Spielberg's creatures, great and small

The producer tackles a comic-book hero and his dog in 'Tintin', and a heroic equine in 'War Horse'

Spielberg’s creatures, great and small

Paramount Pictures

Creatures have been good to Steven Spielberg. His career took off with Jaws, which starred a mechanical shark, got a stratospheric boost from E.T.’s animatronic alien, and made prehistory with Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs. Now he’s about to dominate the holiday season with a one-two blockbuster punch—a wartime epic about a horse trying to find his way home, and the animated tale of a Belgian boy detective and his wonder dog. But perhaps the most unstoppable creature of all is the man himself: the 800-lb. gorilla who leaves the biggest footprint in Hollywood.

There isn’t a filmmaker alive who is as powerful, successful or wealthy as Steven Spielberg. No one comes close. Over a 40-year career, the movies he’s directed have grossed over $8 billion worldwide, while movies he has produced have earned $12 billion. His personal net worth is estimated at $3 billion. And as the principal partner of DreamWorks, he’s also the only Hollywood director who controls a major studio. Despite winning three Oscars (for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), Spielberg’s accolades haven’t always kept pace with his commercial triumphs. Lately he has left producing credits on a load of junky sci-fi—Super 8, Transformers 3, Cowboys and Aliens and Reel Steel. But after a three-year hiatus from directing—his last movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was arguably his worst—he’s back in the game. Spielberg the Artist has finally pushed aside Spielberg the Mogul.

The director has two high-pedigree blockbusters opening within days of each other: The Adventures of Tintin (Dec. 21) and War Horse (Dec. 25). Spielberg is also in the thick of filming Lincoln, a biopic about Abraham Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The director, who turns 65 on Sunday, has never been busier. When he finds time in his Lincoln shooting schedule to squeeze in an interview after postponing it twice, you can almost hear the meter ticking.

The voice on the phone is energetic and affable. Chatting with Spielberg is not unlike talking to a politician or inhabiting the hyperbolic world of his movies. His conversation is peppered with words like “fantastic,” “extraordinary” and “phenomenal”: it’s all good. When asked what has suddenly made him so prolific, he says: “Just good stories. I’ve had dry spells where I haven’t found a passion that actually compels me to direct a picture. I just haven’t been excited by anything to that degree. Then all this confluence of War Horse, Tintin and Lincoln came into my life rather coincidentally.”

War Horse and Tintin could not be more different, though both are period adventures rooted in Europe. Based on the 1982 children’s novel by British author Michael Morpungo, now re-engineered as a hit stage play, War Horse is an old-fashioned epic, the odyssey of a noble animal drafted as a beast of burden by British troops in the First World War. Like all Spielberg’s live-action movies, it’s shot on 35-mm film, an endangered medium that he stubbornly refuses to abandon. Tintin, by contrast, is entirely digital, a 3D animated feature based on three comic books published in the 1940s by Belgian artist Hergé. Every frame is created with motion-capture technology. On a bare stage, each actor is wired with sensors that transpose his performance to a computer-graphic scenario. Compare that to War Horse, in which an animal gets entangled in barbed wire as it charges through the mud of no man’s land.

One world represents cinema’s future, the other its past. So you have to wonder where Spielberg feels most at home. Again, it’s all good. “They are different pathways,” he says. “When I did War Horse, I was struck by the reality of being out in the fresh air, seeing the sky changing and the light moving, and seeing the performances in real time. But being corralled in a digital world with no way out on Tintin became so thrilling to me, I was completely enveloped and enraptured.”

However, Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked with Spielberg as a producer ever since E.T., told Maclean’s the director was uncomfortable with Tintin at first. “Initially, Steven was nervous about going into a digital world, and a movie that wasn’t grounded in reality,” she says. “It wasn’t in his wheelhouse. But once the learning curve kicked in—and Steven does adapt amazingly—he began to think about things he’d love to do with the camera that he couldn’t do in live action.” In fact, he found digital filmmaking was more hands-on and intimate than live action, because he actually controlled the camera. “He operated all the shots. The camera looks like one of those game consoles, so he could walk around and direct the actors in very close proximity, as if he were involved in a stage play.”

