Following Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg takes on WW1 with War Horse. Paul Byrne joins him in the trenches.

It’s not easy being Steven Spielberg. Just ask Steven Spielberg.

“Well, I’ve gotten pretty used to it by now,” smiles the 65-year old filmmaking legend. “And, you know, most days it’s an absolute blast being Steven Spielberg.

“Just like anyone else though, there’s a little rain every now and then, a day that doesn’t quite make you jump for joy. You need those days too though, to help you appreciate all the good ones.”

For Steven Spielberg, one of those rare blast-free days might just be January 24th, when the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will be announcing this year’s Oscar nominations.

As is so very often case, Spielberg has two movies up for consideration – one for the money, the second to show that, hey, the King of the Multiplex can be a serious filmmaker too.

Only trouble is, neither The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn (the fun one) nor War Horse (the serious one) has quite hit the mark. The reviews in each case have been mixed.

Ditto the box-office. Despite the fact that both have turned a profit, these are Spielberg movies, and the expectation for a Spielberg movie isn’t just turning a profit, it’s breaking box-office records. Tapping into the zeitgeist. And making cinema-goers weep.

Spielberg himself wept at the National Theatre production of War Horse at the New London Theatre back on February 1st, 2010, deciding there and then that he was going to bring this 1982 Michael Mopurgo children’s novel set during WW1 to the big screen. He’s an emotional guy, which may explain how he can tap into audiences’ emotions like no other modern filmmaker.

Only, War Horse – think Saving Black Beauty – hasn’t inspired that many tears in cinema-goers, or critics. Add that to Tintin’s so-so box-office performance in the US (a mere $57m, compared to $260m around the rest of the world), and you have two Spielberg movies that have fallen a little short of expectations. Something those Academy members are no doubt going to be aware of when they begin casting their votes.

Just as Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List saw Spielberg simultaneously gunning for some box-office booty and some Oscar love in 1993 – as he did with Saving Private Ryan and Amistad in 1998, Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report in 2002, and War Of The Worlds and Munich in 2005 – Spielberg once again sets out to shoot Hollywood from both sides with the double-barrel of a $130m performance-capture extravaganza and a $90m WW1 tearjerker.

Even those celebrity-loving Golden Globes – aka Todd Browning’s Oscars – couldn’t find much love for Tintin or War Horse, the twosome landing just three nominations between them; the former for Best Animated Feature, the latter for Best Picture, Drama and Best Original Score. There was nothing for Spielberg, or his large cast and crew.

Ignored by the Oscar Academy for many years – as he earned the film industry billions through the likes of Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T. and the Indiana Jones trilogy – Spielberg finally got the peer approval he’d always wanted in 1994, winning Best Director and Best Picture for Schindler’s List. Five years later, he repeated the double-whammy with Saving Private Ryan.

Since then, zilch, despite the fact that this old dog was still delivering hits, and, occasionally, a new trick or two.

Not that he looks all that upset today, stopping by London’s Claridge’s Hotel to promote War Horse. Looking like a man in his mid-40s rather than his mid-60s – maybe it’s the permanent sneakers, baseball cap and tan that does it? – Spielberg is disarmingly relaxed for a cinema icon. And cinema icons don’t come much bigger than Steven Spielberg.

“I always enjoy it when I hit this part of the world,” he says. “There’s all that great film history to consider, both here in England and in Ireland, and on through Europe, but there’s also the sheer beauty of the place. And the history.

“Making Saving Private Ryan in Wexford, in Ballinesker, was a great experience. Not just as a filmmaker but just as someone who loves to see the world, to taste other cultures, other ways of life.

“It’s a great perk of the job, being able to travel, and spend some time in new places. And, when I’m really lucky, I get to make a film about these new places too. Which was part of the attraction with War Horse.”

Openly regarding himself as a child at heart when it comes to filmmaking, it would be fair to say that Hollywood is Steven Spielberg’s train set. His personal wealth currently standing at $3billion, Spielberg’s standing in Hollywood is tantamount to a god. If not actually God.

“When people in Hollywood talk about Spielberg,” noted Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner, “it sounds as if they are talking about God, with one difference; people are not afraid to bad-mouth God.”

Which must make it pretty difficult to decide on whether or not you’re making the right decision. And given that Spielberg’s currently got six films in production, and a further 24 in pre-production, there’s always quite a lot of decisions to be made.

“You hope that those close to you will always be honest,” comes the answer. “Especially those you’ve worked with again and again. What’s the point of lying? You’re just going to pay for it somewhere further down the line.

“It can be tough though, given the expectation, but I always try to just run on my gut instinct.

“It’s an approach that has generally worked for me in the past, and you can never feel too much regret when you follow your heart…”


WAR HORSE is currently showing in Irish cinemas
Words – Paul Byrne