Confidence is my enemy says BFG director Spielberg

Directors don't come much bigger than Steven Spielberg, but don't expect an ego of giant proportions as part of the package. As he brings Roald Dahl classic The BFG to the big screen, Gemma Dunn meets a man whose likeability is as sizeable as his talent

Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as The BFG in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of that name
Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as The BFG in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of that name Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as The BFG in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of that name

A HOLLYWOOD director recently revealed he received some words of wisdom from none other than Steven Spielberg – the subject being whether the pressure of expectation ever eases with success.

Spielberg had given a simple and clear-cut answer: "No, it just gets worse."

Considered one of the pioneers of the New Hollywood era, it's hard to believe the man whose prolific film career has spanned more than four decades would have an ounce of doubt in his ability to generate hit after big-grossing hit. But when gifted the opportunity to meet him early one Saturday morning, his modesty reads the same.

"Every story is unlike any other story I have told," he explains, when prompted on the subject. "I don't make the same movie over and over again, so every movie I make is like starting over and starting from scratch."

Less than a minute into our chat, it's easy to see why Spielberg, the brains behind such classics as Jaws and Jurassic Park, is considered one of the most popular directors and producers in film history.

Dressed to impress in a mauve check blazer, white shirt and jeans, the 69-year-old triple Oscar-winner (one for Saving Private Ryan and two for Schindler's List) is warm, inviting and fully engaged. A far cry from many interviewees, he refuses to take himself too seriously – yet still lives and breathes his craft.

"I find that confidence is my enemy," he continues. "And the more challenged the subject matter makes me feel, the better work I do. I've always been that way; I am much better making an original story than I am making a sequel."

And one of his latest projects, a big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1982 book The BFG, in partnership with Disney, certainly tested him.

"It was one of the most beautiful and curious experiences in my career," he says of the 'gigantic' process, combining live action and motion capture, which succeeds the 1989 made-for-television film.

"Curious because when I first walked onto the stages and I saw the different levels of complexity, and the technology that was required to realise even a single shot, I was, for the first time since Jaws, completely overwhelmed," he elaborates.

"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.

"Hopefully the success of The BFG is measured not just by the amount of heart that's expressed by the main two characters, and their relationship, but also by the fact that hopefully 15-20 minutes in, you forget there are any effects at all," the Ohio-born film-maker adds, adjusting his black-rimmed glasses.

Known for his long-standing associations with several actors, producers, and technicians, Spielberg requested that the late Melissa Mathison (the screenwriter whose credits include E.T. and The Black Stallion; she died, aged 65, last year) write the screenplay and, from the outset, appointed Mark Rylance – who will also star in Spielberg's upcoming films Ready Player One and The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara – as the loveable giant.

"Mark would go into complete character transformation when the camera was rolling," Spielberg recalls of Rylance's Oscar-winning performance in his 2015 film, Bridge Of Spies. "And while he is one of the greatest stage actors ever, it was the Mark in between takes that really touched my heart. It was then that I knew he could do anything."

With the centre of the story the relationship between the BFG and Sophie, the curious young orphan who is whisked out of her bed and taken to Giant Country, Spielberg admits he trusted his "intuitive tickle" when it came to casting newcomer Ruby Barnhill to play the schoolgirl.

"There was just something about her," Spielberg says of the the 12-year-old Cheshire-born actress, drawing parallels to when he struck gold with a then six-year-old Drew Barrymore in E.T. – his 1982 classic. "She is fascinating and incredibly talented, and just perfect for this role."

And if you're to be taken under a wing, Barnhill can't hope for a better teacher than Spielberg – the co-founder of DreamWorks Studios, whose early science-fiction and adventure films are dubbed the 'archetypes of modern Hollywood escapist film-making'.

But his accolades – Forbes magazine last placed his personal net worth at $3.6 billion and Time listed him within the 100 Most Important People of the Century – don't exclude him from rejection.

"Oh yeah, I've been turned down a lot!" he quips, breaking into laughter. "As a matter of fact, everybody that has turned me down has done me a favour, because then somebody else came along that actually made me feel like, 'What would have happened had the person I was seeking [originally] had said yes?' Would it have been the same film? Probably not."

For those who await a call from Spielberg then, what does he make of his own success and legacy?

"I do a lot of looking back, and a lot of understanding what makes a good story... the way Hollywood used to tell stories. So my whole love for this medium comes from paying attention to the past and respecting all the movies that have been made over all these years.

"I speak to film students, and they say, 'Well, how do I get a job?'" he adds. "And I say, 'Well it's easy to get a job if you write, because if they buy your script, you can insist on directing it, or you can take your device and just go out and make your own movie!' I also say, 'You need to look at the old films'.

"I used to have to pay my kids $10 to watch a black-and-white movie. I would bribe them, and $10 was a lot of money then; they were 12 years old," adds Spielberg, who has seven children (one son with his first wife Amy Irving, and one step-daughter and five others, including two adopted children, with his now-wife Kate Capshaw).

"I had a couple of my kids watch the movie, and 20 minutes later give me my $10 back," he confesses, smiling.

He's hoping bribes won't be necessary when it comes to his grandchildren enjoying his latest blockbuster, however.

"They're excited," he says of The BFG' s release. "My grandson Luke saw it [early on] and he loved it, but my other three grandchildren are probably about a year away from seeing it.

"Children are much tougher on a story than adults," Spielberg finishes with a wink. "I listen more to children."

:: The BFG is in cinemas now.