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Steven Spielberg on the set of War Horse

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Steven Spielberg Talks War Horse

By Hannah Goodwyn Senior Producer - Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg is known for his wartime movies – Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Pacific. His upcoming theatrical release, War Horse, by all accounts is just another war movie added to Spielberg’s impressive directorial collection. Not so, according to the filmmaker.

Recently, Spielberg sat down with the press in New York City to discuss why War Horse isn’t a war movie per se and why it was important for him to stay true to the tone of the original book by author Michael Morpurgo and make it a family-friendly film moviegoers could enjoy this Christmas. Here are excerpts from those press conferences:

On why War Horse isn’t a war movie…

I don't consider War Horse to be a movie about war. I don't consider it to be a quintessential World War I picture. The war is a backdrop. It provides the necessary drama to pull these characters apart and eventually reunite them.

This is a human narrative. It's about the connectivity that an animal can bring to human characters. It's really much more of a story about the hope that actually can exist in extremely dark circumstances because hope is always in Joey's face.

I consider it to be a love story between a horse and a young man. And, and also a story of great hope and great connection that this horse makes to every character both German and British as the horse travels on an episodic journey, on almost an odyssey through his own life, through his own experiences surviving the war. The war is a backdrop that allows us to create drama, but the war isn't the reason I told the story.

On why Spielberg had to make War Horse

Sometimes a story just connects with me and when they really connect with me so -- with such intensity that I have to make the movie. 

I came out of the play admiring a very strong story that was being told to me, a very strong narrative, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

On making films about history sometimes forgotten, such as World War I…

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.  

I've always worried that history is so fleeting that we are so busy, consuming media and the contemporary culture, voraciously gobbling it up, that we have no room to look back ever. Our young people have a tough time looking back. And so I make a lot of movies about history because I think it's very important that we really can't see ourselves unless we can our forefathers, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, our history. We need that.

On the emotional toll Joey and Albert’s story takes…

I didn't get in the room with [screenwriter] Richard Curtis and we didn't sit together and say, ‘OK, we're going to tell a story that will make men cry’. I promise you we didn't do that. The play made me cry. The hope that Joey brings to Albert and brings to every human character in the play, made me cry.

On why they didn’t have narration from the horse’s perspective as the original book does…

The second Joey starts to speak it becomes a horse of a different color. [LAUGHS] It becomes much more of a real fable… 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.  And so, the first decision was, was not to let Joey think or speak, but just let Joey emote and exist inside these sequences with these human characters.

On using Morpurgo’s book as a guide…

Whenever I wanted to sort of assume or guess or know what Joey was thinking, I went back to the book. It was kind of a handbook of Joey's thoughts. It was very useful to me during the production [since it's written in first person from Joey's perspective]..

On casting Jeremy Irvine, an inexperienced actor, as Joey’s owner Albert…

Halfway through the process, Jeremy came in totally untested, not battle tested in any way as an actor, 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.  Henry had a little experience. Drew had practically none. And 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. 

I don't feel any anxiety and longer in casting someone who has to literally carry a movie if they had never done a movie before because if I think they've got it, then I can work with what they bring to me.

And Jeremy had it. Jeremy had a gift. He's affable. He made a tremendous connection with these animals even though he didn't ride until he made War Horse with us, but there was just something about the spirit of his naïveté being a young actor in training but never having been given a break. It reminded me of Joey.

On composer John Williams’ film score for War Horse

John's beautiful score was a direct result of John's reaction to the film, which is the way he works.  He has a musical intuition greater than any composer I know, maybe since the classical composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and Debussy. He's just he’s of that era except he's writing for movies. 

[John Williams] had a profound reaction to the movie that he saw and he just went away for six weeks and called me on the phone and his office is right next to mine. We've had adjoining offices now for almost 25 years and he said, ‘Come over. I want to play you a few sketches.’ He calls them sketches. And I came over to his piano and he played me four different sketches and I cried four different times.

On how he deals with his own nervousness on set…

I always hide my nervousness because everybody else is nervous. Why impose my burden on them? They've got their own problems to solve you know, memorizing their lines and figuring out how to play the scene that day and so I don't really expose my own process to anybody else because you know it's hard making movies. But I need to stay nervous. If I don't stay nervous, I'm not going to direct anymore because nerves. Nerves keep me honest.

On how the crew filmed war elements and managed to keep the rating down to PG-13…

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 rider-less horses jumping over the German machine gun emplacements 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 to 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. 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 family’s to see together.

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Hannah GoodwynHannah Goodwyn serves as the Entertainment and Family producer for For more articles and information, visit Hannah's bio page.

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