War and Peace director Tom Harper: ‘I felt like an army general myself, but with less severe consequences’

Tom Harper (director) & Tuppence Middleton as Helene Kuragin

I meet Harper in the Radisson Blu Astoria, across the street from Vilnius Town Hall. He and twenty or so other crew members from the BBC flew in late Saturday night to attend the first screening of the series in Lithuania for the Lithuanian cast, crew and all other people who worked on the production.

The 36-year-old director feels noticeably at home in Vilnius. During the pre-production and shooting of War & Peace, he was travelling to the Lithuanian capital for a year. Today, Harper looks fresh in a button-down shirt, a pair of jeans and trainers. He put finishing touches to War & Peace on Wednesday and seems content with his six-part series that premièred in Britain and the United States in January and is generating raving reviews from TV critics.

David van Roon: The series has been getting great reviews. So far it has been called a sweeping victory and masterpiece, it has even been hailed as the Game of Thrones of period dramas. How have you been taking it all in?

Tom Harper: The reviews are as good as we could have hoped for. If you make a show that eight million people watch the first episode of – just in the UK that is – everyone is going to have a different opinion about it. That is what is so great about Tolstoy’s book in the first place.

Although, really, I hope it is not the Game of Thrones of period dramas! Game of Thrones is a bit tacky, isn’t it? Just sex and violence. Of course there is some of that in War & Peace, but it is nothing like in Game of Thrones. In most period dramas you don’t see sex and violence. But then again, War & Peace has the war. So yes, there is going to be some violence.

Many of the war scenes were shot here in Lithuania. Does Lithuania have a landscape well suited for violence?

No, I don’t think so. It does, however, have a beautiful landscape. It had all the vistas that we wanted. But more than that, Lithuania offered us the logistical support to film such large-scale battles.

Shooting these war scenes is essentially quite dangerous. You are blowing things up whilst you are working very long hours. You need experts who know what they are doing. That is why we picked Lithuania. On top of that, it is such a huge logistical challenge, with so many people involved. Lithuanian actors, the locations team, people managing all of the units. Getting people to the locations, feeding them, supplying them with toilet facilities. People like Lineta Miseikyte, production manager at Baltic Film Services, and their location scout, Jonas Spokas, were of great help.

You were shooting in Lithuania during winter. Wasn’t it hard to work when it was so cold?

Of course, but you got used to it. I particularly remember when we filmed the Russian retreat from Moscow here. We were shooting in subzero temperatures in this very beautiful, but very remote part of the country. We had 500 people that day. Imagine getting 500 people in costume, explaining to them about their weapons and transporting them to this remote bit of countryside! It was very intense. Period shoes are nothing like the hiking boots you’d wear today, so the most dangerous thing was people falling over.

How did it come about then that you decided to shoot in Lithuania?

There is a number of reasons. It was the tax credit, it was Rumšiškės, it was access to the Rundale Palace in Latvia, it was Vilnius Old Town and its streets. I don’t think it was any one thing in particular, it was the combined effect of it all.

When I first came to Lithuania, I thought not that much needed to be done before filming could start. But of course everything is still covered in crap; there is tramlines, street signs, and everything is dilapidated. Wherever you go, however right it may seem at first, you’ll always have to scratch the surface to see what is really going to be useful.

I do, however, remember walking into Rumšiškės and being like ‘Wow, we have to film here.’

Did Lithuania always feel as a good substitute for Russia?

Yes and no. Because of the relationship Russia and Lithuania have had over the years, the architecture here is much more similar to Russia than it is in Western Europe. Rumšiškės, for example, was great in terms of its wooden buildings, we have nothing like that at all in the UK. And we used Vilnius streets to double for Moscow.

But there were many other things we did here. Like shooting at the studio, and the battle scenes. These scenes could have been filmed in lots of different countries, but it was because of the support and skills here that it made sense for us to come to Lithuania.

Now that War & Peace has been shot here, numerous articles have appeared throughout the British media about the beautiful locations. This has already increased Lithuania’s popularity as a holiday destination. There are even specialised War & Peace tours being offered! What cannot be missed on one of these tours?

If that is true, then that is absolutely brilliant! Rumšiškės is a must. And Gediminas castle obviously, just as well as walking around the Old Town.

And would you go on a tour like that?

Well, no, I don’t think I would. I’ve been to all those places! I would, however, come back by myself. I really do feel at home here. The atmosphere is just very nice; there’s a million different restaurants that are really good. I even tried cepelinai, and actually liked it. Although it was a bit much for me. Well, I guess it keeps you going in this weather.

What was the most memorable scene you shot here in Lithuania?

The battles stay with me. Just because of the scale of them. We also filmed a good scene at the Gediminas castle. I remember storm clouds were coming over as we stood on the hill. We knew we had very little time and we were worried about getting the scene done. The actor literally said his last line and the heavens opened!

