“War and Peace” is considered one of the densest works of literature ever written, filled with not just a huge number of characters and massive plotting, but much of the personal philosophy of author Leo Tolstoy. It also happens to be mega-producer Harvey Weinstein’s favorite book, which is why he’s helped to bring the novel to the screen in a four-part A&E/Lifetime/History miniseries event starring everyone from veteran actors like Gillian Anderson, Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent to young but well-known faces like Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton.
Directed by Tom Harper (“Misfits,” “Peaky Blinders”) and written by the legendary screenwriter Andrew Davies (nearly every great British novel adaptation of the last 25 years), “War and Peace” tracks the epic story while focusing largely on the awkward but well-meaning Pierre Bezukhov (Dano) and more dashing Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton) over decades of, well, war and peace.
At the TCA Winter Press Tour, Indiewire got a chance to speak with Harper, Dano, James and Norton about the research they poured into understanding the world of Tolstoy, the intense six months of production in full period dress…and the karaoke parties. An edited transcript is below.
I saw the ratings were huge in the UK. Congrats on that. What kind of reactions have you seen so far from people who’ve seen it?
TOM HARPER: It’s been amazing. It’s been really lucky. I think because it’s such a well-known text, it’s such a daunting thing and everyone’s heard of it. Everyone knows what it is and it has this reputation for being this massive work of importance. I really felt a responsibility and the pressure. What’s been so lovely is that so many people have watched it, but the response has been so good, and what seems to have happened in the UK, so far, is everyone’s talking about it and that is the best thing. If more people haven’t read the book go and read the book, then that’s amazing. Everyone seems to be talking about it and it has been really nicely reviewed. It’s the fact that it’s part of a bigger conversation, that I think is really nice, that’s the most pleasing thing to me.
JAMES NORTON: It’s rare now, particularly in America, but also in the UK — there’s so much TV and there’s so much to watch on demand, whereas before when we had four channels, everyone would congregate around, and there would be ratings of 25 million and they would all wake up in the morning and if you hadn’t watched the show, then you felt left out. That’s kind of what is happening with “War and Peace,” I think, which is really exciting. Because the medium and the ratings are so good, you can sense that everyone is getting behind it. If you haven’t watched it you’re a little bit left out, which is exciting. I feel that momentum will continue.
I’m intrigued by the idea, especially for people who haven’t read the book, of people watching it the way they watch “Breaking Bad” — genuinely excited for every plot twist. Is that the sort of thing you’ve seen?
HARPER: I think so. They want to know what’s going on. Absolutely, and that’s what it’s like reading the book, it’s a page-turner. There are sections that are slower as well, but in the human sections, what we focused on, it definitely is a page turner. You do want to find out what’s going to happen next.
How much of the book’s philosophy did you touch on?
NORTON: It’s all in the looks [laughs]. I stand in a lot of fields.
HARPER: Do the 10-page look!
NORTON: I mean, I can’t. That’s a lot of preparation. It’s hard to know how much because you obviously feel the responsibility to communicate as much as you can. There is so much stuff going on, particularly in our characters. There’s always pieces of Tolstoy because he had an immense amount going on; a lot of wrangling and existential stuff. So, you felt a responsibility to try and communicate that, but at the same time, it’s counterproductive when you’re in a scene. You do spend a lot of time with various textbooks, though. There’s a sort of balance.
For you Paul [Dano] — playing someone who is considered the voice of Tolstoy in the story — I know you guys talked about going back to the book a lot, but how much did you go to actual Tolstoy in his life?
PAUL DANO: A lot. Partially to see if you find something that feeds you and partially for fun. We’re in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania for six months, there’s time to do some reading, whether it’s on set or in your apartment. I love that part of it, that’s something that I feel– While some people can look at it like parts of the book that are philosophy or history and how can you dramatize them, that’s all just part of the bones of the character — how that person is seeing the world, how they’re thinking and feeling, what they’re searching for. The more the merrier. You might find one sentence in a letter that you can bring with you for a scene. Knowing that makes the difference.
NORTON: [to Dano] I remember one thing: It was a conversation I had with you and you were saying something that you were reading — what was it? I think you were reading two things that you kind of picked up, and one was something Tolstoy was reading at the time and how you found that interesting. And then you read some of the actual short stories as well.
DANO: Yeah, it was particularly his letters. Even his views on religion, I think, were really interesting. One thing that I found as an actor, looking at the characters, usually when the characters hit their lowest point is when they are able to break away from society and see their real life for the first time, it’s almost like finding the present moment. It’s actually really Buddhist, even though he was Christian — Gandhi was a huge Tolstoy fan — and so all of a sudden I am starting to read about Buddhism while I’m in Lithuania. One thing leads to another and it’s real fun fuel for the fire.
For the production were you all there for all six months?
LILY JAMES: No. I wasn’t. You were there the whole time.
DANO: I was there most of the time, just because it wasn’t an easy trip back to the U.S. So even a few days off, it’s not enough to hop home.
HARPER: But you were all there quite a lot. Sure you had a lot of gaps, and you went off and did a few other things in the middle. But you were there in the beginning and there in the end.
JAMES: The girls all left when the boys did battle. So, we had this really nice break for a month and then we came back and they were all shattered and broken then.
DANO: It’s weird. It’s not even been a year since we all…
NORTON: June. We wrapped in June.
DANO: Yeah. The table reading in London was in January, mid-January or something.
