Author: Freer, Ian
Date published: December 1, 2011
"It's a very old-fashioned narrative - much more old-fashioned than any of the things I ve done recently."
In the second half of Empire's world-exclusive journey into Steven Spielberg's filmmaking future, we talk Jurassic Park IV, Indiana Jones V and join him in the trenches, back on his old-school war-epic territory for...
"I'll try not to cough in your general direction."
Steven Spielberg turns back to Empire. "I've been fine for two months but now I have a cold. I haven't even got a manly location cold. I've got a cold from my wife. I didn't get this on duty. I got this on domestic duty."
Whereas for most of us colds mean a call to the boss with an over-emphasised sickly voice followed by a day of duvets, toast and Loose Women, Spielberg is suffering with his ailment in the eye of a storm both metaphorical and literal. The metaphorical storm is War Horse. His 27th feature film as a director is eight weeks into production and Spielberg is waging war at Wisley Airfield in Surrey, currently doubling for World War Ts No Man's Land. The literal storm is England in October. It is currently tipping it down, the sound of rain hitting the floorboards lining the trenches so constant that you become immune to it. Sporting the War Horse uniform of waterproof jacket, jeans and wellies, Spielberg's headgear of choice - a flat cap - is soaked right through. The search for a hard baseball cap is on.
We are hanging with the director in the video village, an enclave just off the main trench, where monitors allow Spielberg to see exactly what the camera sees This morning's scene takes place just after the British army has gone over the top: a single solitary soldier (Michael Archer) is left behind with orders to shoot anyone who retreats, and is forced to make a difficult decision . when two soldiers climb down into the trench. Sitting in a director's chair marked DAD, Spielberg is directing two cameras and, via his 2nd AD, he gives precise instructions to Camera Operator Mitch Dubin, then B-Camera Operator George Richmond as to how he wants his shot framed. Just slight adjustments - a bit more horizon here, a bayonet coming out of smoke there - turn already strong images into something dynamic, something indelible, something Spielberg.
"I don't know what I'm going to do until I get there," he says- "I have a big appetite and I'll go for a big shot, then I realise I don't have enough of anything so the shot comes down in size until it becomes practical. For this scene I just needed it to be severe coverage, abstract angles, just a couple of close-ups and then put it behind us. On the screen, this will be 16 seconds, if that."
Despite the miserable weather and thejntensity of the scene, the War Horse crew are in high spirits. The panini man is currently doling out welcome ham-and-cheese toasties; Spielberg himself has opted for a thin vegetable broth-type deal to help his cold. Now on his 12th film with Spielberg, legendary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is walking around singing to himself. At the minute, he is channelling Michael Sembello: "She's a maniac, maniac on the floor..." Interestingly, as far as Empire can see, there is little actual on-set discussion between director and DP, the pair giving each other enough space to get on with their jobs. Spielberg requests a paper cup, scoops it full of chocolatey, gooey mud. "Can someone find me a spoon?" he shouts, before dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "Let's tell Janusz this is dessert." Kaminski doesn't fall for it.
Practical joke attempt over, Spielberg is watching rehearsals for the moment the two soldiers descend into the trench. It's a tense standoff, but for the take Spielberg gives Archer a last-minute bit of advice drawn straight from one of his heroes.
"You got a war face?" he suggests, quoting Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. "Let me see your war face... That's a war face."
It's ten months later and Spielberg is back in the LA sunshine. The movie has been fine cut (unusually for Spielberg, on Avid), John Williams has completed his score ("He's got three themes in the movie, each one tops the one before") and since 7.45am, Spielberg has been colour-correcting on his own as Kaminski is on a "post Hurricane Irene" recce in Richmond, Virginia, for Spielberg's next film, Lincoln. For the moment, Spielberg is reflecting on how the 16 seconds of trench dilemma turned out.
"Let me put it this way: it's still in the movie," he laughs. "This deep into post-production we all lose our objectivity. We just start listening to everybody. For me, it's emotional whiplash from the beginning of a production to the release of a film - and it always has been. But I'm so used to the ups and downs now that I am better at taking it in my stride."
