Race Against Time: Sam Mendes Masterminds a Technical Tour de Force with World War I Thriller 1917

(center) George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," co-written and directed by Sam Mendes. Image courtesy: Universal Pictures.

On November 23, awards season was jolted by the first public screenings of a late entry in the race: director Sam Mendes’s World War I drama 1917. Following two young British soldiers who must cross enemy lines to warn a battalion of their fellow soldiers about an impending ambush, the film is a breathtaking technical tour de force, told in real time and seemingly in one continuous take. (Mendes calls esteemed D.P. Roger Deakins’s work “one of the most remarkable pieces of cinematography—just the sheer level of skill is astonishing.”)

The script, which Mendes co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, was inspired by stories told by his grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, a lance corporal in the First World War who, because of his short stature, would be assigned to run messages through the five-and-a-half-foot mist shrouding the No Man’s Land between Allied and enemy trenches. The Universal Pictures release is a physically and emotionally demanding showcase for its two young stars, George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Tommen Baratheon on “Game of Thrones”), supported by a formidable cast of veterans including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Richard Madden.

Just one hour after that triumphant debut screening at the Directors Guild of America New York Theater, we spoke with Mendes, Oscar winner for American Beauty, Tony winner for Broadway’s The Ferryman, and director of the last two James Bond movies, Skyfall and Spectre.

I want to ask about your emotions as you embark on a project like this. Do you have a lot of apprehension, or is there great joy in doing it?

Oh, I feel immense joy in doing it. I feel very privileged and, particularly with this one, I’d never had the experience of sitting in a room writing a script before, and then only months later turning up to set and there are hundreds of people there to help you fulfill the vision that you put on the page. There are upsides and downsides of having written it oneself. The downside is you feel very vulnerable, much more vulnerable than I normally feel about my own directorial work.

The upside is a different level of emotional connection to the material. The highs are higher and the lows are a bit lower. And that’s what I found on this. But I was never apprehensive. I was excited. I knew there would be bad days, which there were when you’re dealing in extremes of location and weird weather and impossibly complex, technical, ambitious, high bars that you create for yourself. I mean, there were days when I thought, why have I done this to myself? This is a sort of mental torture, because in a normal movie, if you do a six-minute or seven-minute take, you never expect to get it entirely perfect. You use bits of it—you have the close-ups, and then you might have a master shot and you might have an over-the-shoulder shot and then you put ’em all together. On the bad days I thought, why have I put myself in a situation where there’s no way out? But when you get it, the level of exhilaration is so extreme that you want more. It’s like catching the big wave. You fear it, but when you’re on it, it’s amazing. And then you want to do it again.

(from left) Dean-Charles Chapman, director/co-writer Sam Mendes and George MacKay on the set of “1917.”

What was the toughest challenge you set for yourself out of all the sequences?

The toughest thing was the first scene of the film, because you have such a brief moment to establish these two people as just two people among many who you would probably walk past on the street, and yet you are asking the audience to form some sort of a bond with them and you have probably three or four minutes before they’re set off, fired like bullets out of a gun. And in that time they need to be at ease with each other and talk about nothing. Talk about what you talk about when you’re just walking around the corner. It’s a very difficult balance to get for them to be very natural, for them to walk for a period in silence, to ask an audience to lean. You’re already sort of training the audience and saying, don’t expect this to work in a conventional way.

So within the first two minutes of the movie, there’s probably a minute of silence and that’s hard, to not be immediately talking and to fight the desire to have exposition, to explain why we’re here or who they are or what they mean to each other, but to trust that the movie will reveal that gradually. I think probably of all the scenes that might’ve been the one I spend the most time on and that gave me the most difficulty.

It’s a very well-crafted script.

Thank you. So much about our film is about about achieving a shape, You’re searching for this perfect shape the whole time. Not for a second am I likening myself to Michelangelo, but Michelangelo talks about when he carved the statue of David, it was waiting inside the marble, I just had to let it out. And that feeling that there’s a natural story, a shape waiting to be released, was something that I was seeking—to try and find a shape that felt like it’s always been there. This has the shape of almost a folk myth. That’s what we were striving for. There’s something very satisfying about setting your horizons so specifically: It has to be these men, it has to be in this place, it has to be during these two hours of real time. So many of the things that would normally bother you about a movie, 98n percent of the questions you would ask, are irrelevant because they can’t take place in these two hours, they can’t take place with these two men. You have to look through that tiny keyhole onto that huge panorama of destruction, but you can only look through the keyhole. You’re never going to open the door. And that imposes a kind of structure which is quite satisfying in the end, but it gave us very strict rules that we had to stick to.

They say a lot of great art is defined by its limitations.

Exactly. I agree. And imposing those limitations on it was what made it possible for me to write it with Krysty. I think if I’d tried to write a movie about the First World War without any of those rules, I would have just got lost. I mean, how do you even begin? But suddenly I found a way to study the macro, the big picture, through the micro. As long as we were absolutely rigorous and faithful to the spirit of those men, I felt that through them we would see the scale of destruction, the scale of the war, and understand its human costs in some way.

I read that you were hoping for some happy accidents while filming. Can you point to a few happy accidents?

Oh, in every take there are moments when one of the actors does something unexpected or the light does something. My favorite, I suppose, is the last shot of the movie. I wanted the sun to come out, and it did during the shot. Roger said, look, I can do lots of things, but I can’t organize for the sun to come out. But it came out. I felt like someone was looking down on us.

