So who is Melissa? Let’s start with what she is about and the BFG…
The BFG stars 11-year-old Ruby Barnhill, in her movie debut, as an English orphan named Sophie, and Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for his role in Bridge of Spies, as the motion-captured title character. The BFG is 24 feet tall, with legs like crooked cedar trunks and eyes the size of lobster pots. Every night he lumbers out of his native Giant Country to skulk through the streets. One night, Sophie happens to spot him though her window during the witching hour—that eerie emptiness that any child, awake and alone, feels setting in around 3 am. The BFG is exposed. He reaches in, snatches Sophie from her bed, and runs.
Spielberg has always been exceptionally choosy about what he directs. No matter how different his films, they all begin with the same, almost supernatural tingle of predestination when he first reads the script. “I call it That Old Familiar Feeling,” he says. He refuses to trust it at first. “It’s the only way I can test how emotionally involved I want to be. I’m getting married to a movie. I’ve got to know it’s true love. And every time I read the script again, I say, ‘This read—this time around—I’m going to find the fatal flaw that will turn me away from this.’ And when I can’t find it, I throw my hands up in the air, and I say, ‘I surrender, dear!’”
Mathison passed away last year, after The BFG finished shooting, from complications of neuroendocrine cancer. She was, it seems, a bit of a sphinx in Hollywood—a freakishly well-read, deeply committed Buddhist. She’d grown up in the Hollywood Hills, where, well into early adulthood, she and her sister capitalized on the neighborhood’s gold mine of babysitting gigs, minding the children left at home every night by their ardently socializing, filmmaker parents. After regularly watching Francis Ford Coppola’s kids, Mathison became the director’s on-set assistant. He encouraged her to write. Her first script—an adaptation of The Black Stallion—was produced in 1979; the film received two Oscar nominations.
But after even more success, Mathison seemed to take a conspicuous step back. People in the industry describe this as a choice: Mathison was raising two kids and was active in the cause of a free Tibet. But Mathison’s sister, Melinda Johnson, explains that while all this was true, Mathison would “also frequently tell us, ‘There’s a lot of scripts I can do, but I can’t even get considered because of my age.’” As a writer, she was known for her uncommon sensitivity to the interior lives of children. Kathleen Kennedy, who hired her to take on The BFG, says, “What Melissa exuded in her writing was this incredible sense of whimsy and empathy, and her unique ability to take stories that are viewed as just being for children and excavate the intellectual depth of the story so it resonates with adults.”
Spielberg had first met Mathison in 1980, on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in Tunisia. She was dating Harrison Ford, whom she’d later marry and have two children with. Mathison introduced herself to Spielberg only as “a failed screenwriter,” which shocked him when he eventually learned that her supposed failure was The Black Stallion, because—as Spielberg puts it to me—he’d always considered that film “a triumph of the heart!”
The BFG, on the other hand, knocked around in development for two decades, phasing through script after script. (One iteration imagined Robin Williams as the giant.) Then, a few years ago, Spielberg found a revision by screenwriter Melissa Mathison in a pile of DreamWorks properties he’d taken with him on vacation. Right away, he saw that Mathison had recognized it as a story about “the oneness of opposites”—two disparate creatures bridging the distance between them with their empathy, finding a kind of emotional symbiosis. Mathison’s script, Spielberg explains, was “just such a pure love story … It’s a great wise sage, but with a very innocent outlook and a very, very young girl with an old soul. I just said to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can live without this movie in my life.’” There it was: that old familiar feeling. “For Melissa even to say, ‘Yes, I’ll do The BFG,’ was itself a minor miracle,” he says.
Take a moment and let this all sink in.
I remember watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and being struck at how the Hindu mythology was thrown in there so uncharacteristically. Not only that, Indiana Jones appeared to take it on quite quickly in his fights with Mola Ram. He never does that a single time in the Judeo Christian sense and in actual fact remains irreverent and disdainful outside of knowing to shut his eyes at the correct time.
SHAMAN You will find them when you find sivlalinga. INDIANA I'm sorry, I don't know how I can help you here. The shaman and the chieftain stare and Indiana, refusing to accept that. INDIANA (Cont'd) The English authorities who con- trol this area are the only ones who can help you. CHIEFTAIN They do not listen. INDIANA I have friends in Delhi and I will make sure they investigate this... SHAMAN No, you will got to Pankot... The old man speaks again in his own tongue and Indy looks dis- turbed. WILLIE What'd he say now? INDIANA It was destined that I came here -- and the future cannot be changed...