Oscars Q&A: Steven Spielberg On 'War Horse's Four-Legged Actors, 3D And Lessons Learned

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.

AWARDSLINE: You also directed The Adventures Of Tintin, an Indiana Jones-style serial, but it uses cutting-edge performance captured 3D. How different was each to shoot?
SPIELBERG: I started Tintin in 1983 in the sense for getting the film rights to the series of books. So I’ve been living with Tintin for majority of my professional life, it just happened that over the three years it took to animate Tintin, there was a period of time that Peter Jackson and I weren’t needed, because we’re not animators. And that’s when Kathy Kennedy brought War Horse to my attention. It was almost a gift because it fell into my arms at a time when I wouldn’t have been doing anything as a director.

AWARDSLINE: How was Peter Jackson’s skill set most helpful to you as a collaborator?
SPIELBERG: I think that we discovered each other as friends first. When I handed him the Oscar for Lord Of The Rings, we kind of met, that evening and became friends. I was very curious about Peter’s company, WETA, which was eventually going to do Avatar, and asked Peter’s company if they would do a test of a digital dog, Snowy, and then Peter showed up one day, unannounced, and performed the test of the digital dog and that’s when I knew he had some knowledge. After I viewed the test I called him and Peter told me how he grew up with the book, since he was 5 years old. I knew I had a partner, at that moment.

AWARDSLINE: What’s the big thing that he brings to the table here? Between Lord Of The Rings and prepping The Hobbit, he certainly knows his way around 3D.
SPIELBERG: The technology is available for everybody’s use whether it’s performance capture or bringing digital dinosaurs to life the way we did in Jurassic Park. And there’s always something new.  For me its only about how do you best enhance the story, what’s the best media to tell your story with. That’s why I chose performance capture animation for Tintin and I had made that decision before Peter and I became partners.  But Peter happened to have a company that was extraordinary at animations and many other versions of special effects. What Peter brought to the table was that we were terrific sounding boards for each other. We spent a full year on a Polycom, a live feed from Wellington, New Zealand and Los Angeles, and we just sort of just pitched the whole story and created a series of set pieces based on crude animatics. That’s when I realized, we both have very very similar sense of humor.

AWARDSLINE: How would you compare your collaborative style with him to say George Lucas when you do those Indiana Jones films, aside from it being a long distance relationship?
SPIELBERG: Well you know, George and I have a long-distance relationship too; he rarely comes south from his base and we have been on the telephone with each other, for decades. Peter and I also had a very long-distance relationship on Tintin, but it doesn’t matter. I love creating partnerships, I love not having to bear the entire burden of the creative storytelling and when I have unions like with George Lucas and Peter Jackson, it’s really great; not only do I benefit but the project is better for it.

AWARDSLINE: Tintin became a global hit before it opened in the U.S. Its $74 million domestic gross is dwarfed by the $286 million overseas gross. We always hear how important it is to make films for the world. Was this a movie designed that way, with the U.S. gross an afterthought?
SPIELBERG: None of those results are ever up to any of us to do these jobs.  Every film is just a Hail Mary and you just hope for the best. The good news is it did so well overseas that Paramount and Sony green lit the second Tin Tin movie.

AWARDSLINE: 3D has been criticized somewhat as an excuse to charge more for tickets but now you and Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott and some other important filmmakers are making movies using it, so, based on your own experience, how much of a game changer is 3D?
SPIELBERG: I believe in 3D for certain kinds of films, I certainly believe in using 3D for all things in animation because animation has such clarity and so much depth of focus. It worked great with Avatar because 70 percent of that film is animated. I like it also for some live action. I haven’t done a 3D live action movie yet, I’m still looking for the right one to use the process on. I just don’t believe that every film has to be in 3D.

AWARDSLINE: Jaws was a game-changer, which got studios making bigger movies with larger screen counts. Some say this has become a blockbuster-obsessed industry. What’s your feeling about the downside of that?
SPIELBERG: There is no downside; it’s the way the business has been since the silent movies of The Great Train Robbery, since Birth of a Nation, since The Ten Commandments, since Gone With The Wind. There have always been the blockbusters, the melodramas, the love stories. There’s room for everything and in this industry, the only change in the paradigm is in exhibition. Gone With The Wind is still today the most successful movies ever, at a quarter a ticket, and it just played forever and people kept going to see it. The simple truth with Jaws is it was Lew Wasserman’s brainchild and Sid Sheinberg’s to do a rather massive release which had never been done before. When I say massive I’m talking about something like 490 screens when the film opened in 1975; that was considered massive back then, That’s the only real difference, it’s been blockbusters all through the decades since the advent of cinema.

