Pfefferberg, one of the Schindlerjuden, made it his life's mission to tell the story of his savior. Pfefferberg attempted to produce a biopic of Oskar Schindler with MGM in 1963, with Howard Koch writing, but the deal fell through. In 1982, Thomas Keneally published his historical novel Schindler's Ark, which he wrote after a chance meeting with Pfefferberg in Los Angeles in 1980. MCA president Sid Sheinberg sent director Steven Spielberg a New York Times review of the book. Spielberg, astounded by Schindler's story, jokingly asked if it was true. "I was drawn to it because of the paradoxical nature of the character," he said. "What would drive a man like this to suddenly take everything he had earned and put it all in the service of saving these lives?" Spielberg expressed enough interest for Universal Pictures to buy the rights to the novel. At their first meeting in spring 1983, he told Pfefferberg he would start filming in ten years. In the end credits of the film, Pfefferberg is credited as a consultant under the name Leopold Page.
Spielberg was unsure if he was mature enough to make a film about the Holocaust, and the project remained "on [his] guilty conscience". Spielberg tried to pass the project to director Roman Polanski, who turned it down. Polanski's mother was killed at Auschwitz, and he had lived in and survived the Kraków Ghetto. Polanski eventually directed his own Holocaust drama, The Pianist, in 2002. Spielberg also offered the film to Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese, who was attached to direct Schindler's List in 1988. However, Spielberg was unsure of letting Scorsese direct the film, as "I'd given away a chance to do something for my children and family about the Holocaust." Spielberg offered him the chance to direct the 1991 remake of Cape Fear instead. Billy Wilder expressed an interest in directing the film as a memorial to his family, most of whom died in the Holocaust.
Spielberg finally decided to take on the project when he noticed that Holocaust deniers were being given serious consideration by the media. With the rise of neo-Nazism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he worried that people were too accepting of intolerance, as they were in the 1930s. Sid Sheinberg greenlit the film on condition that Spielberg made Jurassic Park first. Spielberg later said, "He knew that once I had directed Schindler I wouldn't be able to do Jurassic Park." The picture was assigned a small budget of $22 million, as Holocaust films are not usually profitable. Spielberg forewent a salary for the film, calling it "blood money", and believed the film would flop.
In 1983, Keneally was hired to adapt his book, and he turned in a 220-page script. His adaptation focused on Schindler's numerous relationships, and Keneally admitted he did not compress the story enough. Spielberg hired Kurt Luedtke, who had adapted the screenplay of Out of Africa, to write the next draft. Luedtke gave up almost four years later, as he found Schindler's change of heart too unbelievable. During his time as director, Scorsese hired Steven Zaillian to write a script. When he was handed back the project, Spielberg found Zaillian's 115-page draft too short, and asked him to extend it to 195 pages. Spielberg wanted more focus on the Jews in the story, and he wanted Schindler's transition to be gradual and ambiguous, not a sudden breakthrough or epiphany. He extended the ghetto liquidation sequence, as he "felt very strongly that the sequence had to be almost unwatchable."
Neeson auditioned as Schindler early on, and was cast in December 1992, after Spielberg saw him perform in Anna Christie on Broadway. Warren Beatty participated in a script reading, but Spielberg was concerned that he could not disguise his accent and that he would bring "movie star baggage". Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson expressed interest in portraying Schindler, but Spielberg preferred to cast the relatively unknown Neeson, so the actor's star quality would not overpower the character. Neeson felt Schindler enjoyed outsmarting the Nazis, who regarded him as a bit of a buffoon. "They don't quite take him seriously, and he used that to full effect." To help him prepare for the role, Spielberg showed Neeson film clips of Time Warner CEO Steve Ross, who had a charisma that Spielberg compared to Schindler's. He also located a tape of Schindler speaking, which Neeson studied to learn the correct intonations and pitch.
Fiennes was cast as Amon Goeth after Spielberg viewed his performances in A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Spielberg said of Fiennes' audition that "I saw sexual evil. It is all about subtlety: there were moments of kindness that would move across his eyes and then instantly run cold." Fiennes put on 28 pounds (13 kg) to play the role. He watched historic newsreels and talked to Holocaust survivors who knew Goeth. In portraying him, Fiennes said "I got close to his pain. Inside him is a fractured, miserable human being. I feel split about him, sorry for him. He's like some dirty, battered doll I was given and that I came to feel peculiarly attached to." Fiennes looked so much like Goeth in costume that when Mila Pfefferberg (a survivor of the events) met him, she trembled with fear.
The character of Itzhak Stern (played by Ben Kingsley) is a composite of accountant Stern, factory manager Abraham Bankier, and Goeth's personal secretary, Mietek Pemper. The character serves as Schindler's alter ego and conscience. Kingsley is best known for his Academy Award winning performance as Gandhi in the 1982 biographical film.
Overall, there are 126 speaking parts in the film. Thousands of extras were hired during filming. Spielberg cast Israeli and Polish actors specially chosen for their Eastern European appearance. Many of the German actors were reluctant to don the SS uniform, but some of them later thanked Spielberg for the cathartic experience of performing in the movie. Halfway through the shoot, Spielberg conceived the epilogue, where 128 survivors pay their respects at Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. The producers scrambled to find the Schindlerjuden and fly them in to film the scene.
