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'War Horse': The Making of Steven Spielberg's WWI Epic

On the Set, In the Mud
Andrew Cooper/DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC

Freezing weather, 5,800 extras and 300 horses were among the challenges handled by the director during the film's 63-day shoot.

This article appears in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In October 2010, Steven Spielberg fell in a hole. "I was walking in a trench with my viewfinder and the crew following me, and all of a sudden I disappeared," recalls the director of the time when he was shooting War Horse just outside London. "It was a hole dug for explosive charges, and a storm had washed away the warning cones and filled it up. I was totally under ice water. I threw my hands over my head, and two big grips pulled me out."

Now, 13 months after wrapping his World War I epic, Spielberg can laugh about "the murder hole." But that was only one of the challenges involved in bringing his movie to the screen, along with fighting freezing weather, dealing with an army of 5,800 extras and about 300 horses, and turning to filmmaker Peter Jackson for crucial wartime artifacts from his private collection -- all within a 63-day shoot and with an exceptionally tight $70 million budget ($65 million after tax breaks).

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Spielberg first heard about War Horse in the summer of 2009. That's when his longtime producer Kathleen Kennedy mentioned the West End adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel, which centers on a British horse named Joey that we follow from birth through four years of war. During that time, he is enlisted by the army, captured by Germans and hidden by French farmers, all while being trailed by Albert, the young Englishman who raised him.

When Kennedy spoke of the project, Spielberg was on the scoring stage for The Adventures of Tintin. Having finished 31 days of motion-capture work, he was in a yearlong holding pattern until animation was completed and he could return to the film.

To his surprise, he discovered that the book's movie rights had not been optioned, so Kennedy flew to England, where she had breakfast with Morpurgo, then hired Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall to craft an initial draft.

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"What was irresistible for me had nothing to do with global war," says Spielberg. "It was how Joey linked disparate characters together and the length to which Albert went to find him."

After working briefly with Hall, Spielberg moved on to a second writer, Four Weddings and a Funeral's Richard Curtis, in an attempt to bring the screenplay closer to the book.

Curtis was nervous: He'd met Spielberg only once before, at France's César Awards in 1995, when the presenter declared Spielberg's Schindler's List a masterpiece and said, "If any other film wins, it will be a disgrace to the honor of France" -- only for Four Weddings to pick up the best foreign film trophy.

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But Spielberg was more interested in the new picture, and he was clear it should focus on the horse -- like the novel, the movie was to be told from the horse's point of view -- rather than intercutting that story with the boy's.

Curtis became convinced this would work when he read the book aloud to his 14-year-old daughter while she was in bed, awaiting an operation.

"I found it hard to read the last 10 pages to her because they were so emotional," he recalls, declining to say more about the operation. "I thought immediately, 'If it works in the book, we can do it in the film.' "

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Now he moved fast, whipping through more than a dozen drafts in three months while conducting two-hour telephone conversations with Spielberg. On one occasion, he had to hide in a hospital medicine cabinet while discussing the script, "surrounded by syringes and pills, because I couldn't talk in my daughter's room."

As he wrote, a research team plowed through troves of artifacts at England's Imperial War Museum, frequently copying photos that would be used to stage scenes.

Spielberg was fascinated by their discoveries. "I was not prepared for how many millions of horses perished during the Great War -- it was over 4 million," he says. "And it wasn't all in close combat; a lot was just through malnutrition and mistreatment. But don't forget that the Humane Society was born out of the First World War, and it was a huge turning point in technological warfare that supplanted the horse once and forever."

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In addition to the material his researchers found, Spielberg drew on an unexpected source: his Tintin producer Jackson, who collects war memorabilia.

"He's even got about 15 working biplanes, which we didn't need," marvels Spielberg. "He sent about three cargo containers to the U.K., free of charge. He pretty much lent me his entire World War I collection."

As all of that fell into place, a critical matter loomed: finding the right actor to play Albert, who ages from 15 to 21. "I looked for months and months," says Spielberg. "I was running out of hope, then Jeremy Irvine came in toward the last third of the casting process."

There was one snag: The 20-year-old Irvine's most extensive acting experience had been playing a tree in the chorus of the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I had a couple of months of going in to audition two or three times a week, sometimes doing videotape and knowing it would be shown to Steven," he says. "It was quite intense."

Weeks after his first audition, adds Irvine: "I got a call at about 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., saying, 'Can you meet Steven for tea in a hotel in London tomorrow morning?' I did what any actor would do: I freaked out."

He won the role regardless, and shooting commenced Aug. 6, 2010, in Dartmoor, in the south of England.

