It’s not often that you find yourself literally sitting next to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but that’s what happened recently when Den of Geek was invited to a roundtable discussion with Steven Spielberg and several other journalists about his new film, The BFG. For some reason, the last empty seat at the table happened to be directly adjacent to Spielberg’s seat at the head of the table so we grabbed it. When Spielberg enters the room and sits down with a cheery “hello” to everyone, he’s so low-key that it still takes a minute to realize that is the man who brought timeless films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Minority Report to the screen.
With The BFG, he’s back on ground that is in many ways familiar to him. His 29th feature film is based on a short novel by Roald Dahl, the British writer whose other children’s classics include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. The BFG concerns itself with a young orphan girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who discovers the existence of a giant (Mark Rylance), nicknamed the Big Friendly Giant, and travels with him to Giant Country for a series of wondrous and dangerous adventures. A young child having a fantastical journey with a strange being or beings is certainly the kind of story that Spielberg has told well before.
“What really appealed to me was the fact that the protagonist was a girl, not a boy,” said the director. “And it was a very strong girl. The protagonist was going to allow us at a certain point, to believe that four feet tall can completely outrank 25 feet of giant. I got very excited that this was going to be a little girl’s story, and her courage, and her values were going to, in a way, turn the Cowardly Lion into the brave hero at the end — which is what she turns BFG into. I saw all kinds of Wizard of Oz comparisons when I was first reading the book, and I said, ‘Oh, here’s a real chance to do a story about Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion — just the two of them.’”
For that kind of story, with a protagonist who is a little girl but needs to both carry the story and stand on her own against not just the BFG but the other, more sinister giants who live in Giant Country, finding the right girl to play Sophie was critical. “Casting Ruby was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said Spielberg. “(Casting director) Nina Gold looked at three or four hundred girls, in about five English speaking countries. And I looked at about 150 myself. And when I saw Ruby’s reading, I went crazy, ‘cause I had been looking for eight months. We’d get the Ireland tapes in; then we’d get the New Zealand tapes in; then we’d get the Australian tapes in; we’d get the Wales tapes; and we’d get the English tapes in; and the American tapes. And we’d be looking, and looking, and looking.
“I was shooting Bridge of Spies, and I thought I was never going to find my Sophie,” he continued. “Until halfway through the Berlin shoot, when I saw Ruby’s reading. And I immediately went crazy.” Spielberg showed Ruby’s tape to his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, who was equally smitten (Spielberg said Capshaw thought Ruby was “glumptious,” as Spielberg put it, using a word from the BFG’s peculiar version of English). “So we flew Ruby to Berlin, and I met with her. My wife interviewed her while I videoed it on my IPhone. I didn’t talk to Ruby at first; my wife did, because I wanted to stay out of it and let them just get in a conversation. And I cast Ruby before the day was over.”
The other component critical to successfully translating Dahl’s story to the screen was making the BFG himself believable through visual effects without losing the heart, decency and basic humanity of the character in an overload of CG. “The whole nature of my approach to the BFG was to be able to use technology to advance the heart, and create a flawless transposition between the genius of Mark Rylance, to the genius of (effects shop Weta Digital), as they were able to digitally translate Mark’s soul onto film in the character of the BFG,” explained Spielberg. “I think Weta paid more careful attention to how to preserve what Mark had given us on the day. Their artists did an amazing job translating Mark accurately. There’s about 95% of what Mark gave me on the screen now. That’s because technology today allowed us to do it. Five years ago, we could not have made BFG this way — the technology wasn’t there for it.”
Asked if he sometimes wished he had CG technology back in 1974/1975 when he was making Jaws – with its mechanical but very problematic shark – Spielberg replied, “Well, I think if I had the computer, and if I had digital artists the way we have them today, in 1975, 1974, I probably would have ruined the movie, because you would have seen nine times the amount of shark. And I think what makes the movie is the dearth of shark.”
For all his mastery of filmmaking, from the narrative to the technical to the emotional, Spielberg says that he still learns something new on every movie he makes, and that The BFG was no different. “I just learned something that I guess I’ve known before, especially working with child actors,” he said. “It has to be fun. All the movies I’ve made about history, it’s not really fun because you’re trying to get it right, and you’ve got history telling you how it was; and then my imagination is telling me how I wished it had been, but I can’t go there. So I have to kind of censor myself. I’m very good about stopping myself from creating history that never occurred. So this movie for me was a tremendous release, where all I needed was my imagination, and my respect for Roald Dahl’s writing, to be able to say, ‘This is going to be the most fun I’ve had in a long time,’ and it was.”
Spielberg also noted that the film’s easygoing pace — much of it is based around conversations between Sophie and BFG — is a tribute to late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who also wrote E.T. and completed the script for this movie before her death last November. “I was complaining about it a little bit to Melissa,” recalled Spielberg. “I said, ‘It’s got to go faster. It’s got to go faster.’ And Melissa, if you knew her, she (was) very patient and very spiritual. She kept saying, ‘Now, Steve, you know that this isn’t one of your Indiana Jones movies. You should just relax, because this is going to be a story where the pauses are as important as the words I’ve written, and the words Dahl has written — the pauses, the spaces, the patience of the storytelling. Don’t rush it, because it doesn’t work rushed. It only works unfolding the way it’s unfolding.’ And that was the best advice she could give me, and she was absolutely right.”
While The BFG has a certain timeless quality to it (even though it’s set in the present, there’s an old-world feel to the movie that doesn’t chain the story to one era), Spielberg’s next project will set him firmly in the Eighties – sort of. He’s gearing up to direct the long-awaited film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, a futuristic sci-fi tale that is nevertheless steeped in nostalgia for that decade and even references some of his movies from that period.
Asked making a movie that celebrates how “awesome” the Eighties were, Spielberg said, “I hope the movie returns all of us to the awesomeness of the Eighties, because I loved the Eighties. And I think one of the reasons I decided to make the movie was, it brought me back to the Eighties, and lets me do anything I want — except with my own movies, because I’ve cut most of my movies out of Ernie’s book. Except for the DeLorean (from Back to the Future), and a couple of other things that I had something to do with, I’ve cut a lot of my own references out. I was very happy to see there was enough without me that made the Eighties a great time to grow up, you know.”
The BFG is out in theaters this Friday (July 1).