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 fairytale” and his biggest technical challenge since Jurassic Park
Steven Spielberg’s latest fantastical kids’ adventure. A bit like E.T.. Except Elliott’s a girl. And E.T.’S now a big-eared giant, as opposed to a pot-bellied urchin from outer space.
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 would grow 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 10-year-old orphan who spots a Big Friendly Giant blowing dreams into children’s bedrooms and is whisked off on an adventure involving human-eating 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” — and would seem a perfect fit for Dahl’s sensibility. Spielberg’s 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 sharp similarities or to dictate audience 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 fairytale.”
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 performancecaptured Rylance on a Vancouver set dressed with Styrofoam props, acting to a six-inch doll of Sophie, with Ruby Barnhill (who plays the 10-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
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 “real-time 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 Vfx-innocent cast with him: a true thespian and a kid doing her first-ever film.
GETTING 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 10-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 her — “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 Spielberg’s lead actor. It’s the second time they’ve worked together following Rylance’s Oscarwinning turn in 2015’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 cherry-picked elements from his own life. BFG’S expressive ears are inspired by Apache, Rylance’s Jack Russell Terrier, and his distinctive walk is “borrowed” from architect 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 BFG adventure 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.
THE BFG IS OUT NOW AND IS REVIEWED ON PAGE 28.