Spielberg waves his magic wand

BFG Director on giants, values, ET, imagination and hope.

by Richard Mowe

Steven Spielberg: “The worse the world gets the more we have to believe in magic.”
Steven Spielberg: “The worse the world gets the more we have to believe in magic.” Photo: Richard Mowe

With themes that mirror E.T., which was made more than three decades ago, Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Big Friendly Giant (or The BFG) which also was written by the late Melissa Mathison, gave the director the chance to go back story-telling from the imagination rather than historically based subjects such Bridge Of Spies and Lincoln.

At the Cannes Film Festival for the world premiere tonight (14 May) Spielberg and some of his cast including Penelope Wilton (who plays the Queen), Rebecca Hall as her PA, Mark Rylance (as the BFG), newcomer Ruby Barnell as the child, and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, earlier gathered for a close encounter with the media.

Ruby Barnhill: “It truly seems like a dream come true.”
Ruby Barnhill: “It truly seems like a dream come true.” Photo: Richard Mowe

Spielberg did not feel he was turning the clock back. He explained: "It was not like going back to the past for me. It was more like revisiting something that I have always loved to do, which is just to tell stories that are from the imagination.

“When I do history movies, the imagination has to be put aside for the history and to make it accurate. There is not a lot of imagination there except in interpreting a performance or finding the right camera angle to illuminate the story telling. But with The BFG there were no barriers. They were gone and I felt liberated and I felt I could do anything.”

He felt It had brought back feelings he had as a younger film-maker. “It was also special because it was my good friend [the late] Melissa Mathison from E.T. who adapted the novel. We had a wonderful association that had gone on for years. When I heard that Kathy had hired Melissa to adapt the book there was a little voice whispering in my ear ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it came together and I got to be the director.’ And it was also very bittersweet as it turned out.”

Spielberg feels the main theme of the book is about embracing our differences. “The values in the book were the values I wanted to impart in to the telling of the story. I do not really think about balance when I am directing unless it is a sequel which you only do if the first one was really successful. Then expectations are high because of the film that came before.

“I express what I express and I am different as a person every year and that comes out in the wash. The only time I start to think about that is when I am asked a question about it. It is just hard work and I love doing it. If I didn’t do this I would go off to sea and sail the oceans forever. But this is something I will be doing for the rest of my life.”

Rebecca Hall
Rebecca Hall Photo: Richard Mowe

He read Dahl’s book to his children when they were growing up. He has seven offspring who all adored their father’s rendition. He added: “I became The BFG when I was the story-teller of that book. I knew what it is like to be The BFG with my kids. But this wasn’t a film I have been working on for ten or 15 years. I just reacted spontaneously when Kathy said she had the rights. I remembered then how beautifully my kids had responded to the book. I thought that it was something that speaks to me and I could illuminate it a bit more.”

The production was made with the full co-operation of the Dahl estate who approved any change and additions to the original. “A film and a book have different propulsion systems. We added a little more plot to the movie which we did in compliance with the Dahl estate. They read every draft that we developed and they were happy to sign off on our choices. We had a great rapport. We felt the Queen should have equal time in the Palace sequence. Certainly we did not want to leave the Queen out. I am sure she has a good sense of humour and she will be fine with that.”

Actress Penelope Wilton (the dowager duchess in Downton Abbey), who incarnates the Royal presence, believes that the populace enjoys seeing the Queen do things that we shouldn’t see. “When I was told that Steven Spielberg wanted to hire me to play The Queen I said Come on now – you cannot be serious. I am in Downton Abbey and I am surrounded by aristocrats. I asked where did he want to meet me. And I was told he did not want to meet me. He just wanted me to play the part.

Penelope Wilton: “The Queen has been played a lot, but this is my version and we have to wait and see how that goes down.”
Penelope Wilton: “The Queen has been played a lot, but this is my version and we have to wait and see how that goes down.” Photo: Richard Mowe

“It was one of most magical experiences in every way. Steven is one of those director who knows what he wants. He is the sort of director I like and I know where I am. I adored working with him. The Queen has been played a lot, but this is my version and we have to wait and see how that goes down. I have definitely put one over on the dowager countess and it is about time too. I think we like putting the Queen in situations we do not always imagine she would be in. It is a lot of fun, and a bit like laughing in church.”

Amazement was also the emotion felt by Ruby Barnhill. “It is such a magical film and it truly seems like a dream come true. The only things I had done before was going to drama class and a TV show for children.”

Spielberg confirms that he is a strong believer in the power of magic. “The worse the world gets the more we have to believe in magic. That magic will give us hope and that hope will cause us to be proactive. The world needs our attention more than it ever has. Hope comes from magic and movies can give people hope, providing a reason to fight on to the next day. Hope is everything for me.”

The BFG is released in the UK on July 24, US on July 1 and France on July 20.

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