Tv & Film
How Tony Kushner Became the Spielberg Whisperer
It’s fair to say that Universal’s The Fabelmans has been in the works for nearly two decades — ever since screenwriter Tony Kushner first worked with Steven Spielberg on Munich, for which Kushner earned his first Oscar nom in 2006. Seventeen years and three movies later, the pair are nominated for co-writing the original screenplay for the film, inspired by Spielberg’s own coming of age as a budding filmmaker who discovers the craft as tensions rise in his parents’ troubled marriage. Kushner, who also received a best picture nom as a producer, speaks to THR about how years of working with the director led to the first script he’s ever written with another person — and why he values the collaborative process despite its emotional challenges.
You started hearing stories about Spielberg’s youth when you first collaborated on 2005’s Munich. When did this become a formal project for the two of you?
I first suggested this to him in 2005, [but] we sort of didn’t know each other — we hadn’t really worked together very much yet. When I said, “You should make a movie about this,” I didn’t think that I would necessarily be involved. I mean, who knew that we were going to [make] four movies together? At some point, probably after [2012’s] Lincoln, it became a little bit more serious. I think it really became a possibility after his mom died [in 2017]; that’s when he started to feel that maybe this is something we would talk about, [and we started to] discuss what it might be, what areas it might cover. Then generally right around the time of West Side Story, his father, Arnold, was 102 and going through a fairly steep decline. I think Steven was bracing for that. We had [a rehearsal] period during West Side Story, which we hadn’t done in any of our films together, and that’s when Steven started to say, “You know, I’d really love to talk about this more seriously.” He also said this before, but we had some pretty big arguments [during West Side Story], and I think he even suggested that we do an interview about this proposed story of his life as a way to get a mutual reassurance that we still love each other. (Laughs.) When we finished West Side Story, that was the first time in about 17 years that we didn’t have a project we were working on. And so he said, “This looks like our next project.”
This is your fourth collaboration, but the first time you wrote a screenplay together. Was the process very different?
[For Munich,] I did a rewrite of [Eric Roth’s] version, and we both got credit for the screenplay, but I didn’t actually work with Eric face to face or anything. With Lincoln and West Side Story, [I was] entirely on my own. I’d never actually written anything with anybody before. [We began writing on the] second of October 2020; Steven and I were on a Zoom, and he said to me, “Why don’t we start?” I did all the typing, which also meant that I didn’t have to say things out loud; I could show him what I thought the next line should be in writing [using the collaboration tool in FinalDraft]. He was much more comfortable speaking. But we started with a blank page and our outline, and we wrote it word for word, line by line, together. In some ways, it was not all that different from writing a script for him. I already had enormous confidence in Steven’s ear for language and his insights about dramatic structure.
I can’t imagine not having that confidence in Steven Spielberg!
There are some directors who rely entirely on the screenwriter, who aren’t that interested in language. Steven really is, and we would never have been able to work well together if he hadn’t liked my writing. We’d already established that we had shared affinities and sensibilities in terms of the screenplay. I’ve always felt that part of my job as a collaborator is to fight for whatever I think is the right way to go on any moment, and then he has to push back. And we have to keep going, cumbersome as it may be, until one of us has convinced the other, or we’ve arrived at a synthesis — which is always the nicest point of view. I’m sure there are times that he really wished I would just shut up and go away, but he knows I’m not going to waste his time, that if I decide to make a fight about something, it’s because I think it’s important. And when he resists, I really get annoyed, and even angry sometimes. But it’s always about trying to figure each other out. That process, as difficult as it can be, is also incredibly exciting.
Was this project more challenging, in that respect, because of its personal nature?
I went into this thinking, “This is his story. This is his family.” There are elements of my own life and my own family; it was really helpful for this particular project that we’re both Jewish American, that we both [grew up] middle class. Steven is 10 years older than I am, but we’re not all that different in age. We share a lot of the same points of reference. But still, this was his family, his memories and his experiences. I said to myself, “You’re going to have to give in a little bit on certain things that you might have pushed harder on.” [The reason] I love working with him is that I don’t feel erased as a writer; he’s not trying to disappear my voice into the film. He embraces my work the way he embraces Mark Bridges’ work as a costume designer or John [Williams’] work as a composer or Rick Carter’s work as an art director. He’s an enormously generous artist, even though he has this hugely powerful vision. I think it was important for him to have an outside eye. One of the dangers of doing something based on memory is being swallowed up in these very deep, profound experiences. We said to each other at the beginning that this would only work if somebody who hadn’t seen any of his movies could find this entertaining. It can’t be a Spielberg family scrapbook or “one for the fans.”
You’ve dramatized the stories of real people before, like Roy Cohn in Angels in America and Lincoln, often giving context for how they shaped American culture, for better or worse. The Fabelmans also does that a bit, but you’re collaborating with the film’s subject, too.
I’ve never done it before with anyone who was alive — and especially not my boss. Let’s face it: It’s Steven Spielberg. Every time I wrote or worked on a scene with Sammy Fabelman, or made suggestions about what Sammy should sound like, it was slightly weird. But, again, at the point we started writing, I had known him for a long time. I brought in a lot of information. But we also changed [the family name to Fabelman] as a way to say: This is a work of fiction. There’s a fascinating tension between the fictional and the real. People have told us, “We went home and talked about which things really happened.” I think that’s a useful and generative process for an audience, of grappling with that. There is the sense you’re a con artist, pulling something over on people because it’s not entirely true in the sense that you would hope with a memoir — though show me a memoir that’s completely accurate. (Laughs.) When you’re doing fiction, you’re not lying; you’re making an amalgamation of fact and imagination that mustn’t be relied on as a historical fact, but has a relationship to it. The value of doing anything rooted in history is you can play with that tension.
Interview edited for length and clarity.