Steven Spielberg: «I’m asking for a friend»

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This article is published in number 49 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until December 6, 2022

Perhaps the only way to truly know someone’s life story is to become a part of it. This is essentially what happened between steven Spielberg And Tony Kushner. The collaborations between the director and the writer – which include the revisiting of West Side Story last year, the historical epic Lincoln of 2012 and the dramatic account of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich of 2005 – were intense and emotionally difficult experiences, which over time forged a bond that led Spielberg to create a work that he had never seriously considered: a film based on his own life.

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Steven Spielberg with Tony Kushner, 66 years old.

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Niko Tavernise

The extremely personal memories of Spielberg’s past, which form the substance of his new film, The Fabelmans, are one that many would have a hard time confiding in friends, let alone the entire world on a big screen. Spielberg had toyed with the idea of ​​directing a semi-autobiographical drama for decades, but until Kushner began pushing for it, he had always been content to let those memories filter onto the screen under the cloak of spectacle and imaginative escapism: the father who abandons his family (to embark on a spaceship) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the lonely kid from a divorced family (who befriends an alien) in ET the extra-terrestrial; the father and son struggling to overcome their adult grievances (while chasing the Holy Grail) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Michelle Williams, 42, in a scene from The Fabelmansin which she plays Mitzi, the mother of the protagonist Gabriel LaBelle, an aspiring director.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

“I can’t think of a single film I’ve directed that didn’t contain some personal reference,” Spielberg says in a joint conversation with Kushner. “It feels good to pretend I have a whip and a scout’s hat, even though I know it’s just a wish-fulfillment. But deciding to make this film was perhaps one of the most difficult steps of my life».
The protagonist of The Fabelmans is Gabriel LaBelle, as an anxious but kind-hearted boy who comes of age at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s and finds his way through the lens of a camera. He makes friends, enemies (especially among anti-Semitic bullies) and makes films. He also experiences first love just as the relationship between his parents is falling apart.

Michelle Williams plays mother Mitzi, a free spirit, and Paul They givethe more conservative engineer father, ideal personality and interests for an aspiring filmmaker, but an unfortunate mix for a married couple. Seth Rogen he is her father’s friend, Bennie, a man considered “family” in the Spielberg household, and who will eventually become her mother’s second husband. Spielberg has always spoken openly about his parents’ divorce, recounting the agony he felt when they separated and the way in which this had influenced his narration, with many of his films depicting divided families who then manage to reunite. The Fabelmans however it goes further, delving into such personal aspects as to be uncomfortable. His son is called Sammy, not Steven, but he is a perfect copy of the director, and the story of the Fabelmans it is that of the Spielberg family, with some slight adjustments, especially in the chronological field, to underline the dramatic effect.

“In general, everything you see in the film happened somewhere in my life,” Spielberg explains. During the conversation, Kushner, despite being ten years younger, seems at times to be the quieter, more thoughtful older brother guiding Spielberg. In classic cinematic parlance, the two are like characters in the film The Life is Beautiful: Kushner is to Spielberg what the angel Clarence was to George Bailey: It helps him step outside his story to see it more clearly. “I’m a staunch old Freudian,” says Kushner when I ask him if their writing sessions never ended up resembling therapy. «I have decades of psychoanalysis behind me and I am a strong believer in psychodynamic and psychoanalytic object relations. I believe in “talking therapy”, interpreting dreams and memories and so on. And I always thought I’d probably make a great therapist.”

The camping holiday scene: pivotal moment for the film and the life of Spielberg.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures

“You were,” Spielberg interjects. “And you are.” Talk about the memories they inspired the Fabelmans it got easier for Spielberg. The making of the film was a kind of exposure therapy, of desensitization from trauma. He talked a lot about those times, not just with Kushner, but with the actors, set and costume designers as well. “We often think the past haunts us,” he says. “But when you’re recreating it with people who look like your parents and sisters, wearing the same clothes, and you find yourself walking into a perfect recreation of your Phoenix, Arizona home, with every room exactly as you remember it. .. Some mornings I went to work and it seemed to me that I was the protagonist of a novel by Kafka».
The Fabelmans was first conceived during the making of Munichwhen the director told Kushner the story of a family camping trip that would become a pivotal scene in the Fabelmans: his mother dancing in her nightgown in the glare of car headlights, him filming her, while the two men who occupied her heart watch her in the shadows.

