• Festivals

TIFF 2022: “The Fabelmans” – Spielberg Goes Home

After 34 films, Steven Spielberg finally broke down. Not emotionally but cinematically. For the first time in the filmmaker’s storied and legendary career, he has allowed one of his movies to be officially entered into the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I finally got around to figuring out that Toronto was a great audience,” he told the premiere spectators at the Princess of Wales Theater. “I should take my movie and let it break here for the first time.” With thunderous applause, the Canadians more than appreciated his gesture.

The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical movie about Spielberg’s family and his initial connection to filmmaking, introduces us to Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), the eldest of four children to Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). When the young boy is taken to see his first film, The Greatest Show on Earth, it ignites a passion and fascination with the art of filmmaking (and train crashes). As we travel through his years from seven to eighteen, we witness how his own family’s secrets help him navigate the truth through the medium of film.


Admitting he had been thinking about this project for a long time, Spielberg never thought he might actually get around to making it. It was while making Lincoln that he started a conversation with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (Angels in America).

“Tony performed the function of a therapist and I was his patient,” Spielberg laughs about that initial foray into how they might tell this story. “I talked for a long time and Tony fed me and helped me through this. When COVID hit, we had a lot of time and a lot of fear. I don’t think anyone back in March of 2020 knew what the state of the art or even life would be a year from then. As things got worse, I just felt that if I was going to leave anything behind, what is the thing I really need to resolve and unpack about my mom, my dad and my sisters. I just felt that time was now.”

Don’t interpret that epiphany as a signal the director has viewed the end of the road. “It is not because I’ve decided to retire and this is my swan song,” he adds. “I promise. Don’t believe any of that.”

The film presented Spielberg with a unique challenge – how to cast his parents. How do you choose actors to represent the two people who raised you? Do you deify them? Do you bare their souls? For the 75-year-old Oscar and Golden Globe winner, the approach was simply to keep it organic and find actors who felt authentic to him. 

“It wasn’t about anything beyond who can I have the most profound connection with that reminds me the most of the people that brought me into the world and raised me and gave me good values,” he notes. For his mother, he turned to Williams, whom he met after viewing her in Blue Valentine. “I had no movie for her at the time, but she was always lingering as a prefrontal lobe idea about Mitzi, or my mom, Leah. And then. I had felt the same way about Paul. He’s shared so much of the same kind of pragmatism, also the patience of my dad, the deep, deep, profound kindness of my father and the genius that my dad had in the world of computer design.” It was this jumping-off point that Spielberg, who co-wrote the film, and Kushner began to write. 

One of the true marvels of the film is getting to be a fly on the wall during Spielberg’s adolescence and watching how he began to craft movies. It was obvious even at such an early age that he knew the magical ability of a camera lens. With all the wizardry that is at his fingertips today, one appreciates the simplistic and hands-on approach he was forced to use.

“There were no pro tools back in 1961,” he recounts to the crowd about his learning curve in shooting and editing. “So, it was really using glue and spit and trying to figure out how to put things together.”


Going to films as often as he could, the theaters became his church. They were his Tabernacles. “They were extraordinary palaces,” he fondly remembers. “I go to these movies all the time and I didn’t understand how they got the explosions in The Sands of Iwo Jima. How can I make explosions like that?”

And what did he discover?  “I just figured out that if you take a board and you dig two holes, you put the board on top of the holes, like a Seesaw and you put dirt on one end and the kid steps on the other. It throws the dirt in the air and that’s an explosion. That’s what I used to do to make my war movies.”

Was there a sense of gratification then, in going back and restructuring some of those 8mm home movies he shot as a child so that he could right the wrongs of some of his youthful mistakes? “I made all the behind-the-scenes stuff in this movie much better than the actual eight-millimeter films I shot when I was Sammy’s age. Much better in this. It was a do-over. It was great to do it over. It was fantastic.”

To the most commercially successful director in film history, it seems apropos that The Fabelmans gave him a chance to go back and do a bit of a ‘do-over’ to his childhood, a cinematic therapy session for all to see.

But it seems it’s a storm he is excited to weather. “My mom gave me a ton of permission to chase tornadoes metaphorically for my entire life,” he recalls.


As the critics began to shower the filmmaker with praise after the screening, it seems she would be proud.