Close Encounters of the Grand Kind

A shot from The Fabelmans, depicting main character Sammy Fabelman using his hands as a projector to view a film he made. Credit: Universal Pictures. Fair Use.

A shot from “The Fabelmans,” depicting main character Sammy Fabelman using his hands as a projector to view a film he made. Credit: Universal Pictures. Fair Use.

Brigham Larson, Editor of News and Features

It would be silly of me to assume that Steven Spielberg is actually in need of an introduction within this article. He’s made a name for himself directing widely beloved blockbuster films for over four decades now, in nearly every genre, from science fiction to crime to musical. Truly, a person who hasn’t seen one of his films would beg to be asked if they have been living under a rock. Since 1975.
On September 10, 2022, Spielberg premiered his new film, The Fabelmans, at the Toronto International Film Festival, to raucous applause from the audience and a lengthy standing ovation. It ended up winning the People’s Choice Award at the festival. The Fablemans currently holds a whopping 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, signifying overwhelming acclaim. The film, co-written and directed by Spielberg, follows Sammy Fabelman, a Jewish teenager in post-WWII Arizona who aspires to become a filmmaker while reckoning with a troubled home life. The film is largely autobiographical, featuring characters inspired by Spielberg’s family (with Sammy being an obvious self-insert of Spielberg) and recreations of the many simple short movies that he made on inexpensive 8mm film as a child.
The Fabelmans is hardly the first film influenced by Steven Spielberg’s early years and the state that shaped them. Despite being set in California and Indiana, respectively, his widely beloved sci-fi films E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) clearly bear the influence of Spielberg’s youth in Arizona. The home that Elliot lives in in E.T. looks straight out of a Phoenix suburb. Close Encounters, as well, in its depiction of suburban sameness, blue-collar work, and troubled family dynamics, hearkens back to his Phoenix adolescence. Additionally, Close Encounters owes many of its core elements to Firelight, a mostly lost 1964 feature-length film Spielberg set and shot in Arizona and premiered at the Phoenix Little Theater (now simply the Phoenix Theater Company). Many scenes from Firelight were recreated shot-for-shot in Close Encounters, and the surviving three minutes of the film’s original 2 hour runtime are available on YouTube.
Many formative events in Spielberg’s life took place in Arizona, making it clear why plenty of his films were influenced by his years here. He had a difficult childhood, with his parents divorcing in his teenage years. In this time, he created an imaginary friend to cope, which eventually became the basis for his seminal sci-fi opus E.T. He was also the target of anti-Semitic bullying and beating while he attended Arcadia High School in Phoenix. But every Saturday, he went to his local movie theater and watched whatever was showing on the screens that particular week, serving as a form of escapism for him. This is where he developed a love of film, with films like Pinocchio, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, and Lawrence of Arabia instilling a lifelong passion for the medium in him. Many of these events are replicated or at least referenced in The Fabelmans, which Spielberg described as “the most personal film I’ve made” at its premiere.
The film’s development began around 1999, when Spielberg first expressed interest in making a film about his childhood in Phoenix. The original title was I’ll Be Home, and it was set to be written by Spielberg’s sister Anne Spielberg (best known as the co-writer of the classic Tom Hanks comedy Big). It was later shelved due to Spielberg’s concerns over how his family members would react to it, stating that he intended the viewpoint of the film to be “loving yet critical.” He later teamed up with playwright and screenwriter Tony Kusher, with whom Spielberg has previously worked with on the films Munich, Lincoln, and 2021’s musical remake West Side Story, to co-write the script. They wrote it in 2020 during quarantine over the course of two months, which Kushner stated was “by leagues the fastest I’ve finished anything.”
The film is set for a limited theatrical release on November 11, 2022, before expanding to a wide release on November 23. It has already been called a contender for next year’s Oscars, particularly for Spielberg’s direction, the screenplay, and frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams’ score.
The Fabelmans is the latest in a line of films that make it abundantly clear that Arizona has never entirely left Spielberg’s rearview mirror. The four decades of sharks, aliens, artifacts, and the famous Spielbergian sense of wonder that such things leave lingering in the audience all stem from one man and the memories that made him, memories shaped by the one and only Grand Canyon State.