The Giant Imagine You Are

Of all STEVEN SPIELBERG'S talents, none is greater than his ability to capture the ardor, heartbreak, and beauty of childhood. But adapting Roald Dahl's The BFG for the big screen put the master's skills to the test.


By Jon Mooallem
Photos by Platon

Little Steven Spielberg. It's the early 1950s. You are 7, maybe 8. You are very small in an enormous world. You feel things strongly, as all children do, and seemingly all at once. Awe, dread, wonder, joy, vulnerability, sadness—often these come crashing over you together as a single phenomenon. Later, when people recognize your gift for re-creating the sensations of childhood—when a critic describes your work as going “so deep into the special alertness, loyalty, and ardor of children that it makes you see things you had forgotten or blotted out and feel things you were embarrassed to feel”—it's this sensitivity they're often talking about.

You are exquisitely uncomfortable with yourself. You are pimpled, wimpy, and Jewish, and you are bullied for all of it. Nickname: the Retard. One day your class has to run a mile, and eventually only you and one other boy are left slogging around the track. This other kid actually is intellectually disabled. But now he's gaining on you, and the entire class is cheering, yelling, “C'mon, beat Spielberg!” You know, intuitively, that you should take a dive; letting him win is the generous thing to do. So you slow down, start fading. Then, once he's overtaken you and your classmates explode with glee, you make a show of running hard again, so it still looks close. As an adult, in the '80s, you'll remember: “Everybody grabbed this guy and threw him up on their shoulders and carried him into the locker room.” But you just stay there, bawling by yourself, not even trying to sort out the conflicting spasms of pride and shame inside you. All you know is “I'd never felt better and I'd never felt worse in my entire life.”

That's just how it is: all your feelings bound up together. You are scared of so many things but simultaneously drawn to them. You are infatuated with airplanes but terrified of flying. You love Disney films but later describe the shooting of Bambi's mother as giving you PTSD. Outside of your bedroom window in New Jersey, across a long, empty field, is a tremendous tree. “I was terrified by the tree. It was a huge tree,” you'll later remember, and at night you watch its dark silhouette morph into horrible, demonic things. “Every single night my imagination would find something else to fear.” And still, you stare at the tree every single night. You revisit the things that scare you until they don't scare you anymore. You love that cycle of tension and resolution; it will become another trademark of your films. “I've always opted for waking up after a bad dream and being so happy I was awake, and then wanting to go back to sleep to have that damn dream again,” you'll say. You do the same thing with the clouds, lying in your backyard, letting your mind change them into “gigantic fists, gigantic faces.” Eventually, it hits you: “There was just something about bigness that scared me when I was a kid.”

This is never more clear than when your uncle brings you to Washington, DC, one winter. He takes you to see an enormous marble man. You can't even look at it—just glimpsing the statue's titanic white hands is too destabilizing. You just stand there, freezing and afraid, pulling at your uncle's coat to go.

Still, you're drawn to the man. You become obsessed. Back home you find yourself making paper cutouts of his profile, again and again. Eventually, you make a movie about him: Lincoln.

But there's a second movie worth mentioning, a few years after that one. You only stumble into the connection between them momentarily, when this new film is nearly finished and you're doing your first press interviews for it. It's not about Lincoln, but it's steeped in the way that encounter at the Lincoln Memorial felt—the confused way that childhood itself felt. You'll remember how “it terrified me to see a giant in a chair like that,” but also what happened next. As you once explained it: “Just before I left, I dared myself to look up into his face and suddenly felt like we were in some way related. It was a very familiar face, a very warm feeling, and I felt very safe and protected, just at a glance.”

The colossus with the contorted face and threatening fingers suddenly felt like a guardian. He was a giant, but he was a Big Friendly Giant.

For anyone whose actual childhood has been marked by ­Steven Spielberg films about childhood—who has watched it emerge and re-emerge as one of his inescapable obsessions—these will always feel like the most Spielbergian species of Spielberg film, no matter how many Munichs and Amistads the man makes. Now, this July, Spielberg will release his adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl children's book The BFG, or the Big Friendly Giant. After a five-year run of stoic historical dramas—War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies—he's again made an unapologetically magical, family-oriented film: a story about childhood, experienced largely through a child's wide-open eyes.

