Nostalgia and the tender reminiscences of childhood dreams have never been as brittle as in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, a masterful cinematic memory of the forces, and family, that shaped the filmmaker’s life and career. An exploration of love, artistic ambition, sacrifice, and the moments of discovery that allow us to see the truth about ourselves, and our parents, with clarity and compassion.
The Fabelmans is directed and written by Spielberg and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America; Caroline, or Change), who has earned Oscar nominations for his screenplays for Spielberg’s Lincoln and Munich.
In a career spanning five decades, director Steven Spielberg has produced one of the most beloved, transformative, and diverse filmographies in history, from Jaws to E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List to Munich. Yet in every single one of his films, being they far-out fantasies about close encounters with spectacular marvels or moral reckonings with history, Spielberg has been sharing something about himself and his past. Fresh off West Side Story, his first musical, Spielberg returns with another kind of fable about kids in mid-century America struggling to find their place in the world, a coming-of-age saga drawn from his childhood that tells the origin story of his filmmaking life.
“Most of my movies have been a reflection of things that happened to me in my formative years,” Spielberg says. “Everything that a filmmaker puts him or herself into, even if it’s somebody else’s script, your life is going to come spilling out onto celluloid, whether you like it or not. It just happens. But with The Fabelmans, it wasn’t about the metaphor; it was about the memory.”
It’s a movie, he says, that he’s been thinking about for a long time. Still, he didn’t seriously consider pursuing the project until he began developing a deep bond with Tony Kushner, the playwright and screenwriter whose own transformative work has earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Emmy Awards and Oscar® nominations. Over 16 years of intermittent interviews, intense conversations and writing sessions that Spielberg only half-jokingly likens to “therapy,” they turned the defining experiences of his childhood into the fiction of The Fabelmans.
“I would not have been able to co-author this film without somebody I truly, dearly admired and adored, and somebody who knew me so well, and whom I so loved and respected, and that happened to be Tony Kushner,” says Spielberg. “The only thing that mattered was that I could open up to somebody, unpack all of my suitcases in front of somebody and never feel embarrassed or ashamed.”
The collaboration between Spielberg and Kushner began with a bang
Late one night in Malta in the fall of 2005, while the crew of Munich carefully labored to wire a set with explosives so Spielberg could blow it up, Kushner decided to pass the time by asking him a question. When did you decide you wanted to be a movie director? His interest was far from idle: Kushner—who cites Close Encounters of the Third Kind as one of his favorite films—came to their first collaboration as something of a famous fan; Kushner’s lauded, legendary two-part play, Angels in America, includes an audacious and funny moment in which the lead character beholds an angel descending and quips in awe: “Very Steven Spielberg.”
Little did Kushner know just how personal his inquiry was, or where the answer would lead them. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you a secret,’” says Kushner, “and he told me the story that’s the core of The Fabelmans.”
The yarn Spielberg spun on the Munich set that night began in 1952 when, at the age of six, he watched Cecile B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth at the Fox Theater in Philadelphia, an experience that filled him with a wonder that demanded a response, one that inevitably led to making films himself. It culminated in his teenage years—amid an intensifying passion for cinema—with another staggering encounter, this one with John Ford, the legendary director of Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who effectively commenced Spielberg’s career with some simple yet profound advice and a salty commandment.
And in between these bookends, Spielberg told Kushner about his parents, Arnold Spielberg, a pioneering computer designer, and Leah Adler, a talented musician, and how their values and personalities—Dad, the brilliant technician; Mom, the passionate artist—shaped his character and artistic identity. He described the drama of his family’s westward migration during his adolescence from New Jersey to Arizona to California, and he shared that secret, the reason for the drift in his parent’s marriage and their eventual divorce, and how the pain and learning that came from that revelation has influenced his view of people and how he tells stories.
“At a very young age, something happened, which is reflected in our film, where I stopped perceiving my mother as a parent, and began looking upon her as a person,” says Spielberg. “I think all kids at a certain point in their lives have these moments where they realize, ‘Hey, my parents have been people all this time.’ I had that epiphany when I was 16 years old.”
Kushner’s first reaction to Spielberg’s testimony: “That’s wild.” His second: “‘Steven, you’ve got to make a movie out of that!’ And he said: ‘Well, I’ve thought about it from time to time…’”
This downtime Munich moment set the tone for the development of The Fabelmans, which transpired during breaks while working on other projects over many years. After Munich, Spielberg and Kushner began the seven-year process of bringing their second collaboration, Lincoln, to the screen. But they also filled their spare time with more conversations about Spielberg’s formative years, now with the intention of amassing material for a possible screenplay. These sessions actually yielded a treatment for a different film, one drawn from events that occurred after those reflected in The Fabelmans. They shelved it, though, and shifted focus to their third official collaboration, West Side Story. Another period of downtime would lead them back to the work of sifting through Spielberg’s earliest memories for a movie.
