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After practically defining the modern image of World War II with his films Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, not to mention his work on The Pacific and Band of Brothers, Steven Spielberg has moved on to the earlier global conflict with his new film War Horse, a sprawling epic that spans the entire course of World War I. Though he'll swear up and down it's not one of his "war movies," instead emphasizing the way it tells the story of the strong bond between a young boy (Jeremy Irvine's Albert) and the horse he loves, Spielberg is uncovering a part of history even he didn't know much about before, and freely admits he had a lot to learn when first digging into the adaptation of both Michael Mopurgo's novel and the hit Broadway stage play.
A few weekends ago Spielberg made himself available for a press conference, a rare opportunity that had him answering questions about the way he handles war stories for family audiences, how he shot the outdoor locations in a way that hearkens back to classic filmmakers like John Ford and D.W. Griffith, and how he worked with his iPhone to first figure out how to make the film. Check out his lengthy and thoughtful answers below. War Horse opens Sunday, December 25.
Do you feel it’s important to get this history known to audiences and also make an entertaining movie that movies them?
Well, we didn’t, 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 a war as you know. This was the end of days for mounted cavalry charges. And as time marched on through the 20th Century the horse became less and less useful in military operations. It sort of existed more symbolically more than anything.
I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the first world war. I didn’t know very much about it, and I also don’t consider War Horse to a be a war movie. It’s not one of my war movies. This is much more of a real story of the way animals can actually connect people together. And that's what Joey does. Joey’s miracles are really in his great sense of optimism and hope and all the people he encounters, bringing something new into their lives. So this was much more focused I think on the characters. The war certainly was a horrendous backdrop, created tremendous tension, drama, and the need to survive, but the war, unlike Private Ryan, was not in the foreground of War Horse.
Do you see the movie as your homage to John Ford, or Gone with the Wind, or D.W. Griffith? It seems to have elements of all these great epics.
No. Certainly not consciously. Thee conscious thing that I did was I made the land a character in the story. By simply making the land a character and falling back to wide shots more than close-ups to, 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 the 1940s, not just by Ford, but Caruso in the ‘50s, by Howard Hawks. They celebrated the land, and they made the land a character, and they made environments characters in movies. 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 Narricot family is gonna even survive. And then the land becomes a bloody character as history tells us occurred in World War in 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 and I just pulled our cameras back, and I knew that was gonna create all sorts of questions of homage to the way directors approached Monument Valley, for instance, John Ford the way he made Monument Valley a character in so many 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 and changing their lives for the better.
Was there anything from the play that you took away either thematically or that you wanted to include as a treat for the fans of the play?
One of the catharses for me, and also helping me 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 Jordy and the German are able to help Joey who’s 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 and I decided to expand and go deeper with.
But the great thing about theatre is there’s 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. And that was the amazing moment in the play where the little Joey becomes the adult Joey, and that incredible piece theatrically, and that you can never do in a film.
The book tells the story from Joey's point of view. When did you decide not to have him as a narrator of the film?
Well, instantly, because the second Joey starts to speak it becomes a horse of a different color. It becomes much more of a real fable. You suspend your disbelief so radically when the horse starts to think out loud that there’s no touchstones with your own life and anything you can relate to. And so, the first decision was not to let Joey think or speak, but just let Joey emote and exist inside these sequences with these human characters.
What was your first reaction when diving into the carnage of World War I, and how did you work with it from there to get the PG-13 rating you were aiming for?
Well, my first reaction every time I delve into an episode of history that I don’t know very much about is anger that my teachers never taught me about it. It was the first thing--why didn’t I learn this in school? A lot of us went to the Imperial War Museum, and they opened up all of their backroom exhibits that the public does not get to see on the First World War. We went back there and we saw some things, and we s-- got statistics and learned so much that we didn’t know about the First World War. I wasn’t willing to bring out in the film, because this wasn’t meant to be a history lesson, so there’s nowhere in the film that says four and a half million horses were killed in the First World War. But was important that we got to understand the kind of jeopardy both, Joey and his best horse friend, Top Thorn, were going to be in.
There seems to be a distinctive visual palette for every section of the story. Can you talk about putting that together?
I think the the greatest distinction in the visual palette is when we finally get to the French farm house. Emily and her grandfather, you know, 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. It was our last sort of rest stop before things took a turn to the darker side of the war.
And of course there’s a whole different color palette in No Man’s Land from that moment up until the end, and finally when the sky is infused with -- we had real sunsets three days in a row. The whole last few moments of the film, those are actual sunsets. Supplemented with filters, but that was actually flaming orange-red sunsets that we were able to shoot.
What are the challenges of keeping track of such a big story and making it all fit together as a consistent film?
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, was going to erase the memory of the first act, and this was something that Richard and I had talked about. Unlike the play, it was Richard’s idea to eliminate Albert from the entire second act of the film, which is what the book does, but not the play. 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. It takes a long time to reconcile their relationship. And 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 this right through the film. And that was how I was able to bring Albert back into it.
How did you choose Jeremy Irvine to play Albert?
We saw hundreds of possible Alberts. 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 figured if the horse was gonna be an unknown so should Albert, you know. So I went trolling through Jina Jay, our casting director, all over not just the UK, but Ireland, Scotland, Australia. We looked everywhere. And halfway through the process Jeremy came in totally untested, but he had a certain honesty. And all I look for is honesty in any young person I direct.
When I found Christian Bale he was so honest 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. I just look for authenticity. Are these kids real, and will they convince you that they’re real? And he was. Jeremy was the most real kid we saw. And also the horse liked him a lot. The horse helped.
Has this inspired you to revisit World War I? Do you think after this there could be another film or a miniseries, like you’ve done before with World War II?
Because I never intended War Horse to be a war movie it didn’t hit the same button, didn’t trigger the same response in 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 that really infused me with stories about that war and the importance of telling the veteran’s story 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.
Both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are graphic, but in a way that is considered important. You know, when you’re 12 and 13 you’re allowed to see it in anyway. But with this you were going for the PG-13. You want families to be able to see it. So, how do you take what you learned about making really true graphic war scenes and tone it back a little bit and still be able to keep the power of it?
I 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 riderless horses jumping over the German machine gun placements and not show the carnage of men falling and, and horses being killed? And so, 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 be in your 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, much each easier to show somebody’s arms, and heads, and legs getting blown off than it is to do it in another way, and 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.
This movie is about the bond between humans and animals. Do you have pets at home that affect you in that way?
I live with 12 horses, because my daughter who’s just turned 15 is a competitive jumper and she travels the country in competition jumping her horses. So we have stables for as many as 12 horses. Right now we have 8 on property 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 this story. When I realized I was about to direct War Horse, 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 tried to see how many expressions can I get out of these, these, these horses, you know? [LAUGHS] And when I realized I couldn't get expressions, per se, from the eyes and the face of the horse I realized by standing back that the horse expressed himself in, in his entire bearing. That the horse needed all four legs, the tail, the ears especially, and how the ears move in directing its attention to what it’s reacting to, that you needed to get back to really, really see the magnificence of the horse. So, I spent a lot of time with that iPhone trying to figure out how to shoot the horse.