Follow Us on Twitter

War Horse - Michael Morpurgo and Richard Curtis interview

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MICHAEL Morpurgo talks about some of the initial inspirations behind writing the novel of War Horse and why he felt privileged to be able to bring it to the big screen with Steven Spielberg.

Richard Curtis, meanwhile, talks about the challenge of adapting it for the big screen as well as the profound effect it had on his 10-year-old son. They were both speaking at a London press conference for the film.

Q. What are the elements of War Horse that make it such an influential film?
Richard Curtis: Well, I would say that it was very interesting because last night [at the royal premiere] my 10-year-old came with me to the film and he gave a book to the prince, which he described as the most important day of his whole childhood. And when we got to the cab afterwards, he said: “I’ve learnt one thing from tonight.” I said: “What?” Assuming that it would be something like ‘Prince William is very tall’ or something. But he said: “I learnt never, never, never, never to go to war.” And that was his single take away from the film. So, I think the fact that this story about a boy and a horse and lots of small clutches of people can yield the message that war is a ghastly and wasteful thing is one of the reasons the movie is important and the book’s always been so.

Q. And Michael?
Michael Morpurgo: As Richard said, it’s called War Horse but the Germans are interesting but they are the only people who change the title to ‘Comrades’ and I think that’s significant. It’s not really a story about war. It is a story about friendship and reconciliation. As someone said when they came out of the theatre, and I’m sure they’ll do this when they come out of the film as well, it is an anthem to peace. So, I’m very grateful for that.

Q. What was it about the film industry that influenced you personally in your career choices?
Michael Morpurgo: Well, I’m aged 68 and I’ve just started my first movie. It happens to be a Steven Spielberg movie. I’m beginning a new career really. Indiana Jones is what I’ll be next. It’s a lovely insight for me into a world I don’t know, which I find fascinating. Like most writers, I sit in a room and scribble a story and you don’t have a connection with the people who take your story, whether it be to the stage or to the screen. But with this particular story I got enormously lucky. As Emily [Watson] has 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. So, to be involved in a small way, to look at a script occasionally, to make a comment or two, to put on moustaches and get dressed up and be on the set to be silly for a day… it’s fine. And it isn’t all just silliness, it’s because I wanted to be a part of it. I don’t want to be separate from something that’s so important to me. It’s a story I wrote 30-odd years ago.

Q. Can you talk about the research you did on the horrors of the war to end all wars?
Michael Morpurgo: Well, I had the best opportunity as a writer that you could ever have, unless you can be in a place yourself and go through the subject of your story yourself, the next best thing is not to read a book about it, or see a movie about it, it’s to talk to the people who’ve been there. And 30 or so years ago, whenever I wrote the book, I’d just moved into the little village of Iddesleigh, where the story is set, which has become my home, and got to know three old men who lived in the village, who were 80 at that time, all now passed on. Two of them had been to the First World War. One of them had been there when there was a horse sale outside the pub, The Duke of York, and was there when the boys came home as well.

Of the two soldiers that went, one was an infantryman who had been gassed and gone through all sorts of horrors that we all know about, and have read about in Wilfred Owens’ poems and seen in Oh What A Lovely War and All Quiet On The Western Front, yet here I was talking to someone who’d been there himself and actually hadn’t talked to anyone else about it before. I had no idea why he opened his heart and his memories to me but he did. And then the third octogenarian who had been an officer in the yeomanry who had gone to war with horses and it was he who told me about the relationships that his men had built up with their horses. And how he’d go to the horse lines at night and talk to his horse about what really mattered to him, which was his fear and longing to get home. Again, what was extraordinary about these moments was that I didn’t realise at the time but maybe they thought that, in a way, this was them handing on their story.

So, I was lucky to be a witness to their stories and moved and upset and angry. The research then led me to the Imperial War Museum to find out the numbers and the figures, which are important but not nearly as gripping as the stories of the people and their horses. But roughly speaking, a million horses went to the First World War and 65,000 came home, which means that roughly the same number of horses died on our side… and that’s just on our side. In the entire war, maybe 10 million soldiers and 10 million horses. So, then the thinking comes in on top of the research that they died the same way – they died on the [barbed] wire, they drowned in the mud of exhaustion and disease, they were blown apart in just the same way, and many of them were sold off for butcher’s meat because the government didn’t think that they were worth bringing home afterwards. So, there were a whole lot of personal memories that came from these men and then the research on top of it, which angered me enough to sit down and write a story.

War Horse

Q. How about you Richard?
Richard Curtis: I was very much dependent on Michael’s research and his book. I bizarrely wrote a situation comedy [Blackadder Goes Fourth] about the First World War when I was younger. We did all the work then on the history. But it was very much not my job to look at the history of it. I was trying to enrich the characters that Michael had written.

Q. Michael, did you have any reservations about bringing your story to the big screen? Did it take people of the calibre of Richard Curtis and Steven Spielberg to persuade you?
Michael Morpurgo: Well, can I just come back on something that Richard just said first? That scene that I think he was referring to from Blackadder is one of the great scenes of cinema about the First World War… utterly, utterly extraordinary. I don’t know how long it was… less than a minute but it gave the entire nation an intake of breath about the reality of what had happened. We knew all these extraordinary characters that he had created and then the laughter stopped and that was what was extraordinary about that moment. And it needed saying because he [Richard] won’t say enough. He doesn’t talk enough!

