In-Depth Steven Spielberg Interview For ‘War Horse’
‘War Horse,’ director Steven Spielberg’s epic adventure, is a tale of loyalty, hope and tenacity set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War. ‘War Horse’ begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets – British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter – before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man’s Land. The First World War is experienced through the journey of this horse – an odyssey of joy and sorrow, passionate friendship and high adventure. ‘War Horse’ is out now in US cinemas, whilst its set for release January 13th in the UK. The film stars Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Kennedy, Emily Watson, Toby Kebbell, David Thewlis, Eddie Marsan, and Peter Mullan.
It’s very rare that a project is successful as a novel, a play and as a movie. What do you think is the bones of this story that makes that possible?
Steven Spielberg: 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. 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.
The first thing I pulled from Michael Morpurgo’s book, and then was certainly inspired by seeing the play, was this idea of a family that is under the boot heel of a very strict and unforgiving landlord, they need to buy time to succeed as a farm. The father, in a drunken state, buys the wrong horse to pull the plough, to save the farm. The horse he buys, Joey, his breed of horse is in no shape to pull a plough – it’s not the kind of horse that does manual labour so to speak. Yet through a tenacious kind of belief in one another, the young son and Joey form this bond, and together they’re able to at least attempt to save the farm by ploughing an impossible, stony, infertile field. I think it says a lot about courage, that really spoke to me. I think that theme informs every frame of ‘War Horse.’
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.
‘War Horse’ seems to have elements of a lot of John Ford’s great epics, and it seems to sum up some of the things you’ve spoken to in your previous films. Were you dipping into childhood memories of filmmakers like that?
Steven Spielberg: Yes, definitely – 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 the other night at the Odeon Leicester Square and realised I’d made my first British film with ‘War Horse,’ through and through (laughs). 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 in that 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.
It was a conscious decision making the land a character in the story, to let the audience actually make choices about when and where to look, certainly that was the dynamic of most movies that were made in the 1930’s and 1940’s, not just by Ford but by Kurosawa in the 50s‘, by Howard Hawkes. Directors used what was before them, in that they celebrated the land and they made the land a character and they made spaces, environments characters in movies. I just thought that of all the films I’ve made in recent years, this offered the opportunity to include the land as a character which is a determining factor as to whether this Narracott family is going to even survive and either keep or lose their farm. And then the land becomes a bloody character as history tells us occurred on the Somme in World War I, on No Man’s Land. So because the land was such an influence both in Devon on the moors and such an influence in France, Janusz Kaminksi (cinematographer) and I just pulled our cameras back and I knew that was going to create all sorts of metaphors and questions of homage to the way directors approached Monument Valley for instance, the way John Ford made Monument Valley a character in so may of his Westerns. But it wasn’t a conscious thing, it wasn’t an homage to John Ford or to Griffith or to any other filmmaker, it was really an homage to Joey and the effect that animals often have on people in changing their lives for the better.
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.
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.
Why do you have such a regard for history in your movies?
Steven Spielberg: 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 (laughs). 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.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot with the horses? I found the shot where Joey is trapped on No Man’s Land incredible….
Steven Spielberg: Yeah. 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.
For me there was a distinct visual palette for different sections of the movie. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Steven Spielberg: I think the greatest distinction in the visual palette, I think, is when we finally get to the French farmhouse. That’s the first time that the film is inflamed with colour, because it’s a bit of a respite and a great contrast to the coming events in No Man’s Land that we haven’t really seen yet, and so it was our last rest stop before things took a turn to the darker side of the war. I think there were three different palettes that Janusz established: the palette of these farmers just scratching out a living and failing miserably until Joey comes into their life and that had a real sense of nature, the sky, the ground. Janusz waited for the light, we all waited for the light, we waited for the right light, we waited for the right clouds to come over, and I haven’t waited for light in a long time (laughs). I kept saying, “But David Lean waited for light all the time,” but of course he took 300 days to make a movie. We only took about 64 for this one, but at the same time, Janusz was very insistent on waiting for the light, and it really paid off in dividends for us.
There’s a whole different colour palette in No Man’s Land, from that moment almost up until the end. We had real sunsets three days in a row, so the whole last few moments of the film, which I don’t want to spoil (laughs), but those are actual sunsets supplemented with filters, but that was actually flaming orange red sunsets that we were able to shoot. That was just renewal, hope renewed, a promise of some kind of hope and future for Albert and Joey to continue their lives together. That was the reason for that.
How much do you think of your children when you’re choosing a project now?
Steven Spielberg: Yes, I have seven children and my daughter, Destry, she 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 about 11 years. We live with horses, we have 10 horses at home, and we’ve been living with them for 8 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 (laughs)! And when Destry heard that Kathleen Kennedy 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.
Are you willing to work as late as the famous Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, who is 103 and still working?
Steven Spielberg: (Laughs) Well, I don’t want to quit. Clint Eastwood is one of my best friends, I’ve known Clint for forty years and we have almost a jokey relationship about retirement. Clint’s like eighty one 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 (laughs).
Would you say, maybe 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.
Can you talk about the involvement of John Williams, your composer, someone you‘ve worked with for such a long time?
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 has 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.
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