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The Fabelmans' Long Journey To Becoming Another Steven Spielberg Classic

Steven Spielberg's 2022 semi-autobiographical drama "The Fabelmans" might not have been as widely seen in theaters as his previous films (via The Numbers), but those who have seen it have generally loved it. This extremely well-reviewed movie has been picking up awards since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival — where it won the People's Choice Award — and has gone on to win both best motion picture (drama) and best director at the Golden Globes. Its status as yet another classic from America's most beloved populist auteur seems to be all but assured already.

The story of Sammy Fabelman (played by Mateo Zoryan as a child and Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager) — a young aspiring filmmaker dealing with the separation of his pianist mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and scientist father Burt (Paul Dano) — is directly based on Spielberg's own experiences. This makes for perhaps the director's most personal film yet, and adapting his own life story to the screen was a challenge that took decades for him to accomplish. Here's the story of how Spielberg was able to transform his childhood memories into an entertaining and moving cinematic experience.

Steven Spielberg's sister Anne wrote an early draft

As Steven Spielberg acknowledged in his acceptance speech for best director at the Golden Globes, bits and pieces of his personal life were reflected in his fantasy films like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." However, he was hesitant to directly tell his family's story. In the speech, Spielberg singled out Tony Kushner — the eventual co-writer of "The Fabelmans" — as the person who inspired this version of the story. Long before he and Kushner first collaborated on 2005's "Munich," Spielberg had been working on an autobiographical screenplay with his sister Anne.

A 1999 profile on Spielberg in The New York Times revealed that Anne — a screenwriter in her own right, best known for her work on "Big" — wrote a script about their childhood titled "I'll Be Home." At the time, he'd already considered making this film but was afraid to based on what his parents would think. Spielberg said, "My big fear is that my mom and dad won't like it, and will think it's an insult and won't share my loving yet critical point of view about what it was like to grow up with them."

Spielberg's parents wanted the movie made

Given Steven Spielberg's initial fears about what his parents might think of the "I'll Be Home" screenplay, it would seem safe to assume that he deliberately waited until after his parents died to pursue the production of "The Fabelmans." His mother Leah died in 2017 at the age of 97, and his father Arnold died three years later at the age of 103, just months before writing "The Fabelmans" screenplay officially began.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter before the film's release, however, Spielberg said his parents actively wanted him to make a film about their lives: "They were actually nagging me, 'When are you going to tell that story about our family, Steve?' And so this was something they were very enthusiastic about." Spielberg's personal fear didn't mean that his parents were disapproving of the idea. Even as critical as the film is of both of their actions, it seems "The Fabelmans" is a movie that Arnold Spielberg and Leah Adler wanted their son to make and would be proud of.

The pandemic inspired its production

With the encouragement of his father Arnold, his wife Kate Capshaw, and his co-writer Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg began work on a formal outline for "The Fabelmans" in 2019 during the filming of his remake of "West Side Story" (via IndieWire). However, the project took on a new urgency in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Spielberg said in his Golden Globes acceptance speech, "During COVID, I didn't know if any of us would have the chance to tell any of our stories again."

Those early months of the pandemic were also the last months of Arnold's life, putting added stress on the whole situation. "Even before my dad left, I was missing the thought that I wouldn't just be able to drive up to his house, as I did all the time," Spielberg told The Hollywood Reporter. Writing the script for "The Fabelmans" became part of an important grieving process.

Spielberg is not the only director drawn to telling more personal stories as a result of the pandemic. Films such as Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast," Richard Linklater's "Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood," and Alejandro G. Iñárritu's "Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths" were all made around the same time as "The Fabelmans" — marking autofiction as one of the big trends in early 2020s cinema.

It was the fastest script Tony Kushner ever wrote

While Steven Spielberg spent decades trying to prepare himself to make "The Fabelmans," he and Tony Kushner took a surprisingly short amount of time to actually write the screenplay once they got started. Kushner told IndieWire at the Toronto International Film Festival, "We wrote three days a week, four hours a day, and we finished the script in two months: by leagues the fastest I've finished anything. It was a blast. I loved it."

