Follow us on: Twitter, Facebook RSS

Skip to main content

Private Peaceful

Event Q&A Transcript

1. Because the film is an adaptation of the book, and you’ve said that it’s perhaps your most powerful book, how is it seeing this turned into a film?

Michael Morpurgo: All I can tell you is this when you write a book you have no idea at all that it will get turned into a play or film you simply write the story because you care about it, so the question I have to ask myself is why did I care about the story? I went to a place called Leper in Belgium to a museum, which is called In Flanders Field, it’s a museum about the first word war and its such a good museum that you come out of it as you should do after seeing a museum about the most terrible war that has ever been fought – you come out in tears, everyone does, because you’ve lived through what those soldiers lived through. And the last thing I saw as I came out was a little letter written by the army to a mother in Salford and it said something like this: Dear Mrs so and so, we regret to inform you that your son, Private so and so, was shot at dawn on such and such a date 1916 signed lieutenant so and so. I read that and there was envelope above it with a rip and the address and her name and as I read that I thought to myself this is the most terrible moment of that woman’s life; she’s just learnt that her sons dead and the manner of his dying. Then I went and I read some trials of these people who had been shot at dawn, 300 of them were shot at dawn as you’ve just seen and I thought to myself, there’s was no justice here. There was huge injustice and I wanted to tell the story of one of them so I just told it down as best I could during the last night of one of the brothers life, you don’t know in the book until the end and the reason I’ve told you that is because in the film what Patrick O’Connor and these wonderful actors did is they kept to the spirit of the book. This beginning endeavor when everything is peaceful but there’s a family in difficulty – it’s not simple, it’s very hard work, tragedy but nonetheless the brothers love each other and they love Molly. Then they go off to war and this dreadful thing happens to them and it happened to ordinary people, that was the point and they kept to the spirit of it and that’s what I loved about the film. So I could not be happier with what they’ve done.

2. Now a question to all three of you - the film is based on historical facts and there’s an element of research you have to go through in order to write the novel and then be in the film, can you explain how you approached the research process in terms of acting and writing and how much of duty to history you’re aware of in the making of the film?

George MacKay: First from an acting point of view we didn’t want to do too much research into what it would be like to be fighting because the boys had an idea what they were getting into which was a terrible thing – it wasn’t misguided they just had now idea of the severity and the drama of what you were going into so we didn’t want to look like we knew what we were doing because most of these boys didn’t, you learnt while you were there and you learnt over that short intense training period and we filmed the trench stuff at the end of the film so the last month was purely trench warfare so we saved it for that and learnt a huge amount from our military advisor a wealth of knowledge – there’s nothing he didn’t know about the first world war so if anytime we had a question or wanted to research the way arms were held – the way they held there rifles, these boys were made to walk towards the other trench so we were all there getting ready and trying to look like Rambo but then we realised they were all made to walk so calm, structured manner and that was what was so terrible in a way because they were made to walk straight into the machine gun fire. So from a research point of view, the importance for us was getting the sense of that period, the body language, the way that they talk - there’s mannerisms that we have now that you just wouldn’t use in 1916 and I was trying to be conscious of that rather than knowing the complete historical facts of what it would be like.

Alexandra Roach: From Molly’s point of view I very much took the same road as you, I didn’t want to research too much into the first word war because Molly is at home worrying about the boys, she doesn’t know where they are and she doesn’t have that communication with them, she just stayed at home and pretty much minute to what they were going through so I definitely distanced myself from research the war in depth. When I watched the film it was really hard hitting because you get to visually see how young these boys were going off and leaving the families and going off into such a dangerous world, putting there lives at risk. That’s what hit me the most.

Michael Morpurgo: In a way that is the point of writing, history is a part of each of us – you people sitting here in the audience, what you may not know but should find out is what your great great grandfather, grandmother, grand uncle did because you will find that they went to that war because everyone did who was male and the girls and the mothers stayed behind and received this kind of news all the time – a million soldiers from this country died in that war – so a there were a million letters coming back to people like molly about their husband being killed and some of them were your relations so were all part of it, its a part of our history. The interesting thing is that I was in Germany a week ago talking to Germans about a production of another book of mine called War Horse which is a play that is going to come on in Berlin and talking to them was extraordinary because they lived through exactly the same experience over there. So their girl and mums on farms in germ got the same letter and they know that now and they’re trying to discover how this dreadful war happened because it didn’t achieve anything. So there are boys like Tommo and Charlie, who I know are fiction and you know are fiction but I have to get it as right as I can because I’m dealing with truth of history and truth of peoples lives, relatives of yours – you have to be very careful that you don’t make it entertainment. What I’m hoping is that during that film you’ve just seen you weren’t entertained. I don’t want you sitting there thinking that was fun, it wasn’t fun and if we make it fun then we’ve done exactly the wrong thing because we have to have respect for the lives of those people who have come back that’s for sure.

