Think an adap­ta­tion of Roald Dahl’s The BFG was an easy fit for Steven Spiel­berg? Think again. He de­scribes it as “truly my first fairy tale” and his big­gest tech­ni­cal chal­lenge since Juras­sic Park

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BIG-HEARTED, PACKED with vis­ual ef­fects, a fam­ily block­buster... In the­ory, The BFG should place Steven Spiel­berg right slap bang in his com­fort zone. And when Em­pire meets the direc­tor in New York, he does prove to be in a very re­laxed, con­fi­dent mood. He shows us videos of The BFG’S record­ing ses­sion on his iphone, looks for­ward to In­di­ana Jones V (“We have a Macguf­fin, that’s all I can say”), and muses on his in­abil­ity to make come­dies; “I de­vel­oped Meet The Par­ents for my­self to di­rect,” he says, “but I re­alised, ‘If I di­rect this I’m go­ing to screw it up.’” Yet his af­fa­ble de­meanour be­lies just how tough the past three years have been for him. Mak­ing The BFG has turned out to be a jour­ney full of last-gasp saves, seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able tech­ni­cal peaks and heart­break­ing loss. In short, it has been one of the great­est chal­lenges of Spiel­berg’s ca­reer.

The direc­tor’s per­sonal con­nec­tion to the story started when he read Dahl’s 1982 novel out loud to his first son Max (who grew up to di­rect Jaws 19). A spin-off from Danny, The Cham­pion

Of The World (it’s a bed­time story Danny’s fa­ther tells him), The BFG fol­lows So­phie, an or­phan who spots a Big Friendly Gi­ant blow­ing dreams into chil­dren’s bed­rooms and is whisked off on an ad­ven­ture in­volv­ing hu­maneat­ing giants and the Queen of Eng­land. But The BFG was just the tip of Spiel­berg’s love for the au­thor.

“I knew ev­ery­thing he had done,” says Spiel­berg. “He just had his own voice un­like any­one else who had writ­ten books for the whole fam­ily. He went to those slip­pery slopes of scar­ing us and then in the same breath made us smile.”

Over the years, Spiel­berg has kept tabs on the pre­vi­ous adap­ta­tions of Dahl’s work — “I liked the Gene Wilder ver­sion of Charlie And The Choco­late

Fac­tory, but I pre­ferred Tim Bur­ton’s. I re­ally ad­mired what Stephen Daldry did on stage with Matilda” — and would seem a per­fect fit for Dahl’s sen­si­bil­ity: alive to the world of child­ish imag­i­na­tion and won­der, but able to flip light and dark on a dime. The height­ened world of the BFG’S home­land, Gi­ant Coun­try, feels akin to the Nev­er­land of Hook, while the pla­tonic love story of E. T. shares DNA with the un­likely friend­ship be­tween a young “hu­man bean” and a 24-foot gi­ant — es­pe­cially as The BFG and E. T. were both writ­ten for screen by Melissa Mathi­son. But Spiel­berg is care­ful not to draw sim­i­lar­i­ties or dic­tate in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

“You’ll have to judge for your­self,” he says. “Hook wasn’t a fan­tasy to me. It had its feet more in re­al­ity, for me any­way. I con­sider E.T. a con­tem­po­rary even­tu­al­ity story. But there is a rhyming Melissa has had in all of her writ­ings, from The Black Stal­lion to E. T. to The

BFG. It might have been one of the things that at­tracted me to go back to the world of make-be­lieve at my age. This, to me, is truly my first fairy tale.”

It would not, though, have a happy end­ing. Trag­i­cally, on Novem­ber 4, 2015,

af­ter the shoot wrapped, Mathi­son passed away from neu­roen­docrine can­cer. Spiel­berg had sud­denly lost one of his most fruit­ful col­lab­o­ra­tors and val­ued friends. They’d first met while shoot­ing

Raiders Of The Lost Ark in the Tu­nisian desert, where she was ac­com­pa­ny­ing friend Har­ri­son Ford (the pair were later mar­ried). Spiel­berg had loved her

Black Stal­lion screen­play and was try­ing to talk her into writ­ing his next film,

E. T.. “She turned me down sev­eral times in Tu­nisia,” he re­calls. “She was not very happy with her­self as a writer at that time. It took Har­ri­son Ford to con­vince her.” Af­ter four months brain­storm­ing, Mathi­son wrote the screen­play in just eight weeks. To this day, Spiel­berg has never made so few re­vi­sions to a script. When Spiel­berg came on board

The BFG, Mathi­son had al­ready com­pleted three drafts. “We took Melissa’s script and to­gether added more plot to it,” says Spiel­berg. Mathi­son was on set ev­ery day, giv­ing the direc­tor flash­cards with that day’s scenes and di­a­logue, a process the pair be­gan when they worked to­gether on E. T.. For fans of the book, Mathi­son re­tained the Big Friendly Gi­ant’s man­gled-up vo­cab­u­lary (Charles Dick­ens = Dahl’s chick­ens) that Spiel­berg pre­dicts will send for­eign-lan­guage trans­la­tors into melt­down. But, more im­por­tantly, she tran­scribed the del­i­cate dy­namic of the cen­tral re­la­tion­ship.

