If there were any major theme that came out of last weekend’s Academy Awards, it is the theme of gratitude. It was a very good night for hard-working people whose careers have been somewhat marginalized or forgotten until quite recently, and actors like Brendan Fraser and Ke Huy Quan took to the stage shedding streams of tears in thankfulness for the recognition and love their recent films have brought them, after decades of being out of the spotlight.
In cinema, everyone involved in the production deserves credit. While auteurs and visionaries are vital to direct a project, films are a collaborative medium, and everyone involved has a hand in making sure every frame of film winds up where it needs to be—from the grips holding equipment to the assistants and interns making thankless coffee runs. Everyone involved deserves a moment of gratitude. That’s especially true with a Best-Picture-nominated Steven Spielberg film like The Fabelmans, where one man’s quiet expertise can bring a small scene to life and make the entire film more powerful.
The Great Toy Train Crash
One of the most visually and thematically impactful scenes of Steven Spielberg’s film involves a child playing with his model train set. Set in the 1950s, a young boy named Sammy Fabelman is traumatized the first time he goes to the movies by the train crash scene in The Greatest Show on Earth. Struggling to come to terms and get a handle on what he saw, he asks his father for a model train set as a Hanukkah present and receives one train car for every day of the holiday.
Sammy then proceeds to nearly destroy his new expensive toys by recreating the train crash scene from the movie. When his parents scold him for nearly damaging his toys, his mother gives him a camera and tells him he’s allowed to perform one more train crash, but this time he needs to film it so that his toys will be safe as the footage can be watched on repeat. He does so, setting him on a path that teaches him that film can be a powerful means to understanding and processing difficult truths.
The Fabelmans is a very personal film and an overtly autobiographical one for Spielberg. It addresses many of the very real and complicated challenges he faced as a child and subsequently explored throughout his vast filmography: divorce, alienation, anti-semitism, bullying, parental estrangement, and the power of cinema to reframe and recontextualize all of these traumatic experiences. The process of filming the movie was emotionally difficult enough that Spielberg reportedly sobbed repeatedly on the set while processing those emotions all over again.
These emotions all flow out of the movie’s earliest scenes, which are some of the most immaculately shot and visually impactful of the movie, thanks in large part to critically acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins. That meticulous attention to detail was upheld by everyone who supported and worked on the film, including Gary Rushton, the man who provided the Lionel Train props used in the movie.
Gary Rushton’s Lionel Trains
Gary Rushton is the owner of Fun Factory Vintage Trains and Service, a small business he operates out of his home in Arizona on the side from his work as a brand manager for a fabric company. He rebuilds and repairs Lionel Electric Trains built before and after World War II for collectors. He was approached in late 2020 by the prop master for Steven Spielberg’s production company and worked for 18 months helping to find and restore multiple trainsets that matched the ones that Spielberg himself received as gifts in 1952.
“The prop master from Amblin found my website and contacted me, and at the time I was doing some restorations for customers in Oklahoma. He saw posts online about the project and he reached out and said ‘we need to have Lionel Trains for Mr. Spielberg’s movie that look like the ones from his youth and look brand new for this movie we’re making,’” says Rushton.
“Mr. Spielberg was very adamant about what they needed to be and look like. We began hunting down and refurbishing all the elements he wanted, stripped them down to the metal, repainted them, and made them look as new as possible. Then Amblin and Universal worked with me to remake the original Lionel boxes and wrapping paper.”
Rushton delivered four identical trainsets to Amblin in mid-2022, all of them identical to the toys Spielberg himself had received as a child seventy years prior. “Initially he couldn’t remember what the train looked like, so we sent him a few examples and he figured out what was what.”
Reacting To His Work On Screen
“I got the trailers before they were released and the prop master and I were blown away because they were all about the train I sent them. I was proud and surprised to see how prominent my work was,” said Rushton.
He later asked the studio if they would be willing to return the props, but the process of shooting the trainwreck scenes functionally destroyed all of the antique trains, except for a few pieces kept by Spielberg as mementos.
The experience overall was a positive one for Gary, who has subsequently had the opportunity to work with the prop masters on other major Hollywood productions, including a few he wasn’t able to talk about. He did mention that his trains may appear in an upcoming Dwayne Johnson movie.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with HBO’s Perry Mason, but it takes place in the 1930s so I leased them a tinplate 249E Lionel freight set for the show, and I got them back. The cool thing was they also made new boxes for the episode, and the star of the show Matthew Rhys signed all the boxes.”