Follow Us on Twitter

War Horse - Steven Spielberg interview

War Horse, Steven Spielberg

Interview by Rob Carnevale

STEVEN Spielberg talks about working with horses, his passion for history and why he made War Horse for his daughter as much as anyone.

He also reflects on some of his career, including its turning point with Jaws, his friendship with Clint Eastwood and why each project he directs chooses him. He was speaking at a London press conference to promote the film.

Q. It’s very rare that a project is successful as a novel, a play and a movie, so what do you think is the bones of this story that makes that possible?
Steven Spielberg: Well, the bones of the story is that it’s basically a love story and that makes it universal. It was that way in the book, it certainly was that way on the boards, in the West End, and that’s what we tried to do in our adaptation… was to really create a bonding story where Joey basically circumvents the emotional globe of the Great War and gets very connected with people who are not only caring for Joey, but more importantly Joey has a way of bringing people together, especially people from both sides of the war. And that was very evident in the play.

Q. What do you think it is about film watching in general that will help to educate and help children learn?
Steven Spielberg: Well, children learn, as we know, exponentially from media. We feel responsible when we make a movie that even touches on historical fact that there has to be more than a kernel of truth in the history of especially the First World War. So, we did a lot of research beyond what you may perceive to be the story that you saw in War Horse. We did a lot of research and the thing that really struck me from that research was just the vast number of casualties among the horses… not just the men who died on the American, French and British and German sides, but just the fact that this was the death knell of the horse; this was the end of the horse as an implement of warfare. It was an era when the machine – the tank, the airplane, chemical warfare… it all kind of converged on the First World War. [It was] almost like an experimental war. It was ‘the war to end all wars’… at least that’s what they thought at the time.

Q. In your research and the development of the film did you find yourself drawing more from the book or the play?
Steven Spielberg: I took more from Richard Curtis’ script. Richard wrote a brilliant screenplay. There’s two writers credited. Lee Hall wrote a wonderful first draft and then Richard came in and he was my primary writer throughout the entire process of pre-production and right through production of the picture. I was very drawn to the way Richard saw the story. A little bit more like the book, Richard did not want Albert to come back into the movie until very late. So, we have a hiatus from our central character. We don’t even see Albert until the third act and that was something that Richard brought into the equation.

Q. What is your comment on Hollywood today? It looks very much like Wall Street…
Steven Spielberg: Well, it might look that way if you read the papers. It’s not that way when you’re in Hollywood making movies. The creative process, the people who are giving everything they have to express the story, to tell the story… the creative process is just as stimulating and just as sharing. It’s a very collaborative process. I know it might seem that way because so much ink is spilled and the media is obsessed with business and numbers and studios… but filmmakers don’t think of it that way. We just go off and we tell our stories. It’s the same torture that we adore, it’s the same torture that our forefathers endured making movies in the golden era of Hollywood. So, from my perspective it’s no different, I’m sure, from the men and women who I admire so much who made the earliest movies.

Q. Scarcely has the British landscape looked so good on film. What was your initial reaction to both Devon and the Castle Combe locations?
Steven Spielberg: Oh, Castle Combe looks like Hollywood built it [laughs]. It doesn’t look real but it’s beautiful and really authentic and very old. The Devon location has some of the most natural wonders in all of England. I’ve only seen something like this one other time and that was in New Zealand. But there’s nothing like the landscapes of Devon. We couldn’t believe it. You know, the original script didn’t have the budget that allowed us to go to Devon but we stretched the budget a bit to afford to go there and it was worth every penny. A question I’m asked quite often is how much people love the digital skies that we obviously painted… but there’s not a single sky that we put in with special effects. Every sky you see in the movie are the skies that we experienced and the sunsets you have in the movie are the sunsets we experienced.

