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Q&A: Tony Kushner on playing therapist to Steven Spielberg

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NEW YORK — “The Fabelmans” is Steven Spielberg’s most autobiographical movie, but the introspection it required wasn’t done in isolation.

The film, rather, grew out of conversations between Spielberg and his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, the “Angels in America” playwright who penned three of Spielberg’s best films: “Munich,” “Lincoln” and “West Side Story.” As Spielberg reflected on his childhood memories, he had in Kushner one of the most decorated therapists anyone’s ever had: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright turned amateur psychiatrist.

As one of the great dramatists of the last half century, Kushner is used to doing copious amounts of research. (Spielberg once bragged that Kushner read 400 books on Abraham Lincoln in preparation for their 2012 historical drama.) But this time, most of the investigative work was long chats and Zooms during the pandemic that dug into Spielberg’s roots as a filmmaker and the two figures most responsible for making him who he is: his mother, Leah Adler, and his father, Arnold Spielberg. In “The Fabelmans,” they’re fictionalized as Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano).

“The Fabelmans,” which opens in select theaters Friday and expands Nov. 23, is the first time Kushner and Spielberg have shared screenwriting credits. And it represents the closeness that’s evolved in their ongoing collaboration. In a recent interview, Kushner reflected on their dialogue together on “The Fabelmans,” his own upbringing and his unexpected second career as a screenwriter.

AP: While making “Munich,” Spielberg first told you about a formative moment for him relating to a home movie he shot that contained a family revelation. In the film, it’s a powerful, almost Rosebud-like moment. Was that the initial germ to making “The Fabelmans”?

Kushner: I didn’t know it at the time when he first told me — it was the first day of filming on “Munich” — but it rang a lot of bells for me. Not just as a kind of amazing thing that happened, which it is, but also that it speaks to certain things that I feel create the spinal cord of this movie. What it has to say about the uses of art as one is growing up in trying to make a world that isn’t safe and that is unmanageable and overwhelming into a place that one can inhabit with an illusion of security and an illusion of control. The more masterly you get over the tools that produce these illusions, the more powerful those tools become. But they have a life of their own and they will lead you places you didn’t expect to go. They turn out to be a means of both self-protection and self-exposure, of safety but also danger.

AP: Spielberg has never seemed to me someone naturally prone to self-reflection. Did your conversations about his childhood strike you as different?

Kushner: I’m not in therapy and psychoanalysis right now but I’ve done many, many, many years of it. I’m a confirmed old Freudian. Steven has not spent a lot of time in therapy and doesn’t really want to — which is true of a lot of artists. For the most part, it felt like a continuation of our conversation. It became a little more instrumental and pointed. I began to grill him about certain things. There were some places where he let me know there was a kind of pain he didn’t particularly want to share. I didn’t want to be intrusive. I have good manners. Sometimes I even thought: Would a tougher interviewer bust him on this and make him divulge these things? He also was so forthcoming and open and generous. His mother had just died before we really started working on “West Side Story,” and his father at 102 was going into his final decline while we were filming. So at a fairly old age, in his 70s, Steven was arriving at orphanhood. He was in a period of mourning.

AP: The mother in “The Fabelmans,” as played by Michelle Williams, is an enormously rich, complicated character who’s largely drawn from Spielberg’s own mother, a pianist who gave up performing to raise their family. But is there some of your mother there, as well? She was a concert bassoonist and an actor. You’ve described her as having “a very deep and somewhat tragic sense of life.”

Kushner: It certainly made it possible for me to understand Mitzi/Leah, who I didn’t meet. It gave me insight and made it possible for to really dig in with Steven in thinking about his mother and her choices and her behavior, including some of the more outlandish things she did in terms of being a woman of real artistic ability. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the women of that generation, specifically. This is before modern, post-war feminism has really cohered into a visible movement. It’s the Betty Friedan moment, where it’s beginning to cohere. For women like Steven’s mother — my mother was a bit younger — they were aware that there was something coming. That the role of women had changed profoundly over the course of the 20th century and that new possibilities were opening, but opening up in fitful ways. It was an exciting period, I would imagine, but also a period filled with a lot of uncertainty and pain and guilt, I think. That became really important to me and to Steven in thinking about her. We talked about the similarities a lot.

