Exclusive Interview with Nancy Spielberg of Playmount Productions

Director Roberta Grossman and producer Nancy Spielberg, Camarillo, CA
Director Roberta Grossman and producer Nancy Spielberg, Camarillo, CA

A few months ago I was home with my 12-year-old son, who wanted to watch TV after finishing his homework.  I said OK, but since I was relaxing in the room also, it could not be any of the asinine cartoons or tween shows on any of the kid’s networks.  After not finding anything on the Discovery, History, Nat Geo, (etc.) channels, we headed to Amazon on our Blu-Ray player.  There, we found “Above and Beyond” – the story of the State of Israel’s Air Force, by Nancy Spielberg.   Nancy is one of famed director Steven Spielberg’s three sisters.

At the time of its founding, the IAF had 3 unarmed Piper Cubs and, in a short few weeks, was able to defeat modern Arab air forces by using a mixture of leftover German planes and (mostly) American Jewish WW2 pilots who wanted to help at the risk of jail and losing their American citizenship.  (You’ll have to watch yourself to find out how Pee Wee Herman was connected to it though!)  As a history buff, I found it both interesting and extremely well done.

Every Passover for the last decade or so, my mom’s side of the family does a family reunion at a hotel that has a special Passover program.  It’s kind of like a cruise with lots of special food and entertainment, but never leaves port.  As I went into the first night’s dinner (Passover Seder), I was told that while I was collecting some runaway children, I just missed meeting Steven Spielberg who, with his extended family, was also celebrating in the room next door to us.   I thought about “accidentally” walking in and saying hello to the brilliant director who’s “Jaws” I studied shot by shot in my college directing class, and nearly worked for a couple of his companies twice over the last few years (the last time I was told I was one of the top two candidates, but my potential boss was such a fan of my articles, he couldn’t see someone of my capabilities working under him).  However, sanity got the best of me and I settled into my seat at the table between my 5 year old niece and 7 year old nephew, ready to entertain them.

onthemapposterlargeOne night, the entertainment was a pre-release screening of an upcoming new film “On the Map,” being produced by Nancy Spielberg and directed by award-winning director Dani Menkin.  This is a sports documentary about how an Israeli basketball team, after losing year after year in the European league, against all odds, won the title for the 1977-78 season, against teams from countries – some of whom didn’t even recognize Israel as a country.

I have to admit that I’m not a huge sports fan.  While my mom never missed a Lakers or Packers game on TV, I haven’t really followed sports since I was in high school.  I like to play sports, but watching sports on TV puts me to sleep; ergo, I was worried that I would fall asleep during the movie.  My fears were completely unfounded as myself and about 100 people, who attended the special preview screening, were drawn-in to this incredible story of the little team that went all the way to the “European Championship.”  Through old game footage, 8mm home movies, and modern interview footage, “On the Map” had us captivated.

For this article, I had a chance to sit down with Ms. Spielberg a couple days after the screening; I was able to interview Dani Menkin over the phone 10 days after, then finally their busy editor Chris Callister in September. Spielberg and Menkin make a great team, with specifically-defined roles.  Nancy is a very passionate film maker; she has a true passion for the subjects of her films and is the main cheerleader on the production, raising funds, promoting the film, and making sure the production stays on schedule and on budget.  Menkin, from our brief meeting in Arizona and the phone interview, is no less passionate, but takes a more quiet and focused approach to the film.  While most of the directors I worked with in the last decade or so have wanted to go on an edit system and do a first cut or shoot some footage themselves, Menkin was not one of them.  According to him, his job is to direct the DP and the editor.  He said, “When I hire a cameraman or editor, I let them choose their tools.  If what they like to use can get the job done, I don’t care what it is.”  Menkin has faith that the people he hires will use the right tools to craft his vision.

That said, he did give me some of the techie info.  The cameras that were used to shoot the modern day interviews were Sony PMW-F5 and Sony PMW-F3 cameras. As the final product will be out put in 1920 x 1080 HD, when using the F5, they shot in 4K so the editor could re-frame shots and do camera moves in post if desired.

