How ‘The Fabelmans’ Pieced Together Steven Spielberg’s Childhood With Editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar

A version of this story about film editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

When Michael Kahn says, “Oh, Steve has always loved the film negative,” he knows what he’s talking about.

At the age of 92, Kahn has been editing Steven Spielberg’s movies since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977—more than 30 films over 45 years, including Spielberg’s new, semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” in which the old-school art of film editing is portrayed with real detail and great affection.

“He loves the look of it and the feel of it and the smell of it,” said Kahn, who cut the film with Sarah Broshar. “We were some of the last holdouts in Hollywood to (transition to digital editing). Steve’s a purist, and using real film has always been part of the enjoyment for him.” (For the record, “The Fabelmans” was shot digitally.)

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Broshar, who has co-edited with Kahn since 2017’s Nixon-era drama “The Post,” described the sense of sweet recognition she felt while working on a sequence in which teenage filmmaker Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) splices, glues and tapes strips of celluloid in his bedroom. In the process, Sammy comes across a secret involving his mother in his 8mm footage of a camping trip.

“What I love is that Sammy is bored and yawning as he’s scrolling through footage,” Broshar said. “Then he makes his discovery, and that really captures our jobs accurately. Sometimes we’re just watching the dailies but then we discover something in the footage. And those discoveries, in our jobs, change everything.”

In another self-reflexive twist, Spielberg asked his editors to deliberately cut certain footage sloppily. In this case, it was Sammy’s own cinematic re-creation of a train crash in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” made with toy models.

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“Steven said, ‘Cut that one really poorly, because it was the first film I ever made,'” Broshar recalled. “But it’s funny because the footage just comes together naturally. We tried cutting it a lot of different ways, but it wasn’t too difficult to put together.”

Kahn agreed. “The model train crash was one of the easier scenes to cut,” he said. “The footage was all there. Steve knew what he needed [in the footage], even when he was a kid.”

Kahn has taken home Oscars for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” His three wins mark an Academy record for film editing, tied with Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker. (Kahn and Schoonmaker are also tied with the most nominations, at eight). But despite his wealth of experience, Kahn is a believer that “each film is a new experience,” so he and Broshar did not re-watch Spielberg’s oeuvre in order to infuse the editing with Spielbergian touches.

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“Any references to his earlier work in this film come from his genius head,” Kahn said. The editor smiled when he admitted, “Although when the kids on the bicycles are coming around the corner, it sure did remind me of ‘E.T.’” (Incidentally, that 1982 classic is one of the only Spielberg films Kahn didn’t edit; he was too busy on the Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist.”)

As with all of Spielberg’s films, the editors started their work as soon as the cameras roll. “We edit during the shoot,” Broshar said. “We have a trailer on set right next to Steven’s, and we go there with the footage and he comes in during his lunch breaks. He makes a lot of time for us during production.”

Kahn said that Spielberg did not lay down any special rules for this film. “He just said, ‘Go to town, baby. Edit it good!'”

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But after nearly a half century of collaboration, Kahn revealed that Spielberg did do something on “The Fabelmans” that the editor had never observed in their long history together.

“While we were still cutting it, he’d run the whole film every single day, and sometimes twice a day. He would just keep looking and looking,” Kahn recalled. “Making sure if he took something out, it belonged out, or if he kept something in, it belonged in.”

Kahn paused, then continued. “It took a lot of guts for him to make this film, to show some of his family’s problems. And it’s his life, it’s his whole existence. We could feel how important it was for him to get it right.”

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.

TheWrap magazine below the line issue cover
TheWrap magazine below the line issue cover