Steven Spielberg: And I thought for a second, “Okay, I guess this is a producer’s medium, television.” Which by the way, it is and isn’t. Certainly, theater is a writer’s medium. In theater, everything starts with a written word. And in motion pictures, I think it is a perfect collaboration between the writer and the director. And the producer, they’re involved, but it depends on who the producer is. But it’s really about writing and directing.
But I found in starting out that producers did not want that camera weaponized. They simply wanted something that everybody else had done before. It was a factory of television. We’re talking about the old review days in the late 1960s. And if you didn’t conform to that, you didn’t work.
Judd Apatow: Or you’re oner was only 11 minutes long.
Steven Spielberg: Exactly, instead of 31. Exactly.
Judd Apatow: It didn’t fit. The formats somehow.
Steven Spielberg: Didn’t get the-
Judd Apatow: Because they have commercials, they got to break your oner for commercials.
Steven Spielberg: And I kept wondering as I was watching the commercials back in the ’60s and ’70s and the commercials weren’t as creative as they are today, but there were some pretty interesting commercials back then, how come they get to do it in 30 seconds and we can’t do it in 30 minutes? Why is that? And that’s sort of when I departed for trying to get a job making movies.
Judd Apatow: Now, is it a real story or a myth that you snuck on the lot?
Steven Spielberg: Well, I didn’t sneak on the lot. I was given a three-day pass to get on the lot. I had snuck off a tour bus because in those days there were big Gray Line tours, big buses. And they give you bathroom breaks and I hid in the stall and waited for 20 minutes until I was sure the bus had left. Then I wandered around the lot for the whole day. It was great. And then I went to use a phone to get a ride back to Canoga Park where I was staying with my second cousins. And this guy got curious about what I was doing, and, “Really, you jumped off the business?” And he didn’t arrest me. He was curious about it. And I told him I was making little 8mm movies in Phoenix. And he asked to see a few.
The next day I got a one-day pass to come back to the lot to show him these movies. Then he gave me a three-day pass. He said, “That’s all I can write you. I’m a librarian. All I do at Universal is I rent out or I send movies to executive screening rooms. That’s my job. That’s all I do. So you’re on your own.”
So I literally had passed Scotty four times, the guard at the gate. I’d waved to Scotty with a pass in my hand. I just took a chance. And on that fifth day I walked past Scotty and I waved to Scotty with nothing in my hand at all. And he let me through. He me through it. And I came back to the lot every single day that summer, until high school. I had to go back to Phoenix to go back to high school.
Judd Apatow: So it is true.
Steven Spielberg: It’s sort of true. Yeah. It’s sort of true.
Judd Apatow: We have finally determined that it’s true, you committed crimes to get into the business.
Steven Spielberg: That’s right, trespassing.
Judd Apatow: We knew that. And now your parents, they were friends or reunited later in life. What is the post story? Did your mom marry that man? Or how did it go?
Steven Spielberg: My mom was married longer to Bernie, Bennie/Bernie, than she was to my dad. But it was interesting, because when Kate and I were married, my mom and Bernie came to the wedding and my dad and his wife Bernice came to the wedding, which is kind of interesting. My dad married a woman named Bernice after his best friend Bernie took his wife away from him. And that’s a movie that, maybe, I hope David Lynch will make.
Judd Apatow: It would be great.
Steven Spielberg: Going to encourage him to tell that story for me.
Judd Apatow: Let’s marry Shania Twain.
Steven Spielberg: But what happened was, just very quickly, what happened was the, after Bernie passed away, my dad and my mom and Bernice were together constantly, season tickets at Disney for all the concerts, because they all love classical music. Came to every event of every child, every briss, everything that went down. They were a threesome. So my dad, in a way, when he says, when Paul Dano says to Sammy in that last scene, “The story’s not over. It’s not time to say the end.” That’s exactly what happened. My dad just refused to say the end.
The thing that really got me was, my mom was passing and she was 97 when she passed, my dad wanted to come over to see her just before she passed. And as my dad came over in his wheelchair to her apartment, he said, “I’m going to ask her to marry me today, because I think we should be married before she passes.” And he came up to the side of the bed and my mom was quietly… she was still with us, but our eyes were closed. And my dad looked at her and just realized that was not going to happen. And so he loved her to the end of her life.
