Tonight’s Schindler’s List retrospective event at the Tribeca Film Festival yielded more than a few familiar stories. But it also brimmed with unchecked emotion from director Steven Spielberg and four of his cast members, including Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, who all watched the film with a theatrical audience for the first time in nearly 25 years.
Moments after the lights came up after the screening and a long ovation from the Beacon Theatre crowd had subsided, Spielberg said he last saw the film with a theatrical audience in 1993, when it had a series of European premieres. “There were so many moments that washed over me,” he said, his voice charged with emotion.
Asked by moderator Janet Maslin of The New York Times for his reaction to seeing it again, he said, “I watched the film and I was just …. proud. I’m very, very proud.” He later added that he has not felt the same sense of “meaningful accomplishment” on any project he has directed since. Ever the film clinician, he also cited one particular sequence, which he had worked so carefully on during production that he had not fully appreciated until tonight. “I was operating the camera when we shot that scene where the Schindler Jews go to the gravesite” where Oskar Schindler was buried. “That long, lingering look Emily Schindler gives to the grave — she had never been to the grave — really hit me for the first time.”
Neeson, Kingsley and fellow cast members Embeth Davidtz, and Caroline Goodall all described a similar sensation. While there were moments of levity and the usual Hollywood badinage, all spoke movingly of the unique process of making the Holocaust drama. You could hear a pin drop in the 2,900-seat Beacon when Neeson recalled a particular day on set. In his gravelly brogue, he unfolded the anecdote in high Irish style, describing his mindset in the early 1990s. He was “falling in love” with his eventual wife, Natasha Richardson, with whom he was starring in the hit Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. On set of Schindler’s List one morning, he recalled, a scene was being shot outside the gates of Auschwitz. “It was 5:30 in the morning. Freezing cold. There were dogs,” he said. “Steven is pacing up and down. Everybody on tenterhooks.” At that point, Branko Lustig, one of the film’s producers, put his arm around Neeson. “He pointed over to the huts at Auschwitz and he said, “You see that hut? I was in that hut.'” When it sank in that Lustig was filming the ultimate personal story as a survivor, Neeson said, “It hit me, big f–kin’ time. Big time. I kept screwing up all the lines.”
Kingsley, who recalled the bond he sealed with Neeson over regular shots of good-luck vodka, offered a vivid reaction to his screening experience. He described “feeling an audience breathe the film in and out with me and be ambushed by the terrifying logic of those years of extermination … It was brought home in a way that’s miraculous.” The literary critic George Steiner, he added, “said that when you use words to describe the Holocaust, language breaks. But in the hands of a maestro, we get a sense of what it really was.”
Ralph Fiennes and Steven Zaillian were not onstage but drew numerous mentions and hearty applause. Spielberg recalled reading Zaillian’s script along with wife Kate Capshaw — each taking a page at a time and finishing in tears — and deciding to make the movie even though he was in the middle of shooting Jurassic Park. The filmmaker had needed a decade to reach that decision. His longtime mentor, Sid Sheinberg, sent Spielberg a review of the book (which had the title Schindler’s Ark) when it came out in 1982. Having just made ET and with his mind in sci-fi and action mode, Spielberg said, “It took me a month to read. It was very dense. And it was very difficult because it was so full of confirming facts.” While the director said he grew up with a general awareness of the Holocaust, “my parents always called it ‘The Murders,'” not declining to discuss it but not excavating the terrain the way the director would eventually feel compelled to do.
Maslin ran some longstanding rumors by Spielberg, marveling at one point how much “misinformation is floating around on the internet.” Was Mel Gibson ever considered for Neeson’s part as Schindler? No. Was Martin Scorsese ever in discussions to direct? Yes.
While the cast recalled mirthful moments during the arduous wintertime shoot — Fiennes “was the wild child of the bunch,” Davidtz laughed — they also remembered the ominous reality of sensing that the passage of 50 years had not erased anti-Semitism. At a hotel in Poland, Spielberg and Kingsley recalled, the actor scuffled with a businessman and physically ejected him from the hotel. The scrape began when the man mimed tightening a noose around the neck of cast member Michael Schneider, who had replied affirmatively to the man’s question about whether he was Jewish. When Fiennes was in his S.S. uniform shooting a scene, Spielberg recalled, a woman in an upper floor of an adjacent apartment building called down to him that she wished the S.S. were still there to “protect us.” Swastikas were regularly painted on walls around the sets, the group remembered, shaking their heads. “It was just for us,” Kingsley said, as the crowd gasped.
Spielberg got the crowd squirming even more when he recalled the trauma many actors experienced during production. “We were capturing trauma,” he said. Some of the actors, many of whom he cast locally, were crossing over from the discipline of acting to a deeply personal experience of the horrors of the gas chambers. Some had to take several days off from shooting. “They were having breakdowns,” Spielberg said, evincing no pleasure at the memory.
In order to maintain his sanity, Spielberg would purposefully lighten the mood with imported Betamax tapes of Saturday Night Live and regular phone calls from Robin Williams. “He would call and do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” the director said, cracking a smile. “He would never say goodbye; he would always just hang up on the biggest laugh he got from me. Mic drop.”