Q. How many horses did it take and how many horse trainers to make it all happen?
Steven Spielberg: One main horse trainer, Bobby Lovgren, and he had a staff of beautiful horse whisperers that worked with him from Spain, Australia, the UK, Ireland and America. There were eight horses but really principally only two horses that I worked with all the time, Abraham and Finder, and they played the main Joeys. The other horses were speciality horses… they knew how to run without a rider, or horses that knew how to back up. There were certain horses that were trained just to do one performance moment. Of course, I hope you see Joey as one horse – that’s the idea of movies! – but I really see Joey as two horses – the two horses I worked with closest and the ones who gave me the most improvisation in the movie.

Q. What was your turning point in your career?
Steven Spielberg: The turning point in my career was Jaws. It was a turning point because I was a director-for-hire before Jaws and because it was such a big hit I could do any movie I wanted and Hollywood just wrote me a cheque. I wanted to make this movie about flying saucers[Close Encounters], nobody wanted to make it before Jaws and I tried to get people to make this crazy movie. I kept saying: “Oh, this big mother-ship comes down at the end, you’re going to love it!” People thought I was crazy and they wouldn’t give me the time of day. But the second Jaws was a hit, everybody said: “What about that mother-ship movie you had? What about that flying saucer movie? Do you still want to make that?” So, Jaws really was the turning point.

War Horse

Q. Can you talk about your decision to cast Jeremy Irvine in the central role? What made him stand out? Presumably you looked at a lot of actors…
Steven Spielberg: Hundreds… I looked at hundreds of potential Alberts. And what made Jeremy stand out was just that ineffable quality that certain stars have, or certain exceptional people have… to just stand out and rise above the rest. I looked at hundreds of very interesting actors… mainly newcomers and nobody had the heart or the spirit or the communication skills that Jeremy had, even with silence, even without speaking.

Even in his crewed video tape test that we did through our casting director here in London, Jina Jay, every time I saw him – he tested five times – he just got better and better and better. And I’m very accustomed to working with actors who have no experience. I mean, you can just look back at ET with Drew Barrymore, and Christian Bale from Empire of the Sun, who’d never made a movie before. [He’s] very similar to the history and career that I think could be in store for Jeremy. So, I really trust the authenticity of real people and my job is to get them to be themselves in front of the camera. Often what happens is, you’ll get a newcomer in front of the camera and they’ll freeze up or they imitate actors or other performances that they’ve admired and so they stop becoming themselves. And so my job as the director is just to always return them to what I first saw in them, which was simply an uncensored human being. I don’t want Jeremy to be a character actor, I didn’t want Jeremy to be somebody who wasn’t, I wanted him to be the person he is today and he did a wonderful job of playing himself.

Q. Your film is wonderfully old fashioned. Were you dipping into childhood memories of filmmakers such as John Ford?
Steven Spielberg: Yes, of course. John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, David Lean, Lewis Milestone, Victor Fleming… my heroes. Many more than that too… it goes beyond American directors. But what I was looking to do, and I think part of it was the inspiration of your country. This could only have been shot in England. This is a British film. It’s the most British film I’ve ever made. I once thought Empire of the Sun was a British film but I think I disqualified that after I heard the reaction last night at the Odeon Leicester Square and realised I’d made my first British film with War Horse, through and through. And yet at the same time, the works of John Ford – How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man – are very evocative. He made [films] with beautiful landscapes and he included the land as part of his storytelling. And how could you not include Devon and Dartmoor? And how could you not include the Duke of Wellington estate? We shot so much of the picture there… the land sort of was the character. And in a sense that’s what a lot of the old directors did – they went and just featured the land they were standing on. It’s kind of fun when you get to put a wide angle lens on and not just shoot close-ups for the entire movie.

