Talking with The BFG and Friends

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Director Steven Spielberg and Ruby Barnhill on the set of Disney's THE BFG, based on the best-selling book by Roald Dahl.
Director Steven Spielberg and Ruby Barnhill on the set of Disney’s THE BFG, based on the best-selling book by Roald Dahl.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Steven Spielberg and some of the cast members of The BFG to discuss the film. Here are a few highlights:

On how he chooses a film to direct:
Steven Spielberg: It’s how it strikes me, it’s just how it fits me. There are certain things that hit me real hard, that I wind up producing them or buying them for DreamWorks to make, and there are other movies that clobber me and knock me almost semi-conscious, and those are the movies that I wind up directing. And I can’t tell you how that occurs. There’s not any, there’s not a series of markers that I recognize, leading me to say yes as a director. It’s never been that way. Some things… when I read Melissa’s script, I read it on a vacation; my company was making BFG, I was going to be the producer… not the producer, my company was going to finance it, I wasn’t the producer at all, my company was going to make it. And I read it, and just said “I feel this in my bones, I just deeply feel this story, I just feel like this is a story I could do a good job with, and I should tell this story.” I said it in front of my assistant and my wife and our guests, we were all together during a weekend when I read this script, and I just said “I’m making this next.” They always look at me like I’m crazy; my wife says “okay, where are we schlepping off to this year? Where are we moving, what country are you going to this time?” But for the most part, I can’t predict what it’s going to be.

I make selections, and pick certain movies I want to direct, based on not feeling that subject matter is squarely in my wheelhouse, that I’m not really born with the confidence to have told that story. In other words, I decide what to direct sometimes based on how challenging is it, and how much do I have to learn to qualify to be the right filmmaker for this particular subject? It’s like going to college and taking a course that you had a kind of superficial interest in, but as you start to study and you start to read and you start to listen to your professor, you start to become enthralled, and then you can’t get enough of it. So every film for me is a little bit like learning from scratch. That’s why my films kind of are eclectic. Yes, there are many things that run through all the films you already all know about, that are part of my nature, but the subject matter, the conceptual foundation of all those movies, one is so different from the next.

Director Steven Spielberg, Penelope Wilton, Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall on the set of Disney's THE BFG, based on the best-sellling book by Roald Dahl.
Director Steven Spielberg, Penelope Wilton, Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall on the set of Disney’s THE BFG, based on the best-sellling book by Roald Dahl.

On working with Steven Spielberg:
Penelope Wilton: He was everything a great director should be; which is very hands-on, gives very straightforward notes, tells you when it’s wrong, tells you when it’s right, and you know where you are. He works very quickly. So it takes a long time, ’cause there’s a lot of extra things, you know, with one person being twenty foot tall. There was no green screen when we did our scenes; they were all in real sets, the Buckingham Palace, the big ballroom there was the dining room. But when we actually get on the floor, he works very quickly. Partly ’cause you’re working with a small girl who’ll get bored, and once you get bored you’re not doing it, so you work quickly so you keep the energy going. And he has enormous energy.

Mark Rylance: He says he’s never offered a subsequent film to the same actor. And now I’m going to be doing four films with him. [Rylance previously appeared in Bridge of Spies and is also appearing in Ready Player One and The Kidnapping of Edgar Mortata.] I thought initially it was just to do with the fact that The BFG was so different than Abel that it was easy for him to forget the one, ’cause I think he immerses himself so much in the characters that the actors create in his films, that it’s probably difficult for him to imagine that actor being another character. But with this, BFG was obviously going to be so different than Abel, but now it’s carried on; now he’s offered me two more, so…. But I’d do any film with him, you know, just to hang out with him and talk with him about films. I don’t know how he has the time in the day to experience as much as he experiences; we just got introduced with all these weird – oh, I shouldn’t say weird, but to me they’re weird – the YouTube families; all the people who film every moment of their day on YouTube. I didn’t know any of them. Steven knew them all! He said “that family’s very funny, that guy’s…” he knew the whole thing. How does he do that?

