Steven Spielberg has been a prominent player in the feature film scene for close to 40 years, and scored the first of his 12 Oscar nominations (with two wins) 33 years ago. Yet in many ways the filmmaker maintains a perpetual boyish image in the public imagination. Maybe it’s his affinity for stories featuring children — like his Oscar contender War Horse – or his unquenchable excitement about movie-making. Whatever the reason, the director-writer-producer-mogul always seems to be in the center of the current conversations about film — he and producer/filmmaker Peter Jackson unleashed the 3D motion capture animated family film The Adventures Of Tintin just days before War Horse was released, made while both iconic directors were busy making huge live-action films of their own. While Spielberg surprisingly did not get nominated for Best Director on War Horse, he’s up for Best Picture as that film’s producer. That is one of two Best Picture nominations for DreamWorks, the other being The Help. Those two films are up for 10 Oscars between them. And Spielberg shows no signs of slowing down. He’s prepping a big science fiction film in Robopocalypse, and he is close to committing to Gods And Kings, a Warner Bros film (DreamWorks would become partner on the film) that would be the most epic Old Testament film about Moses since The Ten Commandments. On a break from shooting his upcoming biopic on Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg took time to reflect on his lessons learned, the advice he’s ignored and the medium he loves.
AWARDSLINE: After Jaws went 100 days over schedule, George Lucas was quoted as saying, ‘Stay away from working on the water and working with kids, old people and live animals.’ Was shooting War Horse with real horses deja vu all over again for you?
SPIELBERG: No, because the horses work. I mean seriously, they work. The nice thing about a living creature is that they do have a mind of their own. And that could be either a worst enemy or it could be your greatest ally as in this case, when all of us started trusting each other, meaning the actors and the horse. The horse actually made material contributions to the experience and added things that we never trained the horse to contribute and that was what was so amazing for me. I don’t want to compare that to Jaws because Jaws was just an aquatic nightmare for me; I mean, all of those stories were true. In this case the horses were in a sense one of the greatest surprises I ever had in making movies.
AWARDSLINE: What kinds of material contributions did the horses make?
SPIELBERG: They brought to many of the scenes a horse sense. If the scene was tense and electrifying, they were on edge and they were reactive and you could see their eyes flaring, you could see their nostrils opening and taking in more air, they were very responsive to the situations that we placed them in. … In many many cases the horse just loved [acting with] Geordie (Toby Kebbell), loved Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and he was much more reactive and responsive and in affectionate way to Albert than anyone else who came near him and you can’t ask for that, you can’t train for that.
AWARDSLINE: What was the appeal of building a movie around World War I for you? Obviously you’ve shot your share of war films.
SPIELBERG: World War I was a part in parcel of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book he wrote in 1982 and it was certainly a very important part of the stage play, [but] what attracted me to the project was really this very soulful narrative about a family of farmers whose very existence depends on the land. And the father buys the wrong horse, yet the horse is able to overcome its own breeding to be able to help the farm through, and the heart the horse displays in that gets transferred over to France in no man’s land. This is really about connections, the connections of courage and hope but mainly about the connections between people and animals and how much this horse brings into everybody’s life. It’s only about 12 minutes of combat in the actual movie.
AWARDSLINE: Saving Private Ryan was a violent, jarring, concussive war film. Here, because you’re making a family film, what did you do differently to make it accessible to families?
SPIELBERG: What I certainly was not going for was human dismemberment and the actual effects of shelling and combat, I’ve done that, and didn’t need to do it again. What I really wanted to do was find a way to allow the audience to fill in the blanks that I wasn’t literally putting in their faces. So, for instance, when the cavalry charges you don’t see a single British cavalryman being shot off the horse nor do you see a single horse being shot back into the ground. You simply see horses with riders and then you see the same horses without riders, and I thought that was sufficient to convey the impression that the technology then suddenly rendered horses useless in war time.