Steven Spielberg shot “War Horse” during a break while his team of animators were working on “The Adventures of Tintin,” but it’s not a rush job — the director took his time searching for cast members, sending his actors to boot camp to learn to ride, and waiting for the English weather to cooperate. At the press day and the film’s premiere, Spielberg, screenwriter Richard Curtis, and the cast of “War Horse” revealed how they transformed the children’s book and award-winning play into a film that has already garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Drama and Best Score.
Despite its title, “War Horse” is not really a war movie.
Although Spielberg has made plenty of movies (and produced TV miniseries) about WWII — “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers,” and “The Pacific” — “War Horse” is not his WWI movie. “I don’t consider ‘War Horse’ to be a war movie,” Spielberg said. “This is not one of my war movies.”
Instead, WWI is not in the foreground but the background of the story, which is more about “the way animals can actually connect people together,” the director clarified. As a means to this, the war is “horrendous,” but not the film, at least in terms of battlefield carnage. “I wasn’t toning it down as much as it was not showing certain things,” Spielberg said. “To me it was more of a creative choice.”
For instance, instead of showing a realistic cavalry charge with hundreds of men and horses falling, dropping, and dying, the scene tells the same story with a more poetic image — rider-less horses emerging from the field and jumping over the German machine guns. “That allows you to make your own assumptions and contributions as an audience,” Spielberg said, “and you decide how graphic you want to be in your own imagination. It’s much easier to show somebody’s arms and head and legs getting blown off than it is to do it another way, and I was really challenged by that.”
The filmmakers wanted the film to be authentic, and even visited the Imperial War Museum, and its backroom archives not open to the public — but they didn’t use all that they learned. “I didn’t want this to be a history lesson,” Spielberg said. “There’s nowhere in the film that says four and a half million horses were killed in the first World War. It was more that we got to understand the kind of jeopardy Joey was going to be in.”
“War Horse” is based on both a preexisting book and play, but it’s not exactly the same.
Michael Morpurgo‘s 1982 book tells the story of Joey from the horse’s perspective — a point of view Spielberg knew “instantly” that he did not want to use. “The second Joey starts to speak, it becomes a horse of a different color,” the director said. “It becomes much more of a real fable. So the first decision was not to let Joey think or speak, but just to let Joey emote and exist inside these human characters.”
A major way the film distinguishes itself from its source material? Not using puppets. “It’s funny,” screenwriter Richard Curtis said. “When I’ve talked to people who’ve seen the play about the fact that we were doing a movie, a lot of them said, ‘But how are you going to do the horses?’ We said, ‘Well, with horses.'”
“There’s an amazing moment in the play where the little Joey becomes the adult Joey,” Spielberg said. “That was an incredible piece of visual theatricality, with the puppetry. And it was something you can never do in the film, no matter how many digital tools are at your disposal.”
Spielberg was also able to expand on characters and scenes only hinted at in the play, such as a moment when two soldiers from opposite sides of the trenches come together to help free Joey, who is trapped in barbed wire in No Man’s Land. “It was a fleeting moment in the play, but it made a profound impact on me,” Spielberg said. “That was a moment that Richard and I decided to expand and go deeper with.”
“My character was Welsh in the book, and he’s a Geordie in the film,” added Toby Kebbell, who plays the Allied soldier who helps free Joey.
Another addition to the story was the tale of two German soldiers who are brothers, who go AWOL and take Joey with them. “I wanted to show lives on both sides,” Spielberg said. “They’re looking for a way out of the war, and for a way to fulfill a promise to their father, and by doing that, they take Joey out of the war for a moment.”
Adding and expanding characters presented another challenge — what to do with Albert? In the play, Albert remains onstage throughout Joey’s experiences. That might work for a stage production, but would have been unrealistic for a film — so Spielberg needed something else to tie it all together.
“It was Richard’s idea to eliminate Albert for the entire second act of the film,” Spielberg said. “That’s what the book does, but not the play. But I was so afraid that Joey’s experiences with other characters than Albert were going to erase the memory of the first act.”
Spielberg then came up with a way to keep Albert represented symbolically, via a campaign pennant that follows Joey on his journeys. The pennant belonged to Albert’s father, which he achieved in the Boer Wars. “Albert and his father have a lot of unfinished business,” Spielberg said. “And so I had the mother offer Albert his father’s pennant.” Albert attaches the pennant to the horse, so even when he’s no longer with him, the horse has “a symbol of his previous life and his connection with Albert,” Spielberg said. “That is how I was able to bring Albert back into it.”
An actor who played Albert in the play is in the movie — but not as Albert.
Spielberg, who has given such actors as Drew Barrymore and Christian Bale their beginnings as child stars, wanted an unknown actor to play Albert . “I figured if the horse is gonna be an unknown, so should Albert,” he joked. The director did an exhaustive search before deciding upon Jeremy Irvine, who at the time had only school theater credits to his name. “I was playing a tree, standing on a box on stage, with no lines,” Irvine said. “I wasn’t even getting commercials, so why would I think I’d get a role in a movie?”
