Any filmmaker will tell you every movie they make is personal.
Steven Spielberg is not any filmmaker. The director of Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and West Side Story is in a class all his own when it comes to the profound, pop-culture-altering impact his movies have made for decades. But even the 75-year-old maestro subscribes to the notion that each work is an intimate experience for him.
“There’s nothing more personal than committing to actually directing something,” Spielberg told us ahead of the release of his latest, The Fabelmans.
But it’s indisputable that the filmmakers’s 35th feature is his most personal work to date. The more-than-semi-autobiographical coming-of-ager follows a young Spielberg — er, Sammy Fabelman (played as an adolescent by Gabriel LaBelle) — as he falls in love with filmmaking as a child, begins directing astounding well-designed home movies as a pre-teen and ultimately, through his camerawork, discovers there could be something percolating between his mother (Michelle Williams) and the best friend (Seth Rogen) of his father (Paul Dano).
“I’ve never had myself, for such a prolonged period of time, in the actual story,” Spielberg tells us. “And that itself was Kafkaesque. … I never got used to it. It was not comfortable for me. But when [the actors’] mojos were at that critical point where the cast was working so well together, I’d kind of get lost in their performances.
“But I always knew that was about my sisters, and my mom and my dad who are no longer here, and myself. And so there was never a moment I didn’t realize that this was an opportunity that I had taken that I was so grateful for that at my age I finally got the temerity, or the courage, to decide to tell this story now. I wouldn’t have had the distance or the perspective if I had decided to tell this story 30 years ago. It wouldn’t have been the same film.”
LaBelle, a 19-year-old Vancouver native, grew up with Spielberg DVDs and Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones Lego sets in his home. “It’s mind-blowing. It’s incredibly exciting,” the young actor says of the opportunity to play a slightly fictionalized version of the iconic director. “And it’s a huge privilege, honestly. It’s an honor.”
Spending two months with the filmmaker as he delved into his past gave the entire cast the opportunity to learn about Spielberg in a more intimate way than previous ensembles.
“I think I was surprised to find what an open vessel he was willing to be with us and our crew and everybody on this film,” says Dano. “I think that’s the thing that really led the way. If Steven can be that sort of vulnerable and open and naked, we’ve got to be, too. So to be with someone who’s an artist who shaped culture yet have this intimacy with him, it was pretty cool.”
“It’s really who he is,” adds Williams. “He comes as open and as candid and as searching as a person can be. He gives that so generously, so it immediately disarms you. And you realize that he’s searching like we all are.”
“I was honestly surprised at how much of a leap he seemed to feel it was to make something that was so outwardly personal,” says Rogen. “And it was beautiful that he was willing to do that because it seemed like he was taking a real personal risk in some ways, which is something that when you’re him, you do not need to do. He would go down as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema having never done something like this that made him clearly feel like he was putting himself out there in a way that he never had before. And it was really inspirational to see someone like him take that on and decide to push themselves in new directions even after they have done so many things.”
And then there’s what Spielberg learned about himself through such a journey of self-reflection.
“I think it was, more than anything else, the fact that I had a very complicated family. And I had a very unique family,” says the director, who credits longtime co-writer Tony Kushner with encouraging him to finally tell his own story. “I mean, the dynamics of my mom’s relationship with my dad’s best friend, and how I discovered things that I would not have discovered had it not been for my obsession with home movies and making 8 MM movies of all our camping trips and all of our outings over weekends. I was the videographer of my family, even as a 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kid. But what’s unique about this is I found out something that suddenly made me look at my mom not as a parent but as a person.
“And that shouldn’t happen when you’re 16 years old. That should be much later, when you have your own kids. You suddenly realize your parents are your peers, not your parents anymore. But too early I discovered that my mom was a human being, and couldn’t hide behind the visage of being a primary caregiver. And that changed the dynamics of I think every choice I made after that.”
The Fabelmans opens in select theaters Friday before opening nationwide Nov. 23.
Watch the trailer: