According to "War Horse" director Steven Spielberg, "Four million horses were killed in World War I and not just from shelling or gunfire, but from malnutrition and exposure." Spielberg depicts that brutal reality in his new film, but despite the harrowing situations they face, the equine heroes of Spielberg's latest epic were not harmed in any way making the movie. Extra care was taken in a climactic sequence in which a horse is caught up in barbed wire in No Man's Land. "It took much longer to shoot that scene because we had to make sure every single shot was safe for the horse." The barbed wire was actually "Styrofoam rubber painted silver," he adds.
American Humane Society representative Barbara Carr was on set throughout and "had the power to pull the plug if she ever felt any of the horses were not up to the challenges or if she thought they could be injured in any way," says the director, who employed trainer Bobby Lovgren ("Seabiscuit") to assemble a crew of trainers, groomers, handlers, a vet and makeup artists that made the 14 horses that played the lead horse Joey look the same, with white "socks" and forehead markings. Lovgren's own horse, Finder, was one of two that did the most serious acting; others were trained for specific tasks.
A hundred horses were needed for a cavalry charge, many belonging to the riders who played the soldiers "so the horses would obey their commands," says Spielberg, who had special effects supervisor Neil Courbould build several full-sized animatronic horses to use in close-ups of the actors. He'd been enthralled by both Michael Morpugo's novel and the stage version of "War Horse" that he'd seen in London, and was familiar with horses because his wife and daughter both ride. "I know how smart horses are. I probably would have been the wrong director for the film had I not lived with horses," he believes.
Spielberg tapped longtime collaborators composer John Williams, with whom he's worked for nearly 40 years, and DP Janusz Kaminski, his cinematographer since "Schindler's List," to join him in England on the four-month shoot, but wanted an unknown to play the central role of Albert and found him in British newcomer Jeremy Irvine, who'd never acted in a movie before. "I was struggling as an actor for a long time in London," says Irvine, who'd most recently been a glorified extra with the Royal Shakespeare Company and never thought he'd get the part. "It was a huge risk for them. For all [Spielberg] knew I was going to get in front of the camera and freeze up. It was a long [casting] process, as it should be," says Irvine, who'd also had no previous experience with horses.
"I'd never been on a horse so a big part of it was learning how to be with them. I never thought I'd have such an emotional bond with them," he reflects. "I learned to ride but that pales in significance to the fact that I'd never acted in front of a camera before and that was a big challenge for me. We didn't have a rehearsal, which I'm used to on stage. Steven wanted it to be spontaneous. That's kind of stressful, particularly for someone who's used to three months of rehearsal." Irvine also acknowledges the pressure that comes with a leading role in a film "especially since this is such an established story, established role, and to do it justice," but credits Spielberg with easing that burden. "Steven makes it so easy. He makes you feel really comfortable on set. He doesn't have DIRECTOR on the back of his chair. He has DAD. You think of him as the master of his craft, this living legend. But he was just very kind and approachable."
Irvine believes that the theme of emotional connection in "War Horse" is something everyone can relate to. "We all have that childhood friend, be it an animal, a best friend, a brother or sister, and we can all imagine what it's like to have that taken away from us. For Albert, Joey is like a brother, a best friend, and the stakes need to be high in order to justify him risking his life to get this horse back."
"War Horse" is proving to be quite the career launcher for Irvine. Having recently completed "Now is Good" with Dakota Fanning, he is shooting a film adaptation of Dickens' "Great Expectations" with Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter (he plays Pip), and next plays the young version of Colin Firth's character in "Railway Man," about a British soldier captured by the Japanese during World War II and forced to work on the Burma Railway.
As for Spielberg, he has two films in theaters this month, having directed the motion-capture-animation adventure "The Adventures of Tintin," opening Dec. 21, four days before "War Horse" hits screens. He's also executive-producing NBC's new musical drama "Smash," premiering Feb. 6.