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Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston and Emily Watson talk riding horses and Spielberg

War Horse
13 January 2012

The stars and writers alike were in attendance at the War Horse press conference in London, promoting the release of Steven Spielberg’s latest war drama, out on January 13.

Author Michael Morpurgo was joined by the screenwriter and national treasure Richard Curtis, as well as stars of the production Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston and Emily Watson.

Irvine, making his first major film spoke of his delight of having the leading role in a Spielberg film, thoughts echoed by Hiddleston and Watson who offer many kind words of the veteran director. Morpurgo also spoke of leaving his ‘baby’ in the hands of such a renowned film-maker as the stars also recounted the lasting effects making War Horse has had on them in their appreciation and understanding of the First World War. 



Jeremy we’ll start with you. How mad is it being at the centre of the Steven Spielberg film?

Jeremy Irvine: I woke up this morning and had to kind of work out whether it’s all just been a dream. I really did come from having no lines in a theatre show straight to this so it’s completely mad, I’m still trying to take it all in and just having lines is a privilege so to be in a Spielberg movie is just more than I can relate to.


What is it about War Horse that makes so influential, and what was it about the film industry that influenced you personally in your career choices?

Richard Curtis: Christ. I’ll start with the first one, it’s very interesting because my 10-year-old came with me to the premiere which he described as the most important day of his whole childhood. And on our way back he said ‘I’ve learnt one thing from tonight’, I said ‘What?’ assuming it would be Prince William is very tall or something, and he said ‘I learnt never, never, never, never to go to war’, and that was his single take-away from it. So I think the story about this boy and a horse can yield the message that war is a ghastly and wasteful thing is one of the reasons why the film is so important.

Tom Hiddleston: I think that what I’m taking away with me is an undying love for horses. I’d ridden a little bit before I made this film, but the sensitivity and nobility of those animals is something I never expected. What Michael must have always known and what Richard and Steven have taken on is that horses have so much to teach us, and in this film the horses capacity or courage reminds me of their humanity. I find that moving every time I watch the film. As for the film industry, I suppose I’ve always been a cinephile and your tastes change as you grow older, but I grew up on Steven Spielberg films and I must have seen Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark about 50 times, and always wanted to be on a horse, wearing a hat, with John Williams writing the theme tune, and lo and behold, here I am on a horse, in a hate, with John Williams writing the theme tune. So I do feel like I’m lucky enough to live out some kind of dream.


And Michael what inspired the story?

Michael Morpurgo: Why can’t I talk about my career in film? At the age of 68 I have only just started my first movie and it happens to be a Steven Spielberg movie. Indiana Jones is what I’ll be going next. It’s a lovely insight for me into a world I don’t know which I find fascinating.


Had any of you had any experience riding horses before shooting War Horse?

Jeremy Irvine: I remember doing one of my first auditions when trying to convince them that I am this master horseman, and there is a very emotional speech to this horse and just when I managed to get the tears going, this horse stamped on my foot and I remember trying to desperately convince them that a horse hadn’t stepped on my foot, and the tears were real that time. Having never been on a horse before, you learn very quickly that you can’t fake that, those relationships you see on screen have to be real, there is no way around that. I had to have real relationships with the horses playing Joey, you can’t fake it.


Jeremy, did you ever panic about the size of the film?

Jeremy Irvine: Yeah. I was terrified and rightly so, but I had to stop myself thinking about all that and to not think about being on set with Steven Spielberg and the wonderful cast around me. But Steven was always so kind and paternal with me, and I remember Tom telling me one day that it’s just a job, and you turn up to work each day and the do the job as well as you can and then you go home, which is when you can freak out.


Michael could you please tell us of the research that you did into the horrors of the war to end all wars?

Michael Morpurgo: Well I had the best opportunity any writer could ever had, which was talking to people who had been there. When I wrote the book 30 years ago I had just moved to where the story is set, and had got to know three old men who lived in the village, 80 at the time. Two had been to the First World War and had gone through all sorts of horrors that we all know about, from things like Oh, What a Lovely War and All Quiet on the Western Front, but here I was speaking to people who had actually been there and had never spoken to anyone about it before, so I have no idea why he opened his heart and his memories to me, but he did. And then living down the lane from us was the third octogenarian who had worked with horses, and he told me about the relationships the men used to build up with their horses and how people would go to their horses at night and talk to them about what mattered to them, and what was extraordinary about these moments, and I didn’t realise it at the time, but maybe they thought in a way they were handing on their story, so I was lucky to be a witness to their stories and moved and upset and angry, and the research then led me to the Imperial War museum for numbers and figures, which are important but never as important as the individual stories. 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 as men, and that’s just on our side, maybe in the entire war it could have been 10 million horses.  They died in the same way, on the wire, the ground and the mud, exhaustion, disease, blood and heart, just in the same way,  And then many were sold off for butchers meet and the Government didn’t think they were worth bringing home afterwards. All of which angered me enough to sit down and write a story.



