Never Swap Horses Crossing a Stream

Culture & Science
22 February 2012, 16:25

War Horse is an exalted story of friendship and war. A best selling book earlier, it turned into an equally successful theater play currently staged at Broadway. Now, the story will reach wide screens from one of the biggest directors in the history of cinematography. Steven Spielberg's film is a story of loyalty, hope and perseverance in Europe overwhelmed by World War I.

U.W.: It’s interesting how you came to discover “War Horse” because there is both the book and the play. Can you talk about your experience discovering the material?

It was discovered by Kathy Kennedy and later by Stacey [Snider], the head of DreamWorks, who had already experienced it in the West End in London and told me how moved they were by the play. The puppets are magnificent on stage; the puppeteers are in a way the stars of the show. But we knew that if we were going to tell the story, it was going be with real horses, not with maquettes or marionettes. So then we preemptively made a bid to buy it even before I saw it, just based on the story, which really appealed to me.

I also read the Michael Morpurgo book and I loved it. But the book is told from Joey’s point of view. You even hear Joey’s thoughts. I knew that was not an avenue into adaptation to film but it really made me understand the story from several different viewpoints.

U.W.: What themes in the “War Horse” story stood out to you?

“War Horse” says a lot about courage; the courage of this boy and what he endures and what he overcomes to achieve what he needs and not just for himself but also for his best friend, his horse Joey.  It’s also about the courage and the tenacity of this extraordinary animal.

U.W.: Were you nervous at all about the idea of working with horses? How did you approach getting the performances you needed?

The thing is, I haven’t made a lot of horse movies. Usually in my movies, and in most people’s movies, in Westerns and the “Indiana Jones” films for instance, a horse is something that Harrison Ford rides on. My job is to focus the audience on Indiana Jones, not his trusted steed. And so horses are usually taken for granted. The horse is just what gets the Western hero or the intrepid archeologist from point A to point B. You are never supposed to look at the horse. You’re supposed to look at the guy on top of the horse.

We live on a little bit of a horse ranch. I’ve gotten to know how expressive horses are. This is long before “War Horse,” by the way. But just living with horses for so many years, I know that they really do convey tremendous expression, and it’s easy for anybody to read. But movies don’t often require us to spend any time dwelling on how the horse is feeling. So in this case, when I saw what the puppeteers had done so brilliantly on stage with the play “War Horse,” I realized that they weren’t forcing the horse to act like a human. They weren’t giving the horse characteristics that we can identify with because the horse was doing things out of the ordinary realm of basically horse value, but they were simply replicating the behavior of horses that we all know but most of us don’t observe.

U.W.: The performances and the emotions you got from those horses must have been very satisfying. Can you talk about that?

I want to believe that the horses knew exactly what they were doing and performed those parts the same way that Emily Watson or Peter Mullan did. They were all performers. There were times in the movie when I wouldn’t even tell the horses what to do. They’d be in a scene and would be reacting in that scene in ways I couldn’t imagine a horse would be able to react or act. And there are times you just have to sit back and thank your lucky stars that the horses somehow were cognizant that something was required of them that none of us could tell them, but they intuitively were able to give it to the moment in the scene

U.W.: Could you talk about the family side of the story, the Narracotts and their family dysfunction?

It’s a family broken by war. Peter Mullan’s character fought in the Boer War, and he was broken by that war. He still carries the physical manifestations of his wounds. So it’s a family whose spirit has been broken time and time again. And this horse comes into the family a little bit like in the old folktale when Jack came back to his mother with beans instead of money from selling the family cow, and his mom throws the beans away. And, of course, the beanstalk grows. In a sense, Joey is a bit like the beanstalk that just flourishes and sprouts and becomes greater than anybody ever could have imagined. Yet the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story and the “War Horse” story are similar only in that these families were broken and in need of a miracle. And the miracle came along quite by accident.

LAND: This movie is as much about the land as it is about the people. In the story, the land is everything to the people. This family could not survive without the land. They are devoted to the land even if the land isn’t always devoted to them.

U.W.: Did your British crew and cast members come to you with personal stories about their relatives in the Great War?

