Steven Spielberg hit Cannes again and it was a return worth celebrating. It has been a very long time coming — 1993 to be exact, when Roald Dahl’s children’s book The BFG was first optioned — but this master director, working again in the fantasy genre, pulls off a movie worth the wait. Saturday night at the Grand Lumiere Theatre in the Palais he soaked up the applause (at least a two-minute standing ovation just for his entrance and another 4 1/2 minutes after the end credits rolled) for his latest, The BFG, which reunited him with the late E.T. The Extra Terrestrial screenwriter Melissa Mathison to bring this tale of a friendly giant and the young girl he teaches about life in Giant Country. On a deeper level it is a story about never doubting someone out there is looking out for you. Spielberg has been spending most of his directorial energy of late on more fact-driven dramas like superb Bridge Of Spies (my favorite movie of 2015) and Lincoln, but at the Nikki Beach after-party he told me he had a different calling on this one.
“You know for the past few years I have been following my passion for history-based stories to turn into movies, but I felt the time was right to return to the fantasy films and this particular book,” he enthused about the Dahl novel. The three-time Oscar winning directing icon was clearly on a high from the audience reaction when I caught up with him at the party. And at the press conference earlier he noted, “it wasn’t going back to the past for me, but revisiting stories I love to do which are imagination stories. There were no barriers. I felt liberated on this. I could tell a story that was (unrestricted)”. And he did with the help of new muse Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant.
In February Rylance became only the second actor to win an Oscar under Spielberg’s watch ( Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln was the other). Rylance basically performs this like an Andy Serkis -type role and succeeds brilliantly. Spielberg said he already has Rylance lined up for his next two movies: Ready Player One and The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara. Rylance laughed when I asked him about this new alliance. “I guess I have my next few jobs lined up,” he said. Playing opposite him is newcomer Ruby Barnhill, who reminded me so much of Mary Badham as Scout in her curiosity about Bo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird. She’s excellent. Producer Frank Marshall, who with wife Kathleen Kennedy has tried to make this film a reality for years, said that when Mathison finally came aboard to write the script it got Spielberg interested in really making it happen, but the technology had to be there and WETA’s special effects wizard Joe Letteri made the difference. Let me state it flat out, The BFG is pure movie magic , a giant of an entertainment from a giant of film. It’s a real gem and that rare live action family film that isn’t animated. And it is great to see a director, so flushed with past success, be so excited about a new film.
I also made a beeline at the party for Penelope Wilton, who is just perfection as the Queen Of England. I asked what she did to prepare and she just said she checked out footage of the Queen on the internet. She ought to be Queen herself. There’s a real warmth there. I fell in love with the way this character is portrayed. It’s that rare feel-good movie, and it will be interesting to see if today’s jaded kids can cozy up to a movie that celebrates an increasingly lost art of storytelling. Marshall, totally ebullient about the crowd reaction (if not some curmudgeonly critics) told me he has more in store. “You are going to be seeing a lot of me this summer” he said, noting he has hit a home run with July 29th release, Jason Bourne, as well as the September 9th Clint Eastwood-directed biopic of Sully Sullenberger, simply called Sully.
At age 84 he says Eastwood has done a remarkable job with a story that, according to Marshall, you may think you know, but you don’t. Both Marshall and Kennedy are also involved in the next Indiana Jones film starring Harrison Ford. Kennedy, who now runs the entire LucasFilm empire for Disney, said when she took on the mammoth Star Wars projects that there was one project she felt passionately about keeping and that was, you guessed it, The BFG. Kennedy said it was a very tough nut to crack over the past two decades. She also recalled what she said was a moment that could never be repeated, the 1982 closing night Cannes premiere of E.T., which was one of many films she produced for Spielberg. “It was really almost like a rock concert. People had flashlights swinging and lit candles . It was just incredible and it was also the last movie seen in the old Palais,” she said. As you can imagine, last night was a special one full of nostalgia for both Kennedy and Spielberg. Of course now 34 years later the magic returns, even if it is not on that impossible-to-match level. Spielberg was last in Cannes in 2013 as President of the Jury that selected Lesbian love story Blue Is The Warmest Color for the Palme d’Or. Ironically the film that followed The BFG on to the huge Lumiere screen, a competition entry (BFG is out of competition) for Park Chan-Wook’s Mademoiselle, which contains scenes of lesbian lovemaking that makes Blue Is The Warmest Color look as tame as a Minions movie.