Bringing Steven Spielberg’s personal story to life in “The Fabelmans” came with a bit of pressure for two Canadian actors in key roles in the drama, but both praise the famed director for his vote of confidence and kindness on set.
“He wouldn’t cast me if he didn’t think I can do this,” said Vancouver’s Seth Rogen at Q-and-A session Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered the previous night.
“The Fabelmans” is about Spielberg’s childhood in New Jersey, Arizona and eventually California, examining his family dynamics and how they played a role in developing his passion for filmmaking. Newcomer Gabriel LaBelle, who is also from Vancouver, plays a young Spielberg as Sammy Fabelman. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play his mother and father, while Rogen is a character referred to as Uncle Benny, a family friend who is much loved but also the source of interpersonal drama.
Uncle Benny is extremely charming and funny, Rogen said, and has a relationship with Sammy’s mother, Mitzi Fabelman.
“It was a lot of pressure to seem effortlessly like someone who you could imagine why this woman would be in love with, and (that) the audience could get on board with her being in love with him and understand her being in love with him,” Rogen said.
“You fully understand the conflict at play, and there’s so many layers to it.”
The night of the premiere, Rogen described the process of filming as being a very emotional experience for Spielberg.
“He was clearly discovering an emotional air to it that I don’t think he even realized he was going to have until we were making the movie, because every scene pretty much is based on a real moment that happened to his life,” Rogen said in a red-carpet interview.
“And every time I’m like, ‘Did this happen? Did this happen?’ And every time the answer was ‘Yes,’ and you could see he was having a very emotional experience which really just made me want to do a good job.”
Spielberg acknowledged it was at times emotionally draining.
“Some of it was very hard to get through,” Spielberg said at the post-screening chat, moderated by TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey. “When the whole writing process was over, I breathed a whole sign of relief,” Spielberg said.
TIFF did not allow media to ask questions during the conference, instead requiring the press to submit queries in advance.
“The Fabelmans” was one of the most hyped-up projects at TIFF, and it’s the first time Spielberg — known for films including “Saving Private Ryan,” “Catch me If You Can” and “Lincoln” — has submitted one of his films to the festival.
On casting the actor who would play himself in his younger years, Spielberg said he saw something special in LaBelle during the casting sessions that played out mostly over Zoom during the pandemic.
“You know, I wanted to get somebody really good looking and sexy, and from Canada,” Spielberg joked.
“None of this is really easy because we don’t often see ourselves the way our friends and our family sees us. As a kid growing up I always had a lot of reasons why I was always in the corner…why I was always not the centre of conversation,” Spielberg said.
“I needed someone who wasn’t going to bring too much self-awareness to Sammy.”
LaBelle described the opportunity as a “wild” experience.
“I only had about a month before we started shooting, so we just Zoomed a lot and I asked him a lot of questions about his life …to get a sense of who he was as a person,” LaBelle said.
“I was very delighted and glad that you’re just like, a kind and good person,” LaBelle said to Spielberg.
—With files from Jaclyn Tansil
Melita Kuburas, The Canadian Press