Principal photography began on March 1, 1993 in Kraków, Poland, with a planned schedule of 75 days. The crew shot at or near the actual locations, though the Płaszów camp had to be reconstructed in a nearby abandoned quarry, as modern high rise apartments were visible from the site of the original camp. Interior shots of the enamelware factory in Kraków were filmed at a similar facility in Olkusz, while exterior shots and the scenes on the factory stairs were filmed at the actual factory. The crew was forbidden to do extensive shooting or construct sets on the grounds at Auschwitz, so they shot at a replica constructed just outside the entrance. There were some antisemitic incidents. A woman who encountered Fiennes in his Nazi uniform told him that "the Germans were charming people. They didn't kill anybody who didn't deserve it". Antisemitic symbols were scrawled on billboards near shooting locations, while Kingsley nearly entered a brawl with an elderly German-speaking businessman who insulted Israeli actor Michael Schneider. Nonetheless, Spielberg stated that at Passover, "all the German actors showed up. They put on yarmulkes and opened up Haggadas, and the Israeli actors moved right next to them and began explaining it to them. And this family of actors sat around and race and culture were just left behind."
"I was hit in the face with my personal life. My upbringing. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish life came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time."—Steven Spielberg on his emotional state during the shoot
Shooting Schindler's List was deeply emotional for Spielberg, the subject matter forcing him to confront elements of his childhood, such as the antisemitism he faced. He was surprised that he did not cry while visiting Auschwitz; instead he found himself angry and filled with outrage. He was one of many crew members who could not force themselves to watch during shooting of the scene where aging Jews are forced to run naked while being selected by Nazi doctors to go to Auschwitz. Spielberg commented that he felt more like a reporter than a film maker – he would set up scenes and then watch events unfold, almost as though he were witnessing them rather than creating a movie. Several actresses broke down when filming the shower scene, including one who was born in a concentration camp. Spielberg, his wife Kate Capshaw, and their five children rented a house in suburban Kraków for the duration of filming. He later thanked his wife "for rescuing me ninety-two days in a row ... when things just got too unbearable". Robin Williams called Spielberg to cheer him up, given the profound lack of humor on the set. Spielberg spent several hours each evening editing Jurassic Park, which was scheduled to premiere in June 1993.
Spielberg occasionally used German and Polish language in scenes to recreate the feeling of being present in the past. He initially considered making the film entirely in those languages, but decided "there's too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else."
Influenced by the 1985 documentary film Shoah, Spielberg decided not to plan the film with storyboards, and to shoot it like a documentary. Forty percent of the film was shot with handheld cameras, and the modest budget meant the film was shot quickly over seventy-two days. Spielberg felt that this gave the film "a spontaneity, an edge, and it also serves the subject." He filmed without using Steadicams, elevated shots, or zoom lenses, "everything that for me might be considered a safety net." This matured Spielberg, who felt that in the past he had always been paying tribute to directors such as Cecil B. DeMille or David Lean.
The decision to shoot the film mainly in black and white contributed to the documentary style of cinematography, which cinematographer Janusz Kamiński compared to German Expressionism and Italian neorealism. Kamiński said that he wanted to give the impression of timelessness to the film, so the audience would "not have a sense of when it was made." Spielberg decided to use black and white to match the feel of actual documentary footage of the era. Universal chairman Tom Pollock asked him to shoot the film on a color negative, to allow color VHS copies of the film to later be sold, but Spielberg did not want to accidentally "beautify events."
John Williams, who frequently collaborates with Spielberg, composed the score for Schindler's List. The composer was amazed by the film, and felt it would be too challenging. He said to Spielberg, "You need a better composer than I am for this film." Spielberg responded, "I know. But they're all dead!" Itzhak Perlman performs the theme on the violin.
Regarding Schindler's List, Perlman said:
Perlman: "I couldn't believe how authentic he [John Williams] got everything to sound, and I said, 'John, where did it come from?' and he said, 'Well I had some practice with Fiddler on the Roof and so on, and everything just came very naturally' and that's the way it sounds."
Interviewer: "When you were first approached to play for Schindler's List, did you give it a second thought, did you agree at once, or did you say 'I'm not sure I want to play for movie music'?
Perlman: "No, that never occurred to me, because in that particular case the subject of the movie was so important to me, and I felt that I could contribute simply by just knowing the history, and feeling the history, and indirectly actually being a victim of that history."
In the scene where the ghetto is being liquidated by the Nazis, the folk song "Oyfn Pripetshik" ("On the Cooking Stove") (Yiddish: אויפֿן פּריפּעטשיק) is sung by a children's choir. The song was often sung by Spielberg's grandmother, Becky, to her grandchildren. The clarinet solos heard in the film were recorded by Klezmer virtuoso Giora Feidman. Williams won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for Schindler's List, his fifth win. Selections from the score were released on a soundtrack album.