“The Fabelmans” is being billed as Steven Spielberg’s most personal film, tracing (through a fictional version of his family) his cinema-sotted youth in Arizona and Northern California. But just how “personal” is it, really? How true is it to Spielberg’s formative experiences, including encounters with antisemitism and his parents’ profound marital struggles?
At a Q&A after the world premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Spielberg and his cast shared some insight into the movie, which is scheduled to hit theaters at Thanksgiving.
Is this autobiographical opus, one of his only feature screenwriting credits and his first screenplay credit since 1982’s “Poltergeist,” intended to wrap up Spielberg’s career?
Short answer: No.
“It’s not because I’ve decided to retire and this is my swan song. Don’t believe any of that. Don’t believe that,” he told the cheering crowd about choosing to create the cinematic equivalent of writing a memoir. “Tony [Kushner, his co-writer] and I started talking about this possibility when we were making ‘Lincoln’ . Tony kind of performed the function of a therapist, and I was his patient. But when COVID hit, we all had a lot of time and a lot of fear … [and] as things got worse and worse, I just felt if I was going to leave anything behind, what are the things I really need to resolve about my mom and my dad and my sisters — who are here tonight. … It wasn’t now or never, but I almost felt that way.”
Why did he cast Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as his on-screen parents?
Spielberg said he reached out to meet Williams after seeing her in “Blue Valentine” without a project in mind, long before “Fabelmans” was a thing. He said Dano “shares so many of the same [qualities as my father] … pragmatism, the patience of my dad, the deep, profound kindness of my father and the genius that he had in the world of computer design.”
Dano said, “Steven and I probably Zoomed not quite once a week for several months, talking about him and his life, and [I] had access to photographs and home movies and sound recordings. … It really reminded me of my grandfather as well, so I was trying to bring something from my life with me. It was a heavy cloak to bear at times, playing Steven’s father … but a beautiful experience.”
The film contains scenes of antisemitic bullying, but Spielberg stresses that while they fairly represent some real incidents, they weren’t dominatingly characteristic of his childhood.
“Bullying is only a small aspect of my life,” he said. “The antisemitism is an aspect of my life, but it isn’t any kind of governing force in my life.”
Kushner said, “I liked very much the easy way that Jewishness lives in this movie. It’s a very profound part of Steven’s identity and of the Fabelmans’ identity, but it’s a movie that’s about Jewish people rather than entirely, exclusively about antisemitism or Jewishness. It’s not a problem; it’s who they are.”
Gabriel LaBelle, with only a few credits to his name, steps into the role of Spielberg’s doppelganger in a production with huge names in front of and behind the camera. But no pressure.
LaBelle said he initially had no idea what he was trying out for, much less for whom he’d be working. After the first round, his agent told him [LaBelle’s voice drops to his agent’s hoarse whisper before the audience]: “‘Yeah … I think it was a Steven Spielberg movie. And … I think that your character was … Steven Spielberg.’ ”
It took another three months to get the job. He said when it finally dawned on him how large the part he’d been cast in was, he said, “It was very spooky. It was terrifying. … You get on set and you’re surrounded by masters. Writing, directing, acting, producing, cinematography, costumes, props, music, editing, everything. Just masters of this art.
“And there’s me.” The crowd laughed. “I’m that kid with the good audition.”
The film isn’t an entirely rosy view of Spielberg’s family; it depicts some pretty difficult times for his parents as a couple, and the family’s struggle with them. Was it worth it?
“This film, for me, is a way of bringing my mom and dad back,” Spielberg said. “And it also brought my sisters, Annie and Susie and Nancy, closer to me than I ever thought possible. And that was worth making the film for.”