Roald Dahl’s seminal tale of the friendship between a young girl and a mysterious giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country.
The talents of two of the world’s greatest storytellers – Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg – unite for the first time to bring Dahl’s beloved classic The BFG to life on screen.
Directed by Spielberg, The BFG tells the imaginative story of a young girl and the Giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country.
For more than 40 years, Steven Spielberg has been sharing his stories with audiences across the world, introducing an array of extraordinary characters into the culture and sweeping generations into worlds that are at once wondrous, frightening, charming and palpably real. Roald Dahl’s seminal tale of the friendship between a young girl and a mysterious giant seemed perfectly aligned with the filmmaker’s own body of work, and while it may have seemed destined that Sophie and the BFG would one day find their way into Spielberg’s care, it would be decades following the book’s publication before the journey would actually begin.
The BFG marked somewhat of a departure for Steven Spielberg. He explains, “I’ve been very blessed to have had all kinds of beautiful experiences telling stories. I’m hesitant to emphasize one story over the other because they have all had tremendous value to me. But I think the number of historical movies that I’ve been making—films like ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Bridge of Spies’ and then going further back to films like ‘Amistad’ and ‘Schindler’s List’—have kept me fettered to the accuracy of telling a historical story.”
“So being able to escape into the world of dreams and imaginations has been a dream in itself,” he continues. “That makes ‘The BFG’ special, because it was my escape into what I think I kind of do best, which is just let my imagination run away with itself.”
According to Spielberg, he was raised on Grimm fairytales and they were very dark and very frightening with no redeeming social value, whatsoever. “They were almost object lessons for kids, but Dahl and Disney both subscribed to the precepts of children’s folklore and embraced the darkness, because what is a fairytale without a dark center?” he says. “Without that dark center, where is the redemption, and how do you bring all of us out from the bowels of a nightmare into the most beautiful, enchanting dream we’d ever seen?”
The fact that Dahl chose a young girl as his protagonist in “The BFG” was something the director appreciated as well. Sophie is a strong girl who does not take no for an answer and is not intimidated by someone who is six-times bigger than her, and the character is similar to strong females who are at the center of many Walt Disney films.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has always been Spielberg’s favorite Disney film. “I saw it in a movie theater during its ninth revival when I was only seven or eight years old and it really stuck with me. I can still remember being so frightened and terrified, but at the same time, so satisfied with that amazing ending.”
Roald Dahl and Walt Disney actually met in April of 1943 to discuss a number of projects, one of which was “The Gremlins,” one of Dahl’s first stories. The film was eventually shelved, but was later released as a book by Disney and Random House with all proceeds going to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. The book did go on however, to serve as inspiration for the 1984 film “Gremlins,” which, coincidentally, was produced by Spielberg.
The filmmakers were all in agreement that “The BFG” felt like a hybrid between a classic Disney film and a movie from Amblin Entertainment (the production company Spielberg, Kennedy and Marshall founded in 1981), so they were thrilled when the studio green lit the film in the spring of 2015, making “The BFG” the first Walt Disney film to be directed by Steven Spielberg.
“There’s a level of expectation that fans and audiences of Walt Disney movies expect,” says Kennedy, “And we’re proud to have the film attached to such a studio.”
Dahl’s “The BFG” was first published in 1982, the same year Spielberg’s own story about an unusual and transformative friendship, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” captured the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike. The British author is one of the world’s most creative, mischievous and successful storytellers, someone who understands the inner lives of children and has a knack for creating characters that kids could relate to and storylines which kept them involved.
His ability to combine the fantastical with the frightening and place children as the heroes of his innovative stories, and adults as the villains, is unrivaled in the literary world. While Dahl’s stories recognize that life can be difficult and sometimes scary, that there is good with the bad, he never patronizes his readers.
Producer Frank Marshall (“Jurassic World,” the “Bourne” films) says, “Dahl’s stories are not just happy-go-lucky fantasies. There’s a lot of humor to them, but there’s also a little bit of a dark side. He walks on the edge. They’re a little scary, and I think that’s what appeals to people.”
Spielberg agrees, saying, “It was very brave of him to introduce that combination of darkness and light, which was so much Walt Disney’s original signature in a lot of his earlier works like ‘Dumbo,’ ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella.’ Being able to be scary and redemptive at the same time, and teach a lesson, an enduring lesson, to everyone—it was a wonderful thing for Dahl to have done, and it was one of the things that attracted me to want to direct this Dahl book.”
“The BFG” is the story of the two lonely souls who, in finding one another, create their own home in the world, which is a consistent thread in Spielberg’s rich body of work. “Steven has always gravitated towards stories about families, which is one of the reasons his films have resonated with so many people,” says executive producer Kathleen Kennedy (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the “Indiana Jones” films).
Kennedy and Marshall were familiar with many of Dahl’s other books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda” which have sold over 200 million copies worldwide, but neither had read “The BFG.” It wasn’t until a chance encounter on the set of “Milk Money” in 1993 that Kennedy read it for herself and realized that Spielberg, their longtime friend, colleague and collaborator, was just the person to appreciate the scope, playfulness and sheer invention of Dahl’s book.