For Spielberg, the "beginning of production" started when, at the behest of producer Kathleen Kennedy, he flew to London to see War Horse at the West End s New London Theatre. Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel seemed an unlikely choice for a stage production. Told from the point of view of farmhorse Joey, the story charts his relationship with Devon farm lad Albert Narracott, a bond that is broken when Joey is bought by the British Army to serve in the French battlefields of World War I. As Joey shifts from British army to German soldiers to French family, Albert joins the army in a concerted effort to find his horse. Eschewing Morpurgo's equine POV approach, Nick Stafford's stage adaptation wowed through its emotional eloquence and astonishing lifesize puppets fashioned from cane and stretched georgette. Spielberg was spellbound.
"I thought the transition from Joey as a little yearling to Joey as a horse was so brilliant on the boards," he recalls. "There are certain things you can do in the theatre that you cannot accomplish in the movies. The puppeteers got the biggest applause that night when they came out for their curtain calls."
By the time Spielberg had caught up with the play. Morpurgo had started working with Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall to fashion a screenplay. Purchasing play and script, DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider suggested Richard Curtis, who had worked with Snider during her tenure at Universal, for a rewrite. Curtis of course had World War I previous. Blackadder Goes Forth is six episodes of Brit TV gold, mrming from the ridiculous ("Woof!") to the sublime ("Good luck, everyone"). Spielberg was a Blackadder fan but had never met Curtis. His initial overtures fell on reserved ground.
"He was a little bit reluctant," admits Spielberg. "He wasn't sure he wanted to do the job, but we got on so well he looked at it a second time and thought it could be fun."
In outline form, War Horse sounds like a ready-made blubfest: a farm about to be sold, a lad separated from his beloved horse, friendships blown apart in the tragedy of The Great War. Both Spielberg and Curtis are filmmakers comfortable going for big emotional notes, yet the director is extremely mindful of sugar lumps.
"I wanted to keep the story simple," he levels. "I didn't want this to be overwrought. There is enough drama and melodrama just in the bare bones of the story and Richard brought a kind of British subtlety to something that could have easily become pathetic. I just think the bones of the story are solid. Rock solid."
"Where have you been all my morning?"
Spielberg is addressing a huge light that's been wheeled in to add some fill to the trench. He rubs his hands together by the lamp. "This is nice." Basking in the one warm spot of a cold, damp location, the heat causes steam to rise from Spielberg's wet gear. He whips out his iPhone and turns the camera on himself to recreate a classic movie moment. "I'm melting! I'm melting!" he says doing his best Wicked Witch Of The West impersonation. "I'm going to send this to J. X. He'll like that one."
The improv is curtailed by the arrival of 50 rats on set and immediately a slight sense of unease permeates the air. "Rats were the bedfellows of the entire British army," explains Spielberg. "The rats were in the food, in everything, eating bodies, eating carrion. They had a trans-fat diet in the trenches." Of course, Spielberg is no stranger to rat-wrangling. 1989's Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade saw the archaeologist memorably come up against rodents in the catacombs of Venice. Whereas Indy contended with a mixture of live and mechanical rats, War Horse is only going with the real deal.
"Okay, let's roll and see what they do," says Spielberg through a bullhorn before directing the rats "You're all in the movies. You're all in the movies"
As the cameras turn over - the clapperboard that dips in reads DARTMOOR, the production's codename - Archer moves slowly back in the trench. As soon as the vermin are released from plastic containers, they re-enact a kind of rodent version of Monty Python's 100 Yards For People With No Sense Of Direction, darting under the floorboards and into every nook and cranny. The unease that ran through Spielberg's crack professional crew has now been upgraded to low-level hysteria.
"Okay, calm down, calm down," shouts Spielberg through the megaphone. "People shouldn't be afraid of rats. They only carry diseases and they bite."
Take two is little better.
"I only saw two rats," megaphones Spielberg. "How many rats did we attempt to put down in that shot?"
"There are 50 down but they're all hiding," shouts a crew member.
