The trailer:click on title
Film producer Revel Guest explains how she took Michael Morpurgo’s 'War Horse’ from page to screen.
My desire to become a champion for War Horse began in 1999 when I read Michael Morpurgo’s book to my eldest granddaughter. As a horse lover, it was the equine hero Joey that struck an instant chord. I love the way Michael shows through Joey both the transformative bond that can be formed between horses and humans and the tragic futility of war. I didn’t know Michael well but I invited him to lunch in Soho to discuss making it into a film.
At that time, Michael had optioned many of his books but, frustratingly, only one film had been produced. We agreed to try and work together to make it happen for War Horse. Time passed, other projects came and went and then, in 2006, Lee Hall (whose stage adaptation of his film Billy Elliot had just opened) came to the Hay Festival to speak at a screenwriters’ master class which took place in my house. On the lawn afterwards, we talked about his forthcoming projects. When he asked about mine, I mentioned my passion to make the film of War Horse.
Snap! Lee said it was one of his favourite books and he would be interested in having a go at writing a script. I hesitated because his writer’s fee for a draft script (let alone Michael’s agent’s demands for book option rights) was way beyond the budget of my documentary film company, Transatlantic Films. Lee said that if Michael would agree not to charge a fee for the book rights until funds were raised, then he would be happy to do the same as regards his script. My heart leapt. I called Michael. He was enthusiastic and two months later, we all spent a weekend together at Michael’s home in Exmoor to see if the three of us could actually work together on the project. It didn’t take us long to find out that we all had the same vision, totally trusted each other and enjoyed each other’s company.
First we debated at length whether the film should be live action or animation. How would we deal with the dialogue in the book between the two horse heroes, Joey and Topthorne? How could Joey’s thoughts in response to the efforts of Albert, his young owner, be expressed? Well aware that it would be the harder option, we decided to go for live action.
We then talked about how we would work together and agreed that even though we each had our separate roles – Michael as writer, Lee as scriptwriter and myself as producer – nothing would happen in the development, production or distribution of the film without all three agreeing. Hands were shaken and glasses raised. We would be “three musketeers”… one for all and all for one.
This type of arrangement had a precedent: the 1984 film Amadeus had been put together this way and was a great success. But since we also agreed that no one would be paid until financing had been arranged and the “green light was lit”, we knew that we were treading a new and possibly more difficult road.
During the next two years, I met Lee and Michael at Hay and in London but, as usual, there were hitches, and a first draft wasn’t ready until just before the stage adaptation of War Horse opened at the National Theatre to rave reviews. It was clear that the play’s unexpected and deserved success would help in marketing our script to prospective financiers and, of course, major studios.
By mid-2009 things were finally beginning to take shape. We had a third draft script that we all liked, we had interest from the production company Working Title and the possibility of an all‑British production looked strong. Then, in one of those coincidental moments that so often happen in film, Michael got a call out of the blue from Kathy Kennedy, one of Steven Spielberg’s most trusted producers. She had seen the play of War Horse and thought it might interest Steven. Her instincts were right. Steven read the book and decided to jump in a jet and fly to London. He was bowled over by the play.
Immediately DreamWorks contacted us about buying the rights. After initial negotiations, I flew to New York to meet with Kathy over a boiled egg breakfast at the Carlyle Hotel. It was a gamble for us to go with DreamWorks – there was a real possibility that Steven would just buy the rights and add it to the 10 or 12 films that were lined up waiting for him to one day direct or produce. Kathy hinted that Steven was keen to direct the picture himself, but I didn’t have a commitment.
I returned to England and Michael, Lee and I had a hectic exchange of emails and phone calls. It was a tough call, but after much thought we agreed to take the gamble and accept DreamWorks’ offer. With hindsight it was the right call – as soon as the ink was dry on the contracts, DreamWorks announced that War Horse had indeed jumped the queue and Steven would direct, with location filming to begin six months later.
But I still had my fears. I had huge admiration for Steven’s films, but would he stay true to our vision? This doubt was soon dispelled during my first long meeting with him when, in reply to my question, “Who is the hero of the film”, he answered “Joey”.
I am happy to report that my other fears also turned out to be groundless. All the tales I had heard of Hollywood and how we would be excluded from filming and be lucky to get tickets to the premiere evaporated. Michael and I were always welcomed on the set. Indeed, Michael was cast as an “extra” with his wife Clare. I spent many days watching Steven on location during the 11 weeks of filming all over England. It was an intriguing experience I shall never forget.
Most importantly, Steven did stay true to the book and to the themes that had made me such a fan of War Horse. He has created a moving, dramatic and visually stunning film that highlights both the tragedy of war and the ability of the horse to unite and civilise humankind.
Revel Guest is chair of the Hay Festival
War Horse is out on January 13, 2012
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