Special thanks to Disney for the magical trip to Los Angeles to cover the World Premiere of Moana and its press events, including this set visit & meet & greet with Lucy Dahl
I like to think that I’m a pretty fun parent. I like to spin tales for my kids and make them believe in magic. I want them to grow up believing in the good in the world and knowing that while evil exists, there is always a fantastical, wonderful way to overcome it. But when I sat down and spoke with Lucy Dahl in Culver City, California last month I realized that I’m like the most dull parent EVER. Well, the most dull parent ever if one uses Roald Dahl as the marker of “fun parent”. Lucy and her sister were the test dummies for Roald’s stories, but they weren’t aware of that fact when they were growing up.
Lucy: So it was really amazing growing up with Roald Dahl as my dad because everything was a fairy tale, because we were sort of his lab rats so to speak, and so he would test his ideas and his characters and people on us, although we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought that we were getting great stories and he created this whole sort of kingdom of where we lived. This whole kind of Disneyland, and you could actually live there for a long time. That’s sort of what our house and our garden and our orchard beyond and then fields and the woods beyond that, that’s what our rambling old house in the countryside of Bingham was like. It wasn’t fancy at all. We did not have a lot of money.
My father worked very, very hard to get us through school. My mum was always working in America, but back to focus on The BFG, is he is real to me. He lived under our apple orchards, which was beyond our garden, and every single night, he would blow dreams into my sister and my bedroom, and dad would tell us a story about some idea he was brewing. Sometimes it was about The BFG, sometimes it was about some other thing that he was thinking about.
And though we didn’t know at the time. We just thought it was a story, and then even in the middle of winter, even if it was snowing outside or blizzarding, or whatever, we would always have to leave out little old bedroom window open a crack and our bedroom was tiny. Ophelia, Ophelia’s the name of my sister, she’s fifteen months older than me, and our bedroom was really no, smaller than this bookshelf, the width of this bookshelf and about this big [she described a space no more than about 10 x 10 feet]. Not even this big. Anyway, so after he told us a story, he would say goodnight, and we would lay there and we would wait for the BFG to come and blow dreams into our room and sure enough, within five, I have no, no idea how long it was. It wasn’t long, and this band with
Anyway, so after he told us a story, he would say goodnight, and we would lay there and we would wait for the BFG to come and blow dreams into our room and sure enough, within 5—I have no, no idea how long it was. It wasn’t long, and this band with a stick would come [Lucy mimics blowing a horn] he would always speak to Ophelia first, which annoyed me, I have to admit., Because I, Ophelia was outside and I was outside and you would hear shuffles.
And then it would go this way, and I would get my dreams and then it would retract and then that was just it for years and years and years while we were young growing up and then when we got to age where we thought that maybe, when our friends started to say there’s no such thing as The BFG, as they do, we questioned Dad, and Dad said, ‘You mustn’t, the minute you stop believing in magic, it will never happen.’ and it also must have worried him tremendously because the next morning when we woke up.
His precious lawn, his garden—he was an avid gardener—and the grass had huge brown spots, it said ‘BFG’ across the whole garden, that he had done with weed killer. And he said to us, you’ve made The BFG cross that you’re not believing in him, and he obviously wanted to tell you that he’s here, and then we realized that it wasn’t The BFG sticking a dream through our window one night when I think dad had a bit too much to drink and he fell off his ladder. We heard this enormous crash, bang and we were told never to go to window to look, but we did and there was my poor old dad at the bottom of the ladder saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’
Roald also never argued with his daughters about food, they just ate it. He would get into character similar to an actor does and he would make food from his characters, or food that his characters would eat and pass it off as the real, actual thing that his made up characters consumed. When his daughters didn’t like a food, or when he was trying something new with them, he would say that the Queen sent it to them and they had to eat it as a sign of respect for the Queen.
Now seriously?! WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?!
Lucy is now a self-proclaimed foodie due to her upbringing and dad’s outlook on food.