"We'll have a subtitle on the screen," deadpans Spielberg. '"There are 50 rats in this scene; you just can't see them because they're hiding.'"
While the crew scamper around gathering rats for the next go, Spielberg reviews previous footage on video assist: a haunting tracking shot of a Tommy walking out into No Man's Land that has now found its way into the trailer - for a Disney film about a boy and his horse, it is a chilling, beautiful, almost Tarkovsky-like image. The rats are now raring to go and this time they are in the zone, clustering perfectly round Archer's feet. As a daring rat - the Tom Hardy of vermin - climbs onto a dummy of a dead soldier, everyone in video village is willing it to explore inside the corpse's uniform. The rat duly obliges. Spielberg seems satisfied.
"Right. We're going out into No Man's Land."
Thinking back to Empire's time at War Horse, the one thing we didn't see was a horse. The seeds (or oats) of Michael Morpurgo's novel came from the author's discovery of the little-documented role horses played on the battlefield of the Somme, his research throwing up touching tales of army captains who confided all their inner fears and slim hopes to their steeds. Intrigued, Morpurgo found out the facts to back up the anecdotal colour. Out of the one million horses sent across the channel from the UK, only 62,000 returned, the remainder slain on the battlefield or slaughtered for meat. From these figures, Morpurgo extrapolated that some ten million horses from all sides must have perished during World War I.
"The movie shows the changing of the guard between the horse and the mechanised weapon and four-wheel transports," says Spielberg. "The horse took the brunt of this evolutionary change and nearly perished in the transition."
Working with horsemaster Bobby Lovgren, Spielberg did a casting search as rigorous as finding Scarlett O'Hara to find his new star and settled on an English Hunter as his hero horse. Working with 1 3 Joeys for different types of shot - and to let the animals rest (equine prosthetics were used to keep the horses uniform) - Spielberg had his first taste of directing an animal in a leading role (malfunctioning mechanical sharks don't count) after years of directing dogs, tarantulas, snakes, bugs, rats and velociraptors in supporting ones.
"When I'm on an Indy movie, I'm watching Indiana Jones, not the horse he is riding," explains Spielberg. "Suddenly I'm faced with the challenge of making a movie where I not only had to watch the horse, I had to compel the audience to watch it along with me. I had to pay attention to what it was doing and understand its feelings It was a whole new experience for me."
Not a rider himself, Spielberg's personal track record with horses is chequered at best, having been thrown from one as a child, then permanently putting his back out riding on The Color Purple. Unsurprisingly, one of War Horse's big set-pieces sets Spielberg's nerves jangling: a huge cavalry charge shot with Joey heading the rush while ridden by Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston).
"We had about 100 horses for the charge," Spielberg remembers, "It looks like more on film because I doubled up on the horses in a couple of the shots just by having them make several passes and putting the different films together to make it look like 200 horses. It was exciting, but it was also scary lest a horse trips and falls and brings down the rider and the mount behind him. I was always on the edge of my seat whenever we had someone on a horse moving quickly."
"Is it muddy enough for you?"
Steven Spielberg is sprinting across No Man's Land, and frankly Empire is struggling to keep up. Picture the worst Glastonbury you can ever imagine, then swap joss sticks burning incense for oil drums billowing black smoke and multiply the mud, slip-sliding and puddles by 1,000. There is an infinitude of browns for as far as the eye can see. Following in Spielberg's footsteps - there is the odd wooden board and stark-naked tree for balance, but really you are on your own - there isn't a flat piece of ground to be had anywhere, especially as production designer Rick Carter's bulldozers have created huge shell holes, some filled by abandoned tanks. Emerging from the trenches, the huge scale of the movie becomes readily apparent.
"It's just very hard to get a crew out here and negotiate a shot, let alone all these Stuntmen and atmosphere running around the place," says Spielberg. "It's the way it was in the Somme but this is a busman's holiday compared to what those lads really experienced." Unsurprisingly, he is reminded of his time shooting Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach scenes. "I kept saying on D-Day, 'You guys all get to go back to the hotel at the end of the day.'"
