"I love this lunch set up," Mark Strong says to me. "It actually allows you to talk [to the press] about the little things."
The critically acclaimed thriller finally hits the U.S.
Plus: The scene in the play that had a 'profound' effect on him
NEW YORK - Horses aren't anything new to legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg. No, it's not because of helming the installments of "Indiana Jones" that found Harrison Ford jumping on a horse to save the day or escape chasing Nazis. Instead, it turns out Spielberg's youngest daughter Destry is actually a competitive jumper and their family stable has 8 horses ready to ride. It also means he didn't have to walk far to begin researching his latest film, "War Horse."
"When I realized i was going to commit to direct 'War Horse' I actually went out there and just was photographing them from all angles," Spielberg says. "I spent a lot of time with the iPhone taking photos."
Along with "The Adventures of Tintin," which was released in Europe at the end of October, "War Horse" marks Spielberg's return to the director's chair for the first time in three years. Set during World War I, "War Horse" is based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 young adult novel about Joey, a horse that is raised by a young Englishman, Albert, but sold to a British Officer to serve in the war. As Joey meets different people during his journey through the great war, Albert eventually enlists to try and find his beloved horse and bring him home. The story gained greater notoriety after playwright Nick Stafford adapted "War Horse" for the stage. The show was produced by the U.K.'s National Theater in 2007 and received critical acclaim for its stunning puppetry to bring the horses, including Joey, to life on the stage. Early this year, "War Horse" came to Broadway and in June won five Tony Awards including best play.
Spielberg became interested in bringing "War Horse" to the screen after longtime producing partner Kathleen Kennedy convinced him to see the London stage production. Speaking in New York over the weekend and less than a mile from where "War Horse" rides every night at Lincoln Center (and were the film's world premiere was), Spielberg says he was drawn to the project by Albert and Joey's story, not a chance to depict World War I.
"I also don't consider 'War Horse' to be a war movie," the "Saving Private Ryan" director notes. "It's not one of my war movies. This is more of a real story about the way animals can actually connect people together. And that's what Joey does. Joey's miracles are really in great sense of optimism and hope and all the people he brings this into their lives. This was much more focused I think on the characters. The war was certainly a horrendous backdrop providing tension and drama and the need to survive. But, the war was not in the foreground of 'War Horse.'"
In fact, Spielberg freely admits he didn't know much about World War I and found himself frustrated by his relative ignorance of the bloody and dark conflict. Spielberg says, "My first reaction every time I delve into an episode of history that I don't know very much about is anger that my teachers didn't teach me much about it. 'Why didn't I learn this in school?'"
Spielberg and his producing team were actually invited to go through the private archives of the Imperial War Museum which was an essential education in making the film. Of the visit, Spielberg adds, "I wasn't willing to bring it out in the film, because this wasn't meant to be a history lesson. There is nowhere in the film that says 4 1/2 million horses were killed in the first World War. [But,] it really informed us and gave us some gravitas when we worked with [screenwriter] Richard Curtis."
As you'd expect,the "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually" screenwriter made some essential and necessary changes as "War Horse" went from book to stage to screen. For instance, the novel is written from the horse's point of view which could have been problematic if there was, well, voice over in the movie. That was never an option in Spielberg's view.
"Instantly, the second Joey starts to speak it becomes a horse of a different color," Spielberg says smiling. "It becomes more of a real fable and I think you suspend your disbelief so radically when the horse starts to think out loud that there is no touchstones you can relate to. So, the first decision was not to let Joey think and speak, but just let Joey emote and exist inside these these sequences with these characters."
One of the things Spielberg did do was work with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in broadening the shots and point of view of the camera. The picture has more long shots and vistas than any Spielberg film in recent memory. Many cinephiles may assume Spielberg is using the subject matter to pay homage to such classic American filmmakers as John Ford or Howard Hawkes, but it wasn't foremost in the Oscar winner's mind (even with a final shot that screams "Gone with the Wind").
"The conscious thing I did was I made the land a character in the story," Spielberg says. "And simply by making the land a character and falling back to wide shots more than close ups to let the audience actually make choices about where and when to look, that was the dynamic of most movies that were made in the 1930's and 1940's. Not just by Ford, but by Kurosawa in the '50s, by Howard Hawkes. I mean, directors used what was before them. They celebrated the land and made the land a character and made spaces and environments characters in movies."
