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‘1917’ Director Sam Mendes on Collaborating with Roger Deakins and the “Unnerving” Decision to Present the Movie as a Single Shot [Interview]

1917 Sam Mendes interview

1917‘s seemingly death-defying camera work from master cinematographer (and recent Oscar winner) Roger Deakins is extraordinary as it moves through varying terrains in the guise of a single take, with no place to hide lights (he’s working in natural light most of the time). The result is a powerful antiwar statement couched in a tense and emotionally gripping work, as the camera seems to hover around the action as both a ghostly observer and a character in the trenches with the film’s leads.

1917 comes courtesy of director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, Revolutionary Road) and his co-writer (and rising talent) Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the Penny Dreadful veteran who has also co-written Edgar Wright’s next movie, the horror-thriller Last Night in Soho/Film spoke with Mendes and Wilson-Cairns in Chicago recently to discuss the intricate process of mapping out the geographic journey of the movie’s two lead actors and how that impacted every other phase of the production, the emotional immediacy of making a film appear to occur in real time, and why the project was a deeply personal one for Mendes.

[Note: we have a separate interview with Wilson-Cairns in which she digs into several spoiler-filled aspects of the film, her research process, what she wanted to see in a WWI movie, and more. You can read that here.]

This is the hardest question to ask because I’m not sure I’m going to word it right. Was the screenplay written as a single shot? Is that even possible?

Sam: There wasn’t a single camera indication in the screenplay. It wasn’t “We pan from such and such, across there,” none of that. I don’t like that in screenplays. I want it to be a description of character, dialogue, moment. However, there was another script of about 45 pages that was made up solely of maps and schematics and diagrams of where the actors moved and where the camera moved accordingly, and what rig we were shooting on, what time of day, etc. So we did realize that we had to have a physical map for the physical elements, and we gave that to the crew. We didn’t give them storyboards, although we did a lot of storyboards for myself and Roger, but I don’t think anyone ever saw them. Did you see the storyboards?

Krysty: I saw them only for two or three of the action pieces, when we were developing them in the script. I remember the bridge sequence — you went through them with me for that.

Sam: Yes. So we did a lot of storyboards, but we didn’t distribute them. We kept them for ourselves as Roger and I were working out the language of the camera. So the answer is no but yes [laughs].

Krysty: That said, it’s not a conventional screenplay either. It has to be done in real time, and even though I would never put a camera direction in it, you can subtly as a writer, what we would do is move the audience back and forth. For instance, you might say “We see his breath crystalize,” so you realize the shot is really intimate, but it read like one long ribbon of text and then give it form and shape, which was really weird to do.

Was it because the action essentially goes from place to place to place that you decided to frame it as a single take?

Sam: The idea was always, when I first thought of the idea before putting pen to paper at all, that it would be one day at some point during the war, two hours of real time, one shot, and a message being delivered. If you were to sum it up, those were its parts: one man carrying a message. Then it grew to two men carrying a message. Then I took that basic story structure, and that’s what I took to Krysty, and then she put it into script form, then I re-wrote, and then we re-wrote each other. It was always there from the very beginning, from the very first conversations I had with Krysty. “This is the story, this is the idea, and it’s in one shot.”

Krysty: And then he hung up with me [laughs].

Sam: Well, we did talk about it after.

Krysty: We had so many discussions about the characters before I even sat down. I knew what I was sitting down to do because the two of us had worked together, and you had such a foundation for the story already. A script or film like this wouldn’t be possible without working with someone who has a vision like that. The script has to be so much description, and the actors’ words have to be acted; you can never say “He feels this way.” It’s balancing on a tightrope; some people can’t even conceive of it, so it requires a visionary like Sam.

Why this story today? What did you think it was important to tell this story now?

Sam: On a number of levels, really. You want us to say, “It’s never unimportant. There’s never a moment in history where this wasn’t a story worth telling.” I felt very much after the 100th anniversary of the war that there was a danger of it being forgotten. It’s now out of living memory, in a way, I felt like. And it casts the most enormous shadow in our country. Less so in the U.S. because the U.S. wasn’t a part of it until much later, but there’s even more of a danger because of that. It’s the war where the boundaries of Europe were redrawn, it’s the first industrial/mechanized war — it starts with horses and ends with tanks and machine guns, and it also leads into and causes the second World War. It shapes our entire world. So there’s that, which is not unimportant. 

It’s also a war that’s in danger of being always painted in cliche — always trenches, No Man’s Land, mud — and the scale of it was much more. It’s a difficult war to express on film, which is why there are fewer movies about it than the second World War. I felt like there was a an absence of movies that unlocked the experience of war for me. Obviously, you’ve got Paths of Glory, but that captures the insanity of sending a man to war in the first place, which is almost a given with the first World War. The generals were, on the whole, disastrously badly informed and the leadership was questionable. But we haven’t had much about solely the human experience on the ground — a worm’s eye view, if you like. So feeling like we found this journey in history that we could tell was very important.

