Q: How much of wanting to make this film was the challenge of depicting World War I on screen and expanding on the small canon of classics like “All Quiet On the Western Front”?
SS: Well, because I don’t consider “War Horse” to be a movie about war, I don’t consider it to be a quintessential World War I picture. The war is a backdrop. It provides the necessary drama to pull these characters apart and eventually reunite them. So, war is more of a catalyst than the cause célèbre of this story. This is a human narrative. It’s about the connectivity that an animal can bring to human characters. It’s really much more of a story about hope and the hope that actually can exist in extremely dark circumstances. Hope is always in Joey’s face, in the way he moves, the way he breathes, the way he doesn’t look at what’s going to happen tomorrow. He just exists and brings so much connectivity to the characters on both sides of the War, throughout the entire story. I never looked at this as a war movie, and I think that’s probably why we don’t have an “R” rating on this film because I didn’t shoot it the way I shot “Saving Private Ryan” or the way I produced “Band of Brothers” or the “The Pacific” with Tom Hanks.
Q: Did you ever envision your career going from making kids cry while watching “E.T.” to making grown men cry while watching “War Horse”?
SS: (laughs) That was not my intention. I didn’t get in the room with Richard Curtis and we didn’t sit together and say, okay, we’re going to tell a story that will make men cry. I promise you we didn’t do that. The play made me cry because the hope that Joey brings to Albert and brings to every human character in the play made me cry. But I cried because I honestly felt a catharsis. When I read the book, it also brought a lump in my throat because you have a story where you have characters that are devoted to an animal, and the animal is such an innocent, and the animal has no intellectual capacity to justify or to find reasons to exist. An animal just exists because it’s the natural thing to do. We’ve all seen stories, like “Black Stallion,” where tremendous bonds are [formed], where there’s more strength in the bonds between an animal and a person often than between people. In that sense, I knew when I saw the play that there was going to be a catharsis for me at the end. But I don’t think the play had the intention of making men cry either. I think the play found a fantastic story based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book, and we simply adapted both the book and the play, and the result is the result.
Q: You saw the play in January and by mid-August you were shooting. What was it about this story that really made you want to do the project?
SS: One of the things that attracted me to the story was the silent communication between man and animal. When Kathy (producer Kathleen Kennedy) brought the play to my attention, and when I first went to see the play, I loved how basic the needs of these people were. The Narracott family simply needs to scratch out an existence from the infertile soil of the farm that they’re about to lose. That’s a strong, very, very relevant issue that we’ve seen before in movies, and that’s moved us, the stories, but in this case, the originality was a little bit like Jack in the Beanstalk. The father goes out, has a few drinks, and in a competitive rage with his own landlord, he purchases the wrong horse to do the job that he needs to do to survive. So this is really a story about survival, the survival of fathers in Devon, in Dartmoor. Eventually, that same animal, with such tenacity of spirit and hope, is sold to the British Army and suddenly brings that same hope to a whole string of characters in a kind of episodic narrative, which I’ve never done before, which also attracted me to want to tell the story, until finally, he’s reunited. That was, I think, what Richard had brought to this when he wrote the script. He said, I don’t want Albert to be in the second act of this movie. I think this is Joey’s story and Richard took Albert out of the second act, and that was probably the largest paradigm shift from both the book and the play that makes us stand apart from both.
Q: How did you go about directing the horse to get the performance you needed from him and was it difficult?
SS: No, here’s the thing. Bobby Lovgren was our horse whisperer, and he had a tremendous team of real gentle souls that understood how to connect with the gentle soul of an animal, of these horses. I didn’t think the horses could do what they turned out to have done in “War Horse.” I was hoping we would be able to get it all, but I didn’t think we could. So, what I did was I storyboarded the entire film. I also pre-visualized the film so that the trainers could either tell me this is impossible, no animal can do this, you better make this a CG horse, which I didn’t ever want to do. Or yes, I think we can get the horse to do this. They had several months, 3 or 4 months, to be able to come back to me with the result, and every time I pre-vized something, 85% of the time they said, we can achieve this. It hasn’t been done before on film, but we think we can get the horse to do this in a very humanitarian way. So I directed the horses through our horse whisperers. Did I take the horse by the reins and go off to a quiet place to have a conversation with the horse? No, not once. Do the horses sometimes miss their mark and step out of their key light? Yes.
