The Filmmakers and their equine charges
As the title “War Horse” implies, horses and the bond we humans have with them are at the heart of Director/Producer Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” Presented by DreamWorks Pictures, “War Horse” depicts the journey of a horse belonging to a farm family, and beloved by their son, that is sold to the British Army at the outbreak of World War I. As he changes hands through the war, the horse affects the lives of all the people who come in contact with him.
Though “War Horse” is set in the World War I time period, it is not a war story. As Producer Kathleen Kennedy explains, “What’s interesting about this story is that you’re watching the horse go through the war but you’re not necessarily watching a war film. It’s not a story that’s designed to take you to the front lines to watch what happens to these animals in war. It’s really a story about how the horse comes into contact with all the aspects of the war and the people who represent all the different sides of the war.”
Horses on set were not new to Director Steven Spielberg, but how he would be working with them on “War Horse” was a completely new experience. “I haven’t made a lot of horse movies. Usually in my movies, and in most people’s movies, like 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,” he says.
“I know that horses 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,” Spielberg continues.
When Spielberg saw what the puppeteers had done so brilliantly on stage with the play “War Horse,” he realized that they weren’t forcing the horse to act like a human—they were simply replicating the behavior of horses that people all know but most of them don’t observe. “The puppeteers didn’t try to anthropomorphize the horses into human form—they just stayed horses, but the puppeteers were brilliantly responsive to how the humans on stage were interacting with the horses,” he explains. “I didn’t know whether I could get that on film or not, but I did. Bobby Lovgren, our kind of horse whisperer who had done ‘Seabiscuit’ with us, came on board to make the picture with us. He and his team performed miracles with the horses.”
Actor Tom Hiddleston, who plays Captain Nicholls, the British army officer who takes possession of the farm horse, Joey, as his personal mount, also came to understand how expressive the horses were. “I’m amazed by the strength of the bond between horses and people. Horses will teach you about who you are much more than you could possibly learn on your own. They can sense fear, arrogance, true confidence, true self-possession and inner peace,” he says.
Jeremy Irvine, who plays Albert, the farm boy who raised Joey, was surprised to learn how human the horses he rode on set could be. “When I started working with the horses on this film, I realized how human they are. They are not like any other animal. They’ve just got these human qualities and it’s just something in us that connects to horses. After you’ve spent a few weeks with them, you start getting very emotional about a horse,” he comments.
Director Steven Spielberg sums up working with the horses on “War Horse”: “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.”
PUTTING THE “HORSE” IN “WAR HORSE”
The search for horses that could bring the required performances to the screen took several avenues yet was very specific. Though most of the horses came from Europe and were warmbloods and Andalusians, Finder, a thoroughbred who belongs to trainer Bobby Lovgren, came from the U.S. Finder was the only specialty horse that had prior experience and film work as a liberty horse, which means he works without restraints. As Bobby Lovgren explains, “Finder was the only horse with experience coming into it, so he was always our fall back if something changed filming-wise or we had to do something different.”
Finding the main equine characters of the film was fairly easy, but finding all of the doubles that were needed proved to be the difficult part. Casting calls really don’t work for animals because the trainers don’t know if the owners are hiding what the horse can or cannot do, so it was easier for the production to get them by word of mouth. “It’s important to know the animal before you go in because you have such a short period of time to prepare the horses for the film,” Lovgren says.
Fourteen horses were required to play the part of Joey, the hero horse, as the story follows him from a foal through his adult life. Basically, a foal, a yearling, an adolescent and an adult were needed as well as doubles that specialized in different tricks or movements.
Trainer Bobby Lovgren admits that working with the foals was the most difficult part of his work on the film. “I would say the biggest challenge to me was the work that we did with the foals, because they are like working with a little child,” Lovgren says.
“They get tired quickly, so you need a number of doubles with them,” he continues. “Luckily for me, I have done quite a few films with foals, having them do specialty things. So, the experience helped me, but they’re not easy to manipulate. They’re so young that you can’t spend as much time training them and getting them ready as you would an adult horse. Number one, they’re just too young mentally. And number two, if you take the time for them to grow up mentally, then they have grown too much physically and are no longer baby foals.”