The BFG stars 11-year-old Ruby Barnhill, in her movie debut, as an English orphan named Sophie, and Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for his role in Bridge of Spies, as the motion-captured title character. The BFG is 24 feet tall, with legs like crooked cedar trunks and eyes the size of lobster pots. Every night he lumbers out of his native Giant Country to skulk through the streets. One night, Sophie happens to spot him though her window during the witching hour—that eerie emptiness that any child, awake and alone, feels setting in around 3 am. The BFG is exposed. He reaches in, snatches Sophie from her bed, and runs.

But the BFG turns out to be harmless—the tenderhearted runt of his race. All of his brother giants are vicious and nearly twice his size. They kidnap and eat little children. (Bill Hader plays one of the ringleaders, the Bloodbottler.) But the BFG is too gentle for that; he'd never harm a “human bean,” as he calls them in the scrambled, goofy dialect of giants. (Giants don't “fart,” for example, they squeeze out “whizzpoppers.”) Instead, the BFG resigns himself to a diet of dreary vegetables called snozzcumbers. He traps dreams in jars like fireflies. And while the other giants go out marauding, he prowls around, blowing happy dreams through sleeping children's windows with a massive trumpet. In the end, the movie is a buddy film: Sophie and the BFG hatch a plan to protect the world's children from giants forever and must enlist the Queen of England for help.

The film represents a collision of two iconic imaginations: Spielberg's and Dahl's. And yet, while Dahl's book was optioned in 1993 by Spielberg's longtime producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy—now the head of Lucasfilm—Spielberg never felt drawn to direct it. He knew the book; when you have seven kids, he tells me, you end up reading a lot of Roald Dahl. But there were always so many other stories swarming his imagination.

Consider everything on the man's docket right now: Before The BFG even premieres, Spielberg will have started shooting his 32nd feature film, Ready Player One, based on the science fiction novel by Ernest Cline. Then there's The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a script by Tony Kushner based on the abduction of a Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy, in 1858. And following that, he and Harrison Ford will reunite for a fifth Indiana Jones. All of this will keep Spielberg busy through the end of 2019 at least—and he's attached to direct other upcoming films too, like an adaptation of war photographer Lynsey Addario's memoir, starring Jennifer Lawrence. Maybe his extreme busyness, this late in his career, is proof that we live in a universe spilling over with mesmerizing stories that simply demand telling. But the more salient point here is that an exaggerated proportion of the best ones find you when you are Steven Spielberg.

The truth is, Spielberg has always been exceptionally choosy about what he directs. No matter how different his films, they all begin with the same, almost supernatural tingle of predestination when he first reads the script. “I call it That Old Familiar Feeling,” he says. He refuses to trust it at first. “It's the only way I can test how emotionally involved I want to be. I'm getting married to a movie. I've got to know it's true love. And every time I read the script again, I say, ‘This read—this time around—I'm going to find the fatal flaw that will turn me away from this.’ And when I can't find it, I throw my hands up in the air, and I say, ‘I surrender, dear!’”

The BFG, on the other hand, knocked around in development for two decades, phasing through script after script. (One iteration imagined Robin Williams as the giant.) Then, a few years ago, Spielberg found a revision by screenwriter Melissa Mathison in a pile of DreamWorks properties he'd taken with him on vacation. Right away, he saw that Mathison had recognized it as a story about “the oneness of opposites”—two disparate creatures bridging the distance between them with their empathy, finding a kind of emotional symbiosis. Mathison's script, Spielberg explains, was “just such a pure love story ... It's a great wise sage, but with a very innocent outlook and a very, very young girl with an old soul. I just said to myself, ‘I don't know if I can live without this movie in my life.’” There it was: that old familiar feeling. “For Melissa even to say, ‘Yes, I'll do The BFG,’ was itself a minor miracle,” he says.

