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War Horse

Event Q&A Transcript

Question 1

Why do you think that World War 1 is still relevant today? (Michael Morpurgo)

Because we are in the middle of one. You watch your television, you see the coffins coming home and you see what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that, and I’ve always thought this since I was in my 20s, there seems to be something about us as a species that returns to war like a sore, and scratches and scratches. You do it again and again and we never seem to let the thing heal so that one war leads to another war and to another war. Take for instance, and I’m sure you know something of the history of WW1. It was a conflict between the great powers of Europe who were really trying to decide who was top dog. The Germans wanted to be the big cheeses and so did we and so did the French and so they decided that we’ll sort this out through a big war, the consequence of which was all these deaths that you already know about but the worst consequence was at the end of war which we supposedly won, the other side were humiliated and when you humiliate and enemy they don’t lie down, we know this from modern wars. So what happens 20 years later is that fascism rises and Hitler comes out of this ghastly mess and because the people in Germany are feeling dreadful and humiliated and Hitler can wave the banners and bang the big drums, what do they want to do? They want to re-invade France, they want to re-fight that war and that’s what happened. And because of that we know what happened really in the last 50 years of my life – the terrible wars that have gone on ever since. So that is why it’s relevant now. What happened in No Man’s Land and what happened to those horses is relevant to someone like you. If we have conscription someone like him or her, like it or not, would end up in the army and that stuff matters. And because you are going to be voters and you can vote whether or not your country goes to war that’s important.

Question 2

What was it like working with Stephen Spielberg and how much pressure were you under? (Jeremy Irvine)

I was under a huge amount of pressure but was very privileged to be under that pressure so I just didn’t think about it. Working with Stephen Spielberg, I this difficult because I don’t have anything to compare it to – this was one of my first jobs and certainly my first big movie. The way that Stephen works is that there is no rehearsal. Everything I did in preparation was working with the horses so that when he shoots, he shoots the first take and he gets this realism, this spontaneity and the actors have no choice but to be in the moment and to be real and that is a very dangerous way of shooting but because he is Stephen Spielberg and has that experience he can do that. I mean the last film I worked on we had three months of rehearsal. He shoots very quickly, often just two or three takes and then you move on. And he has everything cut in his head, he’s cut this whole two and half movie cut in his head and he will know where each shot is going to go and it’s a little bit weird really, but, you know, he’s the master.

Question 3

What did you learn from your time on set? (Michael Morpurgo)

As an outsider you mean? Well, supporting what Jeremy said, I was watching Spielberg most of the time and how he operates. I had never seen a director in action before, or at least I had once or twice but they tended to shout at people a lot and you could feel their control all around and fear as well. What he created I think, there was no fear around him at all and I’ll give you an example. All the actors were together at a party a couple of nights ago and he was with them and they were all around a table and Spielberg was there and it was like a hug at the end of a football match. They had all done this thing together, most of them knew that they weren’t going to see each other again and they had created such a bond and this bond was created in little moments. The illustration I have comes from another actor Tom Hiddleston who, do remember in the film when they are doing that charge and Captain Nichols suddenly realises he’s about to and he cuts from the face to just the machine gun and the smoking and it’s silent and the next thing you see jus the horse running with no rider on the back. Tom told me this extraordinary moment when Speilberg came up to him and said “Look, I’ve been trying to get you and all the others, you know Benedict Cumberbatch, everyone to be these big brave, bold officers, triumphant, going off to war, full of confidence when you are on your horse, in this particular moment, I want you not to be 29 and confident and full of British Empire. I want the years to peel away from your face and you to be a kid again because you realise what is going to happen.” And it is just such a stunning moment, I don’t know if you felt it, but I felt it was one of the really big moments of the whole movie, this realisation on this boy’s face. And he described how Spielberg had essentially coached it out of him, I thought that was so sensitive and it’s all done with kindness, isn’t it?

Question 4

During the filming what did you learn from the other professional actors you were working with? (Jeremy Irvine)

I think I learnt commitment, when you are acting, when I am watching bad acting its because someone isn’t committing to it or there is nothing worse than watching someone on stage and they are a little bit embarrassed about what they are doing, it’s cringe worthy and I think I learnt 100% commitment; you’ve either got to say those lines with 100% feeling or not at all and that doesn’t mattee whether you are doing a big scene where you are crying for the whole scene or whether you are saying “I’m going to make a cup of tea” and I think that was the main thing, just committing to it. And some actors I’ve worked with will stay in character the whole time they are doing a movie, for 3 months they’ll stay in this zone and they will shut out the whole rest of their lives and do this and it is a sacrifice but if you want to be the best that is one way of doing it I guess.

Question 5

Did you develop a bond with the horse? (Jeremy Irvine)

Yeah, that’s a good one actually. I didn’t expect to. I am not really an animal person and I had never even really been around horses, I guess not many people do grow up around horses and things and I was amazed, within about a week I was quite bleary eyed liked everyone else. I had been quite determined not to, I didn’t want to be one of those people but you can’t resist them. I remember the young horses when they came to us were untrained so you couldn’t even get in a stable with them, they are powerful horses, they can quite easily kill you if they want to. Over two months I spent hours and hours just standing outside of the stable until it was used to me and then I managed to get into the stable and spent hours and hours, day after day just standing in the stable with it and then eventually you could touch it and then by the end of it we were playing hide and seek around the fields and I would take my shoe off and it would grab it and run off and you know, I was going through a huge learning process, this horse was being trained and you go through that with an animal and you do create relationship with it and there is not faking that as well. What was important for me, learning about camera acting is that there is no place to hide, you have to be real and if you aren’t real and if those relationships aren’t real, it’s going to show so you had to build a relationship with the horse, you have no choice.

Question 6

When you first wrote War Horse did you ever want to give up and start a different project? (Michael Morpurgo)

I think that with everything I start writing, as most of us do when see a blank piece of paper and you want to get going. I think the thing is, I was told by a truly great writer, a man called Ted Hughes who you might have heard of, he said to me once when I was having difficulty, actually it was with War Horse, I was having difficulty getting going. He said to me, Michael, you should never start writing a book until you have lived it in your head, not the whole book but you have to know the geography, the landscape, you have to know the people, the back-story of the people. You have to have soaked yourself in the place, in the history – fill your head with it, simply fill your head so that when you come to the blank piece of paper, which is the hard bit as you know, it pours out onto the page. He also told me a technique of writing that I have used ever since and I shall now pass onto you and it’s this – he said the hardest thing is when you think of writing as a serious business, he said that what you should do is to have these ideas in your head, have the story roughly in your head but don’t plot it, just have it roughly mapped out and then tell it. From your head, down through your arms and your fingers onto the page and don’t worry about mistakes and paragraphs and punctuation, you simply tell it down on the page and then go back to it in a couple of hours and write it out again and this time correct it and sharpen it and sharpen it. That way you’ll get the natural way of how you feel and how you think down onto the page and with War Horse, it was hard to start with but once I got into the groove of talking through the horse’s eyes it came quite naturally but with every book I find the most important thing is to find that storytelling voice in the first place and in War Horse I found that the hardest because by and large horses don’t write books.