He may have got a bit carried away. Although the vintage world of Hergé’s Tintin comic books is brought vividly to life, a number of critics, myself included, felt exhausted by the dizzying non-stop action scenes in the film’s second hour, especially with the extra detail of 3D compounding the strain. But roller coasters are all about thresholds of tolerance and taste. Spielberg is clearly hooked on 3D motion capture and “can’t wait to do another one,” says Kennedy. In fact, after Tintin producer Peter Jackson directs the first sequel, Spielberg is slated to direct a third movie.

If Tintin has Spielberg unleashing his inner child like a kid with a new toy, War Horse is a landmark of maturity. More than any of his previous films, it integrates boyhood adventure with the themes of war, tyranny and freedom that are found in his more serious work. Spielberg concurs with that assessment, as does Kennedy. “He’s been able to take what is essentially a fable,” she says, “and combine all those elements that young audiences can handle today. The audience is more mature than when we made E.T.”

So is Spielberg’s team. Kennedy remembers being “terrified” every day on the set of E.T., the first film she produced. No one had any idea it would be a massive hit. “It was a little movie we thought we’d made for kids,” she says. Now that Spielberg seems invincible, what happens to risk? “It comes into play every morning when I get up and go to work,” he insists. “Everything has risk. It’s all artistic risk, not commercial risk. It’s about the personal integrity of ‘Did I do a good job? Would I have done a better job in a different era, in a different year, a different mood?’ ”

According to Kennedy, the director feels insecurity only after he’s finished a film. “Steven pushes himself as often as he can creatively,” she says, “When he’s shooting, he is always confident and clear about his intentions. But he gets vulnerable at the point a movie is distributed, when he has to relinquish control. I don’t think he ever feels entirely confident that his movie is going to play to an audience.”

Even before opening in English North America, Tintin has grossed $234 million internationally and in Quebec. A global audience of fans provides a ready audience for Hergé’s characters—led by the carrot-topped Tintin (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell), his dog Snowy, the drunken Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis) and the villainous Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig). The film will be a surefire Oscar contender, if the Academy qualifies motion-capture films as animated.

War Horse, spurred by the triumph of the Broadway show, is the kind of rousing spectacle that should galvanize family audiences. Its tale of a farm boy whose horse is sold to the British cavalry has no stars, but that just leaves more room for Joey, its equine hero, to win hearts. As a period epic rippling with a muscular narrative, rhapsodic landscapes and unbridled sentiment, it plays like a dictionary definition of a Best Picture winner.

For Spielberg, it’s also an homage to the classic cinema that nurtured him. Asked what filmmakers he admires to the point of envy, he starts to rhyme off the pantheon: “David Lean, Howard Hawks, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut . . . ” But they’re all dead—what about contemporary directors? Spielberg seems nonplussed. “I’m friends with all my contemporaries. We all believe in sharing our trade secrets. I trained with Jim Cameron while he was making Avatar to be prepared to do Tintin in the digital format.” And Martin Scorsese consulted him about Hugo. “After the first week of shooting, Marty was griping about how difficult it was to shoot in 3D. It was very funny.”

Spielberg shows no signs of slowing down. He yearns to make a musical, and there is talk of a Moses biopic that he does not deny. “The challenge with Steven is to keep up,” says Kennedy. “A script will come in Friday, and by Saturday morning there are notes from Steven. I don’t think of him as a workaholic. It’s part of who he is—he’s been making movies since he was 11 years old.”

Now, as a dad to seven children, this Hollywood patriarch can find inspiration from his own family. He’s learned a lot about horses from his equestrian wife, Kate Capshaw, and their 15-year-old daughter, Destry, a competitive jumper. Before shooting War Horse, Kennedy says he told her “the thing I’m most nervous about is getting a good performance from this horse.” He didn’t need to worry. Joey leaves the shark, the alien and the dinosaurs in the dust.

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