And then there’s another exposed subtext, which is, let’s not forget that these men were fighting for a free and unified Europe, which these days people in my country could do well to remember, although you have your own problems [laughs]. Perhaps you’re not worried so much about that right now. We’re both up Shit Creek.

I thought a lot about what having this single-take format gives us that editing a film in a more traditional way might not. The thing that kept coming back to me was that death seems so much more immediate and present. What do you think that immediacy adds to the storytelling?

Krysty: I think by stripping away any sense of artifice that it gives you a greater sense of reality. The story is how the audience lives its life. To me, the most important thing was making it feel like 110 minutes in someone’s life, making it feeling completely immersive. That’s what set the stage for it.

Sam: One unbroken shot is how we experience the world. It’s editing that had become the accepted grammar of film, but in life, editing is the gimmick, not one shot. One shot is very difficult to achieve, but I do think [if] we had digital cameras that we could hold in the palm of our hand 100 years ago, you might have seen a few more movies like this. Otherwise, I think you experience time differently. In a movie that observes more of the rules of a ticking-clock thriller than a conventional war movie, you feel the presence of time ticking away literally and you feel the physical difficulty of the journey more viscerally and you sense distance, and you think “I can’t jump those 200 yards; I’m going to have to walk that distance,” or “There’s that farm house over there; I’m going to have to walk to that farm house.” You don’t think “We’re going to jump down the hill, and it’s going to be a day later.” 

Once you begin to understand that, unconsciously, you experience it differently because you feel trapped in their journey with them, and you know you’re not going to leave them. That’s a very different way of experiencing film, and it is more dreamlike. One of the things I admired about Birdman was that it felt like a dream, but it spans four or five days, but it got that feeling you get of being trapped in a dream.

Editing is as much a tool of the filmmaker as the face is the tool of an actor. Was it unnerving to realize you didn’t have that to use or even hide behind?

Sam: Unnerving is a good word. Every day, you felt, “If I fuck up, there’s no way out.” But once you’ve made that mental shift — and it was a part of my brain I’m used to using from theater, where you rehearse for two-and-a-half months and then say, “Alright, see you in two-and-a-half hours, and we’ll talk about how it went.” So that was trying to use that theater brain, which judges rhythm and tempo without editing. But, yeah, there were many days where I would say, “Why?”

It really does feels sometime that you set the goal for yourself to be as difficult and messy as possible.

Sam: Yes, but the sense of achievement when you have it is huge. You immediately erase the feelings of negativity and self harm that come with the choice.

Krysty: Being on set, everyone felt when you got the shot like it was your team won the Super Bowl. So every day, you would have utter elation. Literally every day, there was a moment where we felt like we reach the top of Everest, now we start at the bottom again.

It does seem like, by doing it this way, there are departments that normally wouldn’t be working together that are not only working together, but dependent on each other in some respects. So I can see how everyone would be celebrating these victories every day.

Sam: That’s absolutely right, and it’s not a thing I’ve ever experienced on a movie set. You have wonderful craftsmen and other collaborators always on movies, but I’ve never had anything like it being one unified team, as I had on this movie, and that’s because everyone had to be singing at the same time, everyone watching the monitors at the same time. There was no, “This doesn’t matter because it’s not my department.” There isn’t a shot that didn’t involve the entire personnel, and that is a big reason it feels like that.

I always got a sense from Roger Deakins that he’s not only a great visual artist but also a great problem solver, and because of that, this film had to be one of the most exciting things he’s ever done because it’s nothing but a series of problems to solve. Even something as seemingly simple as lighting, because you’re mostly outdoors. Talk about working with him as closely as you did.

Sam: I agree with you. He’s as close as you can get to a genius in cinematography now. And all of those years of accrued wisdom and engineering, as much as lighting, it’s really an instinct, and moving the camera is a language that was very particular and different on this film because it wasn’t just one relationship with the actors; it’s a constantly evolving and shifting relationship. When it works, it needs to look easy and almost thoughtless, but really, it’s a series of instinctive choices to create a language that is both subjective and objective, intimate and epic, that doesn’t repeat itself or get monotonous, it doesn’t feel gimmicky or self-advertising, and that’s Roger’s skill — the language of film and his judgement.

Sometimes I would encourage him to be more expressive, and other times he would encourage me to be more expressive with the camera. Sometimes it’s about illustrating a character’s emotional state. When Blake is in trouble, the camera is circling him, and it’s an unmotivated camera move, but it expresses something that’s there in the scene. When it detaches from Schofield in the night, when he goes through the window into the burning town, it’s expressing his untethered feeling, his sense of not knowing where he is, of the world changing, a descent into hell.

It’s like a horror movie, that section.

Sam: Right. And each one has its own rules, and none of them repeat, so it did require us to be completely internal. But the nice thing about Roger — I’ve worked with him four times — is that sometimes the best days are when you hardly speak at all. He’s not a chatty man; he speaks in images. And we talked so much about it beforehand, so that when it worked, we just needed to look at each other, give the thumbs up. It was a nice feeling.

Thank you both so much. Best of luck.

Sam: Thank you. Nice to see you again.

Krysty: Nice chatting, thank you.


1917 is currently in theaters nationwide.

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