With ‘1917,’ director Sam Mendes gets in the trenches

Director Sam Mendes on the set of "1917."
Director Sam Mendes on the set of "1917."Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures/Courtesy Universal

The horrors of World War I have been a source of powerful, evocative cinema since within just a few years of the Armistice. From the groundbreaking antiwar sentiment of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) to the auteur vividness of Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) and Spielberg’s “War Horse” (2011), movies have taken audiences into the trenches, into no man’s land, into hell.

Still, there’s never been a depiction of the Great War as immersive as “1917,” the latest from Sam Mendes, director of “American Beauty” (1999) and the James Bond entries “Skyfall” (2012) and “Spectre” (2015). In the film, opening here on Jan. 10, Mendes draws on his fluency at both rich characterization and dynamic action to tell a two-hour war story in one seemingly continuous shot. It’s the sort of pet challenge that periodically inspires venturesome filmmakers — Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” (2014) are the best-known examples — but this one’s decidedly less-civilized backdrop is a new twist.


“1917” in a very literal sense follows rank-and-file British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, “Game of Thrones”) and Schofield (George MacKay, “Captain Fantastic”) as they’re dispatched to deliver a message to another unit. The gulp-eliciting details: the other outfit is deep in enemy territory. The clock is winding down fast. And if our humble couriers don’t make it in time, some 1,600 men will walk straight into a deadly German trap, Blake’s brother included. (The supporting cast includes Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Andrew Scott, of Amazon’s “Fleabag.”)

The English-born Mendes, 54, reviewed the mission brief by phone during a recent promotional stop in Washington, D.C.

Sam Mendes
Sam MendesMatt Licari/Matt Licari/Invision/AP

Q. It’s clear how personal this was for you from the onscreen acknowledgment you make of your grandfather and his experience in World War I. Was the project something that you had been pushing to get made for a long time?


A. Well, the stories that my grandfather told me had been part of me since I was a kid, but they felt like his stories to tell, not mine. It was only in the last few years that I thought: There’s a movie in here somewhere, and one I’d like to make. I wrote it on spec with Krysty [Wilson-Cairns, his writing partner] and then auctioned it, which was a position I had never been in before.

Q. Is there a particular moment in the film that you’d point to as being closest to something that your grandfather related to you?

A. It was more about an image, really, from a story about carrying a message across no man’s land. The image of a solitary man crossing that misty vastness at dusk was the trigger for the whole story. I thought: What if he had to travel further to deliver that message? What if he’s carrying the message for two hours of real time?

Q. When so much of the goal here was immersion, were there any visual flourishes that you decided against as potentially too distracting?

A. In the process of determining the style, Roger [Deakins, the cinematographer] and I did ask ourselves how far we could go. We wanted to observe certain rules — not many, but one was that we couldn’t see further than the men could, so we’d stay in the present tense. But we also storyboarded some crazy ideas, a couple of which made it into the movie.


Q. Such as?

A. When Schofield first wakes up in the dark [after being knocked unconscious], the camera detaches from him, travels through the window of the house he’s in, then finds him again walking into a bombed-out town. We saw that as a mirror of his emotional state — he doesn’t know what time it is, where he is. It seemed appropriate that the camera should operate slightly differently at that point, since we’re getting into something more expressionistic, almost hallucinatory.

Dean-Charles Chapman (left) and George MacKay in "1917,"
Dean-Charles Chapman (left) and George MacKay in "1917," Photo Credit: François Duhamel/Associated Press

Q. It’s an effective moment.

A. Every decision like that was very carefully debated. And there were many cool ideas that were abandoned as too self-advertising. At the same time, we didn’t want to get into a camera pattern that was metronomic or boring. We didn’t want to get stuck just trotting along behind characters, or locking onto their faces as they reacted to things. We wanted it to be intimate at times, and epic at others. So we had to develop this constantly fluctuating relationship between the camera and the characters that was never one thing only.

Q. You obviously also had to be sure to make casting choices that wouldn’t take audiences out of the flow of the story.

A. When I sent out the script, I said I didn’t want any pressure to cast stars in the leading roles. I wanted two young men that an audience has a relatively fresh relationship with, so we would feel that they’re simply two soldiers amongst 2 million, and not particularly special. And then inversely, where we have famous people — Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch and the rest — they’re in bit parts. I wanted these figures of power and gravitas who are leading players in their own vision of the army to actually only be supporting players in the story of two ordinary men.


Q. The production used a combination of Steadicam rigs and cameras on wires and vehicles to navigate the terrain you were covering. But did you run into anything that ultimately proved impossible to film?

A. No, it just required a lot of planning. Anything involving water is very tricky, so the river [sequence] was difficult. And things like the camera going down into that giant [bomb] crater at the beginning and skimming across all the bodies. But as long as you make an early determination and give yourself a chance to develop the rigs, these things aren’t impossible, just time-consuming.

Q. “Spectre” opens with an elaborate single-shot sequence. Was that something you worked on with an eye toward eventually making “1917”?

A. No, it wasn’t a strategy [laughs]. But I definitely became more interested in the idea of a single shot when I did that sequence. I found that it made me think about the camera in a different way. It made me challenge myself more, work harder to get information in frame, think more about where the cuts came, if they came. I did think: Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could have a shot that would last a whole movie? But I didn’t know what that movie was at that point, or whether it was even possible.


Q. What’s the feeling you hope the audience comes away with after seeing this?

A. As a filmmaker, you create an experience. You don’t want to sort of package it up — people will have different reactions. But I suppose one thing I’d like to [convey] is that this was a time when people understood the notion of sacrifice in a different way than they do now. And in the end, the movie is a human experience of war. It’s not a nationalistic movie, it’s not about how the Brits were great or the Germans were awful. It’s about war bringing out the greatest extreme of human emotion and stripping us down to our essence, and trying to see something universal in that.

Interview was edited and condensed. Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.