Go Into the Trenches With ‘1917’ Production Designer Dennis Gassner

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “The studio said, ‘Impossible — how are you going to do this?'” Gassner said of the enormously complicated design and shoot

Dennis Gassner

This story about Dennis Gassner is part of the “1917” cover package in the Oscar Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Before Dennis Gassner joined “1917” as the film’s production designer, he was literally at the End of the Road. A sign in Alaska just before the Pacific Ocean said so.

And that’s when he got an email from Sam Mendes that read, “You, Roger, me. What do you think?” It was not a difficult decision.

“I said, ‘I’m in,’” Gassner said. “There was not even a question about it. He said, ‘I have a film. Very ambitious. Sending a script. Call me when you’ve read it.’ I read it in an hour and a half, the fastest script I’ve ever read in my life.”

Gassner passed on the James Bond film “No Time to Die” to join Mendes on “1917.” But then, he already had done three Bond movies, including “Skyfall” and “Spectre” with Mendes. The latter film even opened with a Day of the Dead sequence shot in a single take, giving him a taste of what was in store on “1917.”


Before Gassner built a single set, he worked with Mendes and Deakins to diligently map out how each movement could be accomplished and how it would serve the story.

“The film is basically a piece of choreography,” he said. “It’s an amazing brutalist dance, but also takes on a very dreamscape quality. But the practical side of it was inch by inch. We measured everything. Once we knew our journey, then we could start to plug in the architecture.”

Gassner said the longest task on “1917” was designing a bombed-out French city that serves as a nightmarish set piece midway through the film. The city of starkly lit ruins had to be constructed mainly as a “figment of our imagination.” But within that framework, Gassner had to accommodate how the camera would be able to pivot 360 degrees or enter and exit each room.

“It was building knowledge through choreography, through story, through movement that we did basically in the field with cones, stakes, moving around and adjusting, adjusting, adjusting,” he said.

“1917” may be ambitious, but Gassner said he, Deakins and Mendes have been around long enough to have faith in their abilities.

“Everybody said impossible,” Gassner said. “The studio said, ‘Impossible–how are you going to do this?’ ‘Well, we’ll figure it out.’ “At the end, everybody said, ‘That’s unbelievable.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what hard work is.”

Read more of TheWrap’s “1917” cover package here:

“1917”: How Sam Mendes & Co. Created World War I in a Single Take

Inside Cinematographer Roger Deakins “1917” Chess Game

How “1917” Editor Lee Smith Cut a “One-Shot” Feature

How “1917” Composer Thomas Newman Avoided Adding “Gloom on Gloom” to WWI Film Score

And read more of the Oscar Nominations Preview issue here.

1917 OscarWrap cover