Encounter of a rare kind

Updated: 2016-10-13 07:00

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily)

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Hollywood great Steven Spielberg shares his behind-the-scenes stories and filmmaking insights with China Daily film writer Raymond Zhou in an interview in Beijing.

Steven Spielberg is often perceived as a symbol of Hollywood - both for those who love it and those who revile it. "I'm proud to be a member of the Hollywood filmmaking community. I never take offense when someone says, 'You're a Hollywood guy,'" says the director of The BFG, who sat down for a rare one-on-one interview with China Daily during a recent promotional tour in China of his new movie. "When I was a kid, I wanted to go to Hollywood and make movies. It's the end of the rainbow. It's Oz for me," he says, giving examples of serious movies that do not seem to be profit-driven but are funded and made in Hollywood.

Some commentators say Spielberg had toned down the darkness in the original children's book written by Roald Dahl when he adapted The BFG for the big screen.

Spielberg explains there is still a lot of darkness in the movie version. There is a great message in the book about the dangers of bullying, he says, which the movie has kept. But he didn't find the book "too dark" when he read it to his children when they were little.

Encounter of a rare kind

However, the movie doesn't need one to read the book first as it provides back stories for the main characters and may actually encourage moviegoers to go pick up the book.

I ask him about how he manages audience expectations - between those who love him for his existing work and those who want their favorite filmmakers to constantly reinvent themselves.

In response, he clearly separates his movies into two categories - the type that he doesn't know of or care for audience participation and those for which he would try to think from the audience's seat.

For the former, he says he needs to make them for himself and isn't sure at all whether they would be popular; for movies like the Indiana Jones franchise, he is "not ashamed" that he actively anticipates audience reaction.

"As I got older, my films have become more personal. I'm a little less attentive to audience needs and more about what I'm feeling at this time in my life," he says.

I confirm with Spielberg that Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan were the "surprise hits" that he didn't make with the box office in mind, and he adds Lincoln to the list.

"I also had a lot of unhappy surprises", which is the nature of the film business as he sees it.

I ask him about the most difficult films he has made, and he again mentions Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.

"When the subject matter is so emotional that I cannot create a distance between myself and the story I'm telling and we lose our objectivity, we become almost too invested emotionally in what we're doing."

On the set of Schindler's List, in Poland where the Holocaust had taken place, a day didn't go by when someone broke down or cast members couldn't continue and just collapsed on the ground, he recalls.

Spielberg credits the making of socially conscious films like Lincoln with maturity, which comes with age. "I couldn't have made those movies while younger."

He had acquired the rights to the book, Schindler's List, in 1982. He waited a decade before making it because he was still "too happy" and was not a father yet.

"I had to reach a point in my life where I could throw out the bag of entertainment tricks before I could do it honestly and authentically."

Working with actors

Spielberg says he finds actors who are naturals.

"When I cast Ruby Barnhill for the role of Sophie, she was already Sophie," the girl in The BFG. "I didn't direct her so that she would be self-conscious. I didn't want to do anything to get in the way of the magic she was bringing to the character."

As a director, he only explained how movies were made but didn't talk much about the character with her. "I let her invent her own character."

"The best a director can do with kids is not to direct," Spielberg insists.

He usually needs "fewer takes" with an untrained kid than with trained movie stars, he adds.

When talking about superstars like Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, Spielberg says they love challenges. They seek roles that bring out parts of themselves that are unfamiliar with and might even scare them. When Hanks started out on Bridge of Spies, he admitted he didn't know how to play his character. But he found the character when shooting started.

Asked about Daniel Day-Lewis who famously stays in character even when not shooting, Spielberg says Day-Lewis was an utter professional but did not discuss his craft.

"He just kept his Lincolnian accent. I felt I spent three and half months with Abraham Lincoln. When the shoot was over, he started talking like himself again. And I cried, because I miss Abraham Lincoln."

All great actors he worked with have their own process, technique and talisman, according to Spielberg, "and I didn't get into that because it's personal".

About Mark Rylance, a theater veteran who got an Academy Award for his supporting role in Bridge of Spies, Spielberg says he noticed a kindness in him and a twinkle in his eyes, which made him perfect for the friendly giant in The BFG.

Theater actors are the most prepared and most open to change because in theater you may get new lines after the 20th performance, he adds.

Balancing act

While I agree that filmmakers graduate from fun entertainment to serious fare, it surprises me to see Spielberg "switch gears" in the same year and make two completely different movies. His answer: "It's therapy."

After making a dark film, he needs a relief, something light and frolicking like Catch Me If You Can to get the heavy stuff out of his system before he finds something for "the other side of myself" and to tell stories with social meaning.

I ask him what movies he wanted to make but somehow has yet to make them, he cites the quintessential robot movie. He would also love to do a song-and-dance musical.

Taking a cue from an audience question about balancing work and a family of seven kids, I jokingly ask if he had ever thought of remaking The Sound of Music. He says his kids would not want him to touch that classic because they love it so much.

Spielberg admits he is very much a family man. He relegated filmmaking to second priority when he started having children. But now they have all grown up and the youngest one has gone to college.

"My everyday life is really boring," he says. "Mostly writing and doing story boards."

His wife, Kate Capshaw, makes it interesting and "brings me to the world", he adds.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

Encounter of a rare kind

The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg, will be released in mainland theaters on Friday. provided to china daily

 Encounter of a rare kind

Steven Spielberg with Huang Yici, a voice actress for The BFG. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

(China aily 10/13/2016 page20)