AWARDSLINE: Studios are struggling to shorten theatrical windows and launch films on multiple platforms. It is so inefficient and expensive to spend millions marketing a film, and then have to do it again in half a year when it comes out on DVD and other ancillary venues. As a director and partner in a major company, how important do you see opening on multiple platforms in a short amount of time for the long term survival of the movie business?
SPIELBERG: Well, there’s no real alternative because films are set up to be a one or two weekend excursion for audiences. ET played for almost a year, but theatrically, those days are over. Now, audiences hopefully flood the cinema and get their fill. That’s the phenomenon, the impatience of audiences looking more carefully than ever about where to spend their money.  Do they spend on a movie or on Call Of Duty?  Audiences are more discriminating. I think the entire industry is  just waiting to see whats going to happen next. I don’t think anybody is working from the same manual that works for everyone else. Everybody is writing their own script about how best to release movies. We just to have to see how it all sorts itself out.

AWARDSLINE: Since you started DreamWorks with David Geffen and Jeff Katzenberg, the company has morphed in different directions, moved from Universal to Paramount, and now to Reliance and Disney. Though your company has two Best Picture nominees in War Horse and The Help, there have been rumors that Reliance is impatient, after Cowboys And Aliens didn’t do well compared to its cost. How do you feel about where DreamWorks is now?
SPIELBERG: I think those are questions, I would let Stacey Snider cover. I leave all that stuff to my partner, who is in charge of all that. I leave that to her.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve mentioned you couldn’t make the same different movies that you did at the beginning of your career because you’re a different person. What personal and professional events most changed your perspective as a filmmaker?
SPIELBERG: Just having children change my perspective. A great example or a good example that I always give is, I don’t think today that I’d have Richard Dreyfuss leave his family and get on the mother ship and leave the planet in Close Encounters. I was single in those days, and I liked the idea of getting him on that mother ship to follow his dream and leave all his earthly attachments behind. He had children. That is something that is irreconcilable to me at my age today.

AWARDSLINE: Turning to the Oscars, you were nominated for many years, and then finally won with Schindler’s List. What’s your most special memory of that night?
SPIELBERG: I guess the most special memory of that night was being able to talk to all the teachers and encourage them to teach the stories. That was the opportunity I got that night and I took advantage of it and so I think that was one of the most special moments for me.

AWARDSLINE: You’re now in a very prolific period, which you’ve done a couple a times to great success in your career, like when you made Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in 1993 Are you better when you multi-task and move quickly to the next project?
SPIELBERG: I’m better when I have good scripts. Everybody’s better when they have good screenplays. It’s not a matter of the mileage or the time that you put into something, it’s the matter of is what you are doing really worth it? Is the project that you doing inspirational? Does it make you get up in the morning with no sleep in your eyes? You can’t wait to go to work? Is it intoxicating enough? And it’s always based on how good the screenplay is.

AWARDSLINE: For a filmmaker who has had so much success, I can hear the enthusiasm in your voice when you describe what you do. How do you keep from getting cynical, and continue to stay hungry and grow?
SPIELBERG: Well, even though I get older, what I do never gets old, and that’s what I think keeps me hungry.

AWARDSLINE: You had remarkable success so early in your career. What is the biggest benefit of maturity and experience? What do you think you do better now than you did back then?
SPIELBERG: That’s a very tough question, one I would probably have to give a lot a thought. I can’t just have a quick answer for that because I don’t know. I don’t do a lot of reflection. Certainly when asked questions, I’ll reflect, but sometimes it’s an unfair spontaneous reflection. I look forward so much to what I’m doing tomorrow, that right now I don’t have a lot of time to think about comparing those days with these days.

