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Steven Spielberg on returning to making films, like ‘The BFG’, that let him create new worlds

Director Steven Spielberg after the screening of "The BFG" during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival.

Director Steven Spielberg after the screening of “The BFG” during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival.

(EPA/SEBASTIEN NOGIER)

He remains a wizard at making films focused on young people, witness his Cannes-premiering “The BFG,” adapted from the classic Roald Dahl novel. But Steven Spielberg knows he’s not a kid anymore, and that has affected everything.

True, at age 69, the director is “just as insecure now as I was 30 years ago, but insecurity is a good bedfellow for a filmmaker.” Questions of what he does and why he does it, however, have taken on a different dimension.

“Every film is a marriage, not dating, and I think long and hard if I want to spend years of my life on this, if there is enough there I can feel deeply about.”

Though he emphasizes “I’m not looking to lecture anyone, to be rabbinical in selling a point of view,” Spielberg says he now feels “more responsibility to put good things out in the world.”

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“When I was younger I never thought of any public responsibility in messaging values. People were telling me I was doing it and I didn’t know what they were talking about. Now I think about that in almost everything I look at.”

"The BFG," directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, is the tale of a young London girl (Ruby Barnhill) and the mysterious Giant (Mark Rylance) who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country.
“The BFG,” directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, is the tale of a young London girl (Ruby Barnhill) and the mysterious Giant (Mark Rylance) who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country.

Looking relaxed yet professional in sports coat, dress shirt and tie worn over jeans and running shoes, Spielberg is talking in one of Cannes’ most iconic spaces, a landmark dome that sits on the roof of the Carlton Hotel. It’s a small but cozy space that, as he notes, “feels like a Pullman car on the Orient Express.”

Glancing out through the dome’s circular window, Spielberg can see one of Cannes’ numerous posters for “The BFG,” the story of how 10-year-old London orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) befriends a Big Friendly Giant (a superb Mark Rylance) and, with a little help from Queen Elizabeth II (“Downton Abbey’s” Penelope Wilton) saves the world from some not-so-friendly giants.

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Working for the first time with Walt Disney Studios, Spielberg made “The BFG” for reasons that are personal as much as anything else. “Starting in 1988, with my son Max, I read this book to my children several times and I fell under its spell,” he says.

Also personal was the chance it provided, after a series of films like “Bridge of Spies,” “Lincoln” and “War Horse,” to “return to the feeling of just being able to let my imagination overrule the rules of history. I was feeling like I needed to get back to what I do really well: creating new worlds.”

“The BFG” -- which opens in the U.S. on July 1 -- also provided a chance for Spielberg to work again with British actor Rylance, who took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, opposite Tom Hanks, in “Bridge of Spies.”

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Aided by a remarkably sophisticated use of performance capture technology, the actor gives such a sublime performance as the mumbling, grumbling, eccentric tower of bewildered immensity that the film is virtually impossible to imagine without him.

Tell the director how much you admired Rylance and he instinctively touches his own heart. “You should have seen me on the set; he blew me away,” he says. And, in post-production, “everyone quite quickly learned my mantra ‘I want more Mark in the mix, I want more Mark in the mix,’ over and over again.”

Having worked with Rylance in two films so far, Spielberg is articulate about what he admires about the actor. “He is incredibly malleable to the character, and he’s game for any stretch of the imagination,” the director says. “He doesn’t give you a set of limitations, basically he doesn’t have any limits. He wants to stretch.”

More than that, “even though you’re not supposed to be able to learn past 65, I learned things I wish I’d learned 30 years ago. Along with Daniel Day Lewis and Tom Hanks, he taught me patience to allow the actor time to find their moment.

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“Real directing is about creating an environment where actors feel safe to fail. If they can’t be allowed to fail publicly, there’s nothing to be dared.”

Mark Rylance as he arrives for the screening of the film "The BFG" at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.
Mark Rylance as he arrives for the screening of the film “The BFG” at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.

This relationship works so well that the director, in an unprecedented move, is planning to star Rylance in two more movies. He will play Pope Pius IX in “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” the based-on-fact story (to be written by Tony Kushner, who previously tackled “Munich” and “Lincoln” for Spielberg) of the far-reaching implications of the 1858 abduction of an Italian Jewish boy.

And Rylance will also have a key role in Spielberg’s next film, “Ready Player One,” a project that also speaks to the kind of work the director wants to be doing. Based on the 2011 science fiction novel by Ernest Cline, it will be, Spielberg says, “a sprawling adventure movie that will be extremely compelling for a young audience. But it also has an extremely strong message about getting lost in cyberspace.

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“When you stay hidden behind your own avatar, when you are in control of that world, how much of the real world do you forfeit? Even with kids today, I’ve watched eye contact become a social liability.”

Finally, the criteria Spielberg uses for projects he goes ahead with are “what will excite me the most, what will make me look forward to waking up in the morning.

“Certain stories I’m attracted to I don’t know how to tell or how to walk away from, which is why it sometimes takes me 10, 12 years to make projects after they’re announced. But with every movie I make, I do it because I have to get it out of my system or I can’t sleep.”

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