Did you ever have any reservations when allowing War Horse to be taken to the big screen and did it take people of the calibre of Richard Curtis and Steven Spielberg to persuade you?

Michael Mopurgo: At the start I wasn’t aware that Richard was to be involved, all I knew is that there was a man called Spielberg whom I had never heard of, making my movie. I thought it was a good idea as I had already thought 15 years before of making a movie of this and I had written a script myself. We worked for years to bring it to the screen but perhaps the script wasn’t good enough and we didn’t have the contacts, but it didn’t work and it faded away and the book went on selling very little. And then the play happened, and then from the play came this connection with Kathleen Kennedy, who spoke to Spielberg whom she had worked with 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 actually wanted to direct it himself and would I come and meet up with him at a place called Claridges, and I thought, well I’d like to go to Claridges. So we went and had lunch and they eat very minimally Americans, but there we are. Anyway, we had the most extraordinary conversation and this man really cared about it and that’s what came across, he cares about the stories that he takes on, completely passionate.  And I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone like that holding and growing your baby, and see what happens. And since this is the man who made E.T. and Schindler’s List, I thought maybe he could cope with War Horse.


Jeremy, to have a starring role in a Spielberg film is incredible and to have it to early on in your career is exceptional, where do you go from here, what’s next for you?

Jeremy Irvine: One of the loveliest things to come from this is that I’ll now get work, which is nice, and work where I have lines. Just a couple of weeks ago I finished playing Pip in Great Expectations with Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes, and another film coming out in May called Now is Good with Dakota Fanning, and my next project is called The Railway Man with Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, so more weirdness.


Tom and Emily, tell us how Spielberg works as a director and what tricks dos he use to get performances out of you?

Emily Watson: He does a really strange thing which is he talks to you during the take, and the first few days with Peter Mullen and David Thewliss we were all a bit taken a back by it, we all come from a Mike Leigh, Ken Loach background where the performance is sacred, yet when on the middle of doing a scene, Spielberg talks to you. Actually, after an hour or so I began to really enjoy it. He knows exactly what he wants and he plants seeds in your head which sprout as you go along,under his watering can of ideas, as the camera is rolling. He doesn’t have to reach for things, he just makes things happen.

Tom Hiddleston: He was magisterial. What I found so extraordinary about him was the speed of his creative execution and his decision making is what impressed me so much. We’ve come to associate him with such greatness and I had forgotten to have an expectation of what he might be like at his job, and he’s able to make such quick decisions and he keeps his crew very nimble, and they’re all very dialled into his speed and thought process. If he suddenly sees a piece of magic happening between horses or actors, or the sun changing, the crew can move very quickly to adapt to that.

In the cavalry charge sequence the way he directed me and in terms of the emotional guidance that I was given was particularly extraordinary. There was a moment when my character sees the machine guns, and Joey suddenly feels a lightness on his back when he realises there’s nobody riding him, so Steven wanted to how my character death without you actually seeing him dying or being shot. He said to me, ‘Tom, I think is the only slow-motion scene in the film and its going to be completely silent. I want to see you see the guns, then I’m going to cut back to Joey and your not going to be there. The camera is going to move across your face but I don’t want you to do shock or surprise or fear or terror. How old are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m 29’, and he said, ‘OK. So give me your war face at the top of the shot, your a noble officer and it’s all going well. Then I’m going to say guns, and then I want you to de-age yourself by 20 years. So your 29, then nine. Strip away the man and show me the boy’. That is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of direction I’ve ever received. Its so emotionally acute, that in the middle of this great, grand, epic and exciting action sequence, with 120 horses going at 40mph, he had the space in his film-making head and his heart for something very intimate, and I thought that was very impressive.


Michael and Richard, Steven has said that it’s very important the the story is accessible to the whole family, how did you find the balance of bringing justice to the horrors of the First World War, but making it accessible to children to watch, and follow the story.

