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A Choreographed Dance: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman on 1917

What made Alfred Hitchcock’s criminally underrated 1948 masterwork “Rope” so compelling wasn’t only the visual trickery it utilized to make the story of Leopold and Loeb-esque killers appear as if it unfolded largely in an unbroken take. It was the substance informing the style that kept the audience’s attention rapt, as the claustrophobic sequences mirrored the limitations of the characters’ corrupted worldview, as well as the coffin-like perimeter of their growing entrapment. Sam Mendes’ new WW1-era thriller takes the latter idea and literally runs with it during the entirety of its two-hour running time, following two young British privates, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), as they navigate their way through enemy territory. They have been ordered to deliver an urgent message entrusted to them by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) that will prevent a massacre of soldiers, one of whom happens to be Blake’s brother. 

Though the film’s premise is evocative of “Saving Private Ryan,” its style is a hybrid of the Dunkirk-set tracking shot in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” and the battle scenes in Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” two pictures in which time is of the essence. Mendes and his frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins make their film appear as if it is occurring entirely in one epic take, and the results are not only jaw-dropping, but a poignant representation of what the director has dubbed “a war of paralysis.” In the following two-part conversation, I speak with MacKay and Chapman as well as Mendes and his writing partner Krysty Wilson-Cairns (who also co-authored the screenplay for Edgar Wright’s upcoming film, “Last Night in Soho”). When I told them that this is the sort of marvel that will get audiences excited about seeing films on the big screen, Mendes sighed, “You’re in the minority, we’re fading fast.” Let’s hope moviegoers will prove him wrong.

PART I: SAM MENDES & KRYSTY WILSON-CAIRNS

You’ve always excelled at holding on an image long enough for it to evolve and take on new meaning before the lens, going back to the “dancing” bag in “American Beauty” twenty years ago. Even a Bond film like “Skyfall” has memorable instances of this approach, such as the silhouetted fight scene and Javier Bardem’s eerie monologue he performs while creeping toward the camera. With “1917,” you’ve taken your mastery of long takes to its fullest expression.

Sam Mendes (SM): Now you mention it! That’s a very good observation, and this is why you people are best placed to write about film, better placed than the filmmakers sometimes. I wouldn’t have described it like that, but I actually really liked the way you described it because there is something that happens at a certain point when you hold a shot for a long time where it changes the way that the audience is watching it. There’s a particular shot in Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange,” and several in “2001” where you simply enter the image. It gives you time to enter the image, and you don’t wait to be presented with things. You’re sort of pulled in, and the gravitational force of the image shifts from coming out at you to sucking you into it. For me, it’s just a taste thing and I don’t know that I’m on a crusade to do it, but I find myself more and more drawn in by shots like the one in “Clockwork Orange” where Alex and the Droogs are driving endlessly in a car. 

It’s actually a process shot, and it just goes on and on and on. As it plays, you go through various stages of watching it. At first, you think, ‘Yeah, it’s a good shot.’ Then you think, ‘Why is he holding on this shot so long?’, and then finally, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m never gonna forget this shot.’ [laughs] It’s a sort of mind game, in a way. I’m not sure I’m as bloody-minded as Kubrick is about it. There is something utterly fearless about his approach, but also, his sense of how long it takes before a shot enters your long-term memory is uncanny. It’s the same as the shot in “The Shining” with the boy on the tricycle. Every corner he takes, the tension mounts more and more. I thought about that a couple times while making “1917,” since there are moments where it observes the rules of a horror movie as much as it does a conventional war movie. The characters are often reluctant to go around that next corner, yet they realize they have no choice, and have to take it whether they want to or not because they need to get to their destination on time. 

