Steven Spielberg, Producer Kathleen Kennedy, and Screenwriter Richard Curtis WAR HORSE Interview

     December 21, 2011

Opening on Christmas Day is director Steven Spielberg‘s fantastic new movie, War Horse.  Based on the Award winning play (which is based on Michael Morpurgo’s book) and set during World War I, War Horse tells the story of “the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who tames and trains him.”  And don’t just take my word for it, early screenings have been very positive and the drama is heading into Oscar season with very positive buzz, especially after the National Board of review named War Horse one of the best 10 films of the year.  The film also stars Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Toby Kebbell.  You can watch the trailer here and here’s seven clips.

Anyway, I was recently able to participate in a press conference in New York City with Steven Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and screenwriter Richard Curtis.  During the extended interview they talked about how the film came together, the differences between the book and the film, the creative decisions to get a PG-13 rating, the distinct visual palettes for each story, and so much more.  Hit the jump for the interview.

Question: This is mainly for Steven [Spielberg] and Kathleen [Kennedy], why was it important for you to cover this period of history, since you’ve done other war movies like Saving Private Ryan?

Steven Spielberg: We didn’t invent the history of the horse and the first World War, which really spelled the end of the horse as a tool of war, as you know. This was the end of days for mounted cavalry charges, it was the end of days for the horse as anything other than beasts of burden. As time marched on to the 20th century, the horse became less and less useful in the military operations, it existed more symbolically than anything else. That was part and parcel of Michael Morpurgo’s book that he wrote in 1982 and certainly the play; we adapted both. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the first World War; I didn’t know much about it. I also don’t consider War Horse to be a war movie; it’s not one of my “war movies.” This is much more of a real story of the connections that, sometimes, animals achieve and the way animals can actually connect people together. That’s what Joey does. Joey’s miracles are really in his great sense of optimism and hope and all the people he encounters and brings something new into their lives. And so this was much more focused, I think, on the characters. The war, certainly, was a horrendous backdrop that created tremendous tension, drama and the need to survive, but the war, unlike Saving Private Ryan, was not in the foreground of War Horse.

Do you see the movie as your homage to John Ford, Gone with the Wind, D.W. Griffith?  It seems to have elements of all these great epics and it seems to sum up some of the things you’ve spoken to in your previous films.

Spielberg: Certainly not consciously. The conscious thing that I did was I made the land a character in the story and by simply making the land a character and falling back to wide shots more than close-ups, 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 1930s and 1940s, not just by Ford but by Kurosawa in the ‘50s, by Howard Hawkes. Directors used what was before them; 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] 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.

I know that Kathleen convinced you to go see the play and that’s what sparked your interest in making the movie. I saw a nice homage to having the goose from the play turn up, which was very funny and cute. Was there anything else from the play you took away, either thematically or that you wanted to include for the fans of it?

Spielberg: One of the catharses for me, and also helping me to want to tell this story to audiences as a film, was something that’s just sort of hinted at in the play. There’s a little moment where the Geordie and the German are able to help Joey, who is trapped in barbed wire. It was a lovely moment in the play, very fleeting moment in the play, but it made a profound impact on me, and that was a moment that Richard [Curtis] and I decided to expand and to go deeper with and that was something that the play certainly inspired. The great thing about theater is there are some illusions that you can only create on the boards, that you can never create on film, no matter how many digital tools are at your disposal. That was the amazing moment in the play where the little Joey becomes the adult Joey in that incredible piece of visual theatricality and that you can never do in a film.

Richard Curtis: It’s quite funny when I talk to people who have seen the play about the fact that we were doing the movie and I was working on it. A lot of them said to me, “But, how are you going to do the horses?” [laughs] We said, “Well, we’ll have horses. That’ll be it.” It’s a very strange thing, but of course, in a way, it’s the perfect play to be expanded because you have got horses and you have got landscape; you don’t have that in the play itself.

Speaking of the original sources, the book actually tells the story from Joey’s point-of-view, so you had a choice at one point to steer more towards the book or more towards the play. At what point did you make that choice and how did you make it, because you could have had narration?

Spielberg: Instantly, because the second Joey starts to speak (in the book), it becomes a horse of a different color. [laughs] It becomes much more of a real fable and I think you suspend your disbelief so radically when the horse starts to think out loud that there are no touchstones with your own life and anything you can relate to.  So the first decision was not to let Joey think or speak, but just let Joey emote and exist inside the sequences with these human characters.

Just following up with what you said about the First World War, that you didn’t have that great a knowledge of it. Obviously, you did some research. What was your own emotional reaction when you came face to face with the carnage, for example, at the Battle of the Somme? How did you decide to approach it, because I know you wanted PG-13 on this?

