Amid increasing Covid deaths I thought now is the time to tell my story: Steven Spielberg on The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans. Image credit: TIFF

 Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans was world premiered during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as a special presentation.  It was for the first time that Spielberg came to the Festival with his most personal film based on his experiences during his childhood in Arizona, his passion for movie making, and the family dynamics that crept into his work. 

Steven Spielberg. Image credit: Facebook page

Cameron Bailey, the CEO of TIFF, spoke to Spielberg and his team. Editorial Director of Canadian Media and IBNS-TWF Correspondent Asha Bajaj shares the conversation between Cameron Bailey and Steven Spielberg.


This is your most personal experience based on your childhood passion for moviemaking and reflects the power of how you can shape our lives, and how it can illuminate things around us as seen in young Sammy Fabelman. Can you talk a little bit about making this film and telling this story now and what that power in movies in life is meant to you?

I thought it to be a lot easier than turned out to be because I certainly knew all materials and all characters my entire life. Yet I found it to be a very daunting experience because I was attempting in a semi-autobiographical way to recreate huge recollections not only in my life but in the lives of my three sisters and my brothers and my mother and father who are no longer with us. I felt a huge responsibility. It started to build when Tony Kushner (Producer) and I sat together and as we started working on this. Tony was always there as a counselor to get it out of me. I realized that there was no static distance between me and my experiences. I was not able to put a camera between myself and real things happening to me. I have always used the camera between myself and reality to protect myself. I could not do it while telling the story as the castes know it was emotionally very difficult, not all of this but some of it was. 

Talk a little bit about casting Gabriel in the role of Sammy with a breakout performance.

I was looking for a very good-looking and sexy person from Canada. Sammy is from Vancouver. Once again none of this is really easy because we do not often see ourselves as our friends and families see us. As a kid growing up I have a lot of reasons why I was always at the corner. I was shy and also insecure as I was growing up. I needed to find someone that would not bring too much self-awareness to Sammy and could perform well enough to convince that there was self-awarenessIt was because in Gabriel I saw the realism and the authenticity of the actor. He understands how to speak someone else’s words but also feels like he is making up the words as he speaks. I tested him live over zoom and I was convinced that he already had the part.

Can you tell me a little more about your joy of movie-making? We have seen in your career that you do just about everything that movies can do. But we see little Sammy discovering techniques, the effects, the illusions that create that emotional reaction from audiences. It is really wonderful to see what might have gone into creating the young Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker. Can you talk about those moments and recreating those 8-millimeter films, which is one of the pleasures of the film?  

I worked really hard to make sure that all of the recreations of the  8-millimeter that I shot as a kid were better than the  8-millimeter that I shot as a kid. So I kept the camera low on the ground when the kids were blowing themselves up by stepping on the sea saw to throw the dirt in the air. I just tried to make it look better because I have seen those films and I made a private yarn that showed escape to nowhere. This was a little thing that I showed to the entire cast around the monitor and I showed it to Gabriel when we were shooting the Omaha beach scene on the third day of shooting in Ireland. They all gathered around the monitor and I showed them this old movie that I had made when I was 16 and I think to an actor they thought what are we doing in Ireland with this guy? Why is he showing it to me? But no, it was joyful for me to recreate those films and I shot a lot of such 8-millimeter films as a kid. It was unique in those days. Not a lot of people were going out and shooting 8-millimeter films. It was a physical craft. There were no tools so you had to sit there with a butt splicer and you had to scrape the emulsion off the film in order to get a seal. When you put glue on it you literally glued the film together and I miss it. I must say I missed it. I was the last person to cut on film in Hollywood. the very last person with the film on the spools going through the gates and I missed the evolution. The digital age is fine. We all work within it and we all benefit from it. But I missed the smell of the celluloid and getting your hands cutting yourself on the butt splicer. All those little crafted moments that we all grew up with. I am just sad for the next generation that will never have a butt splicer or have to thread a camera and get the film properly in the gate. It was just a wonderful thing to be able to have been exposed to that in my generation. There was joy for me to recreate.

Would you share your experiences with your audience?

I have been very sad in my life at times and I have been seeing divorces and such stuff traumatizing the family. I thought I had to tell the story of my Mom and Dad’s divorce when I was a teen. I wrote some pages about it and then I was carried away because there was something between me, and reality. So I put an alien between me and the reality of the divorce. I was kind of chasing the squirrel. I just wanted to tell a completely honest story with my recollections. I am not saying that all my recollections are 100% accurate but as best as I can recollect. I wanted to tell a story that most reflected my experiences growing up with my sisters who were here and their experiences growing up with me, my Mom and Dad, and my Uncle Benny. Also because of Covid none of us were working and were basically at home. My job as a director was social and involved meeting people and interacting with them. All of my writer friends were working during Covid. But all my kids came back and all of us were under one roof and watching gloomy news about the pandemic and how it would affect us. The death toll was rising and I began to think about how far this pandemic is going to take us and how it would affect humanity. At that time I thought that now is the time for me to tell a story that I always wanted to tell, a story about coming of age in this very unique family, with a very unique mother and father. I felt this may be the best time with all the time that I had at my hands that I had at my disposal. After that, I sat with Toni and started writing on Zoom together. I thought this was something I got to get out of me and I was also in my early 70s. I thought I was vulnerable, and about the inevitability of the future due to covid.

What is the one movie or movie-maker that really made you fall in love with movies? Jorn Ford figures so prominently in the film. Well, I presume it was John Ford.

Well, it was actually Walt Disney because you have to know the filmmaker. The first thing I followed as a kid was just movies by Walt Disney because that was the only exposure I had after Cecil B. DeMille. The first movie I ever saw was the greatest show on earth of a train wreck. I actually recreated that train wreck just the way Sammy does on 8-millimeter film because I had to look at that over and over again to get it out of my system. I was only allowed to watch Disney films. So that was actually the first filmmaker that I was in love with. But of course, it is well known how much I love John Ford and I am not going to say too much about what is absolutely authentic and what is a little bit you know is invented based on an authentic recollection but I can say that John Ford happened to me word by word nothing more nothing less that was it.

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