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War Horse Press Conference Part Two: Authors and Actors


Concluding our coverage of Steven Spielberg's latest...

War Horse (2011)

On the morning of Monday 9th January 2012, just hours after the British premier at the Odeon in London’s Leicester Square, a press conference for Steven Spielberg's latest film War Horse was held in the magnificent ballroom of Claridge's, one of London's most lavish hotels located in the heart of Mayfair. As I reported in the first part of this article (which you can read here), the event was split into two halves, the first of which featured Spielberg and his long-time producer Kathy Kennedy speaking about the movie in what was a fascinating and informative half an hour.

The second part, though, was equally interesting, as author Michael Morpurgo and screenwriter Richard Curtis discussed the genesis of the story and its journey from Morpurgo's moving and poignant children's book that was originally published in 1982 to Curtis's script that Spielberg drew much of his direction from, and actors Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston and Emily Watson revealed just what it was like to be directed by one of the finest and most respected movie makers alive today.

War Horse (2011)

Asked by moderator Ian Freer of Empire magazine what is was like to find himself thrust from obscurity into the glare of a Spielberg premier, Jeremy Irvine seemed genuinely in awe as he revealed that he had woken up that morning wondering if it had all been a dream. He explained that in a short space of time he had gone from having no lines in theatrical productions to War Horse and that just to have lines in a film was a privilege, but to have lines in a Spielberg film was more than he could explain.

Richard Curtis, creator of Blackadder and the writer responsible for such British classics as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Love Actually (2003), added that coming away from the premier in the car the previous night, his ten year old son had proclaimed that it had been the most important day of his whole childhood. Thinking that he was talking about having walked down the red carpet or having been in the presence of Spielberg, his son surprised him by saying that he had learned that he never wanted to go to war, and Curtis declared that because it can yield that sort of response is one of the reasons why the movie and the book are so important.

Tom Hiddleston, best known recently for his portrayal as Loki in Thor (2011), declared that the movie had given him an undying love for horses, that the sensitivity and nobility of the animals was something that he had never expected. He explained that, in his opinion, what Spielberg had taken on was that horses have so much to teach us, and that they remind people of their humanity, something that he found remarkable every time he'd watched the film. He also revealed that he'd grown up on Steven Spielberg movies, and that he'd always wanted to be sitting on a horse, wearing a hat, with a John Williams soundtrack, and here he was, doing just that and living out his dream.

War Horse (2011)

Emily Watson, asked about her movie career, opined that she had never really had a plan, and that in fact it had all been a bit of an accident really. She had, however, met some really amazing human beings in her career to date – Altman, Von Trier, Spielberg – which had been an absolute pleasure.

Asked about the story, Michael Morpurgo raised a laugh from the audience by asking why he couldn't talk about his career in movies, reasoning that although he was 68 he had just starred in his first movie, which just happened to be a Spielberg movie, and that he’d already been taken on to play Indiana Jones. “It’s a lovely insight,” he continued, “into a world I don’t know, which I find fascinating but it’s a foreign land. Like most writers you sit in a room and you scribble a story and you don’t have a connection with the people who then take your story, whether it be to the stage or to the screen, and with this particular story I got enormously lucky. As Emily said, one of the lovely things about it is that you meet extraordinary people with wonderful creative energy who do take your story onto a different level. And that’s just to be involved in a small way, to look at the script occasionally, make a comment or two, and then to put on moustaches and get dressed up and be silly on a set for a day. It isn’t just all silliness, it’s because I want to be a part of it, I don’t want to be separate from something that’s as important to me as a story I wrote thirty odd years ago.”

He then revealed that although it had become successful all over the world, only the German market had changed the name of the book from War Horse to Comrades, which he thought was an interesting occurrence given the nature of the relationships between Joey, the titular animal, and the various human beings in the story, and that the story had finally become an anthem for peace.

War Horse (2011)

The actors were then asked that given that every actor's CV states that they can ride a horse, had they ever fibbed (told a lie) to get a job. Tom Hiddleston answered first, saying that they had done some riding on Thor but that little do people know that Asgardians ride like cowboys, and that they rode on western saddles on that film that were more like armchairs compared to the ones on War Horse. “When I was taken off to cavalry school with Benedict Cumberbatch and Patrick Kennedy,” he continued, “we were disabused very quickly of our bad habits and drilled for five weeks like soldiers. It’s an amazing thing to learn to ride because it isn’t like acting at all, in that horses are so sensitive that they’ll call your bluff so if you’re feigning confidence with arrogance you’re off, they’ll bolt, you’ll fall, you won’t be able to control them and you have to be humble enough to allow them teach you how to ride, which was a big lesson for me.”

