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Immersed in Movies: 'War Horse' Production Designer Rick Carter Talks Spielberg, War, 'Gone with the Wind'

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 28, 2011 at 8:15AM

Long-time Steven Spielberg collaborator, production designer Rick Carter, is obsessed with "the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war."
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War Horse
DreamWorks War Horse

Long-time Steven Spielberg collaborator, production designer Rick Carter, is preoccupied with "the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war." It began with Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" (a gritty metaphor for the destruction of the World Trade Center) and continued with "Munich" (terrorist reprisal),"Avatar" ("The Wizard of Oz" meets "Apocalypse Now"), "Sucker Punch" (war as a means of escaping insanity), "War Horse" (land and life laid waste during the Great War), and the upcoming "Lincoln" (putting a human face on the 16th President's crucible to win the Civil War and end slavery).

That Spielberg has been the catalyst behind four of these six war-themed dramas confirms the depth of the director's field of dreams for Carter. "Some of them are light and have a joyous, wish-fulfillment to them," he says. "But there's also a darkness that has to be overcome and so he's touching quite a wide range of movies, and, as I get older, I admire that."

Carter, who dropped out as a young man and went around the world for a year, has been able to tap the horizons of his experiences with a sense of wonder when called upon to design a place for a movie.

For "War Horse," the large southwestern English county Devon anchors the stirring love story of a young man (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, separated by The Great War. Nature is so strong there, Carter says, that you feel both insignificant and significant at once, as part of something transcendent.

"But the dark side of that can be where the beauty has been wiped out and now it's uninhabitable, often by man and sometimes by nature," Carter says. "And so with 'War Horse,' the landscape provided the book ends for the story of this horse that won't be extinguished. And there are hundreds of wild horses out in the fields. They're owned but they just roam free all of the time. That's their life -- they live out in the elements."

When Carter was looking for the right spot to build the set for the farmstead, he went to the top of the Moors, which is actually owned and used by the army as a training ground. "It was about finding the locations that were evocative of this tale of the land, and at any point along the way, this horse could easily have succumbed to a new identity with whoever it was with, which is another aspect that I liked about this film."

Carter insists that Joey brings out the best in human beings-- he's as tenacious as Bruce the shark from "Jaws": "Yet when he is stopped, finally, in this pale of barbed wire and a crown of thorns, practically, it invokes something in the people that the suffering of this poor innocent is terribly wrong, even more wrong than what they're doing at their worst, which is killing each other."

Indeed, Carter believes this represents the kind of leap of faith that Spielberg does best in his movies, which he also recognizes some people resist as overly sentimental. "I go with it because I like having a part of my own innocence reignited in that experience," he admits. "But one of those leaps of faith that happens is that you get to go somewhere that you might not go on your own. And in 'War Horse,' when it works, people are able to feel the jeopardy of their own innocence that can be lost through something as horrendous as the war, which has taken so much, and when you can feel something come back that is not dead, that is the wish-fulfillment."

Carter and the rest of Spielberg's crew that has been together for more than a quarter of a century have accumulated vast amounts of dreamscape imagery. In Carter's case, going to Devon for "War Horse," even if it meant an additional budgetary expense, was essential.

For the first time, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, known for gritty war films "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," let his romanticism come through. "For him to embrace something that is so idyllic and that has such an open heart, to me, that was a real breakthrough," Carter says. "These are not labored productions; he has to make very quick decisions about where he's going to put that key light, even in a broad daylight scene."

Yet "War Horse" is really a fable about making difficult choices to save your life. "I think there are four or five places in 'War Horse' that are quite resonant in the way the horses are used metaphorically as people," says Carter. "There's one, in particular, when the colt comes to Albert when he's eating the apple, and he's unsure of what to do, so he turns around. In the context it shows the uncertainty."

Carter admits that there's a "Gone with the Wind" aspect to "War Horse," because that whole way of life changed after World War I. Not only was the world brought together, but armaments and machinery brought destruction. Carter predicts: "We'll look back on what we're experiencing now, though we won't know for another 10 years, as somewhat of a rite of passage."

This article is related to: Awards, Awards, Oscars, Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.