A lonely young child in need of a friend. An otherworldly outsider in need of a helping hand. Sounds right in Steven Spielberg’s wheelhouse, doesn’t it?
After a steady string of distinguished period dramas including “Bridge of Spies,” “Lincoln,” “War Horse” and “Munich,” the acclaimed filmmaker makes what was for him a most welcome return to a fantasy world full of childlike wonder with “The BFG,” an adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel of the same name that was first published in 1982 — the same year that saw the release of one of Spielberg’s signature masterworks, “E.T. the Extraterrestrial.”
The similarities don’t end there, although the scale is reversed: while “E.T.” saw Elliot and his siblings try to safeguard a diminutive alien explorer and help him return home, “The BFG” features an orphan girl (Ruby Barnhill) encountering a seemingly mythical giant (Mark Rylance) who’s mastered keeping himself hidden from human sight but could use help contending with his more savage colossal brethren back home in Giant Country. Behind the scenes, the new film’s screenplay is the final work of Spielberg’s late friend and collaborator Melissa Mathison, who also crafted the story for “E.T.”
Sitting down with the press to discuss his latest work, Spielberg’s enthusiasm for the project was clear: not only was he excited to have returned to work with Rylance — the actor who plays the BFG and who earned an Academy Award earlier this year for “Bridge of Spies” — and add new discovery Barnhill to the firmament of child stars whose careers he’s launched, Spielberg was especially pleased to have made his first formal film under the Walt Disney imprint (previous collaborations have been released under the Touchstone label), particularly one that pushed the boundaries of existing technology to create a fully realized fantasy world.
On discovering the film’s star, 11-year-old star Ruby Barnhill:
Steven Spielberg: When I first met Ruby, the first thing I realized was she’s comfortable in her own skin, very. She’s very confident, and she has a tremendous heart. She just puts so much love and she puts so much interest out there into the world. She was more interested in asking questions than answering my questions. It was her questions that kind of scooped my questions.
We interviewed 300-400 girls in every English-speaking country in the world. We found Ruby at the very, very end of the casting process. Nina Gold found Ruby in Manchester, England. Ruby came in and did a reading. And I had seen many, many young girls between the ages of eight and 11, sometimes 12 — we went as old as 12 in our search.
And I was shooting “Bridge of Spies,” and I was in Berlin when I saw Ruby’s test. And I suddenly forgot I was making “Bridge of Spies,” and even forgot that Mark Rylance who was in “Bridge of Spies,” and who was already cast The BFG, I totally forgot that and all I focused on was, “Can you fly her to Berlin like tomorrow? I need to meet this young actress!”
And she came out with her dad, who I also put in the movie, because her dad’s a wonderful actor. I didn’t even know that until I met him. Her dad was the one that ushered BFG into the Queen’s quarter, going down the quarter, using nautical terms like full stop, hard aport, watch out priceless antiques. That’s her dad. I was very lucky to meet Ruby.
On the shared qualities and the differences between “E.T.” and “The BFG”:
I think the films are a lot different from the way I was making films because I’m a lot different than I was in 1982. But the one thing that doesn’t change is when I can find a good story, and the story tells me what it needs, as opposed to me overruling all the values of the story to somehow impose a kind of 69-year-old maturity on to a piece that needed more of a kid than an adult.
I really feel that I’ve always, with a book like “BFG” or any other movie I see that has young values, can just bring the memories of what it was like being a kid right back to me in a flash, like it can to anybody…You can get your childhood back in a millisecond. I don’t compare this movie to “E.T.” The only real valid comparison for me is that Melissa Mathison, who wrote “E.T.,” also adapted “The BFG,” and wrote this.
There were a lot of opposites about “BFG” and “E.T.” especially in scale. All the kids were E.T.’s giants in 1982 when the film first came out. There’s a lot of interesting opposites. I don’t make the same comparisons that a lot of the people who were favorably comparing it to “E.T.” coming at out Cannes made. When I started reading the stuff coming out at Cannes, I didn’t agree with it 100%, that they’re similar stories, but people are free to interpret any way they wish.
On opening up the book for the big screen:
What the book didn’t have, which I need to tell a story, was plot. The book was experiential, and the book certainly gave us every single clue as to how to make a movie about a relationship between a little girl and a giant, and how to make the little girl taller than the giant by the end of the story. And that was Roald Dahl’s gift in the story he wrote for his own children.
