Twenty-five years ago this summer, Steven Spielberg solidified his reputation as Hollywood’s reigning blockbuster king with the release of a not-so-little movie called Jurassic Park. Packed with breathtaking set-pieces and groundbreaking visual effects, the movie spawned a franchise that continues to this day in the form of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which arrives in theaters on June 22. What few realized at the time that Spielberg’s T. rex-size triumph was stomping through theaters is that its maker was in the process of radically transforming his career. In March 1993 — while still putting the finishing touches on Jurassic Park — the director called action on Schindler’s List, a searing Holocaust-era drama starring Liam Neeson as German businessman Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving thousands of Jews from Nazi concentration camps.
Although Spielberg had previously tackled weighty subject matter in films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, with its black-and-white cinematography and scenes of shocking violence, Schindler’s List promised to look and feel unlike any movie he had made before. Any doubts that he was the right person to tell this story dissipated when the film opened in theaters in December, scoring critical acclaim and multiple Oscar victories, including statues for Best Director and Best Picture. Schindler’s List marked a distinct turning point in Spielberg’s filmography as well; while he still made time for the occasional CGI-driven spectacle — like the recent Ready Player One — his focus increasingly turned toward period dramas ranging from 1998’s Saving Private Ryan to 2017’s The Post.
Since those films likely wouldn’t have been possible without Schindler’s List, the film understandably holds a special place in his heart. And the director very much wore his heart on his sleeve at a Q&A that followed a 25th anniversary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Sharing the stage with cast members Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Caroline Goodall, and Embeth Davidtz, Spielberg remarked with obvious emotion in his voice: “I know I have never felt, since Schindler’s List, the kind of pride and satisfaction and sense of real meaningful accomplishment.”
Here are five things we learned about the film from Spielberg and his collaborators.
Steven Spielberg had to wait 10 years to make Schindler’s List
In an alternate universe, Schindler’s List would have been Spielberg’s follow-up to his classic 1982 family film, E.T. In the wake of that megahit, Spielberg recalled his mentor and patron at Universal Studios, Sid Sheinberg, passing along a New York Times review of a book called Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally. “He said, ‘I have your next movie,’ and two hours later a messenger showed up with a cutout of the New York Times book section. I remember reading it, and even the review was dense. I got the book, and it took me a month to read it. I called Sid and said, ‘I don’t know how to tell this story, I just don’t.’ And I didn’t for a long time. A lot of other films had to happen first.”
It’s not like Spielberg ignored Schindler’s story during that time; from 1982 to 1993, various drafts of the script were written until the director received a version — penned by Steve Zaillian — that reduced him and his wife, Kate Capshaw, to tears. “We got to the end of the script, and Kate said, ‘You’re making this movie right now, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, right now.’ But I was making Jurassic Park right now, that was the problem!” After a whirlwind preproduction process, Spielberg and his cast were on location in Auschwitz by March. “I had to go home about two or three times a week to get on a very crude satellite feed to Northern California, where ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] was in order to approve T. rex shots. It built a tremendous amount of resentment and anger that I had to go from [Schindler’s List] to dinosaurs chasing jeeps. I was very grateful later in June, but until then, it was a burden because this was all I cared about.”
Liam Neeson repeatedly flubbed his first line
The Irish actor was coming off an acclaimed Broadway run in Anna Christie — where he met his future wife, Natasha Richardson (who died in 2009) — when Spielberg cast him as Oskar Schindler. “Steven wanted me to put on weight, and his office gave me protein powders,” Neeson recalled. “I tried to take it, but I was throwing up! Pints of Guinness in Poland did the work eventually.” But Guinness wasn’t enough to calm his nerves on his first day of shooting. “We were at the gates of Auschwitz at 5 or 6 in the morning, and it was freezing cold. I was quite nervous … and when I had to do my scene, I kept saying the line wrong. I said, ‘I need this child to polish the inside of shell metal casings,’ and it should have been ‘metal shell casings.'” Ever the director, Spielberg issued his star one more correction onstage. “It was ’45-millimeter metal shell casings.’ He got it right eventually.”
Ben Kingsley once came out swinging
Re-creating the Holocaust on location in Poland wasn’t easy for anyone, but Neeson and Kingsley remembered the Polish and German cast and crew — as well as the locals — being exceptionally friendly and warm. Still, there were some unpleasant encounters with people who weren’t willing to let the past die. Spielberg recalled seeing freshly painted swastikas while driving to work some mornings. And then there was a time when Kingsley tangled with an anti-Semitic German businessman at a hotel bar. “He walked across the bar with total impunity and asked Michael [Schneider, who played Juda Dresner] ‘Are you a Jew?’ Michael, in shock, said yes, and [the man] mimed a noose around his neck and pulled it tight. And I stood up.” Added Spielberg: “You did more than stand up.
Spielberg was treated to personal standup routines from Robin Williams
Being part of Schindler’s List meant opening yourself up to trauma almost every day. “There was trauma everywhere, and we captured the trauma,” Spielberg said. “There are whole sections of the film that go beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before or seen anyone in front of the camera experience.” As a way to avoid falling into abject despair, Spielberg came to rely on weekly phone calls from his good friend Robin Williams. “Once a week, he called me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of standup on the phone. And I would laugh hysterically because I had to release so much. The way Robin was on the telephone, he would always hang up on the loudest, best laugh you’d give him. He never said goodbye; he just hung up!”
The epilogue came to Spielberg in the middle of the night
Schindler’s List ends with footage of some of the surviving Schindlerjuden, or “Schindler’s Jews,” laying stones on Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem, accompanied by the actors who portray them or their loved ones in the film. It’s a beautiful coda that, according to Spielberg, was a last-minute invention. “Three quarters of the way through the film, I started to wake up in the middle of the night fearing that the people who see Schindler’s List will not believe Schindler’s List. Because I’m known for films that aren’t like this. I got really worried and [this ending] suddenly came to me. That was never in the script; it was a desperate attempt from me to find validation from the survivor community itself and certify that what we had done was credible.” While the sequence itself is somber, Neeson recalled that a decidedly nonfunereal spirit prevailed the previous evening. “The night before the shoot, Steven went to bed early, because he’s shooting the next day. So were we, but we had this amazing party and had quite a lot to drink. [People] were playing their violins and stuff. We all went to bed at 4:30!”