Like all unhappy families (with apologies to Tolstoy), Steven Spielberg’s family was unhappy in its own way. As an adult, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker has spent his career recapturing the unique flavor of his family’s unhappiness—and then inserting it into blockbusters about robots, aliens and lonely little boys.
Over nearly five decades, Spielberg has repeatedly returned to the same themes. His parents’ divorce is famously the inspiration behind E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). In The Sugarland Express (1974), his big-screen directorial debut, a mother breaks her husband out of prison in an attempt to retrieve their son from foster care and reunite their family. Distant fathers are at the center of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Hook (1991) and War of the Worlds (2005), among others.
“Every one of my movies is a personal movie,” the director tells CBS News. “I don’t make films that I don’t consider to have something of myself left behind in them.”
But his latest film, The Fabelmans, is his first attempt to delve inward without couching personal anxieties inside something else. It’s not a science fiction blockbuster, crime caper or high-stakes historical drama. It is, quite simply, the story of Steven Spielberg.
Or, rather, it is the story of Sammy Fabelman, the name Spielberg has chosen for his semi-autobiographical younger self (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a child and Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager). A lightly fictionalized dramatization of his childhood, the film explores how a series of tensions—between a father and mother, science and art, responsibility and ambition—mirrored each other, and how a boy working through those tensions with an eight-millimeter camera grew up to become the highest-grossing director of all time.
Science and art at odds
Born in 1946, Spielberg was the oldest of four children. His father, Arnold, was an engineer, a practical man who wanted a practical life for his son. His mother, Leah, was a talented pianist, an exuberant woman trapped in an environment—midcentury suburbia—that would never nourish her artistic inclinations.
Instead, she nourished her son’s. Leah was supportive of his burgeoning interest in filmmaking from the beginning. Arnold supported his son’s interests but expected him to eventually deprioritize them in favor of a stable career and adult responsibilities.
Spielberg’s mother struggled with similar expectations. She put her creative pursuits on hold to raise her children and move around the country, as Arnold’s career took the family from New Jersey to Arizona to California. Leah was prone to whims, one time purchasing a monkey from a Phoenix pet store and bringing it home in the back of her Jeep. Free-spirited and deeply loving, she was also plagued with a constant feeling of limitation and dissatisfaction.
“My mom always wanted more,” Spielberg says to CBS News. “She was the ‘more mom.’ Enough wasn’t enough for [her], you know?” This approach, he clarifies, was an asset. She gave him permission to be artistically ambitious, modeling how to want more without feeling guilty about it.
In a 1999 episode of talk show “Inside the Actors Studio,” host James Lipton asked Spielberg about Close Encounters. During the film’s climax, humans use computers to generate and broadcast a series of musical tones, allowing them to communicate with aliens. Perhaps, Lipton suggested, this climactic moment symbolized Spielberg’s foundational tensions. “Your father was a computer scientist, your mother was a musician,” he said. “When the spaceship lands, how do they communicate? They make music on their computers, and they are able to speak to each other.”
In The Fabelmans, Spielberg places this tension front and center. As Mitzi, the fictionalized Leah (played by Michelle Williams), not-so-subtly announces, “In this family, it’s the scientists versus the artists. Sammy’s on my team, takes after me.”
Spielberg’s distant fathers
In 1966, when Spielberg was 19, his parents divorced. His mother had fallen in love with his father’s best friend, Bernie Adler, whom she would later marry. But Arnold (whose film analogue, Burt, is played by Paul Dano), hoping to protect Leah and her relationship with their kids, took the blame, telling the four children that the divorce was his idea.
“When my mom and my dad announced that they were separating, as is portrayed in The Fabelmans, my dad fell on the sword,” Spielberg tells CBS News. “But I didn’t know there was a sword to fall on. I simply took him at his word when he said, ‘It’s my idea that we separate.’ And I lived with that, and I blamed my dad for that, for years.”
Spielberg barely spoke to his father for 15 years. That period of estrangement, coupled with the existing tensions predating that period, affected him deeply. It also influenced some of his most successful movies, in which divorced parents and strained father-son relationships are fundamental themes.
Many critics, and Spielberg himself, have noted these parallels over the years, particularly concerning E.T., which focuses on a family reeling from a father’s departure. As the director recalled at the TCM Classic Film Festival in April, he started thinking about E.T. in the 1970s, when he was filming Close Encounters. At the same time, he was also working on ideas for a script about his parents’ divorce. With aliens already top of mind, he wondered, “What if Elliott—or the kid, I hadn’t quite dreamed up his name yet—needed, for the first time in his life, to become responsible for a life form to fill the gap in his heart?”
