There’s no bigger sign of cinematic ambition than staging one long, unbroken take. And while some directors do it in movies and on TV just to show off, filmmaker Sam Mendes felt it was the only way to tell his World War I epic “1917.”
Enlisting the help of Roger Deakins, who worked with Mendes on “Skyfall” and cracked his legendary Oscar losing streak with “Blade Runner 2049,” the two battled the elements and a massive scope to figure out how to tell the story of two British soldiers trying to deliver a message that can save the war effort.
“From the very beginning I felt this movie should be told in real time. Every step of the journey, breathing every breath with these men felt integral,” Mendes said in a new featurette released for “1917.” “And there is no better way to tell this story than with one continuous shot.”
The clip begins with some impressive and thrilling behind the scenes shots of a soldier sprinting along the edge of the trenches just as soldiers are racing out around him. The camera pulls back to reveal just how many extras were involved in the scene and the challenge of performing that shot at high speeds.
But the featurette also articulates in greater detail how providing the illusion of a single, unbroken shot needed to be choreographed and scripted precisely.
“Sometimes you have a camera being carried by an operator hooked onto a wire, and the wire carries it across more land, and then it’s unhooked again, the operator runs with it, then steps onto a small jeep, which carries him another 400 yards, he steps off it again and goes around the corner,” Mendes said.
What’s more, the film was shot almost entirely outdoors, with none of the locations repeating, not to mention in story order. So the filmmakers found themselves literally watching the clouds and racing to shoot in the brief windows when the lighting was right so they could maintain continuity.
“We kind of realized, for a start, you can’t really light it, because if you’re running down a trench and turning around 360 degrees, there’s no place to put a light anywhere,” Deakins explained. “And because we were shooting in story order, we had to shoot in cloud to get the continuity from scene to scene. So some mornings the sun would be out and we couldn’t shoot.”
“There’s always that get out of jail card that you have with a movie. Well, we might be able to cut around this or we might take that scene out,” Mendes said. “That’s not possible on this film.”
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star in the war story that also features Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. Mendes directed the film based on a screenplay by Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
Universal is giving “1917” a limited release on Christmas Day before opening wide on Jan. 10, 2020. Watch the featurette above.