Steven Spielberg Gets Personal

Here is a brief excerpt from an interview of Steven Spielberg by for The New York Times. To read the complete interview, check out other material, and obtain information about deep-discount subscription rates, please click here.

CrEdit: Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

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In making his autobiographical film “The Fabelmans,” he confronted some painful family secrets, as well as what it means to be Jewish in America today.

Over more than 50 years, Steven Spielberg has directed movies about every subject under the sun. Sharks, dinosaurs, extraterrestrials both friendly and not, pirates, spies, soldiers and heroes both historical and imaginary. Not many filmmakers can match his range. But one subject Spielberg has avoided is himself.

Until now. “The Fabelmans” is a disarmingly, at times painfully intimate movie about a family closely modeled on the Spielbergs. It’s a portrait of the auteur as a young man that also tells the story of an unraveling marriage. Sammy Fabelman, played as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle, is the only son and oldest child of Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano), who move from New Jersey to Arizona and then Northern California in the 1950s and ’60s. As Sammy discovers his cinematic vocation — shooting movies at home, at school and with his Boy Scout troop — he witnesses Mitzi’s deepening unhappiness and Burt’s inability to deal with it.

Written with Tony Kushner, his collaborator on “Munich,” “Lincoln” and “West Side Story,” “The Fabelmans,” which opens in theaters this weekend, takes Spielberg into uncharted narrative territory. I spoke with him this month via video call about his journey into his own past, and also about the present and future state of the movies. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

“The Fabelmans” tells a story you’ve obviously lived with for a very long time. I was curious about what made it finally rise to the surface.

The impetus to actually get serious about telling it on film didn’t seriously occur to me until the pandemic.

When the pandemic first hit, some of my kids flew in from the East Coast, and they all took up residence in their old bedrooms and Kate [Capshaw, his wife] and I got a lot of our family back. It was very disconcerting not to go into work. Directing is a social occupation, and I’m very used to interacting with people every single day. I was not really acclimating to the Zoom world very well.

I had a lot of time on my hands. I used to get in my car and drive for hours — all around Los Angeles, up Pacific Coast Highway, over to Calabasas, over near Twentynine Palms. And that gave me more time to think about what was happening in the world.

I started thinking, what’s the one story I haven’t told that I’d be really mad at myself if I don’t? It was always the same answer every time: the story of my formative years growing up between 7 and 18.

You’ve dealt with families before. You’ve dealt with a childhood in the suburbs before, with divorce, but never literally from your own experience. Was it hard to go there?

Close Encounters” was about a father’s voluntary separation from the family to pursue a dream at the expense of losing his family. “E.T.” was a story of a kid who needed to fill the hole that a separation had dug out of his life, and he just happened to fill it metaphorically with this little squishy guy from outer space.

This story was no longer going to be about metaphor. It was going to be about lived experiences, and what was difficult was facing the fact that I might really tell the story. In theory, it was easy to talk to Tony Kushner about, would you collaborate with me in trying to arrange all these interesting disparate experiences into a movie narrative?

When we started writing this — Tony in New York, me in L.A. on Zoom — it started to become real, something that was tactile and triggering in all of these memories. It did become very difficult.

It’s hard to hold someone’s hand over Zoom, but Tony did a good job in giving me the kind of comfort I needed when we were tapping into moments in my life, secrets between myself and my mother that I was never ever, ever going to talk about. Neither in a written autobiography, which I’ve never done, or on film. But we got into those tender trenches.

You’ve dealt with Jewish themes and topics before, certainly in “Schindler’s List” and “Munich,” but this is the first time you’re going into a specifically Jewish American experience.

I didn’t experience antisemitism growing up in Arizona, but I had a major experience with it completing high school in Northern California.

Friends would always call me by my last name. So, the sound of Jewishness always rang in my ear when my friends would call across the hallway, “Hey Spielberg,” and I was very self-conscious about that.

Being Jewish in America is not the same as being Jewish in Hollywood. Being Jewish in Hollywood is like wanting to be in the popular circle and immediately being accepted as I have been in that circle, by a lot of diversity but also by a lot of people who in fact are Jewish. But when I was making those little 8-millimeter movies in school, at first my friends thought it was kind of weird.

It was sort of unprecedented. Nobody had cameras except a Japanese 8-millimeter camera that parents usually controlled, and they were only used for family home movies and things like that. But I was basically weaponizing my social life with a camera to curry favor with these athletic, popular kids who eventually all wanted to be in my movies.

In a way, the camera was a social passport for me. I was passionate about telling stories, but I was also passionate about belonging to something that I hadn’t been invited to belong to ever before. So, making these little movies was like a magic pill in a way.

Antisemitism is a specter in this movie that to some extent is chased away, which reflects the feeling of a lot of Jewish Americans in that time — a kind of optimism about their prospects in America. That hits a little differently in the present, when there seems to be a resurgence of antisemitism in some of its most toxic forms.

Antisemitism is only coming back because it’s being encouraged to come back. It’s not coming back because it ebbs and flows over the decades, but there has been an invitation to a toxic dance based on antisemitism being part of an ideology of separation and racism and Islamophobia and xenophobia, and it’s come barreling back. A lot of people who probably never had much of an antisemitic thought but did feel toward people of color — they felt differently, let’s say, than my sisters and I were ever raised to believe or feel, and suddenly antisemitism becomes part of the package. It’s been weaponized and it’s been encouraged more and more since 2015 or ’16.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

To learn more about Steven Spielberg, please click here.

As a child, A.O. Scott dreamed of being a rock critic. After dropping out of graduate school, he worked as a book critic, and accidentally became a film critic when The New York Times hired him in 2000. Doubling down on that bizarre decision, the paper named him chief film critic in 2004, a title he currently shares with Manohla Dargis. Mr. Scott has continued to dabble in literary criticism for The Book Review (and occasionally for other publications) and writes for The Times Magazine whenever he can. He also makes frequent appearances on radio and television, especially during Oscar season.

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