Steven Spielberg is one of the industry’s most successful and influential filmmakers and a principal partner of DreamWorks Studios. He is a three-time Academy Award® winner. Spielberg is also, collectively, the top-grossing director of all time, with blockbuster films like “Jaws,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” the “Indiana Jones” franchise and “Jurassic Park.”
In a recent interview Spielberg spoke about filming War Horse, working with horses on set and what its like working with his team.
Q: It’s interesting how you came to discover “War Horse” because there is both the book and the play. Can you talk about your experience discovering the material?
A: It was discovered for me by Kathy Kennedy, who had already experienced it in the West End in London and told me about it and how moved she was by the play. Then Stacey [Snider], the head of my company, DreamWorks, flew over and saw it without me. And she concurred with Kathy about how powerful a story it was. I also read the Michael Morpurgo book right after Kathy and Stacey had seen the show on the West End. I love the book. So then my wife and I flew to London and we got a chance to see “War Horse” for the first time. And that sealed the deal as far as I was concerned.
Q: What themes in the “War Horse” story stood out to you?
A: “War Horse” says a lot about courage; the courage of this boy and what he endures and what he overcomes to achieve what he needs and not just for himself but also for his best friend, his horse Joey. It’s also about the courage and the tenacity of this extraordinary animal. The theme of courage kept coming back and back from the play, from Michael Morpurgo’s book and from Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’ screenplay. That was the underlying subliminal theme that I think informs every frame of “War Horse.”
Q: How did you approach casting the part of Albert?
A: For the part of Albert, I was looking for a complete unknown. I didn’t want the person playing Albert to bring a portfolio of distinguished parts from other films. I really wanted a face. Joey, the horse, was a fresh face, so I wanted a little parity there. Let the horse be an unknown. Let the boy be an unknown. So we basically didn’t even consider anybody that was known to television audiences or moviegoers and mainly started searching for the right character for the right part.
Q: When Jeremy Irvine came in to audition for Albert, did you know he was the one?
A: There were hundreds of boys that came in to read for Albert. And Jeremy was maybe right in the middle of the pack.Right in the middle of the search process, we found Jeremy. And then we moved on to see if anybody else could match him. And several months later, we came back to Jeremy, realizing that he was the best person for the part.
Q:Were you nervous at all about the idea of working with horses? How did you approach getting the performances you needed?
A: The thing is, I haven’t made a lot of horse movies. Usually in my movies, and in most people’s movies, in Westerns and the “Indiana Jones” films for instance, a horse is something that Harrison Ford rides on. My job is to focus the audience on Indiana Jones, not his trusted steed. And so horses are usually taken for granted. And yet I live with horses and have lived with horses for the last 15 years. We live on a little bit of a horse ranch. My daughter and wife ride. My daughter is a very serious rider at 14 years old. She travels the country, riding competitively. She’s a hunter/jumper.
I’ve gotten to know how expressive horses are. This is long before “War Horse,” by the way. But just living with horses for so many years, I know that they really do convey tremendous expression, and it’s easy for anybody to read. I didn’t know whether I could get that on film or not, but I did. Bobby Lovgren, our kind of horse whisperer who had done “Seabiscuit” with us, came on board to make the picture with us. He and his team performed miracles with the horses.
Q: It was safety first on set for you with the horses. Can you talk about your feelings about that?
A: The thing that I kept emphasizing from the very outset was that the horses have to be safe, not even a scratch. If the script calls for a horse with a hurt leg, let’s get a trainer to teach a horse how to limp. By the way, it’s easy to get a horse to limp. You just put a heavier shoe on the right hoof or the left hoof and the horse does a slower move with the foot that has a weight on it. It’s very, very safe. And Bobby Lovgren kept the horses safe.
The other essential need that we had, and it was also not just our need but it was at the insistence of the Animal Humane Association, was that Barbara Carr came on the set representing them and she was there for every shot. And she was able, since I gave her the complete, final cut so to speak, to pull the plug if she felt any of the horses were not up to the challenge or any of the horses were in any way in harm’s way.
Q: The performances and the emotions you got from those horses must have been very satisfying. Can you talk about that?
A: I want to believe that the horses knew exactly what they were doing and performed those parts the same way that Emily Watson or Peter Mullan did. They were all performers. There were times in the movie when I wouldn’t even tell the horses what to do. They’d be in a scene and would be reacting in that scene in ways I couldn’t imagine a horse would be able to react or act. And there are times you just have to sit back and thank your lucky stars that the horses somehow were cognizant that something was required of them that none of us could tell them, but they intuitively were able to give it to the moment in the scene.