Spielberg typically doesn’t do long rehearsal periods for his films, but during pre-production on West Side Story, he realized his actors would need at least two months to learn the songs and choreography. Moreover, Kushner and Spielberg were feeling some stress as they labored to find agreement and get things just right with their take on a monumental classic of American theater and cinema. So as the actors fine-tuned their voices and steps, the two friends tuned up their relationship by working on The Fabelmans. “It was a really lovely moment of calming down about West Side Story and reconnecting in an important, deeper way,” Kushner says.
After wrapping West Side Story, Spielberg found a deeper, urgent motivation to accelerate the development of The Fabelmans. His father, Arnold Spielberg, died in August 2020 after months of declining health. (His mother, Leah Adler, had passed away four years earlier.) And then there was the pandemic. “I don’t think anybody knew in 2020 what life was going to be like even a year from then,” says Spielberg. “As things got worse, I just felt that, if I was going to leave anything behind, what was the thing that I really needed to resolve?” Meeting over Zoom, Spielberg shared more memories, and Kushner took more notes. “Tony kind of performed the function of a therapist and I was his patient,” says Spielberg. “I talked for a long time, and Tony fed me and helped me through this.”
“I felt privileged to be a confidante, with everything he was digging up,” says Kushner. “Steven was in real mourning, and I think this was a way of processing grief and loss. I thought, ‘Even if nothing happens, this is an amazing experience.’”
But something did come from it: a 90-page treatment, enough material, in Kushner’s estimation, for six movies. “Every time I showed him a section, he would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t tell you about how this happened,’ so I would add more stuff,” says Kushner. “Eventually, I said, ‘You can’t tell me anymore! I don’t have room!’”
After outlining the script in September 2020, Kushner and Spielberg commenced writing together on October 2, using Final Draft collaboration and working three days a week, four hours a day. (Spielberg’s other screenplay credits include Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.) In converting facts to fable, timelines were condensed, details changed and assorted liberties taken. Spielberg named the characters representing himself (Sammy) and his mother (Mitzi), father (Burt) and sisters (Reggie, Natalie, Lisa). It was Kushner who came up with Fabelman. Reflecting on the English translation of Spielberg (“play mountain”) and his own relationship to the material, Kushner latched onto the theater term fabel, which is a summary of a play written by a playwright or director that emphasizes their interpretation of the text as a means of better understanding it.
The Fabelmans is unquestionably a portrait of Spielberg, the artist, as a young man, and an attempt to thoughtfully memorialize his parents, with gratitude for their virtues and forgiveness for their frailties and the same humanistic grace that marks all his films. Yet while every scene is grounded in some event from his childhood, “the movie speaks for me and Tony,” says Spielberg. And so, their story is steeped in their respective backgrounds and shared intellectual interests and moral concerns.
The Fabelman family, for example, captures a specific, everyday Jewish-American experience in the 1950s and ’60s. “Part of the reason that we bonded during Munich the way that we did was that we both have a very powerful, bone-deep love of being Jewish and Judaism,” says Kushner. “That was just going to be part of what the story was going to be—a story about a Jewish family. The Fabelmans are who they are, and they live and own it so easily and proudly.”
The film also captures a specific moment in film culture. Sammy’s character arc—which passes through an identity crisis when he watches a home movie that reframes his understanding of his parents and shakes his faith in pretty much everything—is coded with the story of mid-century Hollywood itself, as the industry moved out of the era of studio system roadshow spectacles and B-genre programmers and settled into a New Hollywood era in the ’70s, with groundbreaking films that were more raw, more naturalistic and more sensational, sometimes all at once. Yet Sammy’s relationship with cameras also serves as a cautionary tale for a culture of self-documentation and social media. His zeal for thrills and catharsis moves into more complex awareness of how pictures can entertain and illuminate, expose and manipulate, mythologize and demonize. The boy who filmed train crashes for his amusement comes of age learning that image-making can shatter people, too.
And in probing deeply into the personal and the specific, The Fabelmans amounts to a universal fable about the reward and cost of chasing the American dream, and more so, about people—family, friends, a culture—struggling and learning to see themselves better and love each other well. “I didn’t want the story to be told in a vanity mirror,” says Spielberg. “I wanted the story to be a communal mirror so people could see their own families inside the story. Because this story is about family; it’s about parents; it’s about siblings; it’s about bullying; it’s about the good and bad things that happen when you’re growing up in a family that pretty much stays together until they’re no longer together, and it’s a story about the act of forgiveness, and how important that act is.”
Spielberg and Kushner finished their first draft of The Fabelmans in December 2020 and continued refining the script into 2021 as they sought input from trusted voices, including Spielberg’s wife, Kate Capshaw; Kushner’s husband, Mark Harris; and playwright Tom Stoppard. Spielberg’s team, led by producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, immediately began prepping a 60-day shoot, and in July, the director was filming the story of his life.
