Steven Spielberg says 'The Fabelmans' isn't his swan song: 'Don't believe any of that!'

Brian Truitt

TORONTO – Yes, Steven Spielberg made a movie about his childhood and early days as a kid filmmaker. No, “The Fabelmans” is not his swan song.

“I didn't really know when I was going to get around to this. It is not because I've decided to retire. Don't believe any of that!” Spielberg told a cheering crowd at the movie's world premiere Saturday at Toronto International Film Festival.

Taking place in the 1950s and ‘60s, the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film (in theaters Nov. 11) charts the path of Sammy Fabelman – played by Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord as a youngster, Gabriel LaBelle as a teen – as he moves from New Jersey to Arizona and finally to California with his artistic mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), computer engineer dad Burt (Paul Dano) and his sisters. Sammy develops an interest and talent in filmmaking at a young age, though struggles with his art when his parents are grappling with their own issues.

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Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, center) goes to the movies for the first time with his father Burt (Paul Dano) and mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) in Steven Spielberg's "The Fabelmans."

The legendary director started talking with his co-writer Tony Kushner about a potential film when they were making 2012’s “Lincoln.”

“Tony performed the function of a therapist and I was his patient,” Spielberg said. “We talked for a long time and Tony fed me and helped me through this.” But when the pandemic hit in 2020, “we all had a lot of time and we all had a lot of fear. … As things got worse and worse, I just felt that if I was going to leave anything behind, what is the thing that I really need to resolve and unpack about my mom and my dad and my sisters?

“It wasn't now or never, but I almost felt that way.”

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A 1950 photo shows Steven Spielberg, 4, with his parents, Leah and Arnold.

When casting his screen mom and dad, the performers had to feel “organic” and “authentic,” Spielberg said. “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?”

His mom Leah “gave me a ton of permission to chase tornadoes, metaphorically, for my entire life,” and Spielberg had “flipped out” over Williams after seeing her in “Blue Valentine.” Williams reported working with Spielberg “felt like a couple kids on the playground.”

Spielberg sensed that Dano felt his father Arnold’s pragmatism, patience, genius and “deep, deep profound kindness.” And Dano, for his part, felt that the Burt character and Arnold were “a sort of quintessential American man in a way, especially in that time. It really reminded me of my grandfather as well, so I was trying to bring something from my life along with me to make it equally personal.”

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Steven Spielberg (center) poses with the two young actors playing him onscreen, Gabriel LaBelle and Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, at "The Fabelmans" world premiere at Toronto Film Festival.

LaBelle wasn't told his initial audition was to play a teenage future icon; it was simply doing two scenes for an untitled Amblin film with no creative team in place. Two days later, he learned about his role and Spielberg’s involvement and later had his callback via Zoom. “Your face was probably a little too close to the camera,” LaBelle said, getting a laugh out of his director.

Spielberg can't fathom yet if such a personal film like “The Fabelmans” will reach the annals of game changers “Jaws” or “Schindler’s List.” “I didn't know any of those films changed me until 20 years after each one of them, actually,” Spielberg said.

“But I will say that this film for me is a way of bringing my mom and dad back. And it also brought my sisters Annie and Susie and Nancy closer to me than I ever thought possible. That was worth making the film for.”