The Fabelmans reunites legendary director Steven Spielberg with acclaimed author Tony Kushner, but it’s the first time they’ve written anything together.
The fictionalized version of the filmmaker’s early and formative years is considered the leading man this awards season. Dedicated to Spielberg’s late parents, Arnold and Leah, The Fabelmans The cast consists of Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Judd Hirsch in a scene-stealing twist.
I spoke to Kushner about where the journey down memory lane began, the wild ride that took them places they never expected, and a monkey named Bernie.
Simon Thompson: What were your first thoughts when this idea first came up? The Fabelmans is one of the many times you’ve worked with Steven Spielberg on something based on reality.
Tony Kushner: I have the four films we did together but this is the first one I’ve written with him. That was the only thing he didn’t come to me with. It was a late night shoot on the first day of shooting Munich in Malta and we were about to blow up a hotel room. We waited for the explosives people to say everything was ready and we just talked. We didn’t really know each other and had only been working together for two or three months at that point. I said, ‘What do you think was the beginning of filmmaking for you? What do you remember from the days when you decided I wanted to do this?’ He told me a little about his early filmmaking as a kid and then told me that story at heart The Fabelmans, that was the camping trip. He also shared with me the discovery he made in the camping trip footage he captured, and I was blown away by the story. I said, ‘One day you’ve got to make a movie out of this. It’s an amazing story.’ When he told me the story, he also told me the story of his parents’ divorce, the triangle at the center of it, and I thought it was such an amazing love story. Over the years we talked about different projects and we always knew what our next project was. Immediately after Munichhe asked me to do Lincolnand it was during Lincoln that he asked me to do this one script that we have, but we didn’t do it and we’re not going to do it, either Westside Story. I had hoped over the years that we would achieve that, but I didn’t know that we would ever do it. Then a few years ago Westside Story, his mother died, which was a heavy blow for him and his family. while we do Westside Story, his father, who was 102 years old, began to deteriorate, and Steven was preparing for it. That got him thinking about it, during rehearsal times for Westside Story, he asked me if we could meet up and talk about some of his memories, so I started taking notes. As the pandemic started, as his father approached his final days, we had more of those conversations, and I said, ‘I’m going to take all these notes and try to put them in some sort of outline. It turned out to be this 81-page, one-line proof.
Thomas: I heard it was pretty tight.
cuddler: Yes. I had to think about how to connect these things. With the inimitable familiarity and subjective understanding Steven brought to this material, it’s also good to have someone on the outside looking in. From the day I heard this story in Malta 20 years ago, I felt there was real meaning in it, and the more Steven spoke to me about his life, the more a few themes I felt for powerful, deep and resonant and of real value. It’s a question of how we tell the stories we tell ourselves, the tools we use to try to transform a world so menacing and uncontrollable into a more livable place and under our control. These stories will inevitably turn against us at some point because the world is not becoming controlled and safe. Safety is always an illusion on some level, so at some point in your adulthood you will realize that you didn’t make the world your paradise. The very thing you have been using that has the power to organize reality for you also has the power to be independent of you and will lead you right over the cliff. It will take you to spooky places that are worth exploring.
Thomas: When you worked together, did the collaboration go where you expected it to, or did the journey and narratives take you to a completely different place?
cuddler: That’s a good question. It feels to me, and it felt to Steven, that that’s what we had in mind when we started. This is the best version of what we set out to do, but there are many surprises. The structure of it is very surprising for him and me. It’s a structure where a very intimate story needs to be told in an epic, episodic way. It covers three states in 13 years, so it has that kind of reach. It’s not Aristotelian and it’s not condensed and claustrophobic like many stories have to be to tell something small. It takes you on a journey and you feel the length in your bones. When we first worked on it, we didn’t realize that. As we neared the end of the first draft, we thought there was something odd about it. As you say, it takes you in many different directions, and it was clear that it would intertwine but also separate stories. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man and that horrible, painful breakup of marriage, and these things nurtured each other. In that campfire moment, they cross paths in a very violent and dramatic way, and we certainly had to work on serving both sides and making sure they’re connected throughout.
Thomas: in the The Fabelmans, you have these movies in it that Sammy, the fictional version of Steven, makes. They almost felt like sorbets between courses of this cinematic meal. What was it like creating these films within films, rewriting a film that Steven actually made in some cases? It’s meta, but it works.
cuddler: I would only disagree on one point. It’s a lot of fun to watch them. He showed me the films; they exist, don’t ditch day but the others, and they are clearly the work of an incredibly inventive, wonderful, talented child. in the Escape to nowherehe does some things with a camera that eerily anticipates what you see in it The soldier James Ryan. I had to point this out to him because he refused. He looks at them now and thinks they’re kind of silly, but he loves things and takes pride in how he made it look like the guns were firing, or the catapult he invented that made it look like bullets were firing hit the dusty ground. There are some serious thematic things going on. This is someone who started very early on to draw from their own life, from their deepest core, into these existing forms and make something new out of them. I was overwhelmed watching them. The vertical movement of the narrative is that the whole story continues through these films. I love the way they were filmed. We wrote the script descriptions of them together. They’re very heavily based on his films, although we didn’t feel we had to stick with them beat by beat. We wanted to make sure it didn’t do anything that he couldn’t have done back then. Everything we filmed for these movies we shot with the real movie cameras and then also with 8mm cameras so Steven could decide what you would watch Sammy film and then what you would see as the movie that he turned. It all comes together in this extraordinary sequence in the empty house Burt built for the family and Sammy films the end of the marriage. The next scene is devastating where they tell the kids what is happening.
Thomas: Let’s talk about the monkey. Is it a real part of the story? Is it a metaphor or a McGuffin?
cuddler: I met Steven’s father several times but never his mother. He kept telling you more about her. My mother was a professional musician, bassoonist, and she gave up a very good career. She was principal bassoon at New York City Opera and Sadler’s Wells, she recorded Stravinsky, and then we all moved to Louisiana, and she had to give up her career, so there was this connection between Steven and me. The more he told me about Leah and showed me photos and footage, she just sounded like the most amazing character, like my mother. It was this generation just before modern feminism assimilated into the activist movement, so they were on the verge of feeling like they should break free. Despite this, there was still no movement to support it. He was telling me these things about her, how they got to northern California and all that stuff, and he said she was going through a real depression, and Steven said, “I think that was after she got the monkey,” and I said ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, she went out one day and bought a monkey and we lived with it for a couple of years.’ I thought, ‘How come you never mentioned that before?’ I asked him the name of the monkey and he said it was Bernie. You can’t invent this stuff. I mean, she buys a monkey and names it after her husband’s best friend, who she’s madly in love with. I was just like, ‘Okay, this absolutely goes in.’ I mentioned that to Steven and he was like, ‘Oh yeah. That is interesting.’ After the divorce, Arnold married a woman named Bernice. As they say, Freud would yawn. You can’t invent these things.
Thomas: It’s so fantastic it feels like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie.
cuddler: It was very moving for me how deeply all of these stories he told were connected, even if we didn’t yet know how they were connected. His dead maternal grandfather’s call to his mother in the film? That is real. The big themes that run through the film and give it its deep inner structure are also present in Steven’s life, and even that is a long time ago as it lives in his memory now. His memory organizes his past the same way he organizes his films, so maybe it’s not that surprising.
The Fabelmans is showing in select theaters before going full-scale on Wednesday, November 23, 2022.