Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Jake Gyllenhaal

A shot at redemption

No more rubbish blockbusters, please. As a cop in the startling End of Watch, Jake Gyllenhaal is now in pursuit of realism and danger
Jeff Dawson Published: 11 November 2012, Sunday Times Culture

Round, close-set eyes, long face, upturned nose, beatific grin... No matter how hard one tries to banish the thought, when you see Jake Gyllenhaal, you can’t stop the image of Woody from Toy Story popping into your head. Maybe that’s why he got cast in Brokeback Mountain; perhaps Heath Ledger reminded the producers of Buzz. Today, though, the picture is somewhat skewed, because Gyllenhaal’s youthful looks are obscured by an added cartoonish adornment — a beard of such pirate-captain volume and lustre, you suspect there’s a band around his head, holding it in place.

We are used to black-clad ­Hollywood bucks disfiguring themselves in the name of art, as if handsomeness precludes integrity, so this is nothing out of the ordinary. The face rug is, however, for a part; he’s appearing in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet at the Laura Pels Theatre, in New York.

Lampooning Gyllenhaal — with a soft “g” — is a bit mean. He is, it turns out, a most excellent and genial fellow. Generous, too, breaking bread in a downtown Manhattan hotel, late in the afternoon, when he really ought to be limbering up backstage for tonight’s show. “I happen to like not starting my engine until very soon before,” he says. “It makes it a little more exciting for me.”

Written and directed respectively by the Brits Nick Payne and Michael Longhurst (the team behind the Royal Court hit Constellations), the play sees Gyllenhaal grunge down as a bourgeois London slacker, complete with accent. In a weird piece of symmetry, it is 10 years ago that he made his acclaimed theatrical debut in the West End — as a bourgeois American slacker — in This Is Our Youth. He hasn’t appeared on stage since, so this is only his second outing, and his Broadway entree. (“Off Broadway,” he corrects.)

So why the comeback? “It was a questioning of what I want to do with my work and my life, and if I felt fulfilled,” he says. “I think it may have been turning 30. I’d made a promise to myself that I would really only pursue my artistic instincts, no matter where it took me, and I kind of broke that promise.”
To an outsider, at any rate, it all seems to be going swimmingly for Gyllenhaal. Off the back of last year’s time-travel yarn, Source Code, comes a gritty LA cop thriller, End of Watch, the film we’re here to talk about.

The movie has earned plaudits for ­Gyl­lenhaal and his co-star Michael Peña, who play police officers cruising the mean streets of South Central. Written and directed by David Ayer, whose forays into the milieu include Training Day, Swat and Harsh Times, the film was shot for $7m — movie peanuts — but is riding high at the US box office.

Beefed-up and shaven-headed, Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor is a spiritual cousin to the Marine grunt he played in Sam Mendes’s Gulf War movie Jarhead, although the film remains, essentially, a buddy story, its best parts the car-bound “bromantic” interludes. “That was the heart of the film, and was essentially why I wanted to do it,” he says. In a sort of throwback to Broke­back Mountain, the two officers spend more time with each other, joshing about life and love, than they do with their other halves (Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez).

There is a contrivance, in that the film is supp­osedly viewed through Gyllenhaal’s omnipresent digicam: “YouTube meets Training Day,” as Ayer put it. Key to the exercise, Gyllenhaal says, was realism. He spent five months on night-time ride-alongs with the LAPD, cruising the ’hoods seen in the movie. Whenever an actor makes such a claim, I say, one can’t help but think of the film The Hard Way, in which, for the purposes of filmic research, a pampered movie star (played by Michael J Fox) is foisted on an abusive hard-boiled detective (James Woods). “So do I,” he chuckles. “And, by the way, don’t think we didn’t get all that shit while doing it for real. The very first ride-along, we were the second call on a shooting, a murder. Guy bled out right in front of me.”

At the end, as a bonding exercise, he and Peña got themselves “tased” by their new police chums. (Yes, it hurts.) “My approach to making movies and to art now is not just to produce the greatest result,” Gyllenhaal says. “It’s how it affects my life.”