Emily Watson denied having ever told a lie to land a role, though she did admit that she didn't let on that she was scared of horses before signing up for the movie, and Jeremy Irvine insisted that he was definitely not a master horseman, and that in one scene when he was reading for the part, he was required to shed a tear, but due to the horse he was testing with actually standing on his foot the tears were real.

Hiddlestone expanded on the horse training course, revealing that while everybody was taught to ride in the same place, he got to do cavalry training while Irvine was made to act like a stable boy, mucking out the horses. Irvine then confirmed that the time spent with the horses was essential because you couldn't fake the sort of relationship that he had to have with them, especially as he had never been on or around horses before.

Asked if going from the small, low key confined of theatre to a Spielberg movie was intimidating, Irvine revealed that he had been terrified, and that he had to stop himself from thinking about it, but that everybody had been very kind and paternal, with Hiddlestone in particular telling him to think of it as just a job – you turn up for work and do a job and then you go home, and that’s when you can freak out.

War Horse (2011)Turning to the writing process, Morpurgo and Curtis were asked what sort of research they did into the horrors of the 'war to end all wars'. Morpurgo told the audience that the best opportunity that you could have as a writer if you weren’t able to experience things first hand was to talk to everyone who had been through it, and that he had gotten to know three men in the village that he had just moved into who had been gassed and gone through numerous horrors, enabling him to learn about it first hand. He revealed that he was aware that they didn't have to pass these memories on to him, which it later turned out they hadn't previously spoken to anybody about, so it was very humbling learning first hand about the relationships that the horses had had with their owners.

As a result of these conversations, Morpurgo had been very moved and then became upset and angry which led his research to the Imperial War Museum where he discovered that roughly the same number of horses as men had died on the British side, in much the same way that the soldiers themselves had – of exhaustion and disease in the mud of the trenches. Of those horses that did make it through the war, many were then sold of as butcher's meat and didn't even make it home, and it was this combination of being entrusted with all of these personal memories and then the research that came on top of it that angered him enough to write a story about it.

Responding to the same question, Curtis said that Ben Elton, his writing partner in his earlier years had been more in charge of the research when he was younger, obliquely and modestly referencing the work that the pair had done on Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).

Asked whether it needed creators of the calibre of Spielberg and Curtis to persuade him to do the film, Morpurgo confirm the Blackadder connection, saying that there was a point at the end of the comedy series where the true horrors of the First World War were shown for a moment, and the laughter stopped as the audience grasped the grim reality of the setting, and it was this that inspired his confidence in Curtis writing the script. He then revealed that he had written a script himself fifteen years previously with Simon Channing Williams, who produced The Constant Gardener (2005), but that it hadn't really worked.

“Then the play happened,” the author continued, “and then the connection with Kathy Kennedy, so my agent let me know that they weren't just going to buy the rights, but the actual film itself would be done by him (Spielberg). So we met up in Claridge's and I realised how much he cared about the film and thought it was wonderful to have him growing my baby. I knew he could cope with it.”War Horse (2011)

Curtis was then asked whether he was surprised at how much the horses were able to do onscreen, and he revealed that when it became known that he was going to write the screenplay, a lot of people asked him how he was going to do to which he replied, “With horses!” Elaborating on his writing technique, Curtis explained that when he created a screenplay, he spent entire days just writing single characters in order to make sure that their journey through the story was consistent, and that this meant that when it came to War Horse he would have 'horse days' where he wouldn't write any lines, but would instead consider Joey's (the name of the titular horse) journey from the comfort of the farm where he starts out to the reality of dead bodies, both human and horses, in the war, and to try and imagine what he'd be thinking at each point in the film.

Moving back to the actors, they were asked about working with Spielberg, Emily Watson revealed that he did a very strange thing, something that actor David Thewlis had previously mentioned to her but still took her aback when it happened, in that he actually talked to the actors during takes.

“After an hour or so, “she continued, “I started to really enjoy it as it's constructed in such and old fashioned way. He knew exactly what he wanted and he's planting seeds in your head as the camera's rolling. He has incredible skill. He doesn't have to reach for things, he can make them happen.”

Tom Hiddleston elaborated on this by saying, “The way he directed me, Benedict (Cumberbatch) and Patrick (Kennedy) with emotional guidance was extraordinary. When I see the machine guns in the film, he wanted to show a real lightness of that moment, as if Joey had no-one on his back. It was the only use of slow motion in the film, actually, as he didn't believe it suited the film.”