JAMES: Feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
HARPER: We’ve done a lot in that time. That’s the other thing — we shot in three different countries, and there was a lot of traveling involved.
JAMES: Different seasons. When we started it was snowing, and when we ended it was sunny.
HARPER: I really liked that about it, going back to the same locations from deep mid-winter to mid-summer, somehow gives a real sense of the passing of time, makes you appreciate it.
JAMES: It was insane because in the schedule they were trying to coordinate a hundred actors that had speaking parts, seasons, different parts of the stories and three different countries. We shot out of sequence the whole six episodes. In the morning, I’d be like 15 with a little fringe and running around, and by the evening, with a half hour break, quick wig change, I’d be doing older Natasha. To everyone, it was a marathon. We really relied on Tom, as well, to help us know where we were in the story. [laughs]
NORTON: We always had to be great on continuity because, as we said, we’d no idea whether you’re in Moscow in the morning and St. Petersburg in the afternoon.
DANO: You could just look at your notes.
NORTON: I was getting the chills there, browsing a few letters. [laughs] But the whole shoot in St. Petersburg, it would start in minus 20 and then end in the white nights and those were really manic. You had to shoot seven years of Russian winter a week. That was the beginning, the first two weeks, that was a real sort of party.
HARPER: Good bonding.
NORTON: Very fun. Lots of vodka.
HARPER: A little karaoke.
NORTON: We were singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
JAMES: Tuppence [Middleton] and Jessie Buckley were there too. We screamed out “Bohemian Rhapsody” in this weird karaoke bar. I was much more passive than Jessie. Jessie fell to her knees.
NORTON: It was a lot of fun.
The best part is I picture this all happening with you guys in period dress.
HARPER: The costumes are so amazing. It was just like walking around the costume store, I did have to try on a few.
JAMES: You loved the fur, didn’t you, Tom?
HARPER: I loved the fur! I tried on one of the military uniforms. I tried one of the czar’s uniforms, and it makes you feel so powerful. Just the work and the effort that has gone into the craftsmanship that goes into making the costumes, and the fashion really, those are all professions. I wore most of the costumes.
NORTON: They have an amazing heritage, when it comes to tailoring fabric in Lithuania and the Baltics. Almost all our costumes, I think, apart from some of the extras, were handmade by these incredible tailors and they were just so neat and beautiful. You would put them on in the morning and you were there. Especially when we were in Russia in snow up to your waste on a frozen lake wearing these incredible furs.
JAMES: It was freezing. [laughs]
NORTON: There’s a trick that we’re missing here. We know what everyone looks like. We must have done something with the feet. The furs are amazing the hats are really warm, the whole body, but the shoes, everyone had either cold feet or there’s something we don’t know.
JAMES: The shoes must have been accurate but they did not keep my feet warm. We got this email about hypothermia before we started, like the risks and the warning signs and stuff, and I was just terrified. I was like, “I can’t feel my toes.”
NORTON: The hats as well. I mean how could they fight in those hats? That’s another question. The hats are so impractical. They’re really tall and really weighted, so any tiny movement and it falls off and yet that was their uniform.
JAMES: They have the strap.
NORTON: Yeah, but even then you’d get crick necks.
HARPER: We had this one scene where [laughs] the hat would not stay on.
JAMES: The hat award definitely goes to Jack though.
NORTON: Jack Lowden.
TH & JAMES: He played Nikolai.
JAMES: He had the fruitiest hat.
Is there a montage of outtakes of people’s hats falling off?
HARPER: The good thing about shooting for six months is that you do get some good outtakes.
JAMES: We did at the wrap party, there was an outtake reel. We should release that.
HARPER: We should. There was a really funny one of James. He’s got this whole army behind him and it’s going back and stops at him to inspire the whole army and lead the charge and there’s this moment of glory and he grabs this enormous flag and goes, “Charge!” The flag pole just breaks. [laughs]
To wrap things up, personally, what do you guys hope people take away from watching the whole experience?
DANO: I’ve only seen the first two hours. I was really excited to think, oh wow, we’re only here, like the journey is so huge and I’m really impressed by the scope of what Tom and what everybody did, our producers, our production team. I can’t really say what I want people to take away, but I am really excited for them to go on such a huge journey with these characters, and I do think that there are enough beautifully drawn characters that everybody will find a piece of themselves in there.
NORTON: Not to sound overly wordy, but now we can be part of the smug crew that has actually read the book. I don’t think I would have read “War and Peace” had I not done this project. I hope that the production will show people that these big lofty tomes, which are kind of intimidating and aren’t just really soap operas at the end of it. They’re just people in love, and revenge, and jewels and sex. Hopefully, it might inspire a generation who are getting more and more reliant on their screen and the shortcuts to entertainment, will maybe return to some of these big old hefty novels.
How about you, Lily?
JAMES: What they said. [laughs] When I watched the first episode I was really blown away. It feels like a really fresh take on doing a period piece. It feels like it blows that word out of the water, and it’s like just this drama and it’s so vivid and that’s what I thought, actually, reading the book, it was totally unexpected. I hope that when people watch it they’re as drawn to it as I was reading it. I was sort of shocked by, someone that might go on and say “War and Peace” isn’t for me. I think that they’ll find it is because it is this really exhilarating drama.
HARPER: The thing that I take from it the most and the thing I really loved about it is just like the search for meaning within the book, and I hope that some of that does come across within it.
“War and Peace” airs Monday evenings on Lifetime, A&E and History.