Published Friday 13th January 2012.
What do you make next if you are Steven Spielberg, director of so many esteemed and diverse films from the last 40 years? He chose War Horse (out now on DVD and download), the First World War story of a young Devon lad and the bond he shares with his equine friend, just as the Great War is dawning in Europe. We caught up with the director of Schindler’s List, Jaws and E.T. and he discussed bringing Michael Murpurgo’s novel to the screen, coping with downsides of Hollywood and why making this particular film was so important in the Jewish director’s family.
War Horse isn’t quite like Spielberg’s earlier historical films, which have seen the tragedy and loss of life in conflict portrayed honestly but too graphically for young children. He describes it as a combination of themes, “I don’t often mix my metaphors. What makes this unique is that it is a story of love and a story of war. I don’t see this as an epic war story, this isn’t Saving Private Ryan, this isn’t Band of Brothers – not the typical war film. If you look at the movie there is only really twelve or fifteen minutes of actual combat; from the cavalry charge to the fighting in the Somme.”
The production doesn’t shy away from horror but presents it in a way the director feels can help it reach a wider audience: “I wanted families to see this picture together. There is hardly any blood in this movie at all, unlike Saving Private Ryan where I was trying to acquit the actual testimonies of the young men who fought in France on D-Day.”
War and history
Why then does he keep returning to war as a theme, in between the flying saucers, dinosaurs and Tintin style adventures — is history in the blood? “I love history, it was the only thing I did well at in school. I am not ashamed to admit I was not a good student but I was great at history.” He was also spurred on by anecdotes from this own father, Arnold a World War Two veteran who fought in Burma and who turns 95 this month. So enthused was the young Spielberg that he rushed to his cine-camera, aged just 13; ‘my first 8mm movies were mostly WWII movies!’
Family is a recurrent subject for Spielberg in person — incidentally everything you expect in the flesh: plain black director’s cap, tidy silver beard and kind eyes.
His own daughter was instrumental urging him towards making the film, even before he was able to see the National Theatre’s astonishing puppet horses. “I have seven children and my daughter, Destry had a lot to do with me directing War Horse. She is 15 now and she has been competitively riding for 11 years and we live with horses. I don’t ride but I certainly know how to muck a stable!”
Aside from his daughter’s urgings, is there a grand plan behind how he chooses which films get the green light?
“How I choose my movies? They choose me. That sounds glib but it is true. I don’t go through a torturous intellectual process to decide what to direct. I know whether I’m going to direct the second I read something or hear a story. I just know when it grabs me in a certain way I want to direct it and then I spend the next four to six months trying to talk myself out of it!”
He didn’t succeed with this one project obviously, filmed entirely in the UK, with location work in Devon and Castle Combe. He describes it as his ‘most British film’, joking about the beautiful skylines that most people think the film company ‘painted them’ in as special effects. They did not.
Happy with his lot and with his film, are there any downsides to being one of the most influential men in his chosen career?
“Just managing my time and not feeling that I have enough time for my family and my friends. You can put that in the ‘personal life category’ but it is all one category because I have to balance my family. The downs in my life are when my career gets me in a chokehold to the point where I cannot essential see one of my kid’s Soccer games or go to one of my daughter’s horse shows. And that really depresses me. Usually it happens when I am away and I can’t physically get there because I am in the process of shooting. But those are the real downs, everything else you just learn to take with a grain of salt.”
And finally, the Alex Ferguson question: as a 65 year old, is he ready to call time on his career, perhaps after his next film about Abraham Lincoln?
“I have no plans to quit, I have always said. Clint Eastwood is one of my best friends, I’ve known Clint for 40 years and we have an almost jokey relationship about retirement. Clint is like 81 now and I say: “Okay Clint, are you ready to retire this year?” “No, are you?” And I say “No!”