Mathison passed away last year, after The BFG finished shooting, from complications of neuroendocrine cancer. She was, it seems, a bit of a sphinx in Hollywood—a freakishly well-read, deeply committed Buddhist. She'd grown up in the Hollywood Hills, where, well into early adulthood, she and her sister capitalized on the neighborhood's gold mine of babysitting gigs, minding the children left at home every night by their ardently socializing, filmmaker parents. After regularly watching Francis Ford Coppola's kids, Mathison became the director's on-set assistant. He encouraged her to write. Her first script—an adaptation of The Black Stallion—was produced in 1979; the film received two Oscar nominations.

But after even more success, Mathison seemed to take a conspicuous step back. People in the industry describe this as a choice: Mathison was raising two kids and was active in the cause of a free Tibet. But Mathison's sister, Melinda Johnson, explains that while all this was true, Mathison would “also frequently tell us, ‘There's a lot of scripts I can do, but I can't even get considered because of my age.’” As a writer, she was known for her uncommon sensitivity to the interior lives of children. Kathleen Kennedy, who hired her to take on The BFG, says, “What Melissa exuded in her writing was this incredible sense of whimsy and empathy, and her unique ability to take stories that are viewed as just being for children and excavate the intellectual depth of the story so it resonates with adults.”

Spielberg had first met Mathison in 1980, on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in Tunisia. She was dating Harrison Ford, whom she'd later marry and have two children with. Mathison introduced herself to Spielberg only as “a failed screenwriter,” which shocked him when he eventually learned that her supposed failure was The Black Stallion, because—as Spielberg puts it to me—he'd always considered that film “a triumph of the heart!”

Spielberg, meanwhile, was in almost the opposite position of Mathison at the time: confident in his talent and success but lonely. After directing Jaws some five years earlier, he'd had license to do anything he wanted in Hollywood but wasn't as adept at managing that privilege as he is now. He was making escapist movies—fun stuff, like Raiders—and wondered what deeper, more personal stories he might have to tell. The legendary French director Francois Truffaut had recently urged Spielberg to do a film from a kid's point of view. (“You are the child still!” Truffaut kept insisting.)

Now, in Tunisia, Spielberg started confiding in Mathison, telling her a story about the dislocation he'd felt as a child—a story in his head that he hoped she'd turn into a script.

“I told her the story of E.T.,” he says.

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How do you talk about E.T. at this point? Say the title to anyone of a certain age and what burbles to the surface are not thoughts about the movie but fully reexperienced sensations. There's the feeling of the woods at night, the keys jangling ominously on that faceless grown-up's belt. The feeling of a family so structureless and jumbled by divorce that a little boy can sleep outside all night on a patio chair without his mother intervening—how crazily liberating that felt, but also just how off. And then there were the feelings of terror: even before the straight-up terror of that astronaut at the door, the subtler terror of Elliott and E.T. crumpled on the upstairs bathroom floor, and of Elliott—a child, just like you—actually saying the d-word, out loud, to his mother: “I think we're dying.” And then your compassion for them turning inward, if you let it, and changing delicately into something even worse: a recognition, somewhere in your subconscious, but also in your gut, that you'd die someday too. The entire film's like this: a mind-expanding fog of suspense and alienation and vulnerability, probably the three most upsetting things a kid can feel.

It was a movie about childhood that was too real for many children to watch. There were reports, in that summer of 1982, of kids becoming ill in the theater during the last scene, when E.T. lifts off and leaves Elliott behind. A psychologist named Richard Sloves looked into it and discovered that these children had fathers that, like Elliott's, had recently left home after a divorce. And this, of course, was precisely the trauma that Spielberg was channeling too: the loneliness and disorientation that followed his own parents' separation—the foundational experience of Spielberg's childhood. He needed Mathison to give that fraught condition words, but its imagery and ambience were still totally fresh for him. “I think a lot of his childhood stayed trapped in his imagination,” Kennedy says. “He has the best memory of anyone I've ever met.” And he doesn't just remember what happened, but how it was experienced. “He remembers the stories. I think he carried them with him into his adult life.”

