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‘The Fabelmans’ Screenwriter Tony Kushner on Adapting Steven Spielberg’s Real Life: ‘I Freaked Out’

TIFF: Kushner, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Paul Dano spoke to IndieWire on the red carpet at the premiere of Spielberg's semi-autobiographical "The Fabelmans" about bringing their director's real life to the big screen.

Steven Spielberg at TIFF: "The Fabelmans"

Steven Spielberg at the premiere of “The Fabelmans” during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Over his nearly 50 years of filmmaking, Steven Spielberg has walked down too many red carpets to count.

From “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Bridge of Spies,” the legendary director’s PR-heavy vocation requires he trade in his characteristic baseball cap for a snappy suit just a few nights per year to strut his stuff in front of the press. He’s been the recognizable — if understated — centerpiece in countless iconic cast photos, boasting as many award winners as box-office dynamos.

But on Saturday night, Spielberg did something a bit new. He appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote “The Fabelmans”: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama that’s mainly about him.

“When we were making ‘Munich’ together 20 years ago, [Spielberg] told me the story that is the core of ‘The Fabelmans,'” screenwriter Tony Kushner told IndieWire. “I said, ‘You’re going to have to make a movie about that someday.’ We sort of joked about it for a long time. Then it stopped being a joke.”

“During ‘West Side Story,’ he said, ‘Why don’t we sit down and take some notes about this?'” Kushner continued. “His father was very old; he was [103]. And I think it was getting clear that he wasn’t going to be around a lot longer…So we sat down right after ‘West Side Story’ and I began to pull together an outline. Then, when lockdown started, he called me and said, ‘Let’s take the outline and boil it down.’ Then, in October 2020, he said, ‘Let’s start writing.’ And I freaked out.”

But write and, per Kushner, “re-write and re-write and re-write” they did: “We wrote three days a week, four hours a day, and we finished the script in two months: by leagues the fastest I’ve finished anything. It was a blast. I loved it.”

The Fabelmans Premiere

Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, Chloe East, Gabriel LaBelle, Steven Spielberg, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Judd Hirsch, and Tony Kushner at the TIFF premiere of “The Fabelmans”

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

The official description for the film reads: “A young man named Sammy Fabelman discovers a shattering family secret and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.”

Based on Spielberg’s childhood in Arizona, “The Fabelmans” sees Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play Mitzi and Burt Fabelman: stand-ins for Spielberg’s parents, the late Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg.

“It was overwhelming and it was sort of a heavy cloak to bear because we were with someone who was having a big experience everyday, revisiting and reworking through a part of their life,” Dano told IndieWire, also on the red carpet. “For somebody like Steven to share that much of himself with us — with the audience too — it was really a profound experience.”

“They were very generous,” Williams said of the preparation process. “There was so much information about the family, so many beautiful home movies and photos and recollections. Even spending time with Steven and his sisters. [Rehearsing was about being] allowed in and getting to know somebody.”

“I think it meant a lot to us to be a part of something so personal,” Dano said.

Seth Rogen — who plays Bennie Loewy, an uncle figure to Sammy in the film — noted the importance Spielberg’s films played in the childhoods of so many Hollywood professionals.

“I had seen other ones, but ‘Jurassic Park’ came out when I was I think 12-years-old and I saw it five times in the theater,” Rogen recalled. “I became truly obsessed with it. In a lot of ways, that feeling I had in the audience as a kid of people laughing and screaming, it’s something I still chase to this day.”

Jeannie Berlin, Julia Butters, Robin Bartlett, Keeley Karsten, and Judd Hirsch round out the main cast, with David Lynch reportedly appearing in an undisclosed role.

“The Fabelmans” begins playing a limited theatrical release November 11, opening wide November 23.

Reporting by Vincent Perella.

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