Steven Spielberg: Creating The BFG

July 6, 2016
Legendary filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, talks heroes, protégés, new technology, keeping fit, playing video games, and The BFG at The Cannes Film Festival.

Obviously, the Roald Dahl text is the key here, but how key were the illustrations used in the book? “Not at all. We didn’t deal with any of the illustrations. The illustrations were taking us into a real creature direction, so we stayed away from the illustrations. We loved the illustrations, because I read the book to all my kids, and those illustrations meant a lot to my kids. But I had to make a contribution to it, and my contribution was going to be the visual look of the whole movie and the design of The BFG and the other giants. We didn’t base anything on the illustrations. Except The BFG’s ears, which had to be big.”

How do you feel when people come up to you and thank you for your films? “It’s very touching, and I love the different reasons too. I love hearing the reasons. Last night, 2,000 people saw The BFG for the first time, and 2,000 people saw the movie 2,000 times differently. All movies are like that. People go to a huge mega hit like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and nobody sees the movie the same way. That’s the great thing about the interpretive power of an audience, and why an audience is as significant a part of the storytelling process as the storytellers are. It’s a communion when an audience and a film meet in the middle. People like certain movies because they actually help themselves to like the movie by identifying or bonding or printing on it, and they are telling a movie back to the story. We’re talking to the screen, and the screen is talking to us. That’s the way I always watch movies.”

Director Steven Spielberg with Ruby Barnhill and producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy on the set of The BFG

Director Steven Spielberg with Ruby Barnhill and producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy on the set of The BFG

You and your peers – people like Peter Jackson and James Cameron and Ang Lee – are all developing new technologies for the movies. What do you think of Ang Lee’s new approach to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? He shot the movie in very fast frame rate. 120 fps. “Well, I’ve never done that before. I’m not a fan of high frame rate because it makes the movie look less like film. It makes it look more like real life. And, for me, I go to the movies to escape from real life. AI don’t go to movies to duplicate it. I respect Ang. He is a very close colleague of mine, and I think that he should try every technique that he can think of, as I try every technique that I can think of. I’m just saying, that particular technique is not for me. We’re already losing the look of film just by digital filmmaking. As we all know, film is dying…it’s going to become a dinosaur soon. And I’m going to miss it. There is such art in the molecules of the grain count. I look at a movie and I watch life on the screen The grain moves. When you sit closer to the screen, there is more grain to see. And that gives the film a real sort of inner life. Most movies are shot today with digital cameras – the RED cam, or the ALEXA – and they’re fine. But they’re the difference between an oil painting and a pastel painting. It’s the difference between a little bit of impressionism and photo reality. And I like a little bit of impressionism in movies. But we should all keep trying techniques. I’m going to be getting into virtual reality soon, on my next movie. A lot of people don’t think that is a good way to tell a story, and we’ll be criticised for some of the virtual reality that we are attempting with [the upcoming hi-tech thriller] Ready Player One, but I really feel that that’s going to be fun. I’m going to have to see if that’s going to be a lasting medium, or if it’s going to be a flash in the pan.”

Do you like video games? “I’ve played them all my life, starting with Pong on Jaws. There was a Pong game in the Oak Bluffs at a carousel at a corner. Richard Dreyfuss and I would come back from shooting and go running over to the Pong game; we’d put our quarters in, and we would play until the sun went down.”

You’re nearly seventy now. How do you keep fit and vital? “I have no idea. I don’t know how I do it. I just keep working. It just seems like a natural thing for me. I get up in the morning and I go to work…the same way that my dad would have got up in the morning and went to work and invented the first computer in 1950 at RCA. People just get up and do things. And this is what I get up to do. I don’t even think about it. I drive to work, listening to CNN for an hour. Then I’ve heard enough about the world and then I start making up fantasy.”

Director Steven Spielberg and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy on the set of The BFG.

Director Steven Spielberg and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy on the set of The BFG.

The BFG is a different kind of hero… “Well, a hero can be anybody. They can be a very normal person who wakes up in the morning and sees a traffic accident…the car catches fire, and at the risk of their own personal safety, they go into a car and unstrap a stranger from the car before their car explodes. That’s a hero. A superhero is somebody who does the same thing. But he flies to get there. And he picks up the car and he shakes the passenger out and he blows out the fire. That’s the difference. I prefer the hero over the superhero. I can relate to it more. It’s more real.”

The BFG is a deeply humanist film. Is there any piece of art or literature or film that touched you quite recently? Son Of Saul came very close to breaking my heart. I saw it very late. I saw the movie, and then I met the director, Laszlo Nemes, at The Academy Awards luncheon with all the nominees. I asked if he would come over to my office so we could have some private time. We had a two-hour chat about a week later, and that was the film that touched me the most last year.”

And he couldn’t get it funded… “I know. Isn’t that amazing? He couldn’t get it funded. He’s a juror. He’s on the Cannes jury this year. I’m actively looking for something to do with him. Right now. He’s fantastic.”

Do you see your influence on other directors? J.J. Abrams is an obvious one. “Abrams, sure.”

Director Steven Spielberg and Ruby Barnhill on the set of The BFG

Director Steven Spielberg and Ruby Barnhill on the set of The BFG

And what about your relationship with Peter Jackson. “It’s a great relationship. I knew of Peter, of course, because Peter was a protégé of my protégé, Bob Zemeckis, on his second movie, The Frighteners. Remember that one? But I never got a chance to meet him, and then I had the honour of giving out Best Picture at the Oscars, and I opened the envelope…well, all the envelopes that year were saying The Lord Of The Rings! I got to give Peter and Fran [Walsh] the Best Picture Oscar, and we met on stage in front of a billion people! That’s how we first ever met and shook hands! But then we went backstage, and before the press room, we just started talking about movies. The three of us. Well, the two of us. Because Fran was so in shock that she won the Oscar that she couldn’t speak! We just had an amazing time, and we just became friends after that. We actually became friends because of that moment. We became friends, not to work together, but because we spoke the same film language. Then we wound up discovering that we both love Tintin, and we made that our first project together.”

Do you still hope to do another Tintin film down the line? “We already have a script. Peter’s the director and I’m the producer. We made a deal to do three Tintin movies together. I’d direct the first one. Peter would do the second one, and then we would have a director which we can’t announce yet lined up for the third one. But Peter’s been so busy with the Hobbit movies that it took him away from Tintin. Hopefully he’s doing another movie for my company now that is a secret…nobody knows about it, and then after that, he will do Tintin.”

How do you gravitate towards the filmmakers that you mentor? “The people who I gravitate towards mostly are the people who make movies much differently than me. Because then I have something to learn from them. J.J. was my protégé since he was 15 because he cut my 8mm student films together when I first met him, and we have just been close for all those years. It’s crazy how long I’ve known him. It’s crazy how old I am because I know everybody now!”

The BFG is in cinemas now. And make sure to check out our interviews with stars, Mark Rylance, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, and Ruby Barnhill.

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