Coming from the warmth, dry and ease of the Volume, where Spielberg shot the performance capture of Tin tin in 28 days, England in October and the quagmire of a World War I set must be a huge culture shock. Twisted ankles have been the order of the day at Wisley and Spielberg has gone through his very own War Horse rite of passage.
"I fell into a murder hole at one point," he admits. "I led my company with a viewfinder into the trench system to set up the first shot. With about 50 people following behind me, I blithely walked forward and fell into a sevenfoot hole full of water. Crew members say I literally disappeared from sight."
Now with protective baseball cap reading CLASS OF 6 IATLANTA UNIVERSITY, he is setting up a piece of action business where Albert, played by a mudcaked but still ridiculously good-looking Jeremy Irvine, is sprinting across No Mans Land before jumping behind a hillock as squibs and explosions go off around him. Spielberg's direction to Irvine is simple - "Give 'em hell, brother" - and Irvine sets off, tracked by camera operator Mitch Dubin. "Mitch is having World War II flashbacks," says Spielberg. "He was the main camera operator on Ryan. We made him run everywhere."
Watching Spielberg create wartime action, it is hard to ignore echoes of Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg's 1998 masterpiece not only delivered cinema's most visceral depiction of World War II, but also defined how combat from any era looks in modern movies. The bag of tricks opened by Spielberg and Kaminski - the shutter adjusted 90 degrees to create sharper, more realistic images, an Image Shaker vibrating the camera, approximating the hit of explosions - became essential weapons for any battle-bound filmmaker's arsenal. So when you've created one definitive view of war, how do you create another one?
"Janusz has changed the look so it doesn't feel like Ryan at all," says Spielberg. "It has a more daguerreotype feel, much more brownish. We're not using any of the techniques we used on Ryan. The only similarity is that it is war and it is handheld. This stuff doesn't look good if you do it on a smooth dolly. If you do a smooth shot, it needs to be tight."
Looking through the video assist. War Horse's action seems raw, capturing the authenticity and intensity of Ryan but within the parameters of a PG- 13 rating. "In this movie, there is violence certainly, but there is violence without dismemberment," Spielberg explains "It's a subtle distinction." Studying his leatherbound script, he scribbles a line of dialogue and sends it out to the actors It's coming to the end of the day, the grey sky is inching towards black and it hasn't once stopped raining - Janusz Kaminski is ironically channelling The Beatles: "Good day swishmelGood day sunshine." Still, whatever the elements, you get the feeling that Spielberg is in his, well, element.
"I like inclement conditions," he admits. "I'm not going to stand in the middle of a fire because I enjoy inclement conditions, but 1 do like the fresh air. I like being outside. I just like being able to be miserable when I'm making a movie. There's something nice about that."
It is part of movie lore that on Saving Private Ryan Spielberg put Tom Hanks and co. through perhaps film's most famous boot camp. Yet during his time in the UK for War Horse, he became embroiled in a very different kind of boot camp. "My family became completely infatuated with The X Factor," Spielberg admits "We watched it all the time. I wanted to go to sleep because I was shooting but I'd wind up watching instead of sleeping. I became a sappy devotee."
So, how would you sum up...
"I couldn't believe how nice Simon Cowell was to his fellow Brits and how horrendous he had been to all the Americans," says Spielberg, cutting into Empire's question, clearly on a roll. "What an attitude adjustment! Having watched and enjoyed American Idol for years with my children, and then watching a whole new Simon Cowell dealing with his own brethren in the UK, I said, 'Wow, this guy has changed his stripes!'"
Before he discusses Wagner vs Diva Fever and while we're being all X Factor about things, how would Spielberg sum up his War Horse journey?
"I was able to tell an old-fashioned story using the traditional tools that my predecessors made standard equipment. Yet our industry seems to have moved away from that standard equipment into new realms of technology, process and narratives War Horse is an old-fashioned narrative, more old-fashioned than anything I've done recently. I really love to go back to that old, old, old-school tradition of how to tell a story."