Audiences are in for a big treat (make that a really big treat) when Steven Spielberg’s The BFG hits theaters this 4th of July weekend. Bringing together the talents of three of the world’s greatest dreamers — Spielberg, Walt Disney and Roald Dahl —the movie mixes tender storytelling, great performances and never-before-seen special effects to create a larger than life wonder that’s giant fun for the whole family.
Based on the Dahl classic, The BFG tells the imaginative story of a young orphan girl and the giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country. Oscar winner Mark Rylance stars as the titular big guy, with newcomer Ruby Barnhill joining him as Sophie, the kindhearted orphan who befriends him. Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) costars as the Queen.
Fandango recently had the chance to sit down with the cast and director, to talk about the challenges of bringing The BFG to life and the delicate art of flatulence on film (yep, you read that right).
Q: What was it about The BFG that got you to come back to this kind of story?
Steven Spielberg: What really appealed to me was the fact that the protagonist was a girl, not a boy. And it was a very strong girl who was going to allow us to believe that four feet tall can completely outrank 25 feet of giant. I got very excited that this was going to be a little girl’s story, and her courage, and values were going to turn the Cowardly Lion into the brave hero at the end.
Sophie was sort of my spiritual guide through the process of telling the story. And 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, you know, that I was her.
Q: How did you cast newcomer Ruby Barnhill?
Spielberg: We looked at three or four hundred girls, in about five English speaking countries, and when I saw Ruby’s reading, I went crazy because we had been looking for eight months, and I thought I was never going to find my Sophie. There was just something about her. She is fascinating and incredibly talented, and just perfect for this role. We flew Ruby to Berlin [where Spielberg was shooting Bridge of Spies at the time] and I met with her. She was so glumptious*…I cast her on the spot. [Note: “glumptious” is giant-speak for “scrumptious.”]
Q: That’s some pretty high praise, Ruby. Can you tell us…is the feeling mutual?
Ruby Barnhill: Oh yes! I remember being on the plane with my dad [flying to Berlin to meet the director], and thinking, “I’m going to meet Steven Spielberg.” But the great thing was that he made me feel so comfortable, and so relaxed…it kind of felt like when I met him, like I’d known him for a long time.
Penelope Wilton: If you get a phone call saying, “Steven Spielberg wants you to be in his film,” you say, “Yes!” I was a bit amazed to get that call, actually because I didn’t even know Steven Spielberg knew who I was.
Q: Let’s talk about the film’s technology.
Spielberg: We used a process called Simulcam, which combines real-world actors and sets with actors and sets that are computer-generated. We can prerecord a performance and then play it back through the camera monitor so that we could actually see the virtual performance unfolding in real time as we’re photographing the live-action scene. By combining the two, we’re able to make decisions, frame shots and even cue actions based on what’s happening in the virtual world. Five years ago, we could not have made The BFG this way — the technology wasn’t there for it.
Q: Can you talk about what it was like to perform under those conditions?
Mark Rylance: It made it a bit more challenging, I suppose. I have a camera on my head, with a camera in front of my face. And I’m wearing a funny suit with silver ping-pong balls or something on it, all over the place. And I’m…existing in a computer. And then Ruby would be on set so I could actually have eye contact with her. The film is about a kind of friendship between these two, so I told Steven I thought we should always be together. So from then on, Ruby and I always worked together — very much in the same space.
In the morning, we’d shoot me and then in the afternoon, we would go to her set next door, where everything was “giant-sized,” and there’d she be, standing in scale. I would be up standing on a high scissor lift tower, to get the eyesight.
Q: Was there a scene you were really excited to film?
Spielberg: I think my favorite part of the filming was when BFG and Sophie were catching dreams in Dream Country. We had a whole set built with a system of big roots deep into the ground, and Sophie gets to run under all the roots, to chase the dreams. And of course, there were no dreams there; there were just a lot of lights on sticks. But that was a fun four or five days, that whole sequence, chasing dreams and talking about dreams — that was my favorite part.
Barnhill: I think one of my favorite days was when Sophie is like, covered in goo. I was literally covered in thick, green goo, all over me…but it actually tasted quite nice, so it wasn’t that bad. But by the end of the day I was like, “I need to go and have a shower now.”
Q: We’ve got a favorite scene too — the “Whizzpopper” scene. You know the one…
Spielberg: Ah-yeah, my first fart joke in a movie. 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 Corgis. I’ve gotten over my modesty.
Wilton: Well, it was hard work, that scene, because my “episode” went on forever. By the end I was practically pink in the face. It’s very hard to pass gas with a certain amount of queenly dignity. I don’t know what Her Majesty’s going to think about it – she may have second thoughts about making me a Dame.
The BFG is in theaters July 1.