How Universal Pictures has sold a nostalgic look back
Steven Spielberg directs – after cowriting with Tony Kushner – this week’s The Fabelmans, in wide theatrical release now after a few weeks playing in New York and Los Angeles. A semi-autobiographical look at the director’s own childhood, the movie stars Gabriel LaBelle as teenage Sammy Fabelman, the Spielberg proxy who uses his love of making movies as a way to process and deal with the tension in the marriage of his parents, played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano. As the two influence Sammy in different ways he also comes into his own as he realizes what he can do with a movie camera.
Also playing roles in Sammy’s life are members of his extended family, especially uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen) and great-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch).
With so much talent up and down the roster, including longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams once again providing the music, it’s time to look at how it’s been sold to the general public.
announcements and casting
The movie was announced in early 2021, though Spielberg and Kushner had been working on the project throughout the previous two years.
Williams and then Rogen were included in the cast at that time. Dano joined a couple months after that followed by LaBelle. Others in the supporting cast, including Hirsch, were added over the next few months leading up to the beginning of filming in mid-2021.
Dano talked about the imposing nature of playing a real-life person and working with Spielberg in an interview earlier this year as part of The Batman’s publicity cycle. Similarly while she was promoting Showing Up Williams admitted to having her mind blown when the director said he wanted to work with her.
the marketing campaign
In a move that makes some sense given the talent and subject matter the first marketing beats of the film’s campaign involved announcements the world premiere would take place at September’s Toronto Film Festival and then that it would be the closing feature of November’s AFI Fest.
Things really got going in September, just before TIFF, with the release of the first poster. It immediately establishes the premise of the film by showing a young boy walking down a row of soundstages as filmstrip images of the boy’s family and life are projected on the building in front of him. It hits a warm, nostalgic tone that lets the audience know what they’re in for.
The first trailer (3m YouTube views) came out as well. As soon as young Sammy is given a film camera by his mother he begins making his own movies. From there on out it’s a mix of being told to follow his artistic heart and being told to stop fooling around and get serious about his life, all filtered through Sammy’s experience with his parents, including his mother’s frustrated dreams.
At TIFF the stars joined Spielberg and Kushner to share their thoughts on making the movie and more. They all turned out for the premiere as well. Spielberg also talked more about how the pandemic and his parents getting older made him realize if he was ever going to make this film, which he’d been considering for 20 years, it was going to have to be soon. The movie went on to win the People’s Choice Award at TIFF as well as accumulate plenty of positive reviews from those in attendance.
Also on the festival front, the movie was slated as the opening feature of MOMA’s The Contenders series.
There were, of course, a number of feature profiles of Spielberg that examined how it’s the culmination of the family-centric themes he’s explored throughout his career but the first to do so in such a personal and explicit way.
Hirsch was interviewed about how Spielberg prepared him to play a character based on the director’s uncle, which included precious little actual direction but lots of encouragement to make choices and do what he felt was right for the character.
At the AFI Fest screening Rogen, Williams and others talked about how emotional filming was for everyone involved as well as the occasionally surreal experience of working with Spielberg on such a personal project.
In a clip released to Fandango in early November Sammy’s mom is giving him a camera to film his trains with so he can watch them crash over and over.
The cast and crew assembled again for a conversation about the movie at The Academy.
A short video shows Spielberg engaging in his traditional toast before filming the last shot of the movie and praising the cast and crew for their hard work while behind-the-scenes footage rolls of everyone making the movie.
Rogen appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie while Williams appeared on “The Late Show” and “Kimmel” and Dano stopped by “The Late Show” as well. The whole cast as well as Spielberg then appeared on “Today”.
LaBelle was profiled in a piece where he talked about the pressures of playing a young Spielberg in front of the old Spielberg and more. Another feature on Dano again emphasized how he’s beginning to loosen up in his career and have some fun with the roles he chooses.
A featurette that came out last week opens with Spielberg talking about how he’s always drawn from real life experiences for his movies and that this one is just an extension of that while the cast praises the director and his approach.
A few non-sequential thoughts on what’s been recapped above:
- Spielberg is always at his best when he’s making movies he wants to make as opposed to making movies he should be making and this seems to fall firmly in the former category.