Production designer Rick Carter had searched for British locations that would be convincing, such as the bucolic farm where Joey's story begins and the no-man's-land where the war is fought. A crew of 750 worked ferociously so each location would be ready when filming took place.

Operations revolved around seven locales, ranging from the untamed moors of Dartmoor to a derelict airfield in Surrey, England (where land could be dug up to look like a battlefield) to the Duke of Wellington's storied estate west of London. Each had its share of difficulties.

In Dartmoor, a nature preserve, the land couldn't be touched. "We had to put down netting and bring the dirt in and plant what looked like rocks and dig into that," says Carter.

The appalling weather created some "nail-biting situations," he adds. Right before the shoot, a terrific storm blew away part of a thatched roof on Albert's farmhouse -- in actuality, made of Styrofoam. "We had to have a crew repaint it every day because it was falling apart," Carter notes.

For one shot, in which men and horses emerge like ghosts from a field of reeds, the plants were moved from another part of the country and set in place individually. "There was a marsh somewhere in the south of London still in bloom; we went there and paid a farmer to cut his whole field down, then we put the reeds in Styrofoam."

Even the 250 yards of trenches Carter dug, which might seem a simple task but involved laying down an infrastructure to keep them in place and allow tracking shots, required six weeks of preparation alone. "It was like a construction site, with 20 Caterpillars running around," he says.

Creating clothing for the men who would inhabit those locations was no easier.

"[Costume supervisor] Dave Crossman would trawl through eBay, seeing what we could get -- the hardware and the insignias," says costume designer Joanna Johnston, a longtime Spielberg collaborator.

Beyond the beauty of the uniforms, she was surprised at the real-life parallels she discovered with the movie. "The great-grandfather of a girl who worked with us was a milkman whose horse was taken during the war -- and amazingly, the horse made it back," she says.

As far as the present horses were concerned, Kennedy brought one huge advantage: Having produced 2003's Seabiscuit, she knew the ins and outs of working with equines.

"That was one of the biggest departments on the film, with 200 to 300 people," she says of the animal unit. "You'd sometimes have as many as 180 to 280 horses in a scene. You'd have groomers and drivers to haul the horses and the feed, people to set up portable barns, vets and everyone else who handled the tack and the horses' makeup."

Fourteen horses in all played Joey, the most prominent being one named Finder, which had starred in Seabiscuit. "We had bought horses for Seabiscuit, then we sold them -- and Bobby Lovgren, our lead trainer, bought Finder," says Kennedy. "He turned out to be one of the best horses Bobby had ever worked with, so he brought Finder with him to England."

Except for one notable shot in which the horse stumbles and falls into a trench, most of the work was done without CGI effects. That added pressure to the shoot, as did the ever-changing British weather.

"It was unbelievably rainy and cold," says Kennedy. "Even when you had your wellies on, sometimes you'd just take a step and one would be left stuck in the mud. It was freezing and raining, but then there would be these amazing skies and the whole crew would stop and gaze out at the landscape because it was so beautiful."

Moments like these vanished during the hardest part of filming, when the trench warfare took place.

"As soon as your big woolen uniform gets wet, the weight is unbelievable," says Irvine, "and you'd be running across no-man's-land, right through the mud and dirt. There were sequences where explosions would take place next to me and three or four stuntmen would fly through the air -- and then there'd be other scenes where you're just soaking wet. I got trench foot [a medical condition contracted through lengthy contact with dampness]. The soldiers used to get it all the time. And then there were the rats."

Several dozen rodents were released into the trenches with the actors, much to their horror. But the rats were even more of a nightmare for the producers. "When you put mud on a rat, it immediately starts to clean itself. We could never keep them covered in mud," says Kennedy with a laugh.

Shooting wrapped Oct. 27, 2010, following five days of studio work. Audiences will see the finished movie when Disney releases it domestically on Christmas Day through its distribution pact with DreamWorks, which financed the film through its partnership with Reliance Entertainment. (The picture unfurls internationally starting Dec. 26 in Australia.) The U.S. opening comes four days after the Dec. 21 North American release of Tintin, which already has proved an international blockbuster.

In some ways, War Horse is more important for DreamWorks -- Tintin, a joint venture between Sony and Paramount, wasn't financed by the company. The former's success is critical for the studio, which has had some recent disappointments along with one megahit, The Help.

Spielberg says he'll cherish the memories of making the film -- the tenderness of working with the horses, the miracle of the sunsets and the chance to bring history to life -- despite all the obstacles he encountered.

"The thing about filming is, [almost] everything goes wrong," he says. "It's using the parts that go right in the finished film that counts."