‘War Horse’ Roundtable with Steven Spielberg, Richard Curtis, and Kathleen Kennedy: “I Don’t Consider ‘War Horse’ to Be a War Movie”
Posted on Monday, December 12th, 2011 by Angie Han
It’s not even a slight exaggeration to say that Steven Spielberg is one of the most beloved filmmakers of all time, so the fact that we’re getting not one but two Spielberg-helmed film this holiday season is a treat indeed. One of those is War Horse, based on a classic children’s book by Michael Morpurgo. Due out Christmas Day, the drama follows the epic journey of a lovable steed named Joey who winds up on the front lines of World War I — and his beloved owner Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), who never stops looking for him.
At a recent press junket in New York City, Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and screenwriter Richard Curtis held a roundtable interview to talk about their new project. (Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski was also in attendance, but was channeling a “strong and silent” kind of vibe throughout.) Read the full transcription of the interview after the jump to learn what Spielberg saw in Irvine, whether he’ll ever do another World War I movie, and why Kennedy thinks the legendary director was “nervous” about tackling this story — plus, Curtis on why his teenage son believes War Horse is the perfect date movie.
Why is it so important to have a movie about history? Do you feel that it’s just as important to make history known to audiences as it is making an interesting movie?
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. This was the end of days for mounted cavalry charges, it was the end of days for the horse as anything other than beast of burden. 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 than anything else. That was part and parcel Michael Morpurgo‘s book that he wrote in 1982, and certainly the play, and we adapted both.
But to me, it just opened up — 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 be a war movie. This is not one of my war movies. This is much more of a real story between the connections that sometimes animals achieve, 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, created tremendous tension and 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, Gone with the Wind, D.W. Griffith –
It seems to have elements of all these great epics and seems to sum up a lot of things that you talked about your interviews.
SS: Certainly not consciously. The conscious thing that I do was I made the land a character in this story. And by simply making the land a character and calling back to wide shots more than close shots, to let the audience 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 [Akira] 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 gonna 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, No Man’s Land. Because the war was such an influence, the land was such an influence both in Devon, out in the moors, and such an influence in France, Janusz 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 Momument 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 any other filmmaker. It was really an homage to Joey and the effect that animals often have on people, changing their lives for the better.
I know we’ve heard that Kathleen convinced you to go see the play and that sparked your interest to make the movie. Was there anything else from the play that you took away either thematically or that you wanted to put a little nugget in there for the fans of it?
SS: Well, one of the catharses for me, and also helping me want to tell this story to audiences as a film, was something that’s sort of hinted at in the play. There’s a little moment where Geordie and the German are able to help Joey, who’s trapped in barbed wire. It was a lovely moment in the play, a 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 to go deeper with. That was something that the play certainly inspired. But also the greatest moment of the play — the great thing about theater is there’s some illusions that can only create [onstage 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. That incredible piece of visual theatricality. And that, you can never do in the film.
Richard Curtis: It’s quite funny. When I talked to people who’ve seen the play about the fact 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?” We said, “Well, yeah. Horses. That will be it.” It’s a very strange thing. But of course, in a way it’s the perfect play to be expanding because you have got horses and you have got [unintelligible].
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 make, do you want 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?
SS: Instantly. Because the second Joey starts to speak, it becomes a horse of a different color. 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’s 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 these sequences with these human characters.
You said that you didn’t have that great a knowledge of [World War I] but you obviously did some research… When you came face-to-face with the carnage, for example the Battle of the Somme, how did you decide approach it? Because I know you wanted PG-13 on this.
SS: My first reaction any 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. That’s the first thing, why didn’t I learn this in school. And the second thing was, Kathy and I and [costume designer] Joanna Johnston, a lot of us went to the Imperial War Museum. They opened up all of their back room exhibits the public does not get to see on the first World War, and we were taken into the bowels of the museum and their archives, because a lot of their exhibits are rotating exhibits and this was an exhibit that’s just for our eyes only. We went back there, and we saw some things, we got statistics and learned so much we didn’t know about the first World War. I wasn’t going to bring it 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. It was more 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 Richard.
KK: It was also really interesting, we weren’t prepared for this but because we’re making a movie in England — Steven and I hadn’t been back since we had done a number of movies in the ’80s in England — and so our crew started to talk about family members that had a connection to World War I. And 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 — even though, as you were saying, we were just doing the 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 gonna be meaningful to people to get this right. I think between Richard and everybody on the crew and Steven and I we realized that.
In fact, it was interesting: I had this little postcard I used to keep up on the bulletin board in my trailer and it was a picture of No Man’s Land. I’d had it there long before we started shooting. And I remember walking on to 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 [production designer] Rick Carter had done was just so precise and absolutely right. I think that’s the way we looked at the movie, was that when we had those snapshots, those moments that were gonna be iconic, that the frame had to be exactly right.
You said you weren’t directly paying homage to any other particular films of the past but it seemed to me by having it in segmented form that you could have a distinct visual pallette for each story. Can you talk a little bit about doing that?
SS: I think that the greatest distinction in the visual palette is when we finally get to the French farmhouse and Emilie 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 we haven’t really seen yet. It was our last rest stop before things got took a turn to the darker side of the war. I think there’s three different palettes in the film that Janusz established. The palette of these farmers just scratching out a living and failing miserably until Joey comes into their life. That had a real sense of nature with the sky, the ground, as Janusz has been saying, you know, he waited for the light. We all waited for the light. We waited for the right light, we waited for the right cloud to come over, and I haven’t waited for light in a long time… At the same time, Janusz was very insistent on waiting for the light. And it really paid off to the best for us.
