Spielberg on ‘War Horse’: A Rare Conversation with the Director


ALTJaws. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Schindler’s List. Jurassic Park. Saving Private Ryan. You’d think by now, after nearly forty years of directing, Steven Spielberg would be content kicking back and basking in the glory of his legacy. Not so.

In a rare instance for any director, especially someone as prolific Spielberg, December sees the release of two films by the Hollywood legend: The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. One’s an animated thrill ride in the vein of Indiana Jones, the other, a heartwarming tale of a boy and his horse, spread across the waitron landscapes of World War I Europe. Suddenly, I feel like I’m not living up to my potential.

I had a chance to sit in on an intimate discussion with the director, to discuss War Horse in detail, a rare look into a master’s of cinema’s process. The conversation is just as magical as you’d think:

On going from theatrical play to movie:

Steven Spielberg: 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. That was a moment that Richard and I decided to to expand and to go deeper with.

But the greatest moment in the play – 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 that 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 of theatricality. You can never do in a film.

ALTOn researching World War I:

SS: Well my first reaction every time I, I, 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. Why didn’t I learn this in school? I think just Kathy, and I, Joanne and Janusz, 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 got statistics and learned so much that we didn’t know about, 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 it 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.

On “directing” the horses:

SS: Bobby Lovgren was our Horse Whisperer, and he had a tremendous team of real, gentle souls that understood how to connect with the gentle soul of an animal, of these horses. And I didn’t think the horses could do what they turned out to have done in War Horse. I was hoping we would be able to get it all but I didn’t think we could. So what I did was I storyboarded the entire film.

I also pre-visualized the film so that the trainers could either tell me, ‘This is impossible, no animal can do this. You better make this a CG horse,’ which I didn’t ever want to do, or, ‘Yes, I think we can get the horse to do this.’ And they had several months or 3 or 4 months, to be able to come back to me with the result. And every time I pre-viz something, 85% of the time they said, we can achieve this. It hasn’t been done before on film but we think we can get the horse to do this in a very humanitarian way. So I directed the horses through our Horse Whisperers. Did I go off and take the horse by the reins and go off to a quiet place to have a conversation with the horse? No, not once, not once. Do the Horses sometimes miss their mark and step out of their key light? Yes.

Here’s the other thing that the horses did. This is something that you never plan for, sort of the miracle that I experienced making War Horse. The horses started to improvise beyond any of our wildest hopes and expectations. If the actors were keyed up and ready to flip out, like Emily Watson as the Mother, when Ted brings the wrong horse, the horses felt the vibrations of her anger through her performance and they were reactive. The one horse just started rubbing its face against Ted Narracott’s body all through the scene. Not just one angle, but every angle. Every time he showed up, that horse would see him coming and start using him as a rubbing post. That’s something that wasn’t planned, wasn’t pre-visualized, wasn’t storyboarded. Every single day, the horses brought something we never expected them to bring.

ALTOn casting the unknown Jeremy Irvine:

SS: Well I’m a veteran of foolhardy casting choices. You know giving Drew Barrymore her first chance to know, to kind of help carry ET and getting Christian Bale his first film, to basically totally carry Empire of the Sun I’ve risked everything on new people who are really believed in. So for me I have no risk aversion. 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, sort of a young actor in training but never having been given a break. It reminded me of Joey. He never acted before either. So I had Jeremy who had never acted before. Had a horse that had never been in a movie before and I figured what the heck. Put them together. Let’s see what happens.

On John Williams score:

SS: Well 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. He 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. He’s been living—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. That’s all I can say.

, his films and celebrated the land that he was shooting pictures on. So it wasn’t really about John Ford it was more about an opportunity that availed itself to me because of how spectacular these locations were.


On the various looks of War Horse:

SS: I think there was three different pallets in the film that Janusz established, the pallet of these farmers just scratching out a living and, 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 right light. We waited for the right clouds to come over, and, uh, I haven’t waited for light in a long time [laughs]. I kept saying David Lean waited for light all the time, but, of course, he took 300 days to make a movie. We only took about, uh, 64 for this one.

And, of course, there’s a whole different color pallet in No Man’s Land from that moment almost up until the end, and finally when the sky is infused with—we had real sunsets three days in a row. So, the whole last few moments of the film are actual sunsets, supplemented with filters, but that, that was actually flaming orange-red sunsets that we were able to shoot.

On making a movie for younger audiences:

SS: Well you know I try to make, I try to make films you know as — I don’t really think I’ve discriminated against one audience in favor of another you know. Certainly if I make a movie like Saving Private Ryan that has an R-rating I don’t expect you to attend. That’s a movie like this is intended for everyone. I really didn’t discriminate. I really didn’t say this is going to be, to enlighten young audiences, bring them back during an era where the machine where the incomes of warfare supplanted the horse, the great paradigm shift where the horse was only four or five million horses were killed in what you want but also the horse was rendered more as a beast of burden and less of an implement of warfare after that.

ALTThose are all lessons that we all learned in researching War Horse But that’s not the reason I told the story either. 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 have to direct a movie, not producers but direct it. I hope I can bring a lot of people along with me. I just don’t ever say it’s just for this audience and, and not that audience as well.

On being nervous while shooting a new film:

SS: 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 keep me honest.

Some days there’s not and those are really hard days. But the day that there are it’s better to– it’s better for me to come to the set with an open mind and an open heart that you come to the set with everything figured out like I’ve just built the iPAD you know. And I’ve tested it and I test marketed it and I know it’s going to work you know. I don’t know what’s going to work until it works. And I also don’t know what’s not going to work until it fails. I just don’t know. This is how I’ve directed all my life.

And that little bit of nervousness that I bring every day keeps me honest and keeps, keeps me from thinking I have all the answers and that’s why I think I’m a very collaborative director because I rely on the people around me, Janusz and Kathy and in this case you know, you know Richard Curtis and Rick Carter the production designer and Joanna Johnston costume designer and my editor Michael Kahn. I mean, it’s a great team I have and it takes a lot of the burden off me because I’m exposed and open to all of their collaborative notions as well. So it’s, it’s why I stick with the same people on every movie.

On his own animals:

SS: Well, I have my dog, Potter, a really funny looking thing, 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 12 horses, because my daughter who just turned 15 is a competitive jumper and she travels the country in competition jumping her horses. We have stables for as many as 12 horses. Right now, we have 8 on property living with us.

I’ve been living with horses now for about, 15 years. So, um, 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 had been so moved by the play and by the book that I actually went out to the stables and I just stood out there with my camera, my iPhone, and I just started photographing the horses from all angles. I just cried — tried to see how many expressions can I get out of these horses, you know? [laughs] And when I realized that I couldn’t get expression per say 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, his tail, the ears especially, and how the ears move in directing its attention to what it’s, it’s reacting to…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 [laughs].