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Steven Spielberg on making "The Fabelmans": "It was cathartic for me"

Steven Spielberg on "The Fabelmans": A happy beginning
Steven Spielberg on "The Fabelmans": A happy beginning 09:53

"Every one of my movies is a personal movie," said director Steven Spielberg. "I don't make films that I don't consider to have something of myself left behind in them."

Spielberg has left something of himself behind in 35 movies. Along the way he's become the highest-grossing film director of all time, with such hits as "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List." Now, at age 75, he has made "The Fabelmans," a film he calls semi-autobiographical.

"My mom was really kind of pushy about, 'Steve, when are you gonna tell our story? When are you gonna tell my story?'" he told "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl.

"She did?"

"Absolutely. This is something that they embraced."

"I kind of assumed that you were waiting – a little crass – but waiting for your parents to die, because you wouldn't want their critique, or you wouldn't want to hurt them or disappoint them?"

"No, I wouldn't have done anything to hurt or disappoint my parents," he replied. "To me it was more of a gift to them than any kind of a criticism about how my life and my sisters' lives wasn't as hunky-dory as people assume."

Leah, Steven and Arnold Spielberg.  Family Photo

In the film, his father (as in real life) is a computer engineer, played by Paul Dano.  Michelle Williams is his mom, a free spirit who he has described as Peter Pan. It's a coming-of-age movie, a coming-of-Spielberg's-obsession-with-making-movies movie, starting with the first film he ever saw at age six: Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Spielberg explained, "I didn't know what a movie was. And my dad and my mom took me to the movie in a theater. It was a movie about a circus. After a while I got very involved in the story. There's a train crash in the middle of the movie. And all I remember is, it was the scariest thing I'd ever experienced in my entire life."

To overcome that fear, he kept recreating the crash with his electric trains, then filming it with his dad's 8mm camera. And that was it – Spielberg the filmmaker was born.

Teenage Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) directs a western in "The Fabelmans."  Universal Pictures

As in real life, he was just an adolescent when he made a western called "GunSmog." "And then I showed it to the Boy Scouts on one of our weekend meetings. And they went crazy. That was the first moment where I said, What a jolt. That's a really good feeling. That was a really good feeling."

Stahl asked, "Is it true that when you did re-shoot some of the movies you made when you were a kid, that you changed the angles to make it look better?"

"I really, really tried, Lesley, my best to make the 8mm movies I was recreating look as amateurish as the films I made as a 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old. But if I found a good angle, I had to get down on the ground and get a low angle that I wouldn't have done as a kid, I couldn't help myself."

"Well, you realize that in my business, that's a no-no. We could not do that."

"Luckily in my business we get to suspend disbelief!" he laughed.

Steven Spiellberg with Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as the young Sammy Fabelman with an 8mm camera on the set of "The Fabelmans."  Universal Pictures

"Tony Kushner, who wrote this movie, said that he thought this was therapeutic for you."

"Well, it was cathartic for me, certainly. I never took it for granted. I mean, it's a tremendous privilege to — it's like making a movie, you know, and realizing with this movie, what have I just done? Has this been $40 million of therapy?"

"And the answer is?"

"Whoever spends $40 million in therapy?" he laughed.

Director Steven Spielberg. CBS News

His mother is the heart of the story, as she was in real life. He said, "My mom always wanted more. She was the 'More Mom.' Enough wasn't enough for Mom, you know?"

"Is that good or bad for a kid?"

"That's good. That's a wonderful thing for a kid. Because she inspired me to be, in a way, ambitious and greedy about more, more, more."

"No guilt? She didn't infuse that in you?"

"She didn't believe in guilt," Spielberg replied. "My mother used to always say, 'Steve, guilt is a wasted emotion.'"

"How lucky are you? To be not infused with the idea of guilt, and to be Jewish at the same time? Wow, now, that's unique!" Stahl laughed.

"Well, my mom liked breaking stereotypes!"

"I don't know if you give your father the credit he deserves, at least in your career."

"Well, you know, see, my dad was very practical. He wanted me in school to major in English, so if I didn't become a filmmaker, I would become a teacher. Being a movie director is just something that, what, one in a million people get to be a movie director? He was simply trying to protect me."

His parents split up when Spielberg was 19. Left out of the movie was all the real-life drama when he blamed his dad for the divorce and barely talked to him for 15 years, which Stahl asked his parents about in 2012 for "60 Minutes."

Steven's parents, Arnold Spielberg and Leah Adler, with Lesley Stahl in 2012.  CBS News

Arnold Spielberg: "She fell in love with another guy."
Leah Spielberg: "Yes, with one of his friends."
Stahl: "You fell in love with one of his friends? Did Steven know that?"
Arnold Spielberg: "No, he didn't know that right away. He thought I divorced her."
Stahl: "So, wait a minute: you fell in love with his friend, you left him, but Steven blamed you, thought you had left her and you didn't tell him?"
Arnold Spielberg: "That's right. Not for years."
Stahl: "Why?"
Arnold Spielberg: "I don't know. I think I was just protecting her, because I loved her."
Stahl: "Even though she left you, you were still in love with her?"
Arnold Spielberg: "Yeah. Still do."
Leah Spielberg: "He forgave me, I think. I was so unhappy. He covered for me."

Steven said, "When my mom and my dad announced that they were separating, as is portrayed in 'The Fabelmans,' my dad fell on the sword. But I didn't know there was a sword to fall on. I simply took him at his word when he said, 'It's my idea that we separate.' And I lived with that, and I blamed my dad for that, for years."

The movie reveals a secret about this that Spielberg kept until now – that when he was sixteen, he discovered his mother's affair with his dad's best friend. "And that was a secret that we shared for most of our lives."

Stahl asked, "Your father did not know for most of his life that you knew?"

"No. I never had that conversation with my dad."

"But that's a burden on a young kid. That's a burden on you."

"That she let you carry?"

"It's not that she let me carry it; it's something that I felt I could bury," Spielberg said. "And in a way, making this movie made me realize that I had been carrying that burden all these years. And I had to exorcise it from my own heart and soul, and once that was out of my system, I was able to regret that I hadn't shared that with my dad."

WEB EXTRA VIDEO: Steven Spielberg on his optimism:

Extra: Steven Spielberg on his optimism 02:05

His mom, Leah, and her second husband went on to open a restaurant in Los Angeles where she held court. "We used to call this my mom's stage, 'cause the patrons, the customers, were her audience, and she was performing for them all the time!"

Later in their lives, Leah and Arnold reconciled. But in the movie "The Fabelmans," there's no happy ending for his parents. There is, though, a happy beginning to Spielberg's career as a filmmaker.

"I've got better perspective now about what happened a long time ago," he said. "So, that's why this is something that had to wait for me to, I guess, grow up in order to look back."

To watch a trailer for "The Fabelmans" click on the video player below:

The Fabelmans | Official Trailer [HD] by Universal Pictures on YouTube

For more info:

Story produced by Kay Lim and Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Carol Ross.


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