“The BFG is something that I had spent years off and on developing. Many, many, years. And I must say many, many conversations with Steven (Spielberg) who I kept saying, ‘This is really right for you.’,” recalled Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy when I spent some time with her at the global press event for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS last December. We were just a day or two out from the first teaser for Disney’s The BFG, and Kennedy, whose collaboration with Spielberg dates back over three decades, was taking a momentary break from a galaxy far, far away to share some insight on a project that she’d invested much time in, and one that finally clicked at what could’ve been an inopportune time. “Within I would say a month after I decided to take over Lucasfilm he called me up and he goes, ‘You know, I read the script again and I really wanna make the movie.’ And I was, like, ready to go through the phone and strangle him!,” she said with a smile and a chuckle, noting that the delays in making the The BFG actually served it well in that “the technology has caught up with making the film,” allowing Spielberg to make something “quite spectacular.” So why The BFG and why now? According to the director himself, “fate.”
“I kinda believe in fate, and I really believe that they save the best for last,” said Spielberg, commenting on the eight-month search for “Sophie.” As of November 2014, the search was still on (see the original last-minute open casting call here), but by December, “Sophie” had been found in newcomer Ruby Barnhill (revealed here). “Nina Gold [casting director] saw maybe a couple thousand of qualified young people, both unknowns and working young actresses,” recalled the director of the exhausting search. “I was not giving up hope that I would find her, but I was starting to look at my third and fourth and fifth choices to accommodate people I had seen who I had liked but hadn’t reached my heart yet. I was about to compromise when all of a sudden I saw the audition that Ruby Barnhill and her parents had sent in to Nina Gold, and my whole life changed for the better in that instant.I was shooting BRIDGE OF SPIES, but I didn’t care at that moment about BRIDGE OF SPIES,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t care that Tom Hanks saw me so excited and it wasn’t about movie he was gonna be in! I had already cast Mark Rylance [as “The BFG”], and I came running in and I said ‘I found her! I found her! I found her! That’s what happened.”
Barnhill, who I believe is on the cusp of becoming a huge star, sat with a huge smile while Steven detailed the search, eager to serve-up her own experience in getting the gig. “When I heard that I got part, I was so, so happy — from the look on my mom and dad’s faces, I thought it was gonna be news ’cause they were literally jumping up and down they were so excited! They said, ‘Ruby, here’s the phone for you,’ and I thought they were just kind of like pretending, like they were trying to trick me or something. Then Nina Gold said, ‘Ruby, how old are you?’ And I said I’m ten, and she said, oh, well, that’s a shame. And I said w– why is it a shame? And she said ‘because you’re not gonna be able to drink champagne when everyone’s celebrating, because you got the part!’ I was so happy — my Nana bought me like 100 balloons!”
Spinning back three decades, Fate seems to have a lot to do with 1982. It was in that year that author Roald Dahl’s The BFG was originally published, the same year that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial hit theater screens, a creative pairing that found Spielberg directing from a screenplay by Melissa Mathison, with an original score by John Williams, and behind-the-scenes it was the first film on which Kathleen Kennedy would receive a Producer credit. For the big-screen version of The BFG, that same pairing was intact, though, sadly, screenwriter Mathison lost a battle with cancer in November of 2015, the film now bearing a dedication “For Our Melissa.” This crew is a family, and that extends off-screen – especially when it comes to the new generations that are continually discovering their films.
“I think of it in a way as having a very, very large extended family — and I didn’t even understand when I was first starting out making movies about the power that film has,” explains Spielberg. “I wasn’t really appreciative or even aware of the outreach of cinema until I was actually older. I thought JAWS was just a freak of nature that that would never happen again, and then when E.T. suddenly happened and lightning struck twice, I realized that cinema outlives the filmmakers. Everything becomes a part of the extended family of people from all walks of life who speak different languages and believe in different things, ’cause sometimes movies come along that make you see the same thing with the same feeling. It doesn’t matter what languages we share, or who we are and what our backgrounds are – sometimes a feeling can be communicated all over the world without any signage. The power that film has is something that really intimidates me, and I respect it a lot,” he says with a chuckle, “but it also scares me, because it’s pretty awesome when that happens.”
About Meeting Steven Spielberg: Since attending #TheBFGEvent as part of a Disney-invited press group, the number one question I’ve received back here at home is “How was Steven Spielberg?” Sitting down with him and young star Ruby Barnhill in Hollywood last week, I found myself in the rare position of being somewhat at a loss for words in a situation where thankfully the subjects of our interview could speak volumes with little prodding. The legendary filmmaker is as warm and welcoming as you’d hope, especially for someone whose work has been such a huge part of the lives of so many. I view Spielberg as a personal hero — reminders of his filmography surrounding me on a daily basis here in my own office, with collectibles from E.T.,JAWS,CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, BACK TO THE FUTURE and other films to which he’s been connected prominently on display. While the one thing we lacked was time, the experience ranks among the most casual and free-flowing interviews I’ve ever been a part of. Taking a seat on a couch, Steven inquired as to how our group of predominantly “moms” (and some dads, and non-parents, too) came together at Disney – a rotation of writers and bloggers in the pop culture family space that assemble in groups of 25 to work on the promotion of various projects from Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm and the affiliated companies.
“I think my mom formed the first group like this!,” he said. “Every day in my kitchen, all the moms in my neighborhood would come over – sometimes they would trade houses – and I’d get ready to go to school and all of these coffee cups would be laid out, and all these pastries laid out, and it would be another mommies group.”
It all goes back to family, and bringing people together.
Disney’s The BFG opens in theaters in the U.S. on July 1, 2016. Get tickets now via Fandango.