If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to interview rock stars right after a concert, try getting a word with Nancy Spielberg, the producer of Above and Beyond, the true story of the heroic American volunteers who started the Israel Air Force, and Lou Lenart, one of these pilots, after a screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
When Lenart stood up at Spielberg’s urging after the screening on July 15, he received a standing ovation, a rare event at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
After the moving film, the 94-year-old Lenart, who served as a US Marine in World War II and led the IAF’s first mission on May 29, 1948, deflected compliments, telling many well-wishers in the effusive crowd, “I’m honored to meet you.”
Spielberg, who has a brother who has made a film or two, was able to break away from her family, friends and admirers for a glass of wine.
She admitted to feeling pleased at the film’s reception, as well as some understandable relief.
“I was thinking, everybody in the audience is going to tell me where I messed up,” she said. “It’s a tough crowd... but it’s also family.”
But Spielberg passed her exam with flying colors, which was an especially satisfying achievement given that three years ago, her knowledge of flying was mainly to do with how to return her seat to the upright position. But when she saw an obituary for Al Schwimmer, an American World War II veteran and flight engineer who has been called the godfather of the Israel Air Force, she was fascinated.
“I thought, how did an American become the godfather of the Israel Air Force?” she said. Spielberg, who had done promotional writing and had produced and worked on several documentaries, among them Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals, had one hesitation before she proceeded with plans to begin making Above and Beyond: “It sounded like a Spielberg movie.”
Once her brother, Steven, who had thought of making a movie on this topic at one point in the Nineties, gave her his blessing, she immersed herself in everything to do with the Machal, volunteers from abroad who helped the Israeli army during the War of Independence, particularly those who created the IAF.
“I learned quickly, I’m a sponge,” she said. “I learned a lot out of doing research, talking to these guys. At first when people talked about Messerschmitt, and an ME, and an ME 109, I didn’t realize these were all the same thing... I read a lot of books. One of them that was very helpful was Ehud Yonay’s No Margin for Error, I learned a lot of tech air force jargon. I got it, felt it, saw it, like I was watching Top Gun.”
She went looking for a director and found Roberta Grossman, who had made a number of acclaimed documentaries, among them Hava Nagila and Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh.
There was only one hitch. At first, Grossman wouldn’t take her calls, which puzzled Spielberg.
Then she discovered another one of the perils of having a brother who is among the most famous directors on the planet. “Roberta always told her assistant, ‘If Spielberg calls, tell him I’m busy.’” Once Grossman understood that it was Nancy Spielberg on the line, the director and producer starting work together and interviewed the surviving pilots. Spielberg also assembled the archival material she knew she would need for the film.
On this trip, Spielberg has been visiting her daughter, Jessica “Jessy” Katz, a contestant on The Voice, who lives in Tel Aviv, and noticed, “People were standing outside trying to film the rockets as they fall. But back when the IAF was starting, Israel had no money for cameras. There wasn’t time or energy to document what they were doing the way we do today.”
But she did manage to find wonderful photos and even some live action footage, although she somewhat reluctantly supplemented this with carefully done recreations of some of the action.
“One of the hardest parts of making the movie was deciding what I had to leave out. There were so many capers, so many stories, you can’t include them all,” she said.
There was no room for all the details of how Schwimmer actually created dummy companies in order to be allowed to buy planes, and how some of the pilots were arrested when US Treasury agents discovered that the planes were headed for Palestine.
In addition, “There were certain basics that we have all been taught in the Jewish world, that I had to include so that it would hold up for a mainstream audience.”
The film, which will be shown next at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 27 and 28, is headed for a theatrical run in 2015, and Spielberg hopes to make it widely available afterwards via DVD and live streaming.
Next up for Spielberg: “The feature film version of this story.”
That’s a big switch for Spielberg, who has spent years distancing herself professionally from her brother, and is proud that she accepted no financial help from him for Above and Beyond and did her own fund raising. But she feels comfortable now working in filmmaking.
“When the shoe fit, I put it on,” she said.
Spielberg was happy to participate in the Jerusalem Film Festival, and not fazed by the current conflict.
Her daughter Jessy has been living in Israel for years, “And it’s very hard to be apart in times like this... If I was in the US watching the rockets, I’d be so scared.” Spielberg was accompanied on this trip by her husband, Shimon Katz.
Their younger daughter, Melissa, is an accomplished equestrian.
“I was happy Jessy was with me in Jerusalem [during a recent rocket attack]. It’s not a situation to make light of, but in our family we deal with things like this with nervous laughter. In a tense moment, we let off some steam with a chuckle.”
To get more information about upcoming screenings of Above and Beyond, go to http://aboveandbeyondthemovie.com.