Michelle Williams on The Fabelmans: We knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime job

Rachael Davis, PA Entertainment Features Writer

“This movie is his life. You don't want to ruin Steven Spielberg's life!” laughs rising star Gabriel LaBelle when we sit down to talk about The Fabelmans, the veteran film-maker's most personal movie yet, in which the 20-year-old plays the director's likeness.

“The first thing I asked him was ‘How much of this script really happened to you?' And he said ‘All of it'.

“So I just tried to get to know him to the best of my abilities, ask him as many questions about his childhood, his relationships, what it was like for him growing up, the people around him, his perspectives on the world and how he felt about himself.

“Because then I could understand this character, and what story he really wanted to tell.”

The Fabelmans, a coming-of-age drama directed by Spielberg who co-wrote it with Angels In America playwright Tony Kushner, explores the film-maker's childhood and seminal years through a fictionalised lens.

LaBelle plays Sammy Fabelman, a young aspiring film-maker who stuns his parents and peers with his innate directorial talent. Over the years, he becomes the documentarian of his family's life – the good times and the bad – and creates his own increasingly elaborate productions starring his friends and sisters.

“I looked for somebody who was much more handsome than me,” laughs Spielberg, 76, talking about casting Sammy.

“I cast somebody who had insatiable curiosity, which I know I've always possessed. And, as a person, Gabe has insatiable curiosity.”

The Fabelman family move around the country, chasing patriarch Burt's computer design career from New Jersey to Arizona to California.

Paul Dano's Burt, an ambitious but grounded computer engineer and loving father, contrasts with Fabelman mother Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams, an accomplished musician who gave up her artistic career to raise her family.

Spielberg based Burt and Mitzi on his own parents, Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg, to whose memory the film is dedicated.

With a bold personality and something of a restless soul, Mitzi loves her family and husband to the ends of the earth, but it's evident how much she has had to sacrifice to meet society's expectations of motherhood.

Williams says she loved Mitzi's “energy, her passion, her ability to fill up a room”.

“You know, I think it's really why he made this movie,” she adds.

“Because her presence, his father's presence, continues to be so strong that he wanted to make something to honour them, and to bring them back for a short period of time… and then also forever. Like, they get to live in this movie forever.”

Honorary Fabelman Bennie – Burt's best friend and colleague, played by Seth Rogen – is also along for the ride and is endearingly known as ‘Uncle Bennie' to the kids. As Sammy grows up, however, he notices an emotional connection between Bennie and Mitzi, one that eventually becomes impossible to ignore.

The Fabelmans is, therefore, a tale of family, friends, passion and love, giving Spielberg fans a look into the early years of the celebrated director.

“It was a very personal film for him,” says four-time Oscar-nominated Williams, 42.

“And, as a result, it became a very personal film for all of us. Because he really opened up his heart and asked us to come in and shared so many stories and experiences and recollections of his childhood.

“We knew that we were making something really special… We knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime job.”

Tasked with portraying a representation of one of the world's most famous directors, LaBelle – who won the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Young Performer for the role – did all he could to get under Spielberg's skin and really understand the film-maker.

“I don't want him to be disappointed in what I do, so I wanted to make sure that I knew exactly what he was looking for with this story, and what he wanted out of this character, and just get to know him so I could get over the fact that I'm talking to Steven Spielberg, and get to know him as a person,” he says.

“I had to know as much as I could about him. Because I'm him.”

LaBelle and Spielberg had lengthy phone calls before shooting started so they could get to know each other better.

“It would basically be Gabriel interviewing me, about my mom and my dad and who I grew up with,” says Spielberg.

“He was doing his research, not by me giving him videos and films – he wanted to find out what he could by drawing it from his subject.

“He controlled all the phone calls, which I thought was really interesting, because I'm also kind of a control freak! And when I realised that he is one, too, I thought ‘He's going to do really well, and maybe get to know me a little better than I ever knew myself'.”

The Fabelmans is peppered with recreations of Spielberg's adolescent works, from his first film-making adventure recording toy train crashes as a child to his amateur movies The Last Gun – called Gunsmog in the movie – and 40-minute war film Escape To Nowhere.

Spielberg and Kushner wanted Sammy to use period 8mm cameras to shoot these films, and Spielberg actually did a lot of the photography himself.

LaBelle nevertheless thought it was important to learn how to operate the cameras and editing machines himself so it would look realistic – and, along the way, gained a new appreciation for the labour of love that was early film-making.

“You have to learn how to use the cameras, how to load film in, how to load film out, how to set up projectors, and how to use editing machines and hand splicers,” he says.

“Your fingers have to be so nimble… and you have to be so careful with film because it's so brittle… if you take it out, or put it in, the wrong way, it could break, and then your movie's ruined.

“After you film something, you have to put it in the mail and send it to the lab, wait for it to get developed, wait for it to come back in the mail. And then you get it. And it's this really long and tedious experience with these beautiful metal machines.

“And the fact that Steven has been doing that since he was six – no wonder he is where he is today! He's absolutely obsessed, and it's just in his bones. It's so instinctual for him now, it's like breathing. The happiest he is is when he's behind the camera.”

– The Fabelmans is in UK cinemas from Friday January 27.