He might just be one of the most popular directors in film history, but that’s still no reason for two-time Academy Award winning director Steven Spielberg “to sit back on my tush”.
Speaking ahead of the release of his latest film, The BFG, based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story, Spielberg reveals he has no plans to slow down and his passion for making movies is as strong as ever, as he heads towards his 70th birthday later this year.
The prolific American-Jewish filmmaker – who has made his name over four decades with such iconic Hollywood hits as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Art, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List – added he was “proud” to still be doing what he loves most and was determined to continue on with his career despite his already-proven success.
Spielberg, who is estimated to be worth £2.4billion, said: “I met a lot of my [director] heroes and I’ve seen the one thing that happens when directors get older is that they still have the passion and the determination to tell stories, but because of their age, the people who hire you look at you as a relic from the past.
“And as I’ve said before, I am not going to be a relic from the past! If I have to hire myself and form a studio to keep myself working, then by gosh that’s what I’m going to do.”
With a young-at-heart attitude, Spielberg has turned his attentions to Dahl’s popular children’s story, in his first ever collaboration with Disney.
The release of the film on Friday also coincides with this year’s celebrations marking 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl, whose darkly-comic works for young readers included James and the Giant Peach, Mathilda and The Witches.
The BFG – which stands for Big Friendly Giant – was first published in 1982, the very same year that Spielberg scored success with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.
For this project, Spielberg teamed up again with his ET collaborator, scriptwriter Melissa Mathison.
Sadly, the 65-year-old ex-wife of Harrison Ford did not see the film’s release, having passed away from cancer last November.
Spielberg says he was enchanted by the story of a 10-year-old orphan (played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who befriends a Big Friendly Giant (played by Wolf Hall actor Mark Rylance). Together, the pair set out to save England from child-eating giants by asking for help from Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton).
“I read it to my kids,” says Spielberg, who has seven children (from his marriages to Amy Irving and present wife Kate Capshaw) and three grandchildren.
“I picked it up at a bookstore. I was more familiar with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than I was with the BFG, but it had a great illustration on the cover of a little girl and this huge giant with the big ears and I thought it’d be a nice book to buy.
“I read it out loud and could understand just why it had become so popular. But I didn’t see it as a film back then – I just saw it as a way of popularising myself with my family!”
The overriding theme in the story – of a main character devoid of a loving family, who befriends a fantastical creature – is one that resonates well with Spielberg, who has explored the same idea in a number of his films, including ET, Hook, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and AI and may be partly autobiographical.
In the past, Spielberg has revealed he felt like an outsider and an “alien”, given his upbringing within an Orthodox Jewish family.
In bringing Dahl’s work to the big screen, the director cast Barnhill and Rylance for the lead roles, explaining he felt an “intuitive tickle” that both would be perfect for his film.
Spielberg said he is a “huge admirer” of the British actor and knew he would be perfect for his film after the first day of shooting Bridge of Spies, for which Rylance took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
“I just had that intuition there’s nobody better in the world that could pull this off other than Mark Rylance and I offered him the part that day,” he explains. “Funnily he didn’t realise and thought I was looking for his opinion on whether the script was any good!”
Rylance is working with Spielberg again on his next project, Ready Player One, based on the sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, and has been cast as Pope Pius IX in his forthcoming The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which is based on the real-life 1858 abduction of an Italian-Jewish boy.
The BFG employs a clever blend of live action and performance capture technology to breathe life into Dahl’s fantastical giants, from the 24-foot tall friendly hero, to his much larger “cannybully” brothers, Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbotter, Manhugger, Meatdripper and Butcher Boy, who are intent on eating “human beans”.
Hailing the advancement of digital effects, Spielberg explained that “today there is no limit to anyone’s imagination”.
He says: “You can literally put anything on the screen. Illusion is gone. We no longer have to use practical magic to make you believe something is real, because digital effects are photo real.
“Hopefully the success of The BFG is measured not just by the amount of heart expressed by these two characters, but also by the fact that 20 minutes into the movie, you forget there are any effects at all. If a movie is working, you forget the effects.”
When asked about his own movie-watching habits by other directors, Spielberg revealed he tries not to dissect how it has been made, but rather “I just let the film, like the rest of the audience, have its way with me”.
As for choosing a favourite from his vast filmography spanning four decades, Spielberg, dressed casually in a tweed jacket and loose tie, simply smiles.
“That’s the toughest question to answer and the answer is cliché, but it’s the truest answer. Like my children, I have seven children and I have no favourites. They are all my favourites.”
The BFG (PG) is out in cinemas from Friday