Q. You call this a story of love but it’s also a story of war. Why do you keep going back to those?
Steven Spielberg: Well, I don’t often mix my metaphors but what makes this unique is that it is a story of love and a story of war. But I don’t see this really as a war story. It’s not Saving Private Ryan, it isn’t Band of Brothers, or your typical war film. If you really look at the movie there’s only about 12 to 15 minutes of combat in the film – from the cavalry charge to the fighting in the Somme. This is not really that kind of a film. I wanted families to see this picture together. There’s hardly any blood in this movie at all, unlike Saving Private Ryan where I was trying to acquit the actual testimonies of the young men who fought in France, on D-Day, and I was trying to make that movie as brutally authentic as I possibly could. I took a different approach to this story. So, for me it’s a combination of both.

War Horse, Steven Spielberg

Q. It has something to say about courage and tenacity in combat…
Steven Spielberg: It does. But courage in combat is really… I mean, Albert shows tremendous courage in pressing forward on the Somme, when he crosses No Man’s Land. 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 a horse that he’s hoping to find among millions of horses in France. He actually is audacious enough to think he may actually find the one but in fact it seems the one finds him instead.

Q. Why do you have such a regard for history in your movies? And would you say this regard for history is an American regard for history?
Steven Spielberg: Well, I think my regard for history is more of a European regard for history since the Europeans are closer to history than we Americans are. You know, the social media has taken over America to such an extent that even to get my own kids to look back a week in their past is a miracle! [Laughs] Let alone 100 years! Europe is closer, I think, to your history and I think in that sense I have more proximity with Europeans in that way. I love history. It was the only thing I did well at in school. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was not a good student but I was great at history.

My dad fought in World War Two… he’s turning 95 this month and he was based in Karachi, which is now Pakistan, and he fought in Burma against the Japanese and he told me these war stories, so I grew up hearing his war stories. So, that part of history was always… my first 8mm movies when I was 13, 14, 15-years-old were mostly war movies! World War Two movies! So, I can’t shake it. Also, war movies throw characters into chaos and there’s no better way to test who a person is than put him in the middle of war – that’s really going to show you what kind of a character you’re telling a story about.

Q. What was the most challenging scene to shoot with the horses? I found the shot where the animal is trapped incredible…
Steven Spielberg: Well, the most difficult shots in the entire film are the shots where the British soldier and the German soldier are trying to free Joey because it’s very, very hard to get a horse to be in that position on the ground. You can get a horse to lie down but it’s very hard to get a horse to kneel down on its fore legs and its back legs in that position. It wants to get right up. And so we had very, very little time to get those shots and have the actors performing and giving me their best takes while Joey patiently waited for the 15 or 20 seconds before he wanted to get up. Any time Joey wanted to get up, he was allowed to get up; it’s not like he was tied to the ground. So, the trainers got him down but it was very, very difficult to get him to stay down.

Q. What is your decision process when choosing a script?
Steven Spielberg: They choose me. That sounds glib but it’s true. I don’t go through a torturous intellectual process to decide what to direct. I know what I want to direct the second I read something or hear a story. I just know when it grabs me in a certain way I want to direct it. And then I spend the next four to six months trying to talk myself out of it [laughs] because directing is really hard! But it’s true, I know essentially when and what I want to do next… it’s an undeniable feeling I get and it’s not the same feeling I get when I wind up producing something.

Q. Hugh Jackman recently talked about nobody in your business being able to escape the ups and downs. So, what’s been your experience of any perceived downs in your career?
Steven Spielberg: I think that the perceived downs in my own career come from just managing my time and not feeling that I have enough time for my family or my friends. You could put that in the personal life category but it’s all one category because I’ve got to balance my family. I have seven children… some of them are in college, some have graduated, some are not yet in college and the downs in my life are when my career gets me in a choke-hold to the point that I can’t essentially see one of my kids’ soccer games, or I can’t go to one of my daughter’s horse shows. That really depresses me. It’s a horrible time when it happens. It 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 grain of salt. If the movie does well, or it doesn’t do so well, some movies get great reviews, some movies don’t… that’s just part of what I do for a living. We just move through all that; that doesn’t ever stop us.

