A 1950 Willys Jeep, with no top, no sides, no roll bar, and no seat belts, bumps and groans its way down a desert road. In the darkened splendor of the moonlight, the driver and the three rugrats in tow pull off into the infertile land, setting up camp on the hood of the car as a meteor shower rages overhead. Or perhaps a young boy, armed with a film camera, and his mother—dressed in full Army garb—enact a wartime drama. According to Nancy Spielberg, sister of high-profile filmmaker Steven Spielberg (hint: he was the boy with the film camera), these moments, seemingly poised for the big screen, were no big-budget blockbuster plots: They were her way of life growing up Spielberg.
Though Steven (“E.T.,” “Schindler’s List,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” etc.) and Nancy’s other sibling, Anne (cowriter of “Big”) have IMDb pages loaded to the brim with film credits, Nancy, too, has been cultivating a name for herself. Her voice chimes with wisdom, gaiety and passion as she explains her newest documentary she served as executive producer on, “Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force.” Directed by Roberta Grossman, the film will play this Sunday, April 26, at Thalian Hall as part of the second annual Wilmington Jewish Film Festival. Nancy herself will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A session. A catered reception will follow.
Film wasn’t always Nancy’s primary pursuit. Despite growing up as a subject for Steven’s youthful ventures into filmmaking, her craft of choice was writing. However, as Steven grew in notoriety, Nancy often found herself paralyzed by the fear of her name.
“The bigger my brother got—I’m not intimidated by my brother—but I became intimidated or a little frightened to go out there publicly with some of my writing,” Nancy tells. “I got scared about failing publicly.”
She mulled over writing a memoir until publisher’s got the idea it would be a tell-all book on the Spielbergs. Likewise, she had a substantial stack of scripts on her bedside table that were given to her by folks who hoped she would pass them on to her brother. However, the Spielberg’s have a strict policy to never come to a family gathering with an agenda. “That’s the rule in the family,” she reports. “It’s called Shalom Bayit; it’s how you keep peace in the family.”
Over time, age and wisdom subsided Nancy’s reservations about the film world. When talking to Nancy, it’s quickly apparent she’s the person who never meets a stranger. Add to that the fact she is a quick study, it comes as no surprise she broke into film without riding the coattails of her brother.
“I got into [film] because I got pulled into it,” Nancy recalls. “It felt like I shed a skin. Like a snake sheds a skin, I shed a skin of fear and anxiety. I felt lifted up by [the story featured in ‘Above and Beyond.’] I didn’t look back and say this is what I’m doing. It really almost felt like it was a message from God. I felt like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd [in ‘Blues Brothers’]: ‘We’re on a mission from God; we’re gettin’ the band back together.’”
The harrowing tale behind “Above and Beyond” came to Nancy via email in 2011 after the completion of a doc she was executive producer for, entitled “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals.” The email contained an obituary that’s headline read, “Father of the Israeli Air Force Dies at 94.” It detailed the life of an American Jewish man who laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force during a time when there was a U.S. embargo on sending supplies to the Middle East. As such, the man rallied together a crew of brave American Jewish men (who at the time weren’t hired by commercial airlines in the U.S.) to smuggle planes overseas, aiding Israel in their War for Independence. The FBI was hot in pursuit, and clandestine missions galore layer the larger-than-life true story.
“I was shocked that an American was credited with starting the Israeli Air Force,” Nancy says, her voice tinged with excitement. “It sounded like such a far-fetched story, and it just grabbed me. It felt like a feature film; it did not feel like a little doc—the adventure, the intrigue, the chase scenes, the sex, the heart, the passion. It just had all the makings of a Spielberg film. So the little Spielberg got this one.”
Instantly hooked, Nancy began seeking out a director. Having just directed a film called “Hava Nagila,” Roberta Grossman’s name popped up from three different sources. Nancy knew the story’s age would require a lot of recreation work, as archival footage wasn’t as prevalent during the late ‘40s. Recreation was a feat Grossman handled beautifully in another doc she directed, “Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh.”
Getting in touch with Grossman was a challenge in and of itself. Because of Nancy’s surname, Grossman assumed her calls were a hoax. There even was a running joke in Grossman’s office: Whenever the phone would ring, she would say “Well, if it’s Spielberg, tell him I’ll call him back.” Eventually, after calling Steven’s office and confirming he had a sister named Nancy, a meeting was arranged.
“She was wonderful,” Nancy says. “She got it. She loved it. I could see that little twinkle in her eyes, and she started to salivate over the topic. I knew it was a good thing.”
Over the next two years, the two women wrangled in the still-living men involved in the story. Coated with a shiny veneer of swagger and pride, the men’s softer sides shine through in the documentary, as each recalls his mother’s worry and the immense, emotional strife that came about from growing up in such an anti-Semitic environment.
“[One of the men] teared up this many years later at the thought of pleasing his father,” Nancy says. “That really got to me because I’m really tight with my parents. I really think that because Roberta and I did the interviews, I think we drew out more emotion. I did not expect that level of tearfulness. I think those are the stories I wanted. I didn’t just want a war story; I wanted the story of their lives and how this impacted and changed them.”
The men are as over-the-top as their stories. “My guys are so colorful and so full of piss and vinegar, as we say,” Nancy quips. “Let’s just call them ‘salty characters.’ They went into a lot of detail about the women they chased. They were sexy top guns. They were sexy guys in flight jackets; the women were swooning. I think pilots anywhere live on the edge. They’re flying crazy, crafty machines. They’re womanizing in every pit stop around the world. The guys have, what we call, every single detail.”
Given the lack of archival footage, CGI work and recreations were added to the story. George Lucas’ company, Industrialized Light and Magic, led the way on that front (though Nancy assures the film feels authentic and not like audiences are being sucked into a video game). A soundtrack from notable composer Hans Zimmer’s camp permeates the film.
Since its completion in 2014 (they made the film quickly to ensure the men, who ranged in age from 89 and 94, featured in the project could see themselves on the big screen), “Above and Beyond” has made its way through the festival circuit. It screened and won Best Documentary at the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, and won Best Documentary Audience Awards at the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema and the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.
“I’m feeling incredibly grateful and overwhelmed by the response, which is why I’m still touring with the film,” Nancy says. “I feel like I owe it to people to tell them some back story, and to meet them whenever I can and hear more stories and gather information so we can do a study guide. I think that’s really important.”
Nancy came into contact with Peggy Rosoff, co-chair of the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival, years back when a snippet of “Above and Beyond,” which was intended for fundraising purposes, was leaked. Rosoff saw the clip and immediately contacted Nancy, telling her she had to come to Wilmington.
“[Peggy] sends me Good Shabbos emails on Friday,” Nancy comments. “I feel like I’ve known her forever. I’m so glad we can bring it full circle: She was there from the beginning, cheering me on and telling me, ‘You’ve got to do this; you’re gonna come here.’ And here I’m —coming!”
Wilmington Jewish Film Festival
Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force with Nancy Spielberg
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Sunday, April 26, 3 p.m.