Interview: Richard Curtis and Jeremy Irvine on Spielberg, ‘War Horse’ and human empathy

If we were to canvas 10 cineastes at random and ask them to define the term “Spielbergian,” we would likely see a similar set of responses with varied points of focus. For some, the term denotes a drive toward an inevitably bittersweet, but ultimately joyful conclusion (though this has not always been the case in his films). For others it references a number of iconic images ranging from the “The Spielberg Face” (a push in on an awe-filled gaze) to an elaborately constructed, and ultimately effective, chase sequence peppered with intermittent one-liners.

Most would agree that Spielberg has often used a non-human entity, be it an alien (or aliens), a shark, dinosaurs, a trusted family pet or, now, a horse, to highlight aspects of his perception of human nature via our response to said entity. His central characters are, in many cases, ordinary people given a set of extraordinary circumstances (with the exception of Indiana Jones, who is inherently remarkable). He is fascinated by the idea of innocence, its value, the threats it faces in the larger world and the sacrifices that are necessary to transform nativity into willfully preserved innocence. And, well, he is interested in war.

Author Michael Morpurgo was also interested in war, specifically WWI, a war whose history is more present in the cultural consciousness of Europe than of the United States, when he wrote the children’s book upon which first a play, and now the film was based. “Every village in England has a memorial to the fallen,” Jeremy Irvine, the young star of “War Horse,” says. “Everyone has a relative that was in the first World War. It’s something that’s a big scar on our national history and wiped out an entire generation of young men.”

Irvine, like Spielberg, had an avid interest in military history prior to being cast as Albert Narracott in the film. He has also spent the bulk of his (now limited) spare time writing a documentary on WWI fighter pilots, a choice that illustrates the continued significance of the war in his life.

While thinking of how to approach the subject of the Great War, Morpurgo met a veteran at his local pub who had worked with horses in the Devon Yeomanry. The soldier spoke with such passion and regret about the animals that Morpurgo began to consider the idea of telling the tale of the war via the point of view of a horse. The author encountered two additional men who would influence his narrative before he committed to the project, the first a Cavalry soldier and the second a villager who recalled local equine auctions at the war’s inception.

The novel was published in 1982 and adapted into a Tony award-winning play featuring starkly constructed puppets to stand in for the horses in 2007. Producer Kathleen Kennedy introduced Spielberg to the stage production and encouraged him to think about translating it for the screen. The match of Spielberg and the property seems almost inevitable. A hybrid family-war film, “War Horse” has all of the elements necessary to create a quintessentially Spielbergian tale. Though the film (for the most part) bridges the gap between the fable of the boy and his horse and the series of vignettes that are used to illustrate the unfolding of WWI, the filmmakers appear to be somewhat conflicted about the genre.

Irvine and co-screenwriter Richard Curtis both emphatically agree that the film is fundamentally anti-war. Yet Irvine attests that he would not necessarily call “War Horse” a war film. “It’s set against the backdrop of the first World War, but it is a family movie,” he says. “I’ve got a younger brother whose 12 and I took him to see it the other day and he loved it. So I think it’s one of those films.”

And yet Curtis was given no mandate to pen a “family friendly” picture when he saddled up to the script. “Steven never, ever once mentioned to me that the movie was a PG-13 movie,” he says. “So that’s quite interesting. I mean he clearly knew that, he clearly made that decision when he chose to shoot the scenes in such a way that we would not witness the soldiers being shot, and not to have any blood in the charge across no man’s land, but those weren’t things he talked to me about. I think he deliberately never wanted me to click into that mindset where you may start writing a different kind of joke, or scenes and characters. Steven took the burden of having it be a family film and didn’t put it on me at all.”

Screenwriter Lee Hall had already written a draft of the script when Spielberg approached Curtis, who had experience writing for multiple storylines and characters on “Love Actually.” His task was to approach each of the scenarios as though they were a complete film and then find the core of each story in five or ten minutes.  Curtis likens his process to that of a mix of a record.

“It’s alarming the way they take down the vocals and everything else and just work the sax for a day,” he muses. “The guy is insistent on getting the sax part perfect before he pushes up the other ones. And I will say I really have to concentrate on the plot today, or I really have to concentrate on how this character talks to that character, even if the scenes that I’m going to write aren’t going to be in the movie.”

Curtis will write up to 20-30 pages of what he knows will primarily be unused material in a given day. “I’m completely aware that what I am doing is creating a world of conversation and talk and alternative content and trying to find which bits of it are true,” he says. On “War Horse,” he spent full days “working on the horse.” Interludes in which his girlfriend claims he would regularly neigh and whinny at his desk after spending time with what he refers to as “the five least-promising horses in the world” in the field where he lives. “We had to really know when the horse starts to respect the other,” Curtis says. “We had to think through how a horse that’s been happy on a farm would notice that suddenly they’ve got a harness on and would definitely notice the first time that they saw the dead body of another horse and be aware of the elements of danger.”