So that feeling of being pulled by an image is something that I really like, and I really enjoyed doing it again at the beginning of “Spectre.” I was very determined to drop an audience down into the middle of an existing atmosphere and make them try to find their own way through it. You watch it and think, ‘Which one is Bond? Oh that’s probably him. Yes it is! Where’s he going? Who’s the woman? Where are we?,’ etc. That is exciting. Of course, you get a lot for free in a Bond film because the audience goes in knowing that somewhere in that first reel, Bond will likely show up, and there are probably going to be some nefarious deeds being done. It’s a genre where you have twenty minutes for free at the beginning, and you can riff on it. You don’t have to explain who the central character is. 

A film like “1917” is more difficult because it centers on two characters you’ve never seen before, and they aren’t played by movie stars, so you’re already untethered. We don’t appear to be in any rush to explain who they are or why they’re here, which makes it trickier, but once the story gets going, it becomes really exciting. Someone once asked me which is more difficult, a Bond movie or this, and I was like, “This is more difficult because with Bond, you’ve got so much given to you already.” Doing “Skyfall” isn’t exactly easy, but look at what I got for free—Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Q, Moneypenny. I’ve already got a huge train kit everybody knows and everybody is going to come see it anyway. You don’t have to fight for an audience. But with “1917,” you have to fight to get everyone to come into the cinema because movies like these are increasingly difficult to make.

Script supervisor Nicoletta Mani (left) and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns (right) with Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes on the set of Mendes' new epic, "1917." Photo Credit: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

How vividly were certain details explored in the script, such as the flies buzzing over the corpse of the horse?

SM: Anything really grizzly in the movie was Krysty’s idea. 

Krysty Wilson-Cairns (KWC): He’s not joking, I’m very twisted. [laughs]  

SM: Hands in dead bodies, that’s the younger generation…

KWC: My mom literally jumped out of her seat at the premiere when she saw that scene, and she called me some names, so I was pleased with that.

Details like those give the audience a sensory experience akin to virtual reality.

KWC: Absolutely. Everything about the film is designed to feel like reality and because so much of the film is visual, it had to be in the script. Otherwise, we would’ve never gotten to the film if we had just written the dialogue because the script served as a proof of concept for how it was going to work. When I first sat down at my kitchen table to write it, I don’t know if I was 100% sure whether Sam was just mad or a mad genius—turns out a mad genius—but the craft in a script like that obviously took a lot of writing. It took a visionary level of visual expertise, and working with Sam was such a privilege as well as absolutely crucial. It couldn’t have existed without a director/writer who knew what he wanted.

What attracted you both to collaborating on this script? I know you’re a history nut…

KWC: I totally am, but I love working with Sam so much that if he asked me to write menus, I’d have said yes. 

SM: Because if nobody comes to this movie, I’m opening a restaurant. Honestly, without Krysty, this would’ve remained an unfinished project. I’ve got a few files on my laptop that have names like “Proposed Sci-Fi Project” and “A.I. Idea.” They just sit there festering, gathering whatever the computer equivalent of dust is—pixels?

KWC: RAM? [laughs] I like the idea of them gathering pixels… 

SM: And then you have to blow off the pixels. Krysty was the catalyst who brought it into script form, which I think was really pivotal with this one. I did say to her, “Look, if you can do this, I will make this film,” and I don’t think I’ve ever said that before. I had an absolute certainty that it was what I wanted to do, and then the collaboration after that was daily. I did a lot of rewriting, and the wonderful thing about that was that I didn’t feel guilty or have to explain or apologize, which I have had to do somewhat in the past because it’s just not my words. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love working with great writers, and I’ve worked with a lot. In the theater, I wouldn’t dream of rewriting anyone, but film was different. I wanted the freedom that this project provided. Krysty was there every day on the set, so sometimes I’d use her a lot on the day, even if it was just for an extra set of eyes to determine whether something worked or rang true or felt awkward. I’d ask for her thoughts, and she’d give me some alternatives for that moment. Other days, there was no conversation at all. She’d just come up and go, “It looks great,” while bringing a large bag of sweets.

