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1917: Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins and Others on Bringing WWI Back to Life

Last week, attended a special New York Comic Con panel held by Universal Pictures to preview Sam Mendes’ upcoming World War I film 1917, which will be released on Christmas Day. Mendes was joined on the panel by co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, producer Pippa Harris, cinematographer Roger Deakins and two of the primary cast: George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman.

1917 isn’t Mendes’ first war-related movie, as he previously directed the Gulf War drama Jarhead with Jake Gyllenhaal. This is a very different beast, as it’s a film that few alive today were around to witness what happened, and it was well before television even existed. Another important factor to Mendes’ latest is that he wrote it to be filmed and shown as a single-shot movie that follows two soldiers (played by MacKay and Chapman) as they try to deliver a message that could save thousands of British soldiers from dying in an ambush.

Those who attended the panel got to watch the recently-posted featurette about the film’s unique filming style and see the second trailer for the movie before it came online – you can watch that here. Afterwards, we had a chance to talk to Mendes, Deakins, Harris and Wilson-Cairns about the film.

1917: Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins and Others on Bringing WWI Back to Life

“I started writing it in October 2017,” Mendes told us about the origins of the project. “It’s been two years from then, which is pretty fast, from writing to near-completion. A good three months of that was just research and reading around the subject and writing notes and compiling this document and then sitting there for two weeks starring at the wall. I know you, as a writer, would appreciate that moment where you just have to sit down and write Act 1, Scene 1, and you’re like “Aw, f*ck.’”

Not only has producer Pippa Harris worked extensively with Mendes throughout his career — the two of them having a production company for the past 16 years — but they’ve known each other since she was 11 and Mendes was 13; later, they went to university together where they worked on their student plays.

Harris told us how she found out about 1917. “[Sam] often talks about projects, and this was something that he first mentioned about two years ago, that he was pulling together stories that his grandfather told him and [doing] other research work into that period.”

“[Sam] and I had worked with Krysty on ‘Penny Dreadful,’” she continued. “So I said, ‘What about Krysty? She’d be terrific for this,’ and he said, ‘Yes, let’s get her on board.’ So that’s how that all came about.”

“We had another couple projects together that fell apart because of rights issues,” the screenwriter confirmed. “In fact, [Sam] phoned me up for this project and he said, ‘Third time will be the charm,’ and he was right. In some ways, I’ve been working for him for the last five years of my career.”

“I went to the Imperial War Museum Archives, because I’m a massive World War I nerd,” Wilson-Cairns told us about her own personal research before co-writing the script. “I went to my storage unit in London and got all my obscure World War I books. I took a lot of them to Sam and he brought a lot of obscure books to me, so we met and swapped books. I did loads of research and not just fact research. I read a lot of fiction – All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms – I watched every World War I movie I could get my hands on, and played a lot of World War I video games, which was a hardship, I can assure you. The majority of it was soldier’s diaries, even the voice records at the Imperial War Museum of the veterans.”

Mendes knew that making the movie a single shot would be intensive and that he would need someone with Deakins’ experience as cinematographer, but he decided to hold off on contacting the Oscar-winning DP about the project until he and Wilson-Cairns had a finished script. “I hadn’t really told anyone I was doing it, except for Pippa,” Mendes said. “I sent it to her and my agent and was like, ‘What do you think?’ and they were like, ‘You have to do this.’ I then needed to make sure I could do it, by which I mean that I sent it to six studios – three of them were interested. We ended up going with Amblin and Universal as a combination. When they said that they were going to do it and agreed to the scale I wanted, then I went to Roger and said, ‘We’re making this film and I’d like you to shoot it.’ I always had him in mind, as you would, and he actually Emailed me back just one word: ‘Wow.’”

Roger’s response was quite positive, not just about the writing but also about the initial edict to make it a one-shot film. “He didn’t tell me when he sent the script,” Deakins would tell us in a separate interview a few minutes later. “It was on the front page that this script is envisioned as being filmed in one shot. That was when I thought, ‘Is he serious?’ and then we talked about it, and then I got to understand what he was thinking then, but just seeing it on the page, I was like, ‘Really? What does that really mean?’”

“We wanted it to look absolutely real,” said Harris about her first concern as a producer once the film was greenlit by Universal. “Although the characters are fictional – all of them are made-up by Krysty and Sam – the world is obviously very real, and we wanted to be absolutely truthful to that world so that the details of what it was really like for people who in many cases were living in the trenches. It wasn’t just like that they just went down into the trenches for a couple hours every day. They used to sleep down there. They lived under appalling circumstances for many years. Reflecting that and making that feel real and visceral, I think that was our main concern.”

“It’s not really a war movie,” Deakins corrected us when we asked him about filming a war movie. “The background is the war, but basically, it’s these two soldiers being sent on a mission that seems impossible. It’s quite a universal story, really – it could be set in any world. I think most kids would think it’s science fiction anyway. When you go, ‘First World War,’ they have no experience of that kind of environment and world. It’s kind of a forgotten war here.”