Spielberg had occasionally spoken in interviews about his idea for a coming-of-age story that he would like to title I’ll Be Home, but then, says Kushner, “we let it go.” It wasn’t just the lockdown during the pandemic that changed Spielberg’s mind. Something else also happened. He started losing his family again. For most of his life, the director was close to his mother, discharging the blame for the divorce on his father Arnold. The Fabelmans reveals a different, almost oppressive truth that he did not know or did not understand at the time. The father had taken responsibility for the breakup, even though it was the mother who wanted the end of their marriage.
“I was angry with my father for a long time after the divorce, because I blamed him for abandoning the family,” says Spielberg. “It was my father who took charge of the breakup by announcing to all of us that he was the one who made the decision. Then it turned out that wasn’t true. He was simply trying to create a world where we could all take care of my mother, who was much more fragile than him.’
“When my three sisters moved back to Arizona to stay with her and live with her,” Spielberg continues, “they couldn’t be angry with her, because he had brought any possible recriminations upon himself. He had assumed that we might resent her and that was fine with him. It was the greatest sacrifice I think my father ever made for a family that he truly loved and counted on.”

Spielberg on set with 20-year-old Gabriel LaBelle.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

The director argues that he could not have made this film in his 20s, when many storytellers are looking for material in their biographies, or even in the 1980s, when repeated box office successes granted him the freedom to make any film he wanted, or again, in the 90s, after winning the Oscars with Schindler’s List And Saved the soldier Ryan. “I wasn’t able to deal with my childhood, nor my formative years, until I had children of my own,” she says. «And I think that many people can identify with what I say. We try to stay children for as long as possible.”

Spielberg raised seven children and has six grandchildren. He has been married since 1991 to Kate capshawwho he met on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Before that he was married to Amy Irving, whom he divorced in 1989. Does getting older, having affairs, marrying, divorcing and remarrying change your perspective on the past? “It changes it,” Spielberg confirms. “I think those passages helped me build an empathy for my parents as people. I stopped looking at them as parents and started looking at them as individuals with lives I could relate to because I was experiencing some of their own traumas.”

Even the father, although more reserved, supported the idea of ​​the film, talking about the history of their family in Spielberg, a 2017 HBO documentary dedicated to his son. «He He was very honest in telling what happened in our lives, talking about the divorce. I’m sure both he and my mother would have loved this movie,” says Spielberg. There’s a real-life moment that hasn’t found a place in The Fabelmans. The location is New Jersey, before the family moved to Arizona. The child who loves movies is woken up in the middle of the night by his father, who has something to show him. He is confused and worried. It’s August, the same month that his father Arnold will die, many, many years later. “He took me to a park where there were about 200 people, on blankets and picnic chairs, looking up,” Spielberg says. The sky was crossed by shooting stars. «He took me to that strange place to show me for my first time the Perseid meteor shower».

Michelle Williams in a scene from the film, in which she plays the director’s mother.

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Anyone who has seen a Spielberg film knows that shooting stars are one of the director’s trademarks. If there is a shot of a night sky, a meteor is very likely to appear. Maybe it was another reference to his past, a signal sent to his father during their years apart, to let him know that he still remembered the good things they had done together? “No, I just love meteors. I love shooting stars,” Spielberg replies, once again refusing any connection. But then he thinks again, even if for a moment, and returns to the meaning of his shooting stars. “Of course, it all started with the discovery, thanks to my father, that there was an entire cosmos,” he concedes. “That made the night less scary for me. He took away a lot of my fear of the dark.’ Dr. Kushner says nothing, but cracks a smile and nods.

Photo by Chantal Anderson.

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Source: Vanity Fair

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