The scribe describes the collaborative process with Spielberg as fertile. “If he said there was a problem he would very quickly come up with three fully imagined scenarios to solve that problem,” he recalls. “And some of the time those are the things that are actually in the film. So it wasn’t one of those scary things where a person looks at you and says, ‘You’re meant to be good. Do your job and I’ll wait.’ He was very eager to chat and very creative in that way.”

Structurally, Curtis made at least one dramatic shift. “The book is narrated from the point of view of the horse and I read the book aloud to my daughter and we both were immensely moved after Albert had been missing for a hundred pages and suddenly he re-enters the story,” he says. “But what they’d done in the stage play was thread the story of the horse in with Albert joining the army and experiencing his first battle and looking for the horse. So I said, ‘I think you can afford, you can risk, taking Albert out and then bringing him more startlingly back in later.’”

Centering the focus on Joey, the horse, is as mentioned, more in line with the book and also serves the inherent allegory. He becomes the neutral figure through whom we are able to witness the madness of war, sans the burden of judgment. “The horse doesn’t speak German, or English or French,” Irvine says. “World War II had a very clear right and wrong. In World War I, there’s none of that. It’s just mindless slaughter of millions and millions of young boys and men who didn’t want to be there. And the horse can tell the story from a completely unbiased point of view. He doesn’t know right from wrong, and it shows the futility and the pointlessness of it all.”

In a sense, Joey also stands in for the human tendency to fall in line and blindly follow orders. “All the worst things in the world have been done by people who were obeying orders,” Curtis says. Though ultimately the purpose of the animal as protagonist is to unleash the audience from both conscious and unconscious bias and (we imagine) some measure of ingrained cynicism.

“The thing that I felt most when watching the finished film was not something that I think that I’d quite known we were doing,” Curtis says. “I think because of the innocence of the horse I had this tremendous yearning in the last 45 minutes for things to turn out well. I think that happens in the movie because you are not following a human character. You get a slightly abstract sense of the potential for human kindness. Each new character you meet who actually behaves well gives you a kind of generalized hope, rather than a very specific, ‘Well, that person could help our hero do this.’ I think having a horse at the center of it is a strange, but in some ways rather complicated thing.

“That scene in no man’s land is a really good example of how telling the story through endlessly new characters really pays off. What would happen in a normal movie is that at least one of those soldiers would be the friendly storekeeper, or the grumpy sister, it would be someone you knew. Therefore their behavior would be motivated by who they already were. But these are strangers (to us and each other). It’s another two normal characters, soldiers on both sides who display all the qualities of compassion and good humor that you’d hope that they would. That’s one of the things that this strange structure of always introducing new characters does: it makes the movie seem to be about people in general rather than just the story that you’re telling.”

The no man’s land scene Curtis references is sure to be one of the most memorable from the film, followed by the poignant cavalry charge at the start of act two. Each depicts an aspect of the particular tragedy of World War I. One exemplifies the thoughtless arrogance with which the war was begun, and the ultimate death of the old way of battle and the birth of modern warfare. The other highlights the intimacy of the trenches and the untenable choice to continue to engage in nonsensical mass murder on the part of the leadership.The scene is reminiscent of the famous Christmas truce, during which soldiers from each side left the trenches, traded presents and sang “Silent Night” in one another’s language, only to carry on with the carnage the following day.

We are often able to feel a deeper sense of sympathy toward an animal in a film than we are toward a human being. There is something about their nature as an expression of that incorruptibility that Spielberg is so fond of that allows us to be both forgiving and benevolent. “I think it has to do with the fact that they can’t communicate,” Irvine says. “They’re incredibly honest. An animal can’t lie. You know it’s not the horse’s fault that it’s been thrown into this horrible war and all its trying to do is get home. And there’s something very tragic about that.”

The film is intrinsically a “lest we forget” parable. Yet, we cannot ignore that fact that we are currently at war. While Irvine does not want to enter the realm of the political in his public discourse at this time, he does note that by addressing the inexplicable suffering created by a specific war, you inevitably highlight the cruelty of all war.

“I’m very keen on the fact that the last British soldier from World War I died last year and it’s dying in actual memory,” he says. “But it’s so important to keep it alive in our collective memories. At the end of World War I, it was nick-named ‘the war to end all wars,’ and the fact that it didn’t was tragic. And it’s important not to forget why it was called that.”

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