“I hadn’t read the book, so Melissa’s screen­play was my first en­counter with that story,” says Mark Ry­lance, who plays the tit­u­lar tall guy. “It was won­der­ful. I guess what So­phie gets from the BFG is a grand­fa­ther fig­ure, but what he gets from So­phie is hope. He doesn’t have any hope things can change, as old peo­ple don’t. She’s an amaz­ing saviour in his life.”

Spiel­berg was com­pletely un­aware of Mathi­son’s ill­ness dur­ing the shoot, and says he’s still pro­cess­ing the loss of his friend. “I don’t miss Melissa yet be­cause I haven’t had a chance to mourn her, be­cause she is still with me. I’m not say­ing that in a su­per­nat­u­ral way, be­cause Melissa is alive in ev­ery sin­gle frame of The BFG. She has been with me all through this process and she is as tan­gi­ble as if she were sit­ting next to me. What I’m not look­ing for­ward to is when I fin­ish with The BFG and I have to face the fact that Melissa is no longer with me.”

FOR­EVER A VAL­UED cre­ative part­ner, Mathi­son had been present at Spiel­berg’s dry run for The BFG in 2014, when he shot a 90-minute ver­sion in his garage at his Long Is­land home, with a production as­sis­tant play­ing the ti­tle char­ac­ter. This road test was es­sen­tial in re­al­is­ing the ex­tent of the direc­tor’s am­bi­tion. While he has done mo­tion cap­ture be­fore on The

Ad­ven­tures Of Tintin, that was purely an­i­mated. Ad­ding live ac­tion to the mix, he feels The BFG is the most am­bi­tious mo-cap per­for­mance ever at­tempted.

“The hard­est thing about this film was scale,” says Spiel­berg. “It’s a re­la­tion­ship pic­ture. Even though there are other char­ac­ters, it’s re­ally be­tween So­phie and BFG. Be­cause it was a per­sonal story be­tween two char­ac­ters, eye con­tact meant ev­ery­thing, not just to the ac­tors de­liv­er­ing cred­i­ble emo­tional per­for­mances but to the au­di­ence be­liev­ing they were in the same space re­lat­ing to each other.”

To avoid mis­match­ing eye-lines, com­monly known as Jar Jar-itis, Spiel­berg went through a painstak­ing process. Firstly, he per­for­mance-cap­tured Ry­lance on a Van­cou­ver set dressed with Sty­ro­foam props, act­ing to a six-inch doll of So­phie, with Ruby Barn­hill (who plays the ten-year-old) de­liv­er­ing lines. It took Ry­lance two hours to prep, first in make-up, then as the un­flat­ter­ing ping-pong leo­tard suit was cal­i­brated with the com­put­ers of VFX out­fit Weta. “If Scar­lett Johansson comes on set,” he sug­gests, “you are go­ing to put a dress­ing gown on.” Spiel­berg would then re­tire to the mo-cap tent and in­vent new an­gles around his per­for­mance. “He could put the cam­era any­where,” says Ry­lance. “He could put it up my arse if he wanted to.”

The crew would then move to the next stage, which housed the same set but with huge props, with Ry­lance on an H

ex­tended scis­sor lift up near the ceil­ing to pro­vide Barn­hill with a fo­cal point.

Things got in­ter­est­ing when the BFG had to walk. “We would fly an ipad show­ing Mark’s face on a wire across the space,” says Spiel­berg. “It was very im­por­tant Ruby be­lieved that BFG was al­ways there.”

To main­tain ve­rac­ity, Spiel­berg used a Simul­cam, a huge mon­i­tor that com­bined both the Ry­lance and Barn­hill shots into one, ad­ding a “re­al­time an­i­ma­tion of BFG’S girth to see if they were mak­ing true eye con­tact.” The propo­si­tion was com­pli­cated even fur­ther when the big­ger giants (in­clud­ing Je­maine Cle­ment and Bill Hader, scaled up to 50 feet or more) in­vade the BFG’S cave, creat­ing three dif­fer­ent scales in one shot. The trick was to bring in an even smaller scaled doll of So­phie and have Ry­lance crawl on his hands and knees to keep con­sis­tency with the big­ger giants.