Even in Spielberg classics without divorce, the distant father trope persists. In Close Encounters, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) develops an obsession with a UFO sighting, becoming increasingly alienated from his middle-class suburban family. In one scene, his wife kisses him; he tries to kiss her back, but he can’t help opening his eyes and looking up to the sky. In the film’s climax, Neary leaves his family—and the planet—behind.
In Hook, a revisionist Peter Pan sequel, the boy who once said he would never grow up leaves Neverland, becomes an adult and has children of his own. By the time viewers meet workaholic lawyer Peter Banning (Robin Williams), he is, as Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) puts it, a “cold, selfish man who drinks too much, who’s obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children.” Unluckily for the pirate captain, Hook is one of the rare Spielberg films that allows a fictional father to redeem himself. Peter rekindles his zest for life, throws his work phone out the window and saves his children from Hook’s grasp. By the end of the climactic battle, the only casualty is Rufio (Dante Basco), one of the Lost Boys; in his final moments, he tells Peter, “Do you know what I wish? I wish I had a dad—like you.”
Grappling with Jewish roots
In 1993, Spielberg released what the New York Times called “his riskiest, most personal film”: Schindler’s List. The historical drama follows Oskar Schindler, an industrialist who saves more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by bringing them to work in his factories. It’s one of Spielberg’s most serious films—and one of his most ambitious.
Unlike The Fabelmans, Schindler’s List isn’t autobiographical (the director was born the year after World War II ended), but it is deeply personal. More than a dozen of Spielberg’s older relatives perished during the war, and the atrocities of the Holocaust were always top of mind for his family. “In a strange way, my life has always come back to images surrounding the Holocaust,” he told the Times. “The Holocaust had been part of my life, just based on what my parents would say at the dinner table.”
When he was a young boy, Spielberg’s grandmother taught English to Holocaust survivors. One of them, a former Auschwitz prisoner, used the numbers tattooed on his arm to teach the future filmmaker about numbers. “He would roll up his sleeves and say, ‘This is a four, this is a seven, this is a two,’” Spielberg recounted. “It was my first concept of numbers. He would always say, ‘I have a magic trick.’ He pointed to a six. And then he crooked his elbow and said, ‘Now it’s a nine.’”
Because Spielberg was often the only Jewish boy in the neighborhood, he was a frequent target of bullying. In Arizona, neighbors would stand outside the family’s house chanting, “The Spielbergs are dirty Jews.” Later, in California, a few of the popular kids smacked and kicked him in the school locker room. “We were not totally accepted,” Spielberg’s mother told the Times. “We were always on the periphery.”
As he grew older, Spielberg became ashamed of his roots. Sometimes he told people his last name was German, not Jewish. (Incidentally, the moniker “Fabelman” “sounds like Jewish wordplay on the idea of fables, or storytelling,” as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency puts it.) In the film, Sammy’s classmates taunt him, calling him “Bagelman.”
Spielberg has said that the anti-Semitic bullying wasn’t a “governing force” in his life. Still, it influenced his relationship with Judaism, which didn’t factor into his films before Schindler’s List. Around the same time, the director married his second wife, Kate Capshaw, who converted to Judaism before the wedding. He later decided to raise all seven of his children with a Jewish education.
“The experience of making Schindler’s List made me reconcile with all of the reasons … I hid from my Jewishness,” he said in the 2017 documentary Spielberg. “And it made me so proud to be a Jew.”
Spielberg tells CBS News that making The Fabelmans was similarly cathartic. “It’s a tremendous privilege … realizing with this movie, what have I just done? Has this been $40 million of therapy?”
“Capture every moment”
Spielberg’s mother died in 2017; his father died in 2020. In interviews, he has insisted that he wasn’t waiting for his parents to die to start writing about them. On the contrary, his mother was always asking when he was going to tell their story. “There’s a little bit of this story in all your films. But you’ve always felt safer using metaphor,” she once said to him. “And I think you’re probably scared of the lived experience.”
She needn’t have worried. Even if he takes his time, Spielberg always gets around to using film to confront the shadows of his psyche.
The Fabelmans opens on the day Sammy, age 5, learns to employ this coping mechanism: January 10, 1952, when he saw The Greatest Show on Earth in theaters. He is terrified by a scene of two trains colliding. As the crash plays on a loop in his mind, he decides to recreate the scene using his model train set. When his father admonishes him for not taking better care of the toy, Sammy protests, “But I need to see them crash.”
This explanation confounds his father, but his mother eventually understands: “He’s trying to get some sort of control over it,” she says. She suggests filming the crash. That way he can watch it as much as he wants without damaging the train.
Since that moment played out in Spielberg’s own childhood, the director has never stopped committing his fears to film. The tagline for The Fabelmans is “Capture every moment”; it is an imperative that Spielberg adheres to compulsively. If a moment can be captured, then it can be understood—and, eventually, perhaps resolved.