I loved making a movie almost entirely outside—you’re more at one with the physical reality of being in that war. I mean, what we did was a drop in the fucking ocean compared to what the men of the First World War did. But just to state the obvious, when you get on that mud, you can’t stand up; you keep falling over. And it doesn’t matter how many things you put on your feet, mountaineering equipment, this, that, and the other, you can’t keep your balance. And these men lived in it for years; they lived in it for fucking years, the filth. Every night getting in the shower, washing the mud off, [I] thought, how lucky am I to get a warm shower? That stuff is sobering, and it brings home the reality of it. And I can honestly say no one ever complained on this movie, because how can you complain when the real people went through it for years, and we’re just doing it for a couple of weeks, you know?

How does your background in theater help you with a project like this?

It helped me a lot. It helped me a lot in staging, in trying to judge rhythm without editing, and the arc of the whole story, knowing that it was going to be one piece, and I had to establish that while we were shooting it rather than in the cutting room. For me, the best point of a play is when you get it to the stage where you look at your cast and say, it’s yours now, you learned how to fly, now you have to take off, and then you let them do it. And that happened again and again on this movie. I had to let the actors do it seven, eight, nine, 10 minutes at a time. And trusting them, giving them the ammunition and the knowledge they needed to just take wing. I never doubted that they could do it because I’d rehearsed them properly and we’d planned it properly and they understood what was needed from them in every scene. And that’s all theater. Judging the shape of the story without recourse to editing, these are things that I do as a matter of course as a theater director. I sit there and watch two and a half hours of story pass by and I never say cut. So for me, a nine-minute take is nothing compared to a two-and-a-half-hour play. I remember [people] saying about Anne Hathaway in Les Miz: She did it in one take! As far as I’m aware, they do the whole of Les Miz every night in one take. You just have to go down the road and you can buy a ticket. It’s not that amazing.

How exciting is it for you to give these two young actors an opportunity like this?

It’s exciting, but I’m grateful to them, because they walked in and they managed to embody the two characters that Krysty and I had imagined, but then they added something else. When you’re rehearsing and writing and making adjustments in rehearsals, you start tailoring the role towards the actor. And George brought this quiet dignity, this restraint, this great old-fashioned heroism, a kind of upright Englishness, which is of another era, almost. And I thought that was perfect for this sort of grammar school–educated, slightly more middle-class Schofield. And then Dean’s cheeky chappy: chirpy, slightly vulnerable, very young, a bit puppy fat–ish—and thin-skinned, emotionally very available, and slightly lower-class than Scofield. And the two of them are thrown together, two people who would never meet in life, never even share a drink down at the pub because they’re from different upbringings, and they suddenly find that they get on, that they amuse each other, that they like each other and learn from each other in ways that even they don’t fully understand. And I think that came in part from the script and in part from the two of them. It’s thrilling to watch what’s happening to them now. It gave me a huge lump in my throat, watching them walk onstage just now and seeing the audience carry on applauding, because they’re great. I don’t think they’ve had that in their lives before. George is more experienced than Dean, but to a contemporary audience, particularly in the U.S., they’re relatively new to the game. So it’s wonderful to give that and then to put them up against Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden—these are all heavyweights and they held their own and they learned from them too. You can feel that even as the movie progressed, that there was a lovely sense of respect from the old to the young and the young to the old, which is very moving.

One thing I found remarkable was the function of the extras in this film. I can’t think of a recent film where the extras are as important to its success.

Well, thank you for saying that. My first A.D., Michael Lerman, is a bit of a genius, and he set the background [extras]. I was very particular. I auditioned every single one of them. I watched every audition and 1,600 auditions is a lot, but it was worth it. Then we put them through boot camp, and even where they prepared, where they got their clothes on, were tents full of period photographs, playing period music just to get them into that mental space. There were documentaries running on the screens in the corner of the hair and makeup trailers. It was a way of hopefully letting the war sort of seep in through their pores, so that they felt it—the way people moved, the level of exhaustion that they were all experiencing, the pressure and the different responses to adrenaline, some breaking down, others finding unexpected reserves of heroism. [We were] trying to get that combination with some very, very young background actors. I felt very moved having imagined that big end run that [MacKay’s Corporal Schofield] makes along the final trench—very early in the process I had this image in my head, and then to see them do it and commit themselves to it. There’s no one in the background who’s digital—that is a fully human force running across those fields, and it hopefully brings home the scale of it.

And they’re very much individuals.

And all shapes and sizes. I enjoyed very, very much the Peter Jackson documentary [They Shall Not Grow Old, a compilation of WWI footage], which was brilliant at making those images that can seem so distant seem very close suddenly, by colorizing them and giving them voice. I thought that was amazing.

We’re well into the streaming era. How concerning is it that some people are going to see this film on their home TVs?

Every filmmaker wants their movies to be seen on a big screen. More than any movie I’ve made, I feel that way. Along with the Bond movies, I want them to be experienced in a big, dark room with a lot of strangers going on the ride together. But you also accept the reality. I told off my son the other day for watching a Woody Allen movie on his phone, He’s watching Manhattan, and I’m, “You can’t watch Manhattan on your fucking phone!” And he said, “Why, Dad? It looks great.” If you’re surrounded by teenagers, you watch things on tiny devices. You can’t be that surprised when people watch it on their televisions. I’ve made big movies, small movies, and I run the company Neal Street that makes a lot of television—we make “Call the Midwife” and “Penny Dreadful” and “Britannia” and various other shows. So you have to be a realist as well. But what I’ve always wanted for this film more than anything is for it to be seen on a big screen. And I made it for the largest possible audience. It’s not an esoteric film, it’s not an eat-your-peas film, it’s not a history lesson. You need to understand nothing before you go in. We just give the date, and then you can literally follow it from beginning to end without knowing anything about the political or historic situation. And that I’m really pleased with. I hope that it plays to a very, very broad audience, and that starting this late in the year doesn’t hamper it in any way.

(center) George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," co-written and directed by Sam Mendes. Image courtesy: Universal Pictures.