WHEN The BFG made its debut in Cannes in May, Steven Spielberg explained he doesn’t often make friends on his movies. Yet as with Tom Hanks in the past, the three-time Oscar winner became buddies with the retiring, soft-spoken Mark Rylance when they made Bridge of Spies.
“We were kind of friendly right from the start,” recalls Rylance, “but Steven’s pretty friendly with everyone. When he first handed me the script of The BFG I thought he was just asking my opinion. I was already assuming a friendship of us talking about films and scripts in general, but I had no idea he was offering me the part.”
Spielberg prides himself on his casting and had long wanted to work with the accomplished British stage actor, who had won three Tonys and two Oliviers before taking out the supporting actor Oscar for Bridge of Spies this year.
“We got a chance to do two films in a row,” notes a grinning Spielberg, “and seeing Mark go from the tight-lipped and close-to-the-vest and yet very emotional Rudolf Abel, to suddenly become the expansive and generous and sometimes cowardly and always courageous BFG, was one of the most astonishing things I’ve witnessed in my entire career.”
Adapted by the late Melissa Mathison from Roald Dahl’s book about a 10-year-old orphan girl’s friendship with an outcast giant, The BFG transports us to the outsized world of giants, which recalls the environment of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings — only in reverse. It’s probably no coincidence that Peter Jackson’s effects house WETA conjured a lot of the magic, including transforming Rylance and Kiwi comedian Jemaine Clement (playing the bad giant, Fleshlumpeater) in motion capture.
It’s no coincidence either that Spielberg returned to work with Mathison, his screenwriter on 1982’s ET: The Extra Terrestrial, as he wanted to reclaim some of his earlier film’s gentler tone after directing darker films like Bridge of Spies, Lincoln and War Horse. Kathleen Kennedy, his regular producer since ET, together with her producing partner and husband Frank Marshall, had first optioned Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic in 1993. Spielberg only came onto the project later, but was a natural fit for the story.
“In the years we’ve been working together Steven has consistently told optimistic, hopeful stories,” Kennedy explains. “I think it’s odd that that has become something we don’t often find in movies now, so we’re all very lucky that he’s telling those kind of stories. We’d been talking about the film for many years and had to wait for the technology to catch up so we could tell the story in the way we did.”
“I felt liberated like I could do anything on this,” Spielberg says of the new technology. “It brought back feelings I had as a younger filmmaker. When I heard my good friend Melissa Mathison would adapt the film, it also became a wonderful reunion though a very bittersweet time as it turns out for us.”
(The film was dedicated to Mathison, the ex-wife of Harrison Ford and mother of his two children, who died last November from cancer at the age of 65.)
Although old-fashioned in its tone, the film has a modern message, notes Spielberg. “This is a story about embracing our differences. The values in the book and the values in the film are the values I wanted to impart in the telling of the story.”
He also wanted to impart those values to his kids as they were growing up. The BFG became one of his favourite stories he read to them.
“I have seven children and I became the BFG when I was the storyteller. So I sort of know what it feels like to be the BFG, at least with my kids below me and me above them with the book between. I remembered how beautifully my kids responded to the book and thought, ‘This is something that speaks to me and I can illuminate it a bit more’.”
The team enjoyed the full co-operation of the Dahl family who supported their choices. Spielberg really wanted to go big with the Queen’s breakfast and says it was a nice way to end the film.
“We felt the Queen should have equal time with everyone else during that sequence,” he says of the character loosely based on Queen Elizabeth II (and played by Penelope Wilton from Downton Abbey). “We think she has a good sense of humour.”
READING TO CHILDREN
Again it all harks back to reading the book to his kids. “You’re of course watching for the reaction they are having. I remember when the story returned to London from the foreign-ness of Giant Country my kids got really excited every time there was something describing how tall BFG was and how small everybody was at the Palace.”
Spielberg exudes a childlike wonderment as he recalls his excitement at creating two very different worlds.
“It was so exciting because we were shooting with all these abstract sets. Everything was created, like the BFG’s cottage, while Ruby [newcomer Ruby Barnhill] was on the only live action set in the cottage. She was at an oversized table with huge jars and nothing was in the jars except lights. The dreams would later be placed in there.
“Then when we finally came to the Palace we were on a normal-sized set. But suddenly here’s Mark 25 feet in the air lording it over all of us, once again in his motion capture seat giving these wonderful reactions.”
Spielberg has now hired his good buddy for his two upcoming films.
Rylance, 56, admits he’s a little overwhelmed by it all. After Cannes he headed to the set of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is being filmed 300 km north of the location of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Then the actor will appear in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s 2011 dystopian virtual reality-themed novel.
Though Spielberg stresses his casting “was not because we are buddies, but because there’s nobody better to play Halliday than Mark Rylance, if you know the book”.
The actor is also set to take on the robes of Pope Pius XI in Spielberg’s recently announced 19th century drama, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which follows the true story of a little Jewish boy kidnapped by the Catholic Church in Italy.
Incredibly, Rylance could have worked with the hard-working director much earlier — only he turned down a part in 1987’s Empire of the Sun, as he wasn’t ready and says he lacked the confidence for such a big movie. He’s certainly ready now.