The morning after Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans had its world premiere in Toronto — a screening that immediately catapulted the film into pundits‘ top movie lists going into awards season — the director and his cast sat down to talk about the movie with festival CEO Cameron Bailey.

Telling the story of Spielberg’s early life in post-WWII Arizona and his earliest flashes of filmmaking insight alongside family trauma, the film is by far the director’s most personal to date, and stars Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman, based on Spielberg, together with Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan and Judd Hirsch.

“I thought it was gonna be a lot easier than it turned out to be because I’ve certainly known the material and all the characters for my entire life,” said Spielberg alongside his co-writer Tony Kushner at Sunday’s press conference. “And yet I found this to be, for me, a very daunting experience, because I was attempting in a semi-empirical way to recreate huge recollections, not only in my life but in the lives of my three sisters and my mother and father who are no longer with us. Just the responsibility of that began to build.”

Spielberg added: “As the cast knows, this was, emotionally, a very difficult experience. Not all of it, but some of it was really, really hard to get through.”

In a similar fashion to Kenneth Branagh and his semi-autobiographical Belfast, Spielberg said he was urged to write The Fabelmans by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I remember, as the death toll mounted, we kept watching the reports of what was happening throughout the country and the world and I kept thinking, ‘What is this going to mean for humanity? How far is this pandemic going to actually take us?’” he said. “And I kept thinking, ‘Well, if I’m going to tell a story that I’ve always wanted to tell about a coming-of-age in this very unique family with a very unique mother and father, this may be the best time, with all the time I had on my hands, to sit with Tony and decide to write this on Zoom together because I didn’t know where this was going. And I thought, ‘This is something I got to get out of me now.’”

Dano, who plays a fictionalized version of Spielberg’s father in The Fabelmans, said there was a special feeling on the set that came from having a master director open himself up in ways not seen before.

“I felt like there was some kind of spell in the dark, and I think a lot of that came from Steven’s vulnerability and openness, and in seeing someone like him put himself out there in that way,” he explained. “And I could feel that, I think, amongst the entire crew, that the stakes felt high in a really good way. And I think it was inspiring to see artists push themselves — again, by putting themselves out there in this sort of naked way — and I think that ultimately is a real gift.”

In casting LaBelle as his teenage self, Spielberg joked that he was predominantly interested in the aesthetics.

“I wanted to get someone that was really good-looking and sexy,” he said. “And from Canada.”

After the screening on Saturday night, the audience inside the Princess of Wales Theatre gave the movie a lengthy standing ovation to the point where TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey had to ask everyone to sit down so they could start the Q&A.

The night before at the world premiere, the film was given a lengthy standing ovation, to the point where TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey had to request that people sit down so they could start the Q&A.

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