Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’: What to know from premiere

The Fabelmans is being hailed as Steven Spielberg’s most personal film, chronicling (through a fictionalized version of his family) his cinema-obsessed youth in Arizona and Northern California. But how “personal” is it really? How applicable is it to Spielberg’s formative experiences, including encounters with anti-Semitism and his parents’ deep marital struggles?

At a Q&A after the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Spielberg and his cast gave an inside look at the film, which is set to hit theaters around Thanksgiving.

Is this autobiographical opus, one of his only credits as a screenwriter and his first screenwriting credit since 1982’s Poltergeist, supposed to end Spielberg’s career?

Short answer: no.

“It’s not because I’ve decided to retire and that’s my swan song. Don’t believe any of this. Don’t believe that,” he told the cheering crowd of his decision to create the cinematic equivalent of writing a memoir. “Tony [Kushner, his co-writer] and I started talking about that possibility when we were doing Lincoln [2012]. tony kind performing 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 anxiety… [and] As things got worse I just felt like I was leaving something behind, which are the things that I really need to sort out in relation to my mom and dad and my sisters who are here tonight. … It wasn’t now or never, but I almost felt like it.”

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis DeFord and Michelle Williams in "The Fabelmans"

From left: Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) in The Fabelmans, co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg.

(Merie Weismiller Wallace / Universal)

Why did he cast Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as his on-screen parents?

Spielberg said he reached out to Williams after seeing her in Blue Valentine with no project in mind long before Fabelmans was a thing. He said Dano “shares so many of these [qualities as my father] … pragmatism, my father’s patience, my father’s deep, profound kindness, and the genius he had in the world of computer design.”

Dano said: “Steven and I probably didn’t quite zoom in and talk about him and his life once a week for several months [I] had access to photos and home videos and sound recordings. … It also reminded me a lot of my grandfather, so I tried to bring something from my life with me. It’s been a tough job playing Steven’s dad at times…but a beautiful experience.”

The film contains scenes of anti-Semitic bullying, but Spielberg emphasizes that while they depict some real-life incidents quite well, they were not characteristic of his childhood.

“Bullying is just a small aspect of my life,” he said. “Anti-Semitism is an aspect of my life, but it is not a dominant force in my life.”

Kushner said, “I loved how simple Judaism is in this film. It’s a very deep part of Steven’s identity and the identity of the Fabelmans, but it’s a film that’s about Jewish people rather than just, just, anti-Semitism or Judaism. It’s not a problem; it is who they are.”

Gabriel LaBelle, with only a few credits to his name, slips into the role of Spielberg’s double in a production with big names in front of and behind the camera. But no pressure.

LaBelle said he initially had no idea what he would try for, let alone who he would work for. 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 film. And… I think your character was… Steven Spielberg.”

It took another three months to get the job. He said that when he finally realized how big the role he’d been cast in was, “It was very scary. It was frightening. … You come on set and you’re surrounded by masters. Writing, directing, acting, producing, camera, costumes, props, music, editing, everything. Simply masters of this art.

“And here I am.” The crowd laughed. “I’m the kid with the good audition.”

The film isn’t an entirely rosy look at 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 is a way for me to bring my mom and dad back,” Spielberg said. “And it’s also brought me closer to my sisters Annie and Susie and Nancy than I ever thought possible. And for that it was worth making the film.” Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’: What to know from premiere

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