Seth Rogen starring in an autobiographically inspired Steven Spielberg drama isn’t quite as random as you might think. Consider how the true-to-life high school classic Freaks & Geeks launched Rogen’s onscreen career, or that he used his own experiences to write Superbad starting at age 13. Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (in select theaters November 11) centers on young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), an aspiring filmmaker whose upbringing is influenced by an engineer-genius father (Paul Dano), musician-artist mother (Michelle Williams), and their tagalong friend Bennie. As the latter, Rogen had to bring this fictional but truthful depiction of Spielberg’s surrogate uncle to life—a process that meant asking the legendary filmmaker for intimately personal details.
Fresh off three Emmy nominations for Pam & Tommy and The Boys Presents: Diabolical, and with upward of a dozen projects in production, Rogen took time from his packed schedule to chat with The A.V. Club about that process of turning personal experience into art. And don’t worry, the conversation did indeed steer itself toward his upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles project, too.
The A.V. Club: So The Greatest Show On Earth is the life-changing creative spark that sets young Sammy Fabelman on his career path. Growing up, did you have an “aha” moment? What was your Greatest Show On Earth?
Seth Rogen: There were a few, I think. Honestly, Ghostbusters was one. Die Hard was a movie I watched a lot. Total Recall, I think, was also one. Yeah, those were some of the movies I remember really responding to. My parents were big comedy fans as well, movies like Meatballs and stuff like that. It was kind of a cumulative effect, I don’t know if there was one moment. Movies were always a big part of my childhood, and kind of the only art my family consumed, like, en masse. We were not big readers.
AVC: I can see where Ghostbusters and Die Hard would, in terms of creative inspiration, lead to…
SR: Me! [Laughs] And This Is The End, for sure.
AVC: So how intensely personal did filming The Fabelmans get? How much are you bringing yourself to this depiction of Spielberg’s uncle figure, versus balancing that with the real man he’s based on?
SR: I did not feel bringing myself to the character would be particularly helpful. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. It was more like an energy that I was trying to capture that seemed imperative for my role in the film and what happens in the story. There were always these buzzwords that were used whenever I talked to Steven or his family about Bernie, the person who [my character] Bennie is inspired by. And it was that he was “funny and fun and charismatic and loving.” They were all incredibly fond of him, even though, you know, the story plays out the way it does. And that was something that kind of locked it in for me. Like, okay, I have to be someone who you like and who seems light and lovely and warm, and who doesn’t seem like a terrible alternative for how a life could turn out. Who, in fact, seems like an equally valid but just different one. That was where a lot of my thinking went towards and where my work went towards, capturing the energy that seemed important to capture in order for the movie to work in that regard.
AVC: And without revealing details about Spielberg’s childhood, what did talking to him entail? Was there a wariness that this is sensitive, personal material?
SR: Oh, yeah. And I would talk to [The Fabelmans co-writer] Tony Kushner a lot. I would go to him first! Obviously if it felt like, maybe they’ve had this conversation, and I could just get the answer from Tony. And not, you know, ask incredibly probing questions to Steven. But also, we were invited into this and [Spielberg] made it clear it was personal from the get-go. So there were times when we were asking very personal questions, but it very much felt like we had permission to do that. And that we were explicitly invited into an environment where that was what we were doing, you know? So there were times, especially with mine and Michelle’s character, that I had a lot of specific questions as far as how far their relationship had matured and developed in certain parts in the film. That was sensitive stuff. But, honestly, he would give clear, concise answers—and we would move on. [Laughs]
AVC: That’s fascinating because I feel like as an audience member, we don’t know the specifics of that relationship. But you actors did?
SR: For sure. We had to be very aware of those specifics. It’s funny, it’s one of those things where I think if people choose to watch the movie a second time, they’ll see that it’s far more layered in than maybe it appears on first watch.
AVC: Because this story is very much told from a kid’s perspective, and kids aren’t always picking up on such things.
SR: Exactly! But I bet if you rewatch the first dinner scene with all of us, it would play differently on the second viewing.
AVC: Spielberg once said, “I make personal movies even if they do look like big commercial popcorn films.” Are there any commercial projects in your filmography that showed more of yourself than audience members might realize?
SR: Yeah, probably. The first movie, Superbad, was very directly inspired by my life and my childhood, and Evan’s, my writing partner’s, as well. So we kind of were thrown into a personal school of filmmaking. And 50/50 was the first movie we produced. And that was directly taken from my dear friend Will, who had cancer. And the process of writing that movie with him and producing his script writing was really extracting as much personal juice out of him as humanly possible. [Laughs] Even This Is The End, we play ourselves and a lot of the dynamics in the movie are very much based on real things that were happening in our lives. As surreal a direction as the movie [goes], it’s actually very much based on a lot of our real lives. You know, movies take so long to make and they’re so hard to make that we’ve found that unless you deeply care about what they are about, you just burn out on them sometimes. And therefore, the more personal they are, the more you can tie them into yourself, the better they are often. It’s funny, I’m making this Ninja Turtles movie right now. And like, we found a way to make it deeply personal! It’s a teenage movie, we’re putting a lot of our own feelings—of awkwardness and insecurity and a desire to belong and be accepted and all that—into the movie. And it makes it fun. And as I sit around with the other people working on it, I’m like, “We found a way to care about this,” which is great. But yeah, this movie, especially for Steven, is outwardly personal, which I think is also unique for him. And not something that he ever probably needed to do. But I’m glad he did.
AVC: I wanted to ask about your producing, given that you have so many projects in development. How much is that personal touch part of what you decide to pursue?
SR: Yeah, we really do try. Even The Boys, which I don’t have a ton to do with on a day-to-day basis. Like the reason that show exists is because me and Evan went to a comic book store, saw the comic, picked it up, bought it, read it, loved it. And then spent the next decade trying to make it! But it was purely borne out of, like, an afternoon we spent together, you know? And so it’s all borne out of our interests. Ninja Turtles is something I loved as a kid. We have a lot more things like that that we’re working on, this Darkwing Duck show and things like that. That becomes a fun part of the challenge: How do you infuse more and more of yourself into your work? I think the more of yourself you put in, the more people like it.