This afternoon, following the nationwide sneaks of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” (which joined in Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo” in that regard, two films that share more than just that distinction), the esteemed director took the stage in front of a Lincoln Center theater audience to participate in a Q&A with journalist and author Mark Harris. The event was streamed live at MSN Entertainment and rebroadcast afterward.
Since this was a public event and given the live broadcasting of the discussion, it seems fair to me to lift a number of choice quotes from the proceedings. Spielberg hasn’t done a lot of press in advance of the film’s release (though he did speak with the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips recently), so it’s a good perspective to finally have.
Harris began things by actually noting a parallel between “War Horse” and the cinema of John Ford, which Anne and I brought up in Friday’s edition of Oscar Talk. “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures,” Spielberg said. “I grew up with John Ford movies and I know a lot about his work and have studied him. I think the thing that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford celebrated rituals and traditions and he celebrated the land. In ‘War Horse,’ the land is a character. It’s the biggest thing that is a character that you perhaps didn’t notice until you think back.”
He went on to cite the Monument Valley settings of Ford’s westerns as well as the Ireland setting of “The Quiet Man” to further his point.
And indeed, much of the film is a love letter to the landscape. Spielberg is working with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski once again (they have collaborated on each of Spielberg’s films since “Schindler’s List” in 1993). “My general feeling about cinematography is I want a cinematographer who can bend light,” Spielberg said. “He’s a genius at storytelling through lighting.”
He also mentioned that it was a goal to film in a manner similar to the productions of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, filling the frame with characters rather than insisting on the close-up to tell the story (which he blamed on the rise of television).
Spielberg’s creative relationship with Kaminski isn’t as storied as his career-long collaboration with film music composer John Williams, however, who has scored every single Spielberg film (save “The Color Purple”) since “The Sugarland Express” in 1972. Williams delivers another soaring, theme-heavy but still unique score for this time around, one in stark contrast to his more playful work on Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin,” also releasing next month. His “War Horse” work is receiving a lot of praise out of early screenings, but I felt it to be lacking where others find it resonant.
“Next year it will be our 40th anniversary of working together exclusively,” Spielberg said of his relationship to the man who has offered as much of an identity to films such as “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” as Spielberg himself. “So we have a shorthand. He always sees the movie early and then he just goes away and I don’t see him. And then he calls me and I go over to the office and he starts playing me themes.
“I love everything he’s ever written, but some sketches he plays on the piano have a profound effect on me. The themes he played from ‘Schindler’s List,’ my wife and I were just devastated. I was devastated by what he did on ‘E.T.’ And on this one, he played me three themes and I was just a goner, three hankies in.”
Most interesting about the discussion, though, outside of the typical insights that are to be gleaned from looking to the past (Did you know Spielberg watched Truffaut while prepping “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial?” Seems obvious now.) is what he wanted to bring to the canon of war films in “War Horse.”
World War I doesn’t have a film lineage as storied as World War II cinema, Harris noted, but there are installments that provide a very specific and legendary core unto themselves. Spielberg noted the harshness of that war in the face of the more “fluid” World War II and how that sparks it off as an entirely unique sub-genre.
“In World War I, the warring sides actually spoke to each other,” he said, recalling a key scene from no man’s land in “War Horse” that stands out in the genre. “It was trench warfare. The lines never moved. It was a brutal war because soldiers lived in those trenches for four years…It was a static war. It was horrendous. Four million horses were killed in World War I.”
Which is part of what made Spielberg want to tackle the project; he has lived with horses for over a decade, he said. And by tackling the material for a wider audience (meaning children, not necessarily of all ages, but of most), he was able to make more creative strides than he felt he could on a film like “Saving Private Ryan” or series like “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” (You might recall I noted something similar in my initial take on the film.)
“All three of those were unflinching looks at what combat was like,” he noted of the past war projects. “I did not want to show, in the cavalry charge [depicted in the film’s second act], this slaughter of all that cavalry. It gave me a chance to show what was likely the last cavalry charge, because of the advance of technology. This story allowed me to be a bit more mythological, to be able to show cavalry charging and then in the next cut show a riderless horse jumping over machine guns.”
Plenty more was covered, from the eight horses that played the titular Joey, to how he wanted Joey to be able to touch more lives than he did in the book or the play on which the film is based (“This is really a story about connections,” he said), to the importance of films like “War Horse,” “Hugo” and “The Artist” potentially sparking audiences to flip over to Turner Classic Movies and indulge in classic cinema. It was a lively discussion and one of few early peeks behind the veil of making “War Horse” a reality. I’m sure there will be more as the weeks go by and the inevitable Oscar march begins.
Check out the highlights of the Q&A at MSN Entertainment.
“War Horse” opens nationwide on Christmas Day.
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
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