Pulling off 1917 was not easy; planning it, perhaps, even harder. But it’s hard to argue with the result: a riveting, fresh foray into the battlefield in which there’s no escape from the camera’s gaze. 1917 follows two young British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) tasked with carrying a message that carries fatal consequences. The film only started shooting in April, astonishingly, before screenings began in November. And its basis is deeply personal: The script, which Mendes co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), is based on the stories Mendes’ grandfather told him about his time in the war.
1917 emerged as a late-breaking awards player and, having just won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director, can now safely be called one of the season’s top contenders. Shortly before their Globes triumph, EW sat down with Oscar winners Mendes (American Beauty) and Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) in Los Angeles for an extensive Awardist interview, in which we went deep on how they accomplished 1917‘s one-take look. Read on below, and take a listen to our full Awardist episode at the bottom of this article.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the genesis of this movie, Sam. You’re credited on the screenplay, which is actually a first for you.
SAM MENDES: It makes you much more vulnerable, I have to say. But it’s also much more moving when it happens. When you send a script out to actors or crew members, you feel like they’re judging the work of a writer and whether they want to work with you. But when the writer is you, you feel very thin-skinned about it. I was checking my email every 10 minutes to see if they’d read it. But at the same time, it’s also much more moving when it happens. You just think, “Wow, a few months ago, I was just writing this on a page, and now everyone’s here to make this film.” That was, on several unexpected occasions, very moving. [It] came from the stories my grandfather told me [about] when he fought in the war, between 1916 and 1918. He told me when I was a small child and he was in his 70s. The telling of those stories brought everyone together in this giant, slightly crazy endeavor.
The one-take conceit of this film: When did you know you wanted Roger Deakins to be your partner in that?
MENDES: To be honest, I was thinking about Roger when I was writing it. My one doubt — and [looks at Deakins] I’ve never really said this to you before — was that, Roger is brilliant with storyboards and also brilliant at judging combinations of shots. If you think about the work he’s done with the Coen Brothers and what have you, they’re very heavily storyboarded, but you can really feel the intelligence of the three of them behind the way in which the images are put together. Having worked with him before, I was very aware of that, and I wondered if he would miss that too much. I knew also in my gut that he might think it was a gimmick. I wanted him to understand that it wasn’t. But I knew I would have to justify it when I talked to him. How did you feel when you read it, Roger?
ROGER DEAKINS: Sam didn’t say anything. He sent me the script and right on the front page, he’s like, “This is envisioned in a single shot.” [I thought], “There must be a mistake.”
MENDES: [Laughing] Surely some mistake.
DEAKINS: Surely some mistake! Then I started reading it, and obviously, you get the sense that it’s real-time and you’re following these two characters. It became quite clear, having read the script; as soon as I started talking to Sam, it was a no-brainer why he was envisioning it that way. I don’t like gimmicks. I don’t like trickery with a camera. I want the camera to be totally forgotten, in a way, when you look at a movie.
When I was watching it — and I don’t mean this in a bad way at all — I almost forgot periodically that it was a one-take movie because I felt so immersed in the story you guys were telling. Would you say that was intentional, that kind of effect?
DEAKINS: Well absolutely, wasn’t it? We didn’t want you to be aware of that. In fact, they had a cut of the film a week after we finished shooting, believe it or not. That’s amazing. I wasn’t aware — after a few minutes, I’d forgotten about it as well. I thought, “Then that’s working.”