3. The balance between the war front and the home front is very important to the film. Could you explain how you developed the balance between the two?

Michael Morpurgo: The lucky thing for me is that I live in the very place you saw that story set. I live in a little village called Iddesleigh and I met three men who had been to that war a long time ago and they told me so much about it and I also met their wives who are now very often widows, so what you get a sense of is that these kids, that’s all they were, went to a place called France which they’d never been to before – many of them had never been to the next town. They found themselves in a uniform, going across the sea and fighting in this war, leaving behind the mothers and the grandmothers who kept everything going. They kept the farms going and then when the boys came back and this is the real tragedy of it, I learnt in my village life was never be the same again. Many of them didn’t come back that was the first big thing that wasn’t the same. But even if they did come back having seen what they’ve seen, imagine what Tommo has lived through and he comes back to be with the girl that he loves and with that child but in his head are all the things he has seen and felt. How is going to deal with that? Is he going to talk to molly about that? Probably never because its so terrible the things that he has seen that he doesn’t want to bring it out at all and that what I picked up from these old people. They were prepares to talk to me a complete stranger but when I tale to their wives they said ‘He never said anything to us’, just kept it to themselves. That, I found, was when the whole thing became so true.

4. For the two actors, can you explain what you knew of each others plot lines and how you were relating it to each other because one of you were at the front line and the other at the home front.

George MacKay: For Tommo’s story he is completely at the front the whole time so the reason he goes there is to strike out, he has this complex of wanting to be a man and has had a love for some one who he has looked up to for so long with Charlie. He has this love for him and I think part of this love is because he is older and he looks up to him so he strikes out in an effort to be a man and to prove himself in a masculine and physical way – to go and fight is a very manly thing to do, very primal. I think he was just so focused in what he was doing but his heart was always at home and that’s the thing about these boys – going out and trying to do something for yourself but having your heart rooted at where you’re from and you’re doing it for the people at home and fighting for the love of someone else. There’s a part of the film where Molly says the volunteers are brave and that’s a note for Tommo’s head, he thinks if I cant be with her at least shell think I’m brave, so everything is rooted in you love of people at home and of your family.

Alexandra Roach: What I had to be careful of was to portray the different sorts of love tat Molly has for the two brothers and when they’re both taken away from her just the sense of loneliness. She was thrown out of her house for being pregnant and these boys are off, she doesn’t know here they are and what hit me was that these women were trying to keep their lives going back home whilst the most important men in their lives were away in a really scary place. How lonely these women must have been, but trying to keep strong – from the sort of town that I’m from the women have such a strong sense of strength and I didn’t want Molly to be weak I wanted her to have different love for the both boys and have strength to try and support and love them in different ways.

5. What inspired you to write a story about World War I?

Michael Morpurgo: It goes back to my childhood, when you look at me I hope you would think I was not born at the time of WWI, I was born though at the time of WWII which meant that I grew up in London after WWII with all around me was this city, bombed, there was rationing, it was grey. When I played it wasn’t in playground it was in bombsites, it was in ruins of peoples houses and when you’re little you don’t know what that mean. I was five and I just knew it as a really good playground and then when I became 6 or 7 I realised that my mum and step father used to get very upset at certain times and dates. One of the times they got upset was on the birthday and the death day when my uncle peter was born and died. He as shot down in a plane and we had his photo on the mantelpiece. So as I am a kid growing up the poster I had o my wall was not of a film star, the poster if you like was this photograph of a wonderfully heroic figure that died. He was a hero in the family and it made my mum sad because he was her brother. And the problem is that when you see your mum cry its really upsetting. Suddenly I realised that his grief that she felt was going to last. He may be dead but her grief lasted until she died aged 76. Because I grew up as a writer I suppose the loss and grief of war always touched me. So when I met those men in my village who told me of the suffering of war that they would go through and the people at home would go through echoes came back in my head. Writers only write really well about what they care about, what you know about, you don’t write just to make it fun for other people. And these are stories that touched my heart, stories about loss, stories about love and belonging and the difficulties of life and war heightens that so I suppose that’s why I’ve written about the First World War on several occasions.