KWC: I was really happy to be there most days, though occasionally I was incredibly stressed because Sam would ask, “Can we get some lines for this?” Sam, Roger Deakins and Colin Firth would be over there and I’d be on my laptop in a tent going, “Oh god, oh god, I’m just gonna write fifteen and they might only need ten.” But it was such a privilege as a writer to be brought on a set like that and to feel like a trusted collaborator. To be treated like an equal from the word “go” on this was incredibly special, especially when you are working with someone like Sam Mendes. When your phone rings and Sam’s name pops across it, you answer on the first ring. He’s a dream to work with.  

How did you go about mapping out the entirety of the action?

SM: There were two things going on simultaneously. We were writing a conventional script, and though it was a very unusual one, there was nothing in it that spoke to the camera. It didn’t say, “Camera moves through this,” or, “We pan from there to there,” or, “We float across this.” It didn’t describe what we were doing, it only described what the men were doing, what they were saying to each other and what the space looked and felt like. Then we had another script, which was a 45-page document with maps which tracked the physical journey of the film, and that was developed over six months with me, Krysty, Roger, the actors and every department head. We started out by walking on empty fields, marking out the journey with poles. Before any trench was dug or farmhouse was built, every step of the journey was accounted for.

George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Then we began building, so by the time we got to shooting, the actors and crew had taken the journey multiple times in different ways. We watched the sets evolve, and then the job was to figure out where the camera goes. We needed the camerawork to have an immense precision, and I wanted the actors to feel like they’ve never been there before. I wanted the opposite of rehearsed, the opposite of robotic. I just wanted them to exist in the space, and I encouraged spontaneity and accidents and changes in atmosphere, which are practically guaranteed when working with weather, animals and babies, not to mention people falling over and slipping in mud. We are looking for that sense of living it rather than acting it, and that combination or balance between precision and spontaneity was the most difficult thing to achieve. The root was written into the script, it just wasn’t in the conventional script.

Your use of the folk song, “The Wayfaring Stranger,” is especially haunting in a way that reminded me of the final scene in Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.”

SM: I did lots of research for the movie, and I found a first-person account that talked about stumbling into a concert in the woods where songs were being played on a piano. What was moving about it was that the soldier who was writing it said, “I realized I hadn’t heard music for two years.” He had forgotten what it was like, and thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. I figured there may be a way of feeding that into the movie at some point, though I decided it would be wrong to have a piano, which was alluded to have been from a French farmhouse. The soldiers in our film weren’t near any dwelling, so it wouldn’t have made any sense. When I heard Andreas Scholl’s version of “Wayfaring Stranger” while driving one day, I realized that song would be the perfect fit. So it was just good fortune. I knew the song, but I had never heard that arrangement, which is very, very beautiful, and we wrote our own simple, a cappella version of it.

What attracts you to a circular storytelling structure in which the end mirrors the beginning? 

KWC: When Sam first started describing it to me, I felt like it really spoke to WWI. People often found themselves back where they began. They would take 300 yards of land, and then they’d lose 300 yards of land. In fact, I remember reading a story that took place during 1917 where the British were moving forward and when they began digging trenches, they found bodies of their own soldiers from 1914. So, to me, that war was, in a way, very circular, and I loved that structural idea for the film. I thought it was a cool and very subtle metaphor.

SM: I think you are always looking for a perfect shape of story. When asked about the statue of David, Michelangelo said the figure was always in the marble, and that it was simply his job to bring it out. Similarly, every story has a shape that has always existed and feels natural. In the case of “1917,” the story doesn’t observe any of the conventional rules of screenwriting. It’s very linear without having a three-act structure, parallel action or subplots, so it is actually quite a tricky thing to achieve that feeling of shape, that feeling that a movie can breathe in, breathe out, and like a piece of music, it knows how to balance a slow movement with a fast movement without becoming repetitive or metronomic.

