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Steven Spielberg talks horses and music

War Horse
13 January 2012

As War Horse opens in cinemas on January 13, The Fan Carpet were fortunate enough to attend the press conference ahead of it’s release, allowing the opportunity to speak with the director of the picture, a little-known film-maker by the name of Steven Spielberg.

Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the emotionally-driven story of one man’s relationship with a horse named Joey, and how they are torn apart by Joey’s involvement in The First World War. Featuring a host of talent, such as newcomer Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston and Emily Watson, and a screenplay by Richard Curtis, War Horse is a film certain to bring in the punters.

Joined by producer of the film Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked with Spielberg for over thirty years, the pair discussed what it was like making a feature with so many horses, whilst Spielberg also gave us an insight into his own career, the up’s and down’s, and the point he was finally given the poetic license to make a film about flying saucers.



What is so special about the story of War Horse?

Steven Spielberg: Well the bones of the story is that it’s a love story, and that’s what makes it universal. It was that way in the book and it was certainly that way on the West End, and that’s what we really tried to do in our adaptation of War Horse, was to really create a bonding story where Joey basically circumvents the emotional globe of the Great War and gets very, not only connected with the people who are caring for him, but more importantly Joey has a way of bringing people together, especially people from both sides of that war, and that was very evident in the play.


Did you find yourself looking more to the book or the play?

Steven Spielberg: I took more from Richard Curtis’ script. I mean Richard wrote a brilliant screenplay. I was very drawn to the way Richard saw the story, you know 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 you know, and we don’t even see Albert until the third act, and that was something that Richard brought into the equation.

Kathleen Kennedy: I do think that its very interesting now that this story exists in literature, on the stage and now its a film. Each one is so different and yet we’re all borrowing from what Michael Morpurgo created.


Scarcely has the British landscape looked so good on film, I was wondering what your first reaction to both the Devon and Castle Combe locations?

Steven Spielberg: Oh, Castle Combe looks like Hollywood built it! It doesn’t look real, but beautiful; it’s very authentic and very old. The Devon location has some of the most natural wonders in all of England, with the tours that are so beautiful, and you know the tours that are built in a most unusual way. I’ve only seen something like this one other time and that was in New Zealand, where there are also tours, large areas of high desert. There’s nothing like the landscapes of Devon, we couldn’t believe it, and you know the original script didn’t have the budget that allowed us to go to Devon and we stretched the budget a bit to afford to go there and it was worth every penny.

Kathleen Kennedy: It was pretty extraordinary because everybody told us that when we get down to Cornwall and Devon it would be raining quite a bit, which is apparently why its so beautiful. But we had wonderful sunny skies and we also had fog come in which added a lot of texture to the landscape. I don’t think I’ve been on a movie where you were shooting and you look around and suddenly the whole crew have stopped working and there just staring out at the landscape.


How many horses and horse trainers?

Steven Spielberg: Only one horse trainer Bobby Lovgren, and he had a staff of beautiful horse whisperers that worked with him, from Spain and Australia and UK and America and Ireland, there were 8 horses, but mostly only two horses that worked with us all the time – Abraham and Finder, and they play the main Joeys. Other horses were special horses, and there were certain horses that are trained just to do one performance moment, but I pretty much always see Joey as essentially one horse, of course I hope that you see Joey as one horse that’s the idea of movies, but I really see Joey as two horses, the ones that give the most improvisation in the movie.

Kathleen Kennedy: The equine department were always arriving first and leaving last, all those people had to get there at three or four in the morning.


You’ve had such a wonderful career: could you tell us what the turning point was?

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 after Jaws was such a big hit, I could do any movie I wanted and Hollywood just wrote me a cheque. I wanted to make this crazy movie about flying saucers, and nobody wanted to make it before Jaws, and I tried to get them to make this crazy film about flying saucers and I kept saying ‘oh this big mother ship comes down at the end you’re going to love it and this guy goes and climbs into the mother ship’, and people thought I was crazy and they wouldn’t give me the time of day. And the second Jaws was a hit everybody said’ what about that mother ship movie you had, what about that flying saucer movie you had, do you still want to make that? So Jaws for me was the turning point.


Steven tell us about the young actor you chose to take the lead role, and what made Jeremy Irvine stand out, presumably you looked at lots of potential?

