From the moment Steven Spielberg signed on to direct "War Horse," one thing was clear: He could not tell the story from the point of view of the horse, even though that's exactly what author Michael Morpurgo did in the award-winning 1982 children's book from which the film is adapted.
In the book, the innocent equine protagonist, Joey, knows only what he can see and sense. He doesn't learn the larger stories of the many men and women he encounters as he journeys from the English countryside through the battlefields of World War I. The winding plot gave Spielberg a lot of ground to cover and a limited amount of screen time to devote to each human character. The job of making it work fell to screenwriter Richard Curtis -- and to the actors in the cast.
"If you are going to do quite an episodic film, [you must] lavish attention on the episodes almost outside the run of the story," Curtis told The Huffington Post. "Try and do unnecessary things, so that when you arrive in that story, you think, 'Oh, wow, I'm arriving in a real world,' rather than, 'I'm arriving in a world where all the information I get is the information necessary for Joey's story.'"
Of the film's stars, only Jeremy Irvine -- who plays Albert, Joey's young master and best friend -- appears on screen for more than about 20 minutes. For the rest, the screenwriter constructed backstories that, while never presented to the audience, enriched their performances.
Using as an example Gunther (David Kross), the young German soldier who briefly takes charge of Joey after the film's first battle scene, Curtis recalled creating a "long story about why he had been recruited, what he used to do, that he had been an unpopular boy when he was young and always had this sort of private life when he communicated with animals."
The cast took their prep work a few steps further. Patrick Kennedy spent more than a month training with horses and huddling with his co-stars Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch. The three play British cavalry soldiers who take Joey to war, and together they were able to fill in the prewar lives of Lt. Waverly, Capt. Nicholls and Maj. Stewart.
"We all decided that we grew up in Somerset together or around each other," Kennedy said. "We joined the fox hunt together, and the hierarchy of the fox hunts were often transposed into the cavalry, and so my character, Waverly, joins the cavalry really because of his mates and for the glory of it."
The three actors forged enough of a connection that they began playing their parts even when the cameras weren't rolling. "I was the joker. Tom was the sort of noble, sincere and heroic one. Benedict was the stern, more pompous one," Kennedy remembered. "I think that's what acting's all about. You just have to know everything you possibly can. It gives a kind of confidence and bedrock."
Toby Kebbell, whose unnamed British soldier plays a pivotal role late in the film during a bloody battle in the infamous trenches, spent long hours perfecting his character's Newcastle accent. But to prepare emotionally for his scenes as a young soldier who's already seen too much, he had only to look around at the battleground set. "There were dummies laying in the bomb holes, filled with water and barbed wire, and it's harrowing," he said. "My job is imagination -- I'm a professional liar -- so it doesn't take a great deal to extend your imagination. I've never been to war, I've never been shot at on the battlefield, but I think it gave me enough, to see how harrowing it must have been."
Irvine, who was just 19 when the movie was filmed last year, put effort into capturing his character's lack of experience. "I wanted to have this innocence with Albert that I don't think you really find anymore," said the young star, who makes his feature debut with "War Horse," having been plucked out of the regional-theater circuit by Spielberg himself. "This is someone who, unlike 15-year-olds today, hasn't been exposed to TV and the Internet and mobile phones, and he's only really got one friend. He's probably never left the village of Devon, because he's from such an isolated area, and this is before cars. He's got this incredible innocence and naiveté and complete lack of cynicism, and I think that's really important to playing him realistically."
For her role as Albert's mother, Emily Watson tapped into a deep personal connection to the horrors of World War I. "When I was in my 20s, my grandmother, who at the time was 88, sat me down and told me about her brother. She was 12 and her older brother was 17, and he died at the Somme," Watson said, speaking in hushed tones. "And she wept and wept and wept that night as if it had been yesterday. A wound of grief she never recovered from -- she spent every night of her life with his photograph next to her bed."
And then there are the 14 horses who together performed the pivotal role of Joey. While Curtis did not go so far as to whisper motivational tales into their ears, he did attempt to put himself in their shoes, so to speak. "What is it like suddenly not having your mother around if you are a horse?" he remembers wondering. "I remember thinking very seriously at the end of the movie, when they leave France and they start to notice dead horses around them, that would be something that a horse would be very aware of. So, oddly enough, I have inhabited a horse."