Interview – ‘The Fabelmans’ Seth Rogen and Gabriel LaBelle on working with cinematic legend Steven Spielberg

In Steven Spielberg’s coming of age story, The Fabelmans, Gabriel LaBelle stars as Sammy, a teenage filmmaker whose camera unwittingly reveals a secret which will ultimately threaten the fabric of his world and marks the end of his childhood innocence. Co-starring Seth Rogen as close family friend, Uncle Bennie (the ensemble also includes Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as Sammy’s parents), the film is Spielberg’s most personal to date.

In this interview, Rogen, the 20-year screen veteran, and LaBelle, the 20-year-old newcomer (both actors hail from Vancouver) about the making of The Fabelmans, working with Spielberg and the themes of the film.

What was it like to star in a film directed by and inspired by Steven Spielberg’s life story? 

Gabriel LaBelle: It’s spooky (laughs)… But it’s also the greatest. I mean even just getting a callback with him, to find that he wants you to audition again for him, is more than anything I’ve ever expected. It’s been the greatest education of all time and it’s been the most validating thing in the world. But then you’ve got to put the work in to keep up with him… You just want to do the best you can. And that’s scary. 

Seth, what was it like for you to get that phone call from Steven Spielberg? 

Seth Rogen: It was surprising, honestly (laughs)… You know, just by nature of  the movie being a little more dramatic… But the thing is I have such a high standard for comedy – and I think comedy is so hard to do – that when I hear a movie is dramatic, there’s actually less pressure in some capacity… But performing for Steven Spielberg? You know, you just want to do a good job and that was really my focus – to just really deliver the performance that I knew he was expecting from me.

Did this film bring you a better understanding of the man and his movies? 

Seth Rogen: In a lot of ways. I think what you see in the film is that his life story, both from a practical and emotional standpoint, was in many ways shaped by the fact that he was an enthusiastic filmmaker from a very young age. He learned things about his family that he wouldn’t have otherwise through that. And the trajectories of people’s lives may have been different had his fascination [with filmmaking] fallen in a different area. To me that was a completely unexpected revelation. It really, I think, explained what a unique kind of figure he is in the cinematic world and why he is so in tune with his ability… It’s really a part of who he is, to a degree that’s almost unheard of in the cinema.

As much as the film tells the story of how Steven Spielberg became a filmmaker, it’s also a movie about the process of making movies. 

Gabriel LaBelle: Absolutely. Steven started making films when he was six years old with 8mm cameras and actual physical film – a physical thing that you have to make. You have to cut it and glue it back together. It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, and he started doing that when he was really young. What I learned, as I was learning how to do it myself for the movie was, ‘no wonder he’s so proud of this.’ Because he’s so good at something that people don’t really have any idea of how to really do…  Now kids have I-Movie. I mean, I’ve made stupid videos with my friends on I-Movie, and it’s all with your fingers and you just touch and swipe… It’s not the same. 

At the same time, The Fabelmans also tells a larger story than Spielberg’s own biography. Was there a theme that emerged which spoke to you? 

Gabriel LaBelle: I think the big theme of the movie is you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do; you have to follow your passion. And that’s the key thing. It’s what Sammy’s father does in the world of computer engineering. It’s what Michelle’s character doesn’t do with her piano… And it’s what Sammy is going to do with movies. I think that’s huge. And also I think it will resonate with anybody with a complicated family [history]… I think those two things resonated with me the most in reading the script. And I think the movie also has this effect on [audiences]. I’ve seen it four times in packed theaters. And each time it’s the same.

The two of you have a brilliant, emotionally charged scene together in which Bennie tries to buy Sammy the camera of his dreams before the two go their separate ways – and it’s told mostly in subtext, by what isn’t said. What was it like actually shooting that scene? 

Seth Rogen: It was interesting… To be honest,  I think we were kind of both thrown for a bit of a loop. From the way the scene was scripted, it was a very static scene. We had talked about it. And that’s how we both envisioned it. It was written as though we were both standing in a parking lot or something like that. It was kind of slow and measured. We get [to the location] that morning and Steven is like: “Yeah, I picture it like you’re running out of the shop, and you cut him off, and he goes back this way, and you run around him and cut him off again…” We were like: “Alright… This is different than how it was written,” (laughs)… It’s funny because it is a very emotional, touching, nuanced scene. But in the moment, I was very bogged down with the technicality of it. I had to clearly hug him and then, with a slight of hand, put money in his pocket… I was like: “Can we do this in separate takes?” And Steven says: “No.” (Laughs). 

Gabrielle LaBelle: The scene shot on a Tuesday. We had only met each other on set a few times before but never spent much time together. Suddenly on the Sunday it was our big scene. We were like: “Let’s talk about it and get to know each other.” And [after that] it was very much: “Okay, this is the scene.” And then Steven has all these ideas and we were just like, ‘Okay,’ and side-eyed each other. Because it’s so technical and you’re focused on that, you are unsure of how you’re going to actually do it. 

Seth Rogen: I didn’t walk away thinking: “We nailed it!” I kind of walked away thinking (laughs)…

Gabriel LaBelle: Me too (laughs)… But as the day ended, Steven comes up to us. He’s got sunglasses on and a mask – we were filming during Covid – and you could kind of see through the light cast by the setting sun on his shades that he’s totally crying. 

In the film, a young Sammy Fabelman is taken by his parents to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, the movie which sets him on a path to become a filmmaker. What was the first film that captured your imagination as a kid? 

Gabriel LaBelle: I honestly have no idea, because there were so many. When I was growing up, you just had VHS tapes and DVDs all over the place. And then Netflix comes around before you hit puberty, and there’s tons of content and movies and shows, all the time – and I watched them all instead of doing my homework (laughs). And so it’s hard to answer that. “All of it,” is all I can say. 

Seth Rogen: I think back to the comedies that I first saw in theaters: movies like There’s Something About Mary, The South Park Movie. Those were the first movies I saw in theaters, and I’d never heard an audience react that way to a movie before, to the degree that you can’t hear the dialogue because of all the laughter. People are looking at that stranger beside them with that look that says: “Are we all seeing this? Is this happening?” I remember having that experience of going to the movies and being like:  “That’s what I want. I want to make movies that make you look at the people sitting beside you and say: “Can you believe this is happening?

The Fabelmans is in Australian cinemas January 5, courtesy of StudioCanal. This interview was conducted by Steven Goldman and provided by StudioCanal.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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