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Spielberg shared his own story in 'parts and parcels' — if you were paying attention

Gabriel LaBelle plays the young filmmaker Sammy — a lightly fictionalized version of Spielberg — in <em>The Fabelmans</em>.
Merie Weismiller Wallace
Universal Pictures
Gabriel LaBelle plays the young filmmaker Sammy — a lightly fictionalized version of Spielberg — in The Fabelmans.

"I've been hiding from this story since I was 17 years old," Steven Spielbergtold the audience as he accepted the directing prize for The Fabelmans at this year's Golden Globes ceremony.

Hiding in plain sight, let's note, since he's been making movies pretty much non-stop in the ensuing years, including such era- and genre-defining smashes as Jaws, Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones films, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln.

But he's right that The Fabelmans is different — a lightly fictionalized version of the filmmaker's own life, without raptors, sharks, or historical figures for him to hide behind.

"I've told this story in parts and parcels all through my career," he continued. "E.T. has a lot to do with this story. Close Encounters has a lot to do with this story."

And now, armed with The Fabelmans as a key to unlock the code of his other pictures, it's easy for audiences to tease out what he means.

The stories behind the story

The Fabelmans begins by dramatizing a story Spielberg's been telling interviewers for years about the first time his parents took him to a movie. Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) is a circus story, but its most famous scene is a train crash that terrified little Stevie (and Sammy in the movie).

After sitting wide-eyed through the film, Sammy goes home and, to his dad's initial delight, asks for a model train set for Hanukkah. The delight fades when Sammy starts crashing his expensive Lionel model trains, but mom realizes he's trying to get past his fear, and has an idea.

"We're going to use Daddy's camera to film it," she says. "Only crash the train once, OK? Then after we get the film developed, you can watch it over and over 'til it's not so scary any more."

Great plan, though the six-year-old ends up staging many, many crashes as he works to get the camera angles just right.

Watching what little Sammy comes up with in The Fabelmans, it's hard not to think of the evocative train sequences in Spielberg films, from the Indiana Jones movies to Schindler's List. And once you're in that "origin story" head space, you'll start seeing parallels in other scenes.

Fractured families

The clowning around with props in a closet with his Fabelman siblings as Sammy starts making movies feels a whole lot like Elliott and his siblings getting acquainted with their otherworldly guest in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Spielberg directs on the set of the 1982 film <em>E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.</em>
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
Spielberg directs on the set of the 1982 film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

And if you accept as autobiographical the scene where mom grabs the Fabelman kids and drives straight toward a tornado, it's clear where the inspiration came from for Richard Dreyfuss grabbing the car and heading straight for the UFOs in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The mom and kid the Dreyfuss character takes along for the ride are a sort of pick-up family unit, not his own wife and kid, which makes a certain amount of sense when you know that Spielberg's parents divorced while he was still in his teens. In film after film — E.T. with its single mom, Jurassic Park with its unaccompanied grandkids, Empire of the Sun with its wartime separation of a boy and his parents — there are fractured families.

Spielberg has said that for many years he had a distant relationship with his father, whom he initially blamed for his parents' divorce though it was his mother who'd strayed. He reconciled with the old man in adulthood, and the portrait of him in The Fabelmans is generous and empathetic. Still, might that have been part of the attraction the filmmaker felt for the story of Catch Me If You Can, with its con-man father whose wife leaves him and marries his best friend?

And might it be why Tom Cruise spends the whole of War of the Worlds dodging aliens with two kids in tow, trying to get them back to their mother?

Wars, fears and finding peace

Wars of a more down-to-earth sort were Spielberg's starting point. In real life, after listening to his dad's service buddies talk about their World War II experience, and watching war movies on TV, the budding 15-year-old filmmaker deployed his Boy Scout troop in a 40-minute battlefield epic called Escape to Nowhere.

In The Fabelmans, Sammy recreates that film shoot, matching camera angles and dime-store effects and it contains the germ, you might argue, of what would later be the shattering first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan.

After Sammy screens the film for the scout troop, a father approaches him. "I guess you based it on your dad's war stories, huh?"

"Sort of," replies the teen tyro.

Steven Spielberg directs on set of the 1998 film <em>Saving Private Ryan</em>.
Dreamworks Llc/Paramount Pictures/Amblin Entertainment / Getty Images
Getty Images
Steven Spielberg directs on set of the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan.

All of these moments are detailed in The Fabelmans, as is Jewish family life and youthful encounters with antisemitism that informed the making of Munich and Schindler's List. It's intriguing to have it spelled out so clearly. But as a filmmaker who's often accused of having a Peter Pan Complex (and who made a Peter Pan film called Hook), he let NPR's Terry Gross know that his films have always been filled with personal tidbits that armchair psychologists could sleuth out if they want — say, a gnarly tree outside his bedroom window that scared him as a toddler.

"It looked like arms and long fingers and long fingernails," he recalls on Fresh Air, "and later, as an adult, when I wrote Poltergeist, I created a tree out the window that actually comes to life and grabs a kid and starts to suck him into one of its knotholes."

"I was afraid of the dark," says the man who created Jaws, and who plunged Indy into a snake-pit. "I was afraid of small places and I still am today. I was a fearful kid."

More than a sentimental self-portrait

Decades ago, Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, who'd just centered his movie 8 ½ on a character who was a director much like himself, said that "all art is autobiographical," adding playfully, "the pearl is the oyster's autobiography."

A few years later, Fellini released another pearl: Amarcord, about his own youth. And that put him in excellent company, with the likes of François Truffaut and The 400 Blows, Spike Lee and Crooklyn, Alfonso Cuarón and Roma, Greta Gerwig and Lady Bird.

But Spielberg, whose work has made him arguably the most popular filmmaker ever — his movies having out-earned those of all other directors at the box office — has made The Fabelmans more than just a sentimental self-portrait.

He's given audiences a glimpse of a filmmaker's childhood as a filmmaker — a sort of master-class in how heart affects art.

Edited by Ciera Crawford

Audio production by Isabella Gomez

Digital story produced by Beth Novey

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.