The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Fabelmans.
Can you talk about the origins of this project?
Tony Kushner: Steven told me the story that’s the core of the movie on the first day of filming Munich, in 2005, in Malta. We were doing a night shoot, and I asked him if he remembered when he knew that he was going to be a filmmaker. And he started telling me stories about the early years, including the camping trip story. And I said, “you have to make a movie out of that!” And he laughed, and then, over the years, it was kind of a running joke; I would bring it up periodically. And then, at some point (neither of us can remember when), over the last nineteen years, it turned from a joke into something that we were actually.. beginning to think about doing. And then, when we were doing West Side Story, and fighting with each other every day (especially during the rehearsal period), he called me and said, “come over and let’s start talking about my childhood memories, because I think I maybe want to do this movie some time soon.” I think he did that mostly just to make sure that we were still friends, in spite of the terrible things I was saying to him every day on the set! So we started doing interviews. I just took notes. And at some point during lockdown, he said that he was really feeling like he wanted to take this seriously as an idea. So we did more formal interviews, and then in the summer of 2020 I wrote a long, eighty one page novella of sorts based on his memories (with things rearranged), and then we took that, and condensed that into an outline, and then in October of 2020 he said, “let’s start writing.” And we wrote three days a week, for four hours a day on zoom… and we finished the script in two months. Which, for me… I still can’t believe it happened! Usually, after two months, I’ve written the first line seventy-five times over and over again, thrown it away, started therapy, quit therapy, gained ten pounds, lost twenty… actually, the other way around. But, we finished it. And he was shocked too! And we did a bunch of re-writes, and then we got the actors and we filmed it.
the shoot really was a kind of trip through somebody’s psyche
Michelle, what was your reaction, when you learned you’d be in this film?
Michelle Williams: It was the middle of the pandemic — deep pandemic — and a text came through on my phone that I didn’t understand, or know how to read. I showed it to my husband, and he said, “no, that says what you think it says… he ‘wants to zoom with you.’ ” And we sort of jumped around the room, and did awkward middleaged people dances… and then I took a shower, put on a dress, brushed my hair… all new things. And didn’t know what was waiting for me on the other end of the screen. And… he started talking to me about his life, and his memories, and his mother… but he didn’t explicitly say to me, “this is why I want to talk to you.” And I had to brave mortification and say, “I think what I’m hearing you say is… you want me to be your mom.” And he said, “yes, yes, yes!” And I tried not to, you know, not to lose it in front of him. And then spent the next day crying, and the next day laughing, and the next day working… because the script had arrived, and then the work begins.
Gabriel, what was your experience like, when you were cast?
Gabriel LaBelle: I had just finished shooting a pilot in California, and had come home to Vancouver. So I had to quarantine for two weeks in an Airbnb. And the first audition I had, once I had been released from this quarantine was “an untitled Amblin film.” And everything TBD — you have no idea what it is. And there are two scenes to look at… and it’s not until much later that you hear, “I think he’s directing it! And it’s about his life! And that character you’re reading for… is him!” And then I find these articles: Michelle is attached, and Paul, and Seth… and Tony is writing it with him… and I hear nothing for three months. So, you assume you don’t get it. And then suddenly they want a callback over zoom, with Cindy Tolan, the casting director. And that went well. And the next day, they’re like, “Steven would like to meet with you now.” Which is the most validating thing on the planet, to be told that. It feels amazing. Two days after that, I have another scene over zoom with him, and it goes really well (I think), and I just felt like… we had this amazing conversation for thirty-five minutes. Twenty-five minutes I was acting, but thirty-five minutes we really connected on what this movie is, and about his life… and I just came away thinking, “if it’s not this, it’s the next one.” Maybe he’s looking for another character some day. I did what I can do, and this is amazing. And then the next day, they tell me that I had gotten the part. And, umm… the work begins a week later, when I get the script. And I just wanted to understand the story— understand his life, who he is. What story he wants to tell, about his parents, about him, his perspectives, his relationships and how they all change.
