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The Fabelmans fact and fiction: Steven Spielberg’s childhood

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans  (© Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved)
Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans (© Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved)

The Fabelmans spoilers below

Long before the accolades started to fly in, rumour had it that The Fabelmans was Steven Spielberg’s best film. Although the 76-year-old is the highest grossing director of all time, co-founder of Dreamworks and the mind behind 34 films including Jaws, Schindler’s List, E.T. and Saving Private Ryan, in The Fabelmans he presents something new.

The film is the first time Spielberg has put his family explicitly front and centre; this is an autobiographical retelling of his childhood, centring around his parent’s divorce – a crushing moment in the Academy Award-winning filmmaker’s life which he has, by his own admission, spent his five decade career working through. “Has this been $40 million of therapy?” pondered Spielberg on CBS news.

The film begins in 1952, with five year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) going to the cinema for the first time. Terrified by the train crash scene in The Greatest Show on Earth, he re-enacts it again and again at home with his model train set. To save his toys from getting broken, his mother suggests capturing the trains crashing into each other on film – that way Sammy can rewatch it as many times as he wants: “He’s trying to get some sort of control over it,” she says. And so, Spielberg indicates, this is exactly what he’s spent his life trying to do: gain back control through film.

From E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, where the Taylors are coping with their father’s departure; to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where dad Roy Neary is so obsessed with extraterrestrials he literally leaves the planet; to Hook, where workaholic Peter Banning repeatedly lets down his family, it’s been extremely clear to those who know anything about Spielberg’s early life that he has been weaving his parent’s broken relationship into his work for years.

The family

Paul Dano, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan in The Fabelmans (eOne UK)
Paul Dano, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan in The Fabelmans (eOne UK)

Spielberg was born in Ohio, the eldest of four children and the only son. When he was six years old, his family moved to New Jersey, where they stayed for five years.

Spielberg’s father, Arnold, was a talented electrical engineer and the family moved as he got promoted – after New Jersey, they moved to Phoenix, then Saratoga in north California.

Arnold would end up doing important work for General Electric: in the Sixties he designed a series of small frame computers, laying the groundwork for the pioneers who would follow twenty years later. In The Fabelmans, one of the sisters of the family calls the father figure, Burt (Paul Dano) a “genius”.

Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler, was a very different being, an effervescent ex- concert pianist who found life as a Fifties housewife restrictive and soul-destroying. But as The Fabelmans shows, the two parents complimented each other; Leah brought fun into the house when Arnold was busy working and Arnold was entranced by and forgiving of Leah’s flights of fancy (which really included buying a monkey on a whim, as Mitzi, the Leah character, does in the film).

Even when she decided to leave him to live with one of his closest friends, Arnold covered for Leah, pretending to the kids that the break up was his decision – which is reflected in the movie. In real life, it irrevocably damaged his relationship with Spielberg. In a 2012 60 Minutes interview that Leah and Arnold gave together, Arnold said: “"I think I was just protecting her, because I loved her… Still do.”

The Spielberg household was constantly being pulled between the parents’ two extremes. In The Fabelmans, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), lays it out: “In this family, it’s the scientists versus the artists. Sammy’s on my team, takes after me.”

The filmmaker

Spielberg was a dab hand at filmmaking almost from the moment he picked up a camera. He spent his childhood making silent films on Super 8 cameras with his boy scout friends; aged 13 he made a 40-minute war film, which won a statewide competition and when he was 17 he made his first feature-length film. A science fiction adventure, it very much set the stage for Spielberg’s later work, though of course, he didn’t know it yet.

Despite making as many as twenty films throughout his teenage years, and having his passions fanned by his mother, Spielberg followed his Dad’s advice and did not go to film school, opting instead for California State University, Long Beach (he apparently didn’t have the grades to go anywhere more prestigious). His career is said to have turned on a chance encounter when a Universal Studios tour turned into a three-day pass, which turned into an unofficial apprenticeship.

Most of this story features in The Fabelmans: teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) makes his films, and his mother and father attend their screenings, proud as punch. It’s not as simple as to say that Arnold - or Burt - wasn’t interested in his son’s aspirations. It was, after all, Arnold’s cameras that Spielberg used to make his first films, and in The Fabelmans Spielberg recognises this. He has Burt (along with his sisters) taking part in some of Sammy’s early films – while Sammy’s filming a Western, Burt pitches in, wafting a piece of cardboard to simulate desert wind.