Ruby Barnhill: I think I’ve mainly just learned a little bit more, one of the things I’ve learned to do with acting was concentration, because I started acting when I was quite young, but I’ve never really learned properly about concentration, and I learned from Mark and Steven about that. I think I learned from Steven also, it’s okay to make mistakes, because I used to be a little bit like, I would get really… I was at parent evening, and my art teacher said “every time you make a mistake in lessons, you start panicking, and you need to stop doing that, because everybody makes mistakes and it’s absolutely fine.” And I learned from Steven that making mistakes is okay and to just, everybody does it and you learn from them and it’s fine, so that’s one thing that I really enjoyed learning.

Ruby Barnhill as Sophie in THE BFG.
Ruby Barnhill as Sophie in THE BFG.

On Sophie:
Barnhill: I think Sophie’s very… It was so very fun to play a character like that, because, you know, it’s always nice to play someone who is bossy… It was really I think she’s very independent, because she’s come from somewhere where she’s not been looked after properly, like the Matron there never makes sure they’re safe, never, very rarely checks to make sure they’re all okay, and it’s not really your ideal home. You can see, throughout the film, that she’s actually quite sad about everything, because she thinks, ‘oh well, I could be cared for in a lovely home with a loving family, but I’m stuck here,’ and it’s a bit like that. So I think she’s very independent and very strong-minded, but behind it all she’s got a very big heart and she’s quite sensitive, so it was really nice to play her because it was a mix of different emotions.

Spielberg: One of the attractions was that I was really influenced as a kid growing up with Walt Disney, and Walt Disney did two things for me; for one thing, he scared me more than anybody else ever scared me, but then he rescued me from the fear that he instilled in me, five minutes after he terrified me. He did that like a sine-wave pattern, again and again and again, until there was complete memorable redemption at the end. The other thing Walt Disney did was, he extolled the virtues of strong women characters. He did that throughout his entire career, through his animated films. One of the things that attracted me to this story was the true grit of the character of Sophie, and the fact that Sophie could stare down a 25-foot giant, who she doesn’t even know how dangerous he might be. She’s kind of fearless. I think she does it defensively, I think she thinks that the best defense is a strong offense, so she tells him, she immediately tells him, you know, “crocodiledillies are crocodiles, and jiggyraffes are giraffes,” and he immediately blanches and takes a step back and says “I-I-I-” and he starts to stutter ’cause she completely sets him straight, and that is the beginning of this beautiful friendship.

On working with Ruby Barnhill:
Rylance: Initially, I was working with another actress in the morning; initially, Steven was very worried that she [Barnhill] would get tired, and so in the morning, when I was doing my takes, there was another wonderful little girl, same age, who had been in Bridge of Spies, actually, and I acted with her. But as soon as I acted with Ruby, I said to him “she is so particularly remarkable, it brings out a very different performance in me. She makes me laugh in different places, and I say things I say in a different way to her, because of the way she reacts.” It’s not that the other girl was bad, it’s just she was different. So then Steven agreed to bring us together, that we would always act in the same space. So she was essential.

Wilton: She’s a wonderful little actress, and takes direction very well, and listens. Her father’s an actor, so she’s been around actors, but she’s never been, she’s had a very straightforward life, she hasn’t come out of an acting school or anything. I think her mother works for the National Health in some capacity, and they live up north; she doesn’t go to stage school, she goes to perfectly ordinary primary school and consequently, she’s very… and Steven is remarkable with young people; because he keeps it interesting and he keeps their attention. But you know, when you’re nine, your attention wanders a bit. I mean, you can be interested for a bit, and then it’s boring. Especially repetition. It is so boring. When you get older, you sort of try and get it better, but when you’re a child, it’s just boring, constant repetition. So that’s why Steven working so quickly gets the immediate, and keeps it.

On playing the Queen:
Wilton: I was doing Roald Dahl’s version of the Queen, and the BFG and Ruby’s version, the child’s view of the Queen too, It wasn’t… you were seeing the Queen in a very domestic situation, and also dealing with fantasy, I mean, she gets a dream come into her nose and then wakes up and has dreamt about giants. So it was partly fantasy, but to make it so that children can recognize it, she is the Queen of England he’s portraying, so he made her look like the Queen. But she says extraordinary things, and extraordinary things happen to her, too. So there was that, it was partly fantasy and partly reality. I based her on the real Queen; you have to, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. It’s much better to have the real Queen say extraordinary things than for me to make up a pretend Queen and then say extraordinary things, because the two complement one another.

