The rumors are true: the upcoming World War I film 1917 was indeed shot to look like it’s a single continuous shot. That’s exciting in and of itself, but add in the fact that Roger Deakins—the world’s greatest living cinematographer—is behind the camera alongside ambitious director Sam Mendes (Skyfall), and you’ve got yourself an absolute must-see. The news was confirmed with a fantastic behind-the-scenes featurette in which Deakins, Mendes, writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and stars George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman explain how they pulled off this immense achievement.
The story of 1917 is quite simple, as it follows two soldiers who are tasked with crossing enemy territory to hand-deliver vital news. But Mendes decided he wanted the story to play out in real time, hence the single unbroken shot. The story takes place over the course of just one hour and 50 minutes, which is the runtime of the film.
“It was fundamentally an emotional choice,” director Sam Mendes told Vanity Fair. “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.”
Deakins explained that they couldn’t really light the shots given that so much of the film is shot in exteriors, and as production took place in the UK, they decided to shoot the majority of the film under cloud cover. Which meant that if they showed up to set and the sun was out, they had to wait for clouds to arrive before they could roll, or else the unbroken shot would lack continuity.
Even the sets had to be constructed with precise detail:
“Every location had to be exactly the correct length for the scene. We had to walk every step the characters would take long before we designed the sets and built them. I’ve never rehearsed a movie for as long, or in such detail.”
As for the equipment, Mendes says the film wouldn’t have been possible without the Arri Alex Mini LF camera, which was developed just last year:
“We talked about every camera move, every rig, every stylistic choice,” Mendes said. “Roger also felt that we needed a camera to be invented which could fit into some of these impossibly tight physical spaces. Thanks to Arri, we got exactly this.”
The film even had two scripts—one with the dialogue and story points, and one with the precise camera moves. Granted, this is a feat that has been attempted before, as recently as Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman, for which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won the Oscar. But that movie took place in a theater. With 1917, Deakins and Mendes are pulling this off with exteriors, special effects, etc. It sounds impossible, but if anyone can do it—and do it with an eye towards beauty—it’s Deakins.
It also must be noted that Deakins only just won his first Oscar for Blade Runner 2049 after a bevy of nominations for truly phenomenal work, and if 1917 is as impressive as it sounds, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he wins his second trophy at this year’s Oscars.
For more from Deakins, be sure to check out our extended interview with the legendary DP from the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
1917 opens in theaters in limited release on December 25th and expands wide on January 10, 2020.