The longest answer you’ve ever received might as well come from Tony Kushner, whose status American writer par excellence exceeds most known precedent or (full disclosure) nearly my own time on this earth. That was before he became more or less Steven Spielberg’s preferred screenwriter, a pairing that has yielded some of the wisest collaborations in modern American cinema. So whatever my experience speaking to filmmakers (with which I frankly think I’m quite learned) there was some need to arrive prepared.
When Kushner is (put lightly) keen with words it engendered a full-throated conversation about Spielberg’s best film since—I think no coincidence—Lincoln or Munich. Immediately after seeing The Fabelmans I said such distinction probably stemmed from Spielberg turning into dramatic material what most wouldn’t take outside a psychoanalysis session; in certain ways Kushner, as the director’s deeply privileged interlocutor, is the best man to ask about this.
The Film Stage: Steven Spielberg is, in certain ways, the preeminent American filmmaker, someone seemingly everybody needs to have an opinion on. You’ve now written four films for him, and this latest—not for nothing—is his most intensely personal. How did your relationship with Spielberg’s work change as your relationship with him developed?
Tony Kushner: If anybody wants to know what my opinion of Steven was before I started working with him you don’t really have to look any further than the end of Millennium Approaches—the first half of Angels in America—which has the penultimate line “God almighty… very Steven Spielberg.” And that’s always been the line since I wrote the play in 1988. His movies had an enormous impact on me and I always thought he was a really rare and era-defining artist.
I was a medieval studies major when I was in college and was fascinated—you can see this is a big source of Angels in America—with millennia approaching, the medieval notion that the arrival of the millennium would be the arrival of the kingdom of God and the beginning of the end of the world and the day of wrath and the beginning of the kingdom of Heaven. And as we actually approached the millennium—which is when I started work on Angels in America—I was thinking about that a lot. So it sort of blew my mind when I saw Close Encounters, which remains—I think, probably of all of Steven’s films—my favorite. I love many of his films but I’m really astounded by Close Encounters, even now. And the Spielberg Look: looking up into the Heavens. There are byzantine mosaics where people have the exact same expression: it’s a look of both openness and wonder and also terror. That ambivalent thing in those movies informed me a lot.
I felt this when I saw Jaws for the first time; I felt this when I saw Jurassic Park for the first time. There are these moments in his movies of real visual poetry, of a kind of condensation of imagery. The dinosaur breathing onto the glass and fogging it up: these things that just go, “Oh, that’s cool, but also that means a lot. There’s something really complicated and dense going on here.” Politically complicated and dense as well. And certainly psychologically: these everything-is-fine, happy middle-class families, except nothing is fine and everything’s really fucked-up and they’re all kind of bursting at the seams with excess but, also, they’re all starving. It’s a really powerful vision of the nuclear family and the family dynamic.
I felt all that, and when he first started asking me to work with him on Munich… I think my second or third date with my husband [Mark Harris] was to see Saving Private Ryan and we were talking about parts of the movie. I’ve always loved movies, but I didn’t really think about them on a technical level—the specificity about technique. And Mark said—he had seen it once before—”you should go back and watch it again,” which I did. “Look at the Normandy Invasion: there are, like, 800 things going on. You could stop this movie in any crowded movie theater at any moment and ask the slowest person ‘what’s going on here’ and they could tell you what’s the main thing you’re supposed to be focused on and four things that are also happening.”
When we were filming Lincoln—one of the big debating sequences in the house—I was in video village and Steven said “Come here, come here.” I kept saying “which one is that one? Which side is he on?” It’s a lot to keep track of—center democrats, left democrats, left republicans, right republicans. At one point I said, “This is breaking down into chaos. They’re all yelling at each other.” And he said this great thing: “Anybody can film chaos; I want to film chaos that means something.” I’ve always looked at movies now and thought one of the things that differentiates the filmmakers who are really great from the ones who are not so great—one of the things—is that in sequences meant to produce in you a feeling of being overwhelmed by action, by violence, whatever, they’re the ones that do this by just making something that’s so perplexing and baffling that you just surrender control. And it doesn’t have much of an effect; it’s unpleasant.
And then there are people like Steven who can do it. I’m spatially challenged—I can’t keep up with what’s going on on the screen—but on some level I am keeping up with it. And I know this actually makes sense; this thing is happening. It keeps you involved and hooked in a profound way. It makes it much more rattling and active and rich an experience. I love that stuff. It’s evolved in lots of different ways since your original question. I’ve talked for two hours.