MENDES: We both agreed that we didn’t want it to be self-advertising. If you become aware of the camera, then you’ve failed. You don’t want people thinking about the camera; you want people thinking about the people that the camera is pointing at, the places that it’s looking at. You don’t want them thinking about what it’s doing. It doesn’t showboat. It doesn’t go through a keyhole or follow a moving bullet or pass through a wall. It doesn’t defy the laws of physics. But it does move in a way that sometimes makes you very aware of the characters’ smallness in a huge landscape, or gets very, very intimate with them. Sometimes it shows you what they can see, and sometimes, in a key way, it doesn’t. Sometimes it operates almost like a horror movie in that it won’t show you what’s up ahead. Other times you’re very aware of the world that they’re a part of, the scale of the destruction in the landscape. It’s like looking through a tiny keyhole on a vast expanse. The choice to do it was about connecting the audience to the characters emotionally. That just meant a lot of me and Roger sitting around talking and storyboarding and trying things out and storyboarding again, in often the same sequences, over and over again, until we found the right way to do it.
DEAKINS: We were trying to make it immersive, using the technique to get the audience completely with the characters and their experience of the world. I’m not sure if it was you who said earlier today that it brought a certain claustrophobia to it. I think that was really good, especially in the trenches. There’s no way out. You’re not giving the audience a wide shot over here so they can relax for a minute. You’re stuck with these characters and the world they’re in.
For how long and how often did you guys discuss the movie and the challenges of avoiding gimmickry and things like that, in advance of filming? Particularly, were there any specific difficulties in figuring it out?
MENDES: Yeah, there were difficulties with every scene. [Laughs] One thing we talked about very early on was, “Let’s not think about engineering. Let’s not think about mechanics yet. Let’s not think about the ‘How,’ but the ‘Why.'” Why is the camera there? What do we want to see? At one point do we want to hand off from one character to another? At what point do we want to see what they’re seeing? At what point do we want to introduce details — do we want to see what they’re seeing, do we want to see where their feet are or their hand is or where they’re looking? They were all choices based in character and story. And then once we’d worked that out and we were pretty solid, then we had to work out how to do it. Then it became about engineering: Which rig we shot on, whether we were on a wire or a crane or a Steadicam or the Trinity, which is the largest Steadicam rig. Those decisions were rehearsed, too. We rehearsed those shots to see if it was the right rig. Sometimes we changed quite close to the moment. But they were all rooted in a physical and emotional reason to do with the actors rather than, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we went over here?” Gradually, you begin to develop a style.
Like Roger said, the big moment of determining what our style was is when the characters leave the trenches and cross No Man’s Land. You have no physical structure around you to dictate where the camera has to move. You can literally move anywhere. You then have to make a determination about what the correct style is. That helped us then really develop the style for the rest of the movie.
What about you, Roger?
DEAKINS: Also the moments you took in that way, you want to emphasize one character against the other. How do you segue from one character to the other? That’s like a little dance of the two actors and the camera and where the setpieces are and everything else. It was a really interesting process. Often when you’re cutting, you say, “I want this sort of set,” and you work with a designer and the set comes in and then you imagine certain shots. But when you see the set and the actors block it out, it might change, and you adapt it and you go, “Oh, it’d be nice to put in a single shot here.” But that wasn’t the case in this. We had to work it out in advance of the sets being built. Sets had to be built very specifically, for the action Sam had written and the time it was going to take for the actors to speak their lines or for a certain piece of action to take place in a certain moment.
MENDES: We actually had two scripts: We had a script you would call a conventional screenplay, but we also had a script that was made up entirely of schematics. It was about 40 pages of maps; on every map was a diagram of where the actors were moving, specifically, and where the camera was moving. I think it’s fair to say of the four or five movies — I can’t remember how many Roger and I have made together! — we’ve made, this is the one that we changed the least on the day.
MENDES: What Roger says is that, conventionally, you go on and you actually see some more interesting shots. This is the one, we’d rehearsed it so much and thought about it so much — and that’s not to say there weren’t lots of happy accidents, which there were. These are long takes and all sorts of weird things happen when you can’t plan them. But what the camera was doing very rarely changed from what we had rehearsed.
And you were working on a pretty tight schedule, correct? You started filming in April, which I cannot believe.
