Interview: Steven Spielberg and the Filmmakers of 'War Horse'

Steven Spielberg Talks War Horse

War Horse hits theaters in less than a week – December 25th – and it has stiff competition not just from films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, but also from its director’s other major motion picture – The Adventures of Tintin, which hits theaters December 21.

Recently, at the War Horse junket in New York, we heard from Steven Spielberg (director), Kathleen Kennedy (producer), Richard Curtis (screenwriter), and Janusz Kaminski (cinematographer) about their work on the soon-to-be-released film and what makes the old-fashioned World War I tale of a horse and his boy – not the other way around – so important in 2011.

On War Horse not being a war film, despite primarily taking place in the midst of World War I, Steven Spielberg said:

“I don't consider ‘War Horse’ to be a movie about war.  The war is a backdrop.  It provides the necessary drama to pull these characters [Joey the horse and Albert the boy] apart and eventually reunite them.  So war is more of a catalyst than the cause celeb of this story.  This is a human narrative.  It's about the the connectivity that an animal can bring to human characters.  It's really much more of a story about the hope that actually can exist in extremely  dark circumstances. Hope is always in Joey's face.”

On creating a film that has made grown men cry:

“Well, that was not my intention. [Laughs.] I didn't get in the room with Richard Curtis and say, ‘Okay, we're going to tell a story that will make men cry.’  I promise you we didn't do that.  The play made me cry.  The hope that Joey brings to Albert and brings to every human character in the play – made me cry. I cried because I honestly felt a catharsis. Anytime you have a story where you have characters that are devoted to an animal, and the animal is such an innocent, [it can be emotional]. An animal just exists because it's the natural thing to do. I think that, you know, we've all seen stories like "Black Stallion."  We've seen stories where there's more strength in the bonds between  an animal and a person than between people. I knew when I saw the play that there was going to be a catharsis for me at the end.  But I don't think the Play had the intention of making men cry either.  I think the Play found a fantastic story based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 Children's Book, and we simply adapted both the book and the play, and the result is the result.”

Which, apparently, is to make men cry.

Seven months after watching the theatrical version of War Horse, Steven Spielberg was shooting the cinematic adaptation, an incredibly speedy turnaround. On what attracted him to the story, Spielberg said:

“One of the things that attracted me to the story was the silent communication between Man and Animal. And when I first went to see the play, I loved how basic the needs of these people were. The Narracott family simply needs to scratch out an existence from the infertile soil of the farm that they're about to lose.  That's a strong, very, very relevant issue that we've seen before in movies and that's moved us [in the past]. In this case, the originality was a little bit like Jack in the Beanstalk.”

That ‘silent communication’ between Joey and the humans is what makes the film more like E.T. than anything else Steven Spielberg has made since 1982. Sure, there’s action, there are battle scenes, there’s adventure, and there’s whimsy, but it’s the emphasis on the emotion of the characters – namely, Joey’s emotions and the emotions he inspires in everyone around him – that makes it reminiscent of E.T.

On what makes the film different from the book and play it was based on, Spielberg said:

“[The screenwriter, Richard Curtis (‘Love Actually’)] said, ‘I don't want Albert to be in the second act of this movie.  I think this is Joey's story.’ And Richard took Albert out of the second act, and that was probably the -- the largest paradigm shift from both the book and the play, that makes us stand apart from both.”

While War Horse, as previously stated, is very much like E.T., the film could also be called a hodgepodge of Spielberg’s entire filmography. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, War Horse showcases all the hallmarks of a classic Spielberg film inside of a single project – there’s the boy and his silent creature as brother, there are the war scenes that resemble Saving Private Ryan, there’s the war-time effect on an innocent a la Empire of the Sun, there’s old-fashioned adventure and whimsy that recalls Raiders of the Ark, there’s brutality and torture (of the animals) as a result of war that recalls a number of Spielberg films, and so on.

On directing the horses of War Horse, Spielberg said:

“Bobby Lovgren was our horse whisperer, and he had a tremendous team that understood how to connect with the gentle soul of these horses.  And I didn't think the horses could do what they [did] in ‘War Horse.’ I was hoping we would be able to get it all but I didn't think we could.  So what I did was I storyboarded the entire film. And I also pre-visualized the film so that the trainers could tell me, ‘This is impossible, no animal can do this.  You better make this a CG horse.’ Which I didn't ever want to do. Or [they could come back and say] ‘Yes, I think we can get the horse to do this.’  And they had 3 or 4 months to be able to come back to me with the result.  And every time I pre-[visualized] something, 85% of the time they said, ‘We can achieve this.  It hasn't been done before on film but we think we can get the horse to do this in a very humanitarian way.  So I directed the horses through our horse whisperers.  Did I go off and take the horse by the reins and go off to a quiet place to have a conversation with the horse?  No, not once, not once.  Do the Horses sometimes miss their mark and step out of their key light?  Yes.”

On the welcome surprises that accompanied working with horses:

“This was sort of the miracle that I experienced making ‘War Horse.’  The horses started to improvise beyond any of our wildest hopes and expectations.  The horses are so sensitive to what the actors [were] doing.  If the actors were keyed up and really ready to flip out like Emily Watson, as the mother, when Ted brings the wrong horse [home], the horses felt the vibrations of her anger through her performance and they were reactive.  The one horse just started rubbing its face against Ted Narracott's body all through the scene, not just one angle but every angle.  Every time he showed up, that horse would see him coming and start using him as a rubbing post.  That's something that wasn't planned, wasn't pre-visualized, wasn't storyboarded.  That was something that Joey brought to the play.  Every single day, the Horses brought something we never expected them to bring.”

In the film, Joey the horse crosses paths with a number of different characters and shares a wide variety of experiences with them. Each actor worked with his or her own “Joey.”

On using World War I as a backdrop for the story of War Horse, Kathleen Kennedy said:

“I think World War I today, in the United States, is [certainly] not a war that many, many school children are very aware of, but it is the war that created the idea, in a sense, that this was an absolutely horrible event.  They thought [World War I] was going to be short-lived, something that might last a few months.  And it went on for 4 years.  And not only did it kill millions of men, it killed millions of horses.  And I think that's important for young people today, to be aware of that context.  But the real story is family.  It's the connection that Albert has with his father and with the horse.”

Followed by Richard Curtis saying, on the same subject:

“I think it's terribly important to tell these stories about real wars.  I remember my brother, who's 10 years younger than me, said that the profound difference between [he and I], is that for me, the big war was World War II.  For him, the big war was ‘Star Wars.’  That was fundamentally the major human conflict with which people had to deal.  And in that context, it becomes more and more important to remind people that, you know, the huge disaster of epic international wars.”

And lastly, Janusz Kaminski on years of working with Spielberg:

“We've been with each other since 1993.  The first movie [we made] was ‘Schindler's List’  and obviously the relationship evolved, as such, that we like working with each other, and we've done 15 other movies, right? And it's been great.  You know, at a certain point, you really don't talk about what the look is [anymore].  I look at Steven, I see what he's doing, and then I try to follow his steps.  So if he does really beautifully composed wide shots, I just want to make sure that they retain the beauty within the frame that he composes.  And pretty much, that's how we work.”

War Horse hits theaters Christmas Day.

Follow me on Twitter @benandrewmoore.

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