It’s not often that you can say you were at the biggest and the friendliest press conference London may have ever seen, but then you aren’t often able to mix the giant talent and imagination of Steven Spielberg with the magic of Roald Dahl.
Spielberg was in town to talk about his new film, The BFG, alongside cast members Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Rebecca Hall and Penelope Wilton. There were giant questions, friendly answers and a lot of love for the power of imagination.
Mark Rylance, who plays the titular BFG, said that he first experienced the story when Spielberg asked him to read it early on in the shoot for Bridge of Spies. He had thought Spielberg wanted his opinion on the script and was surprised to learn that he was given it with him in mind for the casting of the BFG in question. He commented that he was ‘very moved’ by the script as soon as he read it. Spielberg, on the other hand, had read the book long before it reached script stage. ‘I read it to my kids,’ he said. ‘I saw it as a way to popularise myself with my own family.’
Ruby Barnhill, who plays Sophie, was perhaps unsurprisingly full of praise for her director and the whole experience of shooting The BFG. She explained that the most important piece of advice she was given by Spielberg was that of ‘concentration’, to which Rylance smiled and added, ‘That helped me, too, yeah’.
The relationship between Rylance and Spielberg, who have worked together previously, has made people curious as what leads to such a successful working partnership – but Spielberg had no secret ingredient to reveal. He explained that ‘it’s very hard to deconstruct an intuitive tickle’, furher commenting that Rylance is ‘a liquid actor that can fill any shaped vessel’.
When Rylance was asked what he felt he brought to this giant performance, he said: ‘I hope I can bring my joy in acting . . . like little Ruby [Barnhill] showed me every day, just to actually be there, just to turn up, is ninety-nine per cent of it.’ He went on to explain that, to him, ‘being there’ means ‘physically, thoughtfully, hopefully soulfully…’
On his director, Rylance said ‘he risks things and encourages’. Echoing his comments, Penelope Wilton, who plays the Queen, then added: ‘You feel very free and open [with Spielberg] and therefore you do your best work.’ For Rebecca Hall, the experience was far more geeky than it may have been for her co-stars. She and Spielberg spent a lot of time chatting about films and generally embracing their geekiness. Hall explained: ‘It’s a real treat to have a movie geek conversation with Steven Spielberg’. She then added that, for people of her generation, many of both Spielberg’s films and Roald Dahl’s books formed a fundamental part of their childhood and, for her especially, working on The BFG felt very like a return to childhood itself in many ways.
Having listened to his actors all gush about the joy of working with him, Spielberg then commented that: ‘I’m as much in the actors’ hands when I’m directing them as they sometimes feel like they’re in my hands, so it really is a shared experience.’ He also graciously refused to play favourites with his impressive backlist, adding simply: ‘I love what I do. I love telling stories and making movies and working with great actors.’
Spielberg also said that he feels watching the classics is essential if you want to work in the industry. He even confessed that he used to have to bribe his kids to watch black and white films and some would give him the money back ten minutes in and leave!
On the digital revolution he’s watched transform filmmaking during his career, he added: ‘There is no limit to anyone’s imagination. You can literally put anything on the screen.’ The BFG is about pure imagination and escape into fantasy, with made-up words and made-up worlds. Yet, knowing how to put together a film like this, with so many special effects, doesn’t stop Spielberg being able to enjoy the cinema-going experience himself, just as any viewer would. ‘I love that I’ve been able to get into the habit,’ he said, ‘of suspending my disbelief like every other normal audience member and forgetting everything I know about how a film is made, to be able to just let the film that someone else has made wash over me and have some impact on me . . . I just let the film have its way with me.’
He continued: ‘Hopefully the success of The BFG – for me – is measured, not just by the amount of heart that is expressed by these two characters and their relationship, but also by the fact that – 15 to 20 minutes into the movie you forget there are any effects at all.’
Of course, an adaptation of a story as well-known as The BFG couldn’t be discussed without mention of literature. Wilton said that she had been reading the book in schools as part of the Roald Dahl centerary celebrations. She commented that ‘The word is everything’ and went on to talk about the importance of imagination. ‘Children should be allowed to make up their own pictures,’ she said.
You’ll be able to experience the giant adventure for yourself when The BFG arrives in cinemas on 22nd July. Until then, I’ll leave you with this delightful comment from Rylance, who – when asked if he would rather be really small or really giant – said: ‘I’d enjoy being tall . . . I know you’re always bending your neck down to look at people . . . but most of the tall people I know are very gentle and funny people.’