Steven Spielberg arrived in London this week in relaxed mood. In the UK to talk up War Horse, his new adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s novel, the director’s conversation was littered with enthused talk of family, the English countryside, and the triumph of the human spirit. Best known until now as an award winning stage play, War Horse is Spielberg’s second release in little more than two months. But unlike his recent motion captured take on Tintin, War Horse features almost no computer animation, instead serving up a grand, old fashioned family epic tale about a teenage boy who leaves his Devon farm to volunteer for service in World War One in a bid to find Joey, his beloved horse.
The film has made headlines for its use of the previously unknown Jeremy Irvine as Albert, its lead. But as well as featuring an all star cast, all of whom come into contact with Joey during his often nightmarish adventure on the front line, War Horse is a film that makes a noble animal its central character, and refreshingly does so without the use of CGI. If it may be a tad sentimental for some, it is a story that has no shortage of admirers, and Spielberg seemed driven to talk about his emotional connection to the story, as well as how War Horse represents his first genuinely British film.
What is so special about the story of War Horse?
Steven Spielberg: It’s a love story, and that’s what makes it universal. It was that way in the book and it was certainly that way on the boards, and that’s what we really tried to do in our adaptation, to really create a bonding story where Joey basically circumvents the emotional globe of the Great War. Joey has a way of bringing people together, especially people from both sides of that war.
How much responsibility to history do you feel when you make a film set during World War One?
SS: We feel responsible if we make a movie that even touches on historical fact that there has to be more than a kernel of truth in the history, and especially the First World War. So we did a lot of research, and the thing that really struck me was the vast numbers of casualties among the horses, not just the men who died on the on the American, British, French and German side.
So does that mean you wanted to tell people something about World War One?
SS: This [the First World War] was the death knell of the horse, the end of the horse as an instrument of warfare. It was an era… where the machine, the tank, the aeroplane, chemical warfare it all kind of converged on the First World War, almost an experimental that was the war to end all wars, or at least that’s what they thought.
Why do you think you’ve done so many war films?
SS: I don’t see this really as a war story. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan, this isn’t Band of Brothers. In the movie there’s only about fifteen minutes of combat, from the cavalry charge to the fighting in the Somme. I wanted families to see this picture together: there’s hardly any blood in this movie at all, and unlike Saving Private Ryan where I was trying to acquit the actual testimonies of the young men who actually fought in France on D-Day, when I was trying to make the movie as brutally authentic as I possibly could, I took a different approach to this story.
But you do seem to have an interest in war, even if you are exploring it in a very different way in War Horse.
SS: I’m not ashamed to admit I was not a good student [in school], but I loved history. My dad fought in World War Two and he’s turning 95 this month. He was based in Karachi which is now Pakistan. He fought in Burma against the Japanese, and he told these stories, so I grew up hearing these war stories. My first 8mm movies when I was 13, were all war movies , World War Two movies. Also war throws characters into chaos and there’s no better way to test who a person is than to put him in the middle of a war. That’s really going to show you what kind of a character you’re telling the story about.
So War Horse has something to say about courage in combat, spurred on by Albert’s love for his horse?
SS: Albert shows tremendous courage in pressing forward on the Somme, when he’s crossing No Man’s Land, and it’s almost blind fear that makes him race forward, and that so often happens. But he also has a reason to be racing forward, he has a goal in his heart of finding a horse he’s hoping to find amongst the millions of horses in France he actually is audacious enough to think he may find the one, and in fact the one finds him instead.
What made you cast an actor who had never had any speaking parts in the lead…
SS: What made Jeremy stand out was that ineffable quality that certain exceptional people have that just stand out and rise above the rest. There were hundreds of very interesting actors and newcomers and nobody had the heart or the spirit or the communication skills that Jeremy had. And I’m accustomed to working with actors who have no experience. You can just look back into my career at E.T. and Drew Barrymore. Christian Bale from Empire of the Sun and had never made a movie before, and that’s a very similar history and career that could be in store for Jeremy.
But was it ever a concern asking someone with no experience to carry a film?
SS: I really trust the authenticity of real people, and my job is get them to be themselves in front of the camera. Often what happens is that when you get a newcomer in front of the camera they freeze up or they imitate actors and other performances that they’ve admired, and they stop becoming themselves. So my job is the director is to always return them to what I first saw in them. I didn’t want Jeremy to be someone he wasn’t, I simply wanted him to be the person he is today. He did a wonderful job playing himself.
Scarcely has the British landscape looked so good on film. Could you talk the Devon and Castle Combe locations?