It’s another hint that he hasn’t always been the master of his own domain. Yet he is far too diplomatic to express specific regrets. Indeed, if you need proof of his all-round decentness, watch Brother Jake sit politely on talk-show sofas while dribbling hosts vouch that they have the hots for his older actress sister, Maggie.

Then again, the Gyllenhaal siblings learnt early on to take showbiz in their stride. They grew up in LA, where their director dad, Stephen Gyllenhaal, made the 1990s cult flicks Waterland and Paris Trout. Their mum, Naomi Foner, penned the screenplay for the River Phoenix drama Running on Empty. There are few people who can claim to have received their first driving lesson from Paul Newman. Gyllenhaal laughs. “That’s not true. That doesn’t do my father a good service, because he put hours and hours in. But I did go to a racetrack, and Paul was there and took me in a car.”

While his mother is Jewish, the paternal line reveals the Gyllenhaals to descend from Swedish nobility, founder-practitioners of the liberal Christian order Swedenborgianism. With God and the movies on his side, Gyllenhaal, aged 11, got a small part as Billy Crystal’s child in City Slickers. At 13, he was appearing in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street directed by his father. After a stint at Columbia University, he dropped out to return to the family business. “There is a clan aspect to this,” he concedes, “and in a way it feels second nature, because it’s a language I’ve been speaking since I was so young.”

After his breakthrough in Donnie Darko (2001), as a disturbed teen conversing with a giant rabbit, Gyllenhaal was fast-tracked for stardom, cast as a lead in the somewhat prescient eco-disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow. It’s probably fair to say that Hollywood has since cooled on him as a blockbuster opener: too old now (32 next month) to play the boyish roles his face suits; not grizzly enough (beard notwithstanding) for a mature heavyweight.

When Tobey Maguire was prevari­cating over a return to the Spider-Man series, Gyllenhaal’s name was dangled. He was up for the role of Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight reboot, but was passed over, as he was for the lead in Avatar. His star performance in the 2010 video game spin-off Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (employing another English accent) could not prevent the projected sequels being put on hold.

“I think where I feel most comfortable is being able to really collaborate, and where the risks taken are emotional,” he says. “I don’t really think the size of the movie is the thing that matters to me, although I think it’s more possible in independent film.” Which has probably left him — and us — with a far more worthy back catalogue.

Gyllenhaal runs through the highlights, picking out Donnie Darko, the Sundance hit The Good Girl (as Jennifer Aniston’s toy boy) and Jarhead as particular favourites. “And obviously Brokeback Mountain [his Oscar-nominated, Bafta-winning turn as the gay cowpoke Jack Twist], not just for the process, which was incredibly special, but for the result that came out of it. I’m so grateful to that movie for everything.” One might add David Fincher’s serial-killer docudrama, Zodiac, or Love & Other Drugs, opposite Anne Hathaway, with Gyllenhaal as a Viagra-touting pharmaceutical salesman.

Both the offbeat choices and his ­ability not to be fazed have made him less gossip-rag fodder than might have been the case after relationships with Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon and the country warbler Taylor Swift. (Her new album reportedly contains a number of nods to their courtship, including the not entirely subtle We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.)

You know your most underrated performance, I say. “No?” Bear Grylls: Man vs Wild — a corking episode in which Gyllenhaal and the survival expert are dropped on a glacier in Iceland, then yomp across volcanoes, swim icy waters and try to eat a rotting sheep. He laughs. “That was fun. That was the start of all this crazy stuff, going on the streets with cops after going with Bear. I thought, ‘Yeah, this sounds dan­gerous. Let’s do it.’”

One thing Gyllenhaal’s new direction won’t include is the screen version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Stories have spread across the internet linking him to the part of the priapic Christian Grey, something based on the casual comments of the book’s author, EL James. “Literally, I know nothing about that.”

