Steven Spielberg Gets Personal

In making his autobiographical film “The Fabelmans,” he confronted some painful family secrets, as well as what it means to be Jewish in America today.

Steven Spielberg said that during the pandemic, he began considering a movie about his formative years: “I started thinking, what’s the one story I haven’t told that I’d be really mad at myself if I don’t?”Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

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By A.O. Scott

Over more than 50 years, Steven Spielberg has directed movies about every subject under the sun. Sharks, dinosaurs, extraterrestrials both friendly and not, pirates, spies, soldiers and heroes both historical and imaginary. Not many filmmakers can match his range. But one subject Spielberg has avoided is himself.

Until now. “The Fabelmans” is a disarmingly, at times painfully intimate movie about a family closely modeled on the Spielbergs. It’s a portrait of the auteur as a young man that also tells the story of an unraveling marriage. Sammy Fabelman, played as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle, is the only son and oldest child of Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano), who move from New Jersey to Arizona and then Northern California in the 1950s and ’60s. As Sammy discovers his cinematic vocation — shooting movies at home, at school and with his Boy Scout troop — he witnesses Mitzi’s deepening unhappiness and Burt’s inability to deal with it.

Written with Tony Kushner, his collaborator on “Munich,” “Lincoln” and “West Side Story,” “The Fabelmans,” which opens in theaters this weekend, takes Spielberg into uncharted narrative territory. I spoke with him this month via video call about his journey into his own past, and also about the present and future state of the movies. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

“The Fabelmans” tells a story you’ve obviously lived with for a very long time. I was curious about what made it finally rise to the surface.

The impetus to actually get serious about telling it on film didn’t seriously occur to me until the pandemic.

When the pandemic first hit, some of my kids flew in from the East Coast, and they all took up residence in their old bedrooms and Kate [Capshaw, his wife] and I got a lot of our family back. It was very disconcerting not to go into work. Directing is a social occupation, and I’m very used to interacting with people every single day. I was not really acclimating to the Zoom world very well.

I had a lot of time on my hands. I used to get in my car and drive for hours — all around Los Angeles, up Pacific Coast Highway, over to Calabasas, over near Twentynine Palms. And that gave me more time to think about what was happening in the world.

I started thinking, what’s the one story I haven’t told that I’d be really mad at myself if I don’t? It was always the same answer every time: the story of my formative years growing up between 7 and 18.

You’ve dealt with families before. You’ve dealt with a childhood in the suburbs before, with divorce, but never literally from your own experience. Was it hard to go there?

“Close Encounters” was about a father’s voluntary separation from the family to pursue a dream at the expense of losing his family. “E.T.” was a story of a kid who needed to fill the hole that a separation had dug out of his life, and he just happened to fill it metaphorically with this little squishy guy from outer space.

This story was no longer going to be about metaphor. It was going to be about lived experiences, and what was difficult was facing the fact that I might really tell the story. In theory, it was easy to talk to Tony Kushner about, would you collaborate with me in trying to arrange all these interesting disparate experiences into a movie narrative?

When we started writing this — Tony in New York, me in L.A. on Zoom — it started to become real, something that was tactile and triggering in all of these memories. It did become very difficult.

It’s hard to hold someone’s hand over Zoom, but Tony did a good job in giving me the kind of comfort I needed when we were tapping into moments in my life, secrets between myself and my mother that I was never ever, ever going to talk about. Neither in a written autobiography, which I’ve never done, or on film. But we got into those tender trenches.

You’ve dealt with Jewish themes and topics before, certainly in “Schindler’s List” and “Munich,” but this is the first time you’re going into a specifically Jewish American experience.

I didn’t experience antisemitism growing up in Arizona, but I had a major experience with it completing high school in Northern California.

Friends would always call me by my last name. So, the sound of Jewishness always rang in my ear when my friends would call across the hallway, “Hey Spielberg,” and I was very self-conscious about that.

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