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Capone finds out how the pen is mightier than the sword from WAR HORSE screenwriter Richard Curtis!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

I first met British writer and sometimes director Richard Curtis a little more than two years ago in Chicago when he was promoting his last writing directing effort PIRATE RADIO (a.k.a. THE BOAT THAT ROCKED). He's always been one of my favorite writers since his early years on "Black Adder" and "Mr. Bean" and continuing through such great comedies as THE TALL GUY, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, NOTTING HILL, both BRIDGET JONES movies, THE GIRL IN THE CAFE, and the near-perfect LOVE ACTUALLY, which he also directed.

But when we first me he told me something that still staggers me to this day: he said he was a long-time reader of the site and rattled off the names of all the writers and even of few specific reviews that he remembered liking. He also said that Ain't It Cool was one of only about four or five sites that he actually had bookmarked. Unreal. I'm never that surprised when studio people, directors, or even actors tell me they read the site, but for some reason when writers tell me that, I inevitably shake my head in disbelief. If you ever meet me, remind me to tell you about my lengthy encounter with Charlie Kaufman at Ebertfest. I still haven't wrapped my brain around that one, which I guess is appropriate.

The occasion for my most recent sit down with Richard Curtis was his work on the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's WAR HORSE (Lee Hall also has a writing credit), which began life as a celebrated children's novel and became an award-winning play in London and later Broadway. Curtis is one of the most articulate, intelligent, and funny men I've ever met, and always a pleasure to speak to. I hope, as he says at the end of the interview, that we get at least one more shot at talking in the near future. Time will tell. Enjoy Richard Curtis…


Capone: It’s good to see you again.

Richard Curtis: I’ve still only got four website bookmarked on my computer.

Capone: You’re kidding me.

RC: You’re still one of them. It doesn’t change quick enough for me. I’ve got BoxOfficeGuru.com

Capone: That was one you mentioned last time we met.

RC: Then I’ve got . So Harry’s not seeing many films these days, is he?

Capone: He’s seeing them, he maybe isn't reviewing as many, but he's definitely seeing them.

I don’t know if there’s a way to ask you this question without coming close to insulting you, but I wondered when I saw that you were one of the writers on this, I wondered “How did Steven Spielberg come to ask you to do a film like this?” It's a bit out of your the wheelhouse of what you're known for.

RC: It’s not insulting; it’s a good question. There’s a historical reason for it.

Capone: Because "Black Adder" had some episodes set in World War I?

RC: Nope. I don’t think he’s ever seen that. [laughs] I think what had happened… Because I was definitely the second writer, Lee [Hall] had done it first, and he had worked on it for ages before Steven was involved, and I happened to be seeing Stacy Snider [chairman & CEO of Universal Pictures] just as a friend, because I was in L.A. and a bit gloomy, and she just brought Steven in, and I think initially the inspiration was as it were, if you were to take LOVE ACTAULLY or one of those other films, there are lots of quite distinctive perky characters in them. There are 24 people in that. And I think Steven felt that they had spent a lot of time trying to get the structure right--concentrating on the war, the horse, and everything like that--and he wanted all of the people and all of the scenarios to be a bit livelier and I think that as his first motivation.

He just said, “Can we make the village livelier? Can we make the grandfather and the daughter livelier? What job does he do? What relationship have they got? How do the three boys think? What’s the relationship between the military guys?” I added Patrick Kennedy’s part for instance, because there was just two. There was Captain Nicholls and the guy above him. So I think the initial thing was human characters put into this episodic story, some character richness and stuff like that, which incidentally I think by the way is something that Lee would have been wonderful at, but I think he got very involved with all of the structural issues and complexities of all of the sources.


Capone: Can a writer get too close to something and maybe not see what a screenplay is lacking?

RC: Well, I think you probably can. I think you can get very fixed on one aspect of a script. So that was the initial thing, and then because I’m a sentient human being I said to him, “Well let me look at the whole thing. Let me look at the book, the play, Lee’s script, and work out all of the things that I think I would like to do.”

Capone: Did the episodic nature of story make it easier or more difficult to get it right?

RC: The episodic nature was the challenge. Basically, I think Steven had suddenly realized that was what he was dealing with, and he just had to decide whether he was going to take the gamble. I mean actually novels started as episodic. The original novels were all, for example, Tom Jones where he went around through 10 different experiences like Don Quixote, where he goes around. That’s where narrative started, and then it got more complicated with thrillers and romances and all of that entered in.

So in a way the big question was, “Will the film work with such an episodic structure and will it be a wonderful film?” I thought it could be a wonderful film with an episodic structure, and actually the idea of 40 minutes into a movie losing all of your main characters, I thought that could be very exciting, and it was me who suggested that Albert disappeared for a whole hour in the middle of the movie, because I thought that it would be gripping to suddenly think and then to think, “Well it’s okay, so we're going to be in the hands of this handsome captain, and he’s going to take us through” and then the captain dies 10 minutes later, and you're thinking, “Where are we?” Then that’s why we put in the German boys, who get involved in a very dramatic escape, and then suddenly after all of this you think, “Oh, its fine. They have reached the sanctuary with the granddaughter and grandfather.” So it’s just a different kind of storytelling, which we both thought it would be fun to try with a central character who happens to be a horse.