After E.T., Spielberg became indelibly associated with childhood, both as an artist and a brand. (See, for example, the niche academic anthology Children in the Films of Steven Spielberg. Sample passage: “A total of 427 agentic thoughts, expressions or actions by children are enacted across all fifteen films. While that averages 28.5 incidences of child agency per film, closer examination is necessary given that Spielberg's films vary greatly in child agency portrayal.”) Kennedy says, “The critical community, for a while, didn't want him to make other kinds of movies. They didn't give him that license.” His adaption of The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars and did $94 million at the box office, but Variety found Spielberg's “turn at ‘serious’ filmmaking” to be maudlin and “overblown.” (Others found it politically inappropriate for a white guy to make a film about the African-American experience.)

Spielberg insists he didn't feel pigeonholed during this period, only hemmed in by the expectations his success had created. And yet, promoting his film Empire of the Sun in 1987, he often sounded like a man at war with his own Peter Pan-ish infatuation with youth—embarrassed, or even ashamed, of how long he'd managed to indulge it. Empire of the Sun is about a boy, played by Christian Bale, who is separated from his high-society British family in Shanghai during World War II and marooned, for years, in a Japanese internment camp. It is, effectively, one long, cinematic disillusioning. To describe it as a movie about the loss of innocence is an understatement; it's a slow, brutalizing crucifixion of the very idea of childhood as a special, protected state. While promoting the film, Spielberg frequently discussed its themes in disarmingly personal terms. He called it “an exorcism”—on himself. Having recently turned 40, he told The New York Times, “I really had to come to terms with what I've been tenaciously clinging to, which was a celebration of a kind of naïveté.” He added, “I want to stop having kids on the screen and start having them in real life.” And he referred to films he'd recently been producing (this was the era of The Money Pit and An American Tail) as “sugar substitutes.” “I've gagged on it myself,” Spielberg said. Already, he was talking up the Holocaust movie he wanted to make and that, six years later, would prove he'd matured, shattering the narrow perception of him as a director: Schindler's List.

But when I met Spielberg in Manhattan this spring, in his 70th year, it was clear that he's made peace with all his artistic impulses. So many of his films have continued to be threaded with threatened innocence, from family films like Hook—his retelling of Peter Pan—to science fiction. (In Minority Report, Tom Cruise looks for any trace of his abducted son. In A.I., there's the gut-wrenching wanderings of the abandoned android child, Haley Joel Osment.) Even straight­forward action blockbusters like War of the Worlds and Jurassic Park have revolved around parents (or surrogate parents) struggling to protect their kids. And yet Spielberg talks about The BFG as finally being an opportunity to lose that edge and freely revel again in the innocence his films often undermine.

“To me, it was just a wonderland,” he says. “It was an opportunity to enter Giant Country and to enter Dream Country.” The new film may parallel, or even bookend, E.T. in obvious ways. Both are stories about a symbiotic friendship, created by a similar symbiosis of director and screenwriter. “I see both E.T. and BFG as being about the nurturing of childhood,” Spielberg explains. “It's a celebration of the privileges of childhood and all the things you can get away with when you're a kid.”

A quick aside about Roald Dahl, author of The BFG, who seems to have lived a life of spirit-obliterating misfortune: Dahl was a weird, accident-prone child who, according to his biographer, Donald Sturrock, seemed more attached to his collection of bird eggs than to other people. When he was 3 years old, his older sister died. His father, bereft, went shortly after that. As a kid, his nose was torn off in a car accident. The nose was reattached, but, as the critic Sam Anderson puts it, Dahl simply couldn't fight back the “toxic tsunami of bad luck” cresting over him. As a young pilot in the Royal Air Force, he crashed during his very first combat flight. Then, splayed half-conscious on the sweltering floor of the Libyan desert with a cracked skull, he discovered that the malfunctioning machine guns on his plane had started firing at him.

Both Spielberg and Dahl buttressed themselves against their childhood traumas with their imaginations. But Dahl's barrier, understandably, couldn't completely hold. There were just too many calamities, and they seem to have shaped him in ugly ways. By adulthood he was prone to misogyny, racism, and anti-­Semitism and was often unpleasant at parties. Spielberg would always be driven toward redemption—that moment you wake up from the bad dream. Dahl went the other way. His dying words were literally “Ow, fuck!” because, even at the end, some nurse was stabbing him with a needle.

