Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and choreographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) have reteamed for a World War I drama called 1917. Speaking at New York Comic Con 2019, the cast and crew revealed more about the film’s premise and the incredible technical undertaking it took to make.
1917 is the story of Private Schofield (George MacKay) and Private Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) who are serving in the British army during the height of World War I. They are given a mission to deliver a message to another battalion of 1,600 soldiers to not advance as expected to chase down the retreating Germans. To do so would be a massacre, as the Germans have set up an elaborate ambush and the company’s lack of awareness would mean almost certain defeat.
What is incredibly amazing about 1917 is that the film takes place entirely in real-time over the course of about 2 hours and has been designed to appear as one giant continuous shot. Let that sink in.
Now, of course, Mendes and Deakins couldn’t actually film in one take, so they spent a laborious amount of time rehearsing and staging to make the film seem seamless. Deakins describes the process like a ballet where everything needs to be in sync one movement after another. The style complicated the filming in big ways and small – for all the long distances traveled you have the two main characters running, but you also have the camera crew running after them, and then sound team after that. This meant you couldn’t do things like light the set because the lights would have been in the shot or put anything on the ground to keep people from slipping because the real-time aspect means you can’t cut around anything. These little workarounds were impossible, so everything the audience will see is essentially real, and this adds to the immersive experience.
Aside from the filming itself, timing became critical, especially when combining movement and dialogue. Mendes explained, since you’re filming in real-time “You have to measure the set to match the dialogue and you have to measure the dialogue to match the distances.” He recounted one specific scene where actor Mark Strong is walking and talking to the protagonist, and while doing so his characters passes exactly four parked trucks. After filming the scene Strong exclaimed with surprise: “that’s amazing, what a coincidence, the dialogue lasts just the four trunks” to which an exasperated Mendes replied with a bit of a laugh, “it’s not a fucking coincidence! We had been rehearsing it for six months!”
It should be noted that 1917 is a piece of fiction inspired by a story from Mendes’ grandfather, who served in the war. Mendes’ grandfather had told Sam about delivering messages and the immense difficulty of that task during the middle of war particularly given the limitations of technology. It was this idea that transformed into the foundation of the film, and then quickly Mendes had the notion of filming it in real-time and making it all one continuous shot (an auspicious decision that seemed to both excite and terrify the crew he was working with.) When asked by his cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, “why?” he said, “Because I want to step every step of the characters, I want to breathe every breath with them, I want to be trapped on their journey with them, it’s an emotional experience…”
The sheer amount of planning and research that went into 1917 makes it a marvel even before opening day. That alone does not make a strong film, but after seeing the trailer it’s likely audiences will agree that this is something special.
1917 arrives in theaters for a limited release on December 25, 2020, with a wider release on January 10, 2020.
Jill Troilo contributed to this article.
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