AP: It’s interest how, for you, politics are always woven into the personal, most notably in “Angels.” And it is here, too, even in an intimate domestic drama.

Kushner: Oh, yeah. One of my favorite movies of all time — being a gay man, this is not surprising — is “All About Eve.” I adore it. It’s this astonishing portrait. One of our greatest actors ever (Bette Davis) is given one of the greatest parts ever. She’s the glorious center of this, and the master of the universe. But there’s still this moment in the car where she has to make this speech: “A woman without kids and without a husband, what is she?” Mankiewicz uses the ugly word “something.” “She’s something with a French provincial office.” It makes your teeth hurt. It’s such a betrayal, in a way, of what the entire film is saying, which is: Who cares about the guys? They’re just here to make problems for these extraordinary women. But that’s that era. You couldn’t get away from it, even in a movie that almost completely gets away from it. It’s still a masterpiece of phenomenal proportions. But that one moment, it shows you how powerful that stuff was.

AP: You’ve said that seeing the response your mother engendered from an audience performing in “Death of a Salesman” prompted you to be a playwright.

Kushner: I was only 6 years old or something. I didn’t really know what was going on with the play. But it was a very powerful experience for me. I could see that she was coming out on stage every night at the end and making everybody cry. And grown-ups crying is a big deal when you’re a little kid. I got very interested in what she was doing that made that happen. She did it in a number of other plays. She had a real tragedian spirit. And I could see that working with these feelings in public — these dark, scary, forbidden aspects of oneself — that was fascinating to me.

AP: You’ve been making films with Spielberg for almost two decades now. Does this chapter of your career surprise you?

Kushner: It does. I didn’t really see myself as having a career as a screenwriter, ever. The penultimate line in “Millennium Approaches,” the first half of “Angels” is: “Very Steven Spielberg.” So I’ve clearly been thinking about Steven long before I met him. I somehow fell into this. There are times when I think: “How did this happen? This is wild.” For some reason, or many reasons, we seem to work really well together. That’s rare. You don’t find people you can really dig into the depths with and have work that you feel really proud of emerge from that and a desire to do more. Everyone knows this but he is an era-defining artist and I consider it an incredible privilege to be working with him on these things.

AP: Was there also some draw to cinema? Did you feel your interests gravitating more toward film than theater?

Kushner: No. I’ve always loved film, I’ve always loved TV and I’ve always loved theater. To my dying day, I’m going to think of myself primarily as a playwright, although I’ve recently filled out forms where I say “playwright/screenwriter.” I feel like I’ve finally earned the right to call myself that. Had I done one movie with Steven and then done one movie with some scary guy who took my script and mangled it and turned it into something I was horrified to have my name attached to it — all the horror stories one hears — I’m quite certain that would be in the end for me. And I live in fear of it. I’m working on a couple projects now that Steven isn’t involved with. I’m learning what life is like outside of Amblin. So far, it’s all been going OK. But we know each other’s moves really well now. I trust him 10,000%. The reason I’ve spent 20 years now working in film is because I really love working with him. I’m also working on a couple plays right now. There are some things that only theater does, just as there’s things that only film can do. I keep telling Steven that he needs to direct something on stage because he’s an incredible blocker. A lot of stage directors can’t do it. I think he’d make an amazing theater director. Maybe that will happen, we’ll see.

AP: Then he’d be in your turf.

Kushner: Yes, and I’d have the copyright to the text and I wouldn’t have to change anything I wouldn’t want to. (Laughs)


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Vatican Swiss Guard slayings back in spotlight with new book

ROME — The mother of a Swiss Guard member accused of committing one of the most sensational crimes in recent Vatican history – fatally shooting his commander and the senior officer’s wife before killing himself — is turning to the United Nations and Pope Francis in hopes of getting some closure nearly a quarter-century after the slayings.

Muguette Baudat was on hand Tuesday as her lawyer, Laura Sgro, a veteran defense attorney in Vatican criminal trials, detailed her efforts to pry information out of the Vatican and access the court file into the May 4, 1998 slayings that are recounted in Sgro’s new book, “Blood in the Vatican.”

“I’ve been waiting for more than 24 years, so I don’t expect anything,” Baudat said at a book launch event. But she added: “The book is very important.”

