After wowing audience at last year’s London Film Festival, intense British drama War Book will this week make its TV debut on BBC Four. Filmed almost entirely in one room, it follows a small group of government aides as they act out the war book; protocol designed to test government response in the event of nuclear conflict. In an exclusive interview, director Tom Harper and writer Jack Thorne reveal why it is a film they simply had to make…
You and Jack have a long collaborative history; why do you think you work so well together?
TOM HARPER We like each other! I love Jack’s work and have huge respect for it. Jack knows that, and trusts me to realise it in the best way possible. I think we like each others creative taste. Juicy.
JACK THORNE I love working with Tom, and from the first moment I met him I sunk my teeth into the bottom of his trousers and never let go. We do share a certain sensibility, and like more or less the same things and there is that thing – trust – between us but more than any of that, he’s brilliant. I think he’d make any script better and I’m so grateful he’s chosen to work on so many of mine. He certainly made this script into far better film than I could ever possibly have anticipated.
How did War Book come about, and what was your goal for the film?
TOM Jack and I had both recently worked on projects that for whatever reason didn’t end up getting made. So Jack sent me this script and said why didn’t we just make this one, as it was all set in one room and we wouldn’t need much money to make it. I loved it and we decided we were going to make it no matter what. Then our wonderful producers came on board, momentum grew, more people came on board and enriched the project. I guess the goal was to make an entertaining political film that was a bit different. We wanted to do something that we loved and believed in, and take that through to the end result.
JACK I listened to an item on the Today show about the discussions in the ’60s and ’70s and decided that has to be interesting. I went to the national archive and read the minutes and discovered it was very very interesting. I talked to Tom and he said have a shot – so I did. And then started the hard work.
The action of War Book is confined to a series of discussions within a single room; how much of a challenge was that in terms of the direction?
TOM Enormous. I tried hard to keep the film evolving both tonally and visually. Getting the pace right was also incredibly important, although I’ve got a very good editor called Mark Eckersley which helps enormously. In the end I actually found that the constraints of the room added something to the project, focused my direction and forced me to make interesting decisions that I might not otherwise have made. I am a big believer that restrictions can fuel creativity.
JACK A massive challenge, I’d literally wake up worrying about it!
It was a short, intense shoot; did that time pressure help the actors with their pressure-cooker performances? And did things evolve as you went along, or did you shoot the script?
TOM I loved the fact that it was a short intense shoot! We had a week of rehearsals beforehand where we went through the script, worked out the blocking and the character relationships, then shot the film in two weeks. One of the really nice things about it was that as it’s nine characters sitting round a table, pretty much all all the actors were in all day every day. This lead to a really nice company dynamic, and helped build all the little character details and interplay. We also shot the film during a heat wave and that room was roasting. I think that helped too.
JACK We shot the script, and then in the edit reworked it slightly. I don’t know what helped the actors, I’m just really grateful they put in the amazing performances they did. They’re incredible.
The film invites a great deal of discussion amongst its audience. Do you hope that it will open the door to a further debate about the issue of nuclear response?
TOM Yes. Jack and I have always been very clear that we didn’t want this story to be too didactic, but to force people to ask questions and draw their own conclusions. Having said that, I do have a clear view about which way I would vote at the end of the film, and I guess that comes across. As this year is the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s an important reminder of the huge destructive power of these weapons and what it means to own them. I think it is vital that this remains in public consciousness and debate around this – particularly with the renewal of Tridant coming up – is essential.
JACK The film, I hope, is not a polemic. In fact, I think it ends in a way that surprises people. I do think we need to decide what owning these weapons means but, more than anything else, I think we need to talk about what the point is of owning such a paltry amount and spending billions doing so.
War Book represents a form of political cinema that’s now all too rare; do you think it’s important for filmmakers to tackle such controversial political and social issues head on?
TOM Yes. Very. And Jack and I intend to do lots more of it…
JACK It was incredibly hard to get this film made – and without [producer] Lauren Dark pursuing every corner of the world for money and squeezing every penny out of our budget (getting her dad to do catering for instance) it wouldn’t have got made. Were lucky to find backers like K5 and Archers Mark but it’s hard to find people out there willing to make stuff even at the low end. So I wouldn’t wish this film on other filmmakers, I really wouldn’t. And the reason why it’s hard? Because it’s incredibly difficult to get films like this out there. I think we need to work on how films like this are distributed, and what avenues are available, because I believe there is an audience for them; it’s just that audience isn’t presented with the opportunity to watch them.
War Book is screening on BBC Four; does television still has an important role to play in introducing audiences to a wider variety of film content?
TOM Yes, I think so. Getting a film like War Book to an audience when we have so little money for marketing and distribution is really hard, so the more ways that people have of seeing the film, the better. However, it’s intended primarily for the cinema. Nothing beats the cinema.
JACK The reason why we’re going on TV is because we believe it’s the best way of finding our audience, and it’s brilliant the BBC are backing us like this.
Finally, what’s next for you?
TOM I’m currently sitting in an edit of War & Peace, which is a six-part series written by Andrew Davies and I have directed for the BBC.
JACK Two TV shows, This is England 90 and The Last Panthers, and a play, The Solid Life of Sugar Water, which is on now at the Pleasance in Edinburgh.
War Book screens on BBC Four at 10pm on Tuesday, August 11 2015. Watch the trailer.