Spielberg continues, "I just thought of all the movies I'd made in recent years this offered the opportunity to include the land as a character which is a determining factor as to whether [Albert's] family is going to survive and either keep or lose their farm. And then the land becomes a bloody character as history tells us as occurred on the Somme, that occurred in No Man's Land."
"Empire of the Sun," one of Spielberg's previous war-themed and underrated films (yes, he may not think "Horse" a war film, but it is) marked the screen debut of a young, unknown actor named Christian Bale. For "War Horse," Spielberg wanted to make sure Albert was also played by a first timer. Needless to say, finding the perfect Albert wasn't easy.
"We saw hundreds of possible Alberts. Sometimes you see someone early and you say, 'Top this.' We didn't meet Jeremy Irvine until mid way through the process," Spielberg reveals. "Halfway through the process Jeremy came in. Totally untested and -- all I look for is honesty. Jeremy was the most real kid we saw."
But for many people, especially in the U.K., their first experience with "War Horse" will be the play. Spielberg has put in some nice nods to the play including a testy goose on Albert's family farm, but the film is a significantly different beast. Still, I asked Spielberg if he found any broader inspiration from the stage production for the movie.
"One of the catharses for me in also helping me tell the story to audiences in the film was something that was sort of hinted at in the play," Spielberg says. "There is a little moment when the Brit and the German are able to help Joey who is trapped in barbwire. It was a lovely moment in the play. A very fleeting moment in the play, but it made a profound impact on me. And that was a moment that Richard and I decided to expand and to go deeper with. That was something the play certainly inspired. But also, the great thing about theater is there are just some illusions that you can only create on the boards that you can never create on film now matter how many digital tools are at your disposal and that was the amazing moment in the play when the little Joey becomes the adult Joey. That incredible piece of visual theatricality and that you can never do in the film."
[For more on "War Horse" check out select clips from the film related to within this post. ]
"War Horse" opens nationwide on Christmas day.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.com.
Epic debuts only yards away from Tony winning Broadway play
NEW YORK - The world premiere of Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" took place Sunday night at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center and a slew of notable New Yorkers came out to screen the potential best picture player. Besides Spielberg himself, other industry faces included Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross, Joel Coen, Stephen Daldry (who has his own awards season player waiting in the wings), best actress contender Elizabeth Olsen, "Shame" director Steve McQueen, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, Brian Cox, Billy Connolly, Ed Westwick, Stephen Lang, Eriq La Salle, Phylicia Rashad and um, Kathie Lee Gifford among others.
'Shame' has a spectacular limited debut
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Pt. 1" pulled off a rare feat this year retaining the top spot at the box office for a third straight weekend. With $16.9 million and $247.5 million to date domestic and over $550 million worldwide, the fourth installment of Stephenie Meyers' vampire saga has given Summit Entertainment an early if not expected Christmas present. The picture also is a rare three-weekend topper this calendar year joining "The Help" (four weekends) and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (three) in that regard.
Before Friday many industry observers thought Disney's "The Muppets" could use strong word of mouth to overtake "Breaking Dawn" for the top spot. Not only did that not occur, the Jason Segel passion project didn't even come close with just another $11.2 million and a troubling 62% drop. With just $56.4 million so far its unlikely the "Muppets" will hit the $100 million mark.
"Hugo," which upped its theater count to 1,840 locations this weekend, grossed $7.6 million. The National Board of Review winner for best picture pulled has now grossed $25.1 million to date. Paramount Pictures and GK Films will continue to hope awards season recognition can fuel Martin Scorsese's latest critical wonder.
Another film showing true word of mouth appears to be "Arthur Christmas." The Sony Animation and Aardman collaboration dropped only 39% for another $7.5 million and $25.2 million so far. The Santa Claus themed animated comedy will still need international to make up most of its $100 million plus budget, but the hold is certainly a nice silver lining for the filmmakers.
Rounding out the top five was "Happy Feet Two" with $6 million and $51.7 million to date. Warner Bros. can take solace that "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" looks like it will have a monster opening in two weeks.
"Shame" debuted in 10 theaters with a spectacular $361,181 or $36,118 per screen. It's even more impressive when taking the film's NC-17 rating into account. Fox Searchlight will hope that continued critical acclaim and awards season attention fuels interest in Steve McQueen's breakout.
