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How Was 1917 Filmed? Inside Director Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Roger Deakins One Take Movie
Sam Mendes’s WWI epic may have entered the 2020 awards show season late, but heading into Oscars Sunday 1917 is a deserving frontrunner for the big trophies, including Best Picture. Much has been made of the film’s harrowing, inspired-by-true-events plot: Two lance corporals (Schofield, played by newcomer George MacKay, and Blake, played by Game of Thrones alum Dean-Charles Chapman) must relay a message to a battalion of Allied forces miles ahead of their current trench. By tomorrow. Otherwise, all will die.
But, deserving of equal amounts of attention, is the unique, challenging filming style—it’s meant to appear as a single continuous shot—that Mendes desired. He tapped legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, The Shawshank Redemption) to help hammer out the camera work, and together, via meticulous planning and months of research and rehearsal, they brought the vision to stunning life.
Here’s how they made it happen:
As he revealed to the New York Times, Deakins didn’t know the plan for the unique filming style until he received the script. “[Mendes] called out of the blue and said he was going to be doing something shortly, and could he send me a script?,” the cinematographer explained. “It turned up and on the front cover, it said, ‘This is envisioned as a real-time story, shot with a single take.’ That was a bit of a shock, but I read the script, and it seemed like an interesting way to tell the story. It wasn’t a tacked-on gimmick.”
The director explained his choice to Vanity Fair last year: “It was fundamentally an emotional choice,” he said. “I wanted to travel every step with these men—to breathe every breath with them. It needed to be visceral and immersive. What they are asked to do is almost impossibly difficult. The way the movie is made is designed to bring you as close as possible to that experience.”
1917 is, it’s worth noting, not the first film to attempt this feat. Birdman, which debuted in 2014, is probably the most well-known of recent releases. But it was actually Mendes’s work on Spectre, 2015’s 007 entry, that first planted the seeds of inspiration for the director. “I’d always been fascinated with finding in a movie…you are always looking for a perfect form, a shape,” he said to Deadline in 2019. “I felt when I did the first eight minutes of Spectre, which was that one shot, I wondered if I could do a whole film like this.”
For obvious reasons, filmmakers often favor shorter scenes. The main one being that there’s just a lot less leeway for things to go wrong. (A missed line, a wrong step, a camera-operator error—you name it.) “If I blew the operating halfway through the shot, it’s not like I could say, ‘Well, the first bit was great—then we could just cut to a wide shot,'” Deakins also told NYT. “I’m sure that was very frustrating for Sam at times, but he was good about it. I mean, what could you do?”
Deakins and Mendes had worked together prior, on both the 007 epic Skyfall as well as Revolutionary Road, but each agrees this was the single most taxing project in ether their shared or individual canons. “The pressure was immense,” Mendes admitted to Variety in December. “There’d be times where you’d get seven minutes into the take and someone would trip or a bit of mud would get on the lens or an explosive device would be off and you can’t use it. The acting could be wonderful and everything else could be right and you’d have to start again.”
And while the 117-minute runtime was not, in fact, one shot, extremely long takes were necessary to pull off the effect. The crew spent months—six, in fact—in rehearsal, measuring each and every step. (They spent nine months generally prepping.) They also, as star Dean-Charles Chapman told us earlier this year, built mini-set models to make sure each surrounding and the action that would run through it was the exact right length. “Stepping on the set for the first time—I mean, any of the sets, the trenches, No Man’s Land, even the countryside bits—it was so much detail,” he said. “It was so realistic. You probably couldn’t get closer to recreating the first World War, ever.”
Newcomer George MacKay stars are Lance Corporal Schofield in 1917.
Photo Credit: François Duhamel
Deakins elaborated, speaking with TheWrap: “The crucial thing to start with was, ‘OK, what do we want the camera to do?’ How do we want to interpret the story? It’s a single shot, but does that force us to just follow them down a trench all the time? How can we choreograph the actors and the action in a ballet so we can pull them down the trench or see them in profile as they go across No Man’s Land or see a wide shot as they go into the crater? It was those things we really concentrated on.”
And when it came time to call Action, they were ready to nail the five-minute plus of movement before Cut arrived. Occasionally cameras stretched far past that mark: “I think the longest shot was about seven minutes,” Deakins recalled, also to the Times.
“The movie is essentially linear, and moves through a huge variety of different locations,” Mendes said in that same piece with Vanity Fair. “From the trenches, to No Man’s Land, to open countryside, farmland, orchards, rivers, woods, and bombed-out towns. It bears witness to the staggering destruction wrought by the war, and yet it is a fundamentally human story about two young and inexperienced soldiers racing against the clock. So it adheres more to the form of a thriller than a conventional war movie.”
And, for the most part, the crew shot the plot in the same order that the audience now sees it, another rarity. “The hidden hero here is Lee Smith, the editor,” Mendes explained, also to Deadline. “You would think in a one shot movie that his job was fairly limited, but it was pivotal. He was putting the movie together while we were shooting so I was able to watch the first ten minutes, then the first twenty minutes … All the muscles you normally use in post and editorial, I was using while we were shooting. The one thing you can do is adjust rhythm and pace, and I had to know it was exactly as I wanted it, before I moved on.”
It would have been easy for the technical to out-awe the emotional in theaters. Instead, it enhances the viewing experience, truly enveloping audiences in the action—stress, horror, and all. That balance was never far from mind for Mendes. “That was my battle every day,” Mendes explained to TheWrap, “to marry something that technically had to be incredibly precise with performances that felt spontaneous and real and a little rough around the edges, and not in any way robotic or preplanned or over-rehearsed. And to make sure that the technical scale of it didn’t overwhelm the human story. That was one of my jobs as a director, to make sure those two things could coexist without one destroying the other.”
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.