Interview: Steven Spielberg on War Horse

Tom Huddleston talks to the world's most famous filmmaker

Steven Spielberg gets stuck in the mud on the set of 'War Horse' Steven Spielberg gets stuck in the mud on the set of 'War Horse'

Everyone thinks they know Steven Spielberg. But the 65-year-old moviemaking icon – probably the most famous film director in the world these past three decades – continues to resist categorisation. To his army of admirers, me included, he’s Mr Hollywood, the dreamweaver behind flawless fantasies like ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘ET’ and ‘Jurassic Park’, who can also demonstrate an unforgiving toughness in ­masterpieces like ‘Jaws’, ‘Empire of the Sun’ and ‘Munich’. To his detractors, he’ll always be the ­ultimate dewy-eyed, all-American sentimentalist, whose roster of misfires includes ‘Hook’, ‘The Terminal’ and 2008’s disappointing Indiana Jones sequel, ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’.

Now the legend has come to London to discuss his latest film, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s popular children’s novel ‘War Horse’. It’s a film that offers plenty of ammunition to both sides: on the one hand, it’s a sweeping, gloriously old-fashioned epic, but with a lot of real-life emotional grit under the surface. On the other, it’s perhaps his most shamelessly manipulative film to date, battering its audience into submission with overwrought dialogue, honeyed light and sweeping strings courtesy of longtime cohort John Williams.

Spielberg’s fascination with the psychological effects of war finds its most unexpected outlet here, as this film’s terse, hero on a mission – joining Spielbergian protagonists like Oskar Schindler, Jim in ‘Empire’ and Captain Miller in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – has four legs and a tail, and goes by the name of Joey. A Dartmoor farm animal sold into the British army on the eve of WWI, Joey is our guide through this most complex and devastating of wars, crossing paths with English, German and French soldiers and civilians as he searches for a safe haven in the midst of hell.

I meet Spielberg (and his longtime producer Kathleen Kennedy) at the Soho Hotel, where he’s come to discuss ‘War Horse’ and his recent, highly entertaining take on the Tintin books. No longer the movie brat of the ’70s, Spielberg has become the kindly great- uncle of American film: on first appearance he seems careworn and a little weary, but as he begins to speak and becomes gripped by that still-raging passion for all things cinematic, the years drop away. He’s a kind and considerate interviewee, far more approachable than the average Hollywood big shot, and perfectly willing to get personal when the situation demands it – such as his admission that it was the prospect of working so closely with horses that gave him second thoughts about directing ‘War Horse’. ‘Making a movie where the central character is a horse was a challenge,’ he says. ‘Because I’m scared of riding. I was thrown as a kid. One of my daughters is a competitive jumper, we live with horses, we have stables on our property. But I don’t ride. I observe, and I worry.’

So how does a director – even one as experienced as Spielberg – go about extracting a believable performance from a horse? ‘We had great trainers,’ he ex­plains. ‘True horse whisperers. The horse’s performance is all in the eyes and the ears – are they back, are they forward, are they straight up, alert, frightened? Then the eyes change, the ears change, their nostrils do something and it’s completely different. They were so pliable, so poetic, so lissome and so beautiful.’

The film also gave Spielberg the opportunity to return to London, where he shot many of his signature films in the 1980s and ’90s. ‘I love coming here, there’s such amazing artistry. To work with crews from Ireland and Scotland, from all across the Commonwealth. And they all call me guv’nor. There’s nothing wrong with being called guv’nor!’

This time, the production moved from the confines of London’s sound stages and into the wild countryside of Dartmoor. ‘What was enjoyable was being able to confront the realities of the natural world,’ Spielberg recalls. ‘We were able to take advantage of whatever nature offered us. In this age of digital wonders, nothing trumps the natural world.’

Another appealing element of the production was the opportunity for historical research. ‘I spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum; I was taken into the back room to the World War I archives. I learned so much about the critical uses of the horse, not just in the First World War but during centuries of warfare: the kind of fear a cavalry charge would send into the hearts of footsoldiers, and how that was all wiped away when the age of technology came around in the twentieth century.’

Kathleen Kennedy reveals that they also had help from an unlikely corner when sourcing props for ‘War Horse’. ‘It turned out Peter Jackson is a World War I fanatic,’ she laughs. ‘We ended up renting quite a few things, loading them on to barges and shipping them to England. He had an ambulance, he had a number of big artillery weapons, specific wheels that could go on the trucks. He even had a tank! He has huge warehouses in New Zealand – he owns six airplanes. It’s astounding.’