Currently, he has a more pressing engagement, with a theatre audience. He’s cutting it fine and still has the rush-hour traffic to contend with. You know what, he says, family business or not, acting would still have been his vocation. “Because, at times, there is nothing that brings me more joy than being up on the stage or being in a movie, watching an actor give an extra­ordinary performance across from me. That gives my soul joy. And I know it sounds like a total cliché, and it is, and in print it sure will be, but it does.”

End of Watch is released on Nov 23

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


... Or as I call it, the 22nd remake of Dr. No. Look, it was reasonably entertaining and had its moments, but the rapture surrounding it is proof positive of either a sterling PR job or the media taking collective leave of its senses. Once again, falling standards have resulted in grade inflation.

Back Home, Dead Reckoning and Melvin Smarty

Just to let you know that Back Home and Dead Reckoning are now available as e-books (Orion). Should have some news soon on the film I wrote, Melvin Smarty, which was shot as a US independent feature at the back end of 2009.

Spy truth stranger than fiction

Six embassy staff running for their lives and a bogus Hollywood film — Ben Affleck's movie Argo has it all, and it's straight from the CIA's mouth
Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 21 October 2012

As the recent murder of the American ambassador in Libya demonstrates, diplomacy can be a deadly business. According to the Vienna ­Convention, relations between nation states depend on an abstract concept — that embassies are an immune corner of a foreign capital that is forever theirs. “But really, what is an embassy but a ­fiction?” asks Chris Terrio, the screenwriter of Argo, a new film about deadly diplomacy. “As long as everyone pretends this imaginary thing is there, then it exists. The moment someone isn’t playing along, it all falls apart.”

The Iran hostage crisis is one of the most notorious examples of a nation’s wilful disregard for the rules. On November 4, 1979, surfing the wave of revolutionary zeal that had swept Ayatollah Khomeini to power, a “student” mob stormed the US embassy in Tehran, seizing its personnel. Accused of being stooges of the despised deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — fêted by Kissinger, serenaded by Sinatra, at the time undergoing treatment in a $900-a-day New York hospital suite — 52 Americans were to endure a living hell. Held captive for 444 days, they were abused, blindfolded and subjected to mock executions. Their forced denunciations of their homeland were to become a familiar charade on news shows.
Meanwhile, a sideshow was developing. Washington realised some staff had escaped. The consular building, across the compound from the embassy proper, had been spared the brunt of the frontal assault. During the madness, several staff had simply exited through a back door onto a deserted street. Five of them went on the run: the consular chief, Bob Anders; Mark and Cora Lijeck; and Joe and Kathy Stafford. They had been joined by a sixth refugee, the agricultural attaché, Henry Lee Schatz.
The byways of Tehran, where murderous Revolu­tionary Guards roamed, were clearly no place for fugitive Americans. Unable to make headway in the embassy crisis, the CIA seized the opportunity. It would bring the six out. The mission to “exfiltrate” them has gone down as one of the most bizarre covert operations in the agency’s history. Code-named Argo, it is now the subject of a film, directed by Ben Affleck, and a book by Antonio “Tony” Mendez, the agent responsible for the rescue.
Now 71, Mendez is enjoying retirement at his home in rural Maryland. In the film, Affleck not only directs, but stars as him. “I said, ‘I don’t know if he’s good-looking enough to play me,’  ” Mendez deadpans. Having lived a life in the shadows, he speaks quietly and slowly, as if every utterance has withstood rigorous self-censorship. His house is the same one he was living in 33 years ago. Mendez had already spent 90 straight hours working on a plan to fake the death of the shah, one that had come to nought. (The shah would oblige him in July 1980.) He was painting in his studio, venting his frustration, when news came through of the six fugitives. For this job, he was perfect. He had risen from entry level as an “artist-validator” — a forger — to become the CIA’s head of worldwide disguise. He had once ushered an African-American agent through Laos disguised as a Caucasian. He had exfiltrated a KGB luminary through Asia. More pertinent, seven months previously, Mendez had lifted a key Iranian agent, Raptor, out of Tehran.
'The first thing I did was read the books and double-check, because I had a hard time believing it was actually true'

