‘Fabelmans’ Writer Tony Kushner on Dramatizing Steven Spielberg’s Life and What They’re Working on Next: ‘I’m Excited About It’

The Pulitzer Prize-winner walks TheWrap through his ongoing collaboration with the filmmaker

The Fabelmans

Tony Kushner has worked with Steven Spielberg a whopping four times on four completely different movies: 2005’s thorny political thriller “Munich;” 2012’s historical biography “Lincoln;” 2021’s epic musical “West Side Story;” and most recently, 2022’s autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” the story of how Steven Spielberg became Steven Spielberg. Only one other screenwriter, David Koepp, has collaborated with the filmmaker as often (and they had a fifth project in pre-production that fell apart at the eleventh hour). Kushner and Spielberg’s ongoing collaboration is perhaps the most important of either artist’s career.

So sitting down with Kushner to talk about “The Fabelmans” and his journey with Spielberg, it was easy to feel intimidated. (One rarely gets to talk to a Pulitzer Prize winner.) But Kushner was warm and open about their collaboration and its difficulties – including where they might be headed next.

When you did “Munich,” did you think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Mr. Spielberg?

No, not at all. I really loved working with him on “Munich.” It was so much unlike what became our way of working because I wrote the screenplay fairly quickly and then I took a little bit longer than he liked for rewriting it. But nothing compared to the years that went by getting ready to write “Lincoln” and then revising “Lincoln.” And it was a huge production. But we finished filming “Munich” in October and released it in December, which still seems kind of impossible to me.


Well, he edits as he goes along and he’s really edited a lot of it in his head while he is filming it. Every film that I’ve done with him — I think in every film he’s made — he has a rough cut, or close to a rough cut, by the last day of filming. But with “Munich” that happened and then two months later we were out in the world. And that was shocking.

When I met Kathy Kennedy, who I met before I met Steven, she asked me out to breakfast. And as one does, you say, “Well, what are you working on? What are you working on?” And I said, “What are you doing right now?” And she says, “I’m working on two films with Stephen. One is about the Munich Olympic murders and the other is about Abraham Lincoln based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, ‘Team of Rivals.’” And I thought, “Well, those both sound great. Good luck.”

And I had just published an anthology of essays that I edited with a friend of mine Alisa Solomon, about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And it literally had come out days before I met with Kathy and I said, “I’ve just published 58 progressive Jewish American responses to the conflict. Would you like a copy of it?” And she said, “Sure.” I sent her two, one for her and Steven. And then Steven called and said, “I read the book, I’d like to talk to you about this movie I’m making.” But I didn’t think… I had no idea that it would start this thing.

And when we were working on “Lincoln,” we started talking about the next project that we were going to do. And while I was working on that, we started talking about “West Side Story.” And the whole time from “Munich” on, I kept pushing him, “I think you should make a movie about this thing that happened,” which he told me about on the first day of filming “Munich” — this thing that happened when he was a teenager with a camera and his parents. I don’t want to say exactly what it is, because it is a big [reveal]. But I thought this is an amazing story and it’s amazing that this is part of his story. In a way, we’ve been talking about it for 20 years.

Well, what is it like working with him as a writer? Because he so infrequently writes.

I think he’s a wonderful writer. I love “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I think it’s still probably my favorite of his films. And because when I work with him and I’m this screenwriter myself, we go over the script over and over and over and over again. We read parts of it out loud to each other and he makes suggestions. I also know from his direction that he loves language. He has a really good ear for it. He really loves the sound of it. He’ll often say like, “Man for All Seasons,” because it is a movie that he adores because he loves Robert Bolt’s screenplay. He loves the speeches, he loves talk, and he has a real ear for subtlety and nuance. There are many things that can go on when something is being said more than what is intended or what’s the obvious meaning of the words.

But I’d never written anything with anybody before. And he really hadn’t either. And where we literally sat down and said, “Okay, interior.” And I was dreading that. I mean, I had written an 81-page novella based on all of my interviews with him, just to see if I tried to pull them all together into some kind of working sequence. And then I sent him sections of that as I did it. And from that document, we began to then refine it to something that felt like a filmable outline.

