Steven Spielberg Reveals 'The BFG's' 20-Year Journey to Theaters

The BFG Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Disney

The director and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall tell how they brought a giant to life, helped a first-time child actor believably inhabit her role and dealt with the death of Spielberg's frequent collaborator, writer Melissa Mathison.

Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall were working on the 1994 film Milk Money when they first learned of Roald Dahl's book about an unhappy child and her giant friend. "There are three teenage boys in [Milk Money], and they had to go to class on the set," recalls Marshall. "One day, they came out of their trailer classroom, and Kathy said, 'What are you guys reading?' And they said, 'The BFG.' And she said, 'Do you think it's a movie?' And they said, 'Oh, absolutely.' We'd never heard of it."

Spielberg had heard of it. He had read the book to his then-young children. "They loved the privacy and secrecy of his own special giant-speak," says Spielberg. "And they also loved that this little 8-year-old girl can tell a 26-foot-tall giant what to do."

A crew of imposing giants including Maidmasher and Butcherboy add peril to the film.

Kennedy and Marshall acquired the rights to the book but didn't propose it to Spielberg for nearly 20 years. Kennedy says she always had Spielberg in mind to direct but didn't want to present it to him until the script felt right. After several failed attempts, things began to fall into place about a decade ago — that's when Kennedy started discussing the project with E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison.

Even as Mathison went to work and the script started to take shape, Marshall says there was another problem: "We didn't know how to make it." Kennedy says she had "endless conversations" with effects experts about how to execute the story convincingly. "We're all very lucky that we're at a point now that we can realize something that is so photoreal and emotional," she says. "If you can't get the eyes of the character to be believable, then you're going to have a difficult time creating an emotional story. And this is a relationship between a giant and a little girl, so that was extremely important."

When it came time to film, Spielberg insisted that the actors playing the child and giant be in the same space as much as possible. "Mark Rylance had to always be close to Ruby Barnhill, who plays Sophie, because she was a first-time actor and needed to believe what was happening was happening to her. To do that she needed to make eye contact with Mark," he says.

For certain sequences, in which the giant takes long strides, the contact couldn't be maintained. "So we flew on a wire a huge iPad with Mark's live face on it so she'd go from looking directly into Mark's eyes to the iPad," says Spielberg. "She could make at least eye contact with a live transmission to Mark."

Spielberg met Rylance in England in the late 1980s, when he was casting Empire of the Sun. "I was so impressed by the reading he had done, I offered him a major part," recalls Spielberg. "I was so excited until he called the next day and said he found a play he would rather do and turned me down." The two reconnected when Spielberg saw Rylance perform Twelfth Night a couple of years ago on Broadway. "The next day, I offered Mark the role of Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies," says Spielberg. Rylance's performance won him an Oscar. "The last time I had seen an actor do so little and make me feel so much, it was Ben Kingsley playing Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List," says Spielberg.

From left: Spielberg with Rafe Spall and Penelope Wilton.

As Mathison collaborated with Spielberg on the script, she missed a few days for medical appointments. "I would say, 'How are you feeling?' " recalls Spielberg. "And she'd say, 'I'm fine,' and she'd get right back to work. And so it wasn't even an issue to talk about." Mathison mentioned back pain; she thought perhaps there was a problem with her diet. Mathison was on set every day while the film was shot, working, says Spielberg, as "an active writer during the entire production."

But Mathison's problem had nothing to do with her diet. On Nov. 4, she died at 65 of neuroendocrine cancer.

"Melissa could do something most of us could not," says Spielberg, who admits he was devastated by her death. "She observed people without judging them. The only other people I can think of who observe with curiosity and without judgment are children. And I think that's why she understood them and wrote them better than anyone else."

Barnhill plays Sophie, a young girl who finds adventure.

This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.