Steven Spielberg: Hundreds. Literally hundreds of potential Alberts, and what made Jeremy stand out was that ineffable quality that certain exceptional people have that just stand out and rise above the rest. There were hundreds of very interesting actors and newcomers and nobody had the heart or the spirit or the communication skills that Jeremy had. Even in silence, even in his videotape, his crude video tape test that we did through our casting director here in London, he tested five times, and just got better and better and better. I’m accustomed to working with actors who have no experience, I mean you can just look back into my career at E.T. and Drew Barrymore, and Christian Bale from Empire of the Sun who had never made a movie before and had a very similar history and career that could be in store for Jeremy. So I really trust the authenticity of real people, and my job is get them to be themselves in front of the camera. Often what happens is that you get a newcomer in front of the camera and they freeze up or they imitate actors and other performances that they’ve admired and they stop becoming themselves and so my job is the director is to always return them to what I first saw in them being. I didn’t want Jeremy to be a character actor I didn’t want Jeremy to be someone he wasn’t, I simply wanted him to be the person he is today and he did a wonderful job playing himself.


War Horse is gloriously old fashioned, and I mean this as a compliment. I wondered that when you were making the movie if you were dipping into childhood memories of heroes of John Ford?

Steven Spielberg: Yes of course, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, David Lean, you know erm, Lewis Milestone, Victor Fleming, Michael Curtiz, my heroes. Many more than that too, it goes beyond just 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 the British film this is the most British film I’ve ever made, and yet at the same time, the works of John Ford, How Green was my Valley, The Quiet Man, very evocative, you know, he made beautiful landscapes, and he included the land as part of his storytelling. The land serves as a character and in a sense that’s what the old directors did they went and they just featured the land they were standing on. It’s kinda fun when you get to put a wide angled lens on it not just shot close ups for an entire movie.


You call this a story of love but also a story of war. Why do you always keep coming back to those?

Steven Spielberg: Well I don’t often mix my metaphors so this is what makes this movie both a story of love and a story of war. But I don’t see this really as a war story. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan, this isn’t Band of Brothers, this isn’t you know a typical film. Really in the movie there’s only about 12-15 minutes of combat, from the cavalry charge to the fighting in the Somme. I want families to see this picture together, there’s hardly any blood in this movie at all, and unlike Saving Private Ryan where I was trying to acquit the actual testimonies of the young men who actually fought in France on D-Day, I was trying to make the 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.



Do you see this as an American view on history?

Steven Spielberg: I think my regard for history is more of a European regard for history as I think that Europeans are closer to history than we Americans are. I think that the 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, let alone a hundred years. Europe is closer, you know, to your history, and I think in that sense I have more proximity to the Europeans in that way. I love history it’s the only thing I did well at in school. I’m not ashamed to admit I was not a good student but I was great at history. My dad fought in World War Two and he’s turning 95 this month, he was based in Karachi which is now Pakistan, he fought in Burma against the Japanese, and he told these stories, so I grew up hearing these war stories. My first 8mm movies when I was 13, were mostly war movies , World War Two movies, so I can’t shake it. Also war throws characters into chaos and there’s no better way to test who a person is than to put him in the middle of a war, that’s really going to show you what kind of a character you’re telling the story about.


A film with horses is very challenging because you never know how the animal is going to react. Can you tell us which shot was the most difficult?

Steven Spielberg: Well the most difficult shots of the entire film is where the British soldier and the German soldier are trying to free Joey, because it is very very hard to get a horse to be in the position on the ground. You can get a horse to lie down but it’s very difficult to get a horse to kneel down on its forelegs and its back legs, it wants to get right up, so we had very very little time to get those shots and to have the actors giving it their best takes while Joey patiently waited 15-20 seconds until 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, he was allowed to get up, but the trainers kept him down, but it was very very difficult to get him to stay down. The crew didn’t move!

Kathleen Kennedy: It was very quiet when shooting that – nobody moved a muscle.


What is your decision process when choosing a script because your portfolio of movies is so diverse, and tell us about your next movie Lincoln, what was it like working with Daniel Day Lewis and how is that shaping up?

Steven Spielberg: Well first of all let me answer your second question first by saying that I’m not answering anything about Lincoln yet because I’m still in the process of making the movie and I never speak about movies while I’m actually making them. As for choosing my movies, well they choose me. I mean that sounds glib, but its true. I don’t go through a tortuous intellectual process to decide what to direct. I know when I want to direct the second I read something and hear a story, I just know when it grabs me in a certain way I want to direct it. I then spend the next four-six months trying to talk myself out of it.


Steven, you talked recently about how nobody in your business is able to escape the ups and downs. I wonder what is your experience and perceived downs in your own career?

