Fabelmans, The: Spielberg’s Personal Film, Family Endeavor, Starring Paul Dano, Michelle Williams

Rogen on Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’: “I Saw Him Cry Dozens of Times”

The film, based on the filmmaker’s childhood, premiered at AFI Fest on Sunday, where co-writer Tony Kushner revealed the meaning behind the ‘Fabelman’ family name.


Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play versions of his parents, while Gabriel LaBelle stars as Spielberg himself, but is named Sammy Fabelman in the film.

From left: Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle and Steven Spielberg were photographed Sept. 10 at the Four Seasons in Toronto.

“It took me a minute to realize what he was asking,” Williams said at the film’s premiere, which doubled as the closing night of L.A.’s AFI Fest, of getting the call from Spielberg to play his mother. “It’s still taking me a minute to realize where I am and what’s happening, it’s pretty dreamy.”

Seth Rogen also co-stars as close friend of the family, and joked that when Spielberg first rang him up, he was “worried I was in trouble of some sort, that he was calling to yell at me for some joke I’d made.” When it became clear the call was actually for a part, Rogen said it was “a very surreal moment.”

“I have friends who have worked with Spielberg and it’s been surreal for everyone I know, but also, the added layer of it being such a deeply personal film, it was something that was not lost on anybody,” Rogen continued. “There was a point that I went up to Michelle and was like, ‘You’ve worked with Scorsese, does this seem different than that?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh this is way different. This is a singular experience.’ Which I was glad she verified my feeling that that’s what was happening.”

As the iconic director dug deep into his past for the story, Williams said every day of the production was very emotional, which Rogen also confirmed.

“He would cry a lot, openly,” he said of Spielberg. “We’d show up on set and he would just see a certain piece of wardrobe or a certain piece of set decoration or everyone coming together to recreate a certain thing. I saw him cry dozens of times throughout filming the movie which was actually beautiful and that made everyone want to really honor what he was doing. You saw how much it meant to him and how truthful he was being.”

Tony Kushner, a Spielberg collaborator who co-wrote the script with him, noted: “I’ve never had as much fun writing in my entire life. I usually don’t have a lot of fun writing.”

The two worked on the film via Zoom during the pandemic in what started out as low-pressure fun. In splitting duties, Kushner said he came up with the name “Fabelman” but told Spielberg he had to name his sisters and mother.

“Spielberg means play-mountain; ‘spieler’ is an actor in Yiddish, and a ‘spiel’ can be speech or can be a play. I’ve always thought how wild that this guy is this great once-in-a-century storyteller who would be called Spielberg, play-mountain,” Kushner said of his thought process in naming the family. “I wanted to have some of that meaning, and I’ve always liked the German word ‘fabel,’ which means fable. And because the movie is autobiographical for Steven but it isn’t an autobiography, it’s not a documentary, so there’s a fictional element as well. So I thought that ‘Fabelman’ was a nod to that.”

Sue Spielberg, Anne Spielberg, Steven Spielberg and Nancy Spielberg attend "The Fabelmans" Closing Night Gala Premiere during 2022 AFI Fest at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 06, 2022 in Hollywood, California.
Sue Spielberg, Anne Spielberg, Steven Spielberg and Nancy Spielberg JON KOPALOFF/GETTY IMAGES

Spielberg’s three sisters, who were also in attendance at the premiere, were involved throughout the process in the portrayal of themselves and their family.

Kusher explained: “They were on set a lot, they brought all of these things that belonged to their mother and father and actually put them on the set,” as well as helping production designers with the recreation of their childhood homes. “It was, in that sense, a family endeavor,” Kushner added.

Inside the screening, Spielberg took the stage to a standing ovation, telling the crowd that after premiering so many films at the Chinese Theatre, “I feel that I have left more body parts than just my hands and footprints in cement out in front of this place, but tonight feels completely different and it is because The Fabelmans has been a different experience for me,” in telling his own family’s story.

He said Kushner urged him to “tell a story based on the real people and real events that influenced the rest of my life,” which became “a character-driven story that I can only hope will be relatable to anyone who ever grew up in a complicated family. There’s no such thing as a family that isn’t complicated.”

The Fabelmans hits theaters starting November 11.