“We saw hundreds of possible Alberts,” Spielberg said. “We didn’t meet Jeremy until midway through the casting process, and I had really not been very happy with many of the candidates that were available to play the part. But when you see somebody you like too early in the casting process, you keep saying, ‘Let’s see who can top this person we like.’ So we looked for another four months. Jeremy must have tested six times before we decided. Jeremy was the most real kid we saw. And the horse liked him a lot. That helped.”
When Spielberg decided on Irvine, he pretended the actor was coming in for yet another test, this time for his accent. “They passed me a piece of script and they said, ‘Jeremy, this has got to be spontaneous, so don’t turn this over until we say so,'” Irvine recalled. “So I start reading it, and I’m going, ‘Joey! Joey! Steven Spielberg wants me to play Albert!'”
But what of Kit Harington or Robert Emms, who both played Albert in West End productions of the play? Harrington had gone on to play Jon Snow in HBO‘s “Game of Thrones,” but Emms ended up with a part in the film — as Albert’s rival David Lyons.
“Steven met us all in London, and I was standing at the back of the cast,” Emms said. “I was like, ‘Damn it, I should be at the front. I’m not going to be in the film, am I?’ So I walked off, and then I got a phone call in my dressing room, saying he wanted to meet with me. And two weeks later, I got another call saying they’d like me to play David. I definitely didn’t imagine that I would be the only one to make it from the play to the film.”
Spielberg has eight horses at home — his fifteen-year-old daughter Destry is a competitive jumper. So more than most directors, he felt up to the challenge of working with live horses and telling the “War Horse” story.
“When I realized I was about to commit to direct ‘War Horse,’ I actually went out to our stables,” Spielberg said. “I just stood out there with my iPhone camera, and I started photographing the horses from all angles. I just tried to see how many expressions could I get out of them. And when I realized I couldn’t get expressions per se from the eyes, or the face of the horse, I realized by standing back how the horse expressed himself, in his entire bearing. The horse needed all four legs, the tail, the ears — especially the ears, how they move and direct attention to what it is reacting to. So I spent a lot of time with that iPhone figuring out how to shoot a horse.”
Despite his history with horses, Spielberg still needed a horse whisperer on set, to help him direct the horses. Fourteen different horses play Joey — although really two, Finder and Abraham, but mainly Finder, were the stars — and trainer Bobby Lovgren got them to do everything he told them to do. Within reason, of course.
“When you’re on set, they just fart a lot in the middle of your speeches,” laughed Patrick Kennedy, who played Lt. Waverly. “They do puncture a lot of the pomposity that way.”
“That, and poop-scooping,” added Emily Watson, who played Albert’s mother Rosie. “No horse required that during any of my speeches, but I’m sure they interrupted someone else. That would be so distracting! During one of my most furious speeches, when I’m upset at my husband because he bought the wrong horse, the horse just started knocking his hat off, take after take, as if he sensed our intensity and wanted to take us down a notch. Completely not choreographed.”
One trick Spielberg used to make sure horses took direction just a bit better was to match up riders with their own horses for the cavalry charge scene. “Rather than just put 100 riders on 100 horses, we asked people to bring their own,” he said. “That way, the horse would obey the commands.”
“They kind of pick up on whatever you’re feeling,” said Tom Hiddleston, who plays Captain Nicholls. “So you have to transfer your feelings to them.”
Special care was also taken to protect the horses from any possible harm. For instance, the barbed wire Joey gets trapped in? Made of rubber and Styrofoam. And whenever there was something that would hurt a live horse, an animatronic horse was used instead.
The depicted skies and landscapes are not an homage to John Ford films — at least not consciously.
“War Horse” is already drawing comparisons, at least for its visual style, to John Ford films such as “How Green Was My Valley” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon“– which wasn’t something Spielberg was planning outright.
“Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures,” he allowed. “But I think the thing that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford celebrated the land. I just thought that of all the films I’ve made in recent years, this offered the opportunity to make the land a character.”
Landscapes vary from farms to forests to trenches, but in all of those scenes, Spielberg went wide. “Simply by calling back to wide shots more than close shots, I let the audience make choices about when and where to look,” he said.
A “Gone with the Wind” homage, however, is a little more overt in the closing sunset scene. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski made Spielberg wait for “the right light,” with unpredictable English weather making that task difficult. “We all waited for the light,” Spielberg said. “We waited for the right cloud to come over. But it really paid off. Those were actually flaming orange-red sunsets,” supplemented by a red filter over the lens. “We had real sunsets for three days in a row that we were able to shoot, and that helped show renewal, hope renewed, and a promise of some kind of future.”