Disney’s The BFG, which is out in 3D now, is full of wondrous sights and sounds. Based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name, it follows a young girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who is whisked away to Giant Country by the Big Friendly Giant (a computerized version of Oscar-winner Mark Rylance). There, she learns about The BFG’s propensity for catching dreams, runs afoul of more menacing giants (played by the likes of Jermaine Clement and Bill Hader), and strikes up an unlikely friendship. The fact that Steven Spielberg—with his characteristic combination of whimsical wonder and cutting-edge innovation—directed the movie shouldn’t surprise you. But what might surprise you is the fact that it’s the first movie he’s ever directed for Disney.
Quite frankly, he seems a little shocked himself.
“Walt Disney, more than Alfred Hitchcock or anyone else when I was first becoming aware of suspense and the power of cinema, had the power to seize you in a chokehold and never let you go,” Spielberg explained during a recent press day for the film. “Disney was the first time I realized you could be scared half to death and be rescued minutes later. He had this incredible power to create images that were so scary you had to turn away from the screen and then seconds later there would be a moment of transcendence. He made me feel like it was okay to scare as long as there was a light at the end of the darkness.”
Disney also influenced him in a way that you can really feel throughout The BFG. “It’s that old cliché of battling the dragon, and Disney would take the damsel in distress and turn them into the protagonist. They were the hero,” Spielberg said. “He always had strong female protagonists. Disney probably influenced me in that sense.”
The filmmaker then made the direct connection between this element of Disney storytelling and what he did with The BFG. “I think in this movie we have one of the strongest young women that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. She takes him by the lapels, and the BFG doesn’t have a response,” Spielberg said. “I think in a sense Disney was a big influence, maybe even more than Roald Dahl.”
(When I asked what her favorite Disney movies were, Barnhill replied, with a wiseness well beyond her years, “I like all of the animated Disney movies, like Cinderella. They’ve made so many great films. When I think of Walt Disney, I think of a man who has made so many children’s lives so much better.”)
In terms of finding his leading lady, it was a tough process. Spielberg was in production on Bridge of Spies (and had already cast Rylance in the title role), during the search, saying that they interviewed “300-400 girls.” But for Barnhill, it was all fun. “I did five auditions,” Barnhill told me. “On the first one I was really, really nervous, and on the fourth one I believe I met Steven, and on the fifth one I met Mark, so when I met Steven I was really nervous, but he made me feel really, really comfortable, and he was so great like that. I was thinking the whole time, ‘Oh, whoever is going to get this part is going to be so lucky to get to work with him,’ so I’m glad I felt that.”
Spielberg, for his part, was immediately struck by her presence. “When I first met Ruby, I realized she was comfortable in her own skin,” he said. “She has tremendous heart. She has so much love and so much interest. Her questions scooped my questions the first day I met her. We found Ruby at the very end of the casting process in Manchester, England. When I saw Ruby’s test I forgot that I was making Bridge of Spies and all I focused on was, ‘Can you fly her to Berlin, like, tomorrow?’”
The most striking thing about the movie, of course (besides Barnhill’s performance) is the performance capture technology, courtesy of New Zealand visual effects house Weta, which brought The BFG and the rest of the giants to life. Spielberg admitted that the movie was something of a breakthrough. “We couldn’t have been able to make the movie even 5 years ago,” Spielberg confessed. “We wouldn’t have been able to get a virtual performance where you can feel the emotion of the characters five years ago.” Rylance is obviously an incredibly seasoned performer (and newly minted Oscar-winner), but the technology to really bottle that magic is what Spielberg is referring to. “It’s the emotional contours of facial expressions, bodily expressions, transposing that to an animated character,” Spielberg said. “Five years ago we would have only been able to capture about 50% of that. Now I think we got 95%.”
Rylance, for his part, was not phased by the process. “It was kind of freeing in a way,” Rylance said. “You didn’t need to hit marks since there was no camera, so you could do it differently each time.” He said that while they “didn’t need to build sets for me,” they did anyway. Since every bit of Rylance’s performance was captured digitally, Spielberg could decide what to use well after the scenes were shot. In fact, the actor said it was more like filming a stage play than anything else. “It was like a rehearsal room for a theater play, where you’ll be in a room that has nothing to do with the set before you move into the theater,” Rylance said. “Things are marked out of the floor, and maybe you have some boxes there that will represent a tank, maybe if you have a tank in a play. And you make believe.”
I wondered if it were hard for Barnhill, who is so new to the acting world, to perform with a character that wouldn’t appear until post-production. When I inquired about forming an emotional connection, she replied: “Well, me and Mark always had eye contact throughout every single scene. Steven made sure we had eye contact because if we didn’t we couldn’t emotionally feel what Sophie and the BFG were feeling, and how they were bonding and connecting.”
Still, while The BFG is a triumph of imagination, deeply felt characterization, and technology, Spielberg says that the struggle to maintain those facets above all else is ongoing. “It’s a duel between story and technology and what should triumph in any project. I believe it should always be story,” Spielberg said, matter-of-factly. “Are we offering audiences stories they’ll remember the rest of their lives or are we offering them spectacle that they appreciate in the short term but will be forgotten soon after?” It’s something that Spielberg struggles with, which is easy to understand considering how many of his films require complicated visual effects or other technical breakthroughs. “I get very seduced sometimes by concepts that have a wow factor. I have to always go and realize, Why am I going to spend two years of my life on something on a wow factor, when the story might not have any social value and won’t be remembered.”
That’s the magic of The BFG; a magic that those who made it felt too. When I asked Mark Rylance what he was most surprised by in the finished film (a film that he had also watched, in a roughly animated pre-visualized version before even shooting), and he still sounded amazed. “The whole thing was surprising,” Rylance said. Barnhill mentioned that there were moments, when she was acting, where she wasn’t quite sure of how things would turn out (like a moment where she sits with the BFG on a grassy hill, looking up at the stars). Seeing it finalized, she was blown away. “That was the thing that kind of made me think, Wow!” Barnhill said.
Chances are when you see The BFG (out in 3D now), you’ll think wow too.