Steven Spielberg wanted to tell a very personal story with “The Fabelmans,” one that was going to leave the Oscar-winning director vulnerable and raw while shooting the semi-autobiographical look at his childhood as a movie-loving kid in Arizona and Northern California. It helped, Spielberg admits, that most of the team on “The Fablemans” were the veterans of several of the filmmaker’s past productions, with some collaborators like editor Michael Kahn beginning their association as far back as 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“It was great having so many friends, and colleagues, and people who speak with each other and certainly to me in a kind of shorthand,” Spielberg said during a panel on “The Fabelmans” for Variety’s FYC Fest. “And it made making this movie so much easier than it would’ve been. It’s much easier for me to cry in front of friends than it would be in front of a whole new strange pickup crew.”
In addition to Kahn, other panelists included producer Kristie Macosko Krieger (who started working with Spielberg on the 1998 documentary “The Last Days”), cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (a Spielberg mainstay since 1993’s “Schindler’s List”), production designer Rick Carter (a frequent Spielberg collaborator since 1993’s “Jurassic Park”), editor Sarah Broshar (a member of the Spielberg group since 2017’s “The Post”), and re-recording mixer / sound designer / supervising sound editor Gary Rydstrom (a veteran of Spielberg films such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Bridge of Spies”). Only one panelist, costume designer Mark Bridges, was a first-time addition to the Spielberg troop. Because all of these artists are in heavy demand, it falls to Macosko Krieger to try to get their schedules to align when Spielberg is ready to make his next film.
“We all keep in really regular touch with each other,” Macosko Krieger said. “I just kind of put out my feelers to everybody and say, ‘This is coming up next. Are you going to be available?’ We like to keep the close collaborators as close as humanly possible.”
“The Fabelmans” is unlike most of Spielberg’s past movies. The director is best known for painting on an epic canvas, shooting action adventures about dinosaurs, sharks, extraterrestrials or globe-trotting archeologists, as well as historical dramas set in World War II or the Civil War. This film may be Spielberg’s most intimate feature since the 1974 crime thriller “The Sugarland Express.” But the production team insists that the smaller scale didn’t really change their approach.
“I saw this movie as a rather big, big, big movie simply because of the story that we’re telling,” Kaminski says. “The canvas may be small, but the emotional content of the story is just so powerful. In fact, this movie lets you understand why and how [Steven] made the other movies prior to this movie, because he allows us to see into this little glimpse of his personal life.”
In fact, Carter says, making “The Fabelmans” provided him with a deeper understanding of what made Spielberg so successful and versatile.
“All of us have, when we’ve watched, Steven, the movies that you’ve created, wondered at times how you would go into these two different zones throughout your career…where people have often wondered why you could go from ‘Jurassic Park’ to ‘Schindler’s List,’ or ‘Amistad’ into ‘Lost World’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ and have those literal dualities show up over, and over, and over again,” Carter says.
He believes the answer to this ability to toggle between populist fare and darker material may be a scene in which Judd Hirsch, who plays Spielberg’s uncle Boris, a former lion tamer and film worker, lectures Gabriel LaBelle’s Sammy (a Spielberg surrogate) on the sacrifices that are required to be an artist.
“For the people that are artists in particular, when they get to that scene with Judd Hirsch, uncle Boris, articulating the duality between art and family, and how it rips you apart, that’s real, and it’s deep, and it is epic,” Carter says.
To create the look and feel of “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg shared photos and home movies (including the “war films” he shot with friends as an aspiring teenage director). Those proved invaluable, but Bridges says he wasn’t slavish in his efforts to recreate things precisely as they appeared in archival material. He leaned into color to convey emotion.
“Judd Hirsch gave me an interesting little piece,” Bridges says. “He considered this a memory play. He goes, ‘Steven will deny that it’s a memory play, but I think it’s a memory play.’ And so I went off that little grain of something that Judd said.”
As Spielberg suggests, working on “The Fabelmans,” which depicts the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, took a lot out of the filmmaker.
“What was amazing is that we ran dailies with Steven all the time,” Kahn says. “And then he came in and he was really affected by these scenes emotionally. You could see he was looking off and sometimes he just stopped and looked off into the distance.”
There’s a reason that “The Fabelmans” production crew is eager to join forces again for the next Spielberg film.
“Steven is really fantastic at pulling out the best of everybody,” says Broshar. “So he just makes you feel like you’re giving 110%, and makes you feel really good about your contributions.”
“Working on Steven’s movies are the same thing that’s in the movie itself, in ‘The Fabelmans,’ which is a joy of filmmaking, which is more rare than you think — that pure joy in creating something cinematic, and telling a story, and being part of a crew to tell that story,” says Rydstrom.
And Spielberg hints he’s ready to see all of these collaborators saddle up on a new project soon.
“We’ll have to do a Western,” he says. “And I think what would make it unique is let’s do a Western without horses. Everybody just runs after each other on foot.”
Watch the full conversation in the video below.