Back in Iran, the six had gone to ground, crashing at the homes of friendly diplomats in the wealthy suburb of Shemiran. By the end of the month, they had split themselves between the residences of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his immigration officer, John Sheardown, who harboured them at great personal risk. Sure enough, the screws were turning. The homes were under suspicion. The Komiteh — the revolution’s tub-thumpers — had pieced together the six’s identities from frantically shredded documents. While the CIA kicked around harebrained schemes, such as having them cycle 500 miles to ­Turkey, Mendez insisted on a more prosaic exit. With bogus Canadian identities, fabricated with the collusion of the Canadian authorities, they would leave via ­Mehrabad International Airport, into the daily chaos of which scheduled European flights were still running.
Normally a stickler for the inconspicuous, Mendez chose a cover story that was to make the escapade deeply intriguing: the six would pose as members of a ­film-production company. “We did what they call in magic ‘misdirection’,” he says. “Instead of trying to hide, we put it right out in front of them.” In downtown ­Tehran, where lynched bodies swung from lampposts, a ­Canadian film company would purport to have dropped in to location-scout for a family-friendly motion picture.
The plan — “the best bad idea we’ve got”, as it is described in the film — was not as loopy as it sounds. Laughably, amid the unravelling terror, their assets ­frozen by America, local authorities in Iran were actually wooing western business. “They didn’t have any hard currency,” Mendez explains. “If somebody came in from Hollywood and laid a few coins on the table, I think you could have got whatever you wanted.” Crucially, in the wake of Star Wars, whose exteriors were shot in Tunisia, exotic desertscapes were all the rage as sci-fi settings.
Mendez enlisted a buddy in Hollywood, the renowned make-up artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman), creator of Mr Spock’s ears and an Oscar-winner for Planet of the Apes. An army veteran, Chambers moonlighted for the CIA. Creating false identities alone would not make the story stand up to close scrutiny. To “backstop” it, they would have to put the fake film into fake production. Even for a Canadian project, all roads led to Hollywood. The film would be run out of LA.
Mendez flew there and, together with a special-effects colleague, Bob Sidell, took over offices vacated by Michael Douglas after The China Syndrome wrapped. Cheekily, they called their outfit Studio Six, and started trawling the slush pile of unproduced scripts. There they hit “the mother lode”: the screenplay for a space romp called Lord of Light, filled with eastern imagery. They changed the title to a snappier one, Argo — after the mythical vessel that transported Jason on his quest for the golden fleece, a name that also allowed them to be the punchline to a knock-knock joke: “Argo who?” “Argo f*** yourself.” Studio Six took out ads in Variety announcing Argo as its new movie. It fielded phone calls. It threw a launch party.
Days later, when Mendez and a CIA associate known only as Julio flew into Tehran, they were carrying six Canadian passports and documentation for a screenwriter, art director, associate producer, cameraman, transport co-­ordinator and locations manager. Except that Mendez was no longer Mendez. He was an Irish film producer, Kevin Costa Harkins. The devil was in the detail. Before leaving, he furnished himself with “a rich collection of pocket litter, right down to matchbooks for the Brown Derby, where Studio Six had hosted a bon voyage dinner for me”.
Affleck admits he was incredulous when Terrio’s script reached him, developed from a 2007 article in Wired magazine by the journalist Joshuah Bearman. “The first thing I did was grab the documentaries and read the books and double-check, because I had a hard time believing it was actually true,” he says. “But, lo and behold, it was.” He has not always been treated kindly by La-La Land, and one of the joys of his film is that it works as a Hollywood satire as well as a political thriller — not least thanks to a wily producer character played by the venerable Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel, a rewriting of Sidell), who nearly steals the picture. Yet, as befits a film that lists George Clooney and Grant Heslov as producers — men who brought you Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck — Argo also begins with a history lesson. “I felt it was important to give ­context to the story, so it didn’t just begin with bearded maniacs outside the embassy,” Affleck says. The shah, we are reminded, was an oppressive autocrat imposed on democratic Iran by America and Britain in 1953.
You know the six are going to get out. History tells us so. On January 28, 1980, after nearly three months in hiding, the group boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich. Save for the reluctant Joe Stafford, they played their parts to the max. “The Hollywood cover was something for everyone to focus on and enjoy,” Mendez recalls. “We really did have a party coming through the airport.” Bob Anders almost overdid it, shirt open, medallion flapping, “strutting around with the chutzpah of a Wilshire Boulevard stud”. For dramatic purposes, Affleck’s film prefers a tense, Midnight Express-like chase through departures, one of several differences between life and art. (A harrowing scouting expedition to the Tehran bazaar didn’t happen; and ­Mendez is shown acting alone, without Julio.) “But generally, I’m very happy,” stresses Mendez, who served as a consultant to the film. “Where it didn’t match exactly, it certainly has the spirit of the real story.”
