Weaving ‘The Fabelmans’ from Steven Spielberg’s Childhood Memories

Watch Pulitzer Prize winner and Academy Award nominee Tony Kushner discuss translating his longtime collaborator's life into a screenplay.

The-Fabelmans

“The Fabelmans”

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Curated by the IndieWire editorial team, Craft Considerations is a video platform for filmmakers to discuss how they applied their craft to a recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. For this edition, we look at how “The Fabelmans” screenwriter Tony Kushner collaborated with Steven Spielberg to tell a story that was deeply personal for both of them.

In 2005, screenwriter Tony Kushner was sitting with Steven Spielberg on the set of their first film together, “Munich.” It was the night shooting began, and Kushner casually asked Spielberg when he realized that he wanted to be a filmmaker. “He told me about the films he made as a little kid, and at some point he told me the story of the camping trip,” Kushner told IndieWire. That camping trip — a family outing where a young Spielberg discovered his mother was in love with his father’s best friend by catching them together on camera — would, 17 years later, serve as the focal point of Kushner and Spielberg’s fourth and most personal collaboration, “The Fabelmans.”

“I said ‘That’s an absolutely astonishing story, and someday you have to make a movie about it,'” Kushner said. “He sort of laughed it off, and I wasn’t serious — I mean, we had never worked together before.” Over the years, the idea became a running joke between the two, until it developed into something more serious while they were in rehearsals on “West Side Story.” Kushner and Spielberg were clashing over their approach to the musical, and to clear the air Spielberg suggested that they get together at his apartment. There, Spielberg began relating some of his memories to Kushner, and the seeds of “The Fabelmans” were planted.

“His mother had died about two years before we started filming ‘West Side Story,’ and his father was 102 and going into a pretty steep decline,” Kushner said. “It was clear that he wasn’t going to live a lot longer, and I think that made Steven think that it was possibly time to give this serious consideration.” When the COVID lockdown delayed the release of “West Side Story” for a year, Spielberg and Kushner began having more formal conversations over Zoom, during which the screenwriter collected the raw data for a film. Ultimately, he took all of his notes and used them as the basis for an 82-page telling of Spielberg’s life in prose, with the names changed but the basic facts intact. Then Kushner and Spielberg spent four hours a day, three days a week, writing the script in Final Draft’s “collaboration” mode so that each could see what the other was typing.

As Kushner discusses in the video above, a healthy give-and-take has characterized all of his collaborations with Spielberg, but the autobiographical nature of “The Fabelmans” required a slightly softer touch from the screenwriter. “It was important that I continue to fight for anything that I thought was really important, but there was a certain perimeter that I wouldn’t cross,” Kushner said. “If he said ‘I don’t think my mother would ever say that,’ or ‘Something like that wouldn’t have happened in my family,’ I couldn’t say, ‘Well, yes it would, Steven.'” At its best, the partnership yielded discoveries that neither writer could entirely take credit for: “The great thing is that it never feels like winning or losing. We always keep going until one of us has convinced the other of his vision, or if we can’t be convinced of the legitimacy of that vision, at least so that we understand how the other is seeing the issue. The gold standard is when neither of us actually wins the point, but out of that discussion comes a new alternative that neither of us had envisioned.”

If Kushner and Spielberg’s “Fabelmans” fights were milder than usual, perhaps it’s because the project was so personal for both men. “My mother was a professional musician. She and Leah Spielberg were both members of a post-war generation of women who came of age in a period when feminism hadn’t coalesced into a movement yet, but it was on its way.” Kushner related not only to his female protagonist’s frustrated artistic pursuits but the costs of an artistic life in general. “I could identify with that in the way that I think anybody who wants to be an artist can. As Uncle Boris says in the movie, it’s gonna tear you in two.” –Jim Hemphill

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