It seems right that our characters would end where they began, and yet be utterly changed. You want to articulate very clearly how the characters changed in just two hours of real time. Schofield has gone from not understanding why he’s there to knowing why he was put there in the first place. He started out with the company of a friend and ends the film alone. Only at the end does the film acknowledge what he wants, which is to go home. That’s the journey, and it becomes clearer if you’re able to compare the final image with the beginning image. Somehow the shape of it is more clearly revealed if you give it that sort of grace note, and it’s pleasing to me. 

This is a name drop, but back when he was alive, Harold Pinter had encouraged me to go and see a production of “Old Times.” He was sitting with his wife Antonia at dinner, and she said, “It’s my favorite of Harold’s plays.” Then Harold and I had a couple drinks, and you could generally ask him some questions, so I asked him which of his own plays was his favorite. He said it was “The Homecoming,” and when I asked why, he replied, “Well, it’s all a question of shape.” I asked, “And what shape is ‘The Homecoming’?”, and he went, “It’s—[moves hand up at an incline, and then drops it straight down]—and that’s it.” I’ll never forget that shape he described. It’s like a wedge. So I often think of story in terms of shape. That’s as good a way of thinking about it as any.

(from left) Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) in "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes. Photo Credit: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

PART II: GEORGE MACKAY & DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN

My family still has the steel helmet worn by my great-grandfather, who was a high-ranking sergeant stationed in France during WWI, and as a kid, I was amazed by how heavy and cumbersome it was.

George MacKay (GM): Though the helmets we wore for the film weren’t made of steel, the level of detail that was put into them is staggering. The costume team molded the few existing helmets that they had, and then they found, over the generations, that people have generally gotten bigger, taller and broader. So when the helmets were placed on ourselves and the background artists, the proportions didn’t look quite right. So they scanned the model they’d made and upscaled it—they made hundreds by 108% and hundreds by 110% so that they would proportionally match the faces to the helmets.

Dean-Charles Chapman (DCC): What really surprised me is how restricting all of the soldiers’ gear was, and I know that sounds stupid, but you’d think that they would be equipped properly to go over the top and into battle. George and I each had a different webbing, which is kind of like a backpack. Mine was leather and his was—

GM: It was made of bound cotton, but you were so smug about your webbing. [laughs]

DCC: No, I wasn’t! I was like, “Look at me, I’ve got no webbing, it’s leather.” [laughs] I couldn’t move in it. Webbing has different compartments hanging off of it, and these men were literally sent over the top with their mess tin. That’s where they keep all their food—their knife, fork, salt, pepper—and I thought, ‘Why are you sending them over the top with a dinner plate, basically? Why do you need that?’ They had so much gear with them that it just made it hard, even in the No Man’s Land sequence, where we’re crawling on the ground. You’ve got your bag and your bayonet digging in you, and you’re still supposed to be able to fight. The heaviness of the gear surprised me, and that included the rifles. I remember the first day being given a real rifle to hold, and I was like, ‘Fuck!’

GM: The wool, the layers, the leather jacket were all cumbersome, but it was good though because you felt the part. When you put the costume on, it definitely felt like we were heading into battle. The uniform changes how you move. You sit down and you sort of fall into your seat. Then you get up, and you feel like you’re wearing armor. 

What freedom does this long-take approach give you as an actor? It seems like it would be evocative of theatre in how it lets you fully explore an emotionally complex scene from beginning to end.

DCC: The one thing that I loved about our scenes in the film were the different beats you got to play. The rhythm of each scene and all the emotions that the characters have to go through without a cut were so complex. There was one particular scene where Blake and Schofield are given the news that they are going to be set on this mission. It was a really long take that was physically hard, because there were a lot of extras in the trench and we were trying to move past the camera, but also Blake’s emotions were so up and down. That was really hard to portray in one scene while always being on the move. Sam gave me a really good life lesson about acting that I’ll take with me forever, and that helped because there are a lot of scenes in which my character has multiple ups and downs.