Q:Did your British crew and cast members come to you with personal stories about their relatives in the Great War?
A: Yes, they all had relatives who fought. The British crew constantly told me stories about their grandparents and great grandparents who had fought in the Great War. They all knew their stories. They had been passed down from generation to generation.
Q: The production received special permission to shoot on Stratfield Saye, the Duke of Wellington’s family estate. What scenes were you able to shoot there?
A:Through the generosity of the Wellington family, Rick Carter, our production designer, was allowed to build some of the sets on the Wellington estate—thousands and thousands of beautiful acres in England. And we were able to go there and shoot so much for the picture, including the cavalry charge, the French countryside with the windmill and the German camp.
Q: Please talk about your team and how important it was for you to have them with you on this film.
A: All of my stalwart family members across so many years, covering so many movies, all made this movie with me. Joanna Johnston has done costumes often for me and Rick Carter has done many production designs for films I’ve directed. And, of course, Janusz Kaminski [cinematographer] and his entire crew were there with me. It was just a great experience to have everybody back together again. But this time I think it was extra special for Joanna Johnston because we were shooting in her backyard, so to speak.
Q: Can you talk Joanna Johnston’s costuming?
A: Joanna [Johnston] did an incredible job with such meticulous research in terms of what the Germans wore, what the British wore, how the costumes looked, and even how the German helmets evolved. Joanna went to the Imperial War Museum and spent a lot of time with the researchers there to get those costumes down to each thread, even to how they had been sewn together all those many decades ago.
Q: You and John Williams have collaborated for almost 40 years. He continues to deliver extraordinary music. What do you think of his work on this film?
A: This has been an amazing year for John Williams because, for me, two of the best scores John has ever written for any of our collaborations are happening this year—the score for “The Adventures of Tintin” and his score for “War Horse,” two diametrically opposite approaches to a musical representation of two diametrically opposite motion pictures. I don’t know how he does it and I don’t know how he did it twice in the same year, but he did.
The “War Horse” score is so evocative once again of the land, the place, the times and the relationships between boy and horse. And John just found all of these beautiful themes that I think really bond this movie and that really make my work a lot easier. John is able to go beyond what I do to create a very humane and feeling story, and even beyond I think what the actors are able to contribute, to bond all of us together with a sound that made all of our work look like we had planned it.
Q:Even though it was an ensemble cast there were individual moments that contributed so much to the film. Can you give an example?
A: I wanted Germans to play the German characters, so we found a wonderful actor named Hinnerk Schonemann, who played the young German who tries to come to Joey’s aid when Joey is fettered in all the barbwire. And, of course, Toby Kebbell is the Geordie soldier who comes from the British side to see what he can do about this poor horse completely trapped in barbwire. And that was probably the scene that I’m proudest of in the movie.
Q: How did the ensemble cast work together?
A: “War Horse” isn’t the story of just a boy and a horse. “War Horse” is the story of so many different people. And this is one of the happiest ensemble casts I think I’ve ever been able to work with. It’s an ensemble cast where the characters never really appear in the same scenes with each other and yet you’re left with the impression that they were all in this together. I’m really proud that so many good actors gave so much of themselves to us yet never got the chance to act with each other.
Spielberg won his first two Oscars® for Best Director and Best Picture for the internationally acclaimed “Schindler’s List,” which won a total of seven Oscars. He also won the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award for his work on the film.
Spielberg received his third Academy Award® for Best Director for “Saving Private Ryan,” the World War II drama. It was also one of the year’s most honored films, earning four additional Oscars® as well as two Golden Globe® Awards, for Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director, and numerous critics-groups awards in the same categories. Spielberg also won another DGA Award and shared a Producers Guild of America (PGA) Award with the film’s other producers. That same year, the PGA also presented Spielberg with the prestigious Milestone Award for his historic contribution to the motion-picture industry.
Spielberg has earned Academy Award® nominations for Best Director for “Munich,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Additionally he earned DGA Award nominations for those films, as well as “Jaws,” “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun” and “Amistad.” Spielberg has been honored by his peers with more DGA Award nominations than any other director. In 2000 he received the DGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also the recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Hollywood Foreign Press’ Cecil B. DeMille Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and numerous other career tributes.
Spielberg’s recent projects include working as a producer of this summer’s success, “Super 8,” directed by J.J. Abrams. Upcoming releases include the 3D animated film “The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn,” and “Lincoln” scheduled be released by DreamWorks Studios in the fall of 2012.
DreamWorks Pictures’ WAR HORSE (opens in theaters 12/25/11)