It’s a little surprising Steven Spielberg doesn’t have to duck his head to enter the room at the London Hotel. The man who directed “The BFG” – a movie about giants that opens Friday, July 1 – is a colossus himself in the world of movies. Not only have his films made more money than any other director’s, he has amassed enough honors and awards – including three Oscars – to fill a gallery. And the list of young filmmakers who point to him as their inspiration grows daily.
He accomplished this success by embracing certain themes, including youth and history.
When his interest in filmmaking began, what stuck with Spielberg was how Disney could scare an audience and rescue them minutes later. He credits Disney with giving him the understanding that a movie “can seize you in a chokehold and not let go.”
“I wanted with ‘BFG’ to make a movie that had relevance today. Had value today,” Spielberg says. “One of the reasons I wanted to make this movie is that I had been working on a lot of movies, and developing a lot of films, that were very reflective of the cynicism of today. Especially with the way young people think these days. One of the things for me that was such a magical excursion into this fairy tale world is there is no cynicism. That was a relief to me.”
Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” was published in 1982, the same year that Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” hit theaters. Much of the praise for “The BFG” after it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival compared Spielberg’s new movie to “E.T.”
“There are a lot of opposites, especially in scale,” Spielberg says with a smile. “All the kids were E.T.’s giants.”
Spielberg understands the comparisons. In “The BFG” a youngster befriends a strange being. But he says that is where the similarities end.
Spielberg says the films he’s making now are different, simply because he’s different.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is that every project has to start with a good story. He became aware of “The BFG” by reading the book to his children.
“When I find a good story, it tells me what it needs as opposed to me overruling all the values of the story to somehow impose a 69-year-old maturity onto a piece that needs more of a kid than an adult,” Spielberg says. “A book like ‘BFG,’ or any movie that has young values that I see, can bring the memories of being a kid right back to me in a flash.”
You get your childhood back in a millisecond.
“The BFG” is one of Spielberg’s favorite types of movies: young people put in precarious situations only to emerge when they find their hidden strength.
Those who have worked for him suggest it’s just the childlike spirit of the director.
Mark Rylance, who plays the friendly giant, also worked with Spielberg on “Bridge of Spies.”
“When something works he will jump up and down and give you two big thumbs up,” Rylance says.
When you make movies that feature themes about youth and growing up, there are going to be a lot of young actors on the set. Spielberg shows great patience with them.
Ruby Barnhill, who was 9 when she played the leading role of Sophie in “BFG,” found working with Spielberg easy because he didn’t treat her like a child and spoke to her as if she were an adult.
Spielberg laughs at Ruby’s description, suggesting he didn’t get a lot of time to talk to her since she was more interested in asking questions. To be fair to Ruby, there’s plenty to talk about as “The BFG” pushed Spielberg more than any other film.
One reason shooting was so difficult was that the movie is a matter of multiple perspectives. In the case of the young girl, the big friendly giant looks to be taller than the orphanage where she lives. But, the BFG is actually a runt in the giant world.
Spielberg had to work with three different viewpoints. And he had to get across the performance by Rylance, despite it being modified by computer-generated imagery.
“We could not have made the movie the way you saw it even five years ago,” Spielberg says. “We wouldn’t have been able to get a virtual performance where you could actually feel the emotions from the character five years ago.”
Motion capture technology was used to turn Oscar-winning actor Rylance into a big, friendly giant. That technology five years ago would have captured only 50 percent of Rylance’s performance.
Spielberg is confident that 95 percent of the actor’s performance was captured by the current technology.
Rylance saw how the technical questions were a struggle at the start of shooting, saying Spielberg didn’t show the cool confidence he had throughout “Bridge of Spies.” But, once Spielberg worked out the issues, everything ran smoothly.
Spielberg is a calm, soft-spoken man, but issues in filming can cause him to lose sleep. When those sleepless nights occur, Spielberg sits up all night watching classic movies on cable TV.
Working out issues in front of flickering black-and-white images means that once Spielberg steps on a set, he’s ready and eager to work. His on-set demeanor creates such a positive working environment that many of the production crew on his films have been with him for more than 40 years.
Getting back to the youth theme for “The BFG” meant Spielberg had to put aside his other favorite theme: history. The two films he made before starting “The BFG” looked at the United States during the mid-19th century, with “Lincoln,” and at a world at war early in the 20th century, with “War Horse.”
His films that have dealt with history have earned Spielberg his highest accolades, including Oscars for both “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
Despite his passion for history, Spielberg was ready for a change.
“I was so covered in history, doing ‘The BFG’ was like taking a shower, a very nice hot shower,” Spielberg says. “I was watching all that history just go down the drain.”
I love history. I can’t divest myself from it. I read too much history but as I’ve gotten older, history has gotten even more relevant to me.
Whether it be family-friendly stories with youthful themes or serious examinations of critical moments in history, Spielberg has put together one of the most impressive résumés in directing history. His movies have earned more than $9 billion, making him king of the box office for directors.
Spielberg believes that as he’s gotten older, he’s been less seduced by the kind of films that open large but don’t have the substance to last. He laughs and admits that part of that comes from having said no to directing projects that became massive franchises.
The one place where he does give into the big-idea franchise is with Indiana Jones.
He’s going to continue to add to his box office total with his plan to make a fifth movie in the Indiana Jones franchise for release in 2017. There had been some reports that George Lucas would not work on the next Indy movie as he had in the past.
Spielberg makes it clear that Lucas has to be a part of the film.
“I was never make an Indiana Jones movie without George Lucas. That would be insane,” Spielberg says.