Spielberg: My first reaction every time I delve into an episode of history that I don’t know very much about is…my first reaction is anger that my teachers never taught me about it. That was the first thing: why didn’t I learn this in school? And the second thing was, just Kathy and I and Joanna Johnston, a lot of us went to the Imperial War Museum and they opened up all of their backroom exhibits the public does not get to see on the First World War, and we were taken into the bowels of the museum, into their archives, because a lot of their exhibits are rotating exhibits and this was an exhibit that was just for our eyes only and we went back there and we saw some things and got statistics and learned so much that we didn’t know about the First World War. I wasn’t able to bring it out in the film because this wasn’t meant to be a history lesson, so there’s nowhere in the film where it says 4 and a half million horses were killed in the First World War, but it was important that we got to understand the kind of jeopardy both Joey and his best horse-friend Topthorn were going to be in. It really informed us and gave us a little more gravitas when we started to work with (screenwriter) Richard (Curtis).”

Kathleen Kennedy: It was also really interesting. We weren’t prepared for this, but because we were making the movie in England, Steven and I hadn’t been back since we had done a number of movies in the 1980s in England. So, our crew started to talk about family members that had a connection to World War I. Almost every single member of the crew had pictures that they would bring in, they had memorabilia they would bring in. I think that brought with it a sense of responsibility that made it important that even though, as he was saying, we were just doing a vignette of World War I, we were doing a snapshot, if you will of World War I, that what we were doing, we knew it was going to be meaningful to people to get this right.

It’s interesting, I had this little postcard I used to keep up on the bulletin board in my trailer; it was a picture of No Man’s Land. I’d had it there long before we started shooting. I remember walking onto the set of No Man’s Land and being absolutely astounded that outside my window, No Man’s Land looked exactly like this postcard, that what Rick Carter had done was so precise and absolutely right. That’s the way we looked at the movie, that when we had those snapshots, those moments that had to be iconic, that the frame had to be exactly right.

This is for Steven and Janusz, as well. You said you weren’t directly playing homage to any particular films of the past, but it seems to me that by having a segmented form, you could have a distinct visual palette for each story. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Spielberg: I think the greatest distinction in the visual palette, I think, is when we finally get to the French farmhouse. Emily [Watson] and her grandfather, that’s the first time that the film is inflamed with color, 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. As Janusz has been saying, he 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 color 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 it for your readers, 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 (Jeremy Irvine) and Joey to continue their lives together. That was the reason for that.

This is such an epic story with so many characters and so many feelings. What were the challenges, as a storyteller, to keep track of everything?

Spielberg: One of the biggest challenges of keeping track of all the stories was never forgetting Albert. I was so afraid that Joey’s experiences with other characters, both on the British and the German side, were going to erase the memory of the first act. This is something that Richard and I had talked about. It was Richard’s idea, unlike the play, to eliminate Albert from the entire second act of the film, which is what the book does, but not the play. The play has Albert connected throughout the entire experience on stage. Richard brought that to me and I loved the idea and I said, “Please, go ahead and write it that way.” But I didn’t want to lose Albert totally from memory, so I came up with this device which I thought was important because Albert and his father have a lot of unfinished business that takes a long time to reconcile their relationship. So I had the mother offer Albert a campaign pennant that the father had achieved in the Boer Wars and that becomes the symbol for Joey’s previous life and his connection with Albert and carries us right through the film. That was how I was able to bring Albert back into it.

What did you see in Jeremy that made you think he could be a lead in a movie? And since I’m from Germany, I was wondering how you came across David Kross and what you think of his potential as an actor?

Spielberg: White Ribbon, I loved White Ribbon. That’s how I came across David Kross.

Kennedy: David was in The Reader, too.

Spielberg: And he was also in The Reader, but I liked his work very much. I wanted him, I went after David specifically.

Kennedy: And Leonid [Irvine] is fantastic, too. The younger boy.

Spielberg: Yeah, his younger brother. Look, we saw hundreds of possible Alberts. As is usually the case, sometimes you see somebody early in the casting process you like and you keep saying, “Top this. Let’s see who can top this person we like.” We didn’t meet Jeremy Irvine until midway through the casting process and I had really not been very happy with many of the candidates that were available to play. I wanted an unknown; I did not want anyone who was well-known to play Albert. I figured if the horse was going to be an unknown, so should Albert. [laughs] They should both be unknowns. So I went trolling to Jina Jay, our casting director, all over not just the U.K. but Ireland, Scotland, Australia; we looked everywhere. Halfway through the process, Jeremy came in, totally untested, not battle-tested in any way as an actor. But he had a certain honesty. All I look for is honesty in any young person I direct. When I found Christian Bale, he was so honest that I couldn’t deny the fact that there was an actor in this kid. Drew Barrymore, Henry Thomas, there was an honesty with them in E.T. Henry had a little experience, Drew had practically none. I just look for authenticity. “Are these kids real and will they convince you that they’re real?” He was; Jeremy was the most real kid we saw. Also, the horse liked him a lot. [laughs] The horse helped.

war-horse-movie-image-jeremy-irvine-emily-watson-01Do you think David Kross has the potential to be in Hollywood?

Spielberg: There’s no such thing as Hollywood anymore. I think films are so global, they’re so international, that we just have to say, “Does David Kross has a chance to break out and be recognized in all countries?” He certainly does.