What is surprising is that the Iranians didn’t find the Americans. As in the film, they remained indoors, indulging in western delicacies while the revolution raged outside. “They adopted a scorched-earth policy on alcohol — make sure they were not going to leave any behind,” Mendez says. Yet their whereabouts had become an open secret in the close-knit diplomatic community, some of whom would drop in for dinner. Domestic staff, too, were aware of the “house guests”.
Notably, although westerners are conspicuously absent in the film, Tehran was swamped by the world’s media at the time. (The ayatollah was interviewed by Mike Wallace for TV’s 60 Minutes.) “It was an odd thing, because the revolution, and particularly the hostage crisis, were meant as stagecraft,” Bearman says. “They didn’t want to throw a revolution and have nobody see it, so at the same time they’re chanting ‘Death to America!’, the ministry of information was inviting American journalists in.” Indeed, it didn’t take long for a Washington-based Canadian reporter, Jean Pelletier, to uncover the where­abouts of the six. He was persuaded to sit on the story. Even the local rag in Schatz’s home town, Post Falls, Idaho, ran a front-page piece disclosing that their native son was holed up in Tehran — a staggering revelation that, pre-internet, just slipped through the cracks.
Ultimately, the media were used by the CIA to provide one mother of a smokescreen. There were CIA agents operating out of the US embassy, three of them. Mindful of repercussions, the agency duly excised Argo — and America — from the official narrative of the rescue. It became known instead as the Canadian Caper, a smuggling exercise run by Ambassador Taylor (who left on the next plane out) that prompted a huge outpouring of popular gratitude from the USA towards its northern neighbour. “They took advantage of that, as we suggested,” Mendez muses. “The Canadian ambassador became an international hero. He lived that cover famously.”
Canada will not necessarily appreciate the rejig. (Pelletier’s 1981 book, toeing the official line, was, Mendez writes, “wildly off the mark”.) Indeed, the renewed interest in the hostage crisis has placed Mendez in an awkward position all round — a habitual disavower of his work, a man whose Intelligence Star was presented in secret, must now talk publicly. It wasn’t his idea: the CIA “twisted my arm”, he says. In 1997, on the agency’s 50th anniversary, when the Argo case was declassified, he was encouraged to write about it. “I said, ‘What? That’s our best secret — why would you give it away?’ The director at the time, George Tenet, was adamant. He said, ‘We have to give a fair audit of our performance.’ Never mind that the Canadians were left high and dry.”
Mendez duly devoted a chapter to Argo in his 2000 memoir, The Master of Disguise. By the time of Bearman’s Wired article, however, the CIA were no longer the villains of popular entertainment, but the good guys, stars of Emmy-winning TV series. For Mendez, old habits die hard. Even today, he refers to John Chambers as “Jerome Calloway”. “You have sources, and you treat them in a certain way, right?”
Argo wouldn’t have ended there, Mendez reveals. The ­production would have actually begun “filming” in Iran, a Trojan horse for a special-forces oper­ation to spring the hostages, with Delta commandos masquerading as technical crew. “We were still scheming that idea seriously in the Oval Office after I came back. It really would have worked.” Instead came Jimmy Carter’s disastrous military rescue attempt of April 1980. Argo was shut down.
The hostages were eventually freed, coming home in January 1981 after billions of dollars of Iranian financial assets were released by America. But the effects of the crisis were ­profound: it reshaped Middle Eastern politics, brought a new tactic to the negotiating table, hostage-taking, and cost the equivocating Carter his presidency. At the end of the film, the real Carter praises Mendez: “One of the 50 top operatives the CIA has ever had.” Mendez sighs: “Carter is a kind man and a good soul, but was probably not a good president.”
Mendez is endlessly fasci­nating. Three decades on, Iran is public enemy number one again, engaged in a standoff that, he fears, won’t be resolved without “a new system” of engagement. He adds that, given the tools, ex­filtrating Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London would be a piece of cake. He has a grumble about Tom Clancy, whose thrillers are spoilt by incorrect application of spy ­jargon. Yet there’s an air of mystery about him, a suggestion that “Tony Mendez” might be a persona, one perfected for circumstances such as our interview, another “misdirect”.
“We used to say, ‘This can’t be the real CIA, they couldn’t possibly be so inept,’  ” he says. (They did fail to spot a revo­lution.) “‘The real one must be over the horizon.’ Truth is always much more boring than you’d expect.” He laughs. “But I love the idea that the real Tony Mendez is still out there. You’ve seen magic... I might appear on your doorstep in 20 minutes.”
Argo is released on November 7. Times+ members can see it first and free at one of 18 preview screenings from Saturday, Oct 27, until Thursday, Nov 1. Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Antonio Mendez is out on Thursday (Penguin £7.99)

