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BFG movie: Robin Williams was almost the big, friendly giant

How a little storybook took a long journey to the screen.

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Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

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This is the story of how a great big giant took baby steps to the screen. 

Steven Spielberg’s The BFG will stomp into theaters this July, with Bridge of Spies Oscar-winner Mark Rylance towering over it as the title character. But Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s novel was almost adapted into a movie two decades ago, when producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall first started developing it in the early 1990s.

Back then, the plan was for Robin Williams to take the giant role, but it proved to be too hard to pull off technologically, since the story involves so much interactivity between a 24-foot giant and a tiny orphan girl.

“There were a lot of different scripts. There were long gaps in between where we were not continuing the development of it,” says Kennedy, who is now the president of Lucasfilm.

“And one of the challenges, obviously, was how to do it,” Marshall added. “One of the most important things for Steven was to have the actors in the same space so they were relating to each other, so Mark, as the giant, was really talking to [11-year-old actress Ruby Barnhill], as Sophie. Even five, 10 years ago the two actors would have had to be in different stages to do this. That wouldn’t work very well. So it would have not made it, in my opinion.”

“That was the biggest challenge,” Kennedy said. “Figuring out technically how we would do it and whether or not we should try it with to do with forced perspective, lots of different kind of [digital] effects and techniques were explored. This is like stuff we went through, oddly enough, with The Curious Case of] Benjamin Button because both projects were long, long gestating projects because of technology.”

THE FIRST STEPS

The producers first became aware of the story in 1993, while making the comedy Milk Money. During breaks between filming, Kennedy found the three boys from the movie sitting around reading.

“I said, ‘It’s really great to see you guys reading books. What’s your favorite?’ And all three of them said that they loved The BFG — and I’d never heard of it,” she said. “So I went running off, and got it, and read it, and then spent some time talking to them about it. Then I met everybody with the Dahl estate and started looking more and more into the rights and becoming increasingly familiar with what it meant to Roald Dahl. It was his favorite book of all the books he had written.”

As they developed the script, the plan was to have Williams – who was on a family-friendly streak with Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire – in the title role of the giant who protects the little girl even as he’s menaced himself by even bigger, and decidedly unfriendly giants. “Robin spent a lot of time with us actually doing cast readings and he was hilarious,” Kennedy says. “He would have been a great BFG.”

Two factors finally brought the story back into active development. One, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial screenwriter Melissa Mathison came up with a new script that made everyone, including Spielberg, want to do it. And two, the filmmaking technology had evolved to a point where the story was actually do-able.

Advances in performance-capture now allow actors to share one stage for a scene, rather than record their parts separately, which made a major difference in the chemistry between the big and little characters. “The fact that they were acting in the same space and Steven was able to see the environments that they were in on the monitor made it incredible,” Marshall said. “I think that you get performances that are really, really magical.”

The final look of the giant was a melding of the real actor’s features and the big nose and pizza-pan ears from the illustrations in the novel – all blown up to giant size. “It’s very much along the lines of what you have seen described in the book but it’s a perfect combination of what the BFG looks like as he’s described by Roald Dahl and Mark Rylance’s face,” Kennedy says.

AN OLD FRIEND RETURNS

None of it would have happened without the script by Mathison, who was battling cancer during the production and passed away last November. Mathison, who also wrote the screenplay for 1979’s Black Stallion, met Spielberg on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark — which, coincidentally, is where Marshall and Kennedy, who’ve been married since 1987, also met.

Mathison was on set because she was dating Harrison Ford (they were later married from 1983-2004) and Spielberg — who was a Black Stallion fan — recruited her to work on his idea about a little boy from a divorced household who discovers a lost alien in the woods behind his home. (You can read Spielberg’s full tribute to Mathison here, including how he twisted her arm to get her to do E.T.)

Her friends say that, despite her talents, Mathison was always trying to talk her way out of the screenwriting business. She was in semi-retirement, raising her children, when Kennedy and Marshall asked her to come back and write the English-language narration for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Ponyo in 2008.

“Obviously we had all remained very close friends and I used to talk to her periodically about projects,” Kennedy said. While working on Ponyo, Mathison “got the bug back to get back into writing. She’s voracious reader so I’ve over the years always talked to Melissa about books. I mentioned The BFG and she read it, and I said, ‘Is there any chance you would consider stepping in and doing a rewrite on this?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”

That’s when another giant stepped in. “At that point, once she wrote that first draft, that’s when Steven started to get very interested again,” Kennedy said.

Once that happened, there was no stopping it.

The BFG finally arrives in theaters on July 1.

For more film news, follow @Breznican.