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Screenwriter delivers straight from the War Horse's mouth

Director Richard Curtis in 2009

Tim Whitby/Getty Images

When a movie executive first asked Richard Curtis to meet Steven Spielberg, the British screenwriter agreed with some trepidation, hoping the Hollywood director wasn't one to bear grudges.

Back in 1994, not only had his hit movie Four Weddings and a Funeral beat out Schindler's List for best foreign film at the César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars, but also the presenter had announced before the envelope was even opened that if Spielberg did not win it would be a disgrace to France that would last a lifetime.

"I was very relieved he did not hate me," Curtis said of that meeting two years ago, when he was first asked if he would take a look at the script for War Horse.

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Spielberg's proposed movie was an adaptation the 1982 Michael Morpurgo children's novel that had become a hit play on London's West End, and it's not hard to see why crafting a script was causing Hollywood some headaches.

The book, about a Devon farm boy and his beloved horse separated by the First World War, is told from the point of view of the horse as it witnesses the terrible cruelty of war first as a cavalry officer's steed and then as a pack animal. The play, meanwhile, relied on large puppets to create the story's powerful connections between people and animals.

Curtis, the pen behind such British hits as Notting Hill and Love Actually, agreed he would look at the script and see if he had 10 things he thought he could bring to the project. He did, Spielberg liked eight of them, and Curtis agreed to the job.

He had three different sources at his disposal – the book, the play and the existing draft of the script – but before he had drafted his 10 suggestions he had begun by reading the book out loud to his 14-year-old daughter.

"I had three pots of gold, but the most intense experience was ... the book," he said. "My children always laugh at me because I cry easily. I remember as we got to the last two chapters, it was clearly going to be a real problem. She was likewise very moved by it."

Curtis says the book is typical of Morpurgo, a writer who is willing to tell children sad stories. When it came time to write the movie script, which includes both a sentimental story about a young person's relationship with an animal and violent if not gruesome depictions of trench war, Curtis said he never had a specific audience in mind, although the film has received a PG rating in Ontario and the stronger PG-13 rating in the United States.

"Steven never mentioned children or rating while we working on it. ... I was just telling the story," he said. "I wasn't writing for children and I don't think Steven was directing for them."

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Because the book is told from the horse's point of view, Curtis's chief piece of advice to Spielberg was to cut the farm boy Albert out of the middle of the movie. Instead, the script would focus on the horse as it passes from the Devon lad to a dashing British cavalry officer to a pair of underage German recruits who use it to desert to a French girl who hides it in a windmill and finally back to the Germans as a pack animal. Curtis calls it a baton structure: The horse is passed from hand to hand.

"The structure of the book, which was this curious episodic structure, had worked very well and paid enormous dividends ... at the end," he said. "I thought the film could be more daring in its structure and more daring than the [first]script or the play had been. ... We decided it would be exciting to give an audience half an hour of one story and then just leave it.... The broken nature of the story would actually be an exciting narrative thing, not a worrying thing."

That decision made, Curtis's job was to flesh out each of the settings in which the animal finds itself – and to think like a horse.

"I remember Steven phoning me up one day and saying, 'Which bit are you working on,' and I said, 'I am the horse.' He said, 'What do you mean?' and I said, 'Well, unless we are clear what the horse is thinking all the time, it is going to be tougher for you.' I remember thinking very hard about what the horses would feel when they were first taken away by German soldiers and first saw dead horses by the roadside and how frightening that would be."

Curtis, who is in the habit of saying characters' lines out loud to himself as he writes, will admit he neighed and whinnied while writing.

War Horse opens in theatres on Dec. 25.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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