Interview: Tony Kushner on writing Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans; “He only likes to work on things that scare him.”

  • Peter Gray
  • December 30, 2022
  • Comments Off on Interview: Tony Kushner on writing Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans; “He only likes to work on things that scare him.”

As undoubtedly one of his generations greatest, most adored filmmakers, it’s difficult to fathom a project leaving an auteur such as Steven Spielberg vulnerable.  But for his latest film The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical look at his own beginnings as the director he came to be, Spielberg laid his soul bare – and Tony Kushner was there to make sense of it all.  Having worked together on three films – Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story – the celebrated writer knew the ins and outs of Spielberg’s psyche, but it was in believing he knew so much about the director that brought about his story’s biggest surprises.

As the film arrives in Australian theatres (you can read our review here), Tony was ever so gracious to speak with our Peter Gray about the personal reaction he has experienced with the film, how it was putting together Steven’s story, and how scared they both were in bringing it to fruition.

Congratulations on the film.  I saw this at TIFF earlier in the year and the reaction there was absolutely electric.  I have never been in a cinema with that reaction before.  It was incredible.  How have you found the reception personally? It must be pretty comforting to see this film just grow more and win people over.

 It’s very moving and exciting that people are responding to it.  I felt a degree of confidence by the time we were ready to open at Toronto that people were going to like it.  What was not clear, and this is because when you work on something really closely there’s no objectivity, I didn’t exactly know how people were going to take it.  It’s a slightly odd combination of both this semi-autobiographical movie by a very, very famous film director, and also this story that Steven and I felt would have this kind of wide appeal.  That it could reach people who cared a lot about him or his films.

It seems to be affecting people really deeply.  That’s the nice surprise of all of this.  That there’s an intensity to it.  I’m still a little mystified by it.  Not mystified that it’s happening, but by the mechanics and the machinery that makes it happen.  There are little things I didn’t realise we were doing that would have a much bigger impact.  As I’ve watched the film now with several audiences, I’ve come to understand that there are things that seem so small that are provoking a very intimate and intense response from people.  It’s nice.

 I think films about family or any type of that dynamic bring about a certain universal reaction.

 Yeah.  I think that as much as this is about a family, it’s also about somebody discovering their vocation.  And there’s a reason that many years ago, when Steven first told me about what had happened on that camping trip, that it seemed like something that he really ought to do, in terms of looking at this intersection of those two events of his parents marriage falling apart and discovering his calling in life at the same time.  That, to me, seemed quite remarkable.

 In some ways it’s a very odd family film.  It takes place over this long stretch of time.  It travels through three different states and this sort of epic story structure that isn’t usually associated with (films) that are focused on families going through a crisis.  That (story) is usually told in one concentrated moment in time.  The way The Fabelmans travels is that of an accidental consequence of Steven sharing all of these memories with me.  We didn’t realise until we put the whole thing together that we created something that actually travels, as well as bringing you in and carrying you along.  I think that’s what people are responding to.

Is there a difference from both you and Steven in coming at this particular story given how personal it is to him?

This is our fourth film together, and, you know, every single one of them has been completely different.  The first two, Munich and Lincoln, were very historical and political, but they’re very different time periods and covering very, very different events.  But they were historical dramas attempting to grapple with larger issues.  Then West Side Story was a completely other thing.  It was a musical.  So, each time we’ve had a different set of challenges.

With those films, Steven was sure he wanted to make them.  In the case of Munich there was already an existing script that he asked me to come in and rewrite.  He was certain that he wanted to make Lincoln and that he wanted to make a new version of West Side Story.  He came to me with those ideas.  The Fabelmans is different from my perspective, in that I sort of pushed him for years to think about doing this.  At first I was sort of joking.  I didn’t think he’d ever consider it.  And then when I saw that he had interest in it, although it was never anything definite, I kept nudging him over the years to figure it out.  We’ve been working together for 19 years now, so in a certain sense this feels like a project that we arrived at together, rather than something that I was given as an assignment.

It’s completely Steven’s story, so it felt like more of my job to help him get this story told, rather than bringing my own take to it.  There were certainly aspects of each of our life stories that overlapped.  My mother was a professional musician who actually had a career, but grappled with many of the issues that (Steven’s mother) grappled with.  And then the Jewish side of the story is something that we’ve always shared.  It’s been a part of our friendship and our ongoing working relationship.  I felt with The Fabelmans that there was going to be a point that I couldn’t push past and insist on doing things the way I saw it, because it needed to be Steven’s story.  It needed to be entirely his story.  He has all the power in the relationship (laughs) and he has for every movie we’ve made and every movie we’re likely to make.

