Director Steven Spielberg with star Jeremy Irvine
For Steven Spielberg, director of the big screen adaptation of War Horse, the appeal of the story is an obvious one. “It's a love story,” he declares. “It's universal. It's that way in the book, it's that way on the boards and that's what we tried to do with the film.” The director, however, doesn't see it as a war film.
“It's not Saving Private Ryan, it's not Band of Brothers. There's only about 15 minutes of combat. This is not that kind of film. There's virtually no blood. I wanted families to see the film together.”
One family that did was that of Richard (Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral) Curtis, the man responsible for adapting Michael Morpurgo's words for the cinema.
“Our ten year old came with me,” explains Richard. “Afterwards he said 'I learned one thing from tonight.' I assumed it would be 'Prince William is very tall' or something, and he said 'I learned never, never, never, never to go to war.' The fact that this story about a boy and a horse can yield the message that war is ghastly is one of the reasons that the film is important.”
“Something I've thought about and talked about,” adds Steven, “[is that] Joey [the horse] represents common sense. If more people had that sort of sense we wouldn't be having wars.”
It was a deeply personal tale of the Great War that gave Emily Watson the biggest insight into her role and what the story represented.
“My grandmother...” says Emily, quietly. “When she was 12, her older brother lied about his age and went off to war. He was injured and died in a German prisoner of war camp. He wrote a letter home saying it's just a scratch, don't worry about me and please pay my batman, I owe him a pound.
“It was the last act of an honourable, dying 17-year old. I was in my 20s and she was in her 80s and she talked about it for the very first time. She showed me this letter, which she'd kept with his photograph and his medal by the side of her bed her entire life and she sobbed her heart out as if it had been yesterday. And that single experience, sitting in a cottage in Dorset, gave me the minutest glimpse into what must have been the most profound, nationwide grief.”
In terms of his own research, Richard also had a ready source: the author himself.
“I very much depended on Michael's work and his book. I'd written this situation comedy about the First World War when I was younger and Ben did all the work then on the history. It was very much not my job to get the history of it, it was to enrich the characters that Michael had written.
His strangest moments of that activity came on what the screenwriter called “Horse Days”.
“I remember saying to Steven I won't be writing any lines this week, I'm just going to do horse stuff. When I write a film I spend at least a day on each character just going through the script, looking for holes in the arc of the character.” For War Horse, that meant studying the development of Joey's story.
“My girlfriend says she saw me pawing at the desk, going [makes whinnying noise], and sneezing when the horse was ill...”
Much of the film was shot in the UK, across Devon and in the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe, both of which inspired Spielberg.
“Castle Combe looks like Hollywood built it,” the director explains, laughing. “It's beautiful. And Devon had some of the most beautiful natural wonders in all of England. There's nothing like that landscape, we couldn't believe it.”
On the subject of not believing, the sunset that frames the film's final shot - one which evokes the movies of John Ford and Spielberg's other filmmaking heroes – has been the subject of much speculation.
“The question I'm asked quite often is about the digital skies we obviously painted,” says Spielberg. “And there's not a single sky that we put in with digital effects. The skies in the movie are the skies and sunsets we experienced on the set.
“The original budget didn't allow us to go to Devon,” adds a smiling Spielberg. “But we stretched the budget and it was worth every penny.”
War Horse is on general release from January 13