GM: Because we rehearsed for such a long time, most of it was in our muscle memory and we were really free to explore the scene. You weren’t reaching for the line or uncertain about where to go to next. It was all in there and you just had to sort of exist for those long stretches. We often found ourselves having to go a third of the way through the story, running all the lines and the movements with each other in order to make sure that we came in at the right rhythm for a particular scene. We’d go from the beginning or occasionally from Erinmore’s dugout and follow every beat that led up to our very next take.

DCC: There’s obviously a lot of running and action in the film, but there are also some moments that allowed us to breathe as well, where our characters are just walking and talking. I love that because you don’t really see that sort of chit-chat very much in films.

(from left) Schofield (George MacKay) with Lauri (Claire Duburcq) and a French baby (Ivy-L MacNamara) in "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes. Photo Credit: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

GM: I could be talking up my ass here, since I don’t watch a huge amount of TV, but I think so much about the speed with which we receive everything now. The consumption of information, in general, is so quick that it’s oftentimes part of the thrill. There’s a certain kind of telly where it’s “story, story, story,” and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but every fifteen minutes it gives you a cliffhanger to make sure you keep watching. It was such a joy in this film to do scenes where the characters don’t seem to be talking about anything, and yet they’re revealing so much at the same time. There’s a bunch of stuff underneath all the chit-chat, as well as a lot of silence. One of the most fun things about doing those long sequences was when Sam would tell us to take a longer time to reach our mark. He’d tell us to actually read a letter or chew a sandwich, and it was lovely to realize, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t have to just get to the next line, I actually have to swallow first.’

One of the quietest scenes Schofield has is the one he shares with the wonderful newcomer Claire Duburcq and a remarkably well-behaved baby.

GM: Claire is amazing, and that kid was incredible. Like everything you see in the film, there’s no cut in that scene. The law is that you can only have the child for twenty minutes at a time, so we had a couple of babies on the set in order to complete a day’s filming. This one just came on, and she paused, she listened, she cooed at the right moment—I think she even cried as I left as well. It was really cool what that does to the vibe on the set because everyone was whispering. The whole crew would be like, [whispers] “There’s a baby on the set.” Everyone was so gentle and kind of captivated by this wee thing. 

Dean, you portrayed Billy Elliot onstage, and when I interviewed Jamie Bell two years ago, he told me that he approaches dance in the same way that he approaches acting. Would you say the same, and does having that background help in a film as physical as this?

DCC: I never thought about that, and haven’t really put the two together before, but with this film, I can see the connection because this really was a choreographed dance between the actors and the camera. That flow and rhythm was constant throughout the whole filmmaking process, and it was crucial. We all had to be in sync with each other, and as actors, you had to obviously be aware of that, but still be in the scene at the same time. With dance, you have to rehearse just like we did here. You had to be on top of the choreography, and there was one scene in particular that required a lot of movements. For six months, George and I were rehearsing every now and again. We’d be like, “Do you want to do that little block?”, and we’d say the lines and go through the blocking together.

GM: That’s a cool point about the dancing because the journey for us was so physical, and there wasn’t a huge amount of dialogue. I think almost unconsciously, a lot of our acting was in the form of body language. It conveyed how tired we were while coming through the German dugout after seeing our comrades get blown to bits. I had plotted the journey in my script by specifying the different ways in which Schofield would run. I had the idea in my head of what my body would be doing—such as when he regained consciousness after being knocked out—in order to convey what he’s been through both emotionally and physically. I wanted that to change so that it wasn’t always the same sort of running scene.

DCC: We could only shoot when the sun was behind a cloud, so when the weather was right, it was, ‘GO! GO!’ There was no time to be fuffin’ around. But when the sun came out and we couldn’t shoot, we’d be using that time to rehearse, so there never really was a down moment. There was a ten-minute period each day when we ate our lunch, and that was it. You were constantly in that headspace of trying to perfect the scene because, as with dancing, you have to get ten takes in to feel the rhythm of it.