But here’s the other thing that the horses did. This is something that you never plan for, and this was sort of the miracle that I experienced making “War Horse.” The horses started to improvise beyond any of our wildest hopes and expectations. The horse suddenly realized and the horses are so sensitive to what the actors are doing. If the actors were keyed up and really ready to flip out like Emily Watson, as the mother, when Ted brings the wrong horse, the horses felt the vibrations of her anger through her performance and they were reactive. The one horse just started rubbing its face against Ted Narracott’s body all through the scene, not just one angle but every angle. Every time he showed up, that horse would see him coming and start using him as a rubbing post. That’s something that wasn’t planned, wasn’t pre-visualized, wasn’t storyboarded. That was something that Joey brought to the play. Every single day, the horses brought something we never expected them to bring.
Q: When you first considered this project, were you ever concerned that a younger generation might not be able to relate to the story?
SS: I think people can relate to horses. Horses, I think, are basically in our genetic history. Horses were part of our culture, part of our collective society, for hundreds of years, and so, the horse is one of the most familiar animals to people of any race or culture or country, and also, in any generation. We’re finding that everybody is able to relate to the horse in this experience.
Q: Many of your films are about historical events. Why is history so important to you?
SS: I’ve always worried that history is so fleeting, that we are so busy consuming media and the contemporary culture, voraciously gobbling it up, that we have no room to look back ever, and our young people have a tough time looking back. And so, I make a lot of movies about history because I think it’s very important that we really can’t see ourselves unless we can [see] our forefathers, our grandparents, our great grandparents, our history. We need that.
Q: The scenery was breathtaking. Can you talk about its significance in the film?
SS: If you rush through it, you miss the beauty that Nature is. Nature made a real creative contribution to this film. The land was a character in this film. We intended the land to be a character.
Q: From “National Velvet” to “The Black Stallion,” horses have played an important role in movie history. Do you think there could be a plausible story with the horse in the wars we know of today?
SS: I don’t think you can make this same story today. One of the statements of the story is that the paradigm changed in hundreds of years of dependence on the horse, on four-legged beasts of burden to this Great War, the war to end all wars, which of course, it didn’t. It began many, many other wars afterwards. But this so-called war to end all wars was also the war that ended the horse as an implement of warfare. It retired the horse forever from modern warfare.
Q: There’s this wonderful optimism in many of your films where there’s suffering and tragedy but Good triumphs over Evil. Do your films reflect how you wish the world would work?
SS: All of my movies are about how I wish the world would work. I’ve made very few movies about how the world worked. I could name them on one and a half hands, about how my movies have been very reflective of how the world was exactly. “War Horse” mythologizes a little bit in terms of the way, the style, we chose to tell our story with. The fact [is] this film was a little more symphonic in tone than a much more gut-rending realistic look at combat, which was “Saving Private Ryan” and my work on “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” I took a conscious step back from that. I retreated from that because I do feel this is a family film. And, I do feel there are values that I would want young people to be able to experience by watching “War Horse,” so I had to take a step back from my approach. But yes, a lot of my movies are really about the way I wish the world was, and that’s what this whole art form is all about. It’s an interpretive art form.
Q: Do you ride horses?
SS: Yes, that’s why my back is out today. I did ride a little bit in the mid-’80s and I hurt my back, and so I don’t ride anymore. My wife rides. My 15-year-old daughter is a competitive jumper. She goes all around the country competing on horses. We live with horses. We have 12 horses on our property, and so, I was immediately a good candidate to direct “War Horse” because I’ve interacted with horses for a long time now.
Q: You’re very busy as a director and as a producer. What do you like to do in your free time which is not movie related?
SS: Let me put it this way. I’ve had no free time for the last 2-1/2 years so I tell you, what do I like to do? I always like to play with my kids. I always have the time to do that. That’s my priority, always has been, so just interacting with my kids, and being with them is great. That’s how I relax these days. But, in terms of free time, there’s been none. It’s been a crazy 36 months.
“War Horse” opens in theaters on December 25th.