When you think of Steven Spielberg you often think of Aliens and Dinosaurs. War Horse has been a labor of love for the director. The film follows the story of an incredible horse through World War I and a young man’s will to be reunited. It’s one of those perfect family movies for the holidays. I strongly recommend you check it out. We’re going to run a series of non-exclusive interviews this week. Keep checking for more coverage of War Horse. This interview is with Bobby Lovgren, who trained the horses for the film.
BOBBY LOVGREN (Horse Trainer) was born in South Africa into an equestrian family. He grew up surrounded by horses and developed the confidence and skills necessary to become both an accomplished rider and trainer.
After spending five years as a stable manager at Brentwood Park Stables, the largest jumping and eventing stable in South Africa, Lovgren moved to Los Angeles, where he learned to handle and train horses for films under established horse trainers like Corky Randall and his father Glenn Randall Sr.
Among Lovgren’s many credits as a horse trainer are “The Mask of Zorro,” “Seabiscuit,” “The Legend of Zorro,” “Racing Stripes” (as zebra trainer too), “The Voyage of the Unicorn,” “Running Free,” “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” and “Unstoppable.”
Most recently, Lovgren was the horse trainer on Walt Disney Pictures “John Carter,” releasing in March 2012, and director Tarsem Singh’s “Snow White, also slated for a 2012 release.
1) Q: What was your job on “War Horse”?
A: My official titles were the Horse Master and the Head Trainer. Over in England they call them horse masters. Here in the U.S, you’re either an animal coordinator or head wrangler. They’re all basically one in the same thing, but then we had several horse trainers from different countries on this, and I was the Head Trainer as well.
2) Q: Did all the horses come from Europe?
A: No. We did bring one horse from the U.S., my horse, Finder. We flew him over. Then a lot of the other horses came from throughout Europe, from England and Spain. Some of the horses that played Topthorn, which is our hero Joey’s friend, came from Hungary. So, they came from quite a dispersed area.
3) Q: What breeds of horses were there?
A: Finder’s a thoroughbred and then we had basically Andalusians and Warmbloods that were used. I would say predominantly the horses used were Andalusians, and a small part were the Warmbloods, then my horse, the thoroughbred.
4) Q: Was there a casting call or how did you connect to find a horse in Hungary, for example?
A: It was a very specific thing, finding the equine characters of the film, which is realistically easy enough, but it’s finding all of the doubles that you know you’re going to need. That’s the difficult part.
Casting calls really don’t work animal-wise because you don’t know if people are hiding what the horse can or cannot do, so it’s easier getting them by word of mouth. It’s important to know the animal before you go in because you have such a short period of time to prepare the horses for the film.
Safety obviously being of the utmost, you have to know that animal before you put him into any kind of a situation that you’re not comfortable having him in.
5) Q: Where are all the horses now?
A: They went back to their owners and Finder came home with me. Some of the horses were bought for the film and after filming they were purchased by people who were on the film or related to it. We know where all their homes are and obviously approve of where they went.
6) Q: Did only Finder play Joey, the hero horse?
A: Oh, no. “War Horse” is a story of this horse’s life from a baby foal all the way through his adult life. So, we have a foal, a yearling, a teenager, basically an adolescent, and then the adult. So, there were so many different horses playing Joey.
Quite honestly there is, in my mind, no one “hero horse.” They were all heroes, because they had such unique parts to play in all of the different sequences. And all of it was very difficult. The only thing was that Finder was the only specialty horse that had prior experience and film work as a liberty horse.
If you don’t know what liberty is, that means he works without restraints. He’s loose. He was the only one with experience coming into it, so he was always our fall back if something changed filming-wise or we had to do something different. He was always my backup that I could go to for different things, because I did not have to prepare him over and over. I knew what he could do. And that gave us a lot of leeway, because on any film things change constantly. With a horse that is inexperienced, it’s difficult for them to change, even switching from left to right or right to left is difficult on them because they’re creatures of habit. Obviously to me, Finder is my hero, but, again, all of them in my mind are “hero horses.”
7) Q: With so many horses, artists must have painted the appropriate markings on them, correct?
A: Yes, they had an equine makeup department and the girls did a fantastic job. It was a very difficult job, because production was very particular on the markings. The girls took the extra time to get the people in to approve all of the markings. All of the legs had to look identical and the markings on the head too. It was a fulltime job doing all of that, especially since we had war sequences where the horses would get muddy and dirty.