I knew the day was coming. And at one point he said, “Let’s start writing now.” I don’t think that’s true. I think that he said, “Let’s set up a Zoom call.” Everybody was in lockdown. “Let’s set up a Zoom call and let’s start.” One day we did. I have friends who are in the writer’s room and they talk about everybody’s throwing out lines – “What if he says this and what if said that?” And I thought I could never ever do that. It’s such a private experience for me. But that’s what we did it. And it was a blast. It was great.

You weren’t writing “Lincoln” with Abraham Lincoln in the room with you. Were you pushing for it to be more dramatic and was he pushing it to be more autobiographical?

No, I mean, we both had decided that making this work dramatically as a story apart from its rootedness in his life, that making it work as a story that could mean something to people who didn’t know that it was directed by Steven Spielberg or didn’t know who he was, but that it would have meaning on its own and not meaning to him or his sisters or the people who knew his parents. It had to earn its place in the script as part of a story.

I think this is why it’s good that he was working with another writer because I think I did provide a degree of objectivity. It wasn’t my life, so I didn’t cherish these things. I mean, I cherished them because they were great dramatic material, but not because it had some sort of beautiful deep feeling because I had lived through them.

And one of the reasons that I think that I glommed onto this idea of making a movie centered around the central event of “The Fabelmans,” of the camping trip and the footage and everything, is I was really moved … I’m a writer and I think a lot about art and I come from a family of artists, and I think a lot about the ways in which when you’re young, you use art, either the creating of it or the consuming of it, to make the world comprehensible to yourself, hence safer or apparently safer to yourself. And that if you’re an artist and that’s where you’re originally being led by that artist saying to you, you can make the world a more habitable, less menacing place. If you’re serious about the art, it’s also then going to lead you right off the edge of the cliff. It’s going to lead you into very scary, unpredictable, dangerous places.

And one thing that I was impressed with in my first movie with Steven is probably in some ways his most controversial and it was a scary movie for him to make. And “Lincoln” was scary for me, for Daniel [Day Lewis], for Steven, for one week when everybody was sort of saying, “Okay, we’re going to actually do this.” And Daniel said, “I can’t really be on screen as Abraham Lincoln. Everybody will laugh.”

I suddenly had this moment of thinking, “Oh my God, it’s going to be like a used car commercial. He is going to have that hat and it’s going to be a joke.” And Steven was doing his own spinning around. And then we all said, “Okay, our job is to find these places that are just terrifying.” With remaking a new version of “West Side Story” from this immensely beloved, award-winning, great musical film. And you get to that place and you think, “Am I nuts?” And then you know, “Okay, now I’m actually doing my job,” is to start where things get scary and go into the dark and see what you can find. And I think that was what drew him and me to this.

It’s the central story of this movie; I think it beautifully illuminates, explores and examines that universal experience of the menacing world that we’re all born into, and the ways that we survive by making it less menacing to the extent that we can. And then the way that adulthood will at some point reveal to you that it’s all been an illusion and that the menace is real, and yet you’ve survived and you can go forward with the knowledge that you can come up with new illusions to get you down the next phase. But that seemed to me like it would give the film a real purpose, a real meaning and a real depth. And the more we talked about it, the more excited we got about that. And it gives you an organizing spine for the story.

Every one of these movies is so different. And I don’t know what [Spielberg and Kushner’s abandoned] “The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara” was going to be, but I’m assuming that would have been very different as well. With each new collaboration, do you redefine your relationship with him and the nature of your collaboration?

Well, to some extent, yeah. Because each one has its own thing. And there were things about “Lincoln” that were problematic and hard. In a way with “Munich,” it was sort of very much him and me, and we had this great cast. But Daniel came in very much as a creative partner. And that was an interesting experience for me and for him. Everybody’s in awe of Daniel. I mean, the first thing on the set was he did that giant monologue word perfect. David Strathairn was sitting next to him and came off the set looking ashen. And I said, “Are you okay?” And he said, “I’ve been staring up at Olympus.” He said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.” Daniel is awe-inspiring. And Steven was like, “Oh my God, oh my God.” And Sally Field. But it had its own complexities and political complexities and historical complexities.

