A Word With: Steven Spielberg


Steven Spielberg attending “The BFG” premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday.

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

CANNES, France — “The BFG,” the latest from Steven Spielberg, is based on the 1982 book of the same title by Roald Dahl. It’s the story of young Sophie (the newcomer Ruby Barnhill), who one night is plucked from her bed by a giant hand. She soon discovers that the hand belongs to the BFG — voiced with an ache by Mark Rylance — or the Big Friendly Giant. The girl and the giant bond, naturally, and soon enough this funny, creepy, quirky child-snatching story turns into an odd-couple tale about two lonely souls who set out to vanquish a gang of giant hooligans who snack on “human beans” — people.

Using a combination of physical sets, performance capture and digital wizardry, Mr. Spielberg creates a visually seamless world that looks startlingly real. “The BFG” is most touchingly an expression of Mr. Spielberg’s movie love, evident in its emphasis on dreams, a lovely interlude involving a kind of shadow play and even in an allusion to a Zoetrope, a protocinematic device that creates the illusion of motion.

The film was adapted for the screen by Melissa Mathison, who died in 2015, and remains best known for her screenplay for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” which screened in Cannes in 1982. It was Mr. Spielberg’s second appearance as a director in the festival’s main competition, following “The Sugarland Express” in 1974. (He won the prize for best screenplay that year.) Since then, his appearances at Cannes have been infrequent: “The Color Purple” played out of competition in 1986 (“The BFG” was also shown out of competition), and he served as president of the feature jury in 2013. On Sunday, I spoke with Mr. Spielberg about his new movie, accusations that Dahl was anti-Semitic and what he would change in the film industry, at the Carlton hotel. Here are excerpts:

Q. How did the project come to you?

A. Kathy Kennedy. She got the rights from the Dahl estate about 9, 10 years ago. And she hired Melissa to write the screenplay. I read Melissa’s script and loved it. There was a lot of work to be done, but it was a wonderful first draft. I got involved in directing it because Melissa and I have been so close all these years; we raised our families together practically.

And then it was just like old home week again, it was such a familiar feeling being in — you can’t call them story meetings, they’re like life jam sessions — and out of it sometimes comes an idea that Melissa will write down and it may or may not go into the script. They were very casual, very beautiful sessions. It’s hard being here without her.

Q. Was the melding of technology and human beings part of your interest?

Not really, because at first I thought we would do it with actors — “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” with forced perspective, staging, actors with false eye-lines. But then I realized if I shot the movie that way it would be no different from “Tom Thumb,” “Thumbelina,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” — it wouldn’t be magical. And I thought that the most important thing I could contribute was to try to create real cinematic magic. Not magic as a result of an audience’s experience but physical, literal alchemy on the screen that was somehow similar to things we’ve seen before but somehow also very different.

To do that, I thought, I need all the giants to be creatures. Now, I could certainly make them creatures through prosthetic makeup. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had complete freedom that the creatures were done digitally? I felt like we were just on the cusp of inventing soul. That we could really infuse actual, human, God-given soul [into] an animated character. They had gotten close to it on several movies like “Avatar” and even “Planet of the Apes.”

I didn’t want the technology to subvert Mark’s honest performance. And that was the big risk we took. Would they be able to get Mark’s soul into BFG’s face and body? And 80 percent of that was done by Mark himself, but the extra 20 percent was done by the animators.

Q. At this point, do you feel like there are any new and interesting hurdles for you?

“The BFG” was a huge hurdle for me — I’d never done a fairy tale before. Every movie I make, there’s a hurdle to it. I look for things that will scare me. Fear is my fuel. I get to the brink of not really knowing what to do and that’s when I get my best ideas. Confidence is my enemy and it always has been.

My sequels aren’t as good as my originals because I go onto every sequel I’ve made and I’m too confident. This movie made a ka-zillion dollars, which justifies the sequel, so I come in like it’s going to be a slam dunk and I wind up making an inferior movie to the one before. I’m talking about “The Lost World” and “Jurassic Park.”

Q. Is it fear of failing, fear of disappointing yourself, your critics, your admirers? What is the fear?

It’s a fear of getting lost. And then staying lost in a quagmire of having made a bad choice and now I’m stuck with it for the next 60 days of shooting. I felt that way on “Jaws” only because it was so hard to make, not because I didn’t know how to make it. I was lost.

For a movie that became awesomely successful and gave me complete personal creative freedom, I still look back at it and even now say it was my most unhappy time in my life as a filmmaker because whole days would go by and we wouldn’t get a shot.

Q. I want to bring up the question that someone in the press conference asked regarding Roald Dahl [whom some, including a biographer, has said was] an anti-Semite. Can you enjoy the work and not think about the artist? How do we deal with that?

I think that all of us who stand on the shoulders of the giants who began the industry — have run into that conundrum when talking about “The Birth of a Nation” and D. W. Griffith and the exaltation of the Ku Klux Klan. Now, I don’t know what I would have done if I’d known this [about Dahl] before “BFG.” I didn’t research Dahl. That’s no excuse. I was completely enthralled by his writing, by “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach” and especially “The BFG,” which is my favorite of his books. I read it to my kids. So, my only involvement was interpreting the book.

But I said this in the press conference, and I really mean it: For somebody who has proclaimed himself anti-Semitic, to be telling stories that just do the opposite, embracing the differences between races and cultures and sizes and language, as Dahl did with “The BFG,” it’s a paradox.

Later, when I began asking questions of people who knew Dahl, they told me he liked to say things he didn’t mean just to get a reaction. And that a lot of the anti-Semitic comments he made weren’t things that he fervidly believed, because everybody in his life, basically, his whole support team, was Jewish. And all his comments, which I’ve now read about — about bankers, all the old-fashioned, mid-30s stereotypes we hear from Germany — he would say for effect, even if they were horrible things. So, I don’t know. I just admire “The BFG” and I admire his values in that and it’s hard even for me to even believe that somebody who could write something like that could say the terrible things that had been reported.

Q. People are complicated.

Artists are complicated.

Q. In 2013, you and your friend George Lucas were at the University of California and you said some big things about the movie industry.

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