TWO MEN WENT TO WAR was co-written by Richard Everett and Christopher Villiers. It was shot on location in London, Surrey and Cornwall, with principal photography commencing on 8th November 2001 and finishing on 19 December 2001.
Playwright Richard Everett came across a book in Godalming library called Amateur Commandos by Raymond Foxall. On reading the flyleaf, he burst out laughing because the story was so absurd and quintessentially English. Says Everett, "I mean, two army dentists who decide to invade France single-handedly and succeed in blowing up a German signal box, it was so ridiculous it could only be true. " Everett told Villiers about the story over dinner one evening and together they agreed to write a screenplay inspired by the adventures of Cutherbertson and King, who, as Villiers says, "were terribly serious about what they did. " It was the idea that this was a very small story set against World War II and yet it wasn't at all a typical war story that appealed to the writers. At its heart, it was a story about two men stuck in dead-end jobs desperate to make their mark. This script was the first writing collaboration between Everett and Villiers and the original draft took them one year to complete. Through the writing process, they discovered both a Cuthbertson and a King in themselves; they spent hours pretending to be the characters. Says Everett; "the scene in the English Channel came about as we both sat on inflatable chairs bobbing about in the pool one summer, imagining a land mine floating toward us. "
After a number of drafts, and only once the writers were happy with the screenplay they showed it to director John Henderson. Henderson was immediately taken with the idea and concept of the story. He admits to being a great admirer of the British character and was drawn to the British eccentricity and the rites of passage at the core of the story. Says Henderson "I was attracted to the transformation of each character, where a young Private becomes a man and the hard-nosed Sergeant reveals himself to be just as fragile as anyone else. " For the writers, the involvement of Henderson in the project gave them enormous encouragement.
Once on board the project, Henderson worked collaboratively with the writers to further develop and hone the script, bringing both his writing and directing abilities to play. John has worked in comedy since the age of 16 and feels "that true situation comedy is where you take normal people and put them in a situation that is abnormal, the comedy derives from the fact that the characters just don't know how to handle the situation. "
American producer, Ira Trattner, then became involved at the beginning of 2001. Says Ira Trattner "I loved the Britishness of the story and was totally drawn to the characters. " Trattner was in touch with Keith Hayley of Little Wing Films about the company's new slate of films and he asked Hayley to read TWO MEN WENT TO WAR. After reading the script Hayley invited Trattner, the director and writers to a meeting to discuss their vision for the film. For Henderson, "the characters were intrinsically funny; the writers didn't have to add any gags to the performances because the moment you describe the story - it's about two army dentists who are eccentric enough to want to go off to France and fight the Germans single-handedly - it makes you smile. " It was clear the team were united in the telling of the film and Little Wing decided straight away to finance the film.
It was once the film was financed that producer Pat Harding joined the team. She was approached by Keith Hayley, whom she had previously worked with and was truly thrilled to be invited to work on the film. Says Harding "it's an absolutely delightful script, one of the best to come my way in years. "
Sarah Bird was appointed as casting agent. Trattner says "We were in the wonderful position of not having to look for stars to finance the film, but rather in a position where we could choose the right actors for the roles. " Henderson wanted actors that weren't typecast; he wanted "blank canvasses, because the characters set the tone for the world of the story.
When choosing Sergeant King, Henderson wanted an actor who looked like he had lived life; he didn't want a sex symbol, he wanted a man who had everything to lose, just like the character. He later confessed that his interpretation of King was largely based on the character of his own father who had served in the WWII. He wanted a brilliant actor who looked the part of a 1940's man and could very quickly portray a hard working-class sergeant without parody. Kenneth Cranham was the very actor that Henderson was looking for; he had seen him in the acclaimed television series Harvey Moon where he had played an ex-RAF man returning home.
Ken Cranham has had the most remarkable and eclectic career kicking off with Joe Ortons's original production of RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR, and the controversial ground breaking production of SAVED by Edward Bond. His performance as The Inspector in the multi award winning production of AN INSPECTOR CALLS extended his notoriety as a theatre actor to both sides of the Atlantic when he appeared from London's National Theatre and West End to huge critical acclaim on Broadway.
The pages of his TV credits move from BBC landmark classics such as ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT to costume dramas including OUR MUTUAL FRIEND and the contemporary drama of SINS. He became an international household name in the 80's as the title role in HARVEY MOON, and more recently returned to our screens to play Henderson in WITHOUT MOTIVE.
During his film career Cranham has worked with many great directors, ranging from Zeffirelli to Carol Reed to Greenaway.
King in TWO MEN WENT TO WAR offered the perfect headline role for Cranham to play following on from the heightened violence of GANGSTER NUMBER 1. By his own description "King is a wonderful character, who is totally expanded by his wartime experiences, but has to somehow come to terms with a subjugated, small life in a Dental Army Corp. Ultimately, King can't accept this dead-end job and this is what the story is about".
For the young Cuthbertson, Henderson wanted an actor who was at the beginning of his career, just like the character in the script. Leo Bill graduated from RADA in summer 2001 and had just finished a small part in Gosford Park and a rather apocalyptic role in 28 Days Later, when he auditioned for the role. Says producer Pat Harding, "When Leo came into the audition we all knew he was Private Cuthbertson. He understood the character straight away and his timing and quirkiness were absolutely spot on. " Says Leo Bill, "It's funny, but I thought the character of Cuthbertson was kind of like me. I loved his naivety and blind enthusiasm to achieve. " Leo Bill thought he had done a good audition, but never thought that he would get the coveted lead role, because he was just out of drama school. Needless to say, he couldn't believe his fortune when, after the second audition, he was offered the role. Says Bill; "The first person I told was my girlfriend. She was over the moon, especially since we could now afford the flat we had rented!"
Cranham and Bill rehearsed with director John Henderson for two weeks prior to the shoot. This rehearsal period, often a luxury, was invaluable, because it gave the actors an opportunity to discuss the roles and explore the father and son relationship that King and Cuthbertson develop during the telling of the story. It also gave the actors a chance to bond. Says Bill, "I was really worried before we met, because King and Cuthbertson are inseparable, it's their story, and I thought if Cranham hates me or I hate him it's going to be the worst experience of my life. Fortunately we get on really well. Cranham is wicked and he is very funny. "
When Henderson set about casting the film he had firm ideas about some of the supporting roles. To Henderson, Derek Jacobi embodied Whitehall and he was thrilled when Jacobi agreed to play the role of Major Merton, Churchill's Chief Intelligence Officer. Says Henderson, "James Fleet just was right for Major Bates and Phillyda Law, whom I'd previously worked with and love, was great in the role of Faith. To be honest, I am absolutely thrilled with the cast and grateful to the producers for allowing us to have the freedom to choose the right actors for the roles. "
Running in parallel to the casting process, Henderson had got together with cinematographer, John Ignatius and Production Designers, Sophie Becher and Steve Carter, to discuss the look of the film. Together they spent a lot of time discussing the story, watching old movies, paging through books on the period and visiting locations before settling on a visual style for the film. Says Henderson, "I wanted to take the blue out of the palette, to keep the visuals very warm, to make the audience feel comfortable and draw them into the story. I didn't want to use any flashy techniques or be too tricksy with the design because, ultimately, I didn't want to distract the audience away from the characters and the story".
Right from the start, Henderson was "keen not to set the comedy up in a contrived way, but to play everyone absolutely straight, encouraging the audience to laugh with, not at the characters. " The result, a beautiful and charming film with a very English sensibility.