Hollywood's best known director has two films - one animated, one animal - vying for attention. Steven Spielberg discusses both with Colin Covert.
Steven Spielberg, arguably the most popular film-maker of the 20th century, meets his match in the coming weeks: Steven Spielberg. He will be opening two highly anticipated films just days apart.
On Monday comes The Adventures of Tintin, based on the globally popular comics, mixing adventure, slapstick, mystery and humour in photo-realistic 3D animation.
War Horse, a poignant live-action drama about a farm animal forced into service in British army's cavalry regiment in World War I arrives in New Zealand cinemas on January 12 but opens this weekend in the United States.
An upbeat Spielberg says he was delighted at the parallel premieres and unconcerned he might be cannibalising his audience.
"Hey, you know something? I'm blessed that this year I've been able to have two movies come out. I'm so happy that both these movies are coming out during the family movie-going season. I'm not thinking ahead to anything else. I never do. I've never ever held out expectations beyond hoping that the films do well."
He's done well, with two best director Oscars (for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan) and a career box office gross of US$6 billion ($7.8 billion) and counting.
His bankability is seen again this month, with production budgets of US$70 million for War Horse and US$130 million for Tintin. In an industry where egos loom large, 64-year-old Spielberg is exceptionally unaffected. Whether he's discussing Peter Jackson, who produced Tintin, or animal trainer Bobby Lovgren, who worked with the equine performers on War Horse, he makes it sound as if he's just lucky to have such talented teammates.
Spielberg, who set the pattern for the modern studio blockbuster with Jaws, even had kind words for the animals.
"The horses were brilliant, and the trainers were the reason they were so brilliant. Bobby and his entire team of horse whisperers did the most amazing job of getting the script needs and my needs to the animals, who not only performed what they were supposed to perform, they were improvising all the time and we got things we never expected a horse can do on film," he said.
"It's harder to work with a mechanical shark, of course. Because a live horse actually listens to me."
War Horse presented logistical challenges, from the animal cast (up to 280 horses were used in a single scene) to the ever-changing light above Devon's moors. Spielberg was determined to shoot a key scene in the rain - "not Hollywood rain but real rain" - and the weather was unco-operative.
He decided to make War Horse after reading Michael Morpurgo's book and seeing the play adaptation by Nick Stafford in London's West End. The film tells the story of Joey - a horse raised in the English countryside, taken by the British army and sent into battle - and Albert, Joey's young owner, who struggles to find his beloved horse.
"I was knowledgeable about what Hollywood had done about that war, but to introduce a horse and a boy searching for him in the middle of this maelstrom was the most compelling journey I took, to try to figure out how to tell both stories," Spielberg said.
The play brings Joey to life using puppetry with such expertise that playgoers are able to imagine they are watching real horses.
But that wouldn't work for celluloid.
"A movie can automatically do something a stage play can't, and that's use the close-up," Spielberg said.
"When you get to see into the eyes of a horse, and when you get to see into the eyes of a soldier, it's a whole different experience."
For Tintin, he faced another series of hurdles. The technical questions involved in motion-capture animation were familiar enough. The real trick was creating a franchise around a 70-year-old Belgian cartoon character who isn't well known in the United States.
Georges Remi, better known as Herge, wrote and drew 23 adventures for his boy reporter between 1929 and 1976. The series has been a Harry Potter-level phenomenon around the world for decades, selling some 200 million copies. But Spielberg himself didn't discover Tintin until 1980 or so, he recalled, and read the series to each of his six children in turn. The series, with its dynamic visuals and colourful characters, instantly struck Spielberg as movie material, and he snapped up the rights back in 1983. Adapting it was the trick.
"I wanted this to be classic Herge, faithful to the man who invented and sustained Tintin for all those years," he said. And 30 years ago, that would have been tough to achieve.
"I didn't want it to be live action. I knew that if I dressed up actors in those costumes it'd be a very eccentric live-action film. Very eccentric costumes and very eccentric hair styles. I didn't want it to be Baron Munchausen, if you know what I mean, with overstylised looks for all the characters.
"So that choice was made pretty early to animate Tintin. Animation was a closer medium to Herge's art. It would be the best way to translate Herge to audiences around the world."
It took three decades for performance-capture technology to reach the high-water mark Spielberg knew the project required. While Avatar was still in production, he hired that film's special-effects wizards to swing over to his film next.
"I was very fortunate to have those same animators."
The film travels from the sea to the Sahara and back again, a journey chock-a-block with the extravagant action sequences that are Spielberg's signature. Those pages of the script were simply left blank. "It just said me and Peter Jackson will eventually figure this out. They were left to our own crazy devices."
Jackson collaborated with Spielberg by video link. "He had to get up at 3am in New Zealand just to show up for 8am set call in Los Angeles."
Time difference notwithstanding, "he worked hard on 25 drafts of the script, and offered a continual stream of suggestions throughout the shoot".
Filming actors in computer-monitored bodysuits against a green screen didn't dampen their creative energy, Spielberg said.
"You can't keep Andy Serkis down," Spielberg said, referring to the actor who played Captain Haddock, the sea captain who accompanies Tintin on his many adventures. "And once you started improvising, and he began to find new ways to make me laugh, Jamie Bell (Tintin) jumped in and he did the same. So we have more improvising and comedic invention from the actors than I've ever had in a live-action movie in my entire career."
The film already has opened to stupendous success in Europe and Canada. There have been holdouts, however. England's Guardian newspaper called the film "great art crudely redrawn". Spielberg doesn't begrudge the critics.
"I appreciate people's points of view, everybody brings something different to every movie they see. There were actually very few purists who came after us. We decided to go through a baptism of fire by premiering the film in Belgium, the home of Tintin, and then France, a country that has carried a torch for Tintin for seven decades.
"We decided to bite the bullet and go into the heart of Herge country, and the film was received with wild enthusiasm and tremendous applause, so we feel vindicated by that."
The second and third sequels are already gearing up, with Jackson to direct the second.
Who: Steven Spielberg
What: (opens Boxing Day) and War Horse (opens January 12).