Steven Spielberg and Mark Rylance on the set of Disney's THE BFG.
Steven Spielberg and Mark Rylance on the set of Disney’s THE BFG.

On Gobblefunk (the giant’s nonsensical dialect):
Rylance: I think the similarity between Gobblefunk and Shakespeare is that they are both languages written to be heard; the book’s been written to be read to children by fathers. I’m only slightly sad that my performance may limit the performances that all the fathers, millions of fathers, have given, that kids may say “why aren’t you like the real BFG?” What’s wonderful is that fathers from all over the world have read this, and probably mothers too, and interpreted the BFG themselves. I hope my performance just encourages them to go, to be wilder maybe with it. I forgot where we’re going with this… oh, yeah, language.

Language written to be heard is much more sensuous, isn’t it? The consonants and the vowels are made with love for the sound of them. In fact, Gobblefunk, that’s all it’s, there isn’t any reason to it at all; it’s just for the pleasure. And I think that’s how children learn words, first of all, through the experience of “ak! ga! ge!” making the sensation of the resonant sounds in their mouths and in their bodies. And Shakespeare also was making up, made up a thousand-five-hundred words, if I’m right; words like lonely. Or at least he was the first person to write them down. That’s not counting compound words. And some of his words I think are purposely nonsensical; I don’t think Mad Tom, in King Lear, I don’t think it’s meant to be made to be necessarily understood. But so much of our language now is dominated, it feels to me, in science and technology, by functional, unattractive, information words, scientifically put together, with little love for the nature of words themselves, the beauty of words and the resonance and the eloquence of words. So maybe that kind of thinking, which you can clearly hear is in my head, helped me have fun with the Gobblefunk.

What’s your favorite Gobblefunk word?
Rylance: I like ‘telly-telly-bunkum-box’ for the television. To me it sounds more like a television than television. The telly-telly-bunkum-box! I love television, I don’t mean it critically, but that is wonderful.

On John Williams:
Spielberg: I just hand my movie over to him. And I’ve done that from the first movie we made together, which I think he’s scored 28 of my 30 films. I handed over Sugarland Express in 1972 to him. But what John does, I give him my story, he rewrites my story in music, so he writes a musical version of the story I’ve just told. But he does sit with me, and we look at the movie, every single scene we watch together, before he writes a single note, we watch the movie, and we decide where there should be music and where music shouldn’t be. He’s a real strong believer, like, he didn’t want to write any music for the Omaha Beach landings [in Saving Private Ryan]; he wanted that to be just the reality of what it was like, those guys didn’t hear an orchestra in their heads when they landed on Omaha Beach, so John said there will be no music until we see the women writing the letters home. That was the first music after that sequence. So it’s, where there isn’t music is as important as where there is music. I can’t imagine… You know, I’ve made a couple of movies without John; Color Purple, John didn’t do because Quincy Jones had the rights to the book, so he, Quincy wrote the score to that, and John had a little medical procedure just before he started writing Bridge of Spies, and he had to go into hospital to have this procedure, which he’s 100% on the mend, so that was the only movie recently that he wasn’t able to score.

Playing an outsider:
Rylance: I was an immigrant into America, brought here age two by my father, you know, from England, so not having to make such a change of culture, but still a pretty big change of culture from London to the Midwest. And then by the time I went back to England, thinking I was an Englishman, everyone called me an American, and no one laughed at my jokes for three years. But then, people in Minnesota say that you can tell a Wisconsin man’s sense of humor because you don’t laugh at his joke until a week later. It’s either a very bad joke or very dry. So I’ve often felt like an outsider. I have lots of crazy ideas too, outside ideas; maybe that helps me play these parts.

What is the difference between American humor and British humor?.
Rylance: Yeah. It is a different sense of humor. English friends say Americans don’t understand irony; they have to be very careful with irony in America, you can offend people. But I have many American friends, particularly Midwestern friends, who are very ironic. So I don’t know that’s the general thing.

I’m thinking of how popular Monty Python was when it arrived, when I was a kid in the ’70s. Maybe not all the kids in high school watched it; there was a surreality, a zaniness to it. It’s pretty wild, some of the English humor, but then also American humor is now pretty wild, pretty ‘wow, that’s on the edge, isn’t it?’ It’s all got… the politicians are so crazy and on the edge, isn’t it, that it’s hard for the humorists to keep up. I don’t know the difference, I just know that it was, my Midwestern sense of humor did not make sense in London at all when I first arrived there.

