Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins, Dean-Charles Chapman, George Mackay, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns tell EW how they turned WWI battlefields into lyrical beauty.

By Joey Nolfi
December 23, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
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Director Sam Mendes‘ World War I thriller 1917 is equal parts gut-wrenching, white-knuckle thrill ride and deeply moving, poetic human drama, featuring the most gorgeous visuals of the year courtesy of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Ahead of the film’s Dec. 25 release, EW assembled the cast and crew for an intimate conversation about the making of the historical epic, which centers on a pair of British soldiers (George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman) trekking across France’s battle-worn countryside to deliver a game-changing message to their fellow troops as they plan a titanic attack on the Germans.

The group (which also includes screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns) kicked things off by discussing Mendes’ inspiration for the Oscar-buzzed project, loosely based on his grandfather’s real-life experience in delivering a message across treacherous terrain in WWI. Mendes initially sent a treatment to Wilson-Cairns, who says she was most touched by the idea of working on a “war movie where the fight was to stop a battle,” as the leading duo learns that their message is meant to halt an offensive that would lead troops into a strategically plotted trap.

Mendes then contacted his Skyfall collaborator Deakins to work on the project, who admitted he thought it was “a typo” when he read that Mendes wanted to make the film look like it was shot in one take. “Reading the script, it’s obvious that it’s in real time and the movement lent itself to that concept. It made sense,” Deakins continued. Mendes then put out a call for young British actors to join the film in the lead roles, which led him to Mackay and Chapman, who spent virtually one year immersing themselves in their characters ahead of the highly choreographed shoot.

“The conditions we were actually filming in were so realistic to how it would’ve been,” Chapman remembers of the gritty, muddy landscapes they sloshed through — many rife with detailed prosthetic bodies — in pursuit of their characters’ goal. “I describe the mud in no man’s land compared to walking on ice, that’s how slippery it was. There’s a bit in that sequence, where the camera lowers down…and our feet are slipping everywhere, but that’s not us acting. That’s us genuinely trying to put one foot in front of another!

“Obviously, we were making a film, but in those scenes, I forgot we were making a film,” he continued. “The longest take we did was nine minutes and, as an actor, you really do just get lost in it.”

Mendes likened the whole thing to a “dance,” recalling that the combination of hardcore rehearsal and real-world challenges in the moment added up to an aesthetic experiment that’s a fantastic mix of improvised accidents (like the time he and his cast fell into the mud or filming at the mercy of rapidly shifting weather patterns) and other elements that could be meticulously planned.

“Roger and I talked about it not being show-offy,” Mendes finished. “We experience our lives as one continuous shot…[we] experience [this] action as we experience life.”

1917 — also starring Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden in small roles —bows Dec. 25 in theaters. Watch EW’s full roundtable interview with the cast and creators above.

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