'Horse took his own cues'

Steven Spielberg talks about discovering 'War Horse', adapting it for the screen and making a horse emote perfectly

Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo and the recent stage play by Nick Stafford, Steven Spielberg’s epic adventure, is a tale of loyalty, hope and tenacity set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War. In a exclusive interview to Yahoo! India Movies, Steven Spielberg talks about his film.

 Excerpts from the interview:

Q: How did you discover ‘War Horse’ because there is both the book and the play?
It was discovered for me by Kathy Kennedy, who had already experienced it in the West End in London and told me about it and how moved she was by the play. Then Stacey [Snider], the head of my company, Dream Works, flew over and saw it without me. And she concurred with Kathy about how powerful a story it was. The puppets are magnificent on stage; the puppeteers are in a way the stars of the show. But we knew that if we were going to tell the story, it was going be with real horses, not with Marquette or marionettes. So then we preemptively made a bid to buy it even before I saw it, just based on the story, which really appealed to me.

I also read the Michael Morpurgo book right after Kathy and Stacey had seen the show on the West End. I love the book. But the book is told from Joey’s point of view. You even hear Joey’s thoughts. I knew that was not an avenue into adaptation to film but it really made me understand the story from several different viewpoints. So then my wife and I flew to London and we got a chance to see 'War Horse' for the first time. And that sealed the deal as far as I was concerned.

Q:   What stuck you the most about the story?
 ‘War Horse’ says a lot about courage- the courage of this boy and what he endures to achieve what he needs, not just for himself but also for his best friend, his horse Joey.  It’s also about the courage and the tenacity of this extraordinary animal. The theme of courage kept coming back and back from the play, from Michael Morpurgo’s book and from Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’ screenplay. That was the underlying subliminal theme that I think informs every frame of 'War Horse'

 It’s about a family broken by war. Peter Mullan’s character fought in the Boer War, and he was broken by that war. He still carries the physical manifestations of his wounds. So it’s a family whose spirit has been broken time and time again. And this horse comes into the family a little bit like in the old folktale when Jack came back to his mother with beans instead of money from selling the family cow, and his mom throws the beans away. And, of course, the beanstalk grows. In a sense, Joey is a bit like the beanstalk that just flourishes and sprouts and becomes greater than anybody ever could have imagined. Yet the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story and the “War Horse” story are similar only in that these families were broken and in need of a miracle. And the miracle came along quite by accident.

Watch: Horse Vs Machine


Q: How did you go about adapting the story to the screen?
The first thing I pulled from the book—and certainly was inspired by when I saw the play—was this idea that a family that is under the boot heel of a very strict and unforgiving landlord needs to buy time to succeed with their farm. The father, in a drunken state, buys a horse to pull the plow to save the farm and Joey, is in no shape to pull a plow, as that breed is not suited for that work.

Yet, the young son, Albert, and Joey formed this bond and together they were able to at least attempt to save the farm by plowing in a stony, infertile field. It just creates such a synergy and a real empathic collaboration between horse and boy that when they are separated because of World War I and the horse is sent off to serve in the war as a beast of burden, the audience really knows that at some point there is going to be a date with destiny. And when that date with destiny between the boy and the horse occurs, that is a little bit of the mojo of the movie.

Q:  When Jeremy Irvine came in to audition for Albert, did you know he was the one?

For the part of Albert, I was looking for the unknown. I didn’t want the person playing Albert to bring a portfolio of distinguished parts from other films. I really wanted a face. Joey, the horse, was a fresh face, so I wanted a little parity there. There were hundreds of boys that came in to read for Albert. And Jeremy was maybe right in the middle of the pack.And then we moved on to see if anybody else could match him. And several months later, we came back to Jeremy, realizing that he was the best person for the part.

Q: Were you nervous at all about the idea of working with horses?
The thing is I haven’t made a lot of horse movies. Usually in my movies and in most people’s movies and the ‘Indiana Jones’ films for instance, a horse is something that Harrison Ford rides on. My job is to focus the audience on Indiana Jones, not his trusted steed. And so horses are usually taken for granted. The horse is just what gets the Western hero or the intrepid archeologist from point A to point B. You are never supposed to look at the horse. You’re supposed to look at the guy on top of the horse. And yet I live with horses and have lived with horses for the last 15 years. We live on a little bit of a horse ranch. My daughter and wife ride. My daughter is a very serious rider at 14 years old. She travels the country, riding competitively.

Movies don’t often require us to spend any time dwelling on how the horse is feeling. So in this case, when I saw what the puppeteers had done so brilliantly on stage with the play ‘War Horse’, I realized that they weren’t forcing the horse to act like a human. They weren’t giving the horse characteristics that we can identify with because the horse was doing things out of the ordinary realm of basically horse value, but they were simply replicating the behavior of horses that we all know but most of us don’t observe. I didn’t know whether I could get that on film or not, but I did. Bobby Lovgren, our kind of horse whisperer who had done ‘Sea biscuit’ with us, came on board to make the picture with us. He and his team performed miracles with the horses.

Q: How did you manage to elicit a performance from a horse?I want to believe that the horses knew exactly what they were doing and performed those parts the same way that Emily Watson or Peter Mullan did. There were times in the movie when I wouldn’t even tell the horses what to do. They’d be in a scene and would be reacting in that scene in ways I couldn’t imagine a horse would be able to react or act. And there are times you just have to sit back and thank your lucky stars that the horses somehow were cognizant that something was required of them that none of us could tell them, but they intuitively were able to give it to the moment in the scene.

Without spoiling anything, there’s a moment toward the end of the story, just as an example, where they’re leading Joey to some place that Joey wants to go to. And right at the end of the scene, Joey nuzzles Albert with his nose, pushing Albert as if to say, “Okay, I’m ready to go. Take me there.” That’s nothing we could plan for. How the horse knew that it was the last line of the scene and it would be wonderful for him to give the boy a little nudge, I don’t know, because nobody trained the horse to do that. The horse just took his own cue, and that’s in the picture.

Did you storyboard the scenes?
Yes. It was very important that everybody see what was being required of them. And I wanted the Humane Society, the stunt people and the horse trainers to be able to look at pre-visualizations of these entire scenes and say, “Impossible,” “Not safe,” “Yes, we can do that,” “We can do a version of that” or “That’s not going to work.” So that’s why I did so many privies on this film. So the cavalry charge and a lot of the stuff happening in No Man’s Land with Joey’s panic run through the trench systems was all pre-visualized on computer very precisely. It was more an exercise of wanting everybody to be prepared and wanting to keep the horses and the riders and the stunt people safe.
 

 

For more on War Horse