TIFF: Steven Spielberg on his film The Fabelmans

Filmmaker and co-writer Tony Kushner reflect at the Toronto International film festival

By Alexandria Slater 12 Sep 2022

TIFF: Steven Spielberg on his film The Fabelmans
The Fabelmans. Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner used a TIFF press conference on Sunday (September 11) to discuss co-writing The Fabelmans on Zoom in the pandemic, the joys of pre-digital filmmaking, and the emotional depth of Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical story.

The coming-of-age tale received a rapturous reception at its world premiere on Saturday night in Toronto and chronicles fictitious Sammy Fabelman’s childhood passion for filmmaking growing up in Arizona and California in the 1960’s against the backdrop of family dynamics.

“It was joyful being able to recreate those films,” said Spielberg, speaking of sequences where young Fabelman gets a camera and pays tribute to his favourite movies. “Not a lot of people were going out and shooting 8mm and it was physical, it was a craft. There were no Pro Tools, so you had to sit there with a Butt Splicer and then you had to scrape the emulsion off the film. You literally glued the film together and I must say I miss it.”

The Oscar winner continued, “I was the last person to cut on film in Hollywood and I miss the evolution. The digital age is fine – we all work within it, we all benefit from it. But I miss the smell of the celluloid and getting your hands and cutting yourself on the Butt Splicer. All those little crafted moments that we all grew up with.

“I’m just sad for the new generation that will never have a Butt Splicer or have to thread a camera and get the film properly in the gate. It’s just a wonderful thing to be able to have been exposed to in my generation.”

As the conversation turned to the writing process, Kushner, who has collaborated with Spielberg on films like LincolnMunich and West Side Story, highlighted the emotional element of the partnership.

“We’ve been working together now for 20 years and I think the thing that makes him who he is and makes those movies as great as they are is that there’s an emotional depth and power in everything he does. They’re not soulless entertainment. His movies have moments of real depth and complexity.”

The camera, he explained, was a tool that brought Sammy joy as a child because it helped him cope with family issues while also revealing the darker sides of life.

Kushner added, “We’re all mortal. You lose things. Loss and danger and risk is part of existence and so in the writing experience I just found that, thinking about Steven’s life. It’s just an incredibly moving thread through the whole film.”

Asked what elements of his life he was able to put into The Fabelmans that he had not shown in his previous work, Spielberg said, “I’ve always been able to put a camera on myself and protect myself and I couldn’t do it telling this story. And the cast knows this was emotionally a very difficult experience. Not all of it, but some of it was really, really hard to get through.

“I’ve been very sad in my life at times, all of us have, and divorce is something that traumatises you, so I set out to tell the story of my mom and dad’s divorce. I just wanted to tell a story that was completely honest to my recollections, that reflected my experience growing up with my sisters and their experiences growing up with me and my mum and dad and uncle Benny.”

Spielberg made the film during the pandemic. “I just remember as the death toll mounted and we kept watching the reports of what was happening throughout the country and the world, I kept thinking, ‘What is this going to mean for humanity? How far is this pandemic going to actually take us?’

“I kept thinking if I’m going to tell a story that I’ve always wanted to tell, about a coming-of-age in this very unique family with a very unique mother and father, this may be the best time to sit with Tony, with all the time I had on my hands.

“And I decided to write this on Zoom together, because I didn’t know where this was going. And I thought this is something I gotta get out of me now.”

Cast members Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogan, Gabriel LaBelle, and Judd Hirsch were in attendance. 

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