John Williams Didn't Think He Was Up To The Task Of Scoring Schindler's List

Almost every one of Steven Spielberg's films have been scored by composer John Williams. The three exceptions are 1985's "The Color Purple," which was scored by Quincy Jones, 2015's "Bridge of Spies," which was scored by Thomas Newman, and 2018's "Ready Player One," which was scored by Alan Silvestri. Otherwise, Spielberg and Williams have fostered a decades-long working relationship that has seen creative challenges and amazing work for both artists. 

Prior to 1985, Spielberg had been known largely as a blockbuster filmmaker, having created such hits as "Jaws," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," and two Indiana Jones films. "The Color Purple" was a pivot into studio prestige fare and was Spielberg's most adult film to date. His next film, "Empire of the Sun," continued Spielberg's interest in dramatizing historical injustices, with this one set in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. After a few more dalliances in high-tech blockbuster/adventure fare (a third Indiana Jones flick, a Peter Pan movie, a dinosaur movie), Spielberg returned with what he considered to be his most personal film to date: "Schindler's List." 

Based on the 1982 novel of historical fiction by Thomas Keneally, "Schindler's List" told the true story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a wealthy Polish industrialist and member of the Nazi party who, upon seeing the injustices visited upon the Polish Jewish community during World War II, began employing potential victims of Nazi violence as workers in his factories, protecting them from deportation and execution. Spielberg wanted a film version to be respectful of the legacy of the Schindlerjuden, a group of around 1,200 people Schindler had saved. This was, Williams, thought, too big a job to handle.

A better composer

According to Mental Floss, the story goes that Steven Spielberg wanted to make "Schindler's List" prior to the production of "Jurassic Park," but the producers insisted he make the blockbuster fantasy film first, as to assure them their tentpole before the prestige film. Spielberg agreed, which led to a pretty wild production schedule. Spielberg completed the filming of "Jurassic Park" 12 days ahead of schedule and had to immediately begin production on "Schindler's List." The turnaround was so quick that some of the post-production duties were handed off to "Star Wars" impresario George Lucas. 

When it came to scoring the movie, Spielberg asked John Williams to compose. Williams also composed the music for "Jurassic Park," so he, too, would need to work with a very fast turnaround. Both artists likely experienced a form of creative whiplash, having to jump from an effects-based dinosaur adventure picture to an intense real-world drama about the horrors of World War II. Spielberg felt he was equal to the task, but Williams wasn't so confident. In an interview with "Today," Williams recalled seeing a rough cut of "List" for the first time and expressing his doubts. 

"Spielberg showed me the film ... I couldn't speak to him. I was so devastated. Do you remember, the end of the film was the burial scene in Israel — Schindler — it's hard to speak about. I said to Steven, 'You need a better composer than I am for this film.' He said to me, 'I know. But they're all dead!'

Spielberg didn't mention which dead composers he necessarily wanted, but one might be able to intuit they had each been deceased for at least a century.

Williams' Oscars

John Williams hired violinist Itzhak Perlman to play solos, and the soundtrack featured multiple Jewish folk hymns that were incorporated into the nondiegetic score. 

He needn't have worried about doing "Schindler's List" justice. Judging by the acclaim the score garnered, Williams seems to have done a fine job. It won Williams an Academy Award, the composer's fifth (after "Fiddler on the Roof," "Jaws," "Star Wars," and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"). Williams has been nominated for 21 additional Academy Awards since, but has not won any. "List" also won a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy. 

The soundtrack was also a rare crossover pop hit, with the album selling over 500,000 copies, making it Certified Gold. To this day, Olympic skaters frequently use the music in their routines. 

The film itself won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and four others besides. It is one of the more acclaimed films of the 1990s. Spielberg may have felt (jocularly, of course) that the best composers for his project were all dead, but it seems the true best composer for his project is very much alive. Williams is 90 years old and still composing. His last film score was for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." He got an Oscar nomination for that, too.