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Private Peaceful

Talkback Session transcript

1. Do you have a preference between the book or the film of Private Peaceful?

Well I don’t have to make a choice, although you are trying to make me make a choice. What I would say is this; they are different. Of course I love the book so I know it well from behind it. But what I loved about the film last night when I saw it properly for the first time was that it caught the spirit of the book. The spirit of the book is the sensitivity of the relationships that are formed and this extra journey these two young men make from the world of their home and the complexity of that and I suppose the beauty of it all as well. And they go across the sea from this paradise, although it’s a diff paradise, and they go to this place that’s just hell. And he caught that, the director Pat O’Connor, really really well. And you know the best scene in either the book or the film for me, happens to be in the film. There’s a scene right at the end where we know what’s happened and Molly and Tommo and Charlies mother are walking along the lane and what that tells you is that they’ve been told and their life goes on and all the investment now in their future is in that little boy. I think that’s fantastic and that’s not in the book at all so he caught the spirit, took it his own way.

2. How different is it to turn a book into a film because a film is sometimes not as descriptive as a book?

The problem is the difference. You’ve got two hours, let’s say, to make a film. It’s got to be around about two hours. If you read Private Peaceful end to end it would probably take you over four hours. So what a book does is it can dwell longer as it takes you through. The difficulty really is that when you’re watching on a screen it’s a dead thing, its just there. We all know its an artifact, it’s pictures which everyone is seeing, hearing the same sound but you read my book of PP and I open it and read you the first line. As I read those words, every single person in this room is seeing and feeling something different. I’m not telling you what to think, the cinema does that; it’s saying this is where you are, the fields are green, the mud is brown. It’s just shouting at you all these things so in a sense it is giving you a lot more than a book ever gives you. For me, I love the book because you are involved in the telling of the thing. It’s a useless thing without a reader, it’s a completely useless object until someone picks it up, opens it up and starts reading those words, and then you make the pictures, you hear the sounds, you have the feelings and they are not even my feelings, they are not my sounds, its your interpretation of it and that’s what makes this what we now call truly interactive. It’s the most interactive thing you’ll ever do is read a book. With a play, its there in front of you and you’ve got to respond to that and a film is the same. The thing we’ve got to get into our heads is that one is not a representation of the other.

3. What’s it like when you’ve written the book and then you go down on to set and see all the actors acting our your words?

I love it and I hate it at the same time. I feel a little bit separate. It’s a bit like in this room like this. All you guys in this room, you all know each other, I’m a stranger. That’s a very strange position to be in, to be a stranger amongst lots of people who all know each other. And on a film set you must remember that sometimes that have lived together and worked together really close for weeks on end so you walk in and you’re the stranger but they’re always really lovely to the original writer but otherwise they know that they wouldn’t be there acting it so they’re always really lovely to you and you get to see the craft of acting and I love watching how they do it. They do it again and again and again. It would make me so fed up to be told “do it again, do it again, do it again” and each time they are trying to make it a little bit better. It’s a kind of a craft, it’s like Plasticine, they are trying to shape what they do each time, And then I watch the director and I’ve had examples recently of two different directors. When I saw Steven Spielberg making War Horse, his voice was always really really low, all the actors would be straining forward and he was really sweet and kind to them all. When he talked to them he put his arm round them and they would look at the monitor and he would say to them “look when you say that line your arm comes like this and maybe you could change that, what do you think?” He was always asking the actors what they thought and I loved that. Pat O’Connor was different. He stood back more; more like a conductor would conduct. That was his style, that is fine, and that actors would respond to that. Every director is different and for me as an outside, I just found it fascinating to watch how the movie is made. So I was fascinated, felt apart and I felt engaged. And above all I loved being with the young people, because it makes me feel young, which when you get to 69, you will require too.

4. When you wrote your first book, how did it inspire you to write more?

I was a teacher, I taught in a primary school. What year are you? Year 7. That’s alright. Year 6’s are truly horrible! I taught 35 Year 6’s year after year after year and the one thing the Year 6’s are really bad at is at the end of the day they get tired and they get grunchy and they sort of don’t want to be there any more so I decided the last half hour of every day I would read them a story. I ran out of good stories to read and one day I dared to tell a story of my own and what was really wonderful was that because I made it up, I told it with completely conviction, I really meant it because it was my story. And all these 35 Year 6’s, who normally say “errrr” were completely fascinated because it was my story. And I thought I like this, I’ll do it again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. And it came to Friday and I’d told this story that went on afternoon after afternoon after afternoon like a soap and Friday afternoon comes and in comes the head teacher and she sat there because she had heard about Mr Morpurgo’s story in the playground and she wanted to hear it and afterwards she said “Michael, that was very good. That was very good indeed. I want you to write it out for me and give it to me on Monday morning.” I hadn’t been spoken to like that since I was about your age and I wrote it out and I gave it to her on Monday morning and she sent it to a friend of hers who’s a publisher. And they published it and they gave me a sum of money, which was really nice! And I thought I love doing it, number one and number two, wouldn’t it be interested to try to earn your living doing what I really love doing which is telling stories. So it sort of happened, I really fell in love with it.