Many of the scenes with horses in “War Horse” were complex and intense. The trainers had to coax a lot of emotion from the horses—looking happy, looking sad and looking frightened. Bobby Lovgren recalls, “Having the horses get those looks was a difficult thing to pull off. Things that a normal person would see as easy are difficult to us. For example, just having the horse stand alone by himself could be tremendously difficult because horses typically don’t want to just stand still. Horses in movement are always easier than a horse being stationary.”
The production team assembled an equestrian department with all the people needed to care for and train the horses for “War Horse”—from groomers to riders to trainers and even makeup artists to do markings on the horses.
”It’s a huge undertaking and very time consuming in the process of shooting, too, because you have to take into consideration that these are animals that have to be taken care of and they get tired just like other actors,” says Producer Kathleen Kennedy. “We usually had to have backup horses that could step in, just the way you do for actors with stand-ins. We had cavalry charges that needed in excess of one hundred horses.”
Director/Producer Steven Spielberg insisted from the beginning of production that the horses had to be kept safe. He did not want them to experience as much as a scratch. “I didn’t want that sword of Damocles hanging over my head for the rest of my life because I love horses,” he says. “Even though there’s violence in the picture directed toward horses and man, I didn’t want any horses to be in harm’s way.”
In order to ensure the horses’ safety, Spielberg had trainer Bobby Lovgren evaluate the horses’ proposed actions in a particular scene for safety and entrusted him to come up with different ways to approach the scene to put safety first for the horses if need be.
The scenes in war presented particular challenges to the safety of the horses. Lovgren explains how steps were taken to keep the animals safe: “Shooting a scene, I would know the sequence and we would set up the shot with the First A.D. and decide where it would be best shot with the horses in mind. We made sure things were not dangerous. We had the armaments that they used in the First World War and the barbed wire, which we made sure were all fake.”
American Humane Association was also active on set with the presence of their representative Barbara Carr, who was there for every shot involving the horses. Says Spielberg, “I gave Barbara the complete, final cut so to speak, to pull the plug if she felt any of the horses were not up to the challenge or any of the horses were in any way in harm’s way.”
Spielberg gave Carr input on set in the planning of the stunt or the action the horse had to perform and also gave her opportunities to watch rehearsals in slow motion, done one step at a time, so she could determine whether it would be safe for the horse.
In the end, American Humane Association’s Film and TV Unit logged 1,100 hours on “War Horse” sets in England and California and safeguarded more than 100 horses. The production complied with American Humane Association’s “Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media” to ensure the safety of the horses and “War Horse” earned American Humane Association’s highest certification rating, Monitored: Outstanding. “No Animals Were Harmed.”
THE HORSES’ IMPACT ON THE “WAR HORSE” STORY
Horses are integral to the “War Horse” story on many levels. First and foremost is the relationship and the unbreakable bond between the hero horse Joey and Albert, the boy who cared for him on the farm. “I think that bond was always very important and was what attracted us in the beginning to this story, that it is a celebration in a sense,” states Kathleen Kennedy. “It’s the recognition that this relationship can prevail against all odds. That’s what I think is so emotional about the story; that you become so invested in the need to have this reunion between horse and boy.”
For Spielberg, whether the horses were in the hands of the British or the Germans, the important element was the way in which the characters empathized with and connected to the animals. “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,” says Spielberg. “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.”
Adds Kathleen Kennedy, “I think what this story so effectively does is that it shows that there were so many innocent victims. Having an animal that represents this journey is a way to access and understand what the horrors of that war must have been like.”
The filmmakers feel that moviegoers will invest their emotions in the horse, Joey, which allows them to witness the war from a distance. As Kennedy says, “Everybody cares about what happens to that animal. I don’t know why that is, but I think that with this story you feel that people are projecting onto this animal all of their emotional feelings about the horrors of war.”
ABOUT 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” will be released in theaters on December 25, 2011.
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