Lucy: He spent a lot of time making sure, and I think it was part of his work as well, that you know, when you’re not actually working, you’re thinking about your work and so he spent a lot of time as an actor would in character, but he was sort of in fantasyland, I suppose, or in his imagination, because we would wake up in the morning and open the door because it was in the days when the milkmen would deliver the milk early in the morning.
And we’d go get the milk and sometimes there were a little bowl or teeny, weenie little eggs. Now I know they’re quail eggs, but he said that the MinPins, which is another story that he wrote—little people that lived in our woods beyond the orchard—that the MinPins had delivered eggs to us overnight and sometimes there were big eggs, duck eggs. Now I know they’re duck eggs, but they were BFG eggs.
And what Dad would do is he would, once a week, he would go to London and go to the Harrod’s food halls because we didn’t have specialty shops then where you can get this stuff now, and he would go and get all these wonderful things and he would make them into, we would all use our imagination with them—so with the quail eggs, the way that he would cook them was take some bread and cut it, now, now it’s sort of in cookbooks everywhere, but cut a hole in it.
And also things like red cabbage was. Everything, everything came from somewhere. Everything that most children don’t like to eat came from somewhere fabulous, like red cabbage was delivered the day before by a footman from Buckingham Palace, sent by the Queen and so you’d eat it. You don’t say, ‘I’m not going to eat that cabbage if the Queen has personally sent it,’ and he’s, ‘I can’t believe it. You missed, did you see the footmen?’ and we’re like, ‘No.’
He said, ‘Well, then you need to open your eyes because you walked right past him and you were coming up the lane coming home from school.’ So it was, that was sort of thing all of the time. Then as we got older, he, a great lover of food. He would never tell us who, but he had a black market Russian caviar dealer that he would secretly meet in London.
We would be coming home for the weekends. This is when we were older. He would, you know the huge thing of caviar about this big would appear and we would literally be allowed to just spoon it into our mouths and he would not tell us. He said, ‘I’ve been sworn to secrecy for the name of where this comes from, where I get it, who this comes from.’ He would do things like buy a whole Parma ham. I know you’re going to call Parma. I think now it’s Prosciutto. I don’t really quite know what the difference is, but we would always have those hanging in the cellar.
And kind of like Fantastic Mr. Fox-esque, cider we made from the apples. We had all kinds of delicious things and as a result, I eat everything. Everything. There’s nothing I don’t eat. Nothing.
Lucy was really put out when her dad decided to publish the BFG. She felt the BFG was HER’S and she was so upset that he wanted to share it with others. She equated him to a husband – something you do NOT share! That jealousy paired with a couple inconsistencies in the book compared to the stories of The BFG from her childhood made her loathe the book.
Lucy: There was no Giant Land in BFG’s story, so when it became a book and the BFG didn’t live under our orchard, he lived in Giant land, I didn’t like that. Just like, ‘No, no, that’s not the way that goes.’ But I was actually a little offended when he put our childhood story into a book because he was my BFG and Ophelia’s BFG and nobody else’s and, and you don’t really want to share.
It’s kind of like a husband, you know? Mine. He’s in my house and you don’t get him. So I sort of never really embraced the book that much because it was in the Eighty-two so I was 17. And I remember thinking, ‘BFG, phsh.’ Just sort of not very interested.
But then when the film was made and I was invited to the set, I couldn’t wait to go. I was over the teenage issue at that point. It was really incredible, and I loved being on the set. Steven Spielberg treated me, honestly, like a queen, which I didn’t expect. I thought he’d just be like, ‘Hey, nice to meet you,” and get on with his work.
He literally took me with him all day, everywhere he went, and showed me everything. It was really the most incredible experience ever, but the thing that I didn’t like was Giant Land that was over there and on the set because it wasn’t true, but everything else was so true to how it was in my imagination and in my mind that, it was just incredible. It was, I felt really like my father was walking around with me around the set as delighted as I was.