Then there is all of the scenes we did at Rumšiškės. When you make a period drama, often you are constrained in what you can and cannot see. Over there, there is a modern building, on the other side you have a street sign that you can’t remove. You constantly have to compromise. But the thing with Rumšiškės is that you can film anywhere. The camera can look in any direction and it is all period and accurate. It was my favourite location!

Was there any great difficulties you came across during the filming?

Every film shoot is hard and will present many challenges, but this one was the most difficult I’ve ever done. It is War & Peace, what do you expect? You hope it is going to be challenging!

I particularly remember the day we filmed the cavalry charge from the first episode. I really thought it was going to be a disaster, but it turned out to be one of the scenes I am most proud of. It was a miserable day, it was raining non-stop and everyone was drenched. We were standing in this massive field with forty riders. But forty horses in a massive field just don’t look impressive to the naked eye. All you can think is ‘really, is this going to work?’ But that is the glory of filmmaking, you’re able to edit and enhance.

With so many people under your command, did you sometimes feel like an army general yourself?

Absolutely, but with less severe consequences! There were no easy days. No matter how fast you want to go, no matter how much you have to do for the rest of the day, it takes ages to move 500 people up a hill to a new position and tell them all what they’ll need to be doing. And then someone needs to go to the toilet. In order to get 500 people to the toilet, you can just see the time ticking away. That was excruciating.

What was your opinion of the Lithuanian crew?

In terms of acting, they were absolutely fantastic. It was a bit difficult at times because of the whole nature of the Russian to English translation. The concept was that everyone would be speaking English and would have an English accent. So that was a bit tricky for us, because it highlights the difficulties of the concept in the first place. That’s why all the main characters were cast as UK actors. But in terms of quality, the Lithuanians were great. Obviously, it is quite a small pool of actors you’ve got here. Because of that I was surprised at how many good ones there were. We worked with students and with people who had a lot of experience in the theatre. I feel like perhaps actors here move around more between different media than they would in the UK.

In terms of the crew, they were magnificent. We couldn’t have gone through it without them.

Can the Brits learn something from Lithuanians?

Sure! I believe that people working together always rub off on each other. The costume department here is particularly worth mentioning. Every time I walked past and saw everyone sowing, I thought they were so skilled. They had to deliver such an amazing feat with the amount of costumes to be made. All of them were made here, and they were so beautiful!

In the first scene Paul Dano walks into a crowded sitting room. The camera swerves around in a way that reminded me much of the way Tolstoy narrates. Was there a certain style you chose to adhere to for the series?

That was exactly what we had in mind for that scene! There is a description of Tolstoy’s writing that he just sort of dips in and out in a god-like way, moving from conversation to conversation.

Because the story is so wide-ranging, it felt that to have one particular style would be forcing it a bit. The demands of different scenes felt different. St Petersburg feels very different from Moscow. And the battle scenes felt different from the peace scenes. 1812 feels different to 1804 and so forth. It felt wrong to impose any one particular style on the whole thing.

Were there moments you thought you were doing the novel a disservice?

There were certainly times when I felt we weren’t able to capture something in the novel. The series is never going to replace the book. It is silly to replicate the book, precisely because you are always going to fail at that. What we went out to do was not to create a museum piece where everything was exactly like in the book, but to take the book as our guide and try to tell this story as truthfully as we could for a modern audience.

To give an example: if we had been entirely truthful to the make up of that time, in terms of how people looked then, you would look at Natasha or Anna Pavlova and it would be distancing because it is not what we are used to. If the truth of the character is that they are representing the real beauty of that time, we need to bring that in a way that people understand beauty now.

You have said in a different interview that one of the dangers of period dramas is that they are too formal. How did you try to avoid this pitfall?

I just try and get people to inhabit this world as they would their own world. I believe people across the ages behave in pretty much the same way. Especially over the last 200 years. That is what is so brilliant about the book, that people have the same pains, fears and hopes as they do today.

In the past we didn’t have films and photos, we had portraits. And of course if you are going to get your portrait taken, you do your hair nicely and stand up straight. I don’t believe people were like that all of the time. So I just told the actors to put their feet on the table and slouch back.

Are you working on anything new at the moment?

Well, there is some small ongoing projects, but I really just finished War & Peace on Wednesday.

I’ll give you some time to rest after this last question then. Why should people see your adaptation of War & Peace?

Because it is adapted by Andrew Davies, the greatest adaptor of nineteenth-century novels alive today. We have a cast that is just wonderful, I couldn’t have asked for any better. Shooting in Lithuania was great. I don’t know if we could have done it anywhere else. And the novel itself is surprisingly well suited to television. Tolstoy’s writing, the dipping in and out of different families, is precisely what television is.

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