Richard Curtis: Strange thing was, from my point of view, and this relates to the way Michael writes his books as they’re often full of sadness for children, some of which I have found hard to read. Yet in the whole process of making this film with Steven, he never mentioned to me it was a family film. He never said that, or concession we may have to make. He made those discrepancy judgements in the way he shot, with the lack of blood, and things like that. But from the creative point of view, he asked me to tell the truth about the situations that were occurring, and then he judged the pitch in which he would shoot them.

Michael Morpurgo: In that sense it was wonderfully close to the spirit of the book. There are no body parts. We know they exists, of course we do, but we didn’t need to see Saving Private Ryan to know that. It’s no sadder due to the amount of blood that you see.


How much has both the writing and performance aspects to making this movie, given you an appreciation of what soldiers go through in conflict? And for Emily’s character, those left behind as well.

Jeremy Irvine: I’d be very careful here to say that any of us could relate to what those young boys and men went through, it would be insulting to say that we could. But I remember turning up on the day they were filming the cavalry charge and having been moved to tears. Having spent time and made friends with Tom and Benedict (Cumberbatch), to imagine these people would have been just like us really, dying in their millions. I think what the film does is sums up the futility of it.

Tom Hiddleston: Having never served as a soldier I really don’t know but certainly I felt an enormous responsibility to represent the kind of spirit of that war and the extraordinary courage displayed and the whole section of the film I’m in is in part about the triumph of the individual and collective courage over fear.

In the cavalry scene, where we had the privilege of all of the good resources available to Spielberg, we worked 120 horses galloping towards an immaculately created recreated German camp. Really the only thing that wasn’t recreated were the bullets and the guns, and doing that charge was thrilling and terrifying, because you can hear 480 hooves thundering if your ears, the sound of 120 stuntmen screaming at the top of their lungs, 300 extras running away from you in terror, and it felt as real as it could possibly get without actually being real and it made me recalibrate my appreciation for what real conflict must be like and what real soldiers must go through.

Richard Curtis: The other thing which moves me about this film is that its really a film about decency all round and of course thinking about the enemy, because one of the profound points of Michael’s books is the central scene in No-Man’s land where two completely new characters encounter the horse, and get on so well with each other and both have such common decency and its just a reminder that under all of the noise of war, are decent people on both sides who wish for peace.

Emily Watson: I had a very personal connection with those staying at home during the war, as my grandmother, when she was 12 had to watch her older brother, who lied about his age as he was just 17, go off to war and he was injured and then died a week later in a German prisoner of war camp. He had sent a letter home saying, ‘It is but a scratch, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.

Please pay my friend back, I owe him a pound.’ Which was the last act of an honourable, dying 17 year old. My grandmother was in her eighties, and she spoke to me about it for the very first time and showed me this letter and his photograph and medal, which she had kept by her bed her entire left, and she sobbed her heart out as if it had been yesterday. And that single experience, that evening sitting in her cottage by the fire and hearing the story gave me the minutest glimpse in what must have been the most profound nationwide grief and loss, because that story was replicated in every family.

Harry Patch was the final survivor of the First World War and he died last year, and it is now leaving living memory so I feel this film is very timely as it shines a light again on that terrible conflict which was so meaningless in a way that the Second World War wasn’t as meaningless and to be that said a lot for the people left behind.

Michael Morpurgo: It’s difficult really because any story you write, or any film you make about war is bound to be political, whether you like it or not. For me, I grew up in London just after the Second World War and my first memories are of a city ruined and wrecked lives, my family was split up – the divorce rate multiplied by four in this country between m1945-47, a direct result of the fracture that the war did to this country.

But more to the point, the reason I think the people are interested in War Horse is for the saddest reason possible; that we have bodies coming home, and coffins covered in flags. Not just in this country but world-wide. And I think people are more in contact now with the consequences of war and that’s what amazes me, when politicians seem to forget their history and not look and read and learn about what had happened before, and maybe they haven’t got the memory, maybe they’re already too young for that.

But any story that makes you think ‘Why?’, and for people to come out of the cinema, or the theatre and ask the questions, ‘Why did this happen to those people? Was it necessary?’  and anything that makes us think like that is really important.



Jeremy Irvine Photos | Emily Watson Photos | Tom Hiddleston Photos | War Horse Film Page