Director Sam Mendes tells EW the film is "constructed more like a thriller than a conventional war movie."
Film fans looking forward to Sam Mendes’ upcoming World War I movie 1917 only recently learned the film was shot to look like one continuous take, but the actors and filmmakers themselves knew it from the get-go. At the 1917 preview panel at New York Comic Con on Thursday, Mendes said that “this movie is designed to be one shot” was printed at the top of the script.
“It was baked into the fabric of this story from the word ‘go,’” Mendes said. “We didn’t take that idea and impose it on top of the script, it was conceived from the ground up that way. That goes for every department, including the writing.”
Filming a movie to look like one shot takes away many typical filmmaker tools, such as being able to cut or excise unnecessary footage. But Mendes promises that the result will immerse viewers in the experience of the film’s protagonists as they journey through hell to try and deliver a very important message.
Although big-name stars like Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch appear in 1917, the story is laser-focused on two young British soldiers in particular, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Scofield (George McKay). The film is set during a period where the German army had retreated from the battlefield to the “Hindenburg Line.” The British army, seeking an opportunity to finish off their opponents after years of stalemate, has planned an attack on the Hindenburg Line, not knowing that it was heavily fortified. Blake’s brother is part of the battalion that’s been assigned to make the attack, so when he and Scofield are tasked with delivering a message to call off the attack, it’s not just about saving the 1,600 British soldiers involved — it’s also about saving his brother. The one-shot style was planned to immerse viewers in this very intimate vision of a massive conflict.
“It was this awesome challenge, and you knew where it was going. After we did a few shots we were like ‘oh that’s really cool.’ And not just for the sake of being cool, it was really immersive,” cinematographer Roger Deakins said at the panel. “You’re doing a long extended take, the longest takes were probably eight-and-a-half minutes, you’re doing tricky camera things and the guys are doing their performance and everything’s got to be in sync because it’s all a ballet. So you’re doing one hard moment, then another, then another, and you’re almost to the end of the shot and you’re just like ‘oh man, I hope I don’t blow this one!’ Because then it would be all back to the beginning. It was a real trip.”
The movie is personal for some of them. Mendes said that the kernel of the idea came from stories his grandfather used to tell him about his World War I service, specifically the time he had to deliver a message. But Chapman said that as he did historical research for the role, he came across his own familial connection to the so-called “war to end all wars.”
“I read a book called The Western Front Diaries, a collection of soldiers’ diary entries,” Chapman said. “I actually found that my great-granddad had an entry in there. He was part of the cavalry, he got shot and wounded, and he survived laying out in No Man’s Land for four days. He survived the war and worked in a poppy factory until he died. I read that, and it sort of inspired me to do it.”
After their panel, Mendes, Deakins, Chapman, and McKay stopped by EW’s New York Comic Con video studio to get more in-depth about the decision to present the movie as one long take — and the difficulty in achieving it.
“I just wanted the audience to be part of every second of the journey with them,” Mendes told EW, describing the film as taking place in 2 hours of real-time. “I wanted them to walk every footstep and breathe every breath with them. … It was an emotional decision as much as anything else, but it posed obviously a bunch of pretty tricky technical problems but that was part of the joy of it as well.”
For Deakins, the biggest challenge was figuring out where to put the camera to create the desired scene. “Creatively we wanted to show the story to the audience and then it became a technical challenge to figure out how you get the camera to do that,” Deakins said.
Chapman admitted there was a lot of pressure to not mess up. “You’d be halfway through a take and pray that nothing would go wrong and it would sometimes,” he told EW, but said the intense training and six months of rehearsals the actors undertook before shooting helped them feel prepared.
Mendes called the film “the most difficult thing technically” he’s done yet, but also the most enjoyable. “The exhilaration and the excitement you feel when you actually do it is really huge.”
The director also assured audiences they don’t need to be history buffs to enjoy 1917. “The movie is not a dry historical movie. You don’t need to know anything about WWI,” he said. “It’s constructed more like a thriller than a conventional war movie. It’s not a combat movie.”
1917 hits theaters this December. Check out the new trailer, which first premiered at the New York Comic Con panel, below.