Steven Spielberg gave his sisters veto power on ‘The Fabelmans.’ They gave him their trust

Steven Spielberg and his sisters huddle in close, arms around each other for a portrait.
Steven Spielberg and his sisters, from left, Anne, Nancy and Sue Spielberg, gather to talk about “The Fabelmans” and its depiction of their family when they were growing up.
(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For The Times)

Steven Spielberg and his sisters — Anne, Sue and Nancy — are singing along to “My Girl.” And not just singing, mind you. They have the choreography pretty much down pat, their arms and feet moving to the Temptations’ classic Motown beat, and they’re taking such delight in harmonizing that it seems clear this must be their favorite family song ... until the next number on the playlist starts and the opening drumbeat to the Ronettes’ classic “Be My Baby” rings out and within a few seconds the siblings are singing the “whoa-oh-oh-oh” chorus at the top of their lungs.

We’re crowded in a booth inside the Milky Way, the West Los Angeles restaurant that the Spielbergs’ mother, Leah Adler, opened in 1977 with her second husband, Bernie, an eatery the family still owns and operates. “Mom was part of that harmony until she was 96 years old,” Steven tells me, just before pleading with his sisters to break out some of the melodies they used to sing together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They oblige. He is the big brother, after all. “I’d be in big trouble if I had been born last,” Steven says. The women do not dispute this.

The Spielbergs haven’t seen each other since the AFI Fest premiere of “The Fabelmans,” Steven’s tender recounting of his filmmaking origin story folded inside an empathetic look at a complex relationship between his decent father and unfulfilled-artist mother. Steven thought the event was three weeks ago. Anne, the oldest, sets him straight: “No, that was November, Steve” — the sisters still call him Steve, as they always have — “and it’s February now.”

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The siblings have always been close. “The Fabelmans” deepened their bond. “You allowed yourself to become vulnerable,” Nancy tells Steven, holding his hand. Anne takes his other hand. “That’s the biggest change,” she says, reflecting on their lives together since their mother died in 2017 at the age of 97, with their father, Arnold, passing three years later at 103. “Steve hid his vulnerability for such a long time. There was never a time when he didn’t have a camera in front of him when he walked into a room. I always knew you were afraid of something and that the camera was a shield.”


“It was also a weapon,” Steven interjects, and the sisters laugh. “It was also that too,” Anne says, still squeezing Steven’s hand. “But the shield came down. And I think we’re closer now. There’s such love, such love between us.”

It might not surprise you to learn that about 20 minutes into our conversation, a family friend walked over to the table and quietly placed a tissue box in its center. Laughter and tears. That’s the story of just about every family, and the Spielbergs are no exception. “Who else knows your whole being and doesn’t judge you for it?” Sue says, to which her brother adds: “And calls bull— on you.”

A boy films his mother and two sisters outdoors on a camping trip.
In looking over footage of a family camping trip, a 16-year-old Steven Spielberg realized his mother’s (Michelle Williams) relationship with a family friend went beyond friendly.
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / Universal)

Steven points to another corner of the restaurant, noting that’s where he always used to sit with his mom. He remembers the time she told him that he needed to make a movie about their lives. “I’ve given you so much good material,” Leah said. Eventually, he began to write what he thought would be a screenplay memoir that he’d slip in a drawer and show his sisters and family one day. But during the making of his 2005 drama “Munich,” Steven began sharing some of the stories with that film’s co-writer, Tony Kushner. Fifteen years later, he called his sisters to tell them that he and Kushner had written a movie about the Spielbergs and he’d be sending the screenplay over in a couple of days. If any one of them had reservations, Steven said, he’d scrap it.

“Gee, I didn’t know we had that much power!” Nancy says, laughing. “Had I known that, the last 70 years would have been a lot different!”


Joking aside, Anne, Sue and Nancy remember exactly where they were when their brother first called them in the spring of 2020, and they can precisely summon the moment when the script arrived. “I tore it open and read it on the potty,” Sue says to great laughter. “I did! I couldn’t help it! It was the best bathroom reading!”

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Steven’s screenplay contained a secret he had never shared with his sisters. In cutting together footage he shot during several family camping trips in Arizona, Steven, then 16, discovered that his mother and his father’s best friend, Bernie, who was a constant presence in the Spielberg family’s lives, had fallen in love.

“I was convinced that what I found was going to be explained to me in an innocent way and I would feel relieved and forever foolish for confronting her,” Steven says. “I showed her the film in the closet and she started to tear up and then she burst into tears and fell to the floor sobbing. My life ended in that moment. Everything stopped. It was a freeze frame. And I started to do things that people do when horrible things happen to them, hoping it was a dream and that I’d wake up, hoping that my mom would come out of that fetal position and laugh hysterically, saying, ‘I got you! I got you.’

The extended Spielberg family circa 1956.
The Spielberg family circa 1956: Front row from left, Sue, Steven, Anne. Back row, from left, Arnold Spielberg, Phillip Posner (Leah’s father) holding baby Nancy, Jennie Posner (Leah’s mother), Leah, Bernard Posner (Leah’s brother).
(Arnold Spielberg/Slides-A-5)

“But she didn’t come out of that fetal position,” Steven continues. “She was on the floor, sobbing, saying, ‘Please don’t tell your father! Please don’t tell your father!’ The movie’s a little bit different. She doesn’t say anything, and Sammy [Steven’s alter ego in ‘The Fabelmans’] promises he won’t tell. For a long time, I considered making the movie without that scene. But the movie could not survive without that moment of truth and, for me, that moment of everlasting trauma.”


