Last month, at ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood, Collider hosted an early screening of 1917 followed by a Q&A with director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor Lee Smith. While I wanted to offer the Q&A to our readers right after the screening, due to spoilers being discussed, we decided to hold off on posting until people had the chance to see the film.
During the Q&A, Mendes, Deakins and Lee talked about filming the movie like it was a seamless take, what sort of camera rigs they used, what shots were the most difficult, which scene took the most takes and why, lighting when you’re filming seven or eight minute takes, how they decided on which take to use in the editing room, what Deakins felt was the most difficult shot in the film, and a lot more.
As most of you know, 1917 stars Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as two young soldiers fighting in World War I who are tasked with getting important information about an impending and catastrophic attack on British forces in the right hands across enemy lines. However, in an effort to tell the story in a unique way, the filmmakers designed 1917 to take place without any cuts. So from the moment the film starts until the final frame, you’re in the heart of World War I and will have a completely different appreciation of what soldiers go through in war. Everything about this movie is exceptionally made, from the performances by all the actors to the way the film puts you on the front lines of war. 1917 is a stunning cinematic achievement and one of the greatest war films I’ve ever seen. I cannot recommend this film enough. 1917 also stars Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Richard Madden. For more on the film, I recommend reading Matt Goldberg’s glowing review.
If you’re wondering how these brilliant filmmakers pulled off one of the best films of 2019, you’re going to really enjoy this Q&A. Check it out in the player above and below is exactly what we talked about with some of their answers.
Lee Sith, what did you do on this movie? Because it’s all one take.
- A lot of preplanning and execution of these extended takes to make them appear seamless. Lee was crucial in providing feedback, providing sound and temp music. Lee doesn’t like knowing what Sam’s selected take was. Lee was like having a second filmmaker on the set.
Will there be a BTS documentary on the making of the movie?
- Mendes – Sadly no. There was an EPK crew there the whole time. In a way the most interesting part was the 6 month of prep and pre-production. Only 65 days of actually shooting, it was made many times before that. Walking through the empty spaces marking out the path the characters would take with flags and poles. The entire set was built around the path the actors’ take through the film and for the journey of the camera. The interesting thing would’ve been to cover all that.
When did you realize you wanted to do it as a seamless take?
- Mendes – Did the first 8 minutes of Spectre as one shot. Felt like a real proper movie director on those few days. Wasn’t looking for some way of using that. When Mendes had the idea that the movie would be told in real time, the seamless shot idea came from that. The technology of the time limited communication to essentially what a man could see in front of him and around him, so the seamless shot idea serves that.
Roger, talk a little about what the first phone call or meeting was like when Mendes told you the idea.
- He just sent me the script, he didn’t talk about the shot. And the first page of the script says “this was envisioned as a single shot.”
Could you talk about some of the camera rigs and what you had to do, technology you had to develop to bring this to life?
- Deakins – Couldn’t have been done a few years ago. Mostly shot on smaller digital cameras, uses some steadicam. Remotely operated digital cam that was mounted in a pod on the operator’s shoulder that Deakins could then manipulate remotely. The scene where the camera follows them into the trench from the front and then turns around and follows them from behind might be the most difficult shot in the movie.
Which was the shot or the day where you were throwing shit in the air? The most difficult?
- Mendes – for me, it was about performance. Most of the engineering we did beforehand. The “why” of where the camera would go was more difficult than the “how”. Blake’s death was very difficult in terms of how and why, such a long performance and the camera is circling around the actor. Going across the canal was the one Mendes and Deakins storyboarded the most, Mendes didn’t want Schofield to suddenly become an action hero. Maybe did 4 or 5 different storyboards for that sequence.
What was the most takes you did on what scene and what was the fewest?
- Mendes – The last shot of Richard Madden and the whole last scene, that begins when Schofield leaves the tent. That was take one. Probably did ten total takes. Never did less than ten takes for anything. Andrew Scott’s scene probably did as many as 50 takes. Lost takes to the lighter not lighting, the cigarette blowing out, Blake couldn’t get the flare gun into his pocket, etc. One mistake ruins an entire take.
- Mendes – shooting long, continuous takes actually winds up taking less time, because the same scene with Andrew Scott would’ve been 15-16 different set ups to cover from all the angles you want and it would’ve taken two days. This way allows you to focus more on what the scene is about, because in a standard movie, you’ve already broken a scene up into a dozen different shots before you even know what the scene is going to be. Do you have to edit all the time? Do you always have to see everyone when they’re speaking their lines?
I’m assuming the first cut with this was the final cut.
- Lee – Yeah, it was being built as Same was shooting it.
Just to confirm, there’s nothing on the cutting room floor?
- Mendes – No, there’s nothing. DVD did ask me if there were any deleted scenes (for special features), but no.
Talk a little about lighting this movie and the challenges of doing these incredibly long takes.
- Deakins – Just for the look of the film, we wanted it to be cloudy. You’re never going to be shooting in the sunlight. Also in terms of matching from set-up to set-up made more sense in clouds. But even that was a difficult thing, the first day of shooting in England there were no clouds.
- Mendes – It’s deceptive, there are alot of interiors and a lot of brilliant interior lighting and the nighttime in the town. Roger created lights for the actors could use to light their own scenes essentially. Roger constructed the lighting rigs for the town, essentially. The flares were on wires and were timed. Built a model beforehand to see where the shadows would fall and where to place the buildings to create the shadows they wanted.
What kind of cameras and why?
- Alexa LF large format mini Arriflex. They custom made the prototype for the film. Surprisingly tiny! Pretty much one lens for the entire friggin’ movie — 40mm. Have to, to sell the one shot effect. Looked like WWI photos.
Having to build all the locations because you can’t reuse anything.
- Changing the atmosphere in each new location to differentiate — even adjusting while walking. The set is a ribbon, an endless snake.
How to turn a flat-seeming No Man’s Land into a three-dimensional, character-inhabited, immersive world.
- Scofield just keeps his eyes ahead — Blake looks at everything — two sets of stories simultaneously. They had to make it out of nothing. Sometimes the camera dictates the set, sometimes the other way around.
Which scene was the toughest to pick a take on?
- There were tons of choices per scene — as many as 6 brilliant takes per scene. Lee Smith was very particular about the last scene. Take 1 was incredible — the other takes were great, but the shot was much tighter directly on the brother. He loved the very first take because the wider shot keeps George in the story. Mendes agreed immediately.
What’s Roger Deakins’ most difficult shot from the film?
- He did so much prep, storyboarding, walking through in scaffolding, testing on backlot, by the time they got to location, “the shot was there.” Singing soldier scene was particularly difficult, but they spent days and days rehearsing in a field with extras.
How scared do you get that one small thing will go wrong?
- It happened! You do want to encourage freedom, even though it’s so technically choreographed. When George is running down the front line and gets knocked over — that wasn’t planned. An extra actually did that on accident. And he kept on running, and the take made it. You want life to enter in. You want mess. “Get through to the end.” Theatre instincts — It belongs to the actors now.