It's War Without Horseplay

Another of Michael Morpurgo's Great War stories is now a film. But don't expect the Spielberg treatment this time.

Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 7 October 2012

Is there an author as prolific as Michael Morpurgo? One hundred and twenty-plus books is some going. Even given the length of time he’s been at it — he had his first book published in 1974 — that’s still more than three a year. “Look, they’re thin ones and little ones,” Morpurgo says, dismissing the subject with characteristic modesty. “I just love telling stories.”
In the manner of his hero Robert Louis Stevenson, he writes in bed, propped up on cushions. Never having got to grips with computers, he uses a longhand scrawl in exercise books, which is typed up by his wife, Clare, “the only person alive who can read my writing. I think I get lucky. I meet extraordinary people out of the blue. People tell me stories. Things happen to me.”
Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate, and public speaking is part of the gig. A former teacher, he is evangelical about history, personalising it, making it accessible. “As a kid, what fascinated me wasn’t the dates, it was the story of the individuals, whether it was Joan of Arc or Henry V or Gordon of Khartoum. And the evidence of this, surely, is Anne Frank. If you want to teach children about the Holocaust, read Anne Frank’s diary.”
If you can throw an animal into the mix, even better. That was what made such a success of War Horse — two words that will for ever be attached in parentheses to Morpurgo’s name, turning him from respected author into unlikely Hollywood darling. That story was a canter through his pet subject, the first world war, but it is the 2003 novel Private Peaceful, set against the same backdrop, that Morpurgo often rates as his best work. Having followed a similar path from page to stage, it too has now reached the screen.
Directed by Pat O’Connor, the film version stars George MacKay and Jack O’Connell as brothers Tommo and Charlie Peaceful, lads in love with the same girl (Alexandra Roach). Their story, which runs from rural Devon to the western front, is recounted by an imprisoned soldier, court-martialled for cowardice and awaiting the dawn firing squad.
The literary device was conceived at the In Flanders Fields Museum, in Ypres, where Morpurgo came across a terse letter from the army, informing a woman that her son had been executed. “What was extra­ordinary was the envelope. It was the rip that made me think of that mother, standing on the doorstep, opening it — the worst moment that any mother could dream of.” Three hundred and six British and Commonwealth soldiers were similarly shot, two for falling asleep at their posts, he says — shell-shocked, given cursory trials, sacrificed pour encourager les autres. The book was deemed influential in their posthumous pardoning in 2006.
Moved by hearing Morpurgo read an extract on Radio 4’s Today programme, the playwright Simon Reade asked if he could adapt the story — creating a searing one-man show that has played continually and has just finished a short run in the West End. Reade also wrote the screenplay.
It’s an intimate, very British affair, filmed on a fraction of War Horse’s $70m budget. Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between the two projects — one a Spielberg epic, unashamed to indulge the sentimentality; the other small and gritty, unfettered by the literary conceit of War Horse, which was told, originally, from the perspective of the horse itself.
Both Reade and Morpurgo served as producers on this film. One can’t ignore the author’s proclamations about wishing “to be as involved as possible” on this one, or the production notes trumpeting “the story, not the sets”. Over the years, he had been involved in other adaptations, productions that had given him the “feeling of being shut out”. Yet that Spielberg wanted to film War Horse he calls “extraordinary”, and it opened the door for Private Peaceful the movie, which was being developed before War Horse went into production — limping along, struggling to raise finance from studio backers.