Hiddleston then revealed that during this scene (warning – slight spoilers for the remainder of this paragraph), Spielberg had given him some specific direction by first asking him how old he was, to which the actor replied twenty-nine, and then telling him that when he said 'guns' to him, he wanted him to lose twenty years, effectively reverting to a child in his final moments.

War Horse (2011)

The panel was then asked how much of an appreciation they had gained from working on the film for what the soldiers go through. Jeremy Irvine answered first, saying that “I don't think any of us can ever say that we can 'relate' to what these boys and young men went through, I think it would be insulting to say that we can. I remember turning up on the day when they were filming the cavalry charge and being moved to tears watching Benedict when he’s captured in that scene. Having spent time with Tom and Ben, you know, just great friends and guys and to imagine these people who would have been just like us really, and dying in their millions… I think what the film does is sums up the futility of it.”

Hiddleston picked up the question, saying “Having never served as a soldier, I really don’t know, but certainly I felt an enormous responsibility to represent the kind of spirit with which that war was fought and the extraordinary courage that people displayed, and the whole section of the film that I’m in is about the triumph of individual and collective courage over fear. There’s a moment before the cavalry charge where I hope people can see how wretched and terrified Captain Nichols is beforehand and he’s trying to take confidence from his horse. We were really 120 horses in that phalanx, galloping towards an immaculately recreated German camp, so really the only things that weren’t recreated were the bullets in the guns, and doing that charge was thrilling and terrifying because you hear 480 hooves thundering in your ears, the sound of 120 stuntmen screaming at the top of their lungs, the looks of 300 extras running away from you in terror. It felt as real as it could possibly get without it actually being real, and made me recalibrate my appreciation for what real conflict must be like and what real soldiers must go through.”

Richard Curtis interjected at this point, stating that War Horse was “also a film about decency all round. One of the profound points Michael’s book is that people behave as well on the German side, and I love that in the central scene in No Man's Land, two completely new characters encounter the horse, both get on so well with each other, both have such common decency, and it’s that reminder that under all the bravura and noise of war are decent people on both sides who wish for peace.”

Emily Watson then revealed that she had a very personal connection with the home front. “My grandmother, when she was 12, her older brother lied about his age, he was 17, and he joined up and went off to war. He was injured and died a week later in a German prisoner of war camp, and sent a letter home saying ‘tis but a scratch, I’m fine, don’t worry about me, please pay my batman (personal servant), I owe him a pound, which was the last act of an honourable dying seventeen year old, and when I was in my mid-20s she talked about it for the very first time, and showed me this letter, which she had kept with his photograph and his medal by her bed for her entire life, and she sobbed her heart out as if it had been yesterday, and that single experience that evening, gave me the minutest glimpse into what must have been the most profound nationwide grief and loss, because that story was replicated in every family across the land. Harry Patch was the last surviving British fighter from the First World War, he died last year, and it is now leaving living memory and I think this film is very timely because it shines a light again on that terrible conflict that was so meaningless in a way the Second World War wasn't as meaningless.”

War Horse (2011) - Emily WatsonMorpurgo was given the last word, positing that war films, like it or not, are always going to be political. “People are going to look at it and say, is it pro war film, or a pro peace film? I’m a war baby,” he continued “I grew up in London just after the Second World War, and my first memories of this city are of ruins and of wrecked lives, of a family that was split up by it. The divorce rate multiplied by four in this country from 1944 to 1947 as a direct result of the fracture that the war did to this country. The reason I think that people are interested in the book of War Horse now, which they weren’t for approximately twenty-five years, is the saddest reason possible, and that is that we have bodies coming home and coffins covered in flags, not just in this country but worldwide. I think people are more in contact now with the consequences of war than they’ve been for a very long time, and that’s what amazes me sometimes when politicians seem to forget their history, that they don’t look and read and learn about what has happened before. Maybe they haven’t got the memory, maybe they’re already too young to do that, but you can see how we become puffed up, how the cockerel in nations rises so quickly if we’re not careful, and any story it seems to me that gets us thinking, particularly young people, and asking ‘Why? Why did that happen to those people? Was it necessary?’ is really important. I think a film that does that as powerfully as Steven Spielberg has done is terrific, so I’m very pleased that I’m associated with it.”

With those sombre but thoughtful words, the press conference drew to a close, and though I had gone into the event with only a cursory knowledge of the source material and the message of the film, I left with much to think about and determined to both read the book (which I have now, and can thoroughly recommend to parents and children alike) and see the film.

War Horse is currently on release in the UK

See also:

War Horse Press Conference – Spielberg Speaks

Review: Steven Spielberg's 'War Horse'


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