Shooting a Holocaust drama as grim as “Schindler’s List” obviously took an emotional toll on director Steven Spielberg, but it turns out the filmmaker had an unexpected lifeline to help him see the light on set. Spielberg, reuniting with cast members Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, and more during a “Schindler’s List” 25th anniversary celebration at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, revealed that a weekly phone call with Robin Williams was the filmmaker’s saving grace.
“Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”
Prior to “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg directed Williams in “Hook.”
“The way Robin is on the telephone, he’d always hang up on the loudest, best laugh you’d give him,” the director said. “He’d never say goodbye, just hang up on the biggest laugh.”
Speaking with Williams once a week was hardly the only phone call Spielberg had to take from the Poland set of “Schindler’s List.” The director had finished principal photography on his blockbuster “Jurassic Park” before filming got underway in Poland, but post-production on the dinosaur epic was still in full effect. Spielberg explained how frustrating it was having to break from the turmoil of getting “Schindler’s List” right in order to deal with the more lighthearted dinosaurs.
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“When I finally started shooting in Poland, I had to go home about two or three times a week and get on a very crude satellite feed to Northern California to be able to approve T-Rex shots,” Spielberg said. “It built a tremendous amount of resentment and anger that I had to do this, that I had to actually go from [the emotional weight of ‘Schindler’s List’] to dinosaurs chasing jeeps, and all I could express was how angry that made me at the time.”
“Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” were both released in theaters in 1993 to critical and commercial success. “Park” became the highest grossing film worldwide in history, while “Schindler’s List” took in more than $300 million worldwide (a remarkable feat for a 195-minute Holocaust drama). It also won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director. As Spielberg remembers it, winning the top two Academy Awards in 1994 was hardly a cause for celebration.
“That night wasn’t really a celebration at all. I don’t feel that this movie is a celebration,” he said. “The subject matter and the impact the movie had on all of us, it took the celebration out of that. It was wonderful to win, but at the same time I just remember how moved I was when [Branko] Lustig, our producer, showed the world that he was in Auschwitz, too, that he had numbers on his arm.”
One of the reasons the film was not a celebration was because of how tough it was to get through filming. Spielberg called the scene in which Jewish prisoners are forced to strip naked for medical exams “the most traumatic day of [his] entire career.” He also revealed that two Israeli actresses who participated in the famous gas chamber/shower scene couldn’t shoot for the next three days afterwards because they had breakdowns.
“There was trauma everywhere,” Spielberg said. “You can’t fake that.”
The cast also witnessed antisemitism firsthand during production, which only fortified Spielberg and his actors’ determination to finish the film. Spielberg and Kingsley told a story where a German-speaking man approached actor Michael Schneider at a bar one evening after filming and asked if he was Jewish. The German “mimed a noose around his neck and pulled it tight.” Spielberg didn’t say specific details, but he implied that Kingsley “did more than stand up” to the German.
Another shocking encounter occurred in between takes with Ralph Fiennes. The actor, who plays the sadistic Nazi officer Amon Göth, was wearing his SS uniform and a local Polish woman yelled from a balcony above the street that she wished Nazi soldiers “were back here protecting us again.”
Instances like these proved to the cast and crew how relevant their story was, even if they were filming it decades after the actual events. It’s no wonder Spielberg has often described “Schindler’s List” not as a movie he wanted to make, but one that he had to make.
“I have never felt since ‘Schindler’s List’ the kind of pride and satisfaction, and sense of real, meaningful accomplishment,” Spielberg said at the end of the discussion. “I haven’t felt that on any film post-‘Schindler’s List.'”