“I’ve been very private about my private life, and I’ve never gone public with my private life until now,” Steven Spielberg said Sunday. It was the existential threat of the Covid pandemic at its most lethal back in 2020 that nudged his very personal family story to the big screen.
“What I thought was that if I had to make one more movie, if I had to tell one more story, what would that story be? And that’s why I decided to put this into production,” he told Martin Scorsese at a Q&A after an NYC screening of The Fabelmans at the DGA Theater.
“My mom and I had a secret for a long time, and my mom would always say to me, ‘Gee Steve, this would be a really terrific movie. Why don’t you make that move some day.’ So I had her coming at me from one side and Tony Kusher, who had heard the stories and was really kind of pushing for it.” He’s referring to the award winning playwright and screenwriter and his longtime collaborator who co-wrote The Fablemans, as well as to a central mother-son plot point in the film.
Aspiring teenage filmmaker Sam Fabelman is played by Gabriel LaBelle. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano are his parents. Seth Rogen and Judd Hirsch also star in the Universal release, currently in theaters.
Asked about the origin story of the film, Spielberg told Scorsese that feelings of loss and loneliness after his parents passed away in recent years pushed him to get really serious about putting his story down. He and Kushner wrote the script but “I didn’t have any intention of making it… and I would have been happy to put it in a drawer somewhere. But Covid gave me so much time to think about it. And especially when Covid was really bad,” he said. “By the time we’d lost 500 000 Americans, let alone millions around the world…was it really a foregone conclusion that this wasn’t a life ending event?”
Scorsese also wanted the backstory of a delightful cameo by David Lynch playing John Ford, an inspiration to Sam Fabelman. Ford offers a brief but memorable piece of advice at the end of the film and the start of the young man’s career.
“I was after an actor whom I new personally and was going to ask him to stand in as John Ford,” Spielberg said. Before he did, Kusher’s husband Mark Harris suggested asking David Lynch “and a lightbulb went off.”
Lynch was very flattered but declined. “He said he was not an actor, and had other projects, and John Ford was so great, what if he didn’t come up to those standards? He was just kind of shy about it.”
Lynch softened up when he learned Spielberg and his wife had become enthusiasts of transcendental meditation through Lynch’s foundation. But he still said no. “So I went to my go-to person, his best friend, Laura Dern. “You’ve got to talk David into doing this. You’ve got two weeks to talk him into this.”
When the two directors next spoke, “He says, ‘I decided I am going to do this under one condition…I want to get the costume two weeks ahead of time to live in.’ I said, ‘You mean you are going to wear it? He said, ‘Yes, every day.’ The hat, the [eye] patch everything. And he showed up in a pretty ratty costume,” said Spielberg.
“And the time he takes to light that cigar?” Scorsese asked. It was comically slow process.
“That’s one of the things we all know about the magic of film editing, you can make anything last as long as you want,” said Spielberg.