Judd Apatow: Wow. Before we end this, we should take a couple of questions from the audience here. Yes, sir. Just yell it and I will repeat it.
Speaker 5: The scene with John Ford going into the office. Oh, okay, great. I’ve seen it twice now, two different events. But I really like the scene of going into John Ford’s office. Could you talk a little bit about how accurate or realistic? Any changes made? And if you told Angelica this story, I’m sure over the years about her father, it’s a really… And wasn’t that David Lynch that played-
Steven Spielberg: It was David Lynch who played John Ford, yes.
Speaker 5: So if you talk about that. Yeah.
Steven Spielberg: Well, that scene happened word for word. Word for word. The only thing that didn’t happen was that in John Ford’s anteroom where he had a secretary that were not posters on the wall of Ford’s movies. So when I came in there and had to wait an hour and a half for him to get back from lunch, I didn’t know who it was, because he kept talking about a guy named Jack. And I was 16 years old at the time. And it was all about Jack this, Jack that. And I kept thinking, “Well, I know whose name is Jack. I love the creature from the Black Lagoon. Could it be Jack Arnold I’m about to meet?” I didn’t know. But that absolutely, absolutely happened. That’s exactly what he said to me.
Speaker 5: Did you tell Angelica about it, I’m sure you’ve seen her?
Steven Spielberg: I haven’t. I haven’t.
Speaker 5: She would enjoy that.
Steven Spielberg: But I would tell her if I see her, yes.
Judd Apatow: What did you take from that meeting? What did it launch you into in terms of your feelings about what you’re about to do to meet someone like that?
Steven Spielberg: Well, I felt I escaped that meeting with my life. That’s what I felt. So I didn’t think about my film career. I didn’t think about what sage advice he had actually given. It took years to reflect back on what he was actually saying to me. In his crotchety, kind of mean old Mr. Potter way, he was saying to me, “Do interesting photography, do it different than anybody else.” He was actually saying to me about the horizon, “That’s important. Composition is important.”
Tony Kushner: And I think that the reason that it wound up being the end of the movie, in part, is because at the moment of a surrender to life, the fact that art is not going to actually make the world a completely safe and manageable place for you, and Ford reiterates that. He says, “It’s going to rip you apart.” And then says, “Learn the basic fundamentals of your trade. Learn the tools, the simple stupid things that you do that make the machine work and then the art will take care of itself.” I mean, it just felt like a really perfect way to end the film.
Steven Spielberg: And also he was also, saying, “You can get inspired by looking at great art.” He was also saying, literally, “Yes, it’s great to frame your shots differently, but find your, draw your inspiration from art. Go to museums.”
Judd Apatow: I think more… Oh, I’m sorry.
Tony Kushner: Sorry. I think probably my favorite thing in the whole movie is that trip the camera makes around the perimeter of the room while he’s waiting for Ford. And Steven sort of made that up on the spot with all the posters and playing The Searcher’s theme, which was played on set as Gabe is looking at it. But I saw grips breaking down in tears, while we were filming it, because the camera’s going past this succession of films and you can’t believe that that man made this many astonishing masterpieces.
I mean, it’s just one after another after another. And it’s also him making a tribute. And then David Lynch comes in. So it’s one of the most meta moments ever as Steven Spielberg directing an actor, playing Steven Spielberg, talking to John Ford, played by David Lynch. It was a very interesting… I want to say because my husband is here, that it was his idea to cast David Lynch. But-
Steven Spielberg: It was. Thank you Mark Harris.
Tony Kushner: Yes. But-
Judd Apatow: Did-
Tony Kushner: … it was just… And you could feel it on the set that day. People were like, “Oh my God, it’s David Lynch.”
Judd Apatow: And also the movies really funny when it wants to be. And how did you two come up with this tone?
Steven Spielberg: Well, it’s just like, life is really funny. And there’s been a lot of things that might have scared me at the time, when you look back on it, like the nice Catholic girl.
Judd Apatow: Is that a true story?
Steven Spielberg: That’s a true story. But that actually happened when I was much younger. This happens to Sammy when he’s around 17, in our movie he’s 17. It happened to me actually in the eighth grade. And I just took that experience I had, and I just moved it forward in time.
Tony Kushner: I think that we should pause for one second. Judd Apatow just said that we were funny, so I can retire. It’s like…
Judd Apatow: But it really is hilarious in that sequence, I mean, it couldn’t be funnier. I mean, it’s a real nerd nightmare.
