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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Robin Williams Helped Steven Spielberg Get Through ‘Schindler’s List’

Schindler’s List is one of the most important motion pictures in history, brilliantly extracting every bit of emotion from viewers as they traverse the horrific events of the Holocaust. It was a personal project for filmmaker Steven Spielberg who is Jewish, and when holocaust denial was rising once again in 1993, Spielberg decided to make it his mission to make Schindler’s List. Given the subject of the movie, including Spielberg’s own history with the events, and difficulty with the studios, the production took a toll on him emotionally. Thanks to iconic comedian Robin Williams, however, Spielberg was able to find the strength to get the movie to the finish line.

Steven Spielberg Tried To Pass ‘Schindler’s List’ Onto Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack

Image via Universal Pictures

Schindler’s List was based on a novel named Schindler’s Ark written by Thomas Keneally, after he met with one of the Schindler Jews, Poldek Pfefferberg. Pfefferberg made it his mission to preserve the legacy of the person responsible for his life, and his wish was granted when he met with Keneally in Los Angeles. Joseph McBride‘s biography of Spielberg mentions that Sid Sheinberg, then president of MCA, sent the filmmaker a copy of the book, in which Spielberg took a great interest. Spielberg and Pfefferberg (who would eventually be credited as a consultant in the end credits of the picture) would meet in 1983, and the former promised the Holocaust survivor that he would start filming in ten years. However, there was a reluctance on his part regarding his abilities to make the movie. He attempted to pass it on to other directors such as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack, claiming that he wasn’t ready to do it. Scorsese eventually settled for a trade. He would get to direct Cape Fear, while Spielberg would bravely head the filming of Schindler’s List.

RELATED: Steven Spielberg Helped Martin Scorsese Direct This Impressive Scene

This wasn’t without doubts from others. Before the existence of this picture, Spielberg had a reputation for being too “blockbuster” in his approach, rather than personal and “auteur-worthy.” Australian filmmaker Fred Schepsi advised him not to take on the project, claiming that his big-studio style would become the very waterloo of the film’s essence. He even infamously mentioned to Spielberg that he would not have the courage to do the picture without a crane or a dolly shot. To add more fuel to the flame, survivors in Poland would come up to Spielberg himself to tell him that he was a strange choice to direct a film as heavy as this one. Spielberg was devastated, and this was more of an omen of things to come.

The Studios Wouldn’t Work With Steven Spielberg Until After ‘Jurassic Park’

Image via Universal Pictures

When he eventually accepted and started pre-production of the picture, Spielberg struggled with studio executives regarding creative issues. First is Spielberg’s insistence on shooting the film in black and white, rather than shooting it in color and then grading it to black and white, which the studio wanted. Spielberg claimed that it would result in a pinkish hue, and would be detrimental to the entire point he was trying to make. Moreover, the studio wanted the film to contain more instances of Hollywood-style catharsis, which Steven Spielberg vehemently rallied against.

Despite all of their ramblings, MCA eventually gave Spielberg the chance to make the movie on one condition: He had to film Jurassic Park first before he could do any production tasks on Schindler’s List. Spielberg took the win and acceded to their wishes. Spielberg mustered up all the strength he had and eventually fulfilled his promise to Pfefferberg. Joseph Mcbride notes that principal photography would begin on March 1993, and he would never look back…or so he thought.

Behind the Scenes of ‘Schindler’s List’ Included a Bar Fight With Ben Kingsley

Image via Universal Pictures

The worries kept on piling up even during the production. They decided to shoot on location in Poland, and were immediately introduced to the harsh 15-degrees below zero winter. In Krakow, they were also met with antisemitic remarks and swastikas painted on the buildings to their workplace. Ben Kingsley was also involved in a scuffle at the bar in the hotel forum when a German businessman whispered “good night Jew” to his friend Michael Schneider while miming a noose around his neck. Kingsley threw the offender to the ground and was physically thrown out by the film crew. An old Polish woman also remarked at another time on location that she misses the times when the “real Nazis” were protecting the city.

Aside from this, Spielberg also employed a catch-as-catch-can style of filming, sometimes even shooting 55 setups in a day, often using a handheld camera. More than the physical exhaustion, it was the mental fatigue that was draining the director. Shooting brutal re-enactments of the atrocities in the concentration camps, while understanding that his family had to go through all of this, was too much even for a seasoned director. Knowing all of this, Robin Williams decided to cheer up the downtrodden director in the way he does best: comedy.

Robin Williams Made Steven Spielberg Laugh For Nights During ‘Schindler’s List’

Image via Touchstone Pictures

Robin Williams had previously worked with Spielberg once on Hook, and they developed a strong bond. Sensing that his friend needed something to take his mind off of the darkness, Williams decided to brighten up Spielberg’s experience by scheduling phone calls with him at night. “”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, and I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much,” Spielberg said.” What’s funny is that Spielberg notes that Williams would never even formally say “goodbye.” He would just hang up after Spielberg let out the biggest laugh of the conversation, leaving both of them in stitches. Aside from this, the director also watched a lot of Saturday Night Live episodes to keep him in check.

Working all day with the cloud of the Holocaust over their head would tax anybody, and Spielberg was no different. Luckily, he had a great friend whose contributions were invaluable in the completion of the picture. One could certainly say that Schindler’s List would definitely not be finished without Robin Williams and his comedy. As it is, Schindler’s List continues to be a hallmark of cinema. It is a striking reminder of the unthinkable atrocities that humans can inflict, and how one man can make a difference, no matter how small or big. As the film so poignantly states, “he who saves one life, saves the world entire.”

The Big Picture

  • Schindler’s List is an emotionally powerful film that tackles the horrific events of the Holocaust, and it was a personal project for filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who comes from a Jewish background.
  • Spielberg faced doubts and struggles during the production of the film, including resistance from studio executives who wanted the film to be in color and contain more Hollywood-style catharsis, which Spielberg vehemently opposed.
  • Robin Williams played a crucial role in supporting Spielberg throughout the filming process, regularly scheduling phone calls at night to boost Spielberg’s spirits. Williams’ humor helped alleviate the mental fatigue and stress Spielberg experienced while creating such a heavy film.

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