Kushner — the Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright best known for "Angels in America" — was previously a writer on three of Spielberg's films: "Munich," "Lincoln," and "West Side Story." Spielberg himself had only worked on two of his own feature screenplays before co-writing "The Fabelmans," penning the scripts for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." He also co-wrote the 1982 film, "Poltergeist," directed by Tobe Hooper. With Kushner's writing expertise and Spielberg's personal connection to the material, "The Fabelmans" proved to be another incredibly fruitful collaboration for the pair.

What the name Fabelman means

Given how unabashed "The Fabelmans" is about being inspired by the Spielberg family, one might wonder why the film even changed the characters' names at all beyond a loose sense of fictionalization. But it is that element of fiction that is important here. How did they come up with this fictional family name — and the resulting film's title? The name "Fabelman," it turns out, springs from the same root as the name "Spielberg." 

As Tony Kushner explained to The Hollywood Reporter, "Spielberg means play-mountain; 'spieler' is an actor in Yiddish, and a 'spiel' can be speech or can be a play. I've always thought how wild that this guy is this great once-in-a-century storyteller who would be called Spielberg, play-mountain." Kushner continued, "I wanted to have some of that meaning, and I've always liked the German word 'fabel,' which means fable [or story]. And because the movie is autobiographical for Steven but it isn't an autobiography, it's not a documentary, so there's a fictional element as well. So I thought that 'Fabelman' was a nod to that."

Gabriel LaBelle sold Spielberg's distinctive smile

Gabriel LaBelle — the actor who plays Sammy Fabelman for most of the movie — was discovered through an extensive talent search that saw around 2000 young actors auditioning for the role. He auditioned in March of 2021 and received a callback two months later. Shortly after, he was on a Zoom call with Steven Spielberg — the pressure of which inspired LaBelle's performance in the scene where his character meets John Ford — and he got the part.

According to a profile in Vulture, LaBelle rewatched Spielberg's movies and pressed the director on the true experiences that inspired every scene in order to most accurately portray this approximation of the master filmmaker. One of the keys to convincingly playing Spielberg's movie counterpart — according to LaBelle — was nailing the director's smile. LaBelle notes that when Spielberg smiles, the muscle of his top lip doesn't move and that the smile is more in the cheeks. LaBelle said that figuring out these subtle details "helped me transform into this character."

Seth Rogen's connection with Spielberg

In "The Fabelmans," Seth Rogen plays Bennie Loewy, a coworker of Burt's who acts like a cool uncle to the Fabelman kids while secretly having an affair with Mitzi. This is the first time Rogen has acted in a movie that Steven Spielberg directed, but it's not the first time the two have crossed paths. In fact, Rogen credits Spielberg as being indirectly responsible for launching his career.

Speaking to Entertainment Tonight, Rogen said, "In some ways, my career is entirely because of Steven Spielberg, because DreamWorks produced 'Freaks and Geeks,' which was the first thing I ever did." Spielberg founded DreamWorks in 1994 along with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg — who spun off DreamWorks Animation into its own company in 2004.

"The Fabelmans" is certainly a departure from the stoner comedies Rogen is known for. Spielberg, who doesn't use drugs, offered a unique take on Rogen's filmography — specifically "Superbad" — at the Palm Springs International Film Festival awards gala. "Having never been stoned, I don't see them as stoner movies," Spielberg said. "I see them as movies about a police officer giving solid, sound advice to an impressionable person" (via Variety).

David Lynch joined because of Cheetos

The final scene of "The Fabelmans" is one of the funniest and best movie scenes of 2022, and pure fan service for film nerds. When Sammy finally makes it to Hollywood, he meets with his favorite director, John Ford, who offers some colorful advice on "interesting" versus "boring" ways to frame a shot — advice taken from an actual meeting between Ford and Steven Spielberg. Playing John Ford in this scene is David Lynch, another incredibly talented director with a fascination with Americana, but one who takes that fascination in darker and more surreal directions than either Ford or Spielberg ever would.

At the Los Angeles premiere of "The Fabelmans" at AFI Fest, it was revealed that casting Lynch as Ford was the idea of Tony Kushner's husband, the writer Mark Harris (via The Playlist). Laura Dern, who starred in both Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" and Lynch's "Inland Empire" and "Twin Peaks: The Return," was the person who convinced Lynch to cameo in "The Fabelmans." Though Lynch was initially reluctant to appear in the film, he was won over by the promise that there would be Cheetos for him to eat on the set.