Has this inspired you to revisit World War I after this, like a film or a miniseries similar to what you did with World War II?

Spielberg: Because I never intended War Horse to be a war movie, it didn’t hit the same button, it didn’t trigger the same response for me that Saving Private Ryan did in wanting me to tell more stories about my father’s war. My father’s almost 95 and he fought in World War II and he’s the one who really infused me with stories about that war and the importance of telling the veterans’ stories about that war while they’re still here to pass down some of those stories to their grandkids. So, no, I don’t think so.

But you’re doing the Civil War with Lincoln?

Spielberg: That’s what I’m currently directing now, yes. We’re doing Lincoln, but it’s not the Civil War; there are no war scenes. It’s not the Civil War.

Both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are graphic, but in a way that is considered important. With this you were going for PG-13, because, obviously, you want families to be able to see it. How did you take what you learned from making true, graphic war scenes and tone it back a little bit, yet still keeping the power of it?

Spielberg: It wasn’t toning it down as much as it was not showing certain things. To me, it was a more creative choice. I was trying to figure out, “How do I do a cavalry charge without showing hundreds of horses falling and dropping and tripping?” And I thought, “Well, what if we do the cavalry charge but we just show rider-less horses jumping over the German machine gun emplacements and not show the carnage of men falling and horses being killed?” To me, it was a creative choice to both suggest what was happening and allow you to make your own assumptions and contributions as the audience to really decide how graphic you want to be in your own imagination to what that might have looked like had I shown it. To me, it was much more creative to not show it than to show it. It’s much easier to show somebody’s arms and legs and head getting blown off than it is to do it in another way. I really was challenged by that and enjoyed finding other ways to, not just earn a PG-13 rating, but to make this appropriate for families to see together.

Curtis: Steven never said to me, “It’s PG-13.” It’s come as a surprise. [laughs] So it wasn’t a limitation. Also, we were working on what had been a very popular children’s book. Michael Morpurgo is very good at sadness, very good at sorrow; not horror, but sorrow. And also the play, which is actually quite hard work for young children. It’s just a very long, complicated theatrical experience and yet, ten-year-olds love it. It’s got a peculiar quality of being both very true as a piece of work and also very apt for younger people, without deliberately being pointed that way.

What are you hearing from children who see the film vs grown-ups who see the film?

Spielberg: Surprisingly, at least it surprised me, I’m hearing the same reaction from adults and children. They land on the same scenes that move them. Kids may land more on the scenes with Emily and the farmhouse where she’s training Joey to try to jump, which he eventually does, but not with her. Aside from that, where kids seem to find that whole section to be a personal favorite of theirs, younger kids do, I’m pretty much getting the same reactions across the board from all ages.

Curtis: Actually, quite a weird thing, my son said, he’s 14, said he thought it was quite a good date movie. [laughs]

Spielberg: That’s the first time I’ve heard this from Richard.

Curtis: And I said, “No,” and he said, “Because often when you choose a movie to go to with a girl and all of the responsibility is on you and most of them will be action movies or slightly rude comedies and then if she doesn’t like it you’re screwed, whereas in this case, you both know what you’re getting.” [laughs]

The film is a great example of how the love between a human and animal runs deep. What kind of pets do you have at home that support or affect you?

Spielberg: Well, I have my dog, Potter.

war-horse-posterKennedy: He’s a real funny looking thing. [laughs]

Spielberg: He’s a really funny looking thing, he’s a border terrier. Then I have my other dog, our family dog, Harlow, who’s an Australian shepherd. I’ve got three parrots. But I live with twelve horses, because my daughter, who’s just turned 15, is a competitive jumper; she travels the country in competition jumping her horses. We have stables for as many as twelve horses. Right now we have eight on property living with us. We’ve had as many as twelve living with us and I’ve been living with horses now for about 15 years. So when I saw War Horse, I was maybe even more ready to tell the story.

Kennedy: Also, he was nervous. I remember when we decided to do the movie and knowing that Kate [Capshaw] and Destry, especially, his wife and daughter, and the fact that they loved horses so much, I think Steven felt a real responsibility to get this right. [laughs]

Spielberg: When I realized I was about to commit to direct War Horse, because I had been so moved by the play and by the book before that, I actually went out to the stables and I just stood out there with my iPhone and I just started photographing the horses from all angles. I just tried to see how many expressions I could get out of these horses. [laughs] And when I realized that I couldn’t get expression per se from the eyes and the face of the horse, I realized by standing back that the horse expressed himself in his entire bearing. The horse needed all four legs, the tail, the ears especially, how the ears move in directing its attention to what it’s reacting to, that you needed to get that to really see the magnificence of the horse. I spent a lot of time with that iPhone trying to figure out how to shoot the horse. [laughs]

Do they listen to you pretty often?

Spielberg: The horses didn’t listen to me very often. Bobby Lovgren, our horse whisperer listened to me very often and he’s the one that was responsible for getting the performance out of Joey.

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