Spielberg, Rylance, Barnhill and Wilton on The BFG
The BFG (short for “big friendly giant”) opens in theaters next week. The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is based on the 1982 Roald Dahl classic book and tells the story of the orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who discovers a giant whom she calls The BFG (Academy Award winner Mark Rylance). He takes her back to the land of giants, where she learns what he does for a living, why he’s the runt of the pack, and discovers the joy of having a very large buddy.
We recently got a chance to chat with Rylance, Spielberg, Barnhill and recently-made Dame Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) at the Disney press day. They gave us the scoop on casting the main roles, the technology advances that made the film possible, Spielberg’s very first on-screen fart joke and how the cast bonded on set. Check out what they had to say below.
Rylance, who won the Oscar for another Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, told us about his first motion-capture character. “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, he’ll know what’s right.” He joked that he usually doesn’t like to see himself on the screen at all, but because this was so different, he didn’t mind. He also talked about Spielberg’s work with the special effects, saying that he [Spielberg] was very stressed at the beginning. “He was really stressed by the technical complexity of what he was embarking on, which was kind of impressive to see.” He was asked about whether or not he’s spoken to other actors who have done motion capture before to get advice. “I tried to, but they’re all so busy,” he laughed. “I tried to get through to Andy Serkis, but it’s obviously such a big thing right now that he’s so busy. Even his friend, who was trying to get through to him for me… said, ‘He never calls me back!’” He also said that he got the physicality for the character after Spielberg asked him if he “had the walk.” He based it on his step-daughter’s father, who is a runner and tends to swing his arms along with his legs, unlike most of us who swing the opposite arm with the opposite leg.
He talked about how they shot with a small child and a 24-foot giant and still maintained eye contact. He explained that he’d be looking at a doll in the scenes where he was on camera, but that Barnhill would stand behind the chair so they could still look at each other. Wilton said that, during the scene in Buckingham Palace, they did the same, with Rylance on a giant scaffold so she could still see his face. He also said that there was another young actress doing some of his off-camera coverage, but that he spoke to Spielberg about working more with Barnhill. “She makes me laugh and moves me in a totally different way. The film is about a kind of friendship between these two. I think we should always be together. So he did that. From then on we always worked together… in the afternoons we’d go to her set next door—this table,” he said, referring to the one we were all sitting around, “would be much larger than this room. And these props would be six foot hight, and there she’d be, standing in scale. And now the camera would be there…and I’d be up a high tower…to get the eyesight.” If BFG was moving, a man would hold an iPad at his eye level and it would show his face, so she could still see his eyes. He explained that Spielberg and Barnhill also had a wonderful relationship and praised Spielberg’s work with child actors.
When Spielberg and Barnhill entered the room together, you could see their connection. He introduced her theatrically, hugging her. She giggled when Spielberg was asked if this was his first fart joke in a film. He laughed, saying, “Uh, yeah. 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 [referring to the Queen of England’s famous dogs]. I’ve gotten over my modesty.” Wilton, who is part of that scene, laughed about filming the “whizpopper.” “Do you meant the farting? Are you talking about farting?” She said, “It was hard work, that scene, because each of us had to do our own take on the farting… mine went on forever! I can’t think why—he never said ‘cut’ for ages! At the end, I was practically pink in the face!”
Spielberg talked about technology and finding the balance between effects and the heart of the film. “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 on 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.” Though he did admit that he was happy that Jaws didn’t have technology like this, because you would have ended up seeing too much shark. “I probably would have ruined the movie,” he said, saying that the “dearth of shark” was part of the reason the film worked so well.
Spielberg talked about the story. “What really appealed to me was the fact that the protagonist was a girl. Not a boy. And it was a really 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 giant. I got very excited that this was going to be a little girl’s story and that 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.”
He talked about casting Barnhill, whose performance certainly belies her newcomer status. He said he flew her to Berlin where they were finalizing shooting for Bridge of Spies and had her speak to his wife Kate Capshaw first. (He’s seen about 150 casting tapes from all over the world at that point, and he and Capshaw had agreed that they had to meet Barnhill.) “When I saw Ruby’s reading I went crazy because I’d been looking for over half a year—actually longer. Over eight months I’d been looking.” He said he showed his wife and said she thought Barnhill was “glumptious,” using a Gobblefunk word from the film that means scrumptious. [Rylance told us his favorite Gobblefunk was scrumdiddlyumptious.] He watched the conversation between Capshaw and Barnhill and cast her before the day was out.
Barnhill, who is now 11 years old said she was excited to meet Spielberg, but didn’t know much of his work outside of the Indiana Jones movies and E.T. “At the time, I didn’t know how famous he was,” she laughed. She did, however, know who Capshaw was and was a little starstruck. “At 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… eventually Steven came in and I was literally shaking… when I met Steven, the great thing was that he made me so comfortable and so relaxed because, you know, like, when you’re feeling nervous, 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. It was like just completely relaxed by the end of everything. Then it was like, oh well.” Spielberg burst out laughing, saying, “People, when they meet me, often say, ‘oh well.’” He added that this was in his top five ensemble casts he’s ever worked with and that the cast spent all their time together when they weren’t filming.
Barnhill talked about her favorite moment shooting, saying that it was shooting a particularly messy, goopy stint when she crawled out of a very slimy giant vegetable. Spielberg said that, for him, it was the scene when Sophie and The BFG are chasing dreams. “The BFG says to Sophie, ‘Use your titchy little figlers.’ So she just starts chasing dreams. We had a whole set built. We had a whole big set and a whole root system built into the ground and she gets to run around all the roots and chase the dreams. Of course there were no dreams there. Just lots of lights on sticks, but that was a fun four or five days.”
Spielberg was asked about whether he relates more to the young girl who was chasing dreams or the older figure who was giving dreams. “I was relating to Sophie, pretty much throughout the whole story. Sophie was sort of my spiritual guide through the process of telling the story. So everything had to go through the Sophie filter. My feelings about BFG. My feelings toward BFG, the evolution of his character didn’t go through me. It went through me imagining that I was her.”
The BFG will hit theaters on July 1, 2016. The film also stars Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader and Rafe Spall. It was written by the late Melissa Mathison and features a score from John Williams. Let us know if you’re going to check out the film in the comments or tweet us @comingsoonnet.