Sammy's movies are (almost) exact recreations

One of the many joys of "The Fabelmans" is watching the amateur movies that Sammy makes with his sisters and his Boy Scout troop. Seeing the inventive problem-solving that goes into making a Western or a war movie, with a bunch of teenagers, and for no money, is both entertaining in its own right and informative on Steven Spielberg's development as an artist. During the Q&A following the world premiere of "The Fabelmans" at the Toronto International Film Festival, Spielberg revealed that Sammy's films were all based on his own home movies growing up — except that the angles of the cinematography were "better than what I shot as a kid."

Spielberg commented on the craft of making films on 8mm, and the tactile nature of his early filmmaking days — quite literally piecing together his creations with glue. While hard work, it was what made Spielberg fall in love with making movies. The director commented that "It was joyful being able to recreate those films" in "The Fabelmans" (via Variety).

The girlfriend character might be fictional

So how just how similar is Sammy Fabelman's life in "The Fabelmans" to Steven Spielberg's own experiences? In general, it seems to be extremely accurate to the true story that it's based on. Even details as seemingly out there as his mom impulsively buying a pet monkey are reportedly straight from the director's own memories. One thing that Spielberg hasn't commented on, however, is if Sammy's Christian girlfriend, Monica (Chloe East), is based on anyone real.

The New York Times' fact check of the film's accuracy declared Monica's basis in truth as "unclear," with only an unsourced claim in The Los Angeles Times saying she was based on someone Spielberg dated in 7th grade. If this girl was someone Spielberg only dated in middle school, that would explain why several of Spielberg's high school classmates told the New York Post that they don't remember him ever having a girlfriend. Real or fiction, however, Monica is one of the film's funniest characters, and Sammy's desire to be with her — while also resisting her attempts to convert him to Christianity — serves as a reflection of Spielberg's struggles with wanting to please others while also feeling like an outcast.

John Williams' final Spielberg collaboration?

When you think of Steven Spielberg movies, you often think of John Williams' scores. Since 1974, Williams has scored all but four of Spielberg's films — the exceptions being "The Color Purple," "Bridge of Spies," "Ready Player One," and "West Side Story." Indeed, it is hard to imagine what films such as "Jaws" would be like without the iconic menacing music, or how the "Indiana Jones" movies would be without that rollicking adventure theme.

Williams' score plays a smaller role in "The Fabelmans" than it does in other Spielberg movies, but its role is still an important one. Most of it is piano music, played within the film itself by Mitzi Fabelman and as such is deeply tied to the character's emotions and psychology. In 2022, at the age of 90, Williams announced to The New York Times his intention to retire from composing film scores — instead choosing to spend his time focused on concert music. This would imply "The Fabelmans" is his final collaboration with Spielberg as a director, and that 2023's "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" will be the final film score of his career. While the latest Indy installment is directed by James Mangold — with Spielberg as an executive producer — it marks the perfect full-circle moment if Williams does choose to bow out afterward. That being said, Williams later said at an event celebrating their collaborations, that Spielberg could still convince him to write more scores (via Twitter), so the partnership might not be over yet. 

Treating a smaller story as a big, big, big movie

Steven Spielberg has never made a film as overtly personal as "The Fabelmans," and it has been a long time since he made a film with such a small-scale story. Typically, his filmography has consisted of a mix of spectacle-heavy fantasy blockbusters and dramatizations of important historical events. A realistic coming-of-age tale would seem like a major change of pace for Spielberg in terms of material, but nonetheless, he and his regular collaborators made a film with the same grandiosity as their past work.

Janusz Kamiński — the cinematographer who has filmed much of Spielberg's work since "Schindler's List" — said of "The Fabelmans," "I saw this movie as a rather big, big, big movie simply because of the story that we're telling" (via Variety). He went on to say, "The canvas may be small, but the emotional content of the story is just so powerful." Other regular Spielberg collaborators like production designer Rick Carter, editor Sarah Broshar, and sound designer Gary Rydstrom also brought the same technical and artistic expertise that they'd delivered in Spielberg's "bigger" films and transformed "The Fabelmans" into something that feels hugely cinematic, while still deeply personal.