Steven Spielberg: Well, as you know, the writing this is the first step, and then the next critical step is the casting of it. Because Gabriel LaBelle, who plays Sammy, has incredible comic timing. It’s just natural. It’s just who he is. And this young actress we found Chloe East, who plays Monica, we were cracking up on Zoom watching the two of them play a scene together on Zoom. So he was on one screen, she was on the other, we were all on screens. And we’d watched the scene played out as he auditioned with several of the candidates for the character of Monica. When she came on, she slayed us.
Judd Apatow: When she nuzzles him when he is holding the camera, I mean, it’s a really delightful, incredible shot.
Steven Spielberg: Yeah, I think there should be a Monica movie next.
Tony Kushner: We made one discovery when we were putting up pictures of cute boys from the early ’60s with Jesus pictures. There’s a picture of John Lennon being held by the other Beatles and his feet are up here and his body is down here. And the set decorator and I were looking through things and we both stopped and we said, “Oh, my God, it’s Caravaggio. It’s St. Peter being taken down from the cross.” And it’s literally, I mean, John Lennon must have posed it that way. It’s a Beatles/Caravaggio cross… I just thought I would mention it.
Judd Apatow: John Lennon always got in trouble when he did anything around Jesus.
Tony Kushner: That’s right.
Judd Apatow: Yes, sir.
Speaker 6: Thank you. Your films are so visual and I’m just very curious when you’re participating in the writing part of that, the visuals you have in your head, how much of that makes it on the page?
Steven Spielberg: It does, it’s on the page. A lot of it’s on the page.
Speaker 6: The camera correction at the end, and that joke, that wonderful joke is in there.
Steven Spielberg: That’s on the page, yeah. And also, well just like how to reveal that Mitzi got her way and Bennie is coming to Arizona with the family. We wrote that. So Sammy’s got his 8mm camera. And first you see he’s goofing with his sister and goofing with the second sister. Then he pans up to mom and obviously you don’t hear the sound off. He says, “Hi, mom,” and waves back and then, “Hi, dad,” waves back. And then suddenly Bennie sticks his big face in camera and says, “Hi Sammy,” and takes a picture of him with his Minox. And so, yeah, that was all written.
Judd Apatow: Right there in the corner.
Speaker 7: When I came to consulting with your sisters, were there any moments when you had disagreements on your memories of certain events like the campfire or the car ride? Where one of them said, “You know what? I don’t remember it that way”?
Steven Spielberg: Not really, because the thing of it is, what they said was, “People aren’t going to believe this really happened.” I mean, when they read the first draft and they read the scene with the phone call, where after they bury Mitzi’s mom, the phone rings and it’s her on the phone saying, “Don’t let him in. I’m scared, Dolly, he’s coming. Don’t let him in the house.” And my sisters read that and said, “People aren’t going to believe that, because we all know that really happened, exactly that way.”
The same thing absolutely happened the day after the funeral. My dad was woken up by my mom. She told us the story the next day, and she was sobbing and saying, “Mama…” She was just sobbing. And she reported to my dad what she was saying. My dad listened to the phone, there was nobody there. My dad said, “It’s a dream.” And we heard the story that next morning, that evening, Uncle Boris pulls up in a taxi cabin, gets out of the car because he heard she had died and he wanted to sit shiva. And so they would read some of these scenes and say, “People aren’t going to believe that.” And I said, “That’s okay.”
Judd Apatow: Okay. Well, also the voice through the phone sounds like the girl talking through the TV in Poltergeist.
Steven Spielberg: A little bit.
Judd Apatow: Is that on purpose, like those illusions you’re making?
Steven Spielberg: You probably found yet another Easter egg that I wasn’t even aware of, Judd. You probably did. But, no, there were certain disagreements just in terms of where everybody was at when things were happening. I mean, my sisters did not know about the secret I had with my mom until much later in life. But pretty much all the other events that we covered, I went over a lot of the stuff with them on the telephone. And as we were writing it, I would keep Anne especially informed, and then I would let Sue and Nancy know. But they were pretty much on the same page with us the whole time.
Judd Apatow: And just talk about Judd Hirsch for a second. He’s my namesake. I met him at the Toronto Premier. I was very, very excited. He’s the most energetic 80-year-old man I’ve ever met.