Coming back your question, all I knew was that there was a man called Spielberg – and I’d never heard of him – who wanted to make a movie and I thought it was a pretty good idea. I had already thought 15 years before of making a movie of this and I’d written a script myself. I had a wonderful producer called Simon Channing Williams, who had produced The Constant Gardener as well as many of Mike Leigh’s films, and who sadly died a couple of years ago. But he and I worked for six or seven years on a script to try and make this thing come to the screen. I think probably the scripts weren’t good enough and he maybe didn’t have the contacts. I don’t know but it didn’t work and it faded away and the book just went on selling very, very little.

But then the play happened and from the play came this connection to [producer] Kathleen Kennedy, who saw the play and spoke to Spielberg, with whom she’d worked a lot over the years, and then I found out from my agent that they weren’t just going to buy the rights, but that he wanted to actually make it himself and direct it, so would I come and meet up with him at a place called Claridges. Well, I thought I’d like to go to Claridges. So, I went and had lunch at Claridges. They eat very minimally Americans… but there we are! But we had a most extraordinary conversation during which I realised that this man really cared about it. That’s what came across. This was a storyteller who really cares about the stories he takes on. He was completely passionate about it. And I thought it would be wonderful to have somebody like that holding your baby, growing your baby and then see what happens. And since this is the man who had made ET and Schindler’s List, I thought maybe he could cope with War Horse.

Q. Richard, I read your foreword in the book re-print in which you said that when you told people you were re-writing War Horse they said ‘how would you deal with the puppetry of the horses on film’? Were you surprised how much real horses were capable of doing on-screen? And in writing those scenes did you take that into account?
Richard Curtis: Yes, that’s absolutely right, when I said I was going to do the film a lot of people asked me how we’d be doing the horses. The answer was always: “With horses rather than bits of wood.” The strangest thing about the film, for me, was that I did do horse days. I remember ringing Steven and saying: “I won’t be writing any lines this week, I’m just going to do horse stuff.” Always when I write, I spend at least a day or two only writing each character on their own, gong through the whole film checking them out to see if there are any holes in the arc of their journey, particularly if the characters aren’t the lead characters. So, my girlfriend says she saw me playing at the desk and making horse noises a lot.

So, I did try and think: “Here’s a horse, who’s been in the comfort of that farm, and then suddenly where there have only been two people there are thousands of people in uniform, and then suddenly he sees dead horses for the first time in his life. So, I did try and imagine at each point what the horse would be thinking. So, in a way I’d set up expectations that the horses would be very emotional in the film and they were all fulfilled.

War Horse

Q. How did you find the balance between the horrors of the First World War and the Somme and making it accessible to children?
Richard Curtis: Well, the strange thing was from my point of view and I think from the way Michael writes his books, which are full of scenes of shocking sadness for children, in the whole process of working with Steven he never mentioned this was a family film to me. He never said we’re going to have to make a concession here or: “Do remember this is a PG-13 film!” It never came up. He sort of made those discretionary judgements in the way he shot and the lack of blood. But from a creative point of view he asked me to tell the truth about the situations that were occurring and then he judged the pitch at which he would shoot them. But he didn’t restrain it at all by saying we had to be careful or had to hide anything.

Q. And Michael?
Michael Morpurgo: I think Steven and Richard kept wonderfully close to the spirit of the book. The book leaves you, I hope, desperately sad, wretched, wrecked really… because you’ve lived through the horrors of the First World War. But there are no body parts. We know they exist, of course we do. We don’t need to see Saving Private Ryan to know that. We know in wars these things are terrible but true. But we also know that they’re no sadder because of the amount of blood that you see. And what he does wonderfully well, especially when you come away from a scene like the cavalry charge, when you’re looking down on the battlefield and you’re seeing the horses and the men lying there… that’s all you need. It conveys to an adult audience and to a child audience all that needs to be said about the waste and the pity of it.

Q. How much has writing the book and now making the movie given you an appreciation of what soldiers go through in real life?
Michael Morpurgo: It’s difficult really because any story you write about war, or film you make about war, is bound to be political whether you like it or not. So, people might say this is a pro-peace film, for me I grew up in London just after the Second World War and my first memories of this city were of ruins and wrecked lives. I remember the divorce rate multiplied by four in this country from 1945 to ’47 as a direct result of the fracture that war did to this country.

But more to the point, the reason that I think that people are interested in the book of War Horse now, which they weren’t for approximately 25 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 world-wide. 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 when sometimes politicians seem to forget their history. They don’t look and re-learn about what has happened before. Maybe they haven’t got the memory, maybe they’re already too young, but you can see how we become puffed up, and how we as a nation rise so quickly if we’re not careful.

And any story that gets us thinking, and particularly young people, thinking why? Whether it’s as a result of reading the book, or coming out of the theatre or the cinema, I think we should just simply be asking the question ‘why’? Why did it happen to those people? Was it necessary? And anything that gets us thinking like that is really important. Richard said right at the beginning about his son coming out of the premiere and, having thought really hard about what war really is, that’s important. And so I think a film that does that as powerfully as Steven Spielberg has done is terrific. So, I’m very pleased to be associated with it.

Read our review of War Horse

Read our interview with Steven Spielberg