Of course one of the greatest storytellers in cinematic history has a personal story worth telling.
That story is “The Fabelmans,” a newly released motion picture with an Oklahoma actor in the cast.
Lane Factor plays the character Cheese in the shot-in-Oklahoma series “Reservation Dogs.” Factor makes his motion picture debut as one of Sammy Fabelman’s childhood friends in “The Fabelmans.”
Who’s Sammy Fabelman? He’s a fictionalized version of Steven Spielberg, the gold standard filmmaker whose triumphs include “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and a 2021 remake of “West Side Story” that snared a best picture nomination.
Co-written and directed by Spielberg, “The Fabelmans” is a semi-autobiographical film that lays bare Spielberg’s childhood and relationships with family members.
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Gabriel LaBelle plays teen Sammy. Michelle Williams disappears into the role of Sammy’s mother, a pianist who encourages Sammy to embrace his creative side and make films.
Paul Dano, who plays Sammy’s father, is a pioneering figure in the computer industry who favors science and technology over the arts. Dad views Sammy’s early filmmaking endeavors as merely a hobby.
So, mom is the good gal and pops is the bad guy? It’s not even remotely that simple.
The father’s rising career takes the family from New Jersey to Arizona, where Sammy’s circle of Boy Scout friends includes Factor’s character, Dean. Sammy’s friends become actors in his fledgling movies. Factor’s character is the hero in one of those films (a mini-Western), which means Factor is in a film within a film.
“That entire part that showed me firing the gun was all filmed by Spielberg himself,” Factor said, describing it an amazing experience.
“It was so cool. It was really surreal. I was trying not to look at him the whole time.”
‘You got the role’
Spielberg’s filmography is more than half a century old. Factor is 17, but he’s familiar with Spielberg’s works.
“Oh, man. I grew up on ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Jaws,’” Factor said in a recent phone interview. “Those are the two movies I have on loop, and ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park.’ And I just watched ‘E.T.’ for the first time because I hadn’t seen it yet. I watched ‘E.T.’ before (‘The Fabelmans’) premiere, and it’s good. I love watching Spielberg movies.”
How did he wind up in a Spielberg film?
Factor said he was filming season one of “Reservation Dogs” when one of the show’s writers, Migizi Pensoneau, alerted him that one of his buddies was working on a movie and they were looking for a kid to fill a role. It was suggested to Factor that he would be good for the part.
“At that point I didn’t know it was being directed by Steven Spielberg or what it was even called,” Factor said.
Factor didn’t have anything going on in the summer of 2021, when shooting was supposed to begin on the unnamed film, so he knocked out an audition tape.
“A month later, we kind of forgot about it,” Factor said. “And we got an email back from Amblin and Universal. What? It said ‘We need to go over some details. You got the role.’ And that’s when we started seeing the details, like it’s directed by Steven Spielberg and it’s about his early life. I started losing my mind.”
By landing the part, Factor can forever include this in his bio: My first movie was a Spielberg film.
“It is so mind-blowing to me that I was able to be a part of that,” Factor said. “It is just one of those amazing feelings, especially because it is a story that is so personal to him. I am just really glad that I got to be a part of that, even if it was in a pretty smaller role.”
Lovers of “Reservation Dogs” will recognize Factor in the film, whether he’s catching scorpions or riding a bike alongside Sammy and pals.
But, because Factor doesn’t have the same level of fame as others in “The Fabelmans,” getting into the L.A. premiere of the film was problematic.
“I was actually denied entry,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have a certain verification or whatever. We had to find an old email from like two weeks prior, and it had something on there that let us get in.”
Factor also said it was an ordeal to get registered for red carpet access, but he eventually got the green light and was the last person to walk the carpet.
Factor said this about watching “The Fabelmans” at the premiere: “It was like one of those fantasy movies where people are reacting to everything that happens. They are gasping at something or they will be clapping when someone shows up on screen. … There was one part where this one character gave a speech to a main character and, after he was done, the whole theater started clapping.”
Factor has seen himself on big screens before during “Reservation Dogs” premieres. This was different “because of course I am not the main focus of the movie, and it’s kind of surreal to see myself up there and just to remind myself that the movie was by Steven Spielberg. It’s one of those crazy, surreal experiences that you never really expect to see yourself up there.”
One question led to “The Fabelmans” becoming a motion picture.
In 2005, playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner was on the set of the film “Munich” with Spielberg.
Kushner asked Spielberg this: When did you decide you wanted to be a director?
What was Kushner expecting? What he got was a deeply personal origin story, family warts and all.
According to production notes, Kushner’s first reaction to Spielberg’s tale was, “That’s wild.”
Second reaction: “Steven, you’ve got to make a movie out of that!”
Spielberg told Kushner he had thought about that from time to time. That time has arrived.
Kushner co-wrote the screenplay with Spielberg after years of exchanges that Spielberg likened to therapy.
“I would not have been able to co-author this film without somebody I truly, dearly admired and adored, and somebody who knew me so well, and whom I so loved and respected, and that happened to be Tony Kushner,” Spielberg said in production notes. “The only thing that mattered was that I could open up to somebody, unpack all of my suitcases in front of somebody and never feel embarrassed or ashamed.”
Is the film that came from their collaboration 100% exactly-the-way-it-happened? Timelines were condensed, details were changed and assorted liberties were taken in telling the story.
The adventure begins in 1952, when 6-year-old Sammy (newcomer Mateo Zoryan Francis-Deford) accompanies his parents to a theater to see Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The wondrous experience inspires Sammy to replicate a scene from the film at home and to begin creating films of his own.
Two uncles — one biological and one honorary — add depth to the story. It’s great to see Judd Hirsch in anything, but he’s exceptional in his brief visit to the Fabelman home as Uncle Boris. Seth Rogen, best known for comedy, was targeted by Spielberg for the role of “Uncle Bennie” (best friend of Sammy’s father) because of his similarities with the actual person. Rogen shows that serious is in his repertoire.
Sammy’s love of moviemaking leads to an inadvertent discovery that rocks the family dynamic. For many in the film: What’s the cost of following your heart?
The coming of age story includes Sammy encountering anti-semitic bullies at school and a perky girlfriend (Chloe East) who likes to do a lot of praying. Keep an eye out near the end for David Lynch, who, eyepatch and all, grumpily plays legendary director John Ford. Spielberg met Ford when he was a teen.
“Most of my movies have been a reflection of things that happened to me in my formative years,” Spielberg said in production notes. “Everything that a filmmaker puts him or herself into, even if it’s somebody else’s script, your life is going to come spilling out onto celluloid, whether you like it or not. It just happens. But with ‘The Fabelmans,’ it wasn’t about the metaphor; it was about the memory.”