Rick Carter Used the 'Invisible Art' of Production Design in The Fabelmans
Julia Butters and Gabriel LaBelle in The Fabelmans. Photo Credit: Universal.

Rick Carter used the “invisible art” of production design to bring his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg’s childhood to life in the director’s semi-autobiographical drama The Fabelmans.

The film stars Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman — a character based on Spielberg — as well as Paul Dano and Michelle Williams as Sammy’s parents, and Seth Rogen as his father’s best friend. It takes viewers through Spielberg’s retelling of his own childhood, from the beginnings of his love of filmmaking to his parent’s divorce.

Carter has been working with Steven Spielberg since The Goonies in 1985, on which Spielberg has a story by credit and Carter served as art director. Since then, they’ve worked on 12 feature films together, including Jurassic Park, The Post, Lincoln, War Horse, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. 

Having such a long history with the famed director, Carter understood something very important about Spielberg that’s at the heart of The Fabelmans that he was able to weave into the production design.

“When people saw him do Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same year, people went, well, how’s that possible? How do you have two poler [opposite], different kinds of movies that you can come out with and devote equal attention to and have them both be successful in their own right, and in their own genres, their own levels? And of course, that’s because there’s a split,” Carter tells MovieMaker.

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“Where’s the split come from? You see it in everything. It’s in The Fabelmans — it’s the parents themselves, their sensibilities. Then there’s the very essence that’s expressed by Uncle Boris, about the tension between being the artist and loving the art, and also loving your family and how it tears at you.”

The split that Carter is referring to is at the heart of The Fabelmans, which tells the story of how Spielberg’s parents’ divorce impacted him as a young adult. But the split goes much deeper than just his parents’ marriage. As Carter just explained, the film also explains the split Spielberg feels within his own personality, in which the artist in him battles with his love and loyalty to his family — particularly his father, played by Paul Dano, who doesn’t always see the value in his moviemaking career aspirations.

A deep understanding of Spielberg’s directing style and personality helped Carter design the perfect backdrop for the story.

“He had his own ideas about the spaces he’d been in,” Carter said of recreating Spielberg’s childhood homes in New Jersey, Arizona, and California.

“Some of them, we tried to make accurate to some degree to what they were. But mostly, it was having an emotional authenticity to it,” Carter says. “I feel very good about the breadth and the depth that one can feel without ever paying real attention to [the background of a shot]… some of that is a part of the invisible art of the production design and the set decoration, which was such a major part of it, too.”

Main Image: Paul Dano, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in a still from The Fabelmans. Photo courtesy of Universal.