Around 10 years ago, during the making of his stirring political period picture Lincoln, Steven Spielberg began to realise that there was another story he needed to tell. For the director whose career had taken him from the battlefields of the first and second world wars to the New Jersey frontline of the War of the Worlds; from a dinosaur theme park in Central America to a confinement camp in Japanese-occupied China, sources of inspiration were bound only by the limits of imagination. But, as Spielberg revealed at the Toronto film festival last month, the time had finally come to look inwards, to explore his own life story.
That story took in a childhood in prosperous postwar Arizona, with a loving but distracted, workaholic father who was instrumental in the development of early computers, and a sparkling, musically talented mother. It included the gut-punch of a shocking family secret and the subsequent breakdown of his parents’ marriage, events which were filtered and processed through a burgeoning passion for cinema. All of this is only slightly fictionalised in Spielberg’s gorgeous, intensely personal new film, The Fabelmans. The critical reception was as warm and fuzzy as the movie itself: Rolling Stone described it as “one of the most impressive, enlightening, vital things he’s ever done”; Hollywood Reporter talked of the picture “immediately joining the first ranks of artists’ memoirs”. At long last, this most private of public figures had invited audiences into his own life.
But Spielberg is not the only auteur who has arrived at a moment of introspection. James Gray, the director of big, muscular New York tales such as We Own The Night and The Immigrant, also turned to his own childhood, on the fringes of delinquency in 1980s Queens, for inspiration with Armageddon Time, which is released next month. It’s a raw picture, which confronts head-on the regrets and guilt that Gray has carried with him since adolescence.
Meanwhile Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who made Birdman and The Revenant, claims that his expansive, extravagant Bardo, also out next month, is not strictly autobiographical. But the parallels are hard to miss: it’s about a celebrated Mexican film-maker who has relocated from his home country to the USA, a decision that has ramifications on his family life.
“I think it has to do with my age and the time that has passed,” Iñárritu told the LA Times. “When your kids grow, there are challenges to try to understand the decision that I made – or any immigrant made – of leaving your country.”
And last year Kenneth Branagh reshaped his own childhood in a turbulent Northern Ireland on the cusp of the Troubles into a warm child’s eye view of family, film and politics.
This spate of high-profile autobiographical cinema was heralded by Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 multi-Oscar-winning drama, which drew on the director’s middle-class childhood in a Mexico City suburb, but foregrounded one of the most important people in his family’s life: their maid.
It is not, obviously, an entirely novel approach to moviemaking. Numerous film-makers – Joanna Hogg for example, or Pedro Almodóvar, and further back, Federico Fellini – have made careers from mining aspects of their own lives for inspiration. But it does represent an unprecedented degree of introspection – vulnerability even – from the kind of big-name auteurs who have hitherto spent their careers staking a claim on the far frontiers of cinematic storytelling. It is fair to say that the cine-memoir is having a moment. But why now?
There is a persistent idea of the autobiographical movie as a punctuation point in a career, something which either comes at the very beginning or towards the end of a body of work. Speaking after the film’s world premiere in Toronto, Spielberg was keen to stress that The Fabelmans is not a full stop: “It is not because I decided to retire, and this is my swan song, don’t believe that.” But one factor that both he and Branagh cited as significant was the enforced punctuation point of the pandemic and the reappraisals it triggered. Lockdown prompted us all to look inwards, the first terrifying wave of Covid confronted us with the unavoidable fact of our mortality.
Film producer and head of the BFI Film Fund Mia Bays feels that Covid contributed to a shift in the way artists looked at their body of work. “We’re all more aware of legacy,” she says. “So I feel like that plays a big part for those older directors. A sense of, ‘Who am I through my work, and does anyone really understand me? And what else do I need to do to expand on that story, when I may not have many more films in me?’”
While Spielberg first entertained the idea of a memoir a decade ago, it was not until the pandemic that the time finally felt right. “When Covid hit, we all had a lot of time and we all had a lot of fear. As things got worse and worse, I thought, if I was going to leave anything behind, what was the thing I needed to resolve and unpack about my mom, my dad, and my sisters? This film is, for me, a way of bringing my mom and dad back.”
Talking last year about Belfast, Branagh concurred. “By the time we got to the beginning of the first lockdown I had this general sense of how precious time was – we just don’t know what the future holds any more. I was approaching 60 and I just suddenly felt as though I had no choice but to try and tell this story.”
There might be another factor at play – an increasing sensitivity around who gets to tell which story, of ownership, of identity politics. It’s unlikely, for example, that Spielberg would be unquestioningly embraced as the director of The Color Purple were it made today. His name is on the credits of a musical adaptation of the Alice Walker novel to be released next year, but as a producer this time, with African-American film-maker Blitz Bazawule directing. When the idea of the right to claim other peoples’ stories is increasingly scrutinised, turning the camera onto your own life might be a logical decision.
Bays says: “We’ve seen that identity politics has been centred in indie cinema, especially in early work. And I feel like that must have impacted, perhaps, on some of the ‘masters’. So much of an artist’s journey is understanding themselves through their art. And I think the audience and the industry, because often they effectively are the same, are demanding authenticity.”
But then, there’s another option: that the cine-memoir is essentially a very public, very expensive form of therapy. That might be the case for Gray, who, through Armageddon Time, confronts his own guilt over the abandonment of a friendship at a moment of crisis. Shortly after the premiere at Cannes, he said: “I tried to make it as honest as I could and in some ways hold myself responsible as much as I could … To me, the process that any creative person has to go through … is not to promote an idea that is rosy or pleasant or a lie, but rather to promote something that is as honest as possible because that’s where dialogue and debate can begin.”
And while Spielberg has not told his own story before, his prickly relationship with his father has informed many of his past pictures. ET, he revealed during an interview with 60 Minutes in 2012, started out as an attempt to write a story about his parents’ divorce. “Even after I knew the truth [about the break-up], I blamed my dad.” But while in his earlier films, father figures were distant, neglectful even, in The Fabelmans, the father, played by Paul Dano, is more sympathetically treated. There is a sense of closure. Perhaps, at the age of 75, with a film career spanning nearly five decades, Steven Spielberg has finally made his peace with the past.