We had to schedule time when the trainer could hold the horse for the makeup artist to work. There was a lot to coordinate and time, since no one horse could ever do the film. Just like us, they have a bad day or they get tired, so then we have the doubles. And then the double had to be ready. So, if makeup wasn’t ready on that horse then we couldn’t film with him. I would have to figure out which horses might play for this sequence and have them ready for that. And that plays back to our keeping the horses safe, not ever injuring, or getting them tired, because obviously anyone who gets too tired can make mistakes. It was my job to be conscious of all those things going on.
8) Q: How old is Finder, and how did you find a horse who could do those things?
A: Finder is 11 years old now. I was a trainer on “Seabiscuit.” Our producers, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, bought a number of horses for the film and Finder was one of two horses that the Head Wrangler on “Seabiscuit” gave to me to train for the film. At the end of the film, I ended up buying Finder. It was like a reunion because Kathy and Frank are producing again on “War Horse.” So, Finder just made a full circle.
9) Q: How many horses did you have to personally train on “War Horse”?
A: I did a few. I actually came onto the film a little later, so a lot of the horses already had a start and basics on. One thing, luckily for me, was that two of the trainers on the film had been my assistants on other movies, so, a lot of the basics and their methods of training the horses was the way I would do it. What I was able to do was go there and just fine-tune it. Because what you don’t want to do is change. Changing a trainer or people on a horse is difficult for them, because each person does something in a different way, and it’s basically changing your dance partner who you’ve been dancing with. Even though the other person might be able to dance, they don’t have the same rhythm, and that’s the way it is working with the specialty horse.
10) Q: What must be in place for the horse department to work effectively with production?
A: The most important thing is for the horse department to establish a good rapport with production. I had already done a film with the producers and with Adam Somner, our First Assistant Director. To me the most critical part of any animal department is having that good communication with the first assistant director, because he’s got the direct link to the director, knowing what he wants, and then communicating what they want film-wise.
I basically translate what the director wants into horse language and tell him or her what I will need to accomplish what they want. For example: The director wants to do a shot with one horse, and I know that we only have so many takes because that horse will be running quite a distance. They also tell me that in the sequence they need to do a lot of runs, because they need to film it in different directions with different camera sizes. So, I then know I need more than one horse for that shot. And also I know that I need to train more specifically for what’s involved.
11) Q: What were some of the challenges you faced on the set of “War Horse”?
A: To be honest with you, every day was a challenge. We had so much going on, and you just had the feeling working on “War Horse” that this is something great. It had a totally different feel. But I would say the biggest challenge to me was the work that we did with the foals, because they are like working with a little child.
They get tired quickly, so you need a number of doubles with them. Luckily for me, I have done quite a few films with foals, having them do specialty things. So, the experience helped me, but they’re not easy to manipulate. They’re so young that you can’t spend as much time training them and getting them ready as you would an adult horse. Number one, they’re just too young mentally. And number two, if you take the time for them to grow up mentally, then they have grown too much physically and are no longer baby foals.
It’s actually very challenging. We had to do a lot with the foal and the mare working at liberty together. So, it’s working multiples of horses together that make things challenging, but luckily I had Finder do some of the scenes and to play the mare, the mother for the foal. You cannot use the real mother in the film with the foal, because if you want the foal to leave the mother, he will never leave his real mom.
We actually introduced the foal to Finder, which was nice. I knew what he would do. So, it’s just having the foal get confident with Finder, and then having the foal follow him and going on from there. So, again, I would definitely say that those were some of the unknowns that we could not really specifically go and train for. It was a “figure it out as you go” type of thing.
12) Q: What would you say was the most difficult scene you had to film with the horses?
A: Actually there were so many scenes that were very involved and intense. We had to get a lot of emotion from the horses—looking happy, looking sad, looking scared—but not really being scared, because if a horse panics, then he’s dangerous, so we never ever have the panic. But having them getting those looks was a difficult thing to pull off.
Things that to a normal person would see as easy are difficult to us. For example, just having the horse stand alone by himself could be tremendously difficult because horses typically don’t want to just stand still. Horses in movement are always easier than a horse being stationary.
13) Q: Did scenes that took place during the war present any particular problems with the horses?
A: We did a lot of preparation with special effects—doing the smoke tests, getting the horses used to the noises, knowing where our perimeters were. There was a lot of noise, so if noise would affect the horses we would add it in later. There were a lot of bombs going off and a lot of dust in the air.
