NEW YORK – Horses aren’t anything new to legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg. No, it’s not because of helming the installments of “Indiana Jones” that found Harrison Ford jumping on a horse to save the day or escape chasing Nazis. Instead, it turns out Spielberg’s youngest daughter Destry is actually a competitive jumper and their family stable has 8 horses ready to ride. It also means he didn’t have to walk far to begin researching his latest film, “War Horse.”
“When I realized i was going to commit to direct ‘War Horse’ I actually went out there and just was photographing them from all angles,” Spielberg says. “I spent a lot of time with the iPhone taking photos.”
Along with “The Adventures of Tintin,” which was released in Europe at the end of October, “War Horse” marks Spielberg’s return to the director’s chair for the first time in three years. Set during World War I, “War Horse” is based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young adult novel about Joey, a horse that is raised by a young Englishman, Albert, but sold to a British Officer to serve in the war. As Joey meets different people during his journey through the great war, Albert eventually enlists to try and find his beloved horse and bring him home. The story gained greater notoriety after playwright Nick Stafford adapted “War Horse” for the stage. The show was produced by the U.K.’s National Theater in 2007 and received critical acclaim for its stunning puppetry to bring the horses, including Joey, to life on the stage. Early this year, “War Horse” came to Broadway and in June won five Tony Awards including best play.
Spielberg became interested in bringing “War Horse” to the screen after longtime producing partner Kathleen Kennedy convinced him to see the London stage production. Speaking in New York over the weekend and less than a mile from where “War Horse” rides every night at Lincoln Center (and were the film’s world premiere was), Spielberg says he was drawn to the project by Albert and Joey’s story, not a chance to depict World War I.
“I also don’t consider ‘War Horse’ to be a war movie,” the “Saving Private Ryan” director notes. “It’s not one of my war movies. This is more of a real story about the way animals can actually connect people together. And that’s what Joey does. Joey’s miracles are really in great sense of optimism and hope and all the people he brings this into their lives. This was much more focused I think on the characters. The war was certainly a horrendous backdrop providing tension and drama and the need to survive. But, the war was not in the foreground of ‘War Horse.'”
In fact, Spielberg freely admits he didn’t know much about World War I and found himself frustrated by his relative ignorance of the bloody and dark conflict. Spielberg says, “My first reaction every time I delve into an episode of history that I don’t know very much about is anger that my teachers didn’t teach me much about it. ‘Why didn’t I learn this in school?'”
Spielberg and his producing team were actually invited to go through the private archives of the Imperial War Museum which was an essential education in making the film. Of the visit, Spielberg adds, “I wasn’t willing to bring it out in the film, because this wasn’t meant to be a history lesson. There is nowhere in the film that says 4 1/2 million horses were killed in the first World War. [But,] it really informed us and gave us some gravitas when we worked with [screenwriter] Richard Curtis.”
As you’d expect,the “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually” screenwriter made some essential and necessary changes as “War Horse” went from book to stage to screen. For instance, the novel is written from the horse’s point of view which could have been problematic if there was, well, voice over in the movie. That was never an option in Spielberg’s view.
“Instantly, the second Joey starts to speak it becomes a horse of a different color,” Spielberg says smiling. “It becomes more of a real fable and I think you suspend your disbelief so radically when the horse starts to think out loud that there is no touchstones you can relate to. So, the first decision was not to let Joey think and speak, but just let Joey emote and exist inside these these sequences with these characters.”
One of the things Spielberg did do was work with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in broadening the shots and point of view of the camera. The picture has more long shots and vistas than any Spielberg film in recent memory. Many cinephiles may assume Spielberg is using the subject matter to pay homage to such classic American filmmakers as John Ford or Howard Hawkes, but it wasn’t foremost in the Oscar winner’s mind (even with a final shot that screams “Gone with the Wind”).
“The conscious thing I did was I made the land a character in the story,” Spielberg says. “And simply by making the land a character and falling back to wide shots more than close ups to let the audience actually make choices about where and when to look, that was the dynamic of most movies that were made in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Not just by Ford, but by Kurosawa in the ’50s, by Howard Hawkes. I mean, directors used what was before them. They celebrated the land and made the land a character and made spaces and environments characters in movies.”
Spielberg continues, “I just thought of all the movies I’d made in recent years this offered the opportunity to include the land as a character which is a determining factor as to whether [Albert’s] family is going to survive and either keep or lose their farm. And then the land becomes a bloody character as history tells us as occurred on the Somme, that occurred in No Man’s Land.”
“Empire of the Sun,” one of Spielberg’s previous war-themed and underrated films (yes, he may not think “Horse” a war film, but it is) marked the screen debut of a young, unknown actor named Christian Bale. For “War Horse,” Spielberg wanted to make sure Albert was also played by a first timer. Needless to say, finding the perfect Albert wasn’t easy.
“We saw hundreds of possible Alberts. Sometimes you see someone early and you say, ‘Top this.’ We didn’t meet Jeremy Irvine until mid way through the process,” Spielberg reveals. “Halfway through the process Jeremy came in. Totally untested and — all I look for is honesty. Jeremy was the most real kid we saw.”
But for many people, especially in the U.K., their first experience with “War Horse” will be the play. Spielberg has put in some nice nods to the play including a testy goose on Albert’s family farm, but the film is a significantly different beast. Still, I asked Spielberg if he found any broader inspiration from the stage production for the movie.
“One of the catharses for me in also helping me tell the story to audiences in the film was something that was sort of hinted at in the play,” Spielberg says. “There is a little moment when the Brit and the German are able to help Joey who is trapped in barbwire. It was a lovely moment in the play. A very fleeting moment in the play, but it made a profound impact on me. And that was a moment that Richard and I decided to expand and to go deeper with. That was something the play certainly inspired. But also, the great thing about theater is there are just some illusions that you can only create on the boards that you can never create on film now matter how many digital tools are at your disposal and that was the amazing moment in the play when the little Joey becomes the adult Joey. That incredible piece of visual theatricality and that you can never do in the film.”
[For more on “War Horse” check out select clips from the film related to within this post. ]
“War Horse” opens nationwide on Christmas day.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.com.