“At the time we were told, ‘Americans aren’t interested in first world war stories’, and ‘Nobody’s heard of Michael Morpurgo’,” Reade recalls. Then along came Spielberg. Famously, War Horse, published in 1982, had lain forgotten until the National Theatre’s inventive stage adaptation in 2007. It was this that Spielberg saw and figured he could transmute into box-office gold. Such was his clout, he got his film made — Morpurgo clicks his fingers — “like that”.
“Private Peaceful was still trudging through the mud, and the horse galloped past,” he laughs. “But I love this way of film-making, the organic way this whole thing came together — the exact opposite of Hollywood.” He will be hands-on with the next one, too, The Mozart Question, for which he is currently penning the screenplay.
Through his books, Morpurgo has addressed all manner of issues — the Highland clearances (The Last Wolf), the Arab-Israeli conflict (The Kites Are Flying!), Afghan refugees (Shadow) — but he keeps returning to the great war. Just out is his illustrated book A Medal for Leroy, based on the life of Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British army, who died at the Somme in 1918. He is not alone in his fascination. In addition to all the revisionist ­histories clogging up Waterstones, it has been hard to turn on the telly without seeing lions abused by donkeys — Birdsong, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End and so on. Morpurgo rolls his eyes: “They even share the same actors. Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s clearly the bloke you have to have.”
Is it a case of keeping the memory alive now that dear old Harry Patch has faded away? A cash-in on the approaching centenary? No. “This war is a metaphor for all wars,” Morpurgo says. “About the horror of war, the destruction of it, the pity of it, as Wilfred Owen said. It’s got more resonance for us in the past 20 years, sadly, because we’ve been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the coffins start coming home, it reminds people that young men do go out and die because older men tell them they have to... The grief goes on.”
It is no small irony that Morpurgo intended to go into the army. He was an officer cadet at Sandhurst until he dropped his own bombshell — announcing, at the tender age of 19, that he was leaving to get married (to Clare Lane, daughter of the founder of Penguin Books). For a war baby, born in 1943, honouring your parents’ gene­ration was simply what you did, he says. He had lost a beloved uncle, bomber crew in the RAF. At public school, he had been labelled “‘nice but dim’ — the army suited me, because I did have this aspiration to prove myself, largely because of the people I’d looked up to when I was little”.
Morpurgo has been caught up in a little revisionist history of his own. In the wake of the War Horse renaissance, fans had been flocking to the village hall in his Devon home, Iddesleigh, looking for the “small dusty painting” of Joey the horse, the one faithfully described in the book’s opening.
Though the story was based in fact, the portrait, he had to concede, was pure invention. He has since commissioned a painting to hang in pride of place, if only to spare the lady next door. “She was fed up with people knocking, saying, ‘We want to see this picture,’ and her having to lie, saying, ‘It’s been taken down to be cleaned.’”
It is not the only place of pilgrimage. There was, it turns out, a real Private Peaceful — with two Ls, but they misspelt it — who died at “Wipers”. This humble Tommy’s grave at the Bedford House Cemetery is now covered in flowers and letters from visiting children. “What’s ­marvellous about it is that this man has become a sort of Unknown Soldier — one of the million of ours who died.”
Private Peaceful is on general release from Friday