Yes, they all had relatives who fought. The British crew constantly told me stories about their grandparents and great grandparents who had fought in the Great War. They all knew their stories. They had been passed down from generation to generation. It’s a war that’s kept alive in the finest European traditions of being really up on your history. We don’t have the same kind of due diligence here in this country with our young kids. But in England, it’s just handed down. Parents, grandparents always talk about it. So, I was the beneficiary of these great stories of personal heroics and just the tedium of being in a trench war for four years.

U.W.: Was it important to you not to take sides—that whether Joey and Topthorn were in the hands of the British Army or in the hands of the Germans that there was humanity?

I think that, by and large, people who are around horses have a great deal of humanity, especially if they’re directly in charge of the care, the feeding and the grooming of a horse. So, whether it’s the British side or the German side, we don’t take sides in terms of who’s right and who’s wrong in this conflict. It’s really about how do these characters relate to the horses. The characters who do relate to the horses have no political agenda; their main concern is for the safety and the care of the horses, their charges. That was a very, very important thing, and that’s what I think gives a little more humanity to this particular kind of war story.

U.W.: Can you talk about costuming?

Joanna [Johnston] did an incredible job with such meticulous research in terms of what the Germans wore, what the British wore, how the costumes looked, and even how the German helmets evolved. In the beginning of the war, 1914, the German soldiers had spikes on the top of their helmets and then in the second half of World War I they went to the traditional German helmet that we saw in World War II.

Joanna went to the Imperial War Museum and spent a lot of time with the researchers there to get those costumes down to each thread, even to how they had been sewn together all those many decades ago.

U.W.: You and John Williams have collaborated for almost 40 years. He continues to deliver extraordinary music. What do you think of his work on this film?

The “War Horse” score is so evocative once again of the land, the place, the times and the relationships between boy and horse. And John just found all of these beautiful themes that I think really bond this movie and that really make my work a lot easier. John is able to go beyond what I do to create a very humane and feeling story, and even beyond I think what the actors are able to contribute, to bond all of us together with a sound that made all of our work look like we had planned it.

U.W.: What does the pennant tied on Joey signify?

I wanted to find a way to tie up all of these stories because they take place in France, on the French farm, on the German side and the British side of the war. But I wanted one thing to be a unifying element to bring all of these seemingly disparate stories together. I thought it’d be interesting, so I suggested this to Richard Curtis [screenwriter] and he put in his draft that the father’s war pennant from the Boer War is given to the boy by the mom. And the boy ties it around the Joey’s halter so when Joey is purchased and taken away from the farm and from his best friend, he has this talisman or memento of their relationship. That particular campaign pennant goes from story to story until it finally comes back around at the very end. It was very important to me that there be some visual cinematic talisman to tie up each of these stories, so they don’t seem so episodic. And the campaign pennant is not just to connect Joey to all these other stories that are happening in Europe but also it is meant to connect the boy and his father.

U.W.: Even though it was an ensemble cast there were individual moments that contributed so much to the film. Can you give an example?

I wanted Germans to play the German characters, so we found a wonderful actor named Hinnerk Schonemann, who played the young German who tries to come to Joey’s aid when Joey is fettered in all the barbwire. And, of course, Toby Kebbell is the Geordie soldier who comes from the British side to see what he can do about this poor horse completely trapped in barbwire. And that was probably the scene that I’m proudest of in the movie.


DreamWorks Pictures’ “War Horse,” director Steven Spielberg’s epic adventure, is a tale of loyalty, hope and tenacity set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War.“War Horse” begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets—British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter—before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man’s Land.

The First World War is experienced through the journey of this horse—an odyssey of joy and sorrow, passionate friendship and high adventure. “War Horse” is one of the great stories of friendship and war—a successful book, it was turned into a hugely successful international theatrical hit that is currently on Broadway. It now comes to screen in an epic adaptation by one of the great directors in film history.

“War Horse” is presented by DreamWorks Pictures, directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, from a screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the book by Michael Morpurgo and the recent stage play by Nick Stafford, originally produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and directed by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot. “War Horse” was released in theaters on December 25, 2011.

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