I think Steven would agree with this that he’s made a lot of movies that have very intense and difficult interactions between characters.  I think Catch Me If You Can is sort of his most purely character driven film.  Yes, it’s a caper film, but it’s not addressing some sort of larger scale historical subject as well as the transactions of the characters on screen.  It’s still a caper film.  It has that structure.  The Fabelmans is really a family drama.  A comedy/drama.  We knew all along that it was going to stand or fail entirely on the success of Steven working with these amazing actors and the strength of the script.  There wasn’t going to be any aliens showing up.  There was no Civil War, or the Cold War, or anything else.  It was just an exploration of love and betrayal, and the discovering of art and heartbreak, and all those things that the movie is about.

And that was scary for him going into this.  He felt nervous about whether or not he could make (The Fabelmans).  He was nervous but I wasn’t nervous about it, because I think Steven can pretty much do anything.  I saw him go into West Side Story having seen a number of musicals, but he never actually worked on one.  That learning curve was incredibly steep.  And just task by task, he grabbed hold of every single challenge that a musical confronts a director with, and within minutes of filming it was like he had been directing musicals his whole life.  I mean, you look at that film and you can’t believe it’s someone who’s never tangled with that form.  So I know that every time we start to work on a new film, Steven is nervous and gets more and more nervous as the filming gets closer, but he only likes to work on things that scare him, which I respect a lot.  I think that’s sort of a good thing for all artists.  If you’re not feeling panic, you’re probably wasting your time.

He certainly felt it with (this).  He loved both of his parents very much.  But by the time we started filming both had passed away.  While we were filming West Side Story, (his father) Arnold was 102 and a half years old, and he was going into a pretty steep physical decline.  It was clear that he wasn’t going to live a lot longer.  He died before we started working on the script (and) I don’t think Steven could have written or filmed this if his parents were alive.  He was very nervous about giving his sisters the script to read.  He’s talked a lot about the nuclear family secrets in interviews over the years, but still having actors impersonate his parents and himself… it was a lot.  I think that added a challenge to the whole thing.

There’s these beautiful moments in the film that really have that Spielberg whimsy about them.  Something like his mother bringing home the monkey has that air about it.  I believe that revelation actually came about from Steven quite flippantly mentioning it?

I think I had maybe heard from a long time ago that he had a monkey, but I had sort of filed it away and I mostly forgotten by the time we were working on the script.  I think it was while I was interviewing him and he just casually mentioned that there was a monkey in the house.  I said “Wait a minute.  Why?”, and he told me that she had gotten into his huge depression in Northern California because this man she had fallen deeply in love, with her husband’s best friend, had been left behind in Arizona.

I was shocked to hear that she had done this, and at that point I had gotten to know her quite a lot from Steven’s stories.  People come up to me who have seen the movie and have told me about knowing her.  She ran a restaurant called “Milky Way”, it was a kosher dairy restaurant, and lots of people in LA would talk about how she danced at their table and sang a song.  She was a real performer.

But the thing that was really shocking about getting the monkey, was that it was casually mentioned the monkey’s name was Bernie.  He’s Benny in our film.  But that she had bought this monkey and named it after this guy? You can’t make this stuff up.  And then it was one of those things that I hadn’t put together that a few years later (Steven’s mother) left to marry Bernie, and then (Steven’s father) married a woman named Bernice.  It’s all kind of just waiting there to be made a meal of.  It’s just too juicy and rich.  I’m a real Freudian, so I believe in all that stuff, and Steven would just present these things and then we would pull them apart and look at what they meant.  This kind of thematic coherence began to emerge on the use of art to make the world safe for yourself.  To make the world feel more hospitable and habitable.

As I said it’s an absolutely beautiful film, and I have to note just how great the ending truly is.  I’ve seen the film twice now and the audience reaction both times was insane.  The final cameo, the final line, the final shot…it’s going to be very hard to top that.  

It was Steven’s idea to do the horizon adjustment at the end.  I thought it was a cute idea, and I thought maybe some people who are paying attention will get it.  We figured out how to make it look slightly panicky and bouncy.  I thought it’s a cute little thing at the end, but I think it was Toronto that I saw it for the first time and heard how everybody got it.  People started talking about it.  It was in this way that I finally came to understand that it’s actually a hugely important moment in the movie, because part of what is so powerful about the film is this director, who everybody has sort of grown up with, has never made his presence all that felt.  He’s a spectacular master of the idiom, and he’s stayed mostly behind the scenes.  It’s in that moment he steps out for a second and acknowledges.  Like it’s a direct moment between him and the audience that doesn’t involve characters and the fiction he’s making.

It was a cute idea, but was it too cute?  Somebody even watched the movie at one of the early watches and said it was wonderful but that we were cheapening it with that ending.  They thought we should get rid of it, and it was then that we knew we should keep it.  Now I really think it’s one of the reasons that people have developed these intense feelings about the movie.  He makes good on that promise at the very end by breaking the fourth wall and saying, you know, “Here I am.”  I think it makes a big impact.

It’s a really nice way to make him seem relatable to us mere mortals.  Thank you so much for this incredible film and for taking the time out.

Thank you, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

The Fabelmans is screening in Australian theatres from January 5th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.