No, this is all good.
We’ve become very good friends. Each project that we’ve done is so different from the other, so each one involves huge [collaboration]. It was a pleasure for me, in West Side Story, that I’d actually done a Broadway musical and that I’d really studied musicals and I knew Sondheim and Arthur Lawrence. I could finally bring my theater pedigree, and I brought Jeanine Tesori—with whom I did my Broadway musical—into the production because I knew she knew more about Broadway musicals than anybody on the planet. Steven had a little bit of catching up to do; because he’s Steven he caught up in, like, three seconds. It was a shock how from the first day of filming to, like, the third day of filming when he seemed to have spent his life making musicals. But that was fun, explaining what the purpose of the rehearsals were going to be.
With Lincoln I had five years of working on the script and reading a lot about Lincoln, so I became a little bit of a dilettante authority on him, and that was fun to bring to the table. Over and over, working with him, things happens while we’re working on the script, while we’re on set, in the editing room where he’s doing something and I have no idea where the idea came from or how he arrived at this. And you sort of sit back and think “Holy shit, this guy is a genius. This is a level of mastery of an art form that’s very, very, very rare.” I just feel like it’s an incredible blessing to be part of that.
When The Fabelmans was announced I was quite surprised Spielberg would be co-writing it. He’s scripted so few of his own films—even something like A.I. is adapting another person’s material. So what most surprised you about Spielberg as a screenwriter? Does his visual sense come through in how he talks through the process? Is that on the page in things like stage directions?
I learned from Mike Nichols—since I clearly didn’t know anything about making movies and I would be a terrible film director—Mike said, “Just tell me in the script what you want the audience to see; you don’t have to do the POV, the reverse shot.” Certainly now that I’ve spent 20 years with Steven I kind of know what some of that means, but I would still feel silly using some of that language. I think, as I’ve progressed through four screenplays with Steven before The Fabelmans—three of which were filmed—I’ve learned more about the difference between being a playwright and screenwriter than I certainly knew when I was working on Munich. But mostly I’ve had this freedom of thinking, “I’ll say what I think happens and then Steven will use what he can use from it. He’ll put in, in terms of these action sequences, what the audience is seeing, but together we’ll stick in stuff later on so it’s in the script or not.” But it was sort of in the collaboration process after the first, second, and third drafts were arrived at.
With The Fabelmans there were definitely sequences where we would be going along the way I would be used to going along. I did the typing and he could see what I was typing—we were doing the whole thing on Zoom because it was still during lockdown. He would stop and say, “Just put in that I’m…” and he would sort of make notes about what the camera would do. Some of which he stuck with, and then some of which he got on set and decided to do something completely different. But there were sequences where I got to hear him thinking, way in advance, about what something might look like. He would probably say that it was fun to come up with that as the script was taking… because we really started every session with a blank page. We wrote it together. Some of the visual stuff was there in the first draft.
In terms of what surprised me—it’s kind of hard to say that. We really work very closely. Eric Roth and I wrote Munich and I wrote Lincoln and I wrote the screenplay for West Side Story. But every time I’ve written anything for Steven we spend a lot of time going over it, talking about it. I have to defend things I feel strongly about, and one of the reasons I can work with him is we can argue and we can fight and he’ll let me keep banging away until we’ve both come to some place we’re both really, genuinely happy about. And I knew from the get-go, the first time I wrote one scene: when he asked me to write Munich I said, “I don’t know if I can do this. Let me try and write one scene and see what you think.” I wrote a scene. It turned into, I think, the best-written scene in the film. He loved it and he read it back to me when I wrote the speech for Lincoln about the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. He called me on the phone and said he loved the speech—then he acted the whole thing out. He loves words; he loves writers; he loves the music of language; he loves its subtleties. Close Encounters is one of my favorite movies of all-time, so I was sure he’d prove to be a wonderful writer.
My only question was—it was his question too—neither of us had sat down and written with anybody; I’d never been in a writer’s room or anything. So I didn’t know if that would work. We were both delighted to find out it not only worked but that we really, really loved doing it. And some of my favorite lines in the movie are Steven’s lines, and there is one that I loved that I sort of had to force him to keep in the movie because he didn’t like it after it came out of his mouth. He is a poet, and his main means of expression is filmic, but he has a wonderful verbal facility and a sense of scene structure and how actors work—all the things you need to pull those things together. It was a delight.
