Jemaine Clement Talks About Making ‘The BFG’, Acting with Motion Capture, and ‘We’re Wolves’

By June 30, 2016
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Steven Spielberg’s The BFG is among many things, a cinematic and technical marvel of a film. The combination of practical effects and real people with the CGI and mo-cap creations is practically seamless, and the acting from the Giants themselves is truly allowed to shine. If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought Spielberg had been making these kinds of effects-heavy films his entire career.

I recently got the chance to sit down and speak with one of the main Giants in the film as well, Jemaine Clement, who plays Fleshlumpeater in the movie. We talked about what it was like working with Steven Spielberg, acting with motion-capture for the first time, and I even got the chance to ask him about the highly-anticipated sequel to What We Do in the Shadows, which he’s directing and writing alongside Taika Waititi.

Check out our full conversation for yourself below:

I know you’ve said before that doing press can sometimes be odd because of the gap between making the movie and then promoting it, but does that level of excitement change when you’re promoting a movie made by Steven Spielberg?

I’m really proud to be involved to be honest, and I know that it always sounds good, I know that. As far as it being different though, he’s good at what he does and it’s great not only to see his movies, but to see him make them too. I really enjoyed getting to see him directing, and he’s very good at it, he’s like a musician improvising almost. He’s got a plan, which I guess is the music, then he goes off his plan and makes up stuff in the moment, which I really liked seeing. You know what’s great about this being motion capture as well, is that sometimes when it’s not, I’ll make a movie and imagine myself being this huge giant, and then I look at the screen and it just looks like me. There’s just this moment of disappointment that it doesn’t look like how I imagined it to, but that actually happens with this one.

How were you first introduced to the project then?

My agent called, or actually a bunch of agents, and usually they’ll ask me if I’m interested in it and I’ll read the script, and instead this time, they said, ‘You’re going to Vancouver, to shoot a Steven Spielberg movie. It’s an adaptation of a book by Roald Dahl,’ and it’s sort of like so much all packed into one sentence. You know I didn’t actually audition for it, I didn’t have to wait to hear back about it. It was just like ‘You’re going,’ and that was it.

That must have been nice to not even have to audition for the role.

Yeah, well I had the book at home, so I had a look at the book’s description of the character and they had described him as having thick rubbery lips, and I thought, ‘Oh that’s why,’ [Laughs]. But then it ended up being motion capture anyway, so my lips weren’t actually a factor after all.

Were you familiar with Dahl’s story beforehand?

Yeah, and now I’ve got a lot of copies of the book too because people keep giving it to me. [Laughs] But yes, my schoolteacher was a big fan of his, so when it came out, she got that day and read it to us the next day at school, like it was a big deal. I guess in a way it was like how ‘Harry Potter’ was when those books would come out like that, but this was in the early 80s.

What was the filming process like then, and getting acquainted with the motion capture technology?

Well, in the animation I’ve done, you don’t get to control the character you’re doing because it still needs to be created and animated and all of that, but when you first walk into stage in mo-cap, it’s like this array of cameras, you know hundreds, that record every movement you make, so you have to identify your walk almost immediately. I mean, depending on what you’ve done with the character too, you have to almost make it look like they weigh, like a mountain of a body, and you have to make it look like that. Right away.

Did you ever ask any advice from people like Andy Serkis, who are more experience with the technique?

Not really. I know that Mark [Rylance] wanted to talk to Andy, but couldn’t get ahold of him. But we had a movement coach on set, who I think had worked on some of The Hobbit movies, but also did Planet of the Apes, which had amazing mo-cap movements in them. So we were in good hands, and I remembered watching that stuff when Andy Serkis played Gollum, and I remembered the way he did it. The way he was very animated, so I tried to make Fleshlumpeater almost like a cartoon character in the bigness of his movements, whereas Mark was being very subtle, which was one of the pleasures of the movie was to watch Mark’s subtlety in a mo-cap character, which was something new for me.

How did you and Steven come up with Fleshlumpeater’s voice in the film?

Basically, I just tried to sound as deep as possible, get my voice as deep as I could. Steven wanted each of the giants to have different regional accents as well in the UK, and the only place I’d ever really spent much time in there was East London as well, so I just tried to sound like the guys on the street market there who would shout out their prices and stuff. They had a very unusual way of speaking, which if you’re from a different English-speaking region, or even from another part of England, you might not be able to understand them. So I was thinking of them and the people who lived around that area and it seemed like a good one because the character has a very deep voice.

I know you mentioned working on the stage for the film as well, but there are a couple scenes where you’re grabbing and interacting with things inside of The BFG’s home, so what was the shooting process like with that?

Well for those scenes, they had three versions of those sets, which really were just for the actor’s benefit because we could have just had to imagine them. So we had props, that are also programmed into the effects too, so if there’s a telephone box on his table. So there’d be a real life version of that telephone box on the table on the set, so if we were pick that up, then the CGI version of the telephone box would also be lifted up at the same time. So we could just treat it like a real set, we didn’t have imagine anything. Like the ship in his house, there’d be three versions of that too, one version for Mark to sleep on, the half-sized version for when I go in there, and then one for Ruby. So we’d shoot my scenes first with the smaller sets, so when I walked in, I would have to duck under the rafters in the ceiling, and then we would do Mark’s take next, which is twice as big so Mark could move around quite comfortably. We’d also record my movements from the day before and then have a pole with a monitor on it that had my face on it, so I’d then peform to that monitor. It was quite a process.

I only have time for one more question, but I have to tell you how much I love What We Do in the Shadows.

Oh thank you!

I know you and Taika are working on the sequel, We’re Wolves, is there any progress updates you can share?

Not really, Taika’s doing Thor right now and I’m touring. Hopefully we’ll get some time to work on it though, and I’ll probably start working on the script while Taika’s doing his other stuff. 

The BFG hits theatres on July 1st.

Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable