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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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Book Review: Explosive debut novel ‘Fireworks Every Night’ is a bittersweet celebration of survival

“Fireworks Every Night” by Beth Raymer (Random House)

C.C.’s isn’t your typical rags-to-riches story. She remembers growing up in a single-wide with her older sister, stay-at-home mom and car-salesman dad. But she also remembers when they moved to Florida after everything in the car lot burned down — including their home — launching them into a comfortable middle-class life and a fresh start in a state her dad proudly brags has fireworks every night.

“Fireworks Every Night” is Beth Raymer’s debut novel, but not her first book. Following her 2010 memoir “Lay the Favorite,” she borrows from her life to create a deeply personal story of a dysfunctional family.

Having grown up in West Palm Beach, Raymer puts her local knowledge to use as her protagonist — a resident of Loxahatchee, Florida — rattles off the schools she plays basketball against, and how worn down or rich they are. She’s familiar with the Baker Act and who’s been institutionalized through its use. She knows all the neighborhoods and has eaten at Benny’s on the Beach.

If the gorgeous cover designed by Elizabeth A. D. Eno isn’t enough to draw you in, let the heartbreakingly determined main character and the promise of an earnest look at the skeletons in her closet convince you.

In adulthood, C.C. is engaged to a well-educated and absurdly wealthy man — a far cry from the childhood in which she learns what it means to fight for survival. Hopping between the two timelines in stark juxtaposition, the full picture of C.C.’s life emerges.

As kid-C.C.’s home life comes completely unraveled, the story morphs from tragicomedy to horror, revealing how her family fell apart and left her sister struggling with addiction, her mother chronically absent and her father homeless. All the while, adult-C.C. is juggling a host of modern stresses: the viability of having children, climate change, living in a world that makes it far too easy to compare yourself with the 8 billion others who inhabit it, and reconciling your self-worth with the balance in your bank account.

Raymer launches addiction, homelessness, neglect and poverty shamelessly into the lexicon, treating C.C. and her family with nothing less than respect.

A nature motif runs throughout the story, blurring the line between animal and human and calling into question what is “natural” in a world so unnaturally shaped by people. Animals play a quiet but pivotal role throughout “Fireworks Every Night,” shaping Raymer’s engrossing novel into a bittersweet celebration of the scrappy Americans who are finding a way to survive even as the elite push humans and animals alike out of their habitats.

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Book Review: ‘White House by the Sea’ tells storied Kennedy tale through family’s compound

“White House By the Sea: A Century of the Kennedys at Hyannis Port” by Kate Storey (Scribner)

The history of the Kennedy family is so well-chronicled — from the modern Camelot legend surrounding John F. Kennedy’s presidency to the series of tragedies that marked the family throughout the 20tb century — that it’s hard to imagine new ways to tell their story.

But Kate Storey does just that in “White House By the Sea: A Century of the Kennedys at Hyannis Port” — revisiting the family’s history through their time at the famed Kennedy compound on Cape Cod.

Storey, the senior features editor at Rolling Stone magazine, weaves a fascinating narrative about the Kennedy family using Hyannis Port as the backdrop. The book traces the family’s ties to the compound back to the 1920s, when Joseph Kennedy bought Malcolm Cottage, what became known as the Big House.

Many of the stories feel so familiar, from Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s death during World War II to John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal plane crash in 1999. The compound was also the setting for much happier occasions, including John F. Kennedy’s presidential acceptance speech and the wedding of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.

Storey gives them a fresh look with new details and well-sourced reporting that opens up a traditionally private community — “what’s left of Camelot,” she writes.

Storey’s research gives the book a more intimate feel than many other histories of the Kennedy family, introducing figures that aren’t as well-known but played a key role in the family and its compound. Fittingly, it’s written in an accessible way that makes the book a welcome beach read.

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Fox News unveils primetime lineup with Jesse Watters in Tucker Carlson’s former time slot

Jesse Watters will fill the Fox News Channel time slot left vacant by the firing of Tucker Carlson, part of a dramatic revamp of the network’s evening lineup announced on Monday.

Greg Gutfeld’s late-night show that combines news and comedy will move up an hour to start at 10 p.m. Eastern, displacing Laura Ingraham. She’ll shift to 7 p.m., the hour that Watters has occupied. Sean Hannity will stay in his 9 p.m. time slot, Fox said. The new lineup debuts on July 17.

The announcement comes roughly two months after Fox News fired Carlson shortly after settling a defamation lawsuit with the voting machine maker Dominion Voting Systems on the eve of trial. The case, which centered on the network’s airing of false claims following the 2020 presidential election, exposed a trove of private messages sent between Fox hosts, including Hannity and Carlson, in which they criticized peers at the network.

Carlson has since begun doing occasional monologues for Twitter, although Fox is attempting to get him to stop the broadcasts.

Fox has seen its ratings tumble since Carlson exited. Carlson averaged 3.25 million viewers at 8 p.m. in the first three months of the year, and the string of guest hosts who replaced him the past two months usually reached under 2 million, making the network’s command more tenuous.

The lineup change signals that Fox is doubling down on its opinionated evening programming strategy, with three sharp-tongued men filling the prime-time hours. It’s something of a triumphant return for Watters, who got his start at the 8 p.m. hour, doing man-in-the-street interviews and other features for Bill O’Reilly before O’Reilly’s firing in 2017.

It also means double duty for Gutfeld and Watters, who are both panelists on “The Five” and will continue there. The late-afternoon political talk show has become Fox’s most popular program.

Keeping that show’s chemistry intact appeared to be a priority for Fox. Gutfeld said in a Wall Street Journal interview last week that he would no longer appear on “The Five” or do his late-night show if he were to get Carlson’s old time slot.

Trace Gallagher, who has worked at Fox since the network began in 1996, will host a news show at 11 p.m., filling the hour that Gutfeld is leaving vacant.

“The unique perspectives of Laura Ingraham, Jesse Watters, Sean Hannity, and Greg Gutfeld will ensure our viewers have access to unrivaled coverage from our best-in-class team for years to come,” Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott said in a statement.

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