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The most beloved American filmmaker of his generation sets out to reclaim his crown

MIAMI — A couple of years ago, Steven Spielberg was attending a horse show with his daughter when some kids recognized him and came over to say hello.

“They started saying ‘Oh, man, we love your movies so much! We love all your films — except for that last Indiana Jones picture. We all hated that one!’” Spielberg recalls, laughing.

(PHOTO: Director Steven Spielberg, far right, observes Jeremy Irvine, left, rehearse a scene with Joey on the set of DreamWorks Pictures’ “War Horse,” an epic adventure set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War.)

“I asked them ‘Why did you hate it?’ And they said, ‘It just wasn’t as good as the other ones. We didn’t like that alien thing at the end. That was stupid. He shouldn’t be going after aliens anyway. He should be going after archeology stuff.’”

Spielberg is familiar with that sentiment. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was the worst-reviewed film in the series that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” launched. Even Shia LaBeouf, who starred in it, has publicly trashed the film.

Just don’t expect Spielberg to apologize for it.

“Then those same kids told me they saw ‘Crystal Skull’ four times,” he says. “I asked ‘Why did you see it four times if you hated it?’ And they said ‘For all the good stuff in it.’ And suddenly I understood how that movie made $800 million, despite all the negative things I read about it.”

Ever since “Jaws” redefined the limits on how profitable a movie can be, Spielberg has balanced commerce with art: He’s one of the most gifted artists to ever walk onto a movie set, as influential and revered as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford and Stanley Kubrick. But Spielberg is also one of the sharpest and most shrewd businessmen in Hollywood, arguably second only to his friend and frequent producing partner George Lucas.

Both sides of Spielberg’s persona are about to invade a multiplex near you. On Wednesday comes “The Adventures of Tintin,” the director’s first foray into 3-D. The first of a planned series of films based on the comic books by the Belgian author Hergé, “Tintin” has already grossed $233 million overseas, where the eponymous hero, an intrepid newspaper reporter, is as entrenched in the culture as deeply as Peanuts is beloved in the U.S. The movie, which uses the same motion-capture effects James Cameron employed in “Avatar,” is a relentless thrill-ride replete with eye-popping 3-D effects, astonishing animation and sustained action sequences worthy of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“War Horse” follows on Dec. 25, a grand, bold epic based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel about the bond between a young man (played by Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, set during World War I. The PG-13 movie has the intensity and power of “Saving Private Ryan” (without the gore) and the wonder and depth of feeling of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” It is an unabashedly earnest, hopeful, moving work, and if some people may find the movie too sentimental for these cynical times, you get the sense that Spielberg doesn’t really care.

“We were moved to tears by it,” Spielberg says about the first time he and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, saw the award-winning stage play based on the book in London’s West End. “That was at the start of 2010. My producer Kathleen Kennedy and I bought the rights to the book, and we started pre-production on the movie the next day. We hired (screenwriter) Richard Curtis two weeks later. I saw the play in January, and I was shooting the movie in August.”

Spielberg also optioned the rights to the “War Horse” stage play by Nick Stafford, which won five Tonys and used remarkably life-like puppets to stand in for Joey, the titular hero of the film. The theatrical production gave Spielberg a way to adapt the novel without turning it into an epic-sized episode of “Mr. Ed.”

“The novel is narrated by a horse, which is a wonderful device for a children’s book, but it wouldn’t work in a motion picture,” Spielberg says. “I ruled that out immediately and took the approach the stage play took. Because you can’t really have a horse speaking English.”

Another filmmaker might have used Morpurgo’s book as the backdrop for a story about the toll and horrors of war. But Spielberg, who has devoted as many movies to historical conflicts as he has to aliens and the suburbs, didn’t think of “War Horse” that way. His approach was far simpler and purer, which explains why some critics are already grumbling about the film being too schmaltzy and saccharine.

“The war is the cause and the effect of the separation between boy and horse,” Spielberg says. “But what the story is really about is the personality of that horse and the determination and courage of that boy. This is a movie about how people are profoundly affected by animals in the middle of a horrible war. It is more about eye contact than huge epic battles scenes. Although there is certainly one of those.”

At an age when most people slow down to enjoy the fruits of their successes, Spielberg, who turned 65 on Sunday, is speeding up instead. He is already deep into production on “Lincoln,” his long-in-the-works movie about Abraham Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and slated to arrive in December 2012. He is expected to follow that up with “Robopocalypse,” an adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson’s best-selling novel about an attack on mankind by robots.