Capone: Did you approach them as short stories then?

RC: Almost, yeah, and that was what Steven really wanted me to do, to try and think through what the most interesting thing that could happen in each of these short stories was, and then the crossover between them was meaningful in some way. Although what’s quite interesting is in a way one of them, I think from where the horse and the tank happens to when the horse gets back, that’s very extraordinary, because basically you're left with no story; he’s just running through No Man’s Land with not a human being there, and then he’s met by two random soldiers. I think Steven just had to feel that it was worth trying this curious narrative structure.

Capone: I like the idea of the father's war ribbons being the connective tissue between the horse and Albert while Albert is absent from the story. Who’s idea was that?

RC: That was Steven’s idea, a very clever idea, and that was also quite late.

Capone: That reminds me of things he has done before.

RC: Even there, there’s a rather smart thing, which I can’t take credit for, but I think the fact that the pennant disappears, and that it’s actually the punch line of the whole movie when the grandfather says, “By the way, what is this? Do you recognize it?” I think that was cute, but I had lots of conversations with the costume person about what this pennant might be, and there was a long time when they thought it might be a badge that he puts on and that he attaches, but then Steven said you couldn’t see that in shot, so there had to be a certain length, so that when the horse was running you could see the pennant.

Capone: As a British citizen, how was it just writing the German characters? You don’t want to demonize them necessarily, but at the same time, most of them are portrayed as not the nicest people.

RC: Is that true? The two boys are nice, and then he gets handed over to, even though he’s not a very nice German who takes the horse, he immediately gets handed to the other guy who is nice. I think the Germans are more violent in the play, in fact, so we were deliberately trying to make both sides equal.

Capone: I’m thinking more about the Germans in terms of using the horses for physical labor until they die.

RC: But then you see I don’t know that there’s that much difference between that and charging with horses.

Capone: Good point. The French sequence has this almost sort of otherworldly quality to it. Tell me about what you were trying to pull out of that sequence.

RC: I think we were just trying to do that. We were trying to create an idyllic hiatus, yet put in enough to make it as lovely as we could while having enough realistic elements to make it true. So in other words, her parents are dead; they can hear the guns; they do lose all of their crops; and everything like that. So a lot of the process was me saying, “Well we could have a lovely section here with training the horse and the grandfather and the granddaughter,” and then Steven and me saying, “But in order to keep it true to the film, we will have to create all of the storm clouds over that ideal section.”

Capone: It is one of the tensest sections because we know it’s not going to last.

RC: I know. That was exactly it, but it was exactly that sort of thought that kept us interested in having this unusual narrative structure, because you stop believing in it. And because Captain Nicholls got shot, you stop believing anything is going to turn out well. Do you watch "The Killing," the great Danish series? You get to the point where you know it’s not going to be the person they think is guilty now, because “We're only 10 hours in and we’ve got 10 more hours to fill.”

Capone: I havn’t seen the Danish version. I’ve only seen the American version.

RC: Oh, the Danish version is a real masterpiece. If you get ill, sit in bed and just watch it in one sitting.

Capone: Since you were brought in to enhance the character aspect of the story, were there certain character elements that you wanted to include that didn’t work, or that got taken out, or that you abandoned at some point?

RC: I don’t know that there were actually. In a way that was what I was there for, to try and keep those things. I think what’s lovely about seeing the film is, for instance, I had no idea that Toby’s character [Toby Kebbell], the “Geordie” soldier, would be so strong in the movie. It’s interesting the way he threads through the next 10 minutes even after he’s rescued the horse.

But I have to say working with Steven, I should say and do say, was an extraordinary experience, because he’s very fertile. That’s very nice, because sometimes when you work with people, they're waiting for you to do all of the work. Whereas Steven says, particularly on the phone, it’s an absurd experience, because he'll say, “Well, what else could happen in the French farmyard,” and you say, “Well…” and he says, “How about this?” Suddenly, he’s got a five-minute sequence, and you say, “Steven, that won’t really work, because that means there’s a third horse.” He will say, “Well okay. How about this?” And he came up with the moment when the other villagers come, and they steal all of the crops. He came up with that just on the phone not having pre-thought it or anything like that, and it was one of three suggestions he made that afternoon. So it does make the job of writing easier. So as it were, on this, he was very much a permanent creative collaborator.


Capone: All right, great. Richard, thank you so much.

RC: Not at all. It’s a great pleasure to see you, and I’ll see you again in 2013.

Capone: Yes?

RC: I’ll be back one more time. I’ve got one more film in me.

Capone: Do you? Alright.

RC: Nice to see you.

-- Capone
capone@aintitcool.com
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