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'The Fablemans' is a love letter to film and family

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Fabelmans" is a romantic and sharp-eyed love letter to film and family. The Oscar buzz and critical acclaim is almost deafening for this latest film by Steven Spielberg. It stars Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as the parents of a Jewish kid who wants to make movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

PAUL DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) I want you to make a camping trip movie. You can learn how the editing machine works while you do this. It'll make your mom feel better.

GABRIEL LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Yeah. Tomorrow's when we start shooting. I'll work on all the camping trip stuff on Monday.

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) I'm asking you to do this now for your mom.

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Yeah, and I said that I will - just not tomorrow.

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) Don't be selfish. She just lost her mother. That's more important than your hobby.

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Dad, can you stop calling it a hobby?

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) It'll cheer her up watching this. It's something we can do to...

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Her mom just died. How's that going to cheer her up?

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) Because you made it for her.

SIMON: And it's a love letter Steven Spielberg needed the help of Tony Kushner to write. He, of course, is the playwright who received a Pulitzer for "Angels In America" and Oscar nominations for previous Spielberg films, "Munich" and "Lincoln." Tony Kushner joins us now from New York. Tony, thanks so much for being with us.

TONY KUSHNER: My pleasure.

SIMON: Please explain this to me, because it's one thing to write - you know, to put words in the mouth - well, actually, it must be daunting to put words in the mouth of Abraham Lincoln.

KUSHNER: Yes, it was.

SIMON: Well, but it's one thing to put words in the mouth of a historical figure or a literary figure. These were Steven Spielberg's parents.

KUSHNER: Yes. I mean, they were, and they weren't. We decided to call the family the Fabelmans. There was never a moment where we thought we were going to call them the Spielbergs. But, you know, I think that pretty much from the time that I started doing this, like, 81-page novella that was a sort of a fictional take on his memories, there was a bit of a kind of objective distance between what actually happened and the work of fiction that we were creating 'cause this isn't a documentary, and it's not a Spielberg family album. I mean, it's a dramatic story with a beginning, middle and an end. I mean, you know, and I felt very honored that he was letting me into this complicated and sometimes difficult and painful story. And, you know, I really felt like I got to know his family very well by the end of the process.

SIMON: Wow. So without giving too much away, when young Sammy crashes his model train set to film it, is that poetic license or...?

KUSHNER: No, it's not. It wasn't where I thought we were going to start the movie, but at some point, we were talking about something that had happened to him as a teenager, and I said, do you remember what the first movie you ever saw was? And he said, oh, absolutely. It was "Greatest Show On Earth," the Cecil B. DeMille movie. And I said, how old were you? And he said that he was 6. And I had seen the movie a while ago. I honestly don't like Cecil B. DeMille's movies at all. But I remembered how - what a weird movie it is. And there's a lot of violence in it. It's about adultery. Jimmy Stewart is a clown who was a doctor who murdered somebody by - it's, like - it's really 1950s kind of psychopathology on parade. And there is in the middle of it this huge and kind of brilliantly done train crash, and that was what Steven remembered most from seeing the movie. And I said, well, you must have been scared to death. And he said, yeah, it was really traumatic. And then we started talking about the first movie he made, that he had these trains that he'd gotten on Hanukkah and that he had crashed them together. And I said, I think there's a connection here. I think this is - and I was very moved by that because...

SIMON: Yeah.

KUSHNER: ...I love the way that little kids - in order to make the world less overwhelming, one of the functions that art has for little kids is that it takes things that are scary and it sort of presents you with them, and they're contained enough so that they're not overwhelming immediately, but they're still scary. And then you - if it's a book, you read it over and over and over and over again, and each time you read it, you gain a certain kind of mastery over what's scary in the world.

SIMON: You see the film, and you want to say, oh, that's the resemblance between children and artists.

KUSHNER: Yeah. I mean, I was just at Stephen Sondheim's memorial and that gorgeous song from "Sunday In The Park With George," "Children And Art."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHILDREN AND ART")

BERNADETTE PETERS: (Singing) Mama, he makes things. Mama, they're good. Just as you said from the start - children and art.

KUSHNER: I think it's - as a joke, I kept referring to this as the portrait of the artist as a young man. You're watching a child develop a mastery, and that development is in part driven by a need to make things that aren't stable feel stable.

SIMON: Antisemitism's a real presence in this film. There are some photogenic, goyische jerks...

KUSHNER: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Who terrorize young Sammy Fabelman. And I gather from the interviews I've read, this is based on real incidents in Steven Spielberg's life. You were born in New York, but grew up in Lake Charles, La. Something you know from your own life, too?

KUSHNER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, it wasn't terrifying or life-threatening ever. My sister and I went to a private elementary school. It was an Episcopal day school. And it was a great school in terms of education, but there were two kids who were incredibly, you know, nasty bullies. You know, they soon figured out that one way they could really torture me and my sister was about being - we were the only Jews, and they really made a deal out of that. And it got ugly. And we weren't injured in any way. It was - you know, but all through my childhood and adolescence, I encountered sort of what Steven encountered. I mean, he experiences this bullying when he's a new kid in his high school, when his father moves the whole family to California and, you know, the two photogenic antisemitic jerks - they are definitely photogenic jerks, but they're not really bred-in-the-bone antisemites. I think they're - one of them is clearly sort of mentally ill. The other one just sort of goes along for the laughs of it.

SIMON: People will watch this film at a time when the Anti-Defamation League and other sources say there's more than 30% rise in antisemitic hate crimes.

KUSHNER: The antisemitism that's depicted in "The Fabelmans" is of the schoolyard variety. I mean, Theodor Adorno from the Frankfurt School, who grew up in pre-Nazi Germany - in one of his books, "Minima Moralia," he makes this famous comment. He says that while he's walking through the streets of Berlin right before Hitler comes to power and there are squads of brownshirts everywhere, and Adorno says, you know, the - I was angry at myself for the terror because the terror that I felt when I would come across these people was very clearly the terror I felt when I was a kid on the schoolyard being bullied for being Jewish. And I kept upbraiding myself that this is a much worse situation, and I'm diminishing it. And then he said, with a little bit of distance, reflecting back on it, I realized that it wasn't just an attempt to diminish it. There was actually some factual basis for it, that probably the kids that bullied him in the schoolyard are the ones who grew up to be Nazis.

SIMON: Yeah.

KUSHNER: You know, Donald Trump was an infamous bully. He had to be sent away to military school because he was threatening kids in his high school. And he grew up to be the godfather of this new recrudescence of American fascism. People sort of lazily receive tropes about Jews that they pass along, but there's a difference for me between people who don't know any Jews - and, I mean, when my mother was dying in a hospital in Louisiana, a very nice nurse came up to my sister and I and said, are you Jewish? And we said, yes. And she said, that's what I heard. Could I see your horns? And she...

SIMON: Oh. You're kidding me.

KUSHNER: And she really thought...

SIMON: When was this?

KUSHNER: This was - you know, this was not in the 15th century. This was, you know, 1990. It was in Louisiana. And it was shocking. But I'm convinced that she wasn't a Jew hater. She wasn't an antisemite in that sense. I find people like that - it's sad because they need to be educated and they haven't been. But I don't feel that I'm threatened by people like that. I'm threatened by somebody like Doug Mastriano, and I'm threatened by, you know, all these white Christian nationalists who ran for office, a few of whom got elected.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Tony Kushner, who has collaborated once again with Steven Spielberg - their new film, "The Fabelmans." Thank you so much for being with us.

KUSHNER: Thanks, Scott. It's very nice to see you again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.