His mum, Leah

Michelle Williams as Mitzi in The Fabelmans (© Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.)
Michelle Williams as Mitzi in The Fabelmans (© Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.)

Leah was creative, romantic and a freethinker. In The Fabelmans Mitzi laughs loudly, cries often, dances in a see-through nightie on a camping trip and speaks to her children as if they are friends: “My mom always referred to herself as Peter Pan, the little girl who never wanted to grow up,” Spielberg told Time Magazine. “She loved being in our lives as our friend more than our mom. She befriended us more than parented us.”

The Fabelmans centres on Mitzi’s relationship with Sammy - everyone else, even Burt, is secondary. The film’s devastating turn of events comes when the 16-year-old Sammy accidentally catches evidence of his mum having an affair while filming a family camping trip. He realises what’s going on when he watches back footage of the holiday; he has captured moments when Mitzi and one of Burt’s best friends, Bennie (Seth Rogan) are lightly touching, or staring deeply into each other’s eyes.

This is exactly what happened in Spielberg’s own life. Just like in The Fabelmans, Spielberg showed the footage to his mother, who admitted everything. The duo apparently kept this explosive exchange a secret for the rest of their lives – shortly after her divorce from Arnold, Leah would go on to marry Bernie Adler, the real Bennie.

Speaking to Time, Spielberg said: “What’s weird for me is that I didn’t believe the truth that my eyes were telling me. I only believed what the film was telling me. And so that became my truth for many things. If the film told me the truth, I would believe it to be a fact.”

Joseph McBride, who wrote the unauthorised biography of Spielberg – interviewing 327 people in the process – told The Times that The Fabelmans shows, “how close [Spielberg] was to his mother in an almost unhealthy way. The scene with her dancing is very erotic.”

His dad, Arnold

While Burt is slightly in the background of The Fabelmans, Spielberg paints a kind picture of his father: Burt is incredibly understanding of Mitzi (for example, she hates doing the dishes, so the family eats on disposable plates and with disposable cutlery every night) and supportive of Sammy, whose ambitions differ so greatly from his own, though as Arnold did, Burt encourages his son to view film as a hobby, and pursue a more secure career.

Speaking to CBS, Spielberg said: "Well, you know, see, my dad was very practical. What, one in a million people get to be a movie director? He was simply trying to protect me."

When Arnold and Leah divorced (three years after Spielberg’s camping trip discovery), Arnold moved into an apartment in Los Angeles. Just as in The Fabelmans, Spielberg lived with his father while attending college. “Contrary to what you would think, Arnold got custody of Steven,” explains biographer McBride.

Arnold, like Leah, would remarry – but 32 years later. He then stayed with his new wife Bernice Colner for 19 years, until her death in 2016.

The divorce fallout

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan as Mitzi and Bennie in The Fabelmans (eOne UK)
Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan as Mitzi and Bennie in The Fabelmans (eOne UK)

In The Fabelmans, Spielberg shows a little of the resentment he felt towards both of his parents for divorcing, but Sammy is particularly angry at Mitzi and Bennie. He ignores his mum on several occasions, in one scene walking past his mother to stand with his father after a film screening – she takes a ride home with Bennie instead. An old friend of Spielberg’s, Don Shull, said this scene was true to life: “Steven was really mad at his mother during that period. His mother would drive her Jeep past them when they were walking to school and Steven would refuse to ride with her.”

Spielberg’s fury at his mother has also played out in several of his films. In AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), prototype Mecha child David longs for mother figure Monica Swinton to love him. In Catch Me If You Can (2002), Paula Abagnale, the mother of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Frank, has an affair with a friend of Frank’s father, and the parents subsequently divorce.

But it was Arnold who took the brunt of Spielberg’s anger. Speaking to CBS, Spielberg said: “When my mom and my dad announced that they were separating, as is portrayed in The Fabelmans, my dad fell on the sword… But I didn’t know there was a sword to fall on. I simply took him at his word. And I lived with that, and I blamed my dad for that, for years.” Apparently Spielberg and his father were hardly in contact for as many as 15 years.