Another impressive limited player is "The Artist." After winning the NYFCC award for best picture, The Weinstein Company release didn't drop after adding 2 screens for another $205,580 and a $34,263 per screen.
"The Descendants" continued its strong limited run as well jumping to 574 theaters and another $5.2 million. Searchlight's premier best picture player has now grossed an impressive $18 million to date.
Next weekend's wide releases include "New Year's Eve" and "The Sitter."
Box office actuals are released on Monday.
Colin Firth wins best actor for 'The King's Speech'
The 24th Annual European Film Awards were announced during a ceremony in Berlin Saturday night and Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" dominated the show winning three awards including European Film (best film), European Cinematographer (Manuel Alberto Claro) and European Production Designer (Jette Lehmann).
Unlike the BAFTAs which feature a cross section of Academy and U.S. guild members, the European Film Awards have little connection or relevance to the U.S. awards season. 2,400 members vote on the awards and the last three European Film Award winners included "The Ghost Writer," "The White Ribbon" and "Gmorrah." The latter wasn't even nominated for foreign language film and "White Ribbon" lost that category. Polanski's excellent "Ghost Writer " was completely overlooked by the Academy. The organization also has a strange calendar year which found "The King's Speech" eligible for this year's slate of awards. That lead to Colin Firth winning the European Actor award this year for the flick.
Plus: The freedom of a Mendes 007 movie and reuniting with Ralph Fiennes
You've heard it time and time again this season like a constant drumbeat banging in your ear: "It's the year of Michael Fassbender." Or, "It's the year of Jessica Chastain." Or, even "It's the year of Melissa McCarthy." Well, how about the year of John Logan?
'Coriolanus' helmer talks Shakespeare, Jessica Chastain and more
It may seem like a lost opportunity to some, but when sitting down with Ralph Fiennes last month the last thing I wanted to discuss was his role as Voldemort in the "Harry Potter" films or what he'd bring to the "Clash of the Titans" sequel, "Wrath of the Titans," next year (That said, I couldn't resist trying to ask about his role in the new James Bond film "Skyfall," shooting next month, but he smiled and said he couldn't say anything). No matter, the subject this day was Fiennes' impressive directorial debut, "Coriolanus."
Tilda Swinton surprises as best actress
The National Board of Review announced their 2011 year-end winners today and provided a number of surprises.
Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" won both best film and best director besting other contenders including the NYFCC winner "The Artist," Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia."
Presumptive best actor frontrunner George Clooney won best actor while Tilda Swinton shocked to win best actress for her riveting work in "We Need To Talk About Kevin." Christopher Plummer picked up yet another best supporting actor win for "Beginners" and Shailene Woodley finally found love for her work in "The Descendants" in the best supporting actress category.
The NBR spread the wealth to other films including "50/50" (best screenplay), "Like Crazy" (Felicity Jones, Breakthrough Performance), "Rango" (best animated feature), "The Help" (best ensemble), "Margin Call" (debut director) and "A Separation" (best foreign language film.
A full list of this year's winners as well as the organization's top ten picks are as follows as well as come quick commentary in how this relates to the long-term Oscar race from this pundit.
Warren Beatty, Helena Bonham Carter, David Yates and John Lasseter also honored
No joke, the 2011 Britannia Awards have given movie fans and television viewers a reason to actually watch the TV Guide Network. Taped at the Beverly Hilton Wednesday evening, BAFTA Los Angeles' biggest night honored Pixar guru John Lasseter, Helena Bonham Carter, director David Yates, Ben Stiller and the iconic Warren Beatty. Alan Cumming hosted, stepping in for Stephen Fry who had MC'd the last few BAFTA's to critical acclaim (no pressure). Besides the honorees, the evening had lots of famous faces in the room including Morgan Freeman, Piers Morgan, Anton Yelchin, Robin Williams to name a few, but the show makes TV Guide Network must watch (or must DVR) television for the great acceptance speeches by Carter and Stiller as well as some fantastic introductions by Jason Issacs (for Yates), Williams (Lasseter), Robert Downey, Jr. (Stiller), Oliver Platt (Beatty) and Barry Levinson (also Beatty).
An epic interview in only 6 minutes
If two actors have dominated the cinematic media hype machine this year it's clearly been Jessica Chastain and Michael Fassbender.