The whole journey has been huge. The emotion. It really has.
Her favorite part in the movie was Dream Land. She said that it was magical and extraordinary and exactly as she had imagined it as a child. I have to admit, it’s one of my favorite parts too. She is also really impressed with how “right” Steven Spielberg got The BFG. He spent a lot of time getting him right, right down to his shoes which are modeled after of sandals that her father used to wear each summer. The clothes he wears are copies of clothes her father used to wear that she still has.
Lucy: When Sophie goes up into Dream Land, just that three or four seconds is just extraordinary, that’s my favorite. I could watch that again and again and again and again and again.
It was exactly how I had imagined it, and I think that’s probably why I love it so much. But also, the BFG. Steven took a great deal of trouble in getting the BFG right, so, for example. His shoes are a copy of a pair of my father’s sandals that he used to wear every summer. The BFG’s clothes are copies of my father’s clothes from his cupboard that we still have.
My father based him a little bit on himself and a little bit on our great family friend who was, he was just, you know, we weren’t posh, so we didn’t have gardeners and things like that, but there was this man called Wally, Wally Saunders, who worked for my grandmother, and he was a country man and he worked in our garden helping dad, and he would help dad drive us to and from school.
And he would build. As the family grew, we built on the house. Well, I didn’t because I’m the youngest, but they did, and so Wally was an extraordinary countryman from Buckinghamshire, and he had the big ears. And the accent that BFG has in the film was taken from Wally’s accent from video clips that we have of Wally.
One of the things that really stuck with me was the fact that Roald Dahl didn’t want his children to behave. He would help them write limericks and rhymes about the children at school that they didn’t like and he would encourage them to be creative and wild, and he was often the brainchild behind the naughty things Lucy and Ophelia did. She remembers one girl in particular that used to bully everyone on the bus and she shared the Limerick that they wrote about her then taught to the whole bus to sing to her. Needless to say, the girl never bullied them again.
Lucy: He never wanted us to behave. He would actually help us plot and plan naughty things to do because he said that well-behaved children were boring, but the trick was to never get caught, so that’s actually one thing about my father that I haven’t used in my own mothering because it’s fine when you’re 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and then you get to be a teenager, and you have that programming to just don’t get caught it’s not so good. So, he used to help us, do all kinds of things.
He would help us write funny rhymes and limericks about the teachers at school that we would teach the whole class and, and they were hilariously funny. If somebody was bullying us at school. There was a girl called Lizzy, and she was a bully on the bus. She was horrible. She used to take our snacks.
She made us all open up our bag and she would take whatever she wanted, and we were all terrified of her and eventually we told Dad, and he went up to his house and he came back and he’d wrote this little rhyme and he said I want you to teach this to everybody on the bus, except for Lizzy and next time Lizzy starts to make you open your bags, I want everybody on the bus to sing this song. Shall I sing it now?
I do remember it. I’ll just say it. ‘Why is Lizzy in a tizzy on the way to school? She makes a fuss upon the bus and acts just like a fool.’ So, when she went into her bully mode, we, everybody had already learned this. I think we had sort of written it out sort of 50 times and just given it to everybody and the whole bus burst out into this and Lizzy never did it again. Never. I think she cried, actually.
But she made us cry all the time. He was delighted that we stopped Lizzy. Absolutely delighted, so he was always championing the underdog.
As a result of her charmed childhood, Lucy became a fun, whimsical parent herself and it reminded me that it’s OK for kids to be kids. It’s OK to wake them up at midnight just to tell them you love them or look at the stars or have a cup of hot cocoa. It’s OK to do things outside the box because when you give children wings, it very clearly raises up imaginative, successful children. We asked her what she took from her childhood into her own parenting and her answer was really inspiring.