But I felt that between Ruby and Mark [Rylance] and I, in trying to capture something that had relevance today, that had value today… It’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this movie, because I had been working on a lot of films, and had been developing a lot of films, that were very reflective of the cynicism of today, the way young people think especially.
I couldn’t find a cynical bone in the body of the screenplay that Melissa wrote, and one of the things for me that was such a magical excursion into this fantasy fairytale world is there’s no cynicism whatsoever, and that was a real relief for me.
On reviving his cinematic sense of wonder after a long string of historical dramas:
I was so covered in history, this was like taking a shower. It was like taking a really nice, hot shower. I’m just watching all the history go down the drain, at least for the next two movies, and then I get back into history right after “Ready Player One.” I love history. I can’t divest myself of it. I love it. I read it. I read too much history. As I’ve gotten older, history becomes much more relevant to me.
On crafting what may be cinema’s most elaborate and whimsical flatulence joke, the whizzpopper:
We got through the whizzpopper — barely got through it — because for one thing, Mark had to be put on wires, and he had to be jerked into the air every time he whizzpops. And Mark loved it! He had never made a movie like this before, needless to say. He does mainly stage plays, and he’s been in some rigs in theater, but he’s never been pulled into the air with an off-camera whizzpopping sound effect before. I think Mark said, “Hey, if movies are going to be like this every time, I think I’ll make more movies now.” He had a great time. It was hard to get him through a day without laughing our heads off.
On working in different size scales all at the same time:
You have to understand that Ruby and Mark are working in a big, big white space called a motion capture volume, and the sets are all made of wire. And Ruby is on huge sets to be able to reduce her in scale, these huge dream jars, and the table was humongous. And Mark is on a scissor lift 20 feet above Ruby looking down so they can make eye contact.
My father came on to the set when we were shooting it last summer. He looked around, and he saw Mark on the scissor lift and he saw Ruby on this big oversized step, and he said, “Hey Steve, come here.” I came over to my dad. He’s 99 years old, and he said, “Say, what kind of a movie are you making, anyway?” But he saw it last week and then he said, “I understand what you did now.”
On the line between imaginative storytelling vs. technical spectacle:
I wouldn’t characterize it as a struggle, but I think it’s more of a kind of duel between story and technology, and what should triumph in any project. And I believe it should always be story. So if there’s any kind of a struggle going on, it is basically what we offer audiences today. What are we offering audiences? Are we offering them stories that they will remember for the rest of their lives? Or are we offering them spectacle that will be appreciated perhaps in the short term, but then forgotten very soon after?
When I personalize that, I say that’s my struggle too, because I get very seduced sometimes by concepts that have a wow factor. And I have to always go and realize, “Why am I going to spend two years of my life on something for a wow factor when I’m not sure the story has any social value, or any lasting value that will be remembered in ten years, let alone a year?”
And I get, like everybody else, seduced by big ideas and big franchises and big possible franchises. I think I’ve gotten to the point in my life right now where it’s easy to say no. It used to be hard for me to say no. But I said no to so many humungous hit franchises, I think I’m getting pretty good at it.
On making his first official Walt Disney film, and the influence he’s felt from Disney:
Walt Disney, more than Alfred Hitchcock, or more than anyone else, when I was first becoming aware of suspense, and when I was first becoming aware of the power of cinema. The power to seize you in a chokehold, and not let you go, and often when it finally releases you, you come out feeling unredeemed because you’ve been terrified. Disney was the first time I realized you could be scared half to death, and then rescued minutes later. Not hours later, but minutes later.
Disney had this incredible power to create images that were so frightening you had to turn away from the screen, but then suddenly those images would turn into a beautiful kind of moment of transcendence. It’s the cliche about battling the dragon. Take on the dragon, and it’s terrifying. But when you’ve finally vanquished the foe, you’re left with the damsel in distress. And Disney, of course, would take the damsel in distress that Hollywood would make the victim and turn the damsel into the proactive heroine. So Disney also had strong women in all the animated films. “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” look at all the animated films, very strong women. I find that Disney probably influenced me in that sense. It also made me feel that it was okay to scare as long as there was light at the end of the little vignettes of darkness.
With this movie, I think we have one of the strongest young women I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with… So I think in a sense, Disney was a big influence. Maybe even over Roald Dahl in that way, because he wrote a very strong female protagonist in the book of “BFG.”
“The BFG” stomps into theaters July 1.
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