I wrote this story for the Sunday Times, originally published on June 26.
You don’t have to ask Steven Spielberg about the movie he felt the most overwhelmed to make in his 40-odd years in the film business. He offers up this information – about being $4.5 million over budget, 104 days off production schedule, and filled with all sorts of worrisome fears that troubled him on his first big blockbuster film, Jaws – with very little prodding. And just when you think he’s done reminiscing about days long gone by, he’ll offer up anecdotes about a more recent time in his career when he felt the same way. A time as recent as just last year, when making The BFG.
Taking on the film version of a story beloved by so many generations – over 200 million copies sold worldwide and published in 41 languages, with a 24-foot-tall central character, proved to be no mean feat for Spielberg. Add to that, it being his first film for Disney, and the 3-time Oscar-winning director will tell you he was apprehensive even before filming got underway.
“When I first walked onto the sound stages and I saw the different levels of complexity and the technology that was required to realize even a single shot, I was for, the first time since Jaws, completely overwhelmed,” he says, sitting in the Sir Sean Connery suite of the Carlton Hotel in the south of France, ahead of the film’s international release. “I wasn’t sure exactly how to pull it off.”
For someone who’s built his very name on the ability to take a story from the pages of a book to the scenes on a big screen for over 4 decades and in countless hit films, it seems incongruous that a director as well established as Spielberg should still battle the kinds of demons that made him first pick up his Dad’s 8mm video camera as a shy 12-year old, growing up in Phoenix, Arizona.
And yet Spielberg’s willingness to admit that he’s still fearful of the unknown, with every new motion picture he takes on, makes him rather a lot like the creature at the centre of his latest movie, the Big Friendly Giant. He is both big, in stature, yes, and a giant – a titan – of show-business, but far more approachable and, even, endearing when you get up close, and find out he’s probably, well, just as scared of you as you are of him.
It’s thanks to a laugh shared over the azure blue tie he picked to wear that picks up the colour of the ocean outside the hotel window that the ice is broken when we first meet. In a poetic tie-in, Spielberg returned to the Cannes Film Festival with The BFG, which came out on bookshelves in the year that the director’s own beloved story of an extraordinary friendship, ET, the Extra-Terrestrial, debuted at the famous film festival.
Like ET, The BFG has won over fans across multiple generations, making it a classic with a certain kind of responsibility attached to it. “I can relate to it, because it it took me right back,” Spielberg says, through his trademark glasses, his eyes completely engaged. “I was able to relate to the book when I read it to my own children because BFG is the loneliest giant in history – until he meets Sophie – and I felt like I was the loneliest kid in the world, growing up. Not because I didn’t come from a loving family, but because socially, I was isolated and I was never included in anything. For a long time. In elementary school, in junior high – it was not a good time for me. I know what that feels like.” The video camera became Spielberg’s Sophie, and this “friendship” took him from being an imposter running around on the Universal studio lot as a shy but plucky teenager, to a TV director, and then fully fledged filmmaker, when he was given the chance to make his first feature, The Sugarland Express, and then, Jaws.
But the personal attachment Spielberg felt to Dahl’s story is one of the reasons for the trepidation in taking on the film. Like Spielberg, generations of readers of The BFG have all found within the rummytot (“nonsense”) of the book’s gobblefunk language their own resonance. The responsibility of this was not lost on Spielberg, nor on his lead character, Mark Rylance, who plays the giant. Rylance’s close friendship with Spielberg, who says he doesn’t readily make new friends on film sets, helped ease the stress of the production.
“Mark was also in the same place as me growing up; too shy to express himself and make friends. Just like me. He also knows what it’s like to be one of the invisible millions,” says Spielberg. Rylance, who earned this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and has two more films lined up with the director, was born in Kent, in the UK, and had already distinguished himself in the theatre before working with Spielberg. He came to the production familiar with the kind of scrutiny that comes from playing Shakespeare characters for 30 years.
Yet despite having an actor of Rylance’s calibre, Spielberg still had the mightiest challenge to overcome – creating a motion picture that would draw film-goers into the world Dahl created. “Getting the audience to forget that any special effects went into the making of The BFG,” he says. “That was my biggest challenge.” Spielberg has never been one to shy away from new technology – from choosing to use CGI over claymation in Jurassic Park to using performance-capture techniques in The Adventures of Tintin. Though he may be eager to use the latest technology, Spielberg is utterly concerned with making the audience forget they’re seeing anything that’s been constructed specially for them.
“To get the audience so involved and so consumed by the characters, and in their relationship, that once they were used to what BFG looked like, they would forget how BFG was created and just go with the story – that’s what I wanted,” he says. And that was the speech he gave at the beginning of the film’s four month shoot at Weta Digital, the visual effects company in New Zealand, co-founded by Peter Jackson. The production required a new hybrid style of filmmaking using a blend of live-action and performance-capture techniques to bring the story’s fantastical characters to life, all on real sets that were built specifically for the film.
“The most important thing about movie-making is can you forget who made the movie?” asks Spielberg, rhetorically. “Can you forget everything but the movie itself? That’s all I want,” he continues. “For people to forget everything except what they’re experiencing.” When he gets it right, even Spielberg himself gets lost in the moment, as he did many times while witnessing Rylance and 11-year-old co-star Ruby Barnill, who plays Sophie, work together. “It’s those moments where I forget to say cut, because there is such truth in the scene. On BFG, I remember it happened specifically in a white room, without a set, where Mark had on just his wet suit and the dots on his face, and he’s explaining to Sophie what her dream means. Every time I filmed it, I got lost in it,” he smiles broadly.
But, those moments, he says, have to be earned. As did the approval from the Dahl family. “That was the one phone-call I was waiting for,” he says. Spielberg and the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who also wrote ET, made their own interpretations of the story in the way of adding to the plot. Changes, Spielberg says, that were made with the support of the family. “They are absolutely head over heels in love with the film, and that’s what matters to me most,” he says.
Spielberg will take on more books soon, like Ready Player One, and his company Amblin Entertainment has also bought the rights to South African literary duo SL Grey’s The Apartment, so the almost-70-year-old director is not done taking books from print to film. But he does find himself looking to new sources of inspiration to help him. Lately, he’s been binge-watching TV shows like The Night Manager and The Girlfriend Experience. He believes TV has some of the best story-telling right now, and so, busy as he is, he makes time to watch, much to the chagrin of his “handlers.”
“Great writing – great stories – inspire all of us. We’re better if we have more inspiration,” he says. “If the stories aren’t good, then we’re not good. There has to be a kind of renaissance that gets people excited about telling better stories.” Whether it’s on TV or in a book, you know Spielberg will be taking it all in, ready for his next challenge.