Steven Spielberg’s ‘Fabelmans’ Production Design is Invisible Art

Rick Carter says he approached the film as an "interior epic" and tried not to draw attention to his work.

Rick Carter at museum exhibit, "Experience 51: Time"
Jim McHugh

Rick Carter’s production design on Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” is impressive, but he worked hard to not be noticed.

“With big spectacles I’ve designed, like ‘Avatar,’ it’s hard to ignore the production design because you know it’s not real,” he says. “ ‘Fabelmans’ is the opposite: The work was designed to not be seen. If you notice production design too much, it takes you out of the movie.”

“Fabelmans” opened domestically this month amid strong Oscar buzz. Carter says Spielberg’s autobiographical film is in three acts: It begins in New Jersey in wintertime; then moves to Arizona and summer heat; then autumn in Northern California. The coda is about spring and new beginnings.

“This is my 11th movie with Steven, since 1984. We have a shorthand what he likes or doesn’t. But this was taking things to a whole other level. 

“There wasn’t a huge budget, but it’s not a small movie,” Carter says. “I felt I was designing an epic story, but it’s an interior epic.”

Carter and his team had a balancing act: to depict homes that Spielberg lived in, but not in a literal re-creation. “The key was how to make a set that he would feel at home in. It wasn’t 100% accurate; we had to extrapolate details of three houses and three major points in his life.”

Spielberg and his three sisters offered a few photos and reminiscences. “We asked all family members what they remembered. [Set decorator] Karen O’Hara wanted to make sure she had all the points of reference they had mentioned,” says Carter. 

The three houses look authentic and lived-in, but were built on stages. 

Spielberg was scheduled to walk through the three sets on the same day. But before that, “He had enough trust in Karen and me that he asked me to show his sisters the houses before he saw them. That’s unusual. He said, ‘I trust my family. This is all about getting this film made and made in the right way.’

“We let him walk in alone. I wanted him to feel ‘This is home. I can make this movie here’  — three different times in one day.”

Carter is willing to talk about his work, but he prefers talking about Spielberg, O’Hara and his co-workers.

He says, “Every department is faced with a challenge: It’s not easy to make a movie. At this stage, I don’t get hung up on the ‘stuff’ of my job. I’m much more interested in the why. If the emotion is clear and right, then the choices will show up on the screen.” 

“That’s one of the nice things about being in the business a long time. There’s no need to show off.

“I know this is not how most production designers talk about their work. This one is more like a deep-rooted tree. All the thought processes and emotions that went into every choice are below the surface.”

Not many Oscar contenders have a showing at a museum, but Carter does. The timing is coincidental. The exhibit at the El Segundo Museum of Art opened May 5 and was due to close in September, but proved so popular it was extended through March 25, 2023.

The show, “Experience 51: Time,” features sketches and designs from his films, but also work from his youth: Years ago, Carter did drawings that proved prescient, including one of Abraham Lincoln (the film “Lincoln”) and a pirate ship (“The Goonies”). 

The exhibit covers his work with James Cameron, J.J. Abrams, Robert Zemeckis and Spielberg.

It also spotlights creations by young artists who have been inspired by Carter’s work. (ESMoA describes itself as “an art laboratory.”)

“The fact that all those young artists are interpreting this work in the present tense; that makes it more special,” he says. It’s also a perfect complement to “Fabelmans,” which “is to inspire young people who are inspired by the movies — to make the past come into the present tense so it has a future.”