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Q & A
Q&A: Of horses, war and hope Bill Fentum, Dec 23, 2011
After a screening of War Horse in New York City, director Steven Spielberg spoke to an international group of journalists, including associate editor Bill Fentum. Here are excerpts from the press conference.
World War I is relatively underrepresented in cinema—compared to, say, the Civil War, World War II or Vietnam. How much of wanting to make this film was the challenge of depicting World War I on-screen? Well, because 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. So war is more of a catalyst than the cause célèbre of this story.
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 hope, and the hope that actually can exist in extremely dark circumstances. Hope is in [the horse] Joey’s face—in the way he moves, the way he breathes, the way he doesn’t look at what’s going to happen tomorrow. He just exists, and brings so much connectivity to the characters on both sides of the war throughout the entire story.
War Horse came together very quickly. Within seven months after you saw the play [based on Michael Morpugo’s book], you were shooting the film. Why were you so moved and attracted to it? One of the things that attracted me to the story was the silent communication between man and animal, [and] I loved how basic the needs of these people were. The Narracott family simply needs to scratch out an existence from the infertile soil of the farm that they are about to lose. That’s a strong, very relevant issue that we’ve seen before in movies, that has often moved us. . . . So this is really a story about survival. The survival of farmers in Devon and Dartmoor. And eventually [the survival of an] animal with such tenacity and hope that he brings that same hope to a whole string of characters in a kind of episodic narrative. Which I’ve never done before.
How do you go about getting the performance you need from a horse? Or is it more like you’re directing the trainer? Here’s the thing: [Horse trainer] 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. [At first] I didn’t think horses could do all the things they do in War Horse. So I storyboarded the entire film, pre-visualized it so that the trainers could tell me, “This is impossible, no animal can do this, you’d better make this a CG horse”—which I didn’t ever want to do—or, “Yes, we can get the horses to do this.” They had several months, three or four months to be able to come back to me with the result. And 85 percent of the time, they said, “We can achieve this. It hasn’t been done before on film, but we think we can get the horses to do this, in a very humanitarian way.” So I directed the horses through our horse whisperers. Did I take the horse by the reins, and go off to a quiet place to have a conversation with the horse? No, not once!
Were you ever concerned that young people today might not relate to the story because many of them haven’t been around horses? I think people can relate to horses. Horses, I think, are basically in our genetic history. Horses were part of our culture, part of our collective society for hundreds of years, and so the horse is one of the most familiar animals to people of any race or culture or country. . . .
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. And our young people have a tough time looking back. And so I make a lot of movies about history, because we really can’t see ourselves unless we can see our forefathers, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, our history. We need that.
Like many of your films, in War Horse there is suffering and tragedy, but good triumphs over evil. Do you believe that’s the way the world works and your films reflect that belief, or is that how you wish the world would work? All of my movies are about how I wish the world would work. I’ve made very few movies—I could name them on one-and-a-half hands—that were reflective of how the world is, exactly. War Horse mythologizes a little bit, in terms of the style we chose to tell our story with, and this film is a little more symphonic in tone than a gut-wrenching, realistic look at combat [like Saving Private Ryan]. I took a conscious step back from that because I do feel that this is a family film, and I do feel those values that I want young people to be able to experience by watching War Horse. But yes, a lot of my movies are really about the way I wish the world was, and that’s what this whole art form [of filmmaking] is all about. It’s an interpretive art form.