Within hours of the slayings, the Vatican spokesman announced that Baudat’s 23-year-old son, Cedric Tornay, a noncommissioned Swiss Guard officer, had killed Col. Alois Estermann and Estermann’s Venezuelan-born wife, Gladys Meza Romero, with his service revolver and then turned the gun on himself. The spokesman said a buildup of resentment over a reprimand by Estermann and the denial of a decoration, combined with a ″peculiar″ psychology, led to Tornay’s violent acts.

Nine months later, in February 1999, the Vatican released a 10-page summary of its internal investigation that confirmed its initial assessment. It concluded that Tornay was solely responsible for the murder-suicide but added that his marijuana use and a brain cyst the size of a pigeon’s egg could have impaired his reasoning.

Baudat spent two decades campaigning for more information and hired Sgro in 2019, asking for the Vatican investigation to be reopened. She said her request was not spurred by a belief that the Vatican was responsible, but rather to end the secrecy with which it has always handled the case.

Last year, the Vatican secretary of state intervened personally in the case and asked the Vatican tribunal to pay “particular attention” to Baudat’s request. Sgro was granted access to the court file.

In the book, Sgro details what she found in the file, as well as the conditions imposed on her by the Vatican prosecutor for viewing it: She wasn’t allowed to make copies but could only view the documentation in the tribunal, with two gendarmes standing behind her back monitoring her at all times. She was allowed to take some notes but not too many since she was explicitly barred from copying the text. She had to submit her notes to the prosecutors’ office after each viewing session, which took place over the course of a year.

And what she discovered in reading the court file, she said Tuesday, “confirmed all the doubts that the mother had about an investigation conducted in an absolutely superficial way.”

Sgro noted that at least 20 people were allowed access to the crime scene in the moments after the slayings, including chaplains, monsignors and the Vatican spokesman, none of whom wore protective gear. No fingerprints or blood samples were taken, and no DNA tests performed.

A handwriting analysis of a letter, purportedly from Tornay to his mother and foreshadowing the killings, was done on a photocopy, not the original document. The corpses were moved around the Estermann apartment, as was furniture, according to 38 photographs taken by a Vatican newspaper photographer that were in the court file. Autopsies were performed not in a hospital morgue but in the crypt of a chapel inside the Vatican walls.

“After one hour, Cedric was given up as the guilty one and the investigation was built around this, and this is absolutely the most alarming thing,” Sgro said.

The lawyer alleged that the conditions in which she was forced to work to view the file, as well as the mother’s long fight to find information about her son, constituted human rights violations that should be taken up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

There was no indication Tuesday whether the U.N. might take up her case, since such complaints must show a consistent pattern of “gross violations” of human rights, such as the policy of apartheid in South Africa.

Sgro said she had little other recourse since the Holy See is not a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and therefore not a party to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where such appeals would normally be heard. The Holy See enjoys observer status at the U.N. and has received criticism from U.N. human rights experts over the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Sgro said she sent a copy of “Blood in the Vatican” to Pope Francis and he responded with a personal letter. His response, she said, gave her hope that the Vatican might be ready to acknowledge that its original investigation was flawed and that Tornay’s legacy might somehow be rehabilitated even if he is confirmed as the killer.

“It’s a small drop after 24 years of silence,” Sgro said. “Let us hope this drop becomes a glass of water, then a lake.”

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Clarence Gilyard, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Matlock’ actor, dies at 66

Clarence Gilyard Jr., a popular supporting actor whose credits include the blockbuster films “Die Hard” and “Top Gun” and the hit television series “Matlock” and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” has died at age 66

NEW YORK — Clarence Gilyard Jr., a popular supporting actor whose credits include the blockbuster films “Die Hard” and “Top Gun” and the hit television series “Matlock” and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” has died at age 66.

His death was announced this week by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught stage and screen acting. Additional details were not immediately available Tuesday.

“Professor Gilyard was a beacon of light and strength for everyone around him at UNLV,” the school’s film chair, Heather Addison, said in a statement. “Whenever we asked him how he was, he would cheerfully declare that he was ‘Blessed!’ But we are truly the ones who were blessed to be his colleagues and students for so many years.”

