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  • Talk: Steven Spielberg
  • Ralf Würth
Talk: Steven Spielberg

”I have the same excitement making movies today that I had as a boy, making 8-millimeter films in the 1960s,” Steven Spielberg says. ”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,” he says. ”Give me a camera and an actor, and I’m directing.”

It’s early on a Sunday morning, and Spielberg is calling from home – his children and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, can be heard in the background – to talk about his latest film. Make that two films, actually, because at 65, an age when most men are easing into retirement, the Oscar-winning director has two pictures in the multiplexes this holiday season: the animated ”The Adventures of Tintin,” opening on Dec. 23, and the World War I drama ”War Horse,” due two days later. Needless to say, expectations are sky-high for both films, as you’d expect from the man whose filmography includes such classics as ”Jaws’’ (1975), ”Raiders of the Lost Ark’’ (1981), ”E.T.: The Extraterrestrial’’ (1983), ”Jurassic Park’’ (1993), ”Schindler’s List’’ (1993) and ”Saving Private Ryan’’ (1997). With a track record like that, Spielberg should be confident, even complacent, but he claims to be worried.

”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.” It might seem that ”The Adventures of Tintin,” based on the classic Belgian comic book by Herge, would be the more challenging of the two projects. However, ”War Horse’’ also offered some unique obstacles, starting with its source material: It’s based on a boldly conceptualized play, a hit both in London and on Broadway, in which the horses are represented by puppets. The play’s  emotional power earned it a Tony Award, but translating its unique appeal to the big screen was no slam dunk. ”There is an amazing transition that Joey the horse makes from yearling to adult animal in the theater,” the filmmaker says. ”I’ll never forget seeing the play in London and crying during that part of it.” On the screen, of course, Joey is played by a series of actual horses – but to Spielberg that was almost beside the point. ”It was the story that interested me the most,” he says. ”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. ”His son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), trains that horse to plow the field – but, more important, it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Albert and Joey.”

What initially feels like a heartwarming family drama turns dark with the coming of World War I. ”The British cavalry comes looking for mounts,” Spielberg says, ”and the father sells the horse. The boy realizes much too late and vows to follow the horse, who is taken to fight.” A child of the suburbs, Spielberg admits that he didn’t himself grow up with any special bond with horses. Nonetheless, he’s learned to appreciate them. ”I live on a property with my kids, my wife and 10 horses,” he says with a laugh. ”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! ”So I guess I have an affinity in that sense,” Spielberg says. ”I realize that they are noble creatures.” As you’d expect from the man who directed the harrowing recreations of World War II in ”Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg spared no expense in recreating the feel of World War I, no matter how tough it was on his cast and crew. ”The issue is that a World War I film requires you to build a trench system, which is how that war was conducted,” he says. ”We also shot for months on the English countryside, where it never stopped raining. So those same trenches 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.” He’s quick to add that, while the human actors had some tricky stunts in the battle scenes, the horses were never endangered. ”We had horse experts everywhere,” Spielberg says, ”and the Humane Society was there every single day. The horses were treated well during the action scenes. We had guides to help the horses be safe even when, in the movie, the audience will certainly think that the horses were not safe. They gave every moment their seal of approval.”

Spielberg has directed everybody from Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn to Tom Hanks and Dakota Fanning … but how can even he direct a horse? ”I couldn’t believe how the main horse playing Joey would actually listen to an actor during a scene … and respond,” Spielberg says. ”I was astonished by the intelligence and sensitivity I saw from the animals. It was almost otherworldly. ”I truly believe horses come from the same place as whales and dolphins.” The long-aborning ”The Adventures of Tintin,” which narrates the adventures of a young, globe-trotting reporter named Tintin (voice of Jamie Bell) and his dog, Snowy, took two master filmmakers to finally bring to the screen: Spielberg and his longtime producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy, were joined on the project by Peter Jackson, one of the world’s leading innovators in CGI since producing and directing ”The Lord of the Rings’’ (2001-2003). ”I’ve been trying to make ‘Tintin’ since 1983,” says Spielberg, who first optioned Herge’s work in the 1980s. ”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. What delights me is that, after all of these years, I got to make ‘Tintin’ with my friend Peter Jackson. ”The movie is 100-percent animated,” says Spielberg, who never had directed an animated film before, ”so it took years to put together. I can’t even believe that I was able to make ‘War Horse’ in the middle of working on ‘Tintin.’

”But it’s always a good thing for me to work on one film while contemplating another one,” he adds. ”I get great clarity on both films when I put one aside for the moment and focus on the other. The most important thing a filmmaker wants to keep is his objectivity. As a lot, we have a tough time seeing the forest from the trees. When I’m working on more than one film, it gives me great clarity.” His most renowned double header came in 1993, when he released not only the Oscar winner as Best Picture, ”Schindler’s List,” but also the box-office champion, ”Jurassic Park.” ”It was a case of I’d shoot ‘Schindler’s List’ in Poland all day long and focus only on that dark, horrendous time in history,” Spielberg recalls. ”Then at night I’d look at my dinosaur shots, which were sent via this big satellite dish from (the special-effects house Industrial Light and Magic) to the dish in my backyard in Poland. I was approving what the dinosaurs would eventually look like and then shifting back to the camps. ”It was almost painful, but I couldn’t do anything but handle both films, because they were both my responsibility.” Spielberg is one of the few people in Hollywood who can make pretty much any film he chooses to, but he says that he has no rules for picking projects. ”I don’t pick the project,” he says simply. ”The project has and will always pick me. I’m the chosen one by the work.”

Unlike many filmmakers, who claim to make pictures only for themselves, Spielberg says that he is acutely conscious of the audience he has built through more than 35 years as a director. ”I hope my audience not only continues to trust me, but will always know more than I do,” he says. ”If they really knew me, they would see someone who always struggles with doubt. ”I think doubt is what keeps me making movies,” Spielberg says. ”It keeps me sweating – and I sweat everything. There is nothing I don’t sweat when it comes to making a movie. I sweat the script, I sweat the cut, I sweat the box-office reception.” So, with two movies coming out at once … ”There is an ocean of sweat,” Spielberg says, chuckling.

It’s not enough to scare him off moviemaking, of course. Spielberg has his usual assortment of major films in the works. As a producer he’s keeping an eye on ”Men in Black III’’ and ”Jurassic Park IV,” among others. ”I’m producing another ‘Jurassic Park,’” he says, ”but I won’t direct it. I want to do it in a new way, and I think we’ve found a great way of telling a great new story.”

He will be directing ”Lincoln,” with Daniel Day-Lewis starring as the iconic president and Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner contributing the screenplay. Also maybe in the works – maybe – is a follow-up to the smash hit ”Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’’ (2008). ”Another Indy movie is up to George Lucas,” Spielberg says. ”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.”

  • Ralf Würth