MENDES: Yeah. [Laughs]
DEAKINS: That made the prep even more crucial. Obviously, one of the big unknowns was the weather. We needed to shoot it in clouds, or the exteriors. We needed to have our shots worked out, the equipment worked out. We needed to rehearse it with the actors, we needed the operators or the grips or myself to have done the shot a number of times before we actually came to do the real take where it was the real performance. Some days, we’re waiting for that one little cloud that’s slowly coming from the horizon, and it might take hours — and I’m not exaggerating — and when it damn well got in front of the sun, we had to shoot and get it right. The pressure there, I found it quite enormous.
I can imagine.
DEAKINS: I don’t want to do it again. [Both laugh] It’s all coming back now.
MENDES: He’s getting post-traumatic!
But I imagine, too, that having made several films together was essential to pulling something like this off, having that familiarity with the way you work with one another.
MENDES: I think it’s knowing that if one or other of you doesn’t like something, the other one doesn’t get offended. You just keep going until you find the solution. That’s what you have in the existing relationship. And then also, sometimes when you shoot and you get the shot, you literally just look at each other and nod. You know you’ve got it. It’s an instinct. On some of the best days we had on this movie, we barely spoke.
DEAKINS: I won’t take that personally. [Both laugh]
MENDES: He wouldn’t come out of his van, what can I say? [Laughs] But you’re so in sync and you so know what you’re looking for. When you get it, you don’t even have to say it. That’s what comes from working together before. Also we’ve done movies of different styles.
DEAKINS: Very different, yeah. I mean, the first film we did together, Jarhead, I think was most akin to this film. Not because it was a war movie. It was very different [in] how we shot it — we didn’t rehearse, we just shot. But our relationship to where the camera was and the actors and the relation to how we built those shots together, I think that informed a lot of what we did on this film.
MENDES: And the fluidity of it. The sense that within this constantly moving shot was something quite precise. What does James Brown say? Keep it loose, but keep it tight. You’re planning it, but at the same time, you’re freeing the actors to feel like they’re free to do whatever they want. It’s that combination of structure and freedom that you’re searching for. That’s not unfamiliar to me from the theater. I’m not unused to saying to actors, “We’ve been rehearsing this for weeks, off you go! You take it. They’re your characters. It’s your scene.” And then just watch what happens.
Roger, getting the look of this film broadly — what kind of research did you do? You’ve done war films before. What was the visual look, communication, you wanted to execute here?
DEAKINS: Well it’s not that specific. I’m just trying to create something that feels totally real, immersive and real, both with a camera and with the lighting. Obviously the challenges of a camera seeing 360 degrees, when you go out into a bunker; the first bunker we go in and it’s lit with oil lamps. Sam was surprised I didn’t put any lights up and it’s only just these two oil lamps. But those oil lamps, we spent a couple of weeks actually figuring out how we were going to light, where they were going to be, the kind of bulb we put in them — because it’s not a real flame, it’s all on dimmer. So when a camera comes around, the balance of the light changes with dimmers and all that. Even the little things, it was a lot of detail to it. The essence of it had to look real. The scene where they’re in the German bunker with the two flashlights, they’re not just off the shelf flashlights. [Both laugh] They’re period flashlights.
MENDES: But you know, we did talk about the fact that the movie goes headlong early on into the things you expect from a WWI movie: trenches, no-man’s-land, mud. After that, it moves through atmospheres and looks that you don’t expect: tombs, quarries, chalk trenches, orchards, farmhouses, canals, destroyed towns. The atmosphere at the times of day change; the atmospheres in the light shift from place to place to place. In that respect, it’s changing and morphing the whole time.
DEAKINS: And it’s deliberately surreal when we get to the destroyed town. That was very specifically meant to feel like a dream-stroke nightmare, more like a noirish kind of look.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Listen to the full interview, which also includes Mendes reflecting on his American Beauty Oscar win and how he cast the movie, below, where you can also find EW’s commentary on the Golden Globes and what it means for the Academy Awards.