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If you happened to head to the local multiplex on Sunday there's a good chance the movie you ended up seeing was "War Horse." Before the holiday, Steven Spielberg's 2 hour and 26 minute epic was projected to have a good, but not great debut. Instead, "War Horse" burst onto the scene with $7.5 million in just 2,600 theaters, almost double what pre-release polling indicated. And, its per-screen average was barely behind that of "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" which played in over 1,000 more theaters and had the added benefit of higher IMAX ticket prices. DreamWorks and Disney kept Monday's estimate much more conservative than its competitors, but a $15 million plus cume over two days is a stellar launch for the Oscar player.
Many Oscar observers, including myself, will be watching "War Horse's" grosses over the coming days. If it plays to good word of mouth through the New Year's holiday, not only could DreamWorks have its second major hit this year after "The Help," but a rejuvenated Academy Awards player. But we'll revisit that conversation a week from now. In the meantime, those of you who have seen the picture may appreciate some behind the scenes revelations from an ensemble that hasn't quite gotten the respect from critics it deserves. And if you haven't, perhaps these interviews will entice you to take the time.
Late last month before the film's world premiere, I spoke to newcomer Jeremy Irvine (Albert), Emily Watson (Albert's mother Rose), Tom Hiddleston (Loki, er, Captain Nichols), Patrick Kennedy (Nichols' fellow officer Lt. Waverly) and Toby Kebbell (a soldier who ends up rescuing the film's hero, Joey). As you'd expect, they were all thrilled and grateful to have worked with a living legend such as Spielberg.
First up, Watson talks about the surprisingly "experimental" way Spielberg directs at times and Irvine admits it was "daunting" working with the Oscar winner on his first film. Irvine says he has a "wonderful way of making you feel very, very comfortable when you work with him. He was basically my teacher as well as director. To have him there guiding me through the process was amazing."
Albert has a special bond with Joey - the "War Horse" - and Spielberg and the producers made sure he was comfortable around the numerous Joey stand-ins before filming.
"I had the wonderful experience of working with the horses before shooting and I said to myself, skeptically, 'There's no way I'm going to get attached to these horses' and within a week I think I was completely besotted," Irvine admits. "You can't help it. They are so human in a way with their emotions and the fact they trust you to get on their back and ride them even though this is a huge powerful animal and yet it lets you be incredibly close and intimate with you is amazing."
You can see my entire interview with Watson and Irvine embedded here.
For Toby Kebbell, best known for his role in Guy Ritchie's "RocknRolla," his scenes mostly found him in the amazing recreation of WW I trenches by production designer Rick Carter. The build was so expansive Kebbell says he could walk through the trenches without seeing a sign that it was actually a real live movie set.
More intriguing, Tom Hiddleston and Patrick Kennedy revealed that a 17-year-old girl taught them how to horseback ride for the picture (well, perhaps she gave them a refresher). They also marveled at the Spanish groomsman from Madrid who are the "horse whisperers" of European film sets and added "War Horse" to their impressive resume. According to Hiddleston, these horsemen are masters of managing horses and have worked on pictures such as "Alexander," "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," "Gladiator,""Robin Hood" and the upcoming "Snow White and the Huntsman." He calls them "unsung heroes" and that he felt they almost have a spiritual bond with the animals.
You can watch my entire chat with Hiddleston, Kebbell and Kennedy embedded here.
For Spielberg's thoughts on "War Horse" check out his comments from the film's New York press day here.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.