You’re playing characters based on real people, but those people aren’t known by the audience. However, they’re very well known by your director. Can you talk about that dynamic?
MW: I guess I didn’t think of her as being a fictionalized version of Steven’s mother; I thought I was his mother. It’s actually why I’m not really able to look at playback, or look at stills, or watch things, because in my head there is no separation. So I wasn’t really… there are certain aspects of selfhood that are very difficult to escape. And so… the thing I’m always working for is to get as far away from myself as possible, because there are things I’m going to take along for the ride that I hope I can shed over time, because I want to grow and expand and not be bound by certain aspects of myself that may or may not be helpful in playing a character. I’m really trying to get as far away from myself as possible. Because the things that are inherent to me, I bring them along anyway. I really didn’t think, “what’s my interpretation of this woman?” I was really interested, mostly, in the source material: all of the facts, the details, the memories, the… everything that was this woman, as those things meet, as they collide, with this titanic script. And that, to me, was really the synthesis that I was looking to make.
Paul Dano: It’s funny, because one of the first things that Steven said was that he was not looking for any sense of mimicry or imitation, or any of that. But each week, as we zoomed and we talked about his father — and you could feel his memories coming back, the closer and closer we got to the film, just more things would come up — you could tell, sort of… and, by the way, his father had passed away probably not more than eight months before I had read the script, and the last scene of Burt’s in the film we shot on the day of the one-year anniversary of his passing… So, I think I could feel in him… you know, his yearning for his father to be alive, in some way. And this was a very unique experience. Steven’s had the same crew for twenty, thirty years, and they all said this one was different. And I think that the process, to me, felt very alive throughout. Not only was Tony there (and still working on things every day), but I think Steven also had a big experience making it. And within the first two weeks, I saw his young point of view, his present self seeing this material as an older person, and then the storyteller. And I just remember being surprised, considering that it’s a period piece and it’s based on someone’s life, how alive it felt while we were doing it. The nostalgia in the film is so beautiful… but it felt very alive. I tried to take the lead from the character. So, meaning, he’s an engineer— so I literally tried to build a character. And how do I get to page one of the script? What can I build to support that? We had incredible resources. And we had each other. It was at times a heavy cloak to bear, even though Steven’s fun to work with, because of his relationship with his father. And I often felt relationship in the room in some way, shape, and form in ways that I couldn’t always identify… but that were there.
TK: You know, it just occurred to me: When we were making this movie — Steven’s worked with the same crew for decades, over and over and over again — something happened: everything moved really, really slowly. On Munich and on Lincoln, Steven would have a boombox, and if the crew was taking too long to do the next setup, he would push a button and the theme music from Jaws would play… so he wouldn’t yell at anybody, but everybody would just start moving faster: “I’m getting tired of waiting,” you know? And West Side Story, which was just a gigantic movie… moment after moment, dances, incredible setups… and they happened like clockwork. And we got to The Fabelmans (which in some ways, felt like a really small movie compared to… the civil war, this giant musical, or blowing up and murdering people in Munich)… this one is, you know, just a nice bunch of people sitting around having a hard time! But everything… I don’t know, you guys have made way more movies than I have, but… it was just like, “what the heck is taking so long?!” Everything was taking years to setup. And I really began to feel… because I’m an old Freudian and I think everything happens for a reason… that the crew was very connected to what you were just talking about, Paul. Steven was really struggling with this stuff. The day that Paul arrived to start filming (Gabe had been there for months at that point), and then Michelle came in… And it was like, “momma’s here! Sammy’s here!” But the day that “dad” arrived, Steven had a little tiny nervous breakdown. We were filming in a car, and he was freaking out when things didn’t look right for technical reasons. But there was a way in which the shoot really was a kind of trip through somebody’s psyche. And I think that Steven’s crew, these people who had worked with him for years and years… I think there was a way that everyone was hooked into that. And it made the experience more interesting. It felt like therapy, in a way, in that you’re sort of struggling session by session to get through.