'War Horse': How Steve Spielberg trained his horses
In Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse, Joey, an English plow horse, narrates his own harrowing journey through the horrors of World War I. For the current blockbuster stage adaptation of War Horse running in London and New York, a masterful crew of puppeteers bring Joey to dazzling, heart-rending life.
But for Steven Spielberg’s feature film of War Horse, Joey is simply a real horse, with nothing more than his eyes and body to communicate what he’s going through.
Now, make no mistake, Steven Spielberg knows from horses. His family has kept a stable of steeds at their home for over a decade; his 14-year-old daughter has even traveled the country to participate in riding competitions. But when the director first committed to making War Horse, that flesh-and-blood limitation was his primary concern. “I didn’t know what contribution the horse was going to make beyond what they were trained to do,” Spielberg told film journalist (and EW columnist) Mark Harris in a webcast Q&A after a sneak preview screening of the film. “I thought that we were only going to get from the horses what they were trained to perform.”
As anyone who has seen War Horse in the past few days can attest, the Oscar-winning filmmaker needn’t have worried. “The horses were amazing,” Spielberg told Harris. “Joey had a sense of what was happening in the scene. Joey added things, as the cameras were rolling, that none of us ever asked for, that brought a performance to [the audience] that we didn’t expect when we made the movie.”
Actually, “Joey” was performed by a company of 14 equine actors, among the over 100 horses used in the film. So how did the filmmakers, actors, and horse trainers get these horses to achieve such a rich sense of Joey’s emotional life? EW spoke with actor Jeremy Irvine — who plays Joey’s devoted young owner, Albert — and the film’s horse master Bobby Lovgren to find out. It seems that getting a great performance out of a horse can be quite similar to getting a great performance out of a human. (WARNING: If you have not seen War Horse yet, some major SPOILERS are ahead.)
CASTING IS KEY
Much like those mercurial actors, different horses have different personalities. Thoroughly understanding each horse’s individual behavior and temperament, more than anything else, was what allowed Lovgren and his team to find horses they believed could deliver the performance needed for any given scene. “They need to be able to bring some emotion to every scene that they do,” says Lovgren. “And quite honestly, that is the most difficult thing to achieve, because it’s not something that is very typical of them … Before we start filming, I have to learn what each animal’s characteristics are, what do they do, whether it’s good or bad. That’s when I can recognize, Oh this [horse] is going to fit well for this sequence or not. Or on the day [of filming], when the director wants a different option or a different look, I can say, ‘Oh, okay, here’s what I can show you.'” Perhaps not surprisingly, Lovgren’s own horse, Finder, did a large number of Joey’s most emotionally driven scenes — Lovgren purchased Finder after working with him on Seabiscuit — but the animal trainer is quick to point out that “every one of the horses was a part of the team, and we could not have done the job if one of them wasn’t there.”
YOU’VE GOTTA HAVE THE RIGHT TECHNIQUE
After the horses were “cast” in their roles — including the four horses who primarily played Joey’s steadfast companion Topthorn — Lovgren and his team of trainers began prepping them for their scenes. There were almost always at least two horses set to play Joey and Topthorn for any given scene — when one horse tired out, his double was brought in. In some cases, getting an emotional performance really was just a matter of learned behavior. “When Topthorne is walking and they’re going to take him to pull cannons, you see Topthorne walking with his head down and looking really sad,” says Lovgren. “The horse doesn’t normally walk that way. I can teach that very easily to walk that way, or walk with a limp, and things like that.”
And to be clear, it was Lovgren, or one of his trainers, who directed the animal’s behavior just off camera, and not the actor with the horse in the scene. “The actor does interact with the animal a lot, but the horse is being directed to interact with him, and then his focus is back to the trainer,” says Lovgren. “So that way we can always, always guarantee the safety of it. The actor has to concentrate on his acting. The last thing he needs to think about is controlling the animal.”
Not to mention the actor’s own horse training. At first, when Jeremy Irvine was cast as a complete unknown for the central role of Albert, he wasn’t too worried about the fact that he had never once been on a horse. “The fact that I had to learn to ride from scratch kind of paled into insignificance to the fact that I had to learn how to act in a movie,” he laughs. “I was skeptical about forming actual emotional relationships to these horses. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an animal person before the movie. Within about a week, I was a sucker for all of them.”
Irvine, along with fellow actors like Tom Hiddleston (Thor) and David Cross (The Reader), spent two months of intensive work with Lovgren and the horses. “These horses are some of the most highly trained horses in the world,” says Irvine. “I went from learning to ride on riding-school horses — which is the equivalent of, I don’t know, a little beat-up car — to having to learn to ride and work with the equivalent of a Formula One race car.”
That is, except for one horse, a colt so young (likely 18 months to 2 years old, says Lovgren), it did not have a name — so people just started calling him Joey. That horse, which was used in the scenes of Albert teaching Joey how to plow a field, “was so young when it came to us that you couldn’t really get in the stable with it,” says Irvine. “Part of my training process was being around to help train this horse. We started off with me spending hours and hours just standing in the stable with it, getting it used to me and being able to touch it. By the end of the process, we were running around fields playing hide and seek. We taught it to do things — I’d have my shoe off, it’d sneak up behind me, grab my shoe and run off. The sort of stuff that meant when we got to set, all that was real. It was all there.”
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
For two of the film’s most emotional, harrowing sequences — Joey mourning the death of Topthorn, and Joey racing through the barbed wire of no-man’s-land, only to get tangled up inside it and freed by a British and German soldier — Lovgren did what any other smart director would do: rehearse. “We did a lot of our rehearsals with [the horse playing Topthorn] laying down, giving him confidence, obviously making sure we had doubles for them when they get tired,” says Lovgren. “We had a lot of different options and different looks to show Steven of what we could achieve in that scene, and then he would pick what he wanted, or change little things and say, ‘No, I wanted this or that,’ before we ever really went to camera.” For Joey’s race through no-man’s-land that ends in a snarl of barbed wire, Lovgren says a CG or animatronic horse was used for anything that he he thought would pose any safety concern for the animal. (Lovgren’s horse Finder, however, was used for some of the close-ups; the barbed wire was plastic.)
BUT BE READY TO IMPROVISE
Even with all that planning and training, the filmmakers still had to expect the unexpected. “I learned very quickly that you have to be very fluid when you work with animals,” says Irvine. “The horse isn’t just going to stand there for the five minutes while you’re doing a scene. It’s going to want to move around. You have to work with whatever it’s going to do. They are incredibly highly trained, but at the same time, it’s an animal, and you have to be adaptable to be able to work with them.”
Not that the horses are divas. “If that was the case, then they wouldn’t be paying attention to the trainer,” chuckles Lovgren. “Then they’re losing focus on us. At the end of the day, they are awesome and wonderful — but, you know, they are our horses. We keep them on that level. We never have them lose focus on us, and the job at hand.”