War Horse

Q. How much do you think of your children when you’re choosing a project?
Steven Spielberg: Yes, I have seven children and my daughter, Destry, had a lot to do with me directing War Horse because she’s into competitive riding. She’s 15 now and has been competitive riding for, I’d say, 11 years. We live with horses, we have 10 horses at home, and we’ve been living with them for eight years, so that’s another reason that qualified me to direct War Horse because I know horses. I don’t ride them but I certainly know how to muck a stable! And when Destry heard that Kathy [producer] had found this book and this play and I was about to go to London to see the play for the first time… even before I came back and reported that it had made me cry and I loved it so much, my daughter said: “You have to make War Horse! You have to make it for me!” So, I did.

Q. Are you willing to work as late as the famous Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, who is 103 and working still?
Steven Spielberg: [Laughs] Well, I don’t want to quit. I’ve always said that Clint Eastwood is one of my best friends. I’ve known Clint for 40 years and we have almost a jokey relationship about retirement. Clint’s like 81 now and I always say: “OK Clint, are you ready to retire this year?” And he always says: “No, are you?” So, I’m waiting for the phone call where 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.

Q. Would you say in a more philosophical way that the horse in the film represents us: common man?
Steven Spielberg: Yeah, you’ve asked a wonderful question. It’s something I have thought about and talked about and it was part of my thematic reason d’aitre for getting involved in War Horse. Joey represents common sense. If more people had common sense… the common horse sense of Joey, we wouldn’t be having wars. And that was the real underpin for this entire endeavour. Good question!

Q. How did you manage to portray the animals’ deterioration of health without actually harming the animals? And how much do you hope this film will focus the public attention on those people who are currently serving alongside animals at the moment?
Steven Spielberg: Nothing was ever done to the horses to put them under any stress… that was very, very important to all of us. But the important thing was the involvement of Bobby Lovgren, who trained the horses, guarded the horses and kept them safe and protected. We also had Barbara from the Humane Society, who was there every single shooting day. When I first met her, I said: “You’ve got the power over me.” She said: “What do you mean?” So, I said: “If you ever see an animal under any kind of duress, you can say ‘cut’.” So, I gave her the chance to stop a take or even stop a take from even being taken. So, we had tremendous co-operation.

But you also have to understand that these horses were really smart. People don’t give horses enough credit for being so smart. Topthorn was trained, and so was Joey at a certain point in the story, to walk with their head down, which makes them look very ill. We didn’t have to put weights around their necks, we didn’t have to do anything like that, they were just trained to walk with their heads down. I also hope that this film raises awareness of the contribution that animals make, not just to soldiers fighting currently in Afghanistan, but to the police and those who use police dogs. The canine units in America and other countries and how interwoven the animal kingdom is with the human world, and how dependent, in a sense, we are on them.

Q. Can you talk about the day-to-day involvement of John Williams, your composer?
Steven Spielberg: Well, John and I have had a 40-year relationship this year. It’s our 40th anniversary of working together. We started working together in 1972 on Sugarland Express, so this is year 40. John starts to score Lincoln in the next three months. John is the most important collaborator I’ve ever had in my career. He’s made me look good, he’s made my films look better. I get a lot of credit when it really should be going to John. But I’ve kept the people who’ve been in my career who I feel are my family. Kathy [Kennedy] had been with me since 1978. Janusz Kaminsky, my cinematographer, has made every movie with me since Schindler’s List. Michael Kahn has cut every movie I’ve directed since 1976 when we made Close Encounters together. Rick Carter has done 15 of my directed films as a production designer.

I really believe in the family of collaboration and so Johnny is certainly no less or no more important than the entire group of all those people. Johnny does make a contribution that goes right to your heart. A lot of the contributions of my other collaborators are subliminal; you don’t really single them out for credit. Although without them, the film wouldn’t have the impact that they have. But John certainly has the most considerable impact because music immediately bypasses the brain and goes straight to your heart and that’s the way it’s always been. He’s an amazing talent.

Read our review of War Horse

Read our interview with Michael Morpurgo and Richard Curtis