And of course there’s a whole different color palette in No Man’s Land from that moment almost up until the end. 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, which I don’t want to spoil for your readers, those were actual sunsets, supplemented with filters. But that was actually flaming orange red sunsets we were able to shoot and that was just renewal, hope renewed, a promise of some kind of hope and future for Albert and Joey to continue their lives together and that was the reason for that.
This is such a big story with so many characters and so many themes. What were the challenges of the story for you to keep track of, to keep this gigantic movie consistent?
SS: 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 in the British and the German side was going to erase the memory of the first act. This is something that Richard and I talked about. It was Richard’s idea, unlike the play, to eliminate Albert for 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 onstage. Richard brought that to me, I loved the idea and I said please, go ahead, 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 they take 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. 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 make you think he can be the lead in a movie, since he has no experience –
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.
SS: White Ribbon. I love White Ribbon, that’s why I came across David Kross.
KK: David was in The Reader, too.
SS: And he was also in The Reader but I liked his previous work.
Did you want him?
SS: I wanted him. I went after David. He’s so so good.
KK: And Leonhard [Carow] is fantastic too, the younger boy.
SS: His younger brother. Okay, well, look. We saw hundreds of possible Alberts, okay. We saw hundreds of possible Alberts and it’s usually the case sometimes you see somebody early in the casting process, you like them 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 anybody who was well-known to play Albert. I figured if the horse is gonna be an unknown, so should Albert.
I went trawling, through Jina Jay, our casting director, all over not just the U.K., but Ireland, Scotland, Australia. We looked everywhere and happened across this Jeremy kid, 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. You know, 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. And also the horse liked him a lot. The horse helped.
And David Kross, do you think he has the potential to be in Hollywood?
SS: There’s no such thing as Hollywood anymore. I think films are so global, they’re so international that you just have to say that David Kross has the chance to break out and be recognized in all countries. He certainly does.
Has this inspired you to revisit World War I? Do you think after this, [you might do] another film or a miniseries like you’ve done before with World War II?
SS: 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 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 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?
SS: That’s what I’m currently directing now, yes.
KK: We’re doingLincoln, but –
SS: We’re not doing the Civil War. There’s 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. 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 kind of tone it back a little bit and still be able to keep the power of it?
SS: 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, 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 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’s much more creative to not show it than to show it. It’s much easier to show somebody’s arms and head and legs getting blown off than it is to do it in another way. I really was challenged by that and enjoyed trying other ways, to not just earn a PG-13 rating but to make this appropriate for families to see together.
RC: Steven never said to me, “It’s a PG-13.” It’s come as a surprise, even is a surprise [now], so it wasn’t a limitation. And also, we were working on what had been a very popular children’s book. Michael Morpurgo’s very good at sadness, you know, very good at sorrow, not horror, but sorrow. And also the play, which is actually quite hard work for young children, but they go. It’s just a very long, complicated theatrical experience and yet ten-year-olds love it. So 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?] to them.
I want to know what you’re hearing from children who see the film and grownups who see the film.
SS: It’s surprising me, I’m hearing the same reaction from adults and children. They land on the same scenes that move them. You know, kids may land more on the scene with Emilie and the farmhouse where she’s training Joey to try and jump — which he eventually does, but not with her. But aside from that, where kids seem to find that whole section to be personal favor to [them] as younger kids do, I’m pretty much getting the same reactions across the board from all ages.
RC: I think quite a weird thing is that, my son, who’s fourteen, said it’s quite a good date movie. I said “No…” and he said, well, because often when you choose a movie together [for] a girl, all the responsibility’s on you, and most of them will be action movies or slightly rude comedies, and if she doesn’t like it you’re screwed. Whereas in this case, you both know what you’re getting. Let’s hope.
The film is a great example of how the love of an animal in a human runs deep. What kind of pets do you have at home that support you or affect you?
SS: I have my dog Potter, and I have our family dog Harlow, who’s a Australian shepherd. I’ve got three parrots, and I live with twelve horses because my daughter, who just turned 15, is a competitive jumper. She travels the country jumping her horses in competition, so 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 of them with us. I’ve been living with horses now for about fifteen years. So when I saw War Horse, I was maybe even more ready to tell the story.
KK: And also, he was nervous. I remember when we decided to do the movie, and knowing that Kate and Destry especially — his wife and daughter — and the fact that they love horses so much, I think Steven felt a real responsibility to get this right.
SS: When I realized I was about to commit to direct War Horse… I actually went out to the stables. I just stood out there with my camera, my iPhone, and I just started photographing the horses from all angles. I just tried to see, how many expressions can I get out of these? And when I realized that I couldn’t get expressions per se from the eyes and the face of the horse, I realized by standing back as the horse expressed himself, it is his entire bearing. The horse needed all four legs, the tail, the ears especially — how its ears move and directing its attention to what it’s reacting to — you need to get back to really, really see the magnificence of the horse. So I spent a lot of time with that iPhone figuring out how to shoot the horse.
So they listen to you pretty often and easily?
SS: The horses didn’t listen to me very often. Bobby Lovgren, our horse whisperer, listened to me very often. He was responsible for getting the performance out of Joey.