I was at my Sneak Previews screening of "War Horse," with DreamWorks co-president of production Holly Bario on hand. The movie played well for the group (not a dry eye in the house) and as bleached as I am, I did not flag during a second viewing, and wept again, especially during an horrific sequence when Joey the miracle horse hauls artillery up a steep hill. This movie will be a huge hit and if the critics are behind it, could beat out "The Artist" for best picture.
"War Horse" was an unusually swift development process for Steven Spielberg, said Bario, who has worked at DreamWorks for four years. The currently filming adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography "Lincoln," Spielberg's third film in eighteen months, is more typical of projects that can gestate for years. It only took off when Daniel Day Lewis committed to star.
As soon as producer Kathleen Kennedy told Dreamworks CEO Stacey Snider and Bario to see "War Horse," they flew to London, and then pushed Spielberg to do the same. As soon as he did, he jumped on acquiring film rights. It makes sense that he would respond to a story that contains all of the themes that appear in his films: fathers and sons, war, and the bond between humans and creatures.
"Billy Elliot" scribe Lee Hall adapted the play and the original Michael Morfugo book, which was told from the horse's point-of-view, and delivered a draft within six months. "Bridget Jones Diary" writer Richard Curtis, who Snider and Bario had worked with at Universal, supplied many of the lighter moments in a polish.
David Lean and John Ford were among the inspirations for the film's old-fashioned, theatrical outdoor aesthetic. The final scene comes right out of "The Searchers" or "Gone with the Wind," but the flaming red sunset was real in nature, Bario insists. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who had to contend with variable weather, is adept at responding to the moment.The production took advantage of locations in Devon, without having to build much. They did design the trenches so that the actors could get the feel of slogging around in mud.
Spielberg has talked about how intense and difficult the week-long night shoot for the sequence when Joey the horse (played by 14 different animals from foal to mature horse, although one was the best actor), riderless, jumps onto and off a tank and tears through the trenches and into No Man's Land, where he gets caught in barbed wire, to be freed by a Brit and a German soldier. "It sums up what the movie is about," Bario said. (The barbed wire was plastic.)
My reaction on second viewing is to remain impressed overall, especially with the superb UK ensemble, including Peter Mullen, Emily Watson, Tim Kittleson and Benedict Cumberbatch--except for its two youngest members, Jeremy Irvine and a Brit actress with an execrable French accent, Celine Buckens.
I then went to my second rooftop "Drive" party (the first overlooked the harbor in Cannes), where I commiserated with producer Marc Platt about how tough it is to get movies made (constant conversation these days). On hand were Robert Rodriguez, who moderated one of the many Q & As the "Drive" gang has been doing now that they have awards recognition in their sights; Nic Winding Refn is prepping for next film, "Only God Forgives,"with Ryan Gosling in Thailand for a February start.
The highpoint: hanging with New York Film Critics supporting actor winner and likely Oscar nominee Albert Brooks, who has decided to pursue more acting while he has the chance (several juicy roles are in the offing), and not put in the years of time necessary to push indie films up the hill. In fact, the higher he pushes his recognition factor, the easier it will be to get his super-smart dark comedies made. @albertbrooks is worried about how much time he puts into tweeting (each one is a gem; he shows his carefully wrought tweets to his wife before he posts), especially if it keeps him from working on other things. Oscar voters are historically receptive to comedians who turn to the dramatic side (see Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams).
Meanwhile the most recent Gurus 'o Gold rankings are interesting--with "Extremely Loud" still not seen by most. While some of my fellow gurus are completely off the ranch (predictably, EW Oscarologist Dave Karger is closer to the mark than his colleague Anthony Breznican), our consensus best picture top ten predicts below--assuming there is a top ten, it could be fewer--is close to final. The order will change between now and January 25.
Note that Rudin's other infamously embargoed movie, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which does not need publicizing at this point, did not make the list. Why did the embargo hold after David Denby broke it? Because Rudin was enforcing it. The uber-producer consistently delivers several of the best movies every year ("The Hours,""The Social Network," "No Country for Old Men") and this year has "Moneyball" as well as the Daldry and the Fincher on his slate. No one wants to risk the Wrath of Rudin.
GURUS 'O GOLD CONSENSUS TOP TEN
1. The Artist
2. War Horse
3. The Descendants
5. Midnight in Paris
6. The Help
7. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
9. The Tree of Life
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
While "Extremely Loud," if it does not play well, could fall off this list, and reviews and critics groups could impact the standing of some of the late-breaking films, these are the titles vying for the top six or seven Best Picture slots. That's because with the new rules, it's about Oscar voters picking their number one film this year.
Emotions will rule the day. "The Artist," "Hugo" and "War Horse" celebrate old-fashioned film values in a nostalgic way. All three will tug at the heartstrings of the Academy's artistic side. "The Help," "Moneyball," and "Tinker Tailor" are based on popular titles, and set in the past. The first two are audience-pleasers with rich, emotional character arcs, while "Tinker Tailor" is a well-wound intricate spy thriller with a superb British cast led by Gary Oldman.
"The Tree of Life" and "The Descendants" are moving, well-made family dramas, and by all accounts, so is "Extremely Loud." But I don't see the relatively chilly "Midnight in Paris" or "Tinker Tailor" being the absolute favorites of enough voters to land best picture nominations.