What it's like to... Work with Steven Spielberg

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Here's some big news: we interviewed a giant this week.

Giant job - actor Jonathan Holmes

Well, as close to one as we're ever going to come, anyway. Steven Spielberg's BFG was released in cinemas yesterday, and we were lucky enough to catch up with one of the film's giants.

As you've come to learn, we are quite nosy here at Weekend. And we were really keen to find out from actor Jonathan Holmes just what it's like to work with a director as prolific as Spielberg.

In the new movie Shropshire-born Jonathan plays the Childchewer, one of nine giants who eat children. Now based in Vancouver, he tells us about his experience working on the Roald Dahl adaptation and just how he got along with the director himself.

"Stephen is the nicest guy on set, out of everyone there he is the nicest and most keen. He knows who he is so he does everything he can to make you feel comfortable. He is a pleasure to collaborate with and one of the best at his craft."

With a budget of more than £100 million, the BFG is a true spectacle. Despite the enormity of the project, Steven Spielberg did all he could to encourage those starring in it to push themselves. Jonathan says: "He wants to get the best out of you so he needs you to be relaxed and comfortable. He has proven he can help you find your best with many actors throughout his career. You do know you are in safe hands, which really helps, so you just try to concentrate on doing your best at what you need to do while he makes you feel at ease and guides you through."

They must be giants - Johnathan plays the Childchewer on the far left

Jonathan has been an actor now for 13 years, working on children's TV shows and movies like Nightwatching alongside Martin Freeman. But this is definitely his biggest role. We asked him about auditioning for a big project from such an esteemed director, and we expected him to reel off a tale about a long and drawn out process involving several callbacks. But Jonathan only had to audition once for his role: "We were asked to create one of the giant characters in the audition. We were given lines from each giant to work with and it was recorded. I experimented with going big with my audition and it really paid off. Once we had the parts we didn't find out which giant we were playing until we were on set."


Jermaine Clement from comedy duo Flight of the Conchords and Saturday Night Live star Bill Hader play two of the other giants, and we ask about their relationship on set. Jonathan tells us: "I spent three months on the film, that was one month rehearsing and a couple of months for shooting. We became a close group, which is going to happen when you spend a few months together."

Having friends on the red carpet must help with nerves. We ask how the big premiere shows differ to ones for smaller films.

"It is amazing and a lot of fun," he says. "We shot our parts a while ago, so it is something that's been at the back of my mind. I have done big premieres and I have done smaller ones, I enjoy them both but the whole experience of this type of premiere is overwhelming in a really exciting way. It's certainly an experience which will stick with me."

Mr Nice Guy - Steven Spielberg


Spielberg has produced Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and others at Walt Disney Studios, but The BFG is the first time he has directed a film for the studio. This collaboration, based on the Roald Dahl book, also benefits from Oscar winner Mark Rylance in the lead role. Jonathan's work on the film was shot last year, which must be a heavy load to have at the back of your mind – knowing you have acted in a Spielberg film which is just waiting to come out.

"I feel really proud of the work I have done and was so excited for it to come out – for it to be exposed to audiences and to be able to see their reaction.

"There's a little bit of pressure which can be a bit nerve-wracking, but such a formidable team has come together to realise a classic for the screen. Mark Rylance is an icon of our craft, it was a thrill to watch him work for a few days when we were on set together."

All of the giants in the movie, including Jonathan's Childchewer, are expertly created using motion capture techniques by the five-time Academy-Award-winning team at Weta Digital. They're the people behind Lord of the Rings creature Gollum, the latest Jungle Book movie and the Planet Of The Apes franchise.

"Most people will know motion capture from the skin-tight leotard, having the white dots all over your body and the camera hanging over your head, pointing directly at your face. Each of you have your own dot pattern so the multiple cameras can distinguish between different characters. The nine of us spent a number of weeks experimenting with the physicality of our role and trying to find an individuality to bring to each giant.

"With the multiple camera set-up we could do 10 to 15 minute takes without having to cut, in that sense it was a really freeing experience."

But it wasn't too free – Spielberg was never far away, and his influence will be right there for everyone to see on the screen.

"Steven would be in the scenes next to us," Johnathan reveals. "But because he didn't have dots on his clothes, the cameras didn't pick him up!"

The BFG is in cinemas now.

By Bram Welch

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