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RIDING HIGH

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Even before filming was finished, more than a few Hollywood wags and insiders were saying that Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” had the look of a thoroughbred in the annual Hollywood derby known as Oscar season. Spielberg’s films had certainly racked up Academy Award nominations in the past when he ventured into wartime epics (“Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan”), bookshelf adaptations (“The Color Purple,” “Jaws”) or an evocative tale of youth and friendship (“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”).

The last thing you’ll want to do, however, is ask Spielberg if he considers “War Horse” to be a trophy type of film. The last thing the 64-year-old Hollywood titan wants to do is saddle any of his projects with the expectations and entanglements that can come with all the award handicapping.

“It’s nothing any of us expect, ever, and the second you start expecting accolades, you’ve hoisted yourself to a higher level of free-fall when it doesn’t occur,” Spielberg said by phone in late November on the set of his next film, “Lincoln.” “I’ve never been in any position to expect accolades from anyone until it happens ... every time there’s been a nomination I was surprised. I never have high expectations on any of my films.”

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Perhaps, but Hollywood has high expectations of Spielberg, and, after a three-year hiatus from directing feature films, he’s back in a big way. “War Horse” opens on Christmas Day, just four days after the U.S. release of his first animated feature as a director, “The Adventures of Tintin.”

The two movies have some things in common -- they both come from the European bookshelf for young readers, most obviously, and each is a family film in design -- but “Tintin” was a project that Spielberg flirted with for years, while “War Horse” quickly seized his imagination, especially visually, with the juxtaposition of gentle, emerald fields in England and the bloody bedlam of World War I trenches.

It was Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg’s longtime producing partner, who brought “War Horse” to the filmmaker after she was moved to tears by the play, which utilizes puppetry to tell the tale of a horse named Joey and the people he encounters as the Great War pulls Europe into darkness. Spielberg tracked down the source material, the 1982 novel by British writer Michael Morpurgo.

“It was love at first sight,” Spielberg said of the book. “The book made me feel like this was a story I wanted to tell. I went to England about two weeks later to see the play, the West End production, and that’s when things started to happen very fast.”

The film, play and novel all find their core with the noble loyalty and perseverance of Joey, but Spielberg knew he would go in a very different direction; the inner thoughts of Joey are a central part of the Morpurgo book, for instance, and that wouldn’t work for the live-action tone Spielberg knew he wanted. Some key early sequences showing the bond between Joey and his owner, Albert, played by young Jeremy Irvine, were added too, to deepen their connection with each other and the audience.

The director turned to his familiar collaborators -- composer John Williams, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, who have 10 Oscars among them -- and the bucolic settings of such British villages as Meavy and Sheepstor and Dartmoor. Spielberg had the English countryside on his side, to be sure, but he also had the tricky landscape of a script (by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall) in which many of the key supporting characters fall away or move on after a few minutes of screen time.

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“It’s one of the most compelling narratives that I’ve been given the opportunity to direct,” Spielberg said. “It was not that way in the play. In the play, Albert coexists in a series of intercuts with the perils that Joey finds himself in. Richard Curtis and I made the conscious choice early not to do that because this is a story about connectivity between human beings, and there’s this miracle animal that not only brings people closer to themselves but also brings warring nations closer together -- in a symbolic way, not a literal way.”

The ways bonds are redefined in times of crisis is a familiar theme for Spielberg -- “Saving Private Ryan” is an obvious example, yet so too is “War of the Worlds” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” -- but keeping his camera on the unspeaking steed is the great gamble of “War Horse.”

“I found that following Joey and encountering strangers, who do not remain strangers for long, that was the real challenge for all of us,” Spielberg said. “How do you create memories in sequences with characters that you’ve never met before and those sequences only last seven or eight minutes on the screen? Making the characters unforgettable is the challenge.”

Spielberg has delivered some of the most memorable characters in contemporary film -- Indiana Jones was named the second-greatest cinema hero ever by the American Film Institute -- but, like Joey, they aren’t always human. There have been aliens and dinosaurs and, yes, a certain shark that, 35 years ago, began the director’s Oscar odyssey when “Jaws” was nominated for best picture.

“The whole notion of an Academy Award nomination was far beyond my imagination in 1975,” Spielberg said. “I watched the nominations on television -- they were televised then, and everybody was watching them -- and there was even an embarrassing moment where I had a documentary crew recording my reaction to the nomination. That’s something I will never, ever live down. But it was a wonderful feeling.”

It’s the producers of a film who are nominated in the best picture category -- for “Jaws,” that was Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, whom Spielberg still refers to as the “godfathers” of his film career -- but Spielberg later heard his name called in the best director category for his follow-up to “Jaws,” the 1977 sci-fi classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

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“The great thing about the ‘Close Encounters’ nomination is that I actually got to attend the Academy Awards for the first time,” Spielberg said, reflecting on the night when he and “Star Wars” director George Lucas were nominated together but watched as Woody Allen was honored for “Annie Hall.” But Spielberg says what he remembers most was a persistent sense of awe. “It was an extravagant evening that I will never forget.”

That’s the take of a Hollywood veteran who has learned to enjoy the invitation more than the competition. He said the 11 nominations earned by “The Color Purple” remains one of his most satisfying Oscar seasons, even though the film was shut out when the envelopes were finally opened.

Spielberg has won two Oscars for directing, for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and when “Schindler’s List” won best picture, he was one of the producers who took home the gold. In 1987, Spielberg also won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Overall, he has been nominated 10 times, and he’s seen seven of his films -- “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Munich” among them -- nominated for best picture.

After all the tuxedo years, Spielberg knows the toughest place to sit is in the seat of the favorite.

“With ‘Schindler’s List,’ I almost had to wear earplugs because of all the people that kept telling me that it could be our year,” Spielberg said. “That was worse than radio silence. I would have rather heard nothing. When younger people get nominated, I give them this advice: Don’t watch television, don’t read the trades, don’t read blogs -- just get on with your life, and whatever happens, happens. I am eternally grateful just to be a movie director. That’s the important thing to me.”

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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‘HORSE’S’ TACK

In “War Horse,” there’s a scene in which two soldiers, one German and one British, tread uneasily into No Man’s Land -- the nightmarish killing field between the trenches that defined World War I combat -- to work together to save a horse named Joey that is trapped in barbed wire. For director Steven Spielberg, the scene -- which is tense but also laced with humor -- is a pivotal moment:

“It was a selling point for me in the sense that when I saw the play there’s [a similar] moment, but it’s not an extended moment. It’s more of a gesture of optimism and hope, and not fully fleshed out. I knew it was something I needed to do in the broader sense to enhance the themes we were dealing with in the movie adaptation.”

-- Geoff Boucher

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