Nancy Spielberg doesn’t mind being known as Steven Spielberg’s little sister. In fact, having the famous movie director as her older brother has probably been more than a little helpful in her nascent career as an executive producer of documentary films.
But it doesn’t mean she asks “Steve” for any favors.
“We make family rules,” said Nancy Spielberg. “Shalom bayit means we’re not slipping scripts. We’re there for him to rest his head, and when we’re together, we probably talk more family, a lot of nostalgia.”
On this wintry day in late December, Spielberg is in her new home in Jerusalem, located in a new complex in the Templer-built neighborhood known as the German Colony. Her husband, Shimon Katz, took over the development of the building and the construction — “he picked everything, even the vases on the shelf,” said Spielberg.
The Katzes have lived in Riverdale, New York, for nearly thirty years, and raised their family, though Spielberg always spent a lot of time on the West Coast, where she was raised and where her parents and two of her siblings, Steven Spielberg and Anne Spielberg, still live. Her other sister, Sue Spielberg, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
For Spielberg, however, Jerusalem and Israel are part of the regular roster, now that they have a home here and one of their kids, Jessy Katz, immigrated officially and moved to Tel Aviv. Katz is trying to make it as a singer, and was a finalist on the 2014 season of the Israeli version of “The Voice.”
“It’s hard to make it here,” said Spielberg. And no, Jessy Katz doesn’t use her famous connections. None of them do.
Having a famous brother is “ever evolving, as his career has gone in different directions,” said Spielberg — think “Jaws” and then “Schindler’s List” followed by his work with the USC Shoah Foundation.
“I think you have to manage that it does not define you because it should not, and then make sure it does not define your kids,” she said. “My kids don’t walk into a room and say that Steven Spielberg is their uncle; but when you’re in the Jewish world, it’s in the room before you.”
Nor has Nancy Spielberg let her brother’s work and stardom define her, despite her recent entry into her brother’s business. She remembers feeling star-struck in the early years of her brother’s career, asking to meet Robert Redford or seeing Michael Jackson in the studio, but she feels strongly that “the role of the sibling is to stay family, to be there for each other, to not have an agenda,” she said.
That family affiliation changed a bit when Nancy Spielberg began doing production work and first showed her brother the rough cut of “Above and Beyond,” her 2014 film about US airmen volunteering to help fight in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. She was more than a little nervous to hear what he thought.
It was, in fact, a subject that Steven Spielberg and other directors have thought about using for a film, as the pilots age and pass away. He had, however, given her his blessing to work on it.
“I knew that if he said he hates it, I’m screwed,” she said. “Given that he’s the expert he is, anyone who has the chance to show their work to Steven Spielberg should take his advice.”
Luckily, said Spielberg, he loved it. She said he came into their mother’s restaurant and told his kid sister that the movie made him cry.
“He doesn’t mince words, he doesn’t kiss ass,” said Spielberg. In fact, he liked it so much he told her he would recommend it to the Cannes Film Festival where he sat on the jury.
The film didn’t get accepted to the festival, but Spielberg said she keeps receiving emails from her brother’s staff telling her that “Steven wants you to send the film to these people,” she said. He also happened to mention to her that actor Daniel Day-Lewis and his son, an airplane aficionado, saw it and loved it.
“Above and Beyond” helped Nancy Spielberg restart a career. She now runs Playmount Productions, the family’s production company that was started by their father, Arnold, then used by Steven for his first films, and now handles “films that matter,” as Nancy likes to say.
After producing “Above and Beyond,” which is currently making the rounds of Jewish film festivals, organizations and Birthright events (she recently spent an evening with Birthright participants at the Glilot Cinema City theater outside Herzliya), Spielberg is in pre-production for “Who Will Write Our History,” to be directed by her collaborator, Roberta Grossman, about the hidden Oyneg Shabes Archive in the Warsaw Ghetto, and “On the Map,” about the renowned 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game against CSKA Moscow, the Russian team.
Each film is a massive project, said Spielberg. Producing “Who Will Write Our History” included the use of 30,000 documents that had been buried in the ghetto — “like revealing 30 Anne Frank diaries to the world,” said Spielberg.
It’s a story that needs to be told, said Spielberg, like so many Holocaust stories. As her brother’s sister, she is often pitched Holocaust-related ideas.
“After my brother did ‘Schindler’s List,’ people lined up to pitch ideas to him, but Steve said, ‘I’ve already done my Shoah piece,'” she said. “I’m sort of next in line. Once you unearth Holocaust stories, you hit this vein.”
In “On the Map,” which offers a great sense of national Jewish pride in a David and Goliath-like story, the lesser-known Israeli players took on the powerhouse Russian team for the 1977 European Championships. The film, directed by Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin, includes interviews with former National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern as well as former players Aulcie Perry and Tal Brody.
“It’s a Miracle on Ice,” she said. “Jews can play sports.”
Taking a lead role in filmmaking is new for Spielberg, even though she’s been around the business for most of her life.
“I was intimidated to go out there publicly and possibly fail publicly,” she said. “But the stories resonated so much so that pushed away the fear.”
It may be her age as well, said Spielberg, who is turning 60 in June. “You get to a certain age and you say screw it what everyone thinks, life is getting shorter.”
She has perspective, though. The Spielberg parents are still alive, and mostly well. Arnold Spielberg is about to turn 99, and Leah Adler, who is 95, appears with her gamine figure and bright red lipstick at her famed Milky Way restaurant every day, “even if it’s only for an hour,” said Spielberg.
Arnold Spielberg, whose health isn’t perfect, keeps on going, albeit with a full medical team courtesy of her brother’s generosity, said Nancy Spielberg.
He even traveled to Israel last year, she said, in a private jet and with three nurses.
“Steven makes it possible,” she said.
When they gathered as a family, the Spielbergs now tend to reminisce about childhoods spent in Arizona and northern California, the camping trips in Aspen or stargazing jaunts with their father, Arnold, an engineer who was an avid amateur astronomer, she said.
“My father was a sci-fi nut, which is probably where my brother got it from,” said Spielberg. “He’d throw us in the car at two o’clock in the morning in our pajamas with blankets and take us to the desert.”
Spielberg, however, went in a different direction in her teens, spending a year on an Israeli kibbutz and then marrying a rabbi’s son from the Northeast, and living a “very modern” Orthodox life in Riverdale, New York.
“I wanted something different,” she said. “And I got it.”