Rick Carter Reflects On "The Fabelmans," Steven Spielberg
Production designer Rick Carter
Oscar-winning production designer gains deeper understanding of the revered director he's teamed with on 11 films

Production designer Rick Carter has developed a shorthand with master filmmaker Steven Spielberg. And while Carter continues to learn from Spielberg, the production designer didn’t think he had that much more to learn about the director in that they’ve enjoyed a deep mutual understanding of each other while working on 11 films over three decades.

However their latest collaboration, The Fabelmans (Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment), is such a personal film for Spielberg--delving into his childhood, family and genesis as a filmmaker--that Carter came away with greater insight into his long-time friend and colleague. And in the process Carter learned about himself.

Spielberg teamed with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to write The Fabelmans. Kushner earlier penned Spielberg’s Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story. The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s most autobiographical film and has gained recognition  on the awards show circuit, most notably winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. And just yesterday (12/1) the Palm Springs International Film Awards announced that The Fabelmans will on January 5 receive its Vanguard Award, a group honor distinguishing a film’s cast and director in recognition of their collective work. Festival chairman Harold Matzner stated, “The Fabelmans is an achievement not only as a deeply personal portrait of Steven Spielberg’s childhood, but also as a profoundly universal story that each and every one of us can relate to. Giving audiences a glimpse at Spielberg’s early love for movies and moviemaking, the film features a tremendous ensemble performance by Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle and Judd Hirsch, making it one of the must-see films of the year.”

LaBelle plays Sammy Fabelman (Spielberg in his teen/young adult years). Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord portrays Sammy as a child who is both scared and moved by his first movie-going experience, seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. A train crash scene in that 1952 feature has a particularly profound impact on Sammy, sparking a lifelong devotion to filmmaking, an interest that is embraced and championed by his artistic mother Mitzi (Williams). But Sammy’s dad Burt (Dano), a successful engineer/scientist, is less enthused and regards filmmaking as a hobby at best and certainly not a serious pursuit. Over the years, Sammy becomes the de facto documentarian of his family, as well as the director of increasingly ambitious amateur film productions starring his sisters and friends. By the age of 16, Sammy is the primary observer and archivist of his family story but when they all move west, he discovers while editing footage a heartbreaking truth about his mother. This reality alters not only their relationship but his future and that of the entire family. Other key cast members are Rogen who portrays Bennie Lowey, Burt’s best friend and honorary “uncle” to the Fabelman kids, and Hirsch who plays their actual great uncle, Boris.

Sammy has to cope with the breakup of his parents, bullying at school, isolation, antisemitism, young love, artistic ambition and moments of discovery that have him grappling to see the truth about himself and his parents--ultimately more clearly and with a measure of compassion.

A wondrous mix of the biographical and fictional became the playground where Carter created settings, including family homes in New Jersey, then Arizona and finally California--the moves West triggered by father Burt’s career opportunities. Carter explained that he wasn’t out to fashion exact replicas of the Spielberg homes for The Fabelmans. Rather the priority was to create residences that were emotionally resonant and rang true for Spielberg as he directed the film. The authenticity was most important in terms of the setting enabling Spielberg to feel what he experienced as a youngster. The homes--the interiors of which were built on soundstages in Santa Clarita, Calif.--became in a sense environs conducive to a reinterpretation as to how he now sees life as an older man able to reflect and have more context relative to his parents and upbringing.

Creating the family homes required Carter to have a deeper understanding of Spielberg--how he developed into who he is as a person and an artist. And the artistry comes from a very personal place rooted in the heart and mind. Spielberg’s self-examination in The Fabelmans brought another dimension to his art, inspiring in turn Carter to look within himself. Carter noted that he naturally began exploring what it took for him to develop as an artist--as he was applying his art to help realize Spielberg’s vision for The Fabelmans.

Close to the same age as Spielberg, Carter relates to and appreciates the director having "the courage to look at his own life and some of the aspects that formed him that weren’t exactly favorable for him or pleasurable at the time--to respect both sides of his upbringing in terms of his parents and sisters.”

Carter now sees Spielberg in a slightly different light after The Fabelmans. The production designer cited the split between the filmmaker’s parents--who reflected two very different sensibilities, the art of his mom versus the science of his dad. “Both are very powerful within him [Spielberg],” observed Carter, citing Jurassic Park as an example of Spielberg’s acumen in art and science coming together for a whole greater than the sum of its parts. And in the big picture, continued Carter, while Spielberg brings inspired ideas to the creative side of making a movie, he at the same time can cut the budget--two dynamics that seem diametrically opposed but he is able to deftly navigate both. Carter noted that is part of Spielberg’s success--being able to serve as both businessman and artist. “That psyche with an artistic vision,” assessed Carter, has served Spielberg well.

Similarly the collaborative relationship with Spielberg has served Carter well. Carter won a Best Achievement in Production Design Oscar in 2013 for the Spielberg-directed Lincoln. The year prior, Carter was nominated for the production design Oscar on the basis of his work on Spielberg’s War Horse.

Carter’s Oscar pedigree, though, extends to work for directors other than Spielberg. Carter won the production design Academy Award for James Cameron’s Avatar in 2010. The production designer earned his first Oscar nomination for Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump in 1995.

In 2014 Carter won the Art Directors Guild (ADG) Lifetime Achievement Award. He thus far has seven career ADG Excellence in Production Design Award nominations, four for Spielberg films--Amistad in 1998, A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2002, Lincoln in 2013, and The Post in 2018. Carter won the ADG Excellence in Production Design Award for Avatar in 2010. His other ADG nods were for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens in 2016, and Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker in 2020.

This is the fourth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 95th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 24, 2023. The 95th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 12, 2023.

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