Steven Spielberg: Well I think the perceived downs in my own career are just managing my time, and not feeling that I have enough time for my family and my friends, but you can put that in the personal life category, although it’s all one category because I’ve got to balance my family. I have seven children, some of them are in college some of them have graduated, some of them are not yet in college, and you know the downs in my life is when my career gets so choke-hold to the extent that I can’t actually see one of my kids soccer games, or I can’t go to one of my daughter’s horse shows, and that really depresses me terribly. That 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 pinch of salt, you know, some movies get great reviews some movies don’t; that’s just part of what I do for a living, what we do for a living. We just move through all that, that doesn’t ever stop us.


You have seven children. How much do you think of them when you’re choosing projects? And secondly I would like to ask , as you have so many projects, how much longer are you planning on working?

Steven Spielberg: Well I have no plans to quit. I’ve always said, and Clint East wood is one of my best friends, I’ve known Clint for 40 years and we have a great, almost a jokey relationship about retirement, and Clint’s like 81 now, and I always say ‘Clint are you ready to retire this year?’ and he says ‘No, are you?’ and I say ‘No’. I’m waiting for the phone call when 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! Anyway, yes I have seven children, and my daughter Destry had a lot to do with me directing war Horse, because she’s 15 now and she’s been competitively riding for I’d say 11 years. And we live with horses, we have 10 horses at home, and we’ve been living with horses for almost 18 years as my wife rides corsage, and that’s another reason to qualify me to direct War Horse because I know horses. I don’t ride but I certainly know how to muck out a stable, and I really think that when Destry heard that Kathy 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 saw the play and came back to report that it made me cry and that I loved it so much, my daughter said ‘You have to make War Horse, you have to make it for me’. So I did.


In a more philosophical way, Joey in War Horse represents us, the common man, because we see how despite the war and everything, it survives.

Steven Spielberg: You’ve asked a wonderful question, it’s something that I have thought about and talked about, and has been part of my thematic raison d’etre for being involved in War Horse. And you almost said what I have been saying over the last two years which is that Joey represents common sense. That if more people had a common sense, a common horse sense, of Joey, we wouldn’t be having wars. That was there the real underpinning for this entire endeavour. Good question.


When most people think about the sacrifices from the First World War they think about human sacrifice, and in the movie you certainly don’t shy away from portraying how the animals suffered, in their deterioration of health. How did you portray that without harming the animals, and also how much do you expect that the film will draw attention to those who are currently serving on the front line alongside animals at the moment?

Steven Spielberg: Well I certainly think that 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 about that was Bobby Lovgren who trained all the horses. He was the one who guarded the horses, who kept them safe, who protected them, and if I had a crazy idea he would say whether I could do that safely or not. We had Barbara from the Humane Society who was there every single shooting day. And I said to Barbara ‘You’ve got the power over me’ and she said ‘What do you mean?’ and I said ‘If you ever see an animal under any kind of duress you can say ‘cut’, and I gave her the chance to stop a take or even stop a take from even being taken, and so we had tremendous cooperation with the Humane Society.

Kathleen Kennedy: The interesting thing is, most of the trainers bring their own horses. They own them, so they are incredibly attached to them. They know what each of their animals are capable of.

Steven Spielberg: You have to understand that these horses are really really smart, horses are not given enough credit for  being so smart. Topthorn was trained, and so was Joey at a certain point in the story, to walk with their heads down, which makes them look very ill, and they didn’t have to put weights around their necks, they didn’t have to do anything like that, they were just trained to walk with their heads down.


The music is a big factor of the film. Can you tell us about the day to day involvement with John Williams the composer?

Steven Spielberg: Well John and I have had a 40 year relationship. We started working together in 1972 on Sugarland Express so this is year 40. And we start our next score in 3 months, Johnny scores Lincoln and that’ll be our, I think our… I don’t know a lot, and John is the most important collaborator I’ve ever had in my career. He’s made me look good, he’s made my work look better. I get a lot of credit but it really should be going to John. I’ve kept the people in my career who I feel are my family: Kathy has been with me since 1978, Janusz Kaminski my cinematographer has made every movie with me since Schindler’s List; Michael Kahn has cut every movie I’ve made 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 Johnny is certainly no less or no more important than that group of all of us, but Johnny does make a contribution that goes straight to your heart. A lot of the contributions of my other collaborators 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 he immediately bypasses the brain and goes right to your heart, and that’s how it’s always been with him. He’s an amazing talent.



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