Lucy: Pretty much everything, I have to say. I passed everything on. You know why? Because this book is, was already out. At the time my children were born, but we did have fun foods. Let’s see. The red cabbage. I used to do things like the same, but different. The same sort of spirit. I used to plan a trip. When they were young, we lived in Massachusetts and I would plan a trip to Disney World and not tell them, and I’d get them ready for school in the morning and lunches and everything and we would just drive to the airport. I was a single mom, so if I was bored, I’d wake them up at 10, 11 o’clock at night and we’d have a midnight feast together, and then they’d go back to sleep and stuff like that.
Roald used to do Lucy and Ophelia’s homework for them because he didn’t believe in busy work, he wanted them to be children playing outside and being imaginative, so if something that didn’t matter came home, he would do it for them and usher them outside to play.
Lucy: He would do our homework for us, and I will do that for my children. If it didn’t matter. You know, stuff that they give you that just doesn’t matter. It’s just a waste of time, and an adult can do it in 5 minutes and a child, it would steal like an hour and half of their evening where they could be running in the woods or doing something and he would say, give it to me. I’ll do it.
When asked which of her father’s works were her favorite, she said she truly loves The BFG.
Lucy: Well, I do love The BFG. I really do love The BFG. I love it. I love it. I think Mark Rylance was amazing. I think the team was amazing. I love it. I don’t think it’s any secret that it didn’t kill at the box office and we’ve talked about that and honestly, as a family, it doesn’t matter to us. We would so much rather have a beautiful film than a box office hit and my feeling about that, or us as a family because we have talked about it, is that it’s perfect.
With this coming out over Christmas where it’s more of a quiet time, I’m really hoping that children will slow down a little bit and realize that it’s about love because it’s really a love story.
Steven Spielberg and I talked about it for an hour, actually. We talked about the differences between BFG and E.T. because it’s the same group of creators, and he said that they’re the same because it’s a love story. They’re two lonely hearts that find one another. They’re different characters, and it’s a different type of love, but really, the importance of this story is that how one heart will find another heart, whatever the world, wherever they live.
If they have the same heart and BFG and Sophie have the same heart and that’s how they found each other and did a dance that no one else, they, they danced to a tune that no one else could, could hear. It’s sort of beautiful so, can I just because she.
Roald Dahl wasn’t the star when she was growing up, Lucy’s mother was. She was an actress and everyone knew who she was but Roald didn’t grow into a famous author until a little later. I about died when she said why Charlie and The Chocolate Factory became a cult classic. She’s probably not wrong. She says that Roald wouldn’t believe how well known he is now if he were still here to experience it. I just find that SO hard to believe seeing as he was my favorite author growing up.
Lucy: He wrote some adult short stories, and they were sold to a British television production company and a British television series was called Tales of the Unexpected, and each one of his short, adult short stories was made into a half hour show.
And they’re all kind of slightly thriller-y. They’re a bit warped, actually, to tell you the truth, but that’s part of who he was. That show became huge, and that put him on the map. That’s when people would say, ‘Oh, your dad wrote Tales of the Unexpected. We’re like, ‘No he didn’t,’ but that’s when it came out. It was that. That’s when he started to be recognized.
And then there always were Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the first one with Gene Wilder, then that didn’t become really big until it became sort of a cult. So it came out and then it went away, but it didn’t start until it became a cult until the teenagers started getting high. And that was sort of in the 80s, so it all sort of happened around the same time.
He wouldn’t believe it if he knew how well known he was now. He wouldn’t believe it.
Lucy didn’t want our brunch to end and neither did I. She was so lovely to talk to and I absolutely loved hearing her stories about Roald and his parenting style. It was a really stunning reminder to be more fun with my own children and not so serious. I look forward to the next opportunity I have to wake the kids up late at night and have a little night time picnic with them. I can’t wait to see them grow into fun parents themselves, all because of this brunch I had once upon a time with my favorite childhood author’s daughter.
Make sure you buy The BFG for your own children or loved ones this holiday season. It’s a beautiful, sweet, heartfelt movie – a love story between a girl and her giant, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.