Many films aim to completely immerse their audience in the story at hand, but Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes takes this concept even further with his latest film 1917, a war epic meant to look like one continuous shot throughout, with no clear edits or cuts.
“Once we had the idea of two hours in real time, it seemed too tempting to tell it in this way,” says Mendes at the Dallas screening in mid-December. He grew excited about the idea after shooting the opening for the James Bond film Spectre in one continuous take. “It was there from the very beginning.”
1917 follows the mission of two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), who are tasked with delivering a message that could turn the tide of the war. The plot was loosely based on stories that Mendes’ grandfather had told him about his experiences as a messenger in the British military during the same period.
While the film is set amidst the epicenter of World War I, the mission Blake and Schofield embark on forces them to the edge of the conflict as they travel through treacherous territory to warn the British Army of a German attack. Mendes wasn’t interested in showing a traditional battlefield conflict, and he opted for the two men to face different sorts of dangers.
“I think I was really interested in the constant low-grade threat of something happening, but it coming from unexpected quarters, not necessarily gunfire or bombs,” he says. “The easy option is someone shooting a gun, but it’s much more difficult to find ways to create danger and a sense of threat in a war movie in an unconventional way.”
Due to the nontraditional nature of filming, Mendes says the film required an unprecedented amount of planning and staging in order to coordinate the rhythm corresponding to each scene.
“We had to measure every single step of the journey,” the director says. “That means starting on open fields with a script in your hand and measuring the journeys that the boys take, and then marking them with flags and posts, and then starting to build the trenches, and then building no man’s land, and farmhouses, and roads, and quarries, and orchards and towns. Everything had to be exactly the right length, and that was one of the hardest things about it.”
Mendes has directed acclaimed films such as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition and Skyfall, but for the first time in his career he penned the script as well, alongside screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns. In order to prepare themselves for the writing process, Mendes and Wilson-Cairns immersed themselves in historical records and visited locations in France where the actual battles took place.
“That was incredibly moving, just the staggering loss of life,” Wilson-Cairns says. “You find yourself driving down a mile of road and there’s five cemeteries, all filled with young men. That really brought home to me the cost of the war, the waste of youth, and that’s one of the things that really percolated in the story.”
In order to honor the sacrifices made by these young men, Wilson-Cairns says she was keen to craft two very different characters in Schofield and Blake.
“We wanted them to both be individuals; that was such an important thing,” she says. “There’s a notion that it's just empty uniforms, but it wasn’t, everyone was a man and had a life, had a hope, had a dream, had a future, and most of them got that taken away.”
Prior to filming, both Chapman and MacKay went through a rigorous training process to prepare themselves for the physically demanding roles, and also researched firsthand accounts of soldiers’ experiences. In his performance as Schofield, MacKay channeled the feelings of a battle-weary veteran.
“I think he’s probably quite a reserved man anyhow, but I think he’s all the more so because of what he’s been through, and this is now his way of coping,” MacKay says of his character, who is the more experienced of the two. “For me it was essential to know what those things could’ve been, and that was all facilitated by real accounts and the military training we went through.”
The two actors felt that building a camaraderie before shooting was important, and they took a tour of Belgium together to visit historical sites before they underwent the months of training. Chapman says the training was important in putting himself in the right head space for the role, and that their performances needed to reflect the real lack of experience that many young soldiers had during the war.
“The military training, it wasn’t to build like a physique or anything like that; we didn’t have to gain muscle,” he says. “The soldiers back then were pretty much civilians just given a rifle.”
Mendes also felt that it was important that both actors did the choreography themselves, as the long takes didn’t offer a chance for them to be replaced by a stunt double.
“These boys have to do their own stunts, and that’s not really because they’re super brave, because they’re both physical cowards,” Mendes says with a laugh. “Joking aside, you couldn’t change them out for a stuntman; it has to be them. So, it was very tricky because I remember Dean, when he gets hit by the explosive, has to fly across the room and hit the wall. We pulled on a rig and a harness, which he then had to unhook in the course of the action.”
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Beyond the breakout performances from Chapman and MacKay, 1917 also includes an ensemble of renowned British actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott and Richard Madden. Mendes recognizes that these well-known faces will be familiar to viewers, and says that it enhances the urgency of the story.
“I wanted to cast the best actors, and the reason that they’re well-known is because they’re really good,” he says. “They also had to hit the ground running in all those scenes, and they need to be able to establish them and their character instantaneously and with great skill, and I just went for the best actors that I could think of and they all said yes.”
Mendes says that while extensive research was poured into maintaining the accuracy of historical events, the film is still surprising with its twists and turns.
“That way in which you thread things into the movie and they sort of haunt the film, and only later on do you sort of realize their significance, that’s something that I was definitely aware of while we were writing,” he says. “You’re looking for unusual narrative twists all the time, and yet you’re also looking for ways in which those things are true and that feels inevitable.”