Dahl doesn’t shy away from dark and scary stuff; a lot of American children’s books are soft and squishy with no edge.
Rylance: We’re both very violent nations, maybe the most violent there’s ever been in the history of humanity, so it’s, I don’t think you can say that Americans are more nervous of violence than we are in England. It’s a curious thing. I know there has been concern about the film, though, and that’s why it took six years for Melissa to get someone to make it. ‘Cause initially she said the studio said, “giants eating kids? I don’t think we’d put our money behind that,” and the whole film got changed and everything. Even now, when you see the film, the eating kids bit is downplayed a bit. There’s clearly something nasty going on.

On playing fantasy roles:
Wilton: I don’t see any difference. You have to find the reality in what you are doing. If you don’t believe what you’re doing, then no one else will. And they won’t believe the fantasy either. When you’re doing fantasy, and I haven’t done very much, but I have done Dr. Who, you have to live in that world. But it’s like anything, if you go outside that world, or say say I’m not really, this is all a bit of a joke or this isn’t real, then the magic goes out of the window, so you have to enter into the worlds you’re living in and play it for all its worth. So that’s what I try and do with everything I do.

You were also in Shaun of the Dead.
Wilton: Yes, I played a zombie. I played a zombie, well, a mother who then gets bitten and then becomes a zombie, and I had to have special lenses. I must say, my “street cred” with my daughter, who was at an age when that sort of thing mattered, went high. I’d been doing Harold Pinter and the classics, and that was not interesting, but playing Shaun’s mother in Shaun of the Dead really was the high spot. I had a number of young people who said could I possibly go out to dinner with them with my lenses in? I said no, actually, I’m not going to do that.

It was very clever; it was a very clever movie. They asked me to do it, and I said no because I couldn’t understand it when I read it. I could not understand what they were talking about, because they were all things, unless you visually saw it, like when they were throwing the record, you know, but if you just saw it on the page, it was beyond me, so I said no. And then they said, oh please, could they, would I go, and they’d explain it to me. So I went. And they explained it to me, and I didn’t understand a word either, but they were so nice, and Edgar was so clever, and the boys were so nice, I said oh well, I’ll do it anyhow, because it’ll be a laugh, and indeed it was a laugh.

The theme of The BFG:
Spielberg: The theme of the movie is something that everybody can kind of determine for themselves. Because I’ve found, after years of experience, talking about my films, my defining my intentions limits the imagination of those who haven’t seen the film yet, so I’m real careful about not getting into big thematic conversations. But I can say that the fact that this film is about conversation and is about two creatures, not from the same place — not so much in space, but certainly in genre, one is from a fairy tale and the other is from Dickensian real life England with a bad matron and a horrible orphanage with very dim prospects for a happy future — and the fact that these two worlds come together, and two people who don’t know very much about each other, get to know each other through conversation very quickly, and the thing that I loved about the experience of working with Ruby and Mark was, because Melissa Mathison, based on the Roald Dahl book, wrote so many beautiful conversations that created a friendship, and created a need for the little girl to help the big giant solve his problems, and also solve the problems that the big bad giants were perpetrating on the world, created a kind of movie that, in a way, I had not made before. This is, I’ve not really done fairy tale movies before. That was my way into, not only my first fairy tale, but my first Walt Disney movie.

Rylance: I hadn’t thought of it before, but I like the thought, here’s a man in a very difficult family, it’s his brothers who are doing this, they’ve got very degraded, they weren’t always like this, and he’s kind of given up on it, and he goes along behind to blow dreams, like we might give money to peaceful charities or something to compensate, or food stamps or something like this. But the young girl comes in, and she’s so marvelous, in that she says no, we can do better, we can change this, it doesn’t have to be like this. I was very impressed by that, because increasingly I think, well, maybe it is just a jungle, just a dog-eat-dog jungle and there’s nothing you can do, but the younger generation always comes through with either foolishness or hope that things can change, and in this case, she actually does succeed and changes the situation. At least until they do a sequel.

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