Q&A: Sam Mendes salutes grandfather’s memory in single-take war flick ‘1917’

This image released by Universal Pictures shows George MacKay, center, in a scene from “1917,” directed by Sam Mendes. (François Duhamel/Universal Pictures via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews Sam Mendes' '1917' (Jason Fraley)

From Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) to Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Birdman” (2014), only a rare few have ever dared to shoot a film that appears to unfold in one single take.

Now imagine pulling it off in a war movie with timed explosions all around the set.

That’s the incredible feat Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes accomplishes in “1917,” an immersive cinematic experience that unfolds within the trenches of World War I.

“You’re really shooting the movie in long, continuous takes that then get stitched together to appear as if they’re one long shot,” Mendes told WTOP. “You can focus too much on the how of it all and not on the why. I wanted that unbroken relationship between the camera and the characters. Because it’s a race against time, you really do feel every second ticking down with these men.”

His driving creative force was always more personal than technical.

“The film is dedicated to my grandfather, Alfred, who fought in the first World War,” Mendes said. “He didn’t speak about it to his own children, but when he got to his 70s he was ready to tell people. It was an extravagant array of stories … but the stories were not about heroism or bravery, they were about how fortunate he was and the number of coincidences it took for him to remain living.”

One particular story stood out among the others with cinematic potential.

“He told one particular story about having to carry a message across No Man’s Land in the mist,” Mendes said. “It was that image of that one little man alone in that vast, misty emptiness that stuck with me. When I came to have the courage to sit down and write, that’s the story I felt compelled to tell.”

The film follows two young British privates, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), on an urgent mission to deliver a message deep into enemy territory to thwart the German slaughter of 1,600 troops, including Blake’s brother, at the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich in 1917.

“I got it in the form of a treatment, then my good friend and collaborator Kristy [Wilson-Cairns] helped me put it into a script because that was beyond me,” Mendes said. “It became a true collaboration because she brought an enormous amount to the table.”

Writing a script for a single-shot film requires extra attention to the action descriptions.

“Writing a screenplay for a single-shot movie is rather difficult,” Wilson-Cairns said. “It was made considerably easier by the fact that Sam was my curator. He is a real visionary. This script would not have been possible without someone to have the imagination to render a whole film on the page. Instead of a traditional script, which is a road map, this script had to be the destination. It had to read like the final film.”

Once the script was written, it came time to build the sets and block the action.

“Imagine one, long, two-hour single set,” Mendes said. “We rehearsed for months on empty fields, only digging the trenches and building the farmhouses, orchards and quarries once we knew exactly how long the journey was. It was a real job of engineering and a group effort from the beginning. For me, that’s the most remarkable technical achievement from the crew, rather than stitching the shots together.”

How many “stitches” are there between the long takes?

“That I can’t possibly reveal to you — but it’s not many,” Mendes said. “The stitching of the shots, once you’ve planned it and thought about it, is actually not that complicated. There were a couple that gave us a real headache, but weirdly, even though it was one of the first things we talked about, it’s probably the thing we talk about least now. Even I have forgotten that there are blends at certain points.”

That’s a credit to Oscar-winning editor Lee Smith (“Dunkirk”), who kept the cuts invisible, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”).

“We had to keep it as a single continuity,” Mendes said. “A lot of the time we were waiting for the sun to go in. We were in England so we were never far away from cloudy weather. But you also want an accidental feel. You want it to be planned, but not overly controlled. You want the camera to have precision, but you want the actors to have spontaneity. … You are encouraging them to live as much as act.”

Enter the rising stars of MacKay, who played Viggo Mortensen’s son in “Captain Fantastic,” and Chapman, who played Tommen Baratheon in “Game of Thrones.”

“I actually didn’t watch the last season, but I know everything that happens,” Chapman said. “I loved working on it, I loved the scripts, even though I was a bit frustrated with my character. … He was pretty useless. But I was amazed to get the part and be able to play Tommen. When I first got the job, it was like walking around Disney World.”

Together, Chapman and MacKay bring a humanism to “1917.”

“It’s a very human story told on a human level,” Chapman said. “They were fighting an enemy, but they’re just humans. When you hear someone needing help and crying, you just react to that however you do and just be human about it. … If this story was told about two German soldiers or two French soldiers, they’d react the same way.”

The young actors loved picking the brains of veteran co-stars Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, who play military officers waiting at different stops on the journey.

“They’re masters,” MacKay said. “Colin, Benedict, Andrew Scott, they all have their own process and everything, but the one uniting factor I found was the specificity in their work. Life is so detailed, we’ve all got our little idiosyncrasies, we’re all so individual in our movements, our accents, the way we put intention on a certain word. They just pull all that detail out of a scene. They just juice the scene to make it as alive as it can be.”

Mendes is skilled at working with actors, having come from the London theater.

“He really is an actor’s director,” Chapman said. “He was so good at talking to us about the story we’re trying to tell. … He had a real crystal clear vision of the story and the characters. Having a director who knows your character as well as you do is very comforting because you know he’s going to lead you in the right direction.”

Beyond his theater roots, Mendes has spent the past two decades building a resume to rival any filmmaker of his era: “American Beauty” (1999), “Road to Perdition” (2002), “Jarhead” (2005), “Revolutionary Road” (2008), “Skyfall” (2012) and “1917” (2019).

“I rewatched Sam’s films before we got to filming, and ‘Jarhead’ in particular, I was like, ‘Man, where did this go?'” MacKay said. “I feel like it wasn’t as celebrated as it should have been. … It was the first time Sam and Roger collaborated as well. … The strangeness of some of those images. The conversation that Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx have with the towers of burning oil, I was just like, ‘This is incredible.'”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of “American Beauty” winning Best Picture.

“My memories are almost all positive,” Mendes said. “The thing that still strikes me was that it wasn’t expected to be anything at all. I remember the L.A. Times fall preview, I was so excited like ‘Where’s my movie?’ They forgot it! It wasn’t even in it at all. It just wasn’t on the radar. So for that movie to end up doing what it did was something that will probably never happen again. I look back with fondness.”

Now, “1917” has earned Mendes a Best Director nomination at the Golden Globes for creating an immersive experience that demands to be seen on the big screen.

“I do hope people see it in the cinema,” MacKay said. “It’s kind of a rarity that this is a film geared to the cinema. … I don’t think you watch the film, you experience the film.”

Hear our full conversations with the cast and creators below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Sam Mendes and Kristy Wilson-Cairns
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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