AWARDSLINE: People learn more from failure than they do in success. Now you haven’t failed often, but what failure or setback in your career taught you the most and helped you to improve as a filmmaker?
SPIELBERG: I think 1941 was the failure that helped me the most because I had shot three movies that required more than 100 days. The first one was no one’s fault, except Mother Nature, which was Jaws, the second movie, Close Encounters, went over 100 days on the schedule, the third movie, 1941, was my longest schedule. That took 178 days to complete. I think that I sort of saw the light after the failure of 1941. And I made up for it when I did Raiders Of The Lost Ark, 16 days under schedule.

AWARDSLINE: Did you finish War Horse on schedule?
SPIELBERG: I finished in 63 days, which I’m very proud of, so it was completely on schedule and it was under budget by $4 million. Which I’m very proud of too.

AWARDSLINE: Maybe that is the benefit of experience?
SPIELBERG: There you go, that’s experience. You answered that question for me!

  1. i am a fan of most of mr. SS’s work, including A.I. but the thing i liked most about “war horse” was the SNL skit with jimmy fallon.

  2. Great director, been churning out mostly sausage for years. Pretty sausage, but sausage nonetheless. How about quality and depth over quantity, Stephen?

  3. Such sweet comments from the man, who is trying to make us all believe he holds a deep respect and reverance for horses (and hoping we’ll see his movie). Then he’ll turn around and give millions to Obama, who just signed a bill that reinstates the slaughter of horses in America. You can’t have it both ways, Steve.

    1. Moreover, he openly admits that he terrorized the horses or, at least, presented them with situations that made them react in terror.

  4. Great interview. I had a chance to hear him speak at USC a few years ago, and he was gracious with his time and gave thoughtful answers to all of the questions. Truly is one of the highlights of my time in the industry. While some of Spielberg’s movies have been better than others, he’s part of what makes this business so incredible.

  5. He’s a legend of course, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that his post-Schindler’s material has been mostly terrible. Catch Me If You Can and Munich were at least interesting and slightly challenging, Saving Private Ryan had an incredible first 20 minutes, but that’s about it for highlights. Most of his recent films have felt anachronistic, lazy and full of cliches, including War Horse, which was played so straight and square it could have been an unintentional SNL parody.

    While Scorsese has finally regained some of his luster after a similar period in the artistic wilderness, and Coppola at least challenges himself with a more experimental direction, Spielberg seems stuck in a rut of unwieldly, middlebrow, forgettable films that don’t do justice to his immense storytelling talent.

    Still, that run from Duel to Schindler’s List measures up to any of the greats.

    1. JURASSIC PARK is one of the best films of all time. The special effects still holds up almost 20 years later.

    2. Spielberg is THE film industry.

      Honestly, the man is an icon. He created the blockbuster, and whilst you may not agree that some of his latest material is up to your liking, it really doesn’t matter: his box office results speak for themselves.

      And before you argue that it’s not always about box office, yes it is, friend. Because anyone can make a movie, as most flash in the pan directors have shown us; but making a movie that is well received by both critics and an audience, is an art form in itself, and is a palette on which Spielberg continues to paint his wonderful pictures.

      His longevity speaks for itself, and his continued success screams even louder of how valuable an imprint this man continues to leave upon cinema. He will be remembered for centuries.

      Superb interview, and an intriguing insight into a man who is quite possibly, the most successful film director of all time.

  6. SS makes entertainment pure and simple, if it happens to be award-worthy (whatever that means), is that really his intention every time out? We want it to be because he’s extra talented but he does what feels righ to him. And he makes the movie game fun and interesting, and has for 40 years – that’s the inspiring part.

    If you love, like or hate War Horse then that’s on you. SS was looking to entertain and he did, also since so many people are talking about it good bad or indifferent he also succeeded

  7. It’s so inspiring to see someone so talented as well as committed to the ideals of his craft. Speaking of Warhorse, though, I was curious to note that the names of the horses themselves weren’t credited in the film. I haven’t seen them anywhere else either. Still, I am sure that that were all wonderful animals, as Mr. Spielberg states.

  8. In response to Steves comment that the horses could not contribute to a movie,you really must not know much about horses because they are remarkable,intelligent creatures who contribute very much to those of our lives who are privileged to have the opportunity to work with them and have them in our lives.Steven Spielburg has not lost it.Remarkable movie !

  9. I haven’t seen WAR HORSE, but TINTIN and MUNICH are excellent movies. When he says he needs a great script to be excited by the process, he means INDY 4. TINTIN was everything INDY 4 should have been.

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