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Spielberg in the saddle

Hope, human connection tell 'War Horse' story

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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NEW YORK - In 1993, Steven Spielberg delivered maybe the greatest one-two commercial-critical punch in movie history. He broke box-office records in the summer with “Jurassic Park.’’ Six months later “Schindler’s List’’ came out.

This year Spielberg has upped the ante on himself, coming out with a similar pairing - separated by only five days. “The Adventures of Tintin’’ opens Wednesday, “War Horse’’ opens next Sunday, Christmas Day.

If having two major movies coming out in the same week hasn’t been enough to keep Spielberg’s hands full, he’s currently filming “Lincoln,’’ with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. He’s been so busy, in fact, that Spielberg had to do promotional interviews for “War Horse’’ at the end of September. That was his sole window of opportunity.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young adult novel, “War Horse’’ was adapted for the stage in 2007. The production currently running on Broadway won five Tony Awards, including best play.

The horse in question is Joey. Young Albert Narracott, his owner, is devastated when Albert’s drunken father sells the animal to the British Army. Joey ends up being used on both sides of no man’s land, since he’s later captured by German soldiers.

Trench warfare seemed very far away from the Upper East Side hotel suite where Spielberg sat doing one-on-one interviews. Leaning forward on a sofa, he was amiable and relaxed. How relaxed? He began the interview by asking if it was all right to go to the bathroom first.

Putting on airs is not the Spielberg style, something his attire reflected. Casually well dressed, he wore a Brown University baseball cap, leather jacket, black jeans, zippered sweater, and half boots. It was a youthful look for a man who turns 65 today. Of course youthfulness has always been a strong part of the director’s artistic personality.

Q. I don’t know how someone can go two straight days answering question after question.

A. Oh, this is easy. I’ve done seven, eight days for a movie. When we’re on a focused, concentrated junket - especially when we travel, going from city to city, like on “Saving Private Ryan’’ - by the time you’re done with it, you’re asking the journalists questions. “What’s your life like?’’ “How many kids do you have? “What do you like to eat?’’ [laughs]

Q. You’ve spoken of “the belief, hope, and tenacity that ‘War Horse’ represents.’’ A lot of stories provide those qualities. What was it specifically about “War Horse’’ that drew you?

A. What drew me was the very tiny fragment of hope, just the hope that sprung eternal with a horse that doesn’t know where it’s going but remembers where it’s been - for the audience to believe that the horse does have a memory of a human connection. A single human connection is what holds together all three evolutions [of the story], from literature to stage to film. Once you believe that Joey remembers Albert, then everything else is just inevitable.

Q. How do you handle the point-of-view issue?

A. Well, the challenge was I couldn’t use the device the book presents because I didn’t want the horse to have a literal voice. But the horse that we have in the movie is spectacular, so reactive, so expressive that the horse achieves every emotion you would hope the horse could achieve, without seeming too human. I did that with real horses. There are no digital supplements. It was all done by Joey.

Q. How hard was it to find the right horse?

A. It was hard. We had several horses to do several different things, all playing the same horse. The one main horse we used with all the actors, I can’t take any credit for finding him. The horse was found by Bobby [Lovgren] and his team, who we had hired previously to train the horses for the movie “Seabiscuit,’’ which my company coproduced. So we knew him, we knew his group, and they just love horses. More important, horses love them and listen to them. They were the trainers and they just - persuaded the horses without ever, ever laying a hand on them. It was all done through coaxing, through gestures. It was beautiful how they trained these horses. The horses were really able to be actors in our movie.

Q. Was point of view the biggest challenge?

A. No, because the point of view is like the stage play’s, a third-person point of view. So the audience has a chance to imprint on anybody in the cast, whoever they want. It’s my job to get the audience to identify with the most important characters.

Q. So what was the hardest challenge?

A. The hardest challenge was the horses, always: getting the horses to do what they needed to do and at the same time doing it when the weather was at the perfect position for the moment. Because this movie is as much about the land, both the moors in Dartmoor and no man’s land in the Somme, as it is about this relationship between man and horse.

Q. You famously drew on Robert Capa’s photographs for the D-day sequence in “Saving Private Ryan.’’ Were there any particular works or sets of imagery that you drew on for “War Horse’’?

A. No, for World War I my production designer, Rick Carter, and I drew on all of the photographs from the war. So there were plenty of opportunities to look at what the Somme looked like, what no man’s land looked like, what the trench system looked like. I drew on memoirs written by the French soldiers and British soldiers to really get a feeling, a taste, for what it was like, that trench war of attrition. In terms of horses, I didn’t reference anything. I wanted to come to it in a very innocent way. I didn’t want to come to it with too much expectation.