And yet Dahl was able to channel that darkness to write stories that children loved. His work was morbid, vicious, and full of cruel and dreary adults. James—the boy with the Giant Peach—is beaten by his aunts after a rhinoceros eats his parents. In The Twits, a hideous married couple engage in a sick arms race of hateful tricks against each other. Then there's Willy Wonka, that creepily infantilized sadist who, like the foreman in some Upton Sinclair industrial dystopia, hardly pauses to watch as a child is mutated into a massive berry on his factory floor and then wheeled off by his enslaved minions to be juiced. (The girl was a whiny brat, but still: A time-out would have done.) The BFG, in which giants abduct orphans and digest them, is probably one of Dahl's least dark books.

The tale spilled out of him quickly in 1981, during a rare period of wonderful feelings about the world. He was coming out of a long despair triggered by the death of his 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, from measles encephalitis. He was writing energetically again and trying to give his four surviving children the idyllic childhood that had escaped him. “There was a tragic era,” his youngest daughter remembered, “and there was my era, which was calm and lovely.”

But the character of the Big Friendly Giant originated in stories that Dahl told his children years earlier, still in the throes of that painful time. This was after Olivia had died, and also after Dahl's first wife, the actress Patricia Neal, had suffered a stroke. The Dahls' marriage was now slowly breaking apart, and Dahl “sought solace in the company of his two younger children,” a way to escape “from his own anxieties into a world of youthful innocence and fantasy.” The BFG lived in the family's orchard, supposedly, and used a long wooden pipe to blow pleasant dreams through the window. One night Dahl went so far as to stand on a ladder, slip a bamboo cane through his children's curtains while they were falling asleep, and make a loud, breathy whooshing sound. The girls knew it was him, but didn't have the heart to tell him. One daughter remembers, “He seemed to me, even then, to have a vulnerable core. So I said nothing.”

Dahl was 6′5″—a giant. And, standing on that ladder, he was trying, tenderly, to inflect those little girls' lives with magic. But secretly, they were actually taking care of him.

He was living the same story he was writing.

A YOUNG PERSON WILL NEVER BE INNOCENT AGAIN-AFTER STARRING IN A MOVIE”

That's the ever-shifting relation­ship at the core of The BFG too—precisely what, in Mathison's script, gave Spielberg his old familiar feeling. The bond between Sophie and the Giant is nuanced and richly scrambled: Each nurtures, protects, and learns from the other. It's a complicated dynamic that's difficult to capture on film, and Spielberg was faced with the additional, technical challenge of having one of those characters be 20 feet taller than the other.

Ultimately he enlisted Weta Digital to solve the problem of scale. A team led by four-time Oscar-winning visual effects artist Joe Letteri devised a way to film Mark Rylance as a motion-captured giant that wouldn't limit Spielberg during shooting and, even more important, wouldn't overburden or alienate his actors from each other. It was an amalgam of high tech tricks and equally ingenious low tech ones. Many scenes were shot on three parallel, identical sets, built at different scales, on a soundstage in Vancouver. There was, for example, a set of the BFG's cottage as Sophie would experience it, where actress Ruby Barnhill was placed on a tremendous table, dwarfed by humongous beakers and snozzcumbers, and Rylance would stand on a 20-foot gantry beside her to preserve the proper eye-line between them. And then there was a smaller version of the same cottage, where Rylance, standing on his own two feet, would tower over miniature beakers and snozzcumbers, and Barnhill would be tucked into some low notch on her knees.

“Everything was designed—the entire production was designed—for two actors to be constantly in eye contact with each other,” Spielberg says. “That was essential.” Barnhill was 10 when shooting started, and this was her first film. “I knew immediately,” Spielberg explains, “that Ruby was going to need as much authenticity as we could create for her.” No normal child can be expected to carry on poignant conversations with a clay maquette or a tennis ball hanging in front of green screen to approximate the location of a digital giant's face. “I knew that if Mark could always see Ruby's eyes when he was acting, and Ruby could always see Mark's eyes, that they would find companionship and authenticity.”