Gilyard was a Moses Lake, Washington, native. He had a prolific career as an actor, starting in the 1980s with appearances in “Diff’rent Strokes,” ”The Facts of Life” and other shows. He then appeared in two of the biggest movies of the decade: “Top Gun,” in which he played Sundown, a radar intercept officer, and “Die Hard,” when he was featured as a villainous computer maven whose one liners included “You didn’t bring me along for my charming personality.”

In the 1990s, he was on the side of law enforcement in “Matlock,” playing opposite Andy Griffith, and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” which starred Chuck Norris. His other credits include “The Karate Kid: Part II,” a stage production of “Driving Miss Daisy” and an appearance alongside “Die Hard” star Bruce Willis in a commercial for DieHard batteries.

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Review: Slice into the holiday spirit with ‘Violent Night’

The holiday season is upon us and how better to celebrate than watching Santa slip several pool balls into a Christmas stocking, swing them in the air menacingly and see him cave in someone’s face?

Such is “Violent Night,” a film that clearly no one wanted but somehow nicely acts as a chaser to all the sticky sentimentality this time of year. It is billed as an “alt-Christmas action-comedy” and it may be a litmus test of who is your real tribe: If you think watching Santa try to strangle a guy with Christmas lights is funny, this is the film for you.

Directed by Tommy Wirkola, “Violent Night” has taken the season’s naughty or nice dichotomy deeply to heart, offering pounds of gore and wounds that spurt mini-fountains of blood along with tooth-aching sweetness about believing in Santa and the true meaning of Christmas.

It’s easy to initially dismiss it as an “SNL” digital short that got high on its own tinsel but there is a sort of perverse glee to seeing Santa suck on the tip of a candy cane until it is a sharp shard and then plunge it into a bad guy’s neck. Isn’t it time for Kris Kringle as a sociopath?

Few people can balance all these demands as Santa except David Harbour, who specializing in gruff-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside teddy bears. This time, his beard soaked in blood, he must save an ultra-rich family from a murderous group of home invaders with automatic weapons and military training.

On his side: “Christmas magic,” which he reveals multiple times he does not understand and which allows the screenwriters — Pat Casey and Josh Miller — a yuletide-sized logical loophole. They’ve even given Santa an origin story as a centuries-old Viking raider with a fondness for crushing skulls with a hammer. He’d be on the naughty list, naturally.

We initially meet Santa in the present day at an English pub. It’s Christmas Eve and he’s hammered. There are other men dressed as Santas this night, but they’re just pretenders, like “Bad Santa.” He’s the real thing.

Tonight, Santa is worn-out and fed-up. The children these days just demand more and more presents — just grubby consumers. He even calls them junkies. “I forgot why I started doing it in the first place,” he says. “Maybe this is my last year.”

During his rounds, he happens to linger too long at the Lightstone family compound in Connecticut. A ruthless gang has just stormed inside hoping to relieve the family of $300 million and trapping Santa with just his magic bag of presents and a pent-up desire to hurt people.

John Leguizamo, so often the comedy relief in films, here is as heavy as it gets, an anti-Christmas madman who tortures with a nutcracker and gets some of the best over-the-top lines like “Christmas dies tonight” and “Time to kill Santa.” The film soon moves into “Die Hard” territory as terrorists play cat-and-mouse with a good guy inside the building.

Santa connects with one of the hostages — a little girl (Leah Brady, sparkling like an ornament) — who still believes in Santa. “You are more than the presents you bring,” she tells him. And so he proves that Christmas is indeed alive by systematically murdering every single bad guy and girl with a sledgehammer, aided by his new friend’s “Home Alone” boobytrapping skills and all to a soundtrack of Christmas songs by Burl Ives, Bryan Adams and Slade.

This is not a Norman Rockwell vision of Santa, of course. He has a torso full of tattoos and sutures his own wounds with Christmas tree ornament hooks. He vomits, impales baddies in spiky Christmas decorations and uses the sharp parts of a pair of ice skates with surgical precision. Few films have earned their R rating better. All that’s missing is you as long as you think it’s time to add a little blood to Christmas?

“Violent Night,” a Universal Pictures release that opens nationwide in theaters Friday, is rated R for “strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references.” Running time: 112 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.




Mark Kennedy is at

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