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On Sunday night, Steven Spielberg debuted his highly personal new film The Fabelmans at TCL Chinese Theatre, just steps away from where his hand and footprints are memorialized in cement. The movie, which he also co-wrote as well as directed, traces a slightly fictionalized version of his early life and his journey to becoming the world’s most famous filmmaker — and the family that helped him get there.
“It took me a minute to realize what he was asking,” Williams told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s premiere, which doubled as the closing night of L.A.’s AFI Fest, of getting the call from Spielberg to play his mother. “It’s still taking me a minute to realize where I am and what’s happening, it’s pretty dreamy.”
Seth Rogen also co-stars as a close friend of the family, and joked that when Spielberg first rang him up, he was “worried I was in trouble of some sort, that he was calling to yell at me for some joke I’d made.” When it became clear the call was actually for a part, Rogen said it was “a very surreal moment.”
“I have friends who have worked with Steven Spielberg and it’s been surreal for everyone I know, but also, the added layer of it being such a deeply personal film, it was something that was not lost on anybody,” Rogen continued. “There was a point that I went up to Michelle and was like, ‘You’ve worked with Scorsese, does this seem different than that?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh this is way different. This is a singular experience.’ Which I was glad she verified my feeling that that’s what was happening.”
As the iconic director dug deep into his past for the story, Williams said every day of the production was very emotional, which Rogen also confirmed.
“He would cry a lot, openly,” he said of Spielberg. “We’d show up on set and he would just see a certain piece of wardrobe or a certain piece of set dec[oration] or everyone coming together to recreate a certain thing. I saw him cry dozens of times throughout filming the movie which was actually very beautiful and I think made everyone want to really honor what he was doing. You saw how much it meant to him and how truthful he was being.”
Added LaBelle, “Sometimes we’d all do a group hug afterward or at the end of the day. You could feel it, it’s a really personal project and it was really special for everybody to be a part of so everybody just understood. It was actually really comforting.”
Tony Kushner, a longtime Spielberg collaborator, co-wrote the script with him, noting, “I’ve never had as much fun writing in my entire life. I usually don’t have a lot of fun writing.” The two worked on the film via Zoom during the pandemic in what started out as low-pressure fun. In splitting duties, Kushner said he came up with the name “Fabelman” but told Spielberg he had to name his sisters and mother.
“Spielberg means play-mountain; ‘spieler’ is an actor in Yiddish, and a ‘spiel’ can be speech or can be a play. I’ve always thought how wild that this guy is this great once-in-a-century storyteller who would be called Spielberg, play-mountain,” Kushner said of his thought process in naming the family. “I wanted to have some of that meaning, and I’ve always liked the German word ‘fabel,’ which means fable. And because the movie is autobiographical for Steven but it isn’t an autobiography, it’s not a documentary, so there’s a fictional element as well. So I thought that ‘Fabelman’ was a nod to that.”
Spielberg’s three sisters, who were also in attendance at the premiere, were involved throughout the process in the portrayal of themselves and their family. Kusher explained: “They were on set a lot, they brought all of these things that belonged to their mother and father and actually put them on the set,” as well as helping production designers with the recreation of their childhood homes.
“It was, in that sense, a family endeavor,” Kushner added.
Inside the screening, Spielberg took the stage to a standing ovation, telling the crowd that after premiering so many films at the Chinese Theatre, “I feel that I have left more body parts than just my hands and footprints in cement out in front of this place, but tonight feels completely different and it is because The Fabelmans has been a different experience for me,” in telling his own family’s story.
He said Kushner urged him to “tell a story based on the real people and real events that influenced so much of the rest of my life,” which became “a character-driven story that I can only hope will be relatable to anyone who ever grew up in a complicated family — and there’s no such thing as a family that isn’t complicated.”
The Fabelmans hits theaters starting Nov. 11.
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