I live with horses. My 14-year-old daughter rides. My wife rides dressage. We have 10 horses on our property, in stalls. I don’t ride, but I commune a bit. Thanks to my wife and my youngest daughter they’ve introduced me to an equine world I’ve kind of fallen in love with. So it was a natural impulse for me to be attracted to that story.

Q. Horses are such an important part of movie history. There are so many movies not just about them but in which they figure.

A. They do, they do, they really do. The first moving image in history was the zoetrope, with the horse on a carousel that you spin. You put your eye to the hole and see the horse galloping. You know, I used to feel sorry for the horses because when I’d watch “The Searchers’’ I wouldn’t watch John Wayne’s horse, I’d watch John Wayne! Here are all these great horses, trained and obedient, and no one’s watching them unless the horse gets shot out from under a cowboy. So unless the movies focus on the horse, like “The Red Pony,’’ like “National Velvet,’’ or “The Black Stallion,’’ you don’t notice the animal. When you’re watching Indiana Jones riding a horse it’s Harrison [Ford] you’re looking at, not the horse under him. So I had to change the entire paradigm of how I’d always viewed horses, plus how I’d always watched movies, to suddenly realize there’s no one more important in the frame at this time at this juncture in your story than Joey.

Q. It’s been three years since the last movie you directed came out [“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’’]. Was that break a conscious decision or did it just sort of happen?

A. It just sort of happened. I don’t direct because I want to work. I direct because there’s something I want to direct. Also I’ve got a studio that I co-run with Stacey Snider, and we’re busy producing “Transformers’’ and stuff like that. So those fallow years are really filled up running a studio. That’s very gratifying for me, but it doesn’t stop me from searching for something to direct.

Q. Was it by chance you did two such different projects as “Tintin’’ and “War Horse’’ or was it a conscious decision?

A. By chance. I never expected to make “War Horse.’’ I didn’t even know what a war horse was. I was right in the middle of “Tintin,’’ but I had a year off because the animators needed a year to animate before I could see anything. I wasn’t even looking for a film to direct when all of a sudden Kathy Kennedy, my longtime collaborator and producer, said, “There’s a play in London you have to go to see called ‘War Horse.’ I think it’s right up your alley.’’ So I read the book first. Then I flew to London, fell in love with the play. My wife and I cried buckets, and I bought the rights. I immediately went into development on that. Once Richard Curtis delivered a brilliant screenplay, I staffed the film. Bobby came on to find the horses, and we were shooting by August. So I saw the play in January, and we were shooting by mid-August. That was fast. But there was nothing else for me to do. So I was actually available, which was kind of a miracle.

Q. One of the things that’s been a constant throughout your filmography, though it may not be what people immediately associate with you, is history.

A. I wasn’t necessarily attracted to “War Horse’’ because of the drama of World War I. I was attracted because of the pathos of that boy being separated from that horse for so long. But history is very important to me, because I love history. I not only read it, but I preach it to my kids, that they should read it, too. I just think there’s so much to learn from where we’ve been. We can’t really find out where we’re going until we know where we’ve been. I’ve always believed that.

Q. Another thing that’s distinctive of your career has been your acute awareness of movie history. Do you ever think of your own place in it?

A. Oh sure. I’m reminded of that constantly by young filmmakers, people who want to make movies. I’m proud to be able to grandfather filmmakers into the business. I started DreamWorks for a single purpose: so I can give directors and writers and cinematographers and actors and producers and editors and production designers a first shot. I think of starting Sam Mendes out and taking him off the London stage and giving him “American Beauty’’ for his first film, and now, recently, Tate Taylor, who never directed anything before in his life - he was an actor - and giving him a chance to direct “The Help.’’

Q. What haven’t you done that you’d like to?

A. [With no hesitation] A musical and a love story.

Q. Will you do those?

A. I hope so. I’m actively looking for a good love story and a good musical. I haven’t found one that’s right for me yet, but I’m hoping some day.

Q. You’ve been directing for more than 40 years now. How have you changed? Not grown, which is inevitable, but changed, which isn’t.

A. Well, if I could tell you that I’d go into another business. I’d be a therapist.

Q. Let me ask that question a different way. Would the Steven Spielberg who directed TV episodes and “Duel’’ 40 years ago, would he recognize the Steven Spielberg of today?

A. Oh yeah.

Q. What would he think of him?

A. I think he’d say, “What’s the matter with you? You’re much older than I am, but why won’t you grow up?’’ I don’t think there’s any difference between who I was then and who I am now.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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