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Interview: Steven Spielberg

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As War Horse opens in UK cinemas today (13 January), we speak to director Steven Spielberg about his latest drama that brings WWI to life in Michael Morpurgo's tragic and brilliant tale of a horse and his boy. See what the Oscar-winning veteran of Hollywood blockbusters has to say about adapting the book, working with horses and how he first discovered the story - also a hit West End musical...

Picture credit: Rex Features

Can you talk about your experience discovering War Horse as material for a movie?

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. The puppets are magnificent on stage; the puppeteers are in a way the stars of the show. But we knew that if we were going to tell the story, it was going be with real horses, not with maquettes or marionettes. So then we preemptively made a bid to buy it even before I saw it, just based on the story, which really appealed to me.

I also read the Michael Morpurgo book right after Kathy and Stacey had seen the show on the West End. I love the book. But the book is told from Joey’s point of view. You even hear Joey’s thoughts. I knew that was not an avenue into adaptation to film but it really made me understand the story from several different viewpoints. 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.

Horses really do convey tremendous expression

What themes in the War Horse story stood out to you?

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.

Were you nervous at all about the idea of working with horses? How did you approach getting the performances you needed?

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. The horse is just what gets the Western hero or the intrepid archeologist from point A to point B. You are never supposed to look at the horse. You’re supposed to look at the guy on top of the horse. 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. But movies don’t often require us to spend any time dwelling on how the horse is feeling.

This is one of the happiest ensemble casts I think I’ve ever been able to work with

The performances and the emotions you got from those horses must have been very satisfying. Can you talk about that?

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.

Without spoiling anything, there’s a moment toward the end of the story, just as an example, where they’re leading Joey to some place that Joey wants to go to. And right at the end of the scene, Joey nuzzles Albert with his nose, pushing Albert as if to say, “Okay, I’m ready to go. Take me there.” That’s nothing we could plan for. How the horse knew that it was the last line of the scene and it would be wonderful for him to give the boy a little nudge, I don’t know, because nobody trained the horse to do that. The horse just took his own cue, and that’s in the picture.

Did your British crew and cast members come to you with personal stories about their relatives in the Great War?

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. It’s a war that’s kept alive in the finest European traditions of being really up on your history. We don’t have the same kind of due diligence here in this country with our young kids. But in England, it’s just handed down. Parents, grandparents always talk about it. So, I was the beneficiary of these great stories of personal heroics and just the tedium of being in a trench war for four years.

How did the ensemble cast work together?

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.

War Horse will be released in cinemas on 13 January

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