“There have been many, many movies made about the second World War. The first World War, not so many,” Harris agreed. “It’s not so well-known, and maybe that’s because it’s a slightly more contained war, geographically, and maybe it’s also further away. Both Sam and i felt that it was a war that needed to be remembered. It just feels like the time is right to be telling this sort of story.”

Mendes had a lot of glowing things to say about this go-to cinematographer and what he brought to the making of 1917. “It’s very moving when you’ve got someone who has that history, that track record, those movies that he’s made, and he is as enthusiastic now as he was thirty years ago. He’s as dedicated, he’s as committed, and everyone follows suit. You feel, ‘Well, if Roger’s like that, there’s no excuse.’ There’s no cynicism whatsoever, literally nothing, just that quiet passion for filming and for lighting and for photography and all those things he holds dear.”

Obviously, to do a movie like 1917 as one shot, it means having to use specialized rigs that are often handed from one cameraperson to another – you can see some of that in the featurette – including the Trinity rig which allowed them to keep up with the actors as they ran through the battlefield.

“We started off in prep testing everything and anything and then we whittled it down to the particular rigs that would work in certain circumstances,” Deakins explains. “For instance, if you’re running in front of somebody, it’s a certain rig, but then if you need to go from that to another mode, then it has to be some other kind of rig. We practiced all these ideas about trading off from a crane onto a hand-held system onto a vehicle. We practiced and practiced with all these rigs. That’s how we ended up with four key variations.”

This amount of prep included the writing, because both aspects of the film had to have the mostly exterior locations taken into account. Wilson-Cairns did spend a lot of time on location scounts and on set during production to adapt the script as needed. “I was on a lot of the ‘recces’ [i.e. location scouts]—the ones I didn’t go to, I was sent pictures. We spent a lot of time rehearsing on location before we dug trenches, because everything had to be the exact right length. Sometimes, we’d be changing the script as they were digging trenches.”

“The key on this is that [I worked with] the guys I worked with on ‘Skyfall,’ including the Steadicam operator Peter Cavaciuti and the [key grip] Gary Hymns,” Deakins said about his own go-to people. “Then a guy we met, he was demonstrating this Trinity rig, and he had never worked on a feature before, though he had done small films and commercials. His name is Charlie Reznick. We worked with him a few times with this rig just to see what it was capable of, and then found out it was capable of what he could do with it, but nobody else could do what he could do with it. I immediately said, ‘So what are you doing for the next six months?’ He was amazing.”

Although the film’s younger cast did their share of training to meet the demands of the shooting, Deakins felt that his crew — even those he’s worked with nearly thirty years — had what it took to keep up with them.  “One of the camera grips was running with the camera, and often there were two guys holding a pole with a camera slung under it, and then it’s put onto a crane. There’s a whole complex ballet of what the camera does. One of those guys, he was brilliant. He’s in his 60s but luckily, he’s a good runner and can outrun most people. He can outrun George probably… and George can run!”

Mendes is quite glad that cinematographers like Deakins are starting to receive greater appreciation and recognition by younger cinephiles. “It’s only right and just that you’re now very aware of the Emmanuel Lubezkis [aka “Chivo”] and the Robert Richardsons and your Rodrigo Prietos, as well,” he told us. “Conrad Hall [who rightfully won Oscars for filming Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Road to Perdition’] was my introduction to the movies… and Connie always said that the two cinematographers coming underneath him that he rated were Roger Deakins and Chivo. Sure enough, [they’re] the best, so he had good taste.”

One of the elephants in the room that actually might help drive up interest in 1917 is that filmmaker Peter Jackson  — yes, the Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson — made a recent WWI documentary called They Shall Not Grow Old, cut together from actual footage and recordings from the National War Archives. That ended up doing much better theatrically than many expected.

“I think we were shooting this or in rehearsals when it came out, and I thought it was a really beautiful testament to those men,” Wilson-Cairns stated about Jackson’s film. “It brought something that’s sort of gone from living memory now – there’s no veterans or anyone who has lived through it. I thought it was a really important and beautiful way to honor them. I think that’s what we sought to do with this as well. Even though the story is fiction, to tell something that was ultimately based on real events that happened to different people across time.”

Besides writing for the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, Wilson-Cairns also co-wrote the screenplay for Edgar Wright’s 2020 movie Last Night in Soho, which overlapped with the shoot on 1917. We couldn’t let her go without asking about that. “This year I got to work with two of the biggest directors in the world. I think that somebody I love sold their soul to Satan so that I could get these amazing opportunities,” she told us with a smile. “Working with Edgar is a dream – he’s so creative, he’s so funny, he thinks so much outside the box. Him and Sam share so many really lovely qualities – they’re both very giving collaborators. They’re both lovely men that are a delight to pitch your nervous ideas to.”

1917 will open in select cities on December 25 and then expand nationwide in January. We’ll have more from the panel, specifically the two actors, very soon.

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