Everyone thinks they know Steven Spielberg. But the 65-year-old American moviemaking icon – probably the world’s most famous film director of these past three decades – continues to resist categorisation. To his army of admirers, he’s Mr Hollywood, the dreamweaver behind flawless fantasies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET and Jurassic Park, who can also demonstrate an unforgiving toughness in masterpieces such as Jaws, Empire of the Sun and Munich. To his detractors, he’ll always be the ultimate all-American sentimentalist, whose roster of misfires includes Hook, The Terminal and 2008’s disappointing Indiana Jones sequel, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Now the legend is in London to discuss his latest film, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s popular children’s novel War Horse. It’s a film that offers plenty of ammunition to both sides: on the one hand, it’s a gloriously old-fashioned epic, but with a lot of real-life emotional grit under the surface. On the other, it’s perhaps his most shamelessly manipulative film to date, battering its audience into submission with honeyed light and sweeping strings.
Spielberg’s fascination with the psychological effects of war finds its most unexpected outlet here, as this film’s terse, hero on a mission – joining Spielbergian protagonists such as Oskar Schindler, Jim in Empire and Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan – has four legs and a tail, and goes by the name of Joey. A Dartmoor farm animal sold into the British army on the eve of WWI, Joey is our guide through this most complex and devastating of wars, crossing paths with English, German and French soldiers and civilians as he searches for a safe haven in the midst of hell.
I meet Spielberg (and his longtime producer Kathleen Kennedy) to discuss War Horse and his recent, highly entertaining take on the Tintin books. No longer the movie brat of the ’70s, Spielberg has become the kindly great-uncle of American film: on first appearance he seems careworn and a little weary, but as he begins to speak and becomes gripped by that still-raging passion for all things cinematic, the years drop away. He’s a kind and considerate interviewee, far more approachable than the average Hollywood big shot, and perfectly willing to get personal when the situation demands it – such as his admission that it was the prospect of working so closely with horses that gave him second thoughts about directing War Horse. ‘Making a movie where the central character is a horse was a challenge,’ he says. ‘Because I’m scared of riding. I was thrown as a kid. One of my daughters is a competitive jumper, we have stables on our property. But I don’t ride. I observe, and I worry.’
So how does a director – even one as experienced as Spielberg – go about extracting a believable performance from a horse? ‘We had great trainers,’ he explains. ‘True horse whisperers. The horse’s performance is all in the eyes and the ears – are they back, are they forward, are they straight up, alert, frightened? Then the eyes change, the ears change, their nostrils do something and it’s completely different. They were so pliable, so poetic, so lissome and so beautiful.’
Another appealing element of the production was the opportunity for historical research. ‘I spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum; I was taken into the back room to the World War I archives. I learned so much about the critical uses of the horse, not just in the First World War but during centuries of warfare: the kind of fear a cavalry charge would send into the hearts of footsoldiers, and how that was all wiped away when the age of technology came around in the twentieth century.’
Kathleen Kennedy reveals that they also had help from an unlikely corner when sourcing props for War Horse. ‘It turned out Peter Jackson is a World War I fanatic,’ she laughs. ‘We ended up renting quite a few things, loading them on to barges and shipping them to England. He had an ambulance, he had a number of big artillery weapons. He even had a tank!’
Of course, this isn’t the first time Spielberg and Jackson have mucked in together: Spielberg’s recent Tintin movie was produced by the New Zealander, and for the forthcoming sequel they’re planning to switch roles. Tintin was the movie that got Spielberg working again after a three-year break, so does he feel re-energised? ‘Shooting Tintin was the most fun I’ve had in years,’ the director says. ‘The only thing that gets me back to directing is good scripts. I was blessed that a number of good scripts came into my life, starting with Joe Cornish, Edgar Wright and Stephen Moffat’s script for Tintin and continuing with the scripts for War Horse and my next movie. It all starts with the script: it’s not worth taking myself away from my family if I don’t have something I’m really passionate about.’
And at the moment, Spielberg’s passion seems to be running high: our second interview takes place on the phone as he grabs a hasty lunch on the set of his forthcoming presidential biopic, Lincoln, set to be his third major release in under a year. Like many an artist in the throes of creation, Spielberg is hesitant to talk about Lincoln, but he has no such qualms about its follow-up, science-fiction action flick Robopocalypse, which is set for release in 2013. ‘It’s a movie about a global war between man and machine,’ the director tells me. ‘I had a great time creating the future on Minority Report, and it’s a future that is coming true faster than any of us thought it would. Robopocalypse takes place in 15 or 20 years, so it’ll be another future we can relate to. It’s about the consequences of creating technologies which make our lives easier, and what happens when that technology becomes smarter than we are. It’s not the newest theme, but it’s a theme that becomes more relevant every year.’
Like his passion for cinema, Spielberg’s interest in war comes directly from his father. ‘My dad took me to my first movie,’ he remembers. ‘It was The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, a movie of such scale it was actually a traumatic experience. And he also fought in World War II, he fought the Japanese in Burma, he was a flyer, a radio man, a forward gunner. So I grew up with the veterans of that war. They weren’t allowed to talk about everything in front of the kids: we were escorted out of the room once they’d had a few drinks and it started to get pretty colourful.’
Spielberg is the first to admit that his family history wasn’t all war stories and trips to the flicks: indeed, his films are crammed with difficult father-son relationships, War Horse included. ‘My dad’s been responsible for a lot of my issues,’ he admits. ‘I love my dad, we had a huge reconciliation about 20 years ago, and now we’re pretty close. But I didn’t want to be a father myself until I made ET. I got so close to those kids, especially Drew Barrymore, that when I had to say goodbye, it was like I was saying goodbye to my own children. I asked myself, “Why am I so blue the week after this wonderful experience?” And I realised, “I’m blue because I don’t have any kids of my own.” So the greatest gift ET gave me was not financial independence, [it] was my desire to be a parent.’
‘I’m constantly learning from all movies,’ the director continues. ‘Movies from the silent era and movies that are made today. When I see a great movie it inspires me to go back to work. And when I see a movie that’s not very good, it makes me realise how easy it is to fail. I’m very sensitive to the effect movies have on me. Whatever that feeling was that I had when I was a kid, making 8mm movies, is the same feeling I have today. I still feel the same excitement just waking up in the morning and going to a set. It hasn’t changed.’
War Horse is in UAE cinemas now.