Steven Spielberg spent weeks slogging through the mud of the rainy English countryside to make the battlefield drama “War Horse.”
Updated: January 19, 2012 10:37AM
Think for a moment about watching “E.T.” Perhaps you’re curled up on the couch with a blanket and a few kids on the left and the dog on the right watching the little wrinkled visitor try to get a ticket home.
It’s the same thing at Steven Spielberg’s house.
“I won’t watch any of my movies on TV except ‘E.T.,’ ” says its director.
“I’ve actually made it my mission to watch ‘E.T.’ with all my kids at different stages of their growth and when they’re ready,” says the proud father of both those humans in his den and the alien on the screen.
“I won’t watch my movies again without a reason,” Spielberg says. “But with ‘E.T.,’ it’s just so special. Each time I see it with a different child, I see a different movie.”
At age 65, the man who directed “Schindler’s List,” “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” clearly is still in love with making movies and also getting them to the multiplex. He has two hotly awaited films during this holiday season: “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin.”
“War Horse” (opening Friday) is based on a Tony-winning play, which gave Spielberg pause. He wasn’t sure if its impact on stage could be translated to the big screen.
“There is an amazing transition that Joey, the horse, makes from yearling to adult animal in the theater. I’ll never forget seeing the play in London and crying during that part of it.”
He sees parallels in its story with today’s tough economic times.
“At the core, this was a story about a family of farmers who are just trying to survive. They needed a plow horse to work the land to pay their landlord the rent. The father, who gets drunk quite often, just buys the wrong horse.
“Instead of a plow horse, he buys this elegant, warm blooded, wonderful creature named Joey,” he says. “His son Albert [Jeremy Irvine] trains that horse to plow the field, but more importantly it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Albert and Joey.”
World War I is the catalyst for major life changes.
“The British cavalry comes looking for mounts, and the father sells the horse. The boy realizes much too late and vows to follow the horse, who is taken to fight,” Spielberg previews.
The director says he isn’t much of a horseman but admires the creatures from a distance.
“I live on a property with my kids, my wife and 10 horses. My wife rides and so does my daughter. When I look back, I realize I’ve lived with horses for 15 years.
“I wake up in the morning and open the front door and see horses. I hear and smell them all day long — and I like it,” he says with a laugh. “So, I guess I have an affinity in that sense. I realize that they are noble creatures.”
The two special horses who played Joey were called on to emote like the De Niro of the stables.
“I found one particular horse who when he looks at you, it’s like he knows you. You can look into this horse’s eye and you know he’s feeling your heartbeat. You know he’s there for you.
“That’s not just the undercurrent of this story, but how special it was to work with some of these horses.”
The main horse seemed to listen to actors and respond, to Spielberg’s amazement. “I was astonished by the intelligence and sensitivity I saw from the animals,” he marvels. “It was almost otherworldly. I truly believe horses come from the same place as whales and dolphins.”
A veteran of shooting battlefield films including “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg says World War I scenes pose their own challenges.
“We also shot for months on the English countryside, where it never stopped raining,” he laments. “This was a war fought in the trenches, so we built those same trenches and they were really muddy. It was me, the cast, the crew and the horses slogging around in that muck for weeks on end, which is something that I will never forget.”
As if one major war film wasn’t enough of a challenge, Spielberg also directed “The Adventures of Tintin” (opening Wednesday), a project that teamed him up with producing partner and friend Peter Jackson (of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy).
“I’ve only had two creative partnerships like this, and the first was with George [Lucas], my great friend, and now Peter.
“Peter and I loved this story because it’s such a great, high-spirited adventure. And because it’s animation, there’s nothing we can’t put on the screen,” Spielberg says. “It’s also a great buddy picture. It’s my first buddy picture since ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ ”
They bring to life the comic-book series by Belgium artist Herge about a young reporter named Tintin and his dog, Snowy, two beings who are ripe for some globe-trotting adventures.
“I’ve been trying to make ‘Tintin’ since 1983,” says Spielberg, who optioned Herge’s work in the ’80s.
“For one reason or another, the time wasn’t right to make the film, and this also had to do with the technology catching up,” Spielberg says.
Spielberg produced some of 2010’s biggest hits including “Super 8,” “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” and “Real Steel.” Now he’s shooting a movie about the life of Abraham Lincoln, starring Daniel-Day-Lewis.
“I’m so excited to work with one of the greatest actors of our time,” Spielberg says. “He wouldn’t say ‘yes’ for years. He even turned me down seven years ago when I asked him to play Lincoln. I think he was intimidated. You think about playing Lincoln, and it’s true that he was too great a man.
“So, Daniel said now, but I kept on going back to him. Then Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay and Daniel had never read his script. When he did read it, he understood the man.”
The film won’t shoot at all in Illinois. “I’m shooting in Virginia because the movie is about his later years. This is the story of his presidency and the last year of his life.”
Spielberg’s rule of choosing projects hasn’t changed since he was a young boy shooting 8mm. films in his backyard.
“I just want to feel something when I see a movie. I want to take something out of the experience that I can tell my family about and then see it again with them,” he says.
“I want something that moves me. It can move me to tears or make me take action. I just want something to happen. And I need a movie to make me ignore how long I’ve been in that chair in the dark.”
He doesn’t let the expectations of an upcoming Spielberg movie wig him out. And there are a lot of projects on the horizon, including the next “Men in Black,” which he’s producing.
“I want to do another ‘Jurassic Park,’” he adds, “but in a new way. I think we’ve found a great way of telling a new story.”
As for another Indiana Jones adventure, he says, “Another Indy movie is up to George Lucas. If George writes a story that Harrison Ford and I love then we’ll be in. George is always in control of the concept, script and story with Indiana Jones. And he hasn’t quite come up with a story. When he does, we’re there with him.”
Even after all his successes, Spielberg worries. A lot.
“I think your nerves keep you human,” he says. “And for those who think I ever rest on any laurels, let me make it clear that I sweat much more making a movie than I ever do on that treadmill I keep in another room.”
He loves when his nerves are jumping.
“I don’t want to examine why too much, but the excitement of making movies never goes away. It redefines itself, but it never gets old or worn. It’s always just as intoxicating.
“I’d go shoot a film this morning if I could,” Spielberg mentions. “Give me a camera and an actor and I’m directing.”
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