“Tech­ni­cally it was one of the hard­est movies I’ve ever made,” Spiel­berg says. “I haven’t worked this hard on the tech­ni­cal side of a very per­sonal and sen­si­tive story since Juras­sic Park.” But if cin­ema’s most gifted tech­ni­cian was stretched, he had to bring his Vfx­in­no­cent cast with him: a true thes­pian and a kid do­ing her first-ever film. ETTING TO THE per­fect So­phie took far longer than an­tic­i­pated. In fact, Spiel­berg took it right down to the wire. He looked to the UK and be­yond (the US, New Zealand, Aus­tralia) for six months, but “couldn’t find a So­phie I liked or even came close to lik­ing. I was on the verge of panic be­cause we were com­mit­ting mil­lions of dol­lars to a production which was im­mi­nent, and I hadn’t found my girl.” Spiel­berg was watch­ing 30 au­di­tion tapes a week when he fi­nally spot­ted Ruby Barn­hill. Her read­ing was, ac­cord­ing to the direc­tor, “ten­der and timid but there was an un­tapped fire in her eyes.” He flew the then ten year-old ac­tress to Ber­lin, set up an im­pro­vi­sa­tion ses­sion with his wife Kate Cap­shaw and was bowled over. “Ev­ery­thing I saw her hold­ing back in her au­di­tion was pour­ing out of her in the room. I knew by the end of the day that she had the part.” Spiel­berg pays trib­ute to Barn­hill’s imag­i­na­tion and abil­ity to be “in step with the tone I was try­ing to achieve.” Ry­lance was equally im­pressed by Barn­hill — “Ruby sus­tained a per­for­mance over a long pe­riod. She’s a nat­u­ral” — and rel­ished the op­por­tu­nity to watch the world’s great­est direc­tor of chil­dren first-hand. “He loves chil­dren,” says Ry­lance. “He is fas­ci­nated by their imag­i­na­tion. He is de­lighted by their hu­mour and ex­cite­ment about life.”

Watch­ing Spiel­berg at work was, for an ac­tor new to Vfx-driven block­busters, a fair trade for the mo-cap at­tire and ex­ten­sive down­time (spent play­ing ping-pong with the Weta guys — “funny con­sid­er­ing they were look­ing at my dots all day”). “To be truth­ful about him, he is very de­mand­ing on his crew,” says Ry­lance. “You don’t make mis­takes on his tech­ni­cal stuff. But with the ac­tors, he

is very en­cour­ag­ing, warm and re­cep­tive.”

If any as­pect of The BFG came eas­ily it was find­ing his lead ac­tor. It’s the sec­ond time they’ve worked to­gether fol­low­ing Ry­lance’s Os­car-win­ning turn in last year’s Bridge Of Spies. Spiel­berg made the de­ci­sion to cast Ry­lance as the BFG on the first day of Spies’ shoot. The ac­tor com­mit­ted to the film the very next day, but not with­out voic­ing his con­cern that, “It would just be a dry, tech­ni­cal job.” But Spiel­berg made good on his prom­ise to keep things play­ful, Ry­lance de­scrib­ing the process as “lib­er­at­ing, like ex­per­i­men­tal the­atre.”

Spiel­berg gave the ac­tor free rein to cre­ate his own BFG, so Ry­lance cher­ryp­icked el­e­ments from his own life. BFG’S ex­pres­sive ears are in­spired by Ry­lance’s Jack Russell Ter­rier, Apache, his dis­tinc­tive walk “bor­rowed” from Chris van Kam­pen, fa­ther of his step-daugh­ter, Juliet. “She broke down in tears when she saw the trailer be­cause it was her favourite book,” says Ry­lance. “She was en­am­oured that both her nat­u­ral fa­ther and her step-fa­ther are man­i­fested.” And it wasn’t just Juliet who was im­pressed. Ry­lance has now joined Spiel­berg’s next two films, Young Adult sci-fi adap­ta­tion

Ready Player One and his­tor­i­cal drama The Kid­nap­ping Of Edgardo Mor­tara, mak­ing him the first ac­tor to take four prom­i­nent roles in four con­sec­u­tive Spiel­berg films.

“It’s in­cred­i­ble,” mar­vels Ry­lance. “He usu­ally be­lieves his ac­tors so much, he can’t hire them in the next film be­cause he still thinks they are play­ing the last char­ac­ter. So it must mean that I am a crap ac­tor. You’ll know when I’ve done some good act­ing when I don’t get hired by him any­more.”

It’s un­likely. As their ad­ven­ture to­gether on The BFG con­firms, it’s a col­lab­o­ra­tion built on artis­tic play in the face of cre­ative odds.

“If it was ever pos­si­ble to of­fer one hu­man be­ing a thou­sand years of life, I would put Steven Spiel­berg at the front of the queue be­cause he is the one who would make the most of it,” says Ry­lance. “Steven feels things deeply but he is so cu­ri­ous about the world and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of where hu­man­ity is go­ing, tech­no­log­i­cally and com­pas­sion­ately.”

In this sce­nario, Spiel­berg will still be mak­ing what­ever passes for movies in 2946. That’s a lot of sto­ries to tell, and chal­lenges to con­quer. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Clock­wise from

main: Mark Ry­lance as E. T. Mk. 2, The BFG, with new­comer Ruby Barn­hill as his small pal, So­phie; Hang­ing out can be awk­ward; Spiel­berg’s di­rect­ing is awe­some, his draw­ing, not so good...

Top: The BFG with his big­ger, less friendly gi­ant brethren.

Above: Pro­duc­ers Frank Mar­shall and Kath­leen Kennedy with Spiel­berg and Barn­hill.

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