Encounter of a rare kind

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-10-13 08:13:54

Encounter of a rare kind

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

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.

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.

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