“West Side Story” was a musical. And I knew something about musicals because I had done one, and I brought in my friend Janine Tesori, who does a lot of musicals. But I knew that musicals are not anything else, and Steven had never directed one, so there was a huge learning curve for him for that. Just the idea that we’re going to have a two-month rehearsal period before we started, because the dancers had to learn the dance and the singers had to learn and everything. And so that was its whole own thing.

In a funny way, I know that we wouldn’t have made “The Fabelmans” until we had made all three of those movies together. And I really feel Kristie Macosko Krieger, his genius producer, when we were filming “The Fabelmans” last year, and he came up with some amazing thing on the spot and we were all going “oooh.” And she said, “He wouldn’t have been able to do that if he hadn’t done ‘West Side Story.’”

But “West Side Story,” he’d always wanted to make a musical. It is the most astonishing musical score ever. And he loved it. He loved doing it so much, and it pulled something out of him. And I think he would agree with this, he started a new phase of his career while making “West Side Story.” And he was there last summer with this new set of chops that he learned.

In a way, the only thing that was a little bit maybe about “The Fabelmans” is I had to say to myself over and over again, “This is his story.” The big act of courage here is this guy, who’s a fairly private person, who’s used a lot of his family, his experiences as a young person in all of his films. I mean “E.T.,” when you watch “The Fabelmans,” you see, oh, that’s where that came. But I would tell him about Eugene O’Neil or Tennessee Williams doing autobiographical work and being terrified at the prospect of doing it. The real gamble in a certain sense, much more than mine was his.

I felt like I have to be willing at some points to say, even though I wish he would not do this, and he would do that, with all the other movies, I would’ve kicked and screamed until he really finally said, “Be quiet and leave me alone.” Which he’s done, not often, but he’s done. With “The Fabelmans,” there was a place where I felt like, “Oh, I have to let go a little bit because there’s something about this that means something to him on a personal level,” as long as I felt like it wasn’t making this story closed off to everybody but Steven and his sisters. And if I felt like we were heading into that territory, then I would kick and scream and yell. There was a lot that I can contribute to this, but I wasn’t there. I’m not his brother. I am not his sister. I had to let that happen.

Otherwise, he was immensely generous with me and immensely trusting. He told me all these stories. He let me play around with these things in building the early beginnings of the structure. He let me challenge him on further structural elements, even if it was about something dear to him that had happened. We had to collapse things and compress things. It all turned out really well, I think.

But each one is a different experience.

Have you started talking about the next one?



Just a couple of weeks ago. When we finished “The Fabelmans,” we realized it was the first time — well, certainly since the day that he asked me if I would look at “Lincoln” — that we hadn’t been working on a project. We always had the next thing lined up. We finished “The Fabelmans” and said, “Okay, what are we doing next?” And so for a while now, we’ve been having meetings and throwing ideas back and forth. And for one reason or another nothing has really felt right. And then about two weeks ago, I was doing a speech in Toledo, Ohio, and he called me and said, “I’ve got an idea. I’ve just listened to something that I want you to listen to.” And I listened and I called him back and I said, “Oh my God.”

Well, while watching the movie, I thought, it’s so weird that he hasn’t made a Western yet.

I know. And we talked about that. And he’s, over the years, looked at different possibilities. Westerns have become really hard to do and I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s … certainly the movie Western as a mythological thing, relied on maybe blurring out certain ugly historical truths that you can’t blur out anymore and you don’t want to blur out anymore.

And so much has been done with them. As you look around the room of John Ford posters, Ford really opened and closed the genre almost. After “Liberty Valance,” what do you do? You can make great westerns. There are some recent ones that have been really wonderful but you’re up against real Hollywood mythology like that. I wish he would do it. Maybe I’ll skip that one because of the desert — I had a really hard time with the scorpions — get on the next plane and fly back to New York.

But there are one or two genres that he hasn’t tackled that I think … but we never really want [to]. David Lean said his advice to filmmakers, don’t pop out of the same foxhole twice. But you don’t want to make that a guiding principle either. You really want to tell the stories that mean something to you. This thing that we’re talking about now is not necessarily absolutely wildly afield from anything he’s ever tried before, not in the way that “West Side Story” was or this is. But the way we’re approaching it. And I should shut up. I’m excited about it.

“The Fabelmans” is on PVOD and in theaters now.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.