The guy who wrote ‘Love Actually’ and ‘Notting Hill’ might not be the first person who jumps to mind when thinking about ‘War Horse,’ but it’s hard to imagine the touching new Steven Spielberg film working without Richard Curtis. After all, Curtis — and fellow credited ‘War Horse’ screenwriter Lee Hall — had one of the toughest jobs on the new film, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s young adult novel about a boy and his horse set against the backdrop of World War I: to tell a story from the point of view of a horse. Let’s just say, Curtis took his position as screenwriter for Joey the horse to almost Method-like lengths: “I remember my girlfriend looking across from me and laughing at me because she said I started to whinny,” Curtis told us, before admitting to “pawing” at his desk.
Of course, Curtis’s screenwriting gifts are the perfect compliment to ‘War Horse’s’ epic nature; what starts as a family drama becomes an omnibus tale of friendship, sacrifice and the cost of war — like ‘Love Actually,’ but with bombs and bayonets.
Curtis spoke to us about writing ‘War Horse,’ working with Steven Spielberg and how ‘Love Actually’ has become a staple of the Christmas season.
Now that you’ve seen the finished film, how do you think it compares to the script you wrote?
It’s better than what I wrote. Which is quite interesting to me. I found the cumulative emotion of the last half hour very interesting. It’s what we intended, but it was impossible to write. If you write about a horse and a sequence of people and compassion and suffering — by the end I really felt I wanted things to turn out well, and I didn’t know how they would. So, every glimmer of hope made me happy.
Were you nervous at all to write a movie where the main character is a horse — and not a gimmicky horse that can talk like Mr. Ed?
Well that is strange, isn’t it? The book is from the horse’s point of view and has words. The truth of the matter is that I did have very peculiar days, where I said to Steven [Spielberg], “I”m gonna be the horse for a couple of days.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, we gotta take what the horse thinks is happening seriously.” I remember my girlfriend looking across from me and laughing at me because she said I started to whinny. When you write, you do tend to say the lines the characters are saying, so I did a bit of pawing at my desk. It was quite interesting. I did think about it — I did think about what was happening in the mind of a horse who has been very happy with a French grandfather and suddenly sees dead horses by the road; what would you think is happening? I did try to think from the horse’s point of view.
A lot of the year-end Oscar focus has been on ‘The Artist’ and your film, ‘War Horse.’ What’s interesting to me is that they are both really silent films — you’re telling so much of the story from the horse’s point of view. Did you ever think of it in those terms?
I’ve written a lot of movies that were very dialogue heavy, where all the plot turns happen through something that someone says to somebody else. Certainly when I was working with Steven, it became very clear that a lot of the big turns would be done visually instead of through conversation. That was a great luxury; it was a wonderful thing. So, the moment when we re-meet Albert [Jeremy Irvine], about two-thirds of the way in, because a shell goes over from one of the German guns and lands in an English trench — and you just see these eight one-second shots, and one of them is Albert. There’s just a world of knowledge there; you think, “Oh God, he’s grown up, he’s joined the war, he’s there, he’ll be wondering what happened to Joey.” All of that through a one-and-a-half second visual shot. Not a scene where he tells his mum that he wants to go off and he’s recruited. It was a luxury for someone like me who is quite a literary writer to be working on something where the story is going to be told in pictures.
The vignette structure of ‘War Horse’ seems perfectly suited for you — after all, you wrote ‘Love Actually’ — but did you have a favorite character to write for?
Well, that was one of the things that Steven wanted me to do. He said write each of these sequences as though you were writing a whole film about them. Try to give us as much information as you can; try to fill in as much of the stories as you possibly can. That would mean when the horse arrives, they feel real, rather than feeling like a function of the story of a horse. So, huh. I don’t know. I wonder if I did have a favorite. One of the things I enjoyed was the British soldiers. That’s the first time you leave the family. You watch for a half-an-hour, you think it’s going to be this film about this family, and, suddenly, they’re gone. So, my first job was to try and make those soldiers interesting. It would have been easy to say Albert’s dad is trading the horse and they go into battle. What I had to do was, very quickly, create a dynamic between the three soldiers; you knew they would have been in school together. You knew one person was serious and senior, but also a friend. That was when I first grasp what we were doing. We were trying to three dimensionalize every point of the story in order to make this strange structure work.
What was Spielberg like to work with?
Steven is a remarkable collaborator. Very fun. He was very decisive. When I first spoke to him I said, “I’m not going to say I’ll do the job until I believe I can do the job.” I said, “I’ll come back in three weeks with 10 ideas, and if you like eight of them, I’ll do it. If you don’t, I won’t.” I think he liked seven. So that was all right. But he was very clear: yes, no, yes, no, yes. That was very satisfying. The moment you got a whiff of the movie he wanted to make, he was very fair. He’s very — not promiscuous, that would get us all into trouble. He’s happy to have lots of ideas thrown on the table and reject them.
Let’s just say, we would say we need some second incident with the grandfather and the granddaughter. And I would say, “Well, what about if this happened, and they get a visit from another neighbor, who has had a terrible thing happen.” And Steven would say, “Maybe that could work, but what about this?” Then he would come up with a whole idea. If I would say, “No, that’s problematic.” Instead of saying, “You solve it.” He would say, “OK, how about this?” And he has this remarkable talent for imagining whole cinematic sequences off the top of his head. He would say, “Let’s just say: he wakes up in the morning, there are trucks coming down. Lots of villagers! They swarm like locusts over the fruit field. The Germans soldiers!” Suddenly you would find that you had five minutes of movie that Steven just made up on the phone there. Sometimes he’d say ideas and they wouldn’t be so perfect, but he wasn’t the slightest bit offended if you said, “That won’t work because of this.” I found him a delightful collaborator. What you fear in a collaboration is when people look at you and expect you to be brilliant. Whereas Steven is brilliant and let’s you take his stuff.
You’re probably best known for ‘Love Actually,’ which has become this beloved Christmas classic. What’s the one thing you’ve never been asked about that film?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I’m so happy at this funny idea that it has become a sort of Christmas holiday movie. I was looking back at my old notes on the film, and it was only after I had thought of all the stories … I literally found a note saying, “What about if I set the movie at Christmas?” If anybody should be able to write a movie about Christmas, it’s me, because I love Christmas so much. It seems to me like such a gift that I should have written a film that might or might not have been popular anyway, and because of Christmas it suddenly has this annual thing. All I’ll say is three cheers for Stacy Snider, who is the person who got me into this film. I remember coming out of the first screening, and she says, “You know we should take out the naked people. We’ll get in trouble, there will be reviews, we’ll lose the certificate we want.” But she said, “You don’t want that do you?” And I said, “No, I’ll be very depressed.” She said, “I’ll never mention it again.” God bless her. Now, the guy is the Hobbit!
Right, Martin Freeman. You were ahead of your time with a lot of the cast members.
One of the things I love about that movie is the fact that so many of the people have become so much more famous. In fact, the movie is not what I intended. Originally, when I made the movie, it was meant to be 50 percent unknown cast. But Martin Freeman is very famous. Keira Knightley is very famous. Chiwetel Ejiofor is very famous. Andrew Lincoln is doing ‘The Walking Dead.’ It looks like I was only casting famous people, which wasn’t my intention at all.