Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book The BFG – about the friendship between an 11-year-old girl and a giant – has been brought to glorious life by really the only man who could do it justice: director Steven Spielberg.
As the tale tells, orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) encounters the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children. The two then must come up with a plan to stop the ogre-ish giants from stealing children, which includes help from Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton).
Returning to the fantastical realm, it’s familiar territory for Spielberg, who once again excels at bringing heart and imagination to the big screen, all through Dahl’s keen insights into childhood sensibilities.
ScreenPicks attended the press day with Spielberg and stars Barnhill, Rylance and Wilton and found out these nine essential things you should know about The BFG.
On finding the balance between technology and heart:
Steven Spielberg: The whole nature of my approach to The BFG was to be able to do both. 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 WETA, as they were able to digitally translate Mark’s soul onto film in the character of the BFG. And so all the work we did was to get back to basics, which was, I knew Mark was going to really knock this out of the ballpark, but I didn’t want the ball to land at the end of a motion capture volume. I wanted the ball to land in the lap of the audience. And 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. And there’s about 95 percent of what Mark gave me, and Ruby, on the screen now. And 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.
On the protagonist being a strong little girl:
Spielberg: What really appealed to me was the fact that the protagonist was a girl, not a boy. And it was a very strong girl. The protagonist was going to allow us at a certain point, to believe that four feet tall of girl 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, was 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.”
On the favorite parts of making BFG:
Ruby Barnhill: It probably was when Sophie is like, covered in goo, I was literally covered in goo. But it actually tasted quite nice, so it wasn’t that bad. But it was all –
Spielberg It was thick.
Barnhill: It was thick, green goo, all over me, and –
Barnhill: By the end of the day, I was like, “I need to go and have a shower now.” And so this one day, the BFG washes it all off Sophie, and I got to do a load of water scenes. I went under it, and literally started, like, washing my hair, and acting like I was in the shower. And Steven had to come up to me and say, “Ruby, you’re not really doing it. You’ve forgotten what you’re meant to do.” I was like, “Oh, sorry.” It took me ages, because it was so – it was so, so nice, like washing it all out. That was a really, really funny day.
Spielberg: I think my favorite part of the filming was when BFG and Sophie were chasing dreams in Dream Country; they were catching dreams. BFG says to Sophie, “Use your titchy little figglers. Go on.” And so she just starts chasing dreams. We had a whole set built. It was a big set with a whole root system of big roots deep into the ground, and she gets to run under all the roots, to chase the dreams. Of course, there were no dreams there; there were just a lot of lights on sticks, that you didn’t get to see. But that was a fun four or five days, that whole sequence, chasing dreams and talking about dreams.
On that whole dream catching idea:
Mark Rylance: Dreams are so fascinating. But then other people’s eyes go a little bit hazy when you tell them your own dreams, other than if you’re paying them $200 an hour. But they’re so special. I was so curious about them. You know, I went through a year or so of therapy while I was playing a part on Broadway, going twice a week. It was so fascinating to me that the therapist – I’d rattle on about problems I thought, you know, were serious problems in my character and life. And he never wrote anything down. As soon as I mentioned a dream, he wrote it down. That was the only thing he wrote. There was certainly a third voice in the room, which was speaking through my dreams, with such wit, and such mystery on what was happening. I grew very respectful of them. I don’t know that I have a favorite dream. Dreams are more like our blood, or our nervous system, aren’t they? They’re a way of helping us to keep alive. They’re a very profound, weird thing.
On the film’s pace:
Spielberg: [The late Melissa Mathieson] had already done four or five drafts before I read her work. One of the things… it needs more plot, and Melissa agreed. With the permission of the Roald Dahl estate, we were able to add plot that’s not in the book, to make it more of a story, a three-act story. But one of the things about BFG, I was complaining about it a little bit to Melissa. I said, “It’s gotta go faster. It’s gotta go faster.” Melissa, if you knew her, she’s very patient and very spiritual. She kept saying, “Now, Steve,” – she calls me Steve, everybody did before my name showed up on the screen. She said, “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.” That was the best advice she could give me, and she was absolutely right. Film has its own biorhythm, and you can’t push it. You just can’t.
On the deep friendship between Spielberg and Barnhill:
Rylance: The relationship between Steven and her was much more important, really, than my relationship with her. The person she really needed on the set was Steven. Every morning, she would run and jump into his arms, and he was the one who was helping her with the emotional scenes, and with the different things. I was just her tennis batting partner, in a way. I was just the person she was hitting the ball to. Of all directors you might work with, working with children, Steven must be the most fascinating one to watch. So I got a very close-up, I was the close-up witness of how he works with children; how much he truly adores the imagination of a child, of a young person.
Spielberg: It happened the first day she walked onto the set of Bridge of Spies in Berlin. It happened really instantly. It was immediate. Not only did I feel that way about Ruby, and we instantly kind of just had a huge like for each other, but I went crazy for her sister, Darcy, who immediately took my last name and changed it, and for two and a half, three months, called me Cheeseburger. Every day, right?
Barnhill: And still does.
Spielberg: Still does, calls me Cheeseburger. We became very close to [Ruby’s] family. It was a great company. I’ve shot, what, this is my 30th movie? 29th or 30th movie, I think, I’m not sure. I’ve had a lot of great companies. This is my in the top five of my favorite ensembles that I’ve ever worked with.
On finding the way the BFG moved:
Rylance: I think Steven asked me, “Have you got the walk?” And I thought, “Oh, my God, what’s the walk?” The first thing we did was when she wakes up and looks out the window and sees the BFG. And then he walks towards the house. I said, “Well, let’s just have a go”… I’m a stepfather, and the biological father of my daughter, he is a runner. That’s one of the things you can say about BFG is he has a good run every day, doesn’t he? A really good run. Chris is a wonderful runner, but when he walks, Chris, he doesn’t do the cross swing that most of us do. He does this wonderful kind of a lovely walk. I realized, oh, this is Chris, this walk would be good for Chris, which my daughter, Juliette, hasn’t seen the film yet, but I’m looking forward to her recognizing her dad.
On a favorite Gobblefunk word, the BFG’s funny jumbled language:
Rylance: Scrumdiddlyumptious! I like the Telly-Telly Bunkum Box for the television. “You’re going to put me on the Telly-telly Bunkum Box.” They’re a lot of fun to say, these words. I know country people in England who speak like this, too. You know, have their own words for things. “If I don’t see you through the week, I’ll see you through the window.” They say things like that all the time. What does that mean? It’s either very funny, or very, very violent, which is how you feel in the English countryside, don’t you? Something rather charming and dangerous about it.
On that glorious “whizzpopper” scene with the Queen (after drinking the BFG’s Frobscottle, which is a green-colored fizzy drink in which the bubbles go down instead of up, causing you to…)
Penelope Wilton: Farting? Do you mean the farting scene? That just was probably one of the most fun scenes in the film. It was hard work, that scene, because each of us had to do our own take, on the farting, so I looked at Rafe [Spall] while he was doing his. We weren’t supposed to, but I couldn’t help it, because he was doing that thing with his mouth trying, and then the General’s was interesting. I didn’t actually see the Corgis because they didn’t lift off the ground in real life. Then mine went on forever. I can’t think why he had to keep holding it. I mean, he never said, “Cut” for ages, and by the end I was practically pink in the face and under the table. Actually, it was very funny that day. Then the lighting cameraman said, “What you ought to do is do all that, and then go, ‘Oh, that’s nice’ and have another drink.