Thirty four years after landing in the South of France with “E.T.,” Steven Spielberg returns to the Cannes Film Festival with “The BFG,” based on the Roald Dahl book published in 1982. (Coincidentally, that’s the same year “E.T.” came out.) But the Disney blockbuster about a big friendly giant (Mark Rylance via a motion capture performance) who befriends a young girl (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) was met with tepid applause at Saturday’s press screening, with some complaining that it didn’t have enough crossover appeal for adults. “The BFG” opens in the United States on July 20.
Here are five things Variety learned from an afternoon press conference with Spielberg and his cast.
(1) “The BFG” was first optioned for the screen in 1993.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Spielberg’s producer Frank Marshall who worked on the film with Kathleen Kennedy. The late screenwriter Melissa Mathison (“E.T.”) came onboard first, after getting called by Kennedy for rewrites for Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 “Ponyo.” And Spielberg was familiar with the book by reading it to his seven children as they grew up, often acting out the voice of the BFG out loud to them. “When I had heard Kathy had hired Melissa to adapt the book, I think at that moment there was a little voice whispering in my ear,” Spielberg said. “What if this came together and I got to be the director? It was a wonderful reunion and a bittersweet time for us,” he said. (Matthison died last year.)
(2) Spielberg expanded Dahl’s story with the blessing of his estate.
The beloved author passed away in 1990—hating every Hollywood adaptation ever made from one of his books, including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Although the movie takes significant liberties from the book (including watering down some of the scarier moments with the evil children-eating giants), Spielberg said the family signed off. “We just added a little more plot to the movie version of the book, which we did with compliance and cooperation of the entire Dahl estate,” Spielberg said. “They read every draft that we developed. We had a great relationship.”
(3) Spielberg deflected a question about Dahl’s ant-Semitic views.
“I wasn’t aware of any of Roald Dahl’s personal stories,” said the director of “Schindler’s List.” “I was focused on the story he wrote. I had no idea of anything that reportedly was assigned to him, that he might have said. This is a story about embracing our differences and the values of the book and the values of the film. Those are the values I want to impart in telling the story.”
(4) Spielberg admitted to a bromance with Mark Rylance.
This is the second collaboration between the actor-director, after last year’s “Bridge of Spies” and they have another project on the way (2017’s “Dunkirk”). Spielberg said that Rylance (who based the “BFG” on “people who worked in my grandfather’s garden in Kent”) is the rare actor that he actually considers a real-life BFF. “I feel very lucky that I got to meet Mark, and even luckier that we became friends,” Spielberg said. “I have a lot of acquaintances [over] 44 years of directing television and film. I haven’t brought a lot of people in my life from the movies.” As Spielberg was saying this, Rylance gave the director a gentle pat on the shoulder.
(5) Spielberg calls “The BFG” an epic love story.
“It’s a love that children have for their grandparents,” and grandparents have for their children, he said of the BFG’s affection for Sophie. “I think this is the closest I’ve come to telling a love story.” Sorry to Drew Barrymore and her alien companion.