Filming would come with unexpected emotions for Spielberg and everyone around him. “I made a promise to myself that I was going to stay professional,” Spielberg says. “There was going to be a distance between myself and the subject. But it was hard to do. The story kept tugging me back to actual memories. Recreating things that had actually happened to me, and seeing them unspool in front of me, was a wicked, weird experience. It was just like nothing I have ever gone through before.”
As emotional as the shoot often was, finishing filming would prove more difficult than starting it. “This is the hardest film I’ve had to say goodbye to,” Spielberg says. “I thought West Side Story was. I thought E.T. was. But this was tough. I cannot even imagine going through my career without having told this story.
This movie, for me, was like a time machine, and to have that time machine suddenly turn off, and now all the memories are locked into place, and they have an order, they’re going to be edited together, and that’s going to be it…well, as Thomas Wolfe said, and he’s right, ‘You can’t go home again.’ And I realized at the end of shooting The Fabelmans that I would never be able to go home again. But at least I’ve got this to share.”
Sammy Fabelman’s Films
Over the years, Steven Spielberg has spoken of the movies he made as a teenager in Arizona with his friends and family, including an 8-minute western entitled The Last Gun, a 40-minute war film called Escape to Nowhere, Fighter Squad, and Firelight, a 135-minute sci-fi flick about UFOs made for $500 that was the basis for another, later, slightly more expensive Spielberg production, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In The Fabelmans, Sammy’s arc dramatizes the history of Spielberg’s childhood moviemaking, from his first efforts recording toy train crashes as a little kid to more elaborate works, including versions of The Last Gun (called Gunsmog in The Fabelmans) and Escape to Nowhere. (The Fabelmans also refers to a Sammy film called Fighter Squadron, which is based on Spielberg’s own film, Fighter Squad).
Creating Sammy Fableman’s films, and film shoots, for The Fabelmans, first required the proper equipment. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner wanted to see Sammy progress through a number of 8mm turret cameras of the period—a Kodak Brownie, a Eumig, and a Bolex—in order to illustrate his growing technical expertise.
Each of these cameras is representative of cameras that Spielberg used to make his own movies, although he instructed prop master Andrew Siegel to find a slightly larger Bolex, with changeable zoom lenses, so he could depict Sammy’s improving adeptness with the technology. For the senior ditch day sequence, Sammy makes a leap to 16mm with an Arriflex 16S, coveted by film students and even professionals of the period, which reignites Sammy’s interest in filmmaking. Spielberg originally wanted Sammy to edit his films on a Manette 8mm machine, the same tool he used as a kid, which is not an easy thing to find these days. “I was super happy because I found one in mint condition on eBay,” says Siegel. “And it was really mint. It looked brand-new and it was brand-new in the script. And then when Steven saw it, he went, ‘Eh, the screen’s kinda small. We should go to something bigger.’” They ended up going with a Mansfield Fairfield 8mm Action Editor and retrofitting it to serve their needs.
When it came to creating Sammy’s films, Gunsmog and Escape to Nowhere, Spielberg did a lot of the photography himself. “I wanted to hold the 8mm camera; I wanted to do some of the angles,” Spielberg says. “It was just really fun to be able to reminisce with an actual 8mm camera in my hand.”
Spielberg admits the quality of Sammy’s films in The Fabelmans is much better than the ones he made back in the day. “I wish I could’ve recreated my 8mm films to the amateurish degree I shot them at when I was a kid,” he says, “but I wasn’t able to resist finding a better place to put the camera in 2021 when I made the movie than where I put the camera in 1961. I just couldn’t resist it.”
The superior quality ended up suiting a narrative purpose anyway. “We needed to make Sammy’s films good to credibly communicate to the audience that the person making them had incredible talent at an early age,” cinematographer Janusz Kaminski says. Moreover, for the footage to even be usable, it needed to be shot with nothing less than a 16mm camera. So, Spielberg and Kaminski shot with both 8mm and 16mm cameras, with footage from the former used as a visual reference to guide the work of degrading footage from the latter to resemble 8mm quality film. The result, says Kaminski, are movies that look amateurish and homemade, but with a quality of film emulsion that flatters Sammy’s talent and is consistent with Spielberg-Kaminski aesthetics.
Janusz Kaminski has worked as Steven Spielberg’s exclusive cinematographer for the past 30 years, winning Oscars® for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. He’s seen his friend mature from a maker of escapist blockbusters to a storyteller deeply invested in moral themes, and amid that transformation, he came to know Spielberg, his family and his personal story quite well. “The Fabelmans are very authentic to me,” Kaminski says. “It was really interesting, after all these years, to see Steven, and help Steven, reveal to the audience what made him want to be a filmmaker.”
While The Fabelmans is a coming-of-age story and an intimate family drama, the film has the scope, kinetic energy, and thrilling set pieces that are a hallmark of Spielberg films, even as it reveals the origin of those hallmarks. The spectacular desert settings where Sammy shoots Westerns and war movies with friends and family lent themselves well to dramatic visuals, as did the scene with the tornado.