ORLANDO, Fla. — Steven Spielberg has made a pretty fair living over the decades making audiences cry. And the Oscar winning director of “E.T.,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” isn’t immune to that impulse, either.
He knows a good weeper when he sees it.
“I saw the play ‘War Horse’ in London back in January of 2010, and I was moved to tears,” he recalls. “The story rolled over me.”
Spielberg knew that a play that made him cry, a play which uses puppets as horses, would make for an epic film. All the things that the stage can’t give you — the vast canvas of World War I, real explosions, real horses — would come to the screen. He could picture it all, leaving the theater.
“On the Somme, in France, No Man’s Land was hundreds of miles across. Nothing grew there for years. It was just a blasted, burnt, defoliated and desolate land, made that way by four years of entrenched fighting — endless mortar and artillery fire. The lines there hardly budged, and the fighting was almost endless.
“It was a terrible war, and certainly a war that no one expected to last as long as it did. These young British boys would march off, smiling, and their parents would smile back and wave them off, everybody thinking they’d be home by Christmas. Everybody wanted to take part in the war, at first, because nobody wanted to be the one to see all their friends come home with all these glorious war stories and be the one who never served. So everyone served, a whole generation from Great Britain served. And for those young men, it was a tragic awakening.”
But the setting wasn’t what sold him, Spielberg says. “World War I is not the heart of the story. The principal players are the cast of characters that Joey the horse meets on his World War I odyssey, this nightmare dreamscape of war, and his first owner, the boy whose father takes the horse from him and sells the horse to the British cavalry.
“I wanted this to be a celebration of the empathy that people and animals share. And not just what people impose on animals, but what animals can give back. This animal gives every human being he encounters something. He changes that person forever.
“So my movie’s not about the heart of darkness. It’s about the heart of courage and tenacity. It’s a story of a rare relationship.”
It’s something of a specialty of one of the cinema’s master storytellers. Even the epics have intimacy, even the sprawl of war is made personal by a handful of characters.
“Even in the huge spectacles that he makes, the honest human stories are what you remember,” says Joseph Gordon Levitt, who has a role in the Abraham Lincoln bio-pic Spielberg filmed in Virginia this fall. “‘Jaws’ is good because of the people, not because of the shark.”
But Spielberg is a realist. The shark, or the alien or horse, has to be good, too. He cast his war horse for the film first. Then he spent months finding the right young man to play the boy, Albert, whose father sells his horse to the British Army and who follows the horse, Joey, across the English Channel and onto the battlefields of World War I.
“I was looking for an unknown, and I tested all the boys who were finalists with the horse,” Spielberg says. “I’d put them in the barn with the horse and a video camera, just to see if they clicked. They weren’t going to get the job unless A) I liked them and B) the HORSE liked them. They couldn’t be afraid of the horse, first off.
“When we taped Jeremy Irvine, the horse gave Jeremy some good love. The horse helped me out a lot, there. He told me I had a match made in heaven.
“Kids don’t necessarily grow up around horses any more, which is strange, considering how long the world couldn’t get along without horses.”
Spielberg is competing against himself at the multiplex this holiday season, with his motion-capture animated “The Adventures of Tintin” (Dec. 21) opening just ahead of “War Horse” (Dec. 25). But “Tintin,” “a good ol’ fashioned adventure flick that harkens back to the filmmaker’s action-packed, tongue-in-cheek swashbucklers” (The Hollywood Reporter), is rated PG. “War Horse” is PG-13. “And that’s very accurate in terms of what it suggests parents watch out for,” Spielberg says.
Having two films out at once isn’t unusual for an actor, but it is for a director. Might Spielberg, who turns 65 in December, be feeling a little urgency in the work these days? He took years to finally get around to his Lincoln film, and he has a Martin Luther King Jr. bio-film and assorted science fiction projects in the works.
“It’s all about timing, for me … If something comes up and it’s vibrant and it needs to be dealt with, you’d better deal with it or you’ll lose that opportunity.”
So he couldn’t turn down “Tintin,” “because I have been a fan of the Herge comic books since some French film critic compared “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to a Tintin adventure. I picked up ‘The Secret of the Seven Crystal Balls’ back in 1981, and I knew that someday, the technology would exist to allow me to make it.”
And his Lincoln film, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” “is really a movie about the great work Abraham Lincoln did in the last months of his life — uniting the country, the political parties. But there’s no urgency to that one, either, The movie will be purposely coming out AFTER next year’s election. I didn’t want it to become political fodder.”
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