SS: Castle Combe looks like Hollywood built it! It doesn’t look real. The Devon location has some of the most natural wonders in all of England, with the tours that are so beautiful. There’s nothing like the landscapes of Devon, we couldn’t believe it. The original script didn’t have the budget that allowed us to go to Devon. We stretched the budget a bit to afford to go there and it was worth every penny.
Were the horses hard to control on camera, and were you ever concerned for their safety during such tough shoot?
SS: The most difficult shots of the entire film is where the British soldier and the German soldier are trying to free Joey [who is caught on barbed wire on No Man’s Land]. You can get a horse to lie down but it’s very difficult to get a horse to kneel down on its forelegs and its back legs, it wants to get right up. So we had very little time to get those shots and to have the actors giving it their best. But the important thing about that was Bobby Lovgren who trained all the horses. He was the one who guarded the horses, who kept them safe, who protected them, and if I had a crazy idea he would say I can do that safely or I can’t do that safely…but you have to understand that these horses were really smart.
War Horse once again features a score from John Williams. How important is his music to your films?
SS: We started working together in 1972 on Sugarland Express, so this is year forty. John is the most important collaborator I’ve ever had in my career. He’s made me look good, he’s made my work look better. I get a lot of credit but it really should be going to John. But I’ve kept the people in my career who I feel are my family: Kathy [Kennedy, Producer] has been with me since 1978, Janusz Kamińsk my cinematographer has made every movie with me since Schindler’s List; Michael Kahn has cut every movie I’ve made since 1976 when we made Close Encounters together; Rick Carter has done fifteen of my directed films as a production designer. I really believe in the family of collaboration. But John certainly has the most considerable impact because he immediately bypasses the brain and goes right to your heart, and that’s how it’s always been with him. He’s an amazing talent.
What is your decision process when choosing a script?
SS: How do I choose my movies? They choose me. That sounds glib but it’s true. I don’t go through a tortuous intellectual process to decide what to direct. I know when I want to direct the second I read something and hear a story, I just know when it grabs me in a certain way I want to direct it. It’s just an undeniable feeling I get, and it’s not the same feeling I get when I wind up producing something.
What was the turning point in your career?
SS: The turning point in my career was Jaws. It was a turning point because I was a director for hire before Jaws and after Jaws was such a big hit, I could do any movie I wanted and Hollywood just wrote me a cheque. I wanted to make this crazy movie about flying saucers, and nobody wanted to make it before Jaws, and I tried to get them to make this crazy film about flying saucers… people thought I was crazy and they wouldn’t give me the time of day. And the second Jaws was a hit everybody said ‘Do you still want to make that?’ So Jaws for me was the turning point.
What do you see as the ups and downs of your career?
SS: Well I think the perceived downs in my own career are just managing my time, and not feeling that I have enough time for my family and my friends…that usually happens when I’m away and I can’t physically get there because I’m in the process of shooting a movie. But those are the real downs, everything else you just have to take with a pinch of salt. The movie does well or the movie doesn’t do as well you would have hoped. Some movies get great reviews, some movies don’t. That’s just part of what I do for a living.
So you don’t you see yourself retiring any time soon?
SS: Well I have no plans to quit. I’ve always said, and Clint East wood is one of my best friends, I’ve known Clint for 40 years and we have a great, almost a jokey relationship about retirement, and Clint is 81 now, and I always say ‘Clint are you ready to retire this year?’ and he says ‘No, are you?’ and I say ‘No’. I’m waiting for the phone call when Clint says he’s hanging up his spurs. That’s never going to happen, if it doesn’t happen for Clint it won’t happen for me!
Do you ever think of your children when making movies?
SS: My daughter Destry had a lot to do with me directing War Horse. She’s fifteen now and she’s been competitively riding for eleven years. We live with horses – we have ten horses at home – and we’ve been living with horses for almost eighteen years. Destry, when she heard that Kathy [Kennedy, Spielberg’s Producer] had found this book and this play and I was about to go to London to see it play for the first time, even before I saw the play and came back to report that it made me cry and that I loved it so much, my daughter said ‘You have make War Horse, you have to make it for me’. So I did.
Does the horse represents us in some way?
SS: It’s something that I have thought about and talked about, and has been part of my thematic rasion detre for being involved in War Horse. What I have been saying over the last two years… is that Joey represents common sense. If more people had a common sense, a common horse sense like Joey, we wouldn’t be having wars. That was there the real underpinning for this entire endeavour.
War Horse is in cinemas now