Tony Kushner has been working with Steven Spielberg for nearly 20 years, having penned or co-written the screenplays for Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story. (He earned Oscar nominations for the former two.) And despite being a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright, Kusher still feels the weight of the work. As he only half-jokingly admits, "I find all writing intimidating. I never know how it's going to come out or if it's gonna work."
Kushner's latest collaboration with Spielberg is The Fabelmans, a coming-of-age drama based on Spielberg's own childhood and adolescence, including his first experiences picking up a camera and the impact his parents' divorce had on him. Mining his own memories for the script, the film marks the first time that Spielberg has written or co-written the screenplay for one of his own films since 2001's A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and proved a unique experience.
"I didn't know if writing together would work or not because I've never tried to write with somebody else, but neither had he really," Kushner admits. "It was a joy for both of us when it turned out to be a lot of fun."
Kushner is quick to note that he didn't find the process of writing alongside Spielberg any more daunting than their past work together. He did, however, feel an added level of pressure once production on The Fabelmans actually began. "I felt really good about the film," the screenwriter says. "But I did think, 'Oh, God. What if it doesn’t work as a movie? Will he ever forgive me?'"
In conversation with A.frame, Kushner opens up about bringing Steven Spielberg's origin story to the big screen and how the filmmaking partners continue to challenge and celebrate one another.
A.frame: When Steven said that he wanted to write about a film about his childhood with you, was that intimidating at all?
We'd been talking about doing this film for a really long time, so it wasn't out of the blue or totally unexpected when he decided he wanted to do it. It was, honestly, much more shocking when he told me he wanted to remake West Side Story and that he wanted me to write the screenplay. The thing that made The Fabelmans surprisingly less intimidating was that we weren't sure if it was going to work. We weren't really sure that the project would add up to anything or work as a screenplay. We really started without that assumption.
We wrote the first draft over Zoom when Steven was in California and I was in New York. We spent three days a week, four hours a day writing the script, and part of the reason we did it that way was because we missed each other. It was the height of the COVID lockdowns at the time, so it was fun spending time with each other and it gave us something meaningful to talk about and work on. As we got more serious about shaping it into a screenplay, the journey then began to more closely resemble work. But at first, we didn't make an announcement to the press that he was making a semi-autobiographical movie, and that gave us a lot of freedom to play around and invent.
We've been working together for 20 years pretty much non-stop. This was my fourth movie with him and my fifth script for him, so I didn't find it scary. When we got on the set and started casting is when it got a little more intense in terms of pressure. Because I was somebody who had really pushed him to think about doing The Fabelmans for 20 years. I really encouraged him to go ahead and make it once we had a script. That was a little scary. [Laughs] But not that much scarier than when we were doing West Side Story or Lincoln.
"[Steven] wrote my favorite line in The Fabelmans, and it's only in the movie because I wouldn't let him cut it!"
Personal memory films like The Fabelmans have a reputation for being a bit structureless. How did you and Steven find the actual structure and story for this film?
We never wanted to do an atmospheric tone poem or just a gathering of his memories. We always wanted to do a work of fiction with plot twists, character arcs, and emotional development. Even though we shouldn't have been, given how much time the movie covers, I think we were also surprised to realize that we were writing an epic movie. For all of its intimacy and the smaller scale of it, it's still an epic movie. I don't mean "epic" in the same way that Ben-Hur is epic, either. The Fabelmans is literally a story that's told in episodes. It’s a story that is about, fundamentally, replicating the experience of being on a physical journey from one place to another. It takes you across the United States, and it travels through time.
I believe that epic dramaturgy is different from the sort of Aristotelian unity of time and place. I think it has a different quality and different perils and rewards. We began to talk about that a lot, Steven and I, while we were writing the film. Just like when we were doing West Side Story, I became obsessed with various theories about tragedy and what tragedy is — as opposed to a play, musical, or film that's heartbreaking. Something can be heartbreaking and still not be a tragedy. There are genuinely heartbreaking things in The Fabelmans, but it's not a tragedy. I get interested in formal questions like that, and I try really hard to get Steven to bear with me, which he mostly does. All of which is to say that we were both surprised by the epic nature of The Fabelmans.
We also said from the very beginning that the most important thing for us — the thing that would make it possible for us to make The Fabelmans as a film — was to ask each other in every single scene and moment, "If somebody watched this and had no idea who filmed it, would it still work for them?" We didn't want to make something that was just for Steven's existing fan club. We wanted to make a movie that had universality and we felt strongly that this was a story that had the potential to achieve that. Both of us are narrative realists. That's the genre we basically work in. We love a good story, and I think The Fabelmans tells a really good story.
As you said, you've been working together for 20 years. How has your creative relationship evolved over the course of those decades?
I think it's evolved in terms of our familiarity with each other, both as people and as artists. Obviously, I originally knew more about him as an artist than he knew about me. I don't think he'd seen Angels in America on stage until 2019. He'd seen Mike Nichols' film version of it, but not the play itself. I don't think he'd ever read it, either, so he didn't know that the first half of the play ends with the line, "Very Steven Spielberg," and I didn't tell him that it was in the play. I just let him go and see it when it was last on Broadway a couple of years ago.
We've gotten very familiar with each other, though. We've learned how to fight with each other, which is important in any collaborative relationship. We can really go at it and I can get very tough on him. Not in a rude way, of course, but I can tend to hammer away at him if I want him to think about something or consider something. We've learned that even some very tough fights can result in a new approach to a moment or movie that neither of us had considered before. He's also a wonderful reader of other people's writing. He's incredibly smart about structure, so I've always loved working with him on scripts.
When I was on the set of Munich, that was also the first time I had really ever been on the set of a feature film. I wasn't on the set of Angels in America very much when Mike Nichols was filming it, so I had very little familiarity with the filmmaking process at that point. That has changed a lot over the years, but Steven and I still get a lot of pleasure from the moments when one of us comes up with an idea for how to change a scene just when we're getting ready to film it. I'll grab my laptop and start clattering away on an idea and he'll look over my shoulder and we'll come up with something good. That's still very exciting. We did that on The Fabelmans, and we've done it on every film we've made together.
Despite how prolific he is, Steven hasn't actually written that many of his films. How was he as a writing partner?
He was amazing, and that was not a surprise to me. I've always been the kind of writer who, if someone reads a line back to me and they've changed a word or two but I like the way it sounds, I'll say, "Can I use that?" I've always loved that aspect of working with people, and Steven's great about that. He's someone with a real ear for the music of language and the subtleties of language. Still to this day, even though I've made four Steven Spielberg movies, my favorite of his films is probably Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which he wrote. I've always known that he was a real writer.
There are even several lines in The Fabelmans that I think are some of the most beautiful things in the film that he wrote, including my favorite line. I won't say what it is, but he wrote my favorite line in The Fabelmans, and it's only in the movie because I wouldn't let him cut it!