Were there certain stories you came across during your historical research that stuck with you?

GM: There were loads of stories, and we just cherry-picked bits and bobs from all of them. It is alluded to that Schofield has gone through some battles, and there were a lot of first-person accounts detailing what they were like, and the stuff that the men would’ve seen. One thing told to us by our historical advisor that I found terrifying was this idea that it wasn’t just the shells, the shrapnel and the explosions that would kill men, you could actually be killed or wounded by the concussive blast itself. Being that close to that amount of air, it could go into your lungs in a way that was lethal. There are a few scenes where Schofield is struggling for breath, and I thought that could be a sort of trauma that he knew.

Cast and crew members on the set of "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes. Photo Credit: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I also remember learning about a fellow who’d collect his four day’s ration of cheese in order to make his favorite breakfast on his mess-tin. He would grill his ration of bacon and use the fat from it while adding a little bit of water from his bottle to grill the cheese he had saved. Then to complete the meal, he’d get his ration of biscuits or a slice of bread if he had it. Just knowing what their day-to-day routine would’ve been like was so important. For soldiers in the three lines of trenches, they’d do four days in the third, four days in the second, four days at the front, and then have two weeks behind the lines. When they’re on the front line and they’re on watch, it’s two hours on, two hours off. That helped me mentally understand when would I sleep, when was the last time I had a bath, how long am I awake—all of that allowed me to build up Schofield’s life to the point where we first see him.

DCC: In the costume department, I had a massive wall with reference photographs of soldiers and the landscape upon which their battles were fought. There was one particular black-and-white photo that showed three soldiers. The men on either end resembled your average WWI soldier—all buttoned up with their backs straight while holding their rifles and looking very serious. But the soldier in the middle was leaning against a truck, and he was so relaxed. All the buttons on his coat were undone, his shirt was twisted and he had a ring on his pinky finger as well as his middle finger. He was smiling, and I don’t even think he had any teeth. The personality that this man had really reminded me of Blake. Even though he’s in the middle of a war zone, Blake’s still able to be optimistic and tell his mate a funny story about the man getting his ear bitten off by a rat. That’s why Blake’s pinky finger and middle finger each have a ring on them. 

Was there a consistent tone Sam Mendes maintained on the set to ensure that the very first second of the next shot would be consistent with the preceding one?

GM: There was consistency of focus. We didn’t really talk about the chronology too much. The one note that he’d give us now and again was, ‘Just remember that you’ve never seen this before,’ because as much as we talk about being able to be free and in the moment, there were a few times where you would start to know the path too well. Sam’s direction would snap us back into remembering that we’ve never seen this before, and we can’t lose the tension in our bodies. Our characters still don’t know what’s around the corner. It was genuinely the most mutual team effort I’ve ever had on a job, and it was really wonderful to have everyone on the crew be gunning for this story, for the final piece. That kind of focus was what drove us, really. The days went pretty quick, I’d say.

DCC: There’s a scene where Blake has to rescue Schofield, and it was really hard for me because it was very physical, and like I said before, the weapons were really restricting. Also, Roger Deakins wanted to use natural light, and the only light source in that scene was Blake’s torch. So not only was I doing the movements at the correct pace, I had to light the set as well. We had to do that scene so many times because it was really, really tough. After a while, Sam pulled me aside and said, “Your fucking friend is gonna die if you don’t fucking save him. Your friend is under there and he can die. Save your fucking mate!” Sometimes when you do a scene repetitively, you’re just thinking more about what you’ve done before and you sort of forget what your character is going through. But when Sam gave me that note, it shook me up and like that [snaps fingers], it got me right back where I needed to be. 

Header caption: (from left) Director Sam Mendes and George MacKay on the set of Mendes' new epic, "1917." Photo Credit: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures © 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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