Directing children is its own art form and one Spielberg seems to have thought about deeply. Producer Frank Marshall says, “He's able to make them trust him and relax, and deliver these incredible performances—often with barely any training, like Ruby.” Or like Drew Barrymore in E.T. or Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun. “He becomes a kid himself.”

Barnhill told me that when they began shooting The BFG, “I literally felt lost. I was shaking with nerves.” She was 4,500 miles away from her home in England. There were 300 people on set. She had her own makeup artist and a driver named Cindy. It was freaky. But Spielberg freed her to improvise dialog and doted on her, constantly checking if she needed a break. It relaxed her, made her feel less powerless in that otherwise disorienting, regimented environment. (“You can't release a kid to be themselves if you have strict rules,” Spielberg says.) And gradually, Barnhill opened up. She began chatting up Spielberg and all his department heads, fascinated by every aspect of their process. Soon she was showing them films she'd started shooting on her phone and editing on a laptop in her trailer. (“She made three movies in the span of time it took me to make one!” Spielberg says.) Barnhill told me, “I don't want to be an actress anymore. I'd like to be a director. I don't think I'll ever be as brilliant as Steven is, though.” She calls him “a second father.”

Spielberg seems to feel an almost chastening responsibility to keep his young stars feeling this free and safe. He understands that they're still guileless, with a thinner buffer between themselves and their characters than veteran, grown-up actors, and that he, as their director, is forced to manipulate volatile emotions that these children are only beginning to understand and control. He explains, “I've worked with kids my entire career and parented seven children. I know that kids can't fake the truth.” Good performances are often only extensions of a child's genuine feeling in the moment.

On E.T. for example, Spielberg made a point of shooting the movie chronologically, so the kids were living the story day by day. “By the end of the film,” he explains, when each character stepped forward to say goodbye to E.T. on the ramp of his craft, “those tears were real. Because they were all going home.” It was like the last day of camp; their time together was done. Drew Barrymore cried hardest. She was only 6 and had taken to sitting beside the animatronic E.T. prop during breaks, telling it her secrets. When the shoot was over, Spielberg bought her a kitten.

It's like there's a Spielberg film happening behind the scenes of all these Spielberg films—a potentially gut-wrenching fable about the loss of innocence, about a displaced child cornered by the machinery of the grown-up world. And Spielberg wants to direct that story too—steer it toward a safe resolution. “In my own experience directing children, I've seen kids sacrifice childhood for a professional place in the world,” he told me. “Suddenly you become a professional actor. You're not playing with your friends. You're on location—you're being taught by a studio teacher, and your childhood is something you reminisce about. If you stay in the business, the memories wither very quickly.” It was hard not to think of Barrymore, with whom he's still close but whose post- E.T. childhood was famously troubled; she wasn't much older than Barnhill is now when she first entered drug treatment.

Spielberg later returned to the idea, suddenly sounding so adamant that it left me a little shaken. “I'm always mindful that a young person, innocent to our world, will never be innocent again after starring in a movie. And I always emphasize to the parents: You need to keep your kid safe. When this is all over, they have to be normal. They have to go back to real life. They have to keep their friends, stay in school. Don't get seduced by what people may offer you in the future.” Those parents, he added, “will need to take better care of their kids after an experience like this. I always try to let people know that reality begins and ends at home. The reality cannot be sustained in the world I live in, which is the world of make-believe.”

Somehow, the magic of childhood lies in its formlessness, its squishiness—the ease with which emotions surge into one another and up to the surface, how subtly imagination washes over reality. Nothing's hardened yet. It's all still beautifully weak, for better and for worse. And what is childlike about any of us is what has managed to stay that malleable.

Steven Spielberg is an almost-70-year-old man who has managed to spend his entire life making up stories and playing them out with living figurines. He's still the child. But—and he knows this—he's the giant reaching through the window for her too.

JON MOOALLEM (@jmooallem) writes WIRED's Mr. Know-It-All column. His book, Wild Ones, is available in paperback.