70 years on from the world-changing atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a film about the dangers of nuclear war is finally getting the attention it deserves. War Book is about a government exercise where a group of junior politicians play out the scenario of a fictional nuclear attack and decide how they would respond. We first reviewed the film at the 2014 London Film Festival and awarded it five stars, and it’s now been broadcast on BBC Four following a couple of cinema dates. Before you do anything else, head to iPlayer and give it a watch. You won’t regret it.
We spoke to the film’s director and producer Tom Harper about low-budget filmmaking, the joys of Anthony Sher and what we can expect from his forthcoming BBC adaptation of War and Peace.
I saw War Book nearly a year ago and absolutely loved it, but it’s taken until now for it to get a release. What was the reason for that delay?
We made it for very little money – and with a film such as this, it’s harder to get attention. One of the key places it gets shown is at film festivals (such as the LFF where you saw the film), so we have toured the film festivals around the world before releasing the film more generally in cinemas and on television.
Was that frustrating for you? Especially after it got really good reviews at festivals?
It is frustrating, but I also understand that it is a small film to some degree. It is for a niche market. I suppose the intention with the film was to try and make something really good and see if it could hit its audience and be a success for what it is. What’s really good about this film is that it made its money back so it’s sort of a sustainable model. We didn’t pay anybody very much but we were able to pay people.
Do you think the manner of the film’s eventual release – with the screenings you’ve had recently and the Q&As as well as the TV broadcast – shows a change in the way films are released nowadays?
I don’t know whether that’s a change in the way films are released in general, but I think that Jack Thorne [writer] and Lauren Dark [producer] and I intend to carry on making films like this. I think we learnt a lot from that piece and I think that we will do it better next time. Rather than holding out for a bigger distributor to do all the work for us, I think we’ll just do it ourselves. We know what works well, we loved working with the independent cinemas – they were the people that really supported us – and we can do events around it, make it political. It was a quiet success I’d say, and I think the model really works.
You were working from Jack Thorne’s script, who is someone you’ve worked with before. What first appealed to you about the script?
I just wanted to have a bit more choice. I’m interested in political filmmaking and I loved the project and I thought the subject matter was fascinating. I was also interested in doing something that was contained, that we could do ourselves, and that we could make the way that we thought we should make it.
It’s a fascinating premise – but one that could be quite challenging for a director, with the limited locations and quite a lot of complex dialogue to get across. How did you approach that challenge when you were directing it?
I sort of relished the challenge in a funny way. I definitely think that limitations force you into making interesting decisions. So it made me really think about how to use a camera and to break things down in more detail than I would if I was going to a bunch of different locations which all look beautiful. It really forced me to think about the evolution of the atmosphere and the tone and the pace and the lighting over the course of the film, so it was a very interesting exercise.
I was going to ask you about the lighting actually. I was intrigued by the way you lit the film, particularly how the lighting changed across the three days of the exercise. From the normal daylight on the first day and then on day two it got very dark and theatrical and then on day three it sort of went back to the normal daylight. What was your thinking behind that?
First and foremost I wanted to keep it evolving so it didn’t feel like you were in the same room all the time. I guess day one is the most naturalistic of the setups and there’s a sort of buzzing, fluorescent feel to the night one, so it feels quite separate. And then with the third one the idea was to create a pressure cooker and make it feel hot and sweaty and claustrophobic.
Did you feel pressure to try and do more with the lighting and directing because it was a fairly bland location and it was all in one place?
Maybe; I think part of the trick of directing is you want it to be stylish and you want to give it a look and a feel and something distinctive, but you don’t want it to get in the way of telling the story. So I suppose for me it always starts with the story and the characters and it always builds out from there rather than trying to impose something on it. Particularly in a film like this, if the style gets in the way of content – the content is quite challenging anyway – so you don’t want to be hindering that in any way.
You gathered an incredible cast for this film. How involved were you with that process and how crucial do you think it was to the success of the film?
I think it was absolutely essential. If you’d had a weak link or some bad actors I think it would’ve come unstuck very quickly. And you know, again, we were asking people to do it for not much money. But it was a good script, which made it easier. I think in general, if it’s an interesting project and you’re not asking too much of their time – people would rather be doing interesting things than not doing interesting things.
Was it important for you to get the right performances out of the actors?
I think it always is, I wouldn’t say any more than usual. Other stuff I’ve done – something like Misfits or short films I’ve done where I’m working with kids – you really have to work at the performances to get what you want, whereas with Anthony Sher… [laughs] you just let him go and… the take stops and you just go “Shit. That’s fucking good.” [laughs]
His speech was incredible. At the point where they’re trying to decide whether to stand with America and use their nuclear weapons or not.
Yeah, when he did that I think he did one take on each side and after he’d done it all the cast just clapped him.
The film deals with some very difficult moral questions about the use of nuclear weapons. And I have to say I was completely on Tom (Shaun Evans)’s side, until that speech. And I was wondering how that made you think about it and what you would have done if you had to make that decision?
One of the really important things for Jack Thorne and me was not to be didactic about it, but I certainly would vote ‘Nay’. Most definitely. I think David’s speech is bollocks personally. I can see his point, which is: if we have [nuclear weapons]… why have them if you’re not going to use them? And I understand it, but I don’t think it’s a particularly good argument.
I think that part of it’s interesting as well. The film isn’t so much about the actual moral arguments they’re making, but how well each individual can argue. So because Tom can’t argue particularly well in the room, he tends to get bullied by the other characters.
Yeah, we did a panel where there was a psychology expert and he said that actually one of the things the film revealed was how flawed the decision-making process is. You’re affected by sexism and racism and bullies and strength of personality and all these things which shouldn’t really inform the decision but because we’re human, they do.
Looking to the future now, I believe you’re currently in the edit for War and Peace? How’s that going?
Good, so far, I think. [Laughs] We’re getting through it. We’re just finishing episode one at the moment and then yeah, we’ve got a way to go.
It must have been a very exciting shoot. Quite different from War Book I imagine.
You couldn’t get more different really. It was six months in Russia and Latvia and Lithuania and we had, like, 250 locations, so it was the opposite of War Book. It was hard, but it was great fun. And the cast again were amazing – there was so much that was amazing but it was definitely hard.
How did you approach such a different project, such a big undertaking?
Weirdly, in the same way. Starting with the story and the characters and building out from there. Logistically it was very challenging just in terms of finding different locations and shooting over three different countries while being based in the UK.
What are you trying to bring to the adaptation to entice viewers? Because it’s a huge book, obviously, which possibly feels a little old-fashioned to audiences now.
Well. I don’t know if it does feel old-fashioned, that’s the thing. I guess there are parts of it that naturally are of another time, but essentially the core stories and characters I don’t think are dated. So I guess that’s what I’m trying to bring to it. To tell this story in as truthful a way as possible but for a contemporary audience.
I don’t think humans have changed very much over thousands of years, let alone a couple of hundred years. And reading the book you realise how similar they are: the family dynamics and the love and the loss and everything they go through. It was an exceptional time of enormous wealth and enormous upheaval and it’s really a wonderful, wonderful book.
War and Peace will be broadcast on the BBC this winter. Exact dates are yet to be confirmed.