One of the most accomplished movie directors of all time is an Eagle Scout, and he has a new film coming out this fall.
His most famous flicks have covered topics such as World War II, dinosaurs coming to life, aliens coming to Earth and killer sharks.
This time, it’s personal.
The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical drama written and directed by Steven Spielberg. Although the main character’s name is Sammy Fabelman, the story is based on Spielberg’s life from ages 7-18 — this would have been the mid-1950s to mid-1960s — when he was living in Arizona and active in his local Scout troop.
(We’re guessing Spielberg just couldn’t resist the play on words: fable = a story, typically a supernatural one incorporating elements of myth and legend.)
Although the movie technically premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, most of us won’t get to see it until its wide release this November. We have, however, seen the trailer, and yes, it does appear that Spielberg’s time in Scouting – and the impact it had on his decision to make movies – will be a big part of the film.
The real story
In real life, Steven Spielberg was a member of Troop 294 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Before Scouting, I was wimpy and always inside myself,” Spielberg told a captive audience of Scouts at the 1989 National Scout Jamboree, according to this story in The Washington Post. “I got into Scouting . . . and it opened a new realm for me. … It taught me how to make eye contact, to speak out when I had something important to say.”
Moviemaking was not a merit badge back then (more on that in a second), but Photography was. One of the requirements was to tell a story with pictures, and the ever-inventive Spielberg had an idea: He asked his counselor if he could tell his story with moving pictures, and thank goodness the answer was yes.
In some interviews, Spielberg says the movie he made was called Gunsmog, probably a riff of what might have been one of his favorite TV shows at the time. Other sources report that he called the movie The Last Gunfight.
What we do know is that he made the movie with the help of his fellow Scouts. And he sure as heck earned that merit badge.
“I took my movie camera and made a little Western three minutes long, using friends of mine from the same Boy Scout troop,” Spielberg said in a 2010 interview with the Flickering Myth website. “I showed it to the Boy Scouts a week later. Not only did I get my merit badge, but I got whoops and screams and applause and everything else that made me want to do it more and more.”
Spielberg was 14 when he earned the rank of Eagle, and the rest is history.
At the 1989 Jamboree, the now-famous Spielberg helped introduce the brand-new Cinematography merit badge, which would later become Moviemaking. At the time, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a movie that featured its own connection to Scouting, was sweeping the nation.
What we can tell from the trailer
In the 2-minute, 25-second trailer, I counted four appearances by Scouts. (Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!)
The first occurs about a minute in, when the teenage Steven … er, Sammy … played by Gabriel LaBelle, is sitting in what looks like a theater, surrounded by members of his troop. One of his fellow Scouts leans over and says, “What kind of movie are we going to make?”
We cut immediately to a shot of at least five Scouts riding bikes through their Arizona town. No dialogue here, just stirring music.
Seconds later, we see an out-of-focus Sammy in what appears to be a projection booth, as his movie plays on a big screen. You can clearly make out Sammy’s red Scout neckerchief.
Following several shots of what looks like they could be scenes from Gunsmog/The Last Gunfight, we get one more closeup of Sammy running the projector, still wearing his Scout neckerchief.
The movie’s IMDB page lists “Scout Father,” “Boy Scout” and simply “Scout” as characters in the movie. Its Wikipedia page says actor Gabriel Bateman plays “a member of Sammy’s Scout troop who helps him make films” with Nicolas Cantu “as another member of Sammy’s Scout troop who helps him make films.”
Based on all this, it certainly seems like The Fabelmans will stay at least somewhat true to Spielberg’s real-life experience as a Scout.
The Fablemans opens Thanksgiving week. In addition to LaBelle, it stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen and, in an unknown role, fellow Eagle Scout David Lynch. It’s rated PG-13 and has already received a number of positive reviews on review aggregator sites Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.