Spielberg has been a fan of Dahl’s for years, and in fact had read the book to his own children when they were younger. “It’s a story about friendship, it’s a story about loyalty and protecting your friends and it’s a story that shows that even a little girl can help a big giant solve his biggest problems,” he says.
Dahl created stories to tell his children and grandchildren, but was always hesitant to write any of them down, something with which the director could relate. “When I told my kids stories that they were especially fond of, they would beg me to make a movie about it,” Spielberg says. “Fortunately Dahl did eventually agree to share his stories with the world, and we’re all the better because of it.”
“The BFG” is enormously popular around the world, and to date has been published in 41 languages. It was also Dahl’s own favorite of all his stories. While the author passed away in 1990 at the age of 74, the producers forged a relationship with his widow and had many conversations about how important the book was to Dahl and whether or not a movie was even realistic. “We talked a lot about whether it would be better as animation or live action, because at the time, none of the technology that we were talking about using even existed,” explains Kennedy.
But first, the producers needed a screenwriter to spin Dahl’s delightfully simple book into a full-length screenplay—someone with a special skill and instinct for children’s stories, and for that they turned to friend and colleague Melissa Mathison (“The Black Stallion,” “The Indian in the Cupboard”). “Melissa was the first and only writer we thought of,” says Kennedy. “Her gifts as a writer and her particular sensibility were essential to bringing Dahl’s visionary tale to life.”
When reading Dahl’s book, the screenwriter was drawn to the bond between Sophie and the BFG. “It is a very sweet relationship,” she said, “But they actually start off a little combative and are suspicious of one another and even have their own little power struggles. But from the moment they have a plan and move forward as partners, there’s just so much love between them. It’s a wonderful little love story.”
Mathison visited Gipsy House, Dahl’s home in Buckinghamshire, England, on numerous occasions, where she was given access to the author’s library and study. There, she explored the life and works of this extraordinary writer so as to chart her own path into the wild, funny and rich landscape of his imagination, which provided her with a foundation for capturing the spirit of Dahl’s adventure, further honing its sense of place and capturing the relationship at its heart in ways that would both build upon and honor “The BFG.”
Of utmost importance to the filmmakers was remaining faithful to Dahl’s voice, keeping consistent with the author’s rhythm, language and interaction between his characters, all of which were uniquely his. “I tried to use Dahl’s dialogue verbatim as much as possible,” Mathison said. “We didn’t want to tamper with the tone.”
The script did present numerous challenges for the writer, however. “In a strange way, not much happens in the book because it really is about their relationship,” said Mathison. “There’s no dramatic drive to it. Their decision to try and get rid of the giants happens pretty easily and quickly, and there was an episodic quality to the chapters. It wasn’t as story-driven, so we needed to create a narrative.”
Just as the filmmakers anticipated, Mathison took a personal approach to the material, maintaining the relationship between the scrappy orphan and the word-jumbly giant as they took on their big adventure. “My imagination was invested in the two of them,” she said. “Everything needed to be centered on their relationship.”
“Melissa took Dahl’s book and did the most extraordinary but faithful translation, with a magic only Melissa possesses,” says Spielberg.
Once the script was completed, Mathison would remain involved with the film throughout principal photography. Spielberg occasionally needs to make changes to the script while filming and wants the writer’s voice there to bring the characters alive. “Melissa was there on the ‘E.T.’ set every day, and every day on ‘The BFG,’” says Spielberg. “So I’ve been very fortunate to bookend our relationship with two stories that came from her heart.”
He continues, “I have not had a chance to mourn Melissa, because she’s been so vibrant and real to me, in the cutting room, on the scoring stage, in the dubbing room—she’s just always been there with me, so because of that, it’s going to be hard when I have to let ‘The BFG’ go, because then I have to let Melissa go, too.”
When we read a book by Roald Dahl, it speaks to us profoundly as adults and touches the child in all of us. And with Steven Spielberg at the helm of “The BFG,” the film will undoubtedly capture the minds of children and adults alike, just as Dahl’s stories have done for decades.
“I think everyone dreams of having an adventure like the one Sophie goes on in ‘The BFG,’” says producer Frank Marshall. “It’s a story that will appeal to all ages, and you can’t help but be captivated by the magical story and the fantastical characters.”
“With ‘The BFG,’ Steven is able to return to the innocence he had explored earlier in his career,” says production designer Rick Carter. “He’s a grandfather now…he’s both the BFG and the innocent young person. But this is a story that taps into everybody’s childhood experience of things that come out of the dark and what those things are about.”
For Bill Hader, watching the director at work was a dream come true. “Steven is so calm and friendly on set, and he makes something incredibly complicated look incredibly simple.”
As for the director himself, it was one of the most beautiful and curious experiences in his career. “Curious because when I first walked onto the stages and I saw the different levels of complexity and the technology that was required to realize even a single shot, I was, for the first time since ‘Jaws,’ completely overwhelmed,” he explains. “I wasn’t sure exactly how to pull it off, but I’m so grateful for the artistry and generosity of the extraordinary people whose creativity, precision and spirit of invention made it possible.”
The icing on the cake for the filmmakers was being able to partner with Walt Disney Studios on the film. “I have directed films at every studio except Disney,” says Spielberg, “So this was the first time that I got to make a picture that has Sleeping Beauty’s castle and Disney embossed on the beginning and the end of the picture, and I’m really proud of that.”