In making his autobiographical film “The Fabelmans,” he confronted some painful family secrets, as well as what it means to be Jewish in America today.
Steven Spielberg said that during the pandemic, he began considering a movie about his formative years: “I started thinking, what’s the one story I haven’t told that I’d be really mad at myself if I don’t?”Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Over more than 50 years, Steven Spielberg has directed movies about every subject under the sun. Sharks, dinosaurs, extraterrestrials both friendly and not, pirates, spies, soldiers and heroes both historical and imaginary. Not many filmmakers can match his range. But one subject Spielberg has avoided is himself.
Until now. “The Fabelmans” is a disarmingly, at times painfully intimate movie about a family closely modeled on the Spielbergs. It’s a portrait of the auteur as a young man that also tells the story of an unraveling marriage. Sammy Fabelman, played as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle, is the only son and oldest child of Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano), who move from New Jersey to Arizona and then Northern California in the 1950s and ’60s. As Sammy discovers his cinematic vocation — shooting movies at home, at school and with his Boy Scout troop — he witnesses Mitzi’s deepening unhappiness and Burt’s inability to deal with it.
Written with Tony Kushner, his collaborator on “Munich,” “Lincoln” and “West Side Story,” “The Fabelmans,” which opens in theaters this weekend, takes Spielberg into uncharted narrative territory. I spoke with him this month via video call about his journey into his own past, and also about the present and future state of the movies. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
“The Fabelmans” tells a story you’ve obviously lived with for a very long time. I was curious about what made it finally rise to the surface.
The impetus to actually get serious about telling it on film didn’t seriously occur to me until the pandemic.
When the pandemic first hit, some of my kids flew in from the East Coast, and they all took up residence in their old bedrooms and Kate [Capshaw, his wife] and I got a lot of our family back. It was very disconcerting not to go into work. Directing is a social occupation, and I’m very used to interacting with people every single day. I was not really acclimating to the Zoom world very well.
I had a lot of time on my hands. I used to get in my car and drive for hours — all around Los Angeles, up Pacific Coast Highway, over to Calabasas, over near Twentynine Palms. And that gave me more time to think about what was happening in the world.
I started thinking, what’s the one story I haven’t told that I’d be really mad at myself if I don’t? It was always the same answer every time: the story of my formative years growing up between 7 and 18.
You’ve dealt with families before. You’ve dealt with a childhood in the suburbs before, with divorce, but never literally from your own experience. Was it hard to go there?
“Close Encounters” was about a father’s voluntary separation from the family to pursue a dream at the expense of losing his family. “E.T.” was a story of a kid who needed to fill the hole that a separation had dug out of his life, and he just happened to fill it metaphorically with this little squishy guy from outer space.
This story was no longer going to be about metaphor. It was going to be about lived experiences, and what was difficult was facing the fact that I might really tell the story. In theory, it was easy to talk to Tony Kushner about, would you collaborate with me in trying to arrange all these interesting disparate experiences into a movie narrative?
When we started writing this — Tony in New York, me in L.A. on Zoom — it started to become real, something that was tactile and triggering in all of these memories. It did become very difficult.
It’s hard to hold someone’s hand over Zoom, but Tony did a good job in giving me the kind of comfort I needed when we were tapping into moments in my life, secrets between myself and my mother that I was never ever, ever going to talk about. Neither in a written autobiography, which I’ve never done, or on film. But we got into those tender trenches.
You’ve dealt with Jewish themes and topics before, certainly in “Schindler’s List” and “Munich,” but this is the first time you’re going into a specifically Jewish American experience.
I didn’t experience antisemitism growing up in Arizona, but I had a major experience with it completing high school in Northern California.
Friends would always call me by my last name. So, the sound of Jewishness always rang in my ear when my friends would call across the hallway, “Hey Spielberg,” and I was very self-conscious about that.
Being Jewish in America is not the same as being Jewish in Hollywood. Being Jewish in Hollywood is like wanting to be in the popular circle and immediately being accepted as I have been in that circle, by a lot of diversity but also by a lot of people who in fact are Jewish. But when I was making those little 8-millimeter movies in school, at first my friends thought it was kind of weird.
It was sort of unprecedented. Nobody had cameras except a Japanese 8-millimeter camera that parents usually controlled, and they were only used for family home movies and things like that. But I was basically weaponizing my social life with a camera to curry favor with these athletic, popular kids who eventually all wanted to be in my movies.
In a way, the camera was a social passport for me. I was passionate about telling stories, but I was also passionate about belonging to something that I hadn’t been invited to belong to ever before. So, making these little movies was like a magic pill in a way.
Antisemitism is a specter in this movie that to some extent is chased away, which reflects the feeling of a lot of Jewish Americans in that time — a kind of optimism about their prospects in America. That hits a little differently in the present, when there seems to be a resurgence of antisemitism in some of its most toxic forms.
