Steven Spielberg puts his life on screen with new TIFF film The Fabelmans

·4 min read
Steven Spielberg puts his life on screen with new TIFF film The Fabelmans

Steven Spielberg has been one of the world's most successful film directors for over 40 years. But with his upcoming semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, the 75-year-old maestro is trying something new.

"I always found ways of putting my personal life into everything I've done," the filmmaker told reporters on the TIFF red carpet.

"But this was a very focused, intentional story of coming-of-age. I've never made a coming-of-age story before, told one before, and I've never told one so close to my own experiences and so close to my own heart.

"The most challenging part was finding the cast that best represents my family," Spielberg added.

The director's latest effort tells the tale of Sammy Fabelman, a young aspiring filmmaker based on Spielberg's upbringing in 1950s postwar Arizona, weaving in the origins of his passion for filmmaking and the influence of his parents on his subsequent career.

Spielberg 'likes to scare himself'

Spielberg reunites with his frequent collaborator, Academy Award-winning playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who has now written and co-written four of the director's films.

"Steven really likes to scare himself," Kushner told CBC News, referencing past collaborations on 2005's Munich, 2012's Lincoln and last year's West Side Story. "He likes to do things that he's never tried before. So in a way, this is a departure, but when he made the decision to do The Fabelmans it was the first time that he really made the decision to share his own life.

"It's a scary thing, to put your family up on the screen."

Teghan Beaudette/CBC
Teghan Beaudette/CBC

Among the cast are Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Paul Dano, and young actors like Julia Butters and Canadian-American Gabriel Labelle.

Vancouver-born Rogen, a filmmaker himself, said that he "wasn't going to squander the opportunity to be standing next to Steven Spielberg all day." Rogen plays Sammy's uncle in the film.

"I was very overt with my desire to learn from him, and I did not hide it," Rogen said on the red carpet. "I would ask him a billion questions all the time: why he was doing what he was doing, what he was going for, what the thought process was behind it.

"He seemed very happy and open to talking about it."

Spielberg was 'sensitive,' actor says

Dano, who plays a version of Spielberg's father in The Fabelmans, joked that he learned the director was a stubborn and strong-willed child.

"I feel proud of him for making this film, and I think you see it in his previous films now too once you see this: both of his parents either in him or in the characters in other films of his," Dano said.

The project is a personal one for Spielberg, who has taken some inspiration from his parents and family history in past works, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Schindler's List.

Robert Krbavac/CBC
Robert Krbavac/CBC

In fact, Judd Hirsch — who plays one of Sammy's elderly uncles in the film — said Spielberg was emotional while re-creating scenes from his own memories.

"I didn't know that he would be sensitive," Hirsch said.

"But the sensitivity was so great that he was almost going back in his own life and actually doing it again, every scene.... I mean, it was an emotional place."

Parents didn't think movies were right for Spielberg

Michelle Williams, playing the protagonist's mother, says Spielberg's family shared home movies, photos and documentation to help her capture the character.

"They just put it in my lap and I got to know her over the course of about a year," the actor said. "I wish I could go back and do it all over again, just to feel the feelings again. It was really special."

WATCH | How Spielberg took a risk with latest film, as told by his cast and crew:

Keeley Karsten, who plays the protagonist's younger sister Natalie, said that the filmmaker had a "rough childhood" but that he pushed through it.

"His parents didn't particularly think that was the right career choice for him, to become a director. But it's really what he loved to do. And that's of course inspiring to somebody who may not have all the encouragement they need but can do it anyway."

The Fabelmans marks the first time the director has premiered one of his movies at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Spielberg said that he would be nervous watching his own film with the audience. At the advice of his daughter, he'll be doing some deep breathing exercises during the screening.

"I'll be doing a lot of that tonight — four [seconds] in, eight out!"

Speaking with CBC News in July, TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey remarked that the film "reminded me that even before I knew I was interested in film, I was affected by Steven Spielberg's movies."