One of this summer’s most highly anticipated films is Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic The BFG. Written in 1982, the book takes a typical Dahl conceit, a young child, emotionally abused by adults, becomes immersed in a fantastical world, a refuge from his or her brutal, everyday life. In the case of The BFG, Dahl brought readers into an alternate universe where giants residing in the English countryside feast on children for sustenance, while one Big Friendly Giant (hence the title) blows dreams into the minds of children. Spielberg’s adaptation opens on July 1 and stars Oscar winner and stage veteran Mark Rylance as the titular character.
As part of his reporting for his feature story on the life of Roald Dahl, writer Jeremy Treglown spoke with Spielberg about his approach to the film. Below is an edited version of that conversation. – Smithsonian.com
What attracted you to The BFG?
It’s a story for the ages, and it’s also a story for all ages. I was attracted to it by the greater size. The story tells us that the size of your heart is what really matters. The disparity of height between Sophie and BFG is whittled down to where they have a relationship completely at eye level to each other. That’s the beauty of the book, and the beauty of the film.
That’s certainly my sense of it. It does start out with an abduction of a little girl by this pretty objectionable old man, with objectionable habits. It does have a dark start. Dahl’s not all sweetness and light, is it?
I’ve read a lot of Dahl’s work. I’ve read the standards to my kids: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. Dahl has a darkness in his work, not unlike Walt Disney, who certainly had a darkness in his animated feature films. The darkness in Bambi is no more or less dark than intermittent darkness in Fantasia, or Dumbo or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Disney knew how to balance light and dark. He was great at it, even before George Lucas conceived of the Force; Walt Disney had gone where no storytellers had gone before. The Grimm brothers were all darkness, very little light.
Walt Disney came along and showed that we could have both. There could be healing. There could be fear and then there could be redemption.
You said that you read Dahl’s books aloud to your kids. Did you find that reading them aloud gave you anything in particular?
I have seven children and three grandchildren, with a fourth on the way, so reading aloud is sort of what I do best. I probably get more value hearing a story that I’m reading it to my children and grandchildren but am also reading it to myself. I’m in the room, both the reader and the audience. It gives you an interesting double-mirror effect.
This business about reading, that was so important in Dahl’s later life, encouraging children to read, encouraging children with literacy problems. The Dahl Foundation that the family runs, that 10 percent of all royalties, presumably what they earn from this film, too.
That’s correct. It’s very important that stories can not only entertain children, but help them with the challenges in their medical and in the personal lives.
Have you worked very closely with the family, have they been involved?
Indirectly I’ve worked with the family. Because [Kathleen] Kennedy [the executive producer of The BFG and many other Spielberg films] and the late Melissa Mathison [screenwriter of The BFG] had the most significant relationship with the family. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting the family: the great-grandson and the granddaughters and the daughter. When I was actually making The BFG in Vancouver, they came to the set and spent some time with me. But the significant relationship was between Kathy Kennedy and the Dahl family.
Of course, Melissa Mathison. I know you worked closely with her on E.T. as well. There are some connections with E.T., some resemblances between the two stories: a monster and a monstrous world outside, and a young child making a bridge and becoming mutually dependent.
There are parallels with E.T. which is probably why Melissa so passionately related to the original source material by Roald Dahl. Ironically, the book BFG was published the same year E.T. was released, 1982.
There’s a lot of kismet going on here. The fact that Melissa and I, who have been very close in our personal lives for all these years, got a chance to have a professional reunion on BFG.
Dahl himself did a certain amount of screenwriting himself. He’s credited with “You Only Live Twice,” the Bond movie and was married to actress Patricia Neal. Did you ever come across him? What was his reputation in Hollywood?
I never had a chance to meet Roald Dahl, I never knew very much about him except for his wonderful books and wasn’t aware of his screenwriting. It was only recently that I was told he’d been married to Patricia Neal.
I’m not a Google person. I’m not the kind of person who depends on Google to keep me current on what’s going on in the world. I can tell a movie that requires the digital art to ensure that the film is realistic, but I’m an analog person. I have the spirit of somebody still stuck in the analog era.
This movie, on the one hand, it’s not animation, you have real actors in there.
It’s a live-action movie. All the giants were of course were live action at the moment of their performance capture but then their brilliant performances were then given to the geniuses at Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s special effects company. They did the most marvelous transposition of the performance onto the screen, with beautifully rendered, photo-realistic digital characters.
This is the company that did Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Planet of the Apes and Tintin. I’ve worked with them before and they’re great at what they do.
You have a completely new actress in Ruby Barnhill, her first role, and what a role to start with.
It’s a lot for a little girl to take responsibility for. But she has a great responsibility and be able to carry half the movie. She was working with a great veteran stage actor, Mark Rylance and they became such a team on this production. I think Ruby learned so much from Mark about acting and Mark was able to rekindle the beauty of being a child, bringing an intuitive grace and spark to her work. They constantly inspired each other.
I can imagine that. He gave a wonderful performance in Bridge of Spies. Then you’ve got music, you’re back with John Williams.
John had a small, but very safe medical procedure which precluded him from writing the score for Bridge of Spies. He had to have a pacemaker put in. His doctor didn’t want him to work for seven weeks. The plan was, he would write half of Star Wars, put it down, write Bridge of Spies, and come back on Star Wars. We were on schedule until his doctor rescheduled everything. So it was out of John’s control and out of my hands, certainly. John came back in full force on The BFG and he has written an absolutely amazing score.
Is the thing of BFG having this wonderful sense hearing, he hears insects and plants and so on, is that there in the movie?
The BFG has an acute awareness of everything that goes on in the entire world not just because his ears are so large but he is such a sensitive to everything that floats past him in the air.
Does the music relate to that in any way?
The music is like a children’s opera in a way. The music almost tells the story just a little bit. I said to John just the other day, “Your score is telling the same story that we’re telling. Your score is telling the story in a more emotional way.”
This is Dahl’s centenary. It’s also Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, and Penelope Wilson is playing the queen. So it all fits together wonderfully this year.
The Queen is certainly represented very honorably by Penelope Wilson in the film. Except for one little moment. The Queen comes off with great aplomb. Except for one slight indelicate moment. I hope the royal family doesn’t get too upset.
This must have to do with whizz popping.
I think it must be.
I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to seeing the film.
I made the film for you and your kids.