NYCC: George MacKay, Sam Mendes & more discuss war epic 1917
Earlier this month, Coming Soon got the chance to sit down and talk to stars George MacKay (Ophelia), Dean-Charles Chapman (The King), director Sam Mendes (Spectre), cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Last Night in Soho) to discuss the upcoming war epic 1917.
At the height of the First World War, two young British soldiers, Schofield (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay) and Blake (Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a seemingly impossible mission. In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers—Blake’s own brother among them.
In a move unlike any other war epic, Mendes and Wilson-Cairns envisioned the film as a one-take story to truly put audiences into the fog of war as the two make their way across enemy territory.
“When I did the first eight minutes of Spectre, which was one shot in Mexico City, I did look at [Rope and Birdman], so I sort of studied it then thinking, it this going to read just as a stunt or is it going to be total immersion,” Mendes pondered. “Doing that sequence gave me a little bit more confidence that this could actually be done over a whole movie, the only thing it made me realize is you have it work it out from the ground up. It has to be something that’s in the movie, in the DNA of the movie from the second you start it because everything has to be crafted to make it work — the sets, the way the camera moves, the dialogue, everything, because you can only, to say the obvious, see on direction at a time.”
“So you know, traditionally the writer’s job is to describe the film and to sort of make you as a reader intuit cuts,” Wilson-Cairns said. “So intuit the sort of, this is a wide angle, we’re close-in here, this is an intimate shot. And really good writers, which I hope to aspire to be, don’t ever call out the shots, but describe it in a way that when you’re reading it, you can play the movie in your head. So for this, it required a completely gigantic conventional writing technique because you had to in a way not do that. You had to describe the shot visually, but you had to describe it frame-by-frame, almost, in a sense. It became very tricky.“
The structure proved to not only be a challenge for Mendes and Wilson-Cairnes, but also for Deakins and the cast members.
“It definitely was training in and of itself,” Chapman said. “But me and George, we started six months before we actually started shooting. We did military training, military—we worked for a military advisor, who was actually a British [veteran]. So we worked with him and just even found these things of learning how to slope properly and help the guy fire the weapon and he was brilliant with answering our questions that we had for him and we worked with her personal trainer. It was nonstop. And I felt in good shape.”
“I guess we didn’t really think of it in terms of the budget,” MacKay said. “The budget was always sort of only ever used to serve the story. So all that was at the heart of everything, including sort of Dean and I’s role within it is serving the story. And we were a cog in a very big machine, you know? So it was just all about serving the story, and that, in a way, that was paramount. So that took the pressure out of thinking of it as anything else other than the story.”
“I’m a bit of a jogger, so I’m pretty fit, even for my age, you know?” Deakins offered. “But I mean, most of the time, the camera was being carried by a grip or one of my operators. You know, and I was working on it remotely, controlling it remotely. The thing is, everything had to be in sync, so the camera had to be right. We had to have clouds when the exteriors were. All of the actors had to be in sync with the camera. The choreography had to work, and then there’d be a complex move. So you might get to the end of eight minutes and it would fall apart or Sam might not like a certain delivery. The extras might not be in the best place in a certain part of the shot. You know, also some things happened. We’d have to do it again and again and again.”
That being said, however, the challenge that came from the one-take production also brought a very rewarding sense to all of those involved with the final cut.
“Honestly, even like the most hardest scenes filmed, I still thoroughly enjoyed it,” Chapman said. “I mean, to make that one take be able to work, everything has to be right and fall into place. So after an eight-minute scene, it was genuinely the best feeling when we knew we got it right. Generally, it was a celebration after every take. That was one of the hardest things for me with this film is that Blake’s stakes in this film were so high in every single scene. That was the most emotionally draining thing for me, to be able to turn up every day and be able to portray that every take.”
“Again, like in the story, you’re kind of in service of something bigger than you,” MacKay said. “I think we appreciated, understood the weight of the story that we were telling, and also, the opportunity of that as well. You know, myself as a young actor to be working with Sam and Roger, Dean, Dennis Gassner, who produced it—I’m sorry, who designed it, Krysty’s script, I think you’re aware that you’re a part of a really special opportunity. And so, that was all the inspiration you needed in terms of keeping vigilant and keeping diligent.”
Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Colin Firth (Mary Poppins Returns), and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) and Mark Strong (Shazam!) star in the film. Other additions to the cast include Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Jamie Parker, Nabhaan Rizwan, Claire Duburcq, MacKay and Chapman.
1917 is directed by Mendes, who wrote the screenplay with Wilson-Cairns (Showtime’s Penny Dreadful). The film is produced by Mendes and Pippa Harris (co-executive producer, Revolutionary Road; executive producer, Away We Go) for their Neal Street Productions, Jayne-Ann Tenggren (co-producer, The Rhythm Section; associate producer, Spectre), Callum McDougall (executive producer, Mary Poppins Returns, Skyfall) and Brian Oliver (executive producer, Rocketman; Black Swan).
The film is produced by Neal Street Productions for DreamWorks Pictures in association with New Republic Pictures. Universal Pictures will release the film domestically in limited release on December 25, 2019 and wide on January 10, 2020. Universal and Amblin Partners will distribute the film internationally, with eOne distributing on behalf of Amblin in the U.K.