“It really hit me with such sadness that you couldn’t share that until now,” Sue says. “I felt so heartbroken.”

“It was a shock reading about that,” Anne says. “It was like a slap in the face.”

“I’m the baby, and when I was born there were always three adult faces looking down at me when I was in a crib, so I didn’t know my life without Bernie,” Nancy says. “He was a fixture. And we had no idea. He was our friend. That was a shock.” She puts her hand on her brother’s shoulder. “But also I felt so bad that you had to hold that all those years.”

Sixty years now. Steven is 76. Anne, who just made the drive in from Sherman Oaks, is 73, a screenwriter (she co-wrote “Big”) and, like her brother, a worrier and wonderfully fun. Sue, 69, lives in Silver Spring, Md., and sports a short, cropped haircut, like her mom. She’s a talker — which you could say about all four of the siblings. None of them has much of a filter. “Sometimes it’s a lot to have us in the same room,” says Nancy, 66, a film producer, who flew in from the Bronx for this gathering. When they’re not together, a nonstop text chain keeps them close.

During the making of “The Fabelmans,” there were countless Zoom calls and emails about re-creating their childhood home in Phoenix and getting the details of the clothing — particularly Leah’s — just right. But all the preparation and set visits couldn’t prepare the women for the emotional wallop of watching the movie for the first time. Nancy and Sue saw it first in New York. When it was over, Steven and producer Kristie Macosko Krieger walked in and the sisters were weeping. “You looked a little afraid of us!” Sue tells Steven, laughing. “I didn’t know what to do,” Steven tells her. “So we left to give you a little more time.”

The hands of Steven Spielberg and siblings.
(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For The Times)


Steven Spielberg folds his hands by his chin for a portrait.
“I think the brother in me wanted to apologize for putting them through this, and the filmmaker in me thought, ‘OK, well ... it worked on them!’” Steven Spielberg says of seeing his sisters cry at their first viewing of “The Fabelmans.”
(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For The Times)

Though the brother in him was at a loss, I ask Steven if, in that moment, the filmmaker in him was thinking, “It worked! It worked!”

“Oh, he knew!” Nancy and Sue say in unison. “He loved that reaction!” Sue says.

Steven smiles. “I think the brother in me wanted to apologize for putting them through this ...” — the sisters are laughing the whole time he’s talking — “... and the filmmaker in me thought, ‘OK, well ... it worked on them!’”

Anne saw the movie a week later in Los Angeles and started crying during an early moment in which Paul Dano, playing their father, explains how movies work. She has since seen the film seven more times, one more than Nancy. Sue has seen it more times than she can count. “It’s an addiction,” she says. And even though watching it stirs feelings of hurt and regret — the scene where the parents tell the children they are divorcing remains particularly raw — each viewing also allows them to revisit a time when Leah and Arnold were alive and with them, providing love, guidance and support.

“It helps us visit them whenever we want,” Nancy says. Anne smiles. “I stream it often just to watch certain scenes,” she says. “It brings them back.”


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Early Steven Spielberg home movies

In a home movie, Steven Spielberg captures his mother and younger sister dancing, followed by one of his earliest attempts at filmmaking.

Leah and Arnold divorced in 1966. The next year, Leah married Bernie. The hard feelings remained for years. The children, now adults, learned more about what went on — even if they didn’t always want to hear it. “My mom would say, ‘I want to tell you something,’ and I’d be like, ‘Maybe you don’t want to tell me, Mom,’” Nancy says, laughing.

“My mother said one thing to me about their camping trips that showed there was an intimacy unbeknownst to us,” Anne says. “They’d sleep in their sleeping bags under the stars, unzipped if the weather allowed, and Dad would be holding her hand on one side, and Bernie would take her hand on the other side.”

After Bernie died at the relatively young age of 75, Arnold, who had remarried a woman named Bernice, reconnected with Leah and the three of them became close, attending concerts together at Disney Hall and sharing many meals at the Milky Way. “It went from Bernie to Bernice,” Steven says. “It became a new trio.”

“I often say that if my parents, when I was hysterically crying about the divorce, had just said to me, ‘Don’t worry because in about 40 years, we’re going to be the best of friends,’ I might not have had such a hard time, maybe,” Nancy says.


Bernice died in 2016 and was laid to rest next to her first husband. Not long after, the siblings approached their father, asking if he would consider being buried next to Leah — and Bernie — at Hillside Memorial Park. “We wanted to bring him home,” Anne says. “But we didn’t know what his reaction would be, being near Bernie. And he said, ‘I’ll think about it.’” Nancy laughs. “He’s 97. How long are you going to think about it, Dad?”

Arnold ultimately agreed — with one stipulation. He wanted to be next to Leah and not next to Bernie.

“And that’s exactly how it’s laid out,” Sue says. “Mom’s between Arnold and Bernie.”

“I’m not sure who she’s looking at, though,” Nancy says, smiling. “She’s probably going back and forth.”

Nancy, Steven, Sue and Anne Spielberg sit together in the The Milky Way restaurant.
Nancy, left, Steven, Sue and Anne Spielberg sit together in the The Milky Way restaurant.
(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For The Times)