Director Steven Spielberg & Ruby Barnhill talk trust and technology in ‘THE BFG’


THE BFGCourtney Howard // Film Critic

There’s nothing quite like a Steven Spielberg movie to make us all feel like kids again, filling us with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, capturing our wild imaginations. And the auteur is back in fine form with THE BFG, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. In the film, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) forms an unlikely friendship with a twenty-five foot tall giant (played by a mo-capped Mark Rylance), whom she calls the “BFG,” or “big friendly giant.”

The heartfelt fantasy adventure marks somewhat of a return to familiar territory for Spielberg, however, with one big difference.

What really appealed to me was that the protagonist was a girl – not a boy. And she’s a very strong girl. The protagonist was going to allow us, at a certain point, that four feet tall can completely outrank twenty-five feet giant. I got very excited this was going to be a little girl story. Her courage and values was going to, in a way, turn the cowardly lion into a brave hero. I saw all kinds of WIZARD OF OZ comparisons when I was first reading the book. I said, ‘Here’s a chance to do a story about Dorothy and the cowardly lion.’

The search to cast the perfect “Sophie” led the filmmakers to cast a wide net, seeing about 400 girls in about five English-speaking countries. Spielberg said,

I looked at about 150 myself. When I saw Ruby’s reading, I went crazy. I had been looking for eight months. We’d be looking and looking and looking. I was shooting BRIDGE OF SPIES and thought I was never going to find my Sophie, until halfway through the Berlin shoot when I saw Ruby’s reading. My wife [Kate Capshaw] was with me and she’d seen a lot of the tapes with me – she was ‘glumptious’ [Gobblefunk for Scrumptious]. We flew her in and my wife met with her – I wanted to stay out of it and just let them just get into conversation. I cast her before the day was over.

Barnhill said of the experience,

When I was on the plane with my Dad, at the time, I didn’t really know how famous Steven was. Obviously my Dad knew, but I’d only seen the INDIANA JONES films and E.T.. I was still really excited to meet someone like that. At first, when I met his wife Kate, I recognized her from TEMPLE OF DOOM and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ We had a really long conversation. I talked to her about the snakes on set because I’d heard about that. Eventually Steven came in and I was literally shaking at this point. When I met Steven, he made me feel so comfortable and relaxed. It was really nice to have that sort of feeling. When we met it felt like I had known him for a long time.

Barnhill loved the water scenes since it allowed her to finally rinse off the Snozzcumber goo. She stated,

For all of the scenes Sophie was covered in goo, I was literally covered in goo. It tasted quite nice, but it was thick, green goo all over me. By the end of the day, this one day, the BFG washes it off of Sophie and I got to do a lot of water scenes. I went under it and started washing my hair like I was in the shower. Steven had to come up to me and say, ‘Ruby, you’ve forgotten what you meant to do.’ It was so, so nice getting rid of it.

Barnhill and Rylance hit it off smashingly – so much so, Spielberg said there wasn’t that much of a difference between their character’s friendship and the one forming between actors behind-the-scenes.

There was a whole life that was occurring while their characters were having a life. It wasn’t that much different – the characters from the players. They spent a lot of time when we were setting things up, they’d be playing table tennis, basketball outside where the trailers were. They were kind of inseparable. That doesn’t always happen in movies. There was a lot of together time which really helps the relationship in the story.

Trust between actors and their director is a key ingredient to the film’s success. Forming that bond clicked immediately, said Spielberg.

It happened the first day she walked into the set of BRIDGE OF SPIES. It was immediate. Not only did I feel that way about Ruby, we instantly had a huge like of each other. But I went crazy for her sister Darcy, who immediately took my last name and changed it – and for two and half months called me “Cheeseburger,” and still does. We became really close to her family – not at the end of shooting, but before we began shooting everybody got really close. Melissa Matheson, the late Melissa Matheson, got very close to Ruby, Darcy and Paul and Sarah, her mom and dad, and spent a lot of time on weekends.

I’ve shot.. this is my thirtieth movie. I’ve have a lot of great companies. This is in the top five of my favorite companies – ensembles – that I’ve ever worked with. This is my top five.

Admittedly, Spielberg said he most identified with Sophie, who was chasing dreams, rather than The BFG, who gave dreams.

Sophie was my spiritual guide of telling the story. Everything had to go through the Sophie filter. My feelings toward BFG – the evolution of his character didn’t go through me. It went through me imagining that I was her.

Screenwriter Melissa Matheson and Spielberg collaborated on how to turn THE BFG into something more cinematic, which meant getting permission from the Dahl estate to add more of a three act structure. He said,

I was complaining about a little bit to Melissa was I said, ‘It’s gotta go faster.’ And Melissa said, ‘Now, Steve. You know that this isn’t one of your INDIANA JONES movies and you should just relax. This is going to be one of those stories where the pauses are just important as the words I’ve written and the words Dahl has written – the pauses, the spaces, the patience of the storytelling. Don’t rush it because it doesn’t work rushed. It only works unfolding the way its unfolding.’ She was absolutely right. The film has its own bio-rhythm. You can’t push it.

THE BFG is a visually immersive fantasy that will have you spellbound, marveling at the technology used to capture these intimate performances. Harnessing the tech allowed Spielberg to balance the advancements with the heart of the narrative.

The whole nature of my approach to THE BFG was to be able to use technology to advance the heart and create a flawless transposition between the genius of Mark Rylance to the genius of Weta as they were able to digitally translate Mark’s soul onto film in the character. All we did was get back to basics; I knew Mark would knock this out of the ballpark, but I didn’t want the ball to land at the end of the motion capture volume. I wanted it to land in the lap of the audience. Weta paid careful attention to how to preserve what Mark had given us on the day. Technology today allowed us to do it. Five years ago, we could not have made THE BFG this way – the technology wasn’t there for it.

Even at this stage in his career, the auteur feels like there’s always still something to learn. He candidly stated,

I just learned something I guess I had known before which is it has to be fun. In all the movies I’ve made about history, is not really fun because you’re trying to get it right and you’ve got history saying how it was and my imagination of how I wish it had been, but I can’t go there – I had to kind of censor myself. I’m very good about not creating history that never occurred, but it’s frustrating. This movie, for me, was a tremendous release. Where all I needed was my imagination and respect for Roald Dahl’s writing to be able to say this is the most fun I’ve had in awhile and it really was.

THE BFG opens on July 1. To read our review, go here.

Feature Photo: Ruby Barnhill is Sophie in THE BFG. Photo courtesy of Disney Pictures.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.