Steven Spielberg: He’s 87.
Judd Apatow: He’s 87. The way he even gets down on the floor-
Steven Spielberg: Yes.
Judd Apatow: … I can’t get down on a floor like that. But just talk about shooting that sequence with him and preparing Judd Hirsch to do that.
Steven Spielberg: Well, he does theater and he never goes up. And that was the most amazing thing. So he absolutely knows all of his lines down pat. And I said to him going in, I said, “You can do the accent that I remember Uncle Boris having. He had a Ukrainian/Yiddish accent. You could use that.” Because he actually did trained lions for Ringling Brothers for a while back in the old country. “And you can-
Tony Kushner: Boris did, not Judd.
Steven Spielberg: … use your own…” Not Judd. Judd didn’t do that at all, no. No. Although it is very ironic that we let him be with a taxi, since that was how his career got started. So the taxi was a major Judd metaphor that we carried, a book end to that scene. But Judd would call me over and he would say, “I was rehearsing the scene, and it says in the script, the door opens and I’m looking out the door and I’m listening to Mitzi playing. And I’m saying, ‘She should have been a concert piano player, but she didn’t do it.'” He said, “What you should do is, if I open the door, why’d you put the camera in the hallway so you can see my face?”
So he’s giving me shots. He’s giving me shots. He says, “I don’t mean to give you shots, but wouldn’t it be better if your camera…” Of course, I always intended to bring the camera into the hallway. I didn’t want to do that on the back of his head. But he was thinking about the character and he was thinking about the setups at the same time,
Judd Apatow: It also feels like that, with your mom, it’s about women not having the opportunity to pursue their dreams at that time. And is that something you took as a young person? My mom is really creative and interesting, and she’s kind of stuck in this house having a really hard time. Is that part of what drove you to pursue what you pursued?
Steven Spielberg: I’m not sure if… Because I was pretty furiously pursuing as a hobby, but I was taking it very seriously. My dad did always call it a hobby. And I kept saying, “This is what I want to do.” And my dad kept saying, especially when I got into college, dad said, “You need a fallback. So I’m paying for college and I’m buying your books. And I just simply would like you to take a course, major in a course as a fallback. If you don’t become a director or a writer, you could maybe be a teacher.” So my dad and I made a deal and he took care of college and I majored in English, because that’s what my dad felt would be the net that would catch me. And I’m sorry, the question about was about my mom.
Judd Apatow: Didn’t you just drop out immediately though?
Steven Spielberg: Yeah, I did. I dropped out. After 18 months, I dropped out.
Judd Apatow: Me too. Exactly.
Steven Spielberg: Yeah, you too. 18 months, that was it. But I got a job. Did you get a job?
Judd Apatow: I ran out of money. I dropped out, because I couldn’t afford six grand at USC-
Steven Spielberg: Oh, God.
Judd Apatow: … cinema school.
Steven Spielberg: Oh, yeah.
Judd Apatow: Which, you tried to get in there, but I guess my essay was better. It wasn’t worth the 18 months. You didn’t miss anything. I’m the one with the education, and look at your work compared to my work.
Steven Spielberg: Hey, I’m on the board.
Judd Apatow: I know. You’ve got a building there. Don’t you have a building there?
Steven Spielberg: Yeah, exactly.
Judd Apatow: Do you know my essay to get into USC, I was 17, and I just wrote a long essay describing the buildings that I would have made in my name from all my donations, and I described all the buildings. And then I went there and I haven’t given them one penny, ever. And you didn’t go and you give them buildings.
Steven Spielberg: Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly true. But also my essay to them trying to get in, because I was trying to transfer also out of Long Beach State to USC, in my letter, which sort of blew up in my face, I basically said, “Well, I know I’m not getting very good grades in college right now, but you’d let football players in with worse.” It didn’t work. It didn’t work.
Judd Apatow: They love when you call them idiots. Okay, we’ll take two more questions, but they got to be good. You got to come through. Who… Okay, re-raise your hand if you’re feeling confident. Okay, right there.
Speaker 8: Hi. So this is by far your most introspective movie. So I was wondering, which do you prefer telling stories that aren’t so much about you or telling stories that are a lot about you?