Spielberg only glimpsed the extent of his father’s distress about losing Leah once: “I was a crier. My dad wasn’t,” said Spielberg to Time. “Once when I was a kid, he and my mom had a huge fight. It was dark outside, in the middle of the night. I remember hearing a sound I had never heard before. Of a man sobbing. But it was a high, almost a falsetto. I’d never heard that kind of a sound before. It sounded like there was a ghost in the house.”

When he went to investigate the source of the sound, he saw his dad folded over his mother’s lap. “His back was heaving, he was sobbing so hard,” said Spielberg.

Why now?

Leah died in 2017 aged 97, Arnold died in 2020 aged 103 and Bernie died in 1995 aged 75 – but Spielberg says he wasn’t waiting for their passing to make a film about his childhood, but rather he had previously been “in denial” that he “would ever really need to tell my own story”.

Leah, in fact, had always encouraged her son to make a film about his early life: "My mom was really kind of pushy about, ‘Steve, when are you gonna tell our story? When are you gonna tell my story?’" Spielberg told 60 Minutes. She’d also previously said: “There’s a little bit of [the family’s] story in all your films. But you’ve always felt safer using metaphor. And I think you’re probably scared of the lived experience.”

Nevertheless, Spielberg explained to Time, he didn’t want to hurt anyone with The Fabelmans: “There are no villains in this at all. There are simply choices, and we’re not villains for making those choices, no matter who it hurts.” When speaking to CBS he added: “I wouldn’t have done anything to hurt or disappoint my parents… To me it was more of a gift to them than any kind of a criticism about how my life and my sisters’ lives wasn’t as hunky-dory as people assume."

Spielberg told Time that unpacking The Fabelmans with his sisters was, “one of the best moments I’ve had in my relationship with all of them. We’ve always been close, but this story brought us back together again as if we were all back in Phoenix.

“It brought Dad and Mom back to them in a way that was painful but also liberating.”

Being Jewish

Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) directing a film in The Fabelmans (© Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.)
Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) directing a film in The Fabelmans (© Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.)

Despite attending Hebrew school from the age of seven to ten, and raising his own children with a Jewish education, Spielberg hasn’t always had an easy relationship with his Jewish identity.

“I was embarrassed, I was self-conscious, I was always aware I stood out because of my Jewishness," Spielberg told the New York Times. “In high school, I got smacked and kicked around. Two bloody noses. It was horrible." Sometimes in the corridors people would throw money at him, or pretend to sneeze and say ‘Ah-Jew’.

And it wasn’t just the school kids, either. In Arizona, neighbours would literally chant “​​the Spielbergs are dirty Jews” by his house.

As a result, Spielberg would sometimes deny his heritage, claiming that his surname was German rather than Jewish. "I’m sure my grandparents are rolling over in their graves right now, hearing me say that,” Spielberg told 60 Minutes.

The Holocaust loomed large over his childhood: it was constantly spoken about at home. Arnold had lost around twenty relatives. “The Holocaust had been part of my life… We lost cousins, aunts, uncles,” said Spielberg in 1993.

In fact, Spielberg learnt numbers from a Holocaust survivor who was being taught English by his grandmother. Using his concentration camp tattoo, “He would roll up his sleeves and say, ‘This is a four, this is a seven, this is a two’,” said Spielberg to The New York Times. “It was my first concept of numbers.”

In The Fabelmans, Spielberg goes a little into the antisemitism he experienced as a teenager. The bullies call Sammy ‘Bagleman’ and beat him up for being Jewish. But arguably he holds back. In reality, Spielberg found his experiences at his northern California high school “hell on earth”.

It was Spielberg’s award-winning 1993 Holocaust film, Schindler’s List, which helped him further resolve some of the issues he had been feeling about his heritage: “The experience of making Schindler’s List made me reconcile with all of the reasons … I hid from my Jewishness,” said Spielberg in 2017. “And it made me so proud to be a Jew.”

Love of cinema

The Fabelmans is as much a love letter to cinema as it is a love letter to Spielberg’s family – the director literally says so in a short introductory clip that’s played before the film begins.

It’s about how cinema has been there from the beginning for Spielberg; how his life has been defined by what a camera can capture.

Long before his films began to impact the public, they had been impacting the people in his life: from his father who worried about his son’s serious “hobby”, to his friends and classmates who were asked to act in them, to his mother, whose relationship with Bernie was exposed by one of them. The film’s tagline, “capture every moment”, drives the point home.

The Fabelmans is currently still playing in selected cinemas