‘The BFG’ Interview: Steven Spielberg, Mark Rylance, and More Talk About This Summer’s Friendliest Film

By July 1, 2016
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Steven Spielberg’s The BFG is open in theatres everywhere today, the filmmaker’s first film with Walt Disney Studios, and features the legendary director creating an almost entirely CGI world, with mo-cap characters of varying sizes (and accents), based on the beloved book by Roald Dahl. Equipped with a script from the late great Melissa Mathison as well, Spielberg has created one of his most lovable and unique films of his career here.

We recently got the chance to speak with the film’s cast members Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, and Steven Spielberg himself about the movie as well, who discussed what it was like working with motion capture in the film, Melissa Mathison’s unique script, and even why it took Spielberg this long to include a fart joke in one of his movies, to which the director replied embarrassedly:

“It took me a long time. I don’t know. I guess I’m kind of modest when it comes to flatulence. Except when it’s being done by either giants or corgies [the Queen of England’s famous dogs in the film]. I guess I’ve gotten over my modesty.”

Though Penelope Wilton had quite a lot of fun with the movie’s climactic “whizpopper” scene, and discussed how much fun it was shooting that day:

“Do you meant the farting scene? It was hard work, that scene, because each of us had to do our own take on the farting and mine went on forever! I can’t think why he kept holding it, I mean he never said ‘cut’ for ages! At the end, I was practically pink in the face under the table, but actually it was very funny that day!”

Of course, the mix between practical effects and CGI effects in the film is stunning to behold, and though the visuals are breathtaking, Spielberg’s main goal was to be able to marry the visuals and the heart of the film’s story together:

“Well, I think that the whole nature of my approach to The BFG was to be able to do both. Was 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. 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. 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. 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 [The] BFG this way. The technology wasn’t there for it.”

For Rylance as well, getting to perform with motion-capture was one of the most interesting aspects of the film as well, especially since the actor usually doesn’t like seeing himself on the big screen, but this time, found the transformation exciting:

“I had no idea what this would look like and I thought a lot about whether or not I should ask Steven whether I should be involved in the input, but I thought, well no, he’ll know what’s right.But it wasn’t uncomfortable as seeing myself normally on film, which I usually can’t bear, and I can’t see what other people to see. This was different enough because there was a little more distance, and it was a little more comfortable watching it.” 

Rylance even tried to get advice from some of the other mo-cap vets in the business right now, including Andy Serkis himself, but revealed that he was unable to get through to him:

“I tried to, but they’re all so busy you can’t get through to them! I tried to get through to Andy Serkis, but it’s obviously such a big thing right now, so he’s so busy. Even his friend, who was trying to get through to him for me said, ‘He never calls me back!’ So I couldn’t get through, but that’s alright. It made sense after awhile.” 

The Academy award-winner even revealed that he based The BFG’s walk in the film on his step-daughter’s father, a runner who usually swings his arms with his legs. Though, Rylance’s excellent performance in the film might be for naught, if the lead actress wasn’t able to communicate well with him onscreen, something that Ruby Barnhill manages to do with ease.

Spielberg talked about finding the young actress while filming last year’s Bridge of Spies:

“Casting Ruby was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, because she’s just so impossible! But Nina Gold, my casting director, looked at about 300 girls from different English-speaking countries, and I looked at about 150 myself, and when I saw Ruby’s reading, I went crazy. I’d been looking for over half a year, actually longer throughout eight months, and we got the Ireland tapes and the Australian tapes in, we get the Wales tapes in… and I was shooting Bridge of Spies and I thought that I was never going to find my Sophie.

Until I was about halfway through the Berlin shoot, which was near the end of the movie, when I was Ruby’s reading and I immediately went crazy, and I showed it to my wife who’d seen a lot of the tapes and she thought Ruby was glumptious (a gobblefunk word from the movie that means “scrumptious”. So we flew Ruby to Berlin, and my wife interviewed Ruby while I videoed on my iPhone. I didn’t talk to Ruby at first, my wife did as well, cause I wanted to stay out of it and just let them get into a conversation and I cast Ruby before the day was over.” 

For Barnhill’s part as well, meeting Spielberg was not only a surreal experience, but meeting his wife, Kate Capshaw was as well, remembering her from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:

“Well, I remember being on the plane with my dad and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna meet Steven Spielberg!’ But at the time, I didn’t really know how famous Steven was. Obviously, my dad did though and was so excited, but I’d only seen like the Indiana Jones films and E.T., so they were kind of like my main ones that I’d seen. But I was still really excited to meet him, but first when I met his wife Kate, I recognized her from Temple of Doom and I was like, ‘oh my gosh!’ We had a really long conversation and I talked to her about the snakes on set because I’d heard about that, so I talked to her about it. Then, eventually Steven came in and I was literally shaking at this point. My dad was there and told me to take some deep breaths, but when I met Steven, the great thing was that he made me so comfortable and so relaxed because like, when you’re feeling nervous, so it’s really nice to have someone there to calm you down and help you stop feeling nervous. It kind of felt, when I met him, like I’d known him for a long time, which was quite nice because I was like just completely relaxed by the end of everything.”

When it comes to Spielberg’s filmography though, the relationship between a creature and a child seems to be a recurring theme in his movies, with the most obvious reference being E.T.. For the acclaimed filmmaker though, the biggest draw for this film, was in its protagonist:

“What really appealed to me was the fact that the protagonist was a girl. Not a boy. And it was a very strong girl. And the protagonist was going to allow us at a certain point to believe that four feet tall can completely outrank a twenty-five feet tall giant. I got very excited that this was going to be a little girl’s story and her courage and her values were going to, in a way, turn the Cowardly Lion into the brave hero at the end, which is what she turns The BFG into. I saw all kinds of Wizard of Oz comparisons when I was first reading the book, and I saw it as a real chance to do a movie about Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion. Just the two of them.”

A lot of that credit most also be given to the film’s script as well, written by the late great Melissa Mathison, a reunion between Spielberg and his E.T. writer, which not only allows for special effects, but takes the time to find the real spectacle in conversations as well, something Spielberg was at first worried about balancing:

“When I first read the script, Melissa had already done about four drafts of it before I’d read her work, and one of the things I said, aside from that it needed more plot, which Melissa agreed with it the permission of the Roald Dahl state, we were allowed to add more story and make it a three-act story. But one of the things about the film that was I was complaining about it a little bit to Melissa was,  I said, “It’s gotta go faster. It’s gotta go faster.” And Melissa, if you knew her, she was very patient and she was very spiritual and she kept saying, ‘Now, Steve,’ she called me that like everyone else did before it showed up on the big screen, she said, ‘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 pauses are  as important as the words I’ve written and words Dahl’s written. The pauses, the spaces, the patience of the story telling, don’t rush it, because it doesn’t work rushed. It only works unfolding the way it’s unfolding.’ And 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.”

And indeed, it isn’t rushed, and because of those pauses and Spielberg’s willingness to let the film breathe, The BFG is a movie with a structure unlike most other films and stands out as one of the most unique additions to his filmography over the past few years. Certainly also, one of the most unique film-going experiences you’ll have in the cinema this summer as well.

The BFG is in theatres everywhere now.

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