Steven Spielberg: Well, having told a lot of stories that aren’t about me and only one story that is completely based on me, this was a kind of a real catharsis for me. Because as I said before, I just don’t know how filmmakers have told their own stories of all the films throughout all of our collective memories of the movies that we’ve seen that were made very personally by filmmakers that we all love, I never went there. And to go there for the first time, I’m just happy I had the chance to do this.
And I’m not sure what this is going to inform me of in the next iteration of films. I’m not sure where I’m going after this. I mean, I’m playing around with a couple ideas, but I haven’t landed on any movie, because between West Side Story and the Fabelmans, I mean, I had no time or any inclination or any passion to think beyond these two stories, especially the Fabelmans. So I’ve got to figure out where passion is going to come from next. I don’t know where it’s going to come from, but we’ll see.
Judd Apatow: Does it make you two want to write something else that’s personal? For [inaudible 00:53:47] either-
Steven Spielberg: We could make-
Judd Apatow: Tony’s origin story of pain. What’s your pain that we can hear about?
Tony Kushner: I will say just because we didn’t quite answer, and I think it’s an interesting question, that as we worked on the movie, Leah Spielberg… I mean, my mother was a professional musician. She actually had a career. She was first bassoon in New York City Opera, and she recorded with [inaudible 00:54:10], and she was a big deal bassoonist. And then she moved to Louisiana with my father when we moved down there when I was very young. But I think our mothers, we discovered, as we were talking about this really came from a generation of women, feminism was on the way. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique had been published. There was the beginnings of the modern feminist movement were really beginning to coalesce.
And there was a sense for women of that generation, I was very much aware of this with my mother, that you had the possibility now of making a career, maybe, in addition to being a mother or instead of being a mother, the world was not necessarily going to be all that welcoming to it yet. And so it’s a really interesting moment.
And I think we both got very interested in Mitzi’s struggle with this kind of being haunted by a sense that there was a path that she didn’t take that she had four kids instead. And I know that my mother struggled with that as well. And there’s a lot of really interesting films from that period that are very much about that. About women and professionalism and women and ego and having the right to have an ego. And that became a really big part of the dynamic of the film. So…
Steven Spielberg: My mom, she just loved Lauren Bacall and she loved Katharine Hepburn and she’d loved Bette Davis. And, certainly, she loved Irene Dunne. She loved outspoken women. And my mom, all her life was outspoken. She always said what you’re not supposed to say. You’re not supposed to say it at the dinner table. You’re not supposed to say it when you’re with your friends. And she didn’t say it to get a rise out of her group. She said it because she was just absolutely uninterruptible. She knew where she wanted to go. She knew she wanted to be a performer. She wanted to be a performing artist. The piano was the best way toward performing arts.
But she raised four kids. And even though she was more of a peer than a parent, because she wanted us all to call her Lee, not mom. Only, I called her mom. My three sisters always called her Lee, since they were kids. We stopped her from allowing her dream to come true. But the dream of her heart was this guy named Bernie, who my mom was hopelessly, platonically, but hopelessly in love with. And my mom had to make that happen for herself. And God bless her that she did.
Judd Apatow: And now the last question, it’s going to be so good, because the person in the very back corner right there, that right corner. You, there you go.
Speaker 9: Hi. I wanted to ask you about the line that your sister says to you that, “In the family you were the one that was as selfish as your mother,” and in what ways, looking back now, do you see that that’s true or not?
Steven Spielberg: Well, it’s absolutely true, and it’s not the first time she called me selfish. It’s because when things were falling apart, I was either cutting a little 8mm film in my bedroom or I was out of the house and not wanting to be part of the maelstrom. I was conflict avoidant, and my sisters were more tenacious. They were more fighters. When my mom and dad were having an argument, they were right there to make peace and I retreated.
And my sister used to always say to me, “Steve, you are so selfish. We’re trying to make things better. We’re trying to find some happiness here, and you’re off making your movies.” And so it’s something that has followed us. Has followed me, certainly, in those early years. I’ve made up for it though. I really have.
Judd Apatow: Well, your parents must have had a great time with your success, I would assume.
Steven Spielberg: Yeah, when my dad, who really wanted me to go to college to be an English teacher, if this didn’t work out. When my dad came to the premiere of Jaws, I’ll never forget, he came to the premiere and he said, “Geez, Steve, this is really neat.”
Judd Apatow: Well, thank you very much for being here. Thank you all for being here.