The BFG: The look, the language and the unlikely journey of Steven Spielberg's latest
Most adults eventually figure out that loneliness and bullying don’t stop when you get big. That’s also true when you’re REALLY big, as in the case of the humongous title character in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG.
Based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s novel, it’s the story of a big, friendly giant who befriends a clever, curious orphan girl — then has to protect her from the even more colossal rival giants who mock and torment him. In the tradition of classic storybook monsters, those other giants love to devour children, but The BFG is a strict vegetarian. He subsists on boat-sized snozzcumbers, which are just revolting enough to make cannibalism seem not so bad.
The movie is the final collaboration between Spielberg and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who died from cancer in November after finishing work on the film. Like their previous movie about a little boy and a lost alien, The BFG is a story of unexpected friendship. Although the giant’s dilemma is equal parts macabre and whimsical, it’s really about the isolation that comes from doing the right thing.
“I think he is lonely because of he doesn’t want to take part in the eating of children,” says Mark Rylance, who performs the giant by way of motion-capture technology. “The heart of the story is a love story between two very lonely people, a platonic love story between a kind of grandfather figure and a granddaughter figure made more extreme.”
The giant bears a striking resemblance to Rylance, who just won the supporting actor Oscar for Spielberg’s previous film, Bridge of Spies. Obviously, there are subtle differences: the character is 24-feet high and has ears the size of trampolines.
“It’s a perfect combination of what the BFG looks like as he’s described by Roald Dahl and Mark Rylance’s face,” says Kathleen Kennedy, another E.T. veteran, who produced The BFG with husband Frank Marshall.
“It is performance capture, but it’s all Mark’s expressions,” Marshall says. “I’m not sure that this technique has been done before to this kind of detail, and that’s what was so exciting — to see Steven taking on this technology and mastering it, and doing kind of shots that he does, and the way he tells his story, but not letting the technology bog him down. He was having as much fun as everybody else.”
In addition to the beanpole-with-pie-pan-ears look of the giant, another thing the movie preserves from the book is the giant’s “Gobblefunk” language — which is English fused with gibberish that sounds similar to real words.
For example, here is The BFG, as written by Dahl, describing the other giants to the little girl: “All of them is guzzling human beans every night. All of them excepting me. That is why you will be coming to an ucky-mucky end if any of them should ever be getting his gogglers upon you. You would be swalloped up like a piece of frumpkin pie, all in one dollop!”
“It’s wonderful. We’ve kept very loyal to Dahl. It’s a very loyal interpretation of the book,” Spielberg told EW in an earlier interview. “The challenge is going to be in different foreign countries, doing the dub, finding the equivalent word in the lexicon of Italian or French or German or Spanish, you know what I’m saying?”
Rylance says the movie almost cut out some of the language, since they feared such, well, big words might lose audiences. “I was very keen to put more of it back, and when Steven heard me speak it, of course it was more understandable then when you look at it on the page,” the actor says. “So Melissa and I had a lovely time going through the script and comparing it to the book again and putting a bit more Gobblefunk back in.”
The film version of The BFG has had a long journey to its July 1 release. Producers Kennedy and Marshall first started developing the movie in the early 1990s, with plans for Robin Williams to take the giant role, but it proved to be too hard to pull off technologically.
“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 Ruby [Barnhill], as Sophie,” says Marshall. “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.”
Why’d they stick with it for so long? “When you find a story that speaks so profoundly to adults as it does to children, it operates on two different levels,” Kennedy says. “That happens especially when you’re an adult and you’re recalling something that is rather primal and profound.”
The message in this one: when someone bigger protects you, it makes you want to stand a little taller for somebody else.
For more film news, follow @Breznican.