The featured guest at this year’s West Virginia Jewish Film Festival is no stranger to movie-making.
As the little sister of a Hollywood giant, Nancy Spielberg has been handling scripts, special effects and production equipment for about as long as she can remember. In fact, she jokes that she went to the “Steven Spielberg Early Film School.”
“When we were little our whole house was turned into a movie set,” she said during a phone interview Wednesday.
Growing up outside of Scottsdale, Ariz., the Spielberg kids found plenty of ways to entertain themselves. A frequent haunt was the Army surplus store in town where they’d rent uniforms and other props. Then, they’d stage war movies in the 100-plus degree desert using the family’s Korean War era Army Jeep.
“We were his cast and crew,” she said with a laugh. “My sister was always his script girl. Even mom was part of the film-making.”
Steven could be a bit of a slave driver, and was always a perfectionist, she said.
“He would make us hold these incredibly hot flood lights,” she said. “I had blisters up and down my arms, I am six years old and I can smell the little hairs on my arm catching fire.
“He wasn’t a bully in the sense that he’d beat us up, but there was mental torture. He’d say, ‘If you don’t do this right I’m putting this skeleton in your room tonight.’”
These days, she is quick to point out that her brother doesn’t see her work until it’s basically finished.
If her latest project “Above and Beyond” is any indication, she’s doing just fine on her own.
The documentary tells the story of a ragtag group of young, mostly American Jewish men who volunteered to be members of Israel’s first air force. They risked jail time and even the loss of their American citizenship for doing so.
Using scrap metal, they rebuilt old German aircraft abandoned in Czechoslovakia to defend the newly formed nation that found itself under attack by five Arab nations. It’s a compelling story, one that hasn’t been told to a mass audience until now.
“I was absolutely not aware of this and I know a lot about Israel’s history,” Spielberg said.
In the fall of 2011, a friend showed her the obituary for Al Schwimmer, an American World War II veteran and flight engineer. The obit called Schwimmer “the father of the Israeli Air Force.” She was intrigued and started to do some digging.
“The more I read the more excited I got,” she said. “This started to sound like a Spielberg film, like a combination of several of my big brother’s films.”
Several of the men are still living and she decided their stories had to be told before it was too late.
“It intrigued me. Why would these guys — they survived World War II, they’re supposed to come home, get married, have 2.5 children, sit down to dinner and have a cocktail — why would they go against their country and fight in someone else’s war?”
She hopes the film serves as “a shot in the arm for the Jewish community,” but she said it’s also a testament to the American spirit of helping others.
“It’s very American to step out of your comfort zone and help a brother in need,” she said.
It’s an unusual thing to say about a documentary, but from a technical standpoint, the film stands out for its use of special effects. Interviews with the men transition here and there to what looks like archival footage of aircraft engaging in firefights with the enemy.
“We knew archival footage would be scarce,” she said. “They didn’t have a camera crew to film battles.”
But filmmakers needed a visual element to help break up the interviews. That’s when Spielberg decided to contact Kathleen Kennedy, head of Lucasfilm, for help with the computer-generated imagery work.
“I emailed her. I took all of my Jewish chutzpah. I said ‘I want you do it and I don’t have any money’ and then I pressed send very fast,” she said with a laugh.
“She called me the next day and said she loved this story.”
Lucasfilm also happened to have leftover World War II era planes from production of the film “Red Tails,” the 2012 film about the Tuskegee Airmen.
“They jumped on board and helped me out tremendously,” Spielberg said, adding that the footage was later “dirtied up” for a more authentic, vintage feel. She hopes the film allows people to see Israel from a fresh viewpoint.
“Israel gets a bad rap sometimes,” she said. “But it was voted into statehood fairly and openly and had every right to exist, and it was attacked and defended itself.”
Looking ahead, Spielberg has already begun work on her next piece, “Who Will Tell Our Story,” which she said will tell the story of Jews forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“It’s the untold story of the Holocaust,” she said.
She will also continue her philanthropic work helping those who continue to suffer from the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster.
So, what did Steven think of her latest film? She said she showed him the film just before it was finished and then braced herself for his criticism.
He didn’t have any. He told her he loved it.
“I said, ‘that’s wonderful, Stevie!’ He lifted me up, really.”
Here’s to a sound night’s sleep without any skeletons lurking in the room.
Spielberg will introduce the film and answer questions as part of this year’s Jewish Film Festival. The film begins at 3 p.m. Sunday at Park Place Cinemas in Charleston. The event is free and open to the public.
Reach Life editor Billy Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4830.