Tal Brody, right, celebrates with the European Basketball Championship trophy following Maccabi Tel Aviv’s win over the Red Army. (Photo: Shmuel Rahmani)

Besides the interviews, the footage that really makes “On the Map” notable is archival footage.  Most of the archival footage was from 8mm home movies from players and fans. There was also footage from the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).  While Israel is one of the top countries when it comes to technology today, back in the 1970s, it was a different story. While today driving through Israel one sees high-tech research buildings with names like Google, Microsoft, Intel, Apple, etc., in the 1970’s, Israel was largely agrarian and low tech.  The first TV broadcast service started only in 1968, and color TV only started officially in 1983.  Because this all takes place in 1977, all the TV footage is black and white.

With a few months delay, I finally got to speak to Chris Callister, the editor, to get some more information on the post-production. He said the project actually originated in Israel as a documentary all in Hebrew, that was cut on and Avid system.  As they were going to be editing in Adobe Premiere Pro CC on iMacs, and there was no way to load an Avid project directly into Premiere Pro, they had to save it first as a Final Cut Pro XML file, then load it into Premiere. That was the easy part.

The interviews that were originally done in Hebrew were replaced with new interviews in English, with sports personalities that the American market would recognize.  The codecs were an issue, as much of the footage was in Avid‘s “lossy codecs,” and there were also frame rate issues.    In order to get the most out of the archival footage, all of the footage was re-digitized into Pro Res 422 files for editing in Premiere Pro. Color correction was done on Blackmagic Design‘s Resolve.

Miki and Tal after final game against Varese (Photo: Shmuel Rahmani)

According to Callister, the best footage were two color 16mm sources of the championship game. While much of the black and white archival footage is pretty rough-looking when compared to modern footage, Menkin says it adds to the character of the film.  He is correct – the gritty feel of it really makes you feel part of what the fans were watching back then.

For a couple key shots, After Effects was used to colorize them (for emphasis).  There was some debate as to how much colorizing to do.  From the start, it was decided not to do a “Ted Turner” (in the early 1990s Ted Turner did what many consider a poor job of colorizing many classic films for airing on his TBS network).  It was decided that a few shots would be carefully colorized to appeal to the younger audience that may never have seen black and white TV, while not making it look tacky.

Director Dani Menkin, Former NBA Commissioner David Stern and Executive Producer Nancy Spielberg. (Photo: Niv Eshet Cohen)

Like Ms. Spielberg’s previous documentary “Above and Beyond,” this “On the Map” is very fast-paced, much like the sport at the center of the film.  Having worked on a couple documentary projects myself, I can tell you that you need a gifted editor to take 40-year-old footage and mix-in modern interview footage to pull this off. Chris Callister did an excellent job bringing Nancy’s and Dani’s documentary to screen.

Nancy Spielberg is the embodiment of multi-tasking.  As she is finishing up the edit on “On the Map,” she is working on two other films. One is “Who Will Write Our History?” –  about an archive of records of the people in a Jewish Ghetto found after WW II. The documents gave accounts of what happened to the community and specific people.  The other is a dramatic film based on her documentary “Above and Beyond.”  She is doing these all through Playmount Productions, the family production company.  It gets its name through a simple German-to-English translation of the Spielberg name: “Spiel” – meaning “play” and “berg” – meaning mountain. The patriarch of the family, Arnold Spielberg, founded the company in 1962 for Steven, but as he went the way of studio blockbusters, Nancy took it over and has dedicated it to meaningful documentaries and independent films.

While Nancy may not be the first Spielberg to come to mind when discussing films, if you want to talk about documentaries, Nancy is a star in her own right.  I look forward to seeing the final cut of “On the Map” and her other upcoming films.  To find out more about “On the Map,” “Above and Beyond,” Playmount Productions or Nancy Spielberg, please check out the website  Also, read the article by Jessica Steinberg for The Jewish Times at:

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