. My daughter, Elana, and Melissa, the younger of Nancy’s two daughters, were friends, both in the same grade at SAR, Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy. We shared what we dubbed “mommy duty” and schmoozed whenever our girls got together for play dates, dance classes and birthday parties.
It was inevitable, perhaps, when discussing our families that Nancy would mention her older siblings Anne, Sue and “Steve.” It always took me a moment to recall that “Steve” was the creator of blockbusters such Jaws, E.T. and the Indiana Jones series. At the time of our first acquaintance, he had recently received Academy Awards for best director and best picture for his Holocaust film, Schindler’s List. Yet to Nancy and her sisters, he was just Steve, their big brother who always had a movie camera in hand.
Nancy followed her own creative path. For many years, she had written and consulted for film projects, but it was the 2014 documentary, Above and Beyond, that launched her career as a producer.
“It was a passion project,” she said about the documentary portraying a group of American World War II airmen who volunteered to fight for Israel in 1948.
Today, she continues to produce historical documentaries, most with a Jewish or Israel focus. (Information on her films is available at Playmount Productions, the production company that she heads.)
Our daughters followed their own paths, too, and in the intervening years, my family moved to Teaneck, N.J. I caught up with Nancy on a visit to Riverdale, where she discussed her work and shared with me her thoughts on The Fabelmans, her brother’s new coming-of-age drama based on his life that has now been nominated for seven Oscars. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Did the depiction of your family in The Fabelmans match your recollections?
Yes, the movie very much jived with my memories. I was a consultant and was often present on the set during filming. Steve wanted my two older sisters’ and my own input, recollections and approval. They rebuilt our childhood homes down to the paintings on the wall that my mom painted. As in the movie, we had a monkey, chased twisters—and fire trucks, too.
Mom was an artist in many ways. She often wept when hearing beautiful music and loved playing the piano. She encouraged Steve to follow his heart. My dad also encouraged him, although he was more practical and would say, “It’s a hobby, you need to get a real job.”
Tell us about your latest documentaries.
Closed Circuit and Vishniac are starting their festival runs. Closed Circuit is about the 2016 terror attack at the Max Brenner restaurant in the upscale Sarona Market in Tel Aviv. Two well-dressed terrorists entered the restaurant and, after ordering brownies, began shooting. The attack was captured on closed-circuit cameras. The documentary uses the footage from the cameras and personal interviews with survivors; many are still scarred by emotional and physical trauma from the attack.
Vishniac is about the famous Russian photographer Roman Vishniac. His pictures became the last visual proof of a civilization that was wiped out in the Holocaust. Vishniac’s photos are displayed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
How did your brother influence your career?
Steve encouraged me and gave his bracha (blessing) when I was asked to produce the documentary Above and Beyond, directed by Roberta Grossman. Growing up, Steve always filmed us, and I also learned about storytelling from my mother, who was a great storyteller and turned mundane events into spicy stories. But my sense of urgency to tell stories ignited when I read the book that Schindler’s List is based upon, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Now, with rising antisemitism, we must tell those stories of survivors more than ever.
What drew you to documentary filmmaking?
After Schindler’s List, the world finally wanted to hear stories of survivors and veterans, and many incredible stories were forwarded to me. I was drawn to documentaries because I didn’t feel comfortable stepping into the same movie pool that my brother was swimming in! He’s a much bigger fish and that felt intimidating.
How did your focus on stories about Jews first develop?
In 1975, I took my first trip to Israel, where I lived on Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, which housed many Holocaust survivors. I was surrounded by people with tattoos on their arms. There was one particular survivor, Itzik, who was completely traumatized and broken by the atrocities he suffered in the Holocaust. Even after I left the kibbutz, I felt haunted by my memories of Itzik and the other survivors who couldn’t discuss their Holocaust experiences. They were forward thinkers and the only history they spoke of was about Israel and its wars.
Tell us about your next project.
I am continuing to produce documentaries related to Jewish topics. Jewish Story Partners—a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps support filmmakers who are telling Jewish stories—is one of the most important projects that I’ve helped develop. It’s so rewarding on a personal level and critical to work toward fighting antisemitism. I’m working to combat antisemitism, build Jewish pride and do my part to make this world a better place.
Esther Kook is a school reading specialist and freelance writer. She lives in Teaneck, N.J.