“I like to work very quickly, because the faster I work, the clearer I can see the movie,” Spielberg says. “If I work too slow, I lose my sense of rhythm, and I can’t see how the movie is coming together. But if I’m really shooting on the run, and the crew is moving quickly, and the actors are fully prepared, and we’re doing four or five takes instead of 20, I have complete lucidity about the story from beginning to end. That is the demon I battle when I direct: Losing my objectivity.”

Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar collaborating with Spielberg on “Schindler’s List,” says the filmmaker won’t roll the cameras until he is “absolutely comfortable” with every page of the shooting script.

“Steven will say things like ‘I don’t know exactly what, but there’s something not quite right about this scene.’ And I would keep working on it until he would say ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ And once the script is finished, he shoots it. That’s the greatest thing for a screenwriter: Working with a director who won’t say ‘Oh, we’ll worry about that later and just improvise something.’ Steven doesn’t do that. And then, obviously, what he brings to every scene on a visual level is extraordinary.”

Spielberg’s success earned him the ability to produce other people’s films, almost always in genres that are dear to him, and as one of the principal partners of DreamWorks Studios, he is a Hollywood mogul, too. As a result, Spielberg’s name has constantly graced movie screens, even during the rare patches when he took time off from directing. The films he has helped get made reads like a shopping list of late 20th-century pop culture: “Back to the Future,” “Gremlins,” “Men in Black,” “The Goonies,” “Cape Fear,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

This year alone, Spielberg was an executive producer on “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” an active collaborator with J.J. Abrams on “Super 8” and even made a voice cameo in “Paul,” a comedic homage to 1980s-era Spielberg sci-fi. And other times, he will offer creative input on other people’s films behind the scenes, he did with “Paranormal Activity” and the first “Shrek.”

“Sometimes I’ll take the title of executive producer on a movie knowing the value of my name,” Spielberg says. “With ‘Cowboys & Aliens,’ Ron Howard and I decided to help package the movie and assign ourselves a credit just to give a little more awareness to this very expensive, yet very experimental, genre-crunching movie.

“‘Super 8’ was different. J.J. Abrams and I were trying to figure out what we could make together, and we came up with the idea of making a movie about kids making movies, which is what we both did when were teenagers. J.J. came up with the concept of some huge thing getting out after a train crashes, and only the kids know about it because they’ve got this Zapruder film to prove it. But I was very active on ‘Super 8’ from beginning to end. I am very proud of it. Although some people were critical of J.J. trying to imitate my earlier movies and perhaps falling short, he was never trying to (pay) homage to me. I think I just rubbed off on him a little, because we had so many story meetings together. He shouldn’t be blamed for the pollen I put on his wings. I don’t consider that homage. If anything, I would rather take the blame for that.”

But even though his producing duties would be enough to keep him occupied, Spielberg remains as enthusiastic and curious about filmmaking as he did at the start of his career. “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin” will open in theaters within days of each other, but this is not the first time he has directed two films in the same year. He did it in 1993, with “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park”; in 1997, with “The Lost World” and “Amistad”; in 2002, with “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can”; and in 2005, with “War of the Worlds” and “Munich.” He is the most prolific of all the A-list directors — by comparison, James Cameron has only directed eight feature films in his entire career — and when you mention these double-feature years, Spielberg himself offers up one more.

“I also did it with ‘E.T.’ and ‘Poltergeist’; they came out a week apart,” he says, accidentally reviving the long-standing suspicion that he played an even bigger role in the making of 1982’s “Poltergeist” than writer and producer (Tobe Hooper is officially credited as director of the film). Spielberg has made this slip before — he once apologized for it in a letter to Time magazine that read “Tobe Hooper alone was the director” — and he says it yet again when talking about the decision to release “Tintin” and “War Horse” only five days apart.

“As I was nearing the end of production on ‘War Horse,’ I was also starting to approve or send back animation of ‘Tintin,’ and I realized both films were going to come out very close together, as close as ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘E.T.,’” he says. “But even though ‘War Horse’ and ‘Tintin’ are family oriented, they are still different enough that audiences can make a choice of which one they want to see first but not at the expense of skipping the other one.”

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