Antisemitism is only coming back because it’s being encouraged to come back. It’s not coming back because it ebbs and flows over the decades, but there has been an invitation to a toxic dance based on antisemitism being part of an ideology of separation and racism and Islamophobia and xenophobia, and it’s come barreling back. A lot of people who probably never had much of an antisemitic thought but did feel toward people of color — they felt differently, let’s say, than my sisters and I were ever raised to believe or feel, and suddenly antisemitism becomes part of the package. It’s been weaponized and it’s been encouraged more and more since 2015 or ’16.
I was struck by what you said about the camera as a way of belonging. For Sammy Fabelman, the camera is his way to get closer to people and to be included, but it’s also what separates him from people because he’s in the position of the observer.
I’m not going to spoil plot developments for readers, but there’s a very important truth about his parents’ marriage that Sammy discovers because of what he sees through the camera. I don’t know if that’s really what happened or if it’s a metaphor for how cinema works.
No. It really happened. That was one of the toughest things, I think, that I had to sit down and decide to expose, because it was the most powerful secret my mom and I shared since my discovery when I was 16. Sixteen years old is too young to realize that my parents are people, and also, the struggle not to hold that against them.
I’m also struck by the way it was discovered, because one thing that I’ve always thought about you as a filmmaker is that you convey a lot of emotional and psychological information by means other than dialogue — through body language or facial expressions or the unspoken energy passing through the scene. What’s remarkable about this film is it shows you doing that by accident, or maybe instinctively.
I think it was probably instinctively because as my wife always says, there are no accidents. She said, you know, you couch that in a joke, but there are no jokes.
That’s very Freudian.
The thing is, I was always in control of the movies I was making even as a 12-year-old kid. I was in control of all my films until this moment where I discovered I had no control over the information that was pulverizing for a 16-year-old kid. It’s something I’ll never forget, and it’s something my mom and I talked about for decades afterward.
Do you think that made you want to reassert control over what you were doing, over the stories, over the images?
Exactly. And maybe even make those images happy and friendly. I’ve not been in therapy. I went to my father’s psychiatrist to try to get a letter that I was crazy, so I wouldn’t have to fight in Vietnam. That was the only time I ever went to an analyst. By the way, it turned out he was very pro-Vietnam and would never write me the letter, and I wasted two months, three days a week, while I was going to college.
So movies, and my relationship with Kate and my kids and my closest friends and with the stories I choose to tell, that has probably been as therapeutic as anything I could have done in Freudian or Jungian therapy.
Was it different to be working with actors who are playing people very close to you and a version of you?
I’m trying to phrase this in a way that will make sense to you. When I tried to cast “The Fabelmans” like every other movie — with the best actors I could find that fit the role — I realized that wasn’t going to work, that there was going to have to be more about the familiar and less about the accomplished. Meaning, I was looking for great actors, but I needed actors that had already, in other films, struck me as similes for my mom and dad, and obviously, with less objectivity, struck me as similar to myself. As much as we can ever judge ourselves to really go out and find somebody like us.
So it became much, much harder, and I needed to know them in a different way. I needed to already have felt, oh, something about her reminds me of Mom and there’s something about him that reminds me of Dad. So, that limited the playing field.
I considered a lot of actors, but my eventual choice came down to actors that were great like Paul Dano and Michelle Williams. Two of the finest actors I’ve ever worked with.
Were there particular performances of Paul’s and Michelle’s that struck you?
My favorite performance up to that point of Michelle Williams was “Blue Valentine,” but the most forthright performance, more different than anything she ever done before, was when she played Gwen Verdon in “Fosse/Verdon.” I realized, Oh my God, she can really step far away from everything I’ve ever seen her do to completely reinvent herself through a character, and that gave me tremendous encouragement.
There’s also the fact that Mitzi herself is a performer, a musician and dancer, and that part of her personality is very important and poignant in the film.
She was a performing artist, but she was also, as a mother, a performing artist of a mother. Just to give you a little insight: She was so much more peer than parent that my three sisters even from a very young age refused to call her Mom or Mommy and only called her Lee, her first name. I’m the only one that called her Mom or Mama. And that’s because she wanted to be part of the gang and wasn’t necessarily interested in being the truant officer of the family or the responsible caregiver. She wanted us to look at her like one of us.
That I think comes through in the movie and there is also just the temperamental contrast between Mitzi and Burt. The movie is partly about their discovery and their son’s discovery that they’re fundamentally mismatched.
My dad, like me, couldn’t sing on key, but he loved classical music and he appreciated her artistry as a pianist and a classical music lover. Their mutual love was classical music.
I remember being dragged to [Philadelphia Orchestra] concerts. I didn’t understand classical music as a kid. It was scary. It was intimidating, and it was way too loud. My mom and dad were in heaven sitting together with me in the middle. Often they would hold hands across my lap, and Mom and Dad would get tears in their eyes, but that’s where it stopped. My dad’s side of the brain beyond that was science. My mom’s side of the brain beyond that was performing art.
This is a movie about movies and also a movie about the history of movies: it begins with Cecil B. DeMille and ends with John Ford. The way I read that, because I’m a film critic, is that you’re tracing the tradition of moviemaking that you’re a part of.
