Steven Spielberg has been busy. Just two months after the release of Tintin, he unveils another take on a children’s classic in War Horse, an adaptation of the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo. More recently known as an award-winning West End play, Spielberg has used the story of a Devon farmhand searching for his horse on the frontline of World War One to craft a sweeping, old fashioned epic. An ensemble drama featuring some of Britain’s finest acting talent, it is a film that has already made headlines for its lead being played by Jeremy Irvine, a twenty-one year old actor who has never previously had lines. But the film will ultimately be remembered as an ode to a horse that spectacularly makes his way across the front line, even if he does so in a way that may be too sentimental for some audiences.
“I actually had come to London on a family vacation” says Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg’s long time producer, when discussing how the film came together in just two years. “Our girls are thirteen and fifteen, and we just went to the play because they both love to ride horses. I was so taken with the story…and I started to explain to him [Spielberg] what it was and I went on YouTube to find a couple of little excerpts. As the two of us began to talk more about the story, he said ‘this is something very much along the lines of what I’d like to do’”.
“Steven said right from the beginning that he wanted to make a discovery” Kennedy says when discussing the casting of Irvine. “We met with Jeremy and it was pretty clear that Steven knew right away that he was Albert” Irvine for his part says that the experience of being cast is still sinking in. “I have to explain where I was before, which was in a theatre show with no lines having nearly had no work for two years, and playing a tree!” he says laughing. “So to go from that to a movie is insane; to go to a movie with lines is even more insane; and then to be in a Spielberg one and to be playing the lead is just so beyond anything that I could begin to comprehend”.
If that sounds as though Irvine may have been a little daunted by the experience at first that would be a fair reading. “Tom Hiddlestone [who plays Captain Nicholls, the cavalryman who takes Joey to the front line] told me ‘It’s just a job. You turn up to work every day, you do the best that you can, and then you go home. That’s when you can freak out,’ says Irvine when recounting how scared he was when first on set. Unsurprisingly, it is an experience that has completely changed his life, and career prospects. “Well I can get work, that’s new! And I’m very, very busy. I’m just about to start my fourth movie” he says, speaking of having moved onto major adaptations of Great Expectations and The Railwayman since shooting the film.
As well as impressing Hollywood casting directors, he also has a number of fans among his War Horse cast members. “I was a spear carrier on stage, like Jeremy, for two years” says Emily Watson, who plays Albert’s mother. “I was on the dole when I got Breaking The Waves, so I had to go and sign off the dole at the DSS and say ‘I’m starring in a movie.” Of Jeremy she says “I think that he has got everything that it takes. Real talent, and he’s beautiful, charming and personable. The camera loves him, but he also has an integrity to be a good actor. I’ve worked with actors who want to be on the front of magazines, and who want to check themselves out in the mirror before every take. He’s the opposite of that, and I think that’s a very good start.”
Irvine is not the only actor in War Horse who was stunned to be working with Spielberg. “I didn’t audition in person. I received the script and put myself on tape, and I sent the tape off, and the phone rang and it was my agent saying Steven wants to meet you,” says Hiddlestone, who has gone from British independent films to starring in Thor and War Horse this year. “He was very nice and then he asked me to do it.” He is a little more forthcoming when he is reminded that Spielberg has gone so far as to call him a modern day Errol Flynn.“It goes beyond my wildest expectation,” he says. “What has happened to me in the last two years has gone beyond what I thought myself capable of. The lesson is that you should never let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do”. Co-star Benedict Cumberbatch who, like Hiddlestone, is stepping onto the international stage with War Horse, agrees. “It’s a work environment where 99% of the population is unemployed. We are the most oversupplied workforce. It’s not about just desserts in this business. The point is this: we’ve all come from different routes. It’s just that when your time is right, your time is right.”
The real stars, though, are ultimately the horses, and all of the cast have fond memories of working with the animals on set. “Part of my process was helping to train them”, Irvine says. “I spent hours standing outside their stables until they were used to me, then hours and hours spent in the stable with them, and eventually you can touch them. From there you can go to teaching them to play hide and seek…I was very sceptical about building those relationships, because I’m not really an animal person, but by the end of it I was as bleary eyed as anyone else They are incredible creatures”.
Hiddlestone can only agree with Irvine’s awe for the horses on set. “We had six weeks of training,” he recounts when speaking of the rigorous training he had to go through to convince as a cavalryman. “We were drilled like soldiers; to walk, to trot, to canter, to charge in formation, to charge one-handed.” Of the horse he rode, he says “He was known as the safe pair of hands for the actors. Some have more buttons that you can push, and he is like Ferrari. I just had to think about cantering or galloping, and he was off.”
Cumberbatch, who also plays a cavalryman in the film, chimes in. “They have longer CVs than us!” he jokes in reference to the huge number of films in which the animals have performed.“They are brilliant animals,” he says. “You go there emotionally, with your heart and your mind. That’s the same with all the mediums the story has been told in, as it’s told through this vessel of a horse who shows the extraordinary idiocy of what human conflict is.”
All are similarly complementary of the experience of working with one of the world’s great directors. “His crew are so quick” says Watson. “They’ve all been together for a couple of decades now, and they really turn on a sixpence. There’s an unspoken language, so things happen very quickly, going from major setup to major setup in a very short space of time. As an actor it doesn’t intrude on your process, and it felt very intimate.”
Others simply praise Spielberg for his innate understanding of the emotional heft of the story. “He’s a kid who loves stories” says Morpurgo when explaining why he was ultimately so happy that it was Spielberg adapting his prized creation. “He’s very emotional, and utterly not spoiled by the success that he’s gained for himself. I found him to be a very genuine human being, and I should have guessed it, because in all the films I’ve ever seen, from a man who made E.T. and Schindler’s List in the same lifetime, he brings to each this integrity of seriousness. It’s not sentimental; people get Spielberg completely wrong. I don’t find him sentimental, I find him emotional.” Kennedy agrees. “I think many of those things that drove him as a filmmaker all those years ago are still driving him now”, she says. “The strongest thing for him is story. It doesn’t matter if he’s doing it through animation or on film or through television, you’re still telling a story”.
Hiddlestone sums up Spielberg’s unique blend of spectacle and emotional intimacy with a story about filming the charge duing which his character dies. “He took me to one side and said to me,” he relates, ‘that the camera will be on you, and I don’t want you to do shock, or surprise, or fear, or terror…at the top of the shot give me your war face, the face you’ve been doing all day. You’re triumphant, you’re a noble office, and it’s all going well. And then I’m going to say guns, and when you hear me say guns I want you to de-age yourself by twenty years, so you’re twenty-nine and then you’re nine. Strip away the man, and show me the boy’. I thought that was one of the most heartbreaking pieces of direction I’ve ever received. It was so acute, in the middle of this action sequence; this grand, epic, exciting, dramatic piece of cinematography with one-hundred-and-twenty horses going at forty miles an hour, and he had the space in his filmmaking head, and in his heart, for something very intimate. I thought it was amazingly impressive.” War Horse’s stand out moment, it is emblematic of the fact that even when Spielberg is turning in less impressive work, there is not another filmmaker quite like him.
War Horse is in cinemas now