For nearly 50 years, Steven Spielberg has been in the filmmaking game. A prolific director with movies like Jaws, Schindler’s List, and The Color Purple under his belt, the 75-year-old auteur has brought some aspect of himself to every single story he’s put his stamp on. However, his latest film, The Fablemans, is his most personal film yet.
Based on his childhood in the 20th century and his profound admiration of film, The Fablemans is a complex and touching portrait of an American family whose dreams and desires pulled them together and split them apart.
The sweeping coming-of-age story follows Sam Fableman (Gabriel LaBelle), a teen boy who clings to his love of cinema as the dynamic of his family splinters out of his control. His father, Burt (Paul Dano), a computer man, is as loving as he is practical and even-tempered. In contrast, Sammy’s mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), is an artist — a dreamer like her only son, who can no longer stomach the confines of what it means to be a traditional 1950s housewife.
A love letter to his family, cinema, and a time past gone, The Fablemans has been in the works for nearly 20 years. Ahead of the film’s debut, Shadow and Act spoke with LaBelle, Dano, Williams, Seth Rogan, and Judd Hirsh about bringing Spielberg’s life to the big screen.
For LaBelle, stepping into Spielberg’s shoes meant there was no option to fumble. “You don’t want to be the person who messes up a Steven Spielberg movie,” he explained. “And then as I got to know Steven and I learned about his life and his family and his parents and his sisters, and we started to spend a lot of time together over Zoom, getting to know each other, then I didn’t want to mess it up for him.”
Like the Lincoln director’s relationship with his late mother, Leah — Sammy and Mitzi’s relationship is vital to The Fablemans. LaBelle knew that his connection with Williams was imperative in the film. “Any time I could share a set with her, I was doing what I was supposed to do and what I’m responsible for,” he explained. “But there was always just a quarter of my mind just observing her and Paul and Judd and trying to learn as much as possible. And anybody who shares a set with Michelle is very honored.”
An accomplished musician who tucked away her dreams for her family, Mitzi chooses to thwart society’s expectations and choose herself. “She could have taken a career path, but she chose to raise a family instead,” Williams says. “But ultimately, she does make a very modern decision at a time when women weren’t doing that, and she follows her heart, even though it goes against the time. So I think that actually, she was really a trailblazer.”
The film showcases the Fablemans in some of their crisis stages. However, there is still so much love shown between Burt and Mitzi. “I think it’s in this script, and it’s in Steven’s life, and it’s in his heart, and I think it’s what made it real and profound that a relationship can end and there’s still love,” Dano says about depicting the end of a marriage. “You can’t just sever the love; that’s what makes it all the more heartbreaking.”
In The Fabelmans, Rogen portrays Burt’s best friend and colleague, Bennie Loewy, a staple in the family’s household, whose emotional connection with Mitzi becomes glaringly evident over the years. The character is based on Bernie Adler, a family friend of the Spielbergs whom Leah would eventually marry in 1967.
Rogan was Spielberg’s only choice for the role. “When Steven and everyone in his family talked about their Uncle Bernie, who my character’s inspired by, even though their lives played out the way they did, they loved him,” Rogen explained. “They talked about him so fondly, how funny he was, how charismatic he was, how great he was. He lit up a room. That, to me, was something I consciously tried to be aware of. This guy is kind of in some ways like a splinter in the side of this family but also a kind of additive one and one that everyone likes and is very fond of. I honestly put a lot of thought into how to thread that needle.”
Watch the interviews in full below: