NEW YORK – The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg’s most autobiographical film, but the requisite introspection was not done in isolation.
Rather, the film grew out of conversations between Spielberg and his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, the playwright of Angels in America, who wrote three of Spielberg’s best films: Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story. As Spielberg reflected on his childhood memories, in Kushner he had one of the most decorated therapists anyone has ever had: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright turned amateur psychiatrist.
As one of the great playwrights of the last half century, Kushner is used to doing extensive research. (Spielberg once boasted that Kushner read 400 books about Abraham Lincoln in preparation for her 2012 historical drama.) But this time, most of the investigative work consisted of long chats and zooms during the pandemic, delving into Spielberg’s roots as a Filmmakers and the two characters involved primarily responsible for making him what he is: his mother, Leah Adler, and his father, Arnold Spielberg. In The Fabelmans, they are fictionalized as Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano).
The Fabelmans, which opens in select theaters Friday and expands November 23, marks the first time Kushner and Spielberg have co-written screenplays. And it represents the closeness that has developed in their ongoing collaboration. In a recent interview, Kushner reflected on their shared dialogue about The Fabelmans, his own upbringing, and his unexpected second career as a screenwriter.
AP: While filming Munchen, Spielberg first told you about a defining moment for him related to a home movie he made that featured a family revelation. In the movie, it’s a powerful, almost Rosebud-esque moment. Was that the initial spark for “The Fabelmans”?
Kushner: I didn’t know it when he first told me – it was the first day of shooting for Munich – but it rang a lot of bells for me. Not only does something amazing happen, which it is, but it also addresses certain things that I feel form the backbone of this film. What it has to say about using art, growing up trying to make a world that is not safe and unmanageable and overwhelming into a place to inhabit with an illusion of security and an illusion of control . The more you master the tools that create these illusions, the more powerful those tools become. But they have a life of their own and will take you places you didn’t expect. They turn out to be a means of self-protection and self-exposure, of security, but also of danger.
AP: Spielberg never struck me as someone who was naturally inclined to self-reflection. Did your conversations about his childhood strike you differently?
Kushner: I’m not currently in therapy and psychoanalysis, but I’ve spent many, many, many years. I am a staunch old Freudian. Steven hasn’t spent much time in therapy and doesn’t really want to – which is true for many artists. For the most part, it felt like a continuation of our conversation. It got a bit more instrumental and pointed. I started asking him about certain things. At points he let me know that there was a kind of pain he didn’t particularly want to share. I didn’t want to be pushy. I have good manners. Sometimes I even thought: would a tougher interviewer arrest him for that and make him reveal these things? He was also so accommodating and open and generous. His mother had just died before we actually started work on West Side Story, and his father went into final decline at 102 while we were shooting. At a fairly old age, in his 70s, Steven reached the orphanage. He was in a period of mourning.
AP: The mother in The Fabelmans, played by Michelle Williams, is an enormously wealthy, complicated character, largely descended from Spielberg’s own mother, a pianist who quit performing to raise her family. But is there anything from your mother? She was a concert bassoonist and actress. You described her as having “a very deep and somewhat tragic attitude towards life”.
Kushner: It certainly allowed me to understand Mitzi/Leah, who I haven’t met. It gave me insight and allowed me to really dig in with Steven, reflecting on his mother and her choices and behavior, including some of the fancier things she did to be a woman with real artistic ability. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking specifically about the women of this generation. This is before modern post-war feminism really coalesced into a visible movement. It’s the Betty Friedan moment where it all starts to come together. Women like Steven’s mother – my mother was a little younger – knew something was coming. That the role of women had changed profoundly over the course of the 20th century and that new opportunities were opening up, but in an inconsistent way. It was an exciting time, I would imagine, but also a time of uncertainty, pain, and guilt, I think. That became very important to me and Steven thinking about her. We’ve talked a lot about the similarities.
AP: It’s interesting how you always intertwine politics with the personal, especially on Angels. And it’s here too, even in an intimate domestic drama.
Kushner: Oh yeah. One of my favorite movies of all time – not surprising as I’m a gay man – is All About Eve. i adore it It’s this amazing portrait. One of our greatest actresses of all time (Bette Davis) gets one of the greatest roles of all time. She is the glorious center of it and the mistress of the universe. But there’s still that moment in the car when she has to make that speech: “A woman with no children and no husband, what is she?” Mankiewicz uses the ugly word “something.” “It’s something like a French provincial office.” That hurts your teeth. In a way, it’s such a betrayal of what the entire film is saying, which is: Who cares about the boys? You are only here to cause problems for these extraordinary women. But this is that era. You couldn’t get away from that, even in a movie that almost completely breaks away from it. It is still a masterpiece of phenomenal proportions. But this one moment shows you how powerful this stuff was.
AP: You’ve said that seeing the reaction your mother evoked from audiences who appeared on Death of a Salesman prompted you to become a playwright.
Kushner: I was only 6 years old or something. I didn’t really know what was going on with the play. But it was a very powerful experience for me. I could see that she came on stage at the end of every night and made everyone cry. And adult crying is a big deal when you’re a little kid. I was very interested in what she was doing that led to it. She did it in a number of other plays. She had a real tragic spirit. And I could see that working with those feelings in public—those dark, scary, forbidden aspects of yourself—that was fascinating to me.
AP: You’ve been making films with Spielberg for almost two decades now. Does this chapter of your career surprise you?
Kushner: It does. I never really saw myself as a screenwriter. The penultimate line in “Millennium Approaches”, the first half of “Angels”, reads: “Very Steven Spielberg”. So I was clearly thinking about Steven long before I met him. Somehow I got into it. There are times when I think, ‘How did this happen? That’s wild.” For some reason, or many reasons, we seem to work really well together. That’s rare. You don’t find people that you can really dig deep with and come up with work that you’re really proud of and a desire to do more. Everyone knows that, but he’s an artist who defined the era and I consider it an incredible privilege to work with him on these things.
AP: Was there an attraction to cinema as well? Did you feel that your interest turned to film rather than theatre?
Kushner: No. I’ve always loved movies, I’ve always loved television and I’ve always loved theater. Until I die, I will consider myself primarily a playwright, although I have recently filled out forms saying playwright/screenwriter. I feel like I’ve finally earned the right to call myself that. If I had done a movie with Steven and then a movie with a creepy guy who took my script and mangled it and turned it into something I was horrified that my name was attached to it – all the horror stories you hear – I am pretty satisfied sure that would be for me in the end. And I live in fear of it. I’m working on a few projects now that Steven isn’t involved with. I’m learning what life is like outside of Amblin. Up until now, everything has been going well. But we now know each other’s movements very well. I trust him 10,000%. The reason I’ve been working with films for 20 years now is because I really love working with him. I’m also working on a couple plays right now. There are some things only theater can do, just as there are things only film can do. I keep telling Steven that he n needs to direct on stage because he’s an incredible blocker. A lot of directors can’t do that. I think he would be a great theater director. Maybe that will happen, we’ll see.
AP: Then he would be on your turf.
Kushner: Yes, and I would have the copyright to the text and wouldn’t have to change anything I didn’t want. (laughs)
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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