The director of BBC1’s War and Peace, Tom Harper, on the challenges of adapting Tolstoy’s classic novel for the small screen

Director Tom Harper’s credits include The Woman In Black 2, The Scouting Book for Boys, Peaky Blinders, Misfits and This is England ’86. For the past two years he’s worked on BBC1’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace, from a script by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice). He directed all six episodes

How did you approach adapting such an epic novel? Reading the script and the book, it was very apparent to me that the characters still feel amazingly modern and vibrant – even though the book was written over 150 years ago. It felt very relatable to me living my life now. So I didn’t want to impose too much of a stylistic approach on it. I saw my role and my creative team’s role as bringing it to life for a contemporary audience, in as truthful a way as possible.

Were you influenced by the many other previous onscreen adaptations? I looked at the other very good adaptations – the (Sergei) Bondarchuk (1966) and the BBC (1972) versions. For all the wonderful things about them, they feel quite of their time. The Bondarchuk battle scenes are phenomenal, but I don’t think for a contemporary audience, after Saving Private Ryan, that you can just sit back and watch a battlefield from afar and for it to feel exciting. So you have to use a different visual language. If you are telling a story now, the audience expect different things – to feel like they are in it. It is about trying to convey what characters are experiencing and feeling at any given moment.

What were the key challenges for you as a director? The amount of preparation I needed to do. And also trying to keep it all in my head. There was so much going on, and so many different aspects to the shoot. It was also really hard just finding locations. In the UK we take for granted that we have all these historic houses that we haven’t touched for 500 years. Whereas in eastern Europe, that is not the case with two world wars and a revolution. That was why we were spread across three countries in the end.

And casting? The great thing about working on War and Peace is that people want to be involved with it. Working with great actors makes my job very easy.

What was it like shooting in Russia, Lithuania and Latvia? They all had different benefits and challenges. Russia has a different sort of infrastructure to the UK, and different working methods. And there is a language barrier. We often needed translators, which slows everything down. We had wonderful co-producers who made everything possible, like filming in St Petersburg outside The Winter Palace and at Catherine Palace. Naively, I thought we could turn up and be ready to go. But like every other modern city, St Petersberg has loads of traffic, street signs, cables and modern things that get in the way. But they gave us permission to close down streets, and film in the busiest areas. We also filmed during the white nights, when it is light all night. There’s a scene where Pierre is crossing the bridge in St Petersberg one evening. That was filmed at 1am in the morning. Lithuania had wonderful villages of wooden buildings, windmills, country roads and farms. And Lativa’s renovated Palace Rundale has lavish interiors which we used.

What did you shoot on?  Arri Alexa. Digital cameras offer a lot of benefits: you can shoot a lot, you can shoot quickly, you can shoot repeat takes, and we had a lot to get through. We used anamorphic lenses, not for the aspect ratio, but for the focus fall-off. The DoP George Steel filtered quite heavily to give it the feel of a period film, referencing big movies of the past.

Did it require a lot of vfx? Quite a lot, mostly for things that don’t exist, like Moscow in 1805, which was burnt down. We also used vfx for the battle scenes, for the replication of soldiers and lots of smoke addition. And also to paint out wires and aerials and modern stuff. Every time you go outside there are a lot of challenging things to avoid for a drama set 200 years ago. You could either pick a tiny spot and shoot there and limit your frame size or you shoot wider. We wanted to go as wide as we could – it’s such a big story that we want to see St Petersberg and the locations as much as possible.

What about the scale of the production? The speaking cast was 130, but the biggest days would involve 400-500 extras. There was a huge logistical and filming crew too – and over 220 locations. We were in Russia for about three and a half weeks, Latvia for three weeks and Lithuania for the rest of the six month shoot.

Tim Dams

Share this story

Share Televisual stories within your social media posts.
Be inclusive: is open access without the need to register.
Anyone and everyone can access this post with minimum fuss.