We learned as we went along which horses didn’t care about it and which ones did. Shooting a scene, I would know the sequence and we would set up the shot with the First AD and decide where it would be best shot with the horses in mind. For example, the bomb needs to be close to camera, but we can’t get the horses so close there, so we come to a happy medium. We would also interact with special effects to determine which way the bomb points.
All of those things were very critical to us. Also going on location, because it has to obviously look like a war location, we made sure things were not dangerous. We had the armaments that they used in the First World War and the barbed wire, which we made sure was all fake.
14) Q: Did you work closely with American Humane Association on “War Horse” to keep the horses safe?
A: Yes, American Humane Association was there every single day. Barbara Carr was their representative on set. She was just fantastic. We also had a veterinarian on set every single day with us, but we never had a problem. Just as on a crew where you would have a medical person, we had a vet person. That was important because on days when we had the cavalry charges, we would have so many horses there. If anyone on set thought there was something wrong, they could go speak directly to the veterinarian.
15) Q: What was your most memorable experience during the filming of War Horse?
A: I think that first day I got there and actually read the script and saw the storyboards was most memorable. I had not realized what I was in store for and what the challenges were, quite honestly.
On actual filming, I had more memorable moments on “War Horse” than on any of the other films I’ve done because we did so much with the horses. I don’t think I can pinpoint just one thing. I think it’s the whole experience.
16) Q: Did you have to train actors to ride or just in general be around horses?
A: The actors spent a lot of time with the horses and the production did an awesome job of making sure the actors came to us. And more than actually train them, they worked with us because they had to know how we, as trainers, worked with the horses and interacted with them. They had to know in a shot where we would need to be as trainers and where they would need to be out of our way, but still be able to do their acting, their dialogue, and not to distract the horse away from us, so that we could get the performances out of the horses too.
17) Q: Jeremy Irvine had a lot to do with Joey. Can you tell us about that?
A: Jeremy was an unbelievable guy. Honestly he was more a part of our team I think than an actor in the beginning. We treated him that way too. He cleaned stalls. He brushed horses. He worked with us. He knew our job as well as we did, and that’s what I think really brings something special to his acting. And he had such a good attitude. He loved to learn. Jeremy took a lot of criticism, and he would accept it when he did something wrong and really work at it.
18) Q: Did you have to use any stand-in riders for any of the actors?
A: We always will have stunt performers doing anything dangerous. If the actor’s back is to the camera, there is no need to take a risk. Jeremy did a lot of the riding and really was capable. Our actors in the cavalry charges did 99 percent of the riding themselves. Everyone put in 100 percent effort, all the way around.
19) Q: Did you get a lot of support from the production for your horse work on the film, and, if so, how?
A: Absolutely. Every single day. There’s no way I could’ve accomplished what we did without this production crew. They were involved in every single sequence that we did; the producers and Adam Somner, our First AD, were there and involved all the time. And then also having a very good rapport and being able to communicate with Steven [Spielberg] was so critical and so important to me because I knew he would tell me exactly what he wanted.
But, you know, whenever things are going well, it’s always easy, but on the difficult days the production was always right there behind us. If you needed time to change the horses, or change the shot, or help the horse by setting up something very different, they were always there being supportive. If something didn’t work well, then come back and try it a different way tomorrow. Everyone says how it has to be a team effort, and quite honestly, this was the perfect team effort.
20) Q: What have you learned from your horse work in films?
A: The only way I can really sum this up is to say that I found out that training horses is the least thing that you need to know as a horse person working in the film business. You can be the best horse trainer in the world, but if you’re not good at communicating or you don’t understand how the film business works, you will never be able to achieve the shot.
I have learned to think less like a horse trainer and more like a filmmaker, understanding how film works and I have also changed in that I have become much more creative. It is so nice when the director asks me what I think or asks, “What can we do here?” That’s what Steven [Spielberg] was so very, very good about.
The only time I say no to any shot is if it’s unsafe, but otherwise I try not to say no. I try to give the director two or three different ways we can do it, keeping in mind what’s best for the horse and what’s best for camera and finding that happy medium.
21) Q: Are horse trainers on set like you becoming a rare breed?
A: Practically nonexistent. People don’t understand animals anymore. They don’t work with horses as much as they did in the past when a lot of westerns were made. They don’t know how to work with a director either.
People have to be better communicators if they want to do this job. They need to communicate what their needs are, but also be cognizant of the production’s needs, because, quite frankly, in 99 percent of films, the horse plays a very small part. So, there are more important things than what the horse is doing. They need to be aware of that and not just totally focus on what the animal has to do in the sequence.