Decades ago, obviously well before this movie entered development, Spielberg’s sister Anne had written a script called I’ll Be Home that—correctly or not—has been referred to as an early version of The Fabelmans. Did you look at I’ll Be Home during early discussions or screenwriting? I have to wonder if it played any role in shaping the film.
I love Anne’s writing. I think she’s an amazing writer, and there are a couple scripts she has that are unproduced that I think should be produced. I didn’t know until we were close to production that Anne had written a script about this. Steven didn’t tell me that, and I think he probably didn’t want me to read it. I think he offered it to me, maybe, at that point but I didn’t want to read it at that point. We haven’t talked yet—Anne and I haven’t—about that. I think one thing that was of value to him, in working with me on this, is that he brings an enormous depth of subjective knowledge—which of course Anne would’ve had as well.
Maybe it was a good thing to have someone who wasn’t a family member. I met his father a couple of times; I never met his mother. And I sort of brought an objectivity, maybe, that made it possible for him to dig through this overwhelming amount of memory and some very painful experiences. Sometimes he says I was his therapist and I don’t necessarily think of myself as having been that—I mostly worked on this as a writer—but there was a degree of discussion, and it was maybe good to have somebody who was really outside of it looking in. So I don’t know. Anne never said, “oh, actually this moment or that moment was in my screenplay,” so I assume she didn’t feel ripped off. And I genuinely didn’t realize that they had got to the point of a script and all that. I just had no idea.
The Fabelmans is really Steven’s memories and our script. I wrote an 81-page novella trying to pull all his memories together into some kind of continuum that was, sort of deliberately, intended to be his story but also not his story. We worked together to pull from that document an outline for the movie. I’m sure there are overlaps because some things that happened in the movie were things that just happened. His mother actually had a monkey. There was an incident like the one with one of the bullies; there was only one bully in Steven’s life, not two, but that’s real. There was an Uncle Boris. The Greatest Show on Earth. That stuff really happened, but it is—in some ways as well—a work of fiction.
Of course the movie climaxes with this amazing scene where, as in Spielberg’s own life, there’s a geography lesson from John Ford. He’s told that story elsewhere, e.g. in Bogdanovich’s Directed By John Ford; it’s become part of the Spielberg legend. If its inclusion in the movie is perhaps foregone, was it always kind of known David Lynch would play John Ford?
No. My husband—it was my husband’s idea.
He gets a special thanks at the end of the movie for it. I knew, immediately, when we started seriously talking about doing this—because we’ve been talking about it since Munich—but when we really began to pull it together, and I think Steven was saying the same thing: that it had to be the end of the film. We often say, when we’re getting into casting, “Who’s going to play this person?” Sometimes we sort of know, but a lot of times, in the four movies that we’ve made, it hasn’t been determined. We said that when we were working on the Ford scene. We just sort of said, “we’ll find somebody.” And we started going through lots of really wonderful actors who kind of looked like him and were maybe a little too young—nothing was all that exciting.
My husband, he’s the guy who, when I came home and said “Steven Spielberg’s just asked me to rewrite West Side Story. What the hell am I going to do?” Mark said, “Yeah. Especially what are you going to do about Doc?” The only character in West Side Story neither of us especially loves. I said, “I don’t know.” Mark said, “Make Doc into a Puerto Rican woman and ask Rita Moreno.” He suggested casting Lee Pace in Lincoln and he suggested casting Lynn Cohen in Munich. So he’s got a real eye for this. [Laughs.] We were just going around and around and around. I had one candidate for Ford that I was pretty passionate about—an actor. I said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” Mark said, “I have a thought.” He actually went up to his office and said “give me a couple seconds.” Then he came back down; I think he went and checked out, physically, to make sure he was right. He said, “I have a great idea. It’ll never happen because he’ll never agree to do it but it should be David Lynch.”
I thought, “Oh my God.” And I called Steven and Steven said, “Oh my God… but he’ll never do it.” And then he thought: Laura Dern. So he called Laura Dern and Laura Dern called David. And it happened.
And thank God it did.
Yeah, it was an amazing day on the set. The whole crew was like, “This is the most meta, complicated thing: Steven Spielberg directing Gabriel LaBelle playing Steven Spielberg meeting John Ford played by David Lynch.” It was like… wow!
The Fabelmans enters a limited release on Friday, November 11 before expanding on November 23.