Of course, this isn’t the first time Spielberg and Jackson have mucked in together: Spielberg’s recent ‘Tintin’ movie was produced by the New Zealander, and for the forthcoming sequel they’re planning to switch roles. ‘Tintin’ was the movie that got Spielberg working again after a three-year break, so does he feel re-energised? ‘Shooting “Tintin” was the most fun I’ve had in years,’ the director says. ‘The only thing that gets me back to directing is good scripts. I was blessed that a number of good scripts came into my life, starting with Joe Cornish, Edgar Wright and Stephen Moffat’s script for “Tintin” and continuing with the scripts for “War Horse” and my next movie. It all starts with the script: it’s not worth taking myself away from my family if I don’t have something I’m really passionate about.’

And at the moment, Spielberg’s passion seems to be running high: our second interview takes place on the phone as he grabs a hasty lunch on the set of his forthcoming presidential biopic, ‘Lincoln’, set to be his third major release in under a year. Like many an artist in the throes of creation, Spielberg is hesitant to talk about ‘Lincoln’, but he has no such qualms about its follow-up, science-fiction action flick ‘Robopocalypse’, which is set for release in 2013. ‘It’s a movie about a global war between man and machine,’ the director tells me. ‘I had a great time creating the future on “Minority Report”, and it’s a future that is coming true faster than any of us thought it would. “Robopocalypse” takes place in 15 or 20 years, so it’ll be another future we can relate to. It’s about the consequences of creating technologies which make our lives easier, and what happens when that technology becomes smarter than we are. It’s not the newest theme, it’s been done throughout science fiction, but it’s a theme that becomes more relevant every year.’

Like his passion for cinema, Spielberg’s interest in war comes directly from his father. ‘My dad took me to my first movie,’ he remembers. ‘It was “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1952, a movie of such scale it was actually a traumatic experience. And he also fought in World War II, he fought the Japanese in Burma, he was a flyer, a radio man, a forward gunner. So I grew up with the veterans of that war, getting together and telling stories. They weren’t allowed to talk about everything in front of the kids: we were escorted out of the room once they’d had a few drinks and it started to get pretty colourful.’

Spielberg is the first to acknowledge that his family history wasn’t all war stories and trips to the flicks: indeed, his films are crammed with difficult father-son relationships, ‘War Horse’ included. ‘My dad’s been responsible for a lot of my issues,’ he admits. ‘I love my dad, we had a huge reconciliation about 20 years ago, and now we’re pretty close. But I didn’t want to be a father myself until I made “ET”. I got so close to those kids, especially Drew Barrymore, that when I had to say goodbye, it was like I was saying goodbye to my own children. I asked myself, “Why am I missing them so badly? Why am I so blue the week after this wonderful experience?” And I realised, I’m blue because I don’t have any kids of my own. So I always say that the greatest gift “ET” gave me was not financial independence, the greatest gift “ET” gave me was my desire to be a parent.’

And now that he is a father, is it possible his sensibilities have softened somewhat? ‘War Horse’ may be a battle film, but there’s not a drop of blood to be seen. ‘The war scenes are still very intense,’ he promises. ‘But there’s no blood, there’s no dismemberment. It’s a family movie, and there are certain things I’ve kept away from the audience. You have to take kids one at a time, you’ve got to give them a lot of room. I have kids who still haven’t seen “Schindler’s List”,’ he says, referring to the devastating Holocaust drama he still touts as his favourite of his own films, if only for the political impact it had worldwide. ‘I wouldn’t show it to my 14-year-old, but I would show it to my 15-year-old. Where my 15-year-old is ready to see it, my 14-year-old won’t be ready to see it until she’s 18 or 20.’

So does Spielberg enjoy sitting down with his ­family (he has seven children) to watch movies – and does he restrain himself from forcing his personal cinematic passions on to his kids? ‘I make them watch “Lawrence of Arabia”,’ he says. ‘I used to give them $20 to watch a black-and-white movie. They wouldn’t watch anything in black and white, and I wanted them to see “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I wanted them to see “The Best Years of Our Lives”. My kids made a lot of money through bribes. But I think I just primed the engine: now they love classic movies.’

Does the director find himself returning to the old favourites, particularly when preparing such a stylistically classical film as ‘War Horse’? ‘I have a glossary in my head from 64 years of movies, I didn’t have to go back to any specific directors for inspiration,’ he says. ‘But I’m constantly learning from all movies: movies from the silent era and movies that are made today. When I see a great movie it inspires me to go back to work. And when I see a movie that’s not very good, it makes me realise how easy it is to fail. I’m very sensitive to the effect movies have on me. Whatever that feeling I had when I was a kid, making 8mm movies, is the same feeling I have today. I still feel the same excitement just waking up in the morning and going to a set. It hasn’t changed.’