Steven Spielberg: "I wanted to tell the traumatic divorce of my parents in 'E.T.'"

Although the surnames have been changed, there is little in Los Fabelmans that has not really happened in the life of this man who has transformed cinema with each of his films.

Thomas Osborne
Thomas Osborne
03 February 2023 Friday 00:56
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Steven Spielberg: "I wanted to tell the traumatic divorce of my parents in 'E.T.'"

Although the surnames have been changed, there is little in Los Fabelmans that has not really happened in the life of this man who has transformed cinema with each of his films. As Spielberg himself admits, it was the pandemic and the uncertainty of what was going to happen that convinced him that it was time to make an old dream come true and tell what many moviegoers always wanted to know. But, in addition to showing us his early fascination with physically recreating his obsessions, the great director also lifted the curtain to show us his personal life, such as the complex relationship between his parents, played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, and the supposed uncle who lived with them. (Seth Rogen).

After winning the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture and leaving that award for the third time to Spielberg as best director, The Fabelmans are now competing for the Oscar in seven categories, including best picture and best director, in which winning could complete a trilogy of golden statuettes.

How was the experience of making such a personal film?

I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it turned out, because I'm certainly very close to the material and I've known all these characters my whole life. And yet, I found this to be a very moving experience, because I tried, in a semi-autobiographical way, to recreate many moments of not only my life, but also that of my three sisters, my mother and father, who already they are not with us. When I sat down with Tony Gilroy to try to put what he wanted to tell on paper, it was not easy. Tony was in a way my therapist in getting all of this out of me. I immediately realized that there was not the necessary aesthetic distance between my directorial gaze and my personal experience. He wasn't going to be able to position the camera in the same way that Sammy, the lead, manages to, between himself and truly horrible real life situations that happen to him. I have always been able to use a camera as a shield, to protect myself from reality, but in this case I was not going to be able to do it. Emotionally for me this was a very difficult experience. Not the whole movie, but some moments.

What is it that you feel you've been able to share with the audience in this film that you may never have seen before in your other work?

That there were moments in my life when I was very sad. We all have those situations in our families. Your parents' divorce is something that usually traumatizes you, and that was my case. I was actually determined to tell the story of my mother and father's traumatic divorce when I did E.T. That was to be the central theme of the film. I wrote a few pages about divorce, and then I got carried away by other things, because I have always put something in my stories that protected me from reality, so I ended up putting an alien to distance me from that painful topic and I left it. sideways.

Now he has been able to.

In this case, I tried to tell a story that was completely honest about my memories of how things happened. I do not want to say that my memories are one hundred percent accurate, but I tried to tell everything as I remember it. My mother Leah was a pianist and restaurateur; my father Arnold, an electrical engineer. He was my hero and, at the age of 19, he left the marital home, I didn't know why and he tortured me, but the reason was that my mother had fallen in love with his best friend. I was interested in showing what it had been like growing up with my sisters, and also portraying his experiences growing up with me, my parents and my Uncle Benny.

Because right now?

Due to the covid epidemic. Nobody could work in the world of cinema, we all had to stay at home. My work as a director is very social. Only my screenwriter and writer friends kept working but my job as a director is to always be with people, to interact. When the covid hit, thank God, all my children were at home, and we spent it together under the same roof. Everything else didn't matter to me.

Has the covid affected you a lot?

Of course. As the death toll mounted and we were hooked on the news about what was happening in the United States and the world, I wondered what the impact was going to be for humanity. I thought it was time to tell a story that had been left unanswered, about the sexual awakening of a boy in such a unique family, with such a unique father and mother. I had all the time in the world on my hands to do it. And that's how we sat down to work with Tony, via zoom. I didn't know if it was the end of the world and I felt like this was something I had to do. In addition, the vaccines had not yet been released, and I belonged to one of the most vulnerable groups, because I had already turned 70.

From the film one can infer that the director who made him fall in love with cinema was John Ford. Is it so?

No, actually it was Walt Disney. You have to understand that the first movie I really fell in love with was from Disney, because it was the first one I saw after Cecil B. DeMille. The first movie I ever saw, as shown on The Fabelmans, was DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). But then I saw many others. I actually think I was very traumatized by the train accident in that movie. The actual facts are that, just like Sammy does in the film, I recreated that accident with some toy trains by filming something similar on 8mm film, because I had to watch it over and over again to get it out of my head. Maybe that's why my parents were alarmed and, for a while, they only allowed me to watch Disney movies. And that's why Disney was the first filmmaker I really got acquainted with. But it's no secret how much I liked John Ford's movies. I'm not going to say which scenes from The Fabelmans are absolutely authentic and which are slightly exaggerated. But I can tell you that the John Ford scene happened word for word as told in the film. It was exactly like that.

Recreating his short films in 8mm must have been as wonderful as it was complex...

I have to admit that I worked very hard to make sure that the current recreation of the 8mm shorts would improve on what I shot as a child and teenager.

What does it say?

Yeah, the angles I chose as a youngster were already very good, in a way I pre-empted what I later did in Saving Private Ryan. He had put the camera on the ground to capture the moments when the boys pretended to fly through the air as they stood before a seesaw that spewed dust into the air. When I did Saving Private Ryan, I showed the whole cast, on a monitor, Escape to Nowhere, the short I had made with my friends at the age of 16. We saw it when we were shooting the Omaha Beach scene, on our third day of shooting in Ireland. I imagine that the actors, while watching that short, would wonder what they were doing in Ireland with that weird guy, and why he was showing them that. I made many shorts as a child and teenager, all in 8mm. It was something truly unique in those times. There weren't many guys my age who would go out and shoot in that format. It was something very physical and very handmade. There weren't all those programs on the computer that we have today, like Pro Tools. One had to sit down very patiently to paste celluloid to be able to edit the film. I was the last person left editing celluloid movies in Hollywood. Man, I admit that the digital age is very good, we have found a way to work with it and we have benefited from a practical point of view, but I miss the smell of celluloid, having it in my hands and cutting my fingers doing the mounting. It's all those craft skills that we grew up with in my generation. I feel sorry for the new generations, who will never know the pleasure of taking celluloid with their hands, or placing it in the camera. It was a truly wonderful thing that we had to deal with in my day.

He once talked about his dreams and said that they come from behind, and that they never scream, they only whisper. When did she first feel that whisper?

I remember that moment very well. I was in my house and I must have been about 15 years old, and obviously at that point I was already a big fan of cinema. He lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and went to see a movie whenever he had some money. I remember coming up with an idea for a story. It was like a very soft whisper, and it was something that had never happened to me before. But it wasn't all perfectly clear to me. It was just a very basic idea for a movie, because everything starts like that. In those days we had typewriters that used paper and kept a carbon copy. I remember starting to write the story and spending the whole night trying to put it together. I didn't sleep a wink. It was the first time in my life that I had done something like that, and I probably didn't get to write the whole script but I did get the idea down on paper. I must have written thirty or forty pages that night. At that time I painted the trees white so that the citrus fruits would not dry out. They gave me 25 cents for each tree I painted, and that's how I raised the money I needed to buy the film and pay for the lab. I spent the next year shooting on the weekends based on that script.