I see the showman in myself that was C.B. DeMille, but I’ve always loved John Ford’s compositions. I’ve both studied and been very aware of his compositions. Ford was a hero of mine, and I got such great instruction from him, which he sort of made more of a bollocking than anything else. But I didn’t come out of that saying, Oh my God, he scared me to death. I came out of that so inspired.
I was only about 16 when I met him, and I didn’t know anything about his reputation, how surly and ornery he was and how he ate young studio executives for breakfast. That only came later when people began writing more about him. I felt I really escaped that office with my life.
I was watching that and thinking a lot about the current uncertain state of movies and that experience of being overwhelmed by something on the big screen — that’s the primal moment in this movie and may not be something that future generations will have.
Yes, but there’s been stages throughout history where we’ve seen how Hollywood has countered the impact of losing a great market share of the audience to TV. In the early ’50s they invented CinemaScope and then 3-D [became popular].
They had something on NBC called “Saturday Night at the Movies” [beginning in 1961] and you didn’t have to go out to a movie on Saturday night. You could stay home and watch television because NBC was designing films especially for audiences that didn’t want to leave the house. This is nothing new.
The pandemic created an opportunity for streaming platforms to raise their subscriptions to record-breaking levels and also throw some of my best filmmaker friends under the bus as their movies were unceremoniously not given theatrical releases. They were paid off and the films were suddenly relegated to, in this case, HBO Max. The case I’m talking about. And then everything started to change.
I think older audiences were relieved that they didn’t have to step on sticky popcorn. But I really believe those same older audiences, once they got into the theater, the magic of being in a social situation with a bunch of strangers is a tonic.
Those audiences, I believe, left the theater if the movie was good and said aren’t you glad we went out tonight to see this picture? So, it’s up to the movies to be good enough to get all the audiences to say that to each other when the lights come back up.
I wonder about what kinds of movies people will go out to see vs. what they prefer to stay home to watch and how the industry in whatever shape it’s in figures that out.
The industry is trying to figure that out right now. I found it encouraging that “Elvis” broke $100 million at the domestic box office. A lot of older people went to see that film, and that gave me hope that people were starting to come back to the movies as the pandemic becomes an endemic. I think movies are going to come back. I really do.
Certainly, there’s no question that the big sequels and movies from Marvel and DC and Pixar and some of the animated movies and horror films still have a place in society. And hopefully comedies come back, because you can’t laugh as hard at home as you can in an audience.
I don’t watch a lot of my movies with audiences, but my wife said you have to watch “The Fabelmans” at Toronto. We can sit in the back row, but you have to watch once, and it was a great experience. I was terrified, but the movie plays to a big audience of 2,000 people, and in the funny parts, it played like a big comedy.
I think there has to be a concerted effort on the part of movie directors to demand that the streaming services footing the bill for most of these films give their movies a chance to be exhibited theatrically and not just in four theaters to qualify for awards. It’s going to have to come from all of us — the WGA [the Writers Guild], the DGA [the Directors Guild] and eventually the academy.
When you’re first starting out, and a streaming service gives you a chance to direct your first movie, of course the streaming service is going to call the shot, but I don’t know anybody that wouldn’t like their movies to be shown on a big screen. I don’t know anyone that would say, no, I’d rather it be shown on an iPad or in a living room.
Certain movies are perfectly suitable to the iPad or the living room. So the decision that executives and executives like myself at Amblin Partners have to make is: Do we consign this movie to a streaming service or this other movie to a four- or six-week theatrical window? Those are decisions that I am making based on my other job, which is running a small film company.
That sounds like something fairly new, given especially that theatrical seems to be, and already was, I think, before the pandemic, dominated by franchises, tentpoles, by the movies that exhibitors know will make money for them. It just seems a narrower slot to get these kinds of non-I.P. movies into theaters.
Yeah. We don’t want these chains to file Chapter 11. We want theaters to stay open. By the same token, and speaking very honestly, I made “The Post” [about the Pentagon Papers] as a political statement about our times by reflecting the Nixon administration, and we thought that was an important reflection for a lot of people to understand what was happening to our country.
I don’t know if I had been given that script post-pandemic whether I would have preferred to have made that film for Apple or Netflix and gone out to millions of people. Because the film had something to say to millions of people, and we were never going to get those millions of people into enough theaters to make that kind of difference. Things have changed enough to get me to say that to you.
A number of films that I think were wonderful works of cinema seem to have their moment and then vanish into the algorithm.
We started amassing libraries [of films on home video] the same way we would amass LPs as I did as a kid. My film collection vastly outnumbered my LP collection.
But today, it’s all in the cloud, and we don’t have the shelf space anymore to put our beloved movies as part of the cultural heritage that inspired us to become better people, to find values that movies can communicate often faster than your parents can. What I miss is the hard copy. I miss the antiquity that I can hold in my hand and put into a player, but I’m an old-fashioned guy.
I’m 75 years old. I know what it’s like to possess something that I adored. I know what it’s like to possess the LP of [the score for] “Lawrence of Arabia” and then years later to have the actual DVD of it. I treasure that.