Steven Spielberg, arguably the most popular filmmaker of the 20th century, meets his match this week: Steven Spielberg.
He will be opening two highly anticipated films just days apart. On Wednesday comes "The Adventures of Tintin," based on the globally popular comics, mixing adventure, slapstick, mystery and humor in photorealistic 3-D animation. "War Horse," a poignant live-action drama about a farm animal that enters England's World War I cavalry, gallops in next Sunday.
Never before has Spielberg faced such formidable competition.
Studios usually scramble to avoid scheduling big pictures head-to-head. But in a recent phone conversation, an upbeat Spielberg said he was delighted at the parallel premieres and unconcerned that he might be cannibalizing his audience.
"Hey, you know something? I'm blessed that this year I've been able to have two movies come out. I'm so happy that both these movies are coming out during the family movie-going season. I'm not thinking ahead to anything else. I never do. I've never, ever held out expectations beyond hoping that the films do well."
He's done well, with two best-director Oscars (for "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan") and a career box-office gross of $6 billion and counting.
His bankability is seen again this month, with production budgets of $70 million for "War Horse" and $130 million for "Tintin."
In an industry where egos loom large, Spielberg, 64, is exceptionally unaffected. Whether he's discussing Peter ("Lord of the Rings") Jackson, who produced "Tintin," or animal trainer Bobby Lovgren, who worked with the equine performers on "War Horse," the filmmaker makes it sound as if he's just lucky to have such talented teammates.
Spielberg, who set the pattern for the modern studio blockbuster with "Jaws," even had kind words for the animals.
"The horses were brilliant, and the trainers were the reason they were so brilliant. Bobby and his entire team of horse whisperers did the most amazing job of getting the script needs and my needs to the animals, who not only performed what they were supposed to perform, they were improvising all the time and we got things we never expected a horse can do on film," he said.
"War Horse" presented logistical challenges, from the animal cast (up to 280 horses were used in a single scene) to the ever-changing clouds and light above the English moors. Spielberg was determined to shoot a key scene in the rain -- "not Hollywood rain, but real rain" -- and the weather was uncooperative.
For "Tintin," he faced another series of hurdles. The technical questions involved in motion-capture animation were familiar enough. The real trick was creating a franchise around a 70-year-old Belgian cartoon character.
Georges Remi, better known as Herge, wrote and drew 23 adventures for his boy reporter between 1929 and 1976. The series has been a Harry Potter-level phenomenon around the world for decades, selling about 200 million copies. Yet outside high-end bookstores, Spielberg admitted, it has remained obscure here.
Spielberg himself didn't discover Tintin until 1980 or so, he recalled, and read the series to each of his six children in turn. The series, with its dynamic visuals and colorful characters, instantly struck Spielberg as movie material, and he snapped up the rights back in 1983. Adapting it was the trick.
"I wanted this to be classic Herge, faithful to the man who invented and sustained Tintin for all those years," he said.
It took three decades for performance-capture technology to reach the high-water mark that Spielberg knew the project required. While "Avatar" was still in production, he hired that film's special-effects wizards to swing over to his film next. "I was very fortunate to have those same animators."
Filming actors in computer-monitored bodysuits against a green screen didn't dampen their creative energy, Spielberg said.
"You can't keep Andy Serkis down," Spielberg said, referring to the actor who played Capt. Haddock, the mercurial sea captain who accompanies Tintin on his many adventures.
"And once you started improvising, and he began to finding new ways to make me laugh, Jamie Bell (Tintin) jumped in and he did the same. So we have more improvising and comedic invention from the actors than I've ever had in a live-action movie in my entire career."