NYCC 2019: Sam Mendes discusses writing 1917 with the one shot mentality


During the 1917 panel, one question was frequently asked to every member of the cast and crew attending the event; Was Sam Mendes’ idea to shoot the film in one continuous shot crazy? Actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman thought the idea was crazy during filming. Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns thought it was crazy as she was writing the script. Producer Pippa Harris thought it was crazy during pre-production. Even legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins asked Sam Mendes why he would make a movie like that. To Mendes, there was no other way he could have made 1917.

After screening the recent featurette showing how the cast and crew created the movie in one continuous shot, they then dove right into a discussion about the production of the movie. Originally, Sam Mendes was inspired to create the movie based on stories his grandfather told him about the first World War. Everyone involved in the production agreed on creating a war movie that took a more human approach to war stories, focusing on the individual rather than the graveness of the war. To Mendes, “There’s a human story here that speaks across generations,” a story that he felt needed to be told. In order to convey this feeling, Mendes and Deakins agreed that while our two main protagonists were the narrative focus of the movie and were mostly alone for most of the runtime, there needed to be a third character traveling along with them; the camera. 

Deakins was determined that in order for the movie to succeed, the audience needed to immerse themselves into the world of 1917. The length that the production crew went to create an authentic World War I battlefield is truly admirable. They constructed over a mile of trenches for the 500+ extras to sit in as they filmed with no lighting used outside of natural lighting to replicate a true battle in the spring of 2917. The camera work is fantastic, as is standard for Deakins, but what really stood out to me was the creating of the script and just how meticulous the creation of the script was. 

From the very beginning, the movie was created and built up from the concept of doing one continuous shot. According to Mendes, on the front of each and every script given to cast and crew was a note that said “This movie will be filmed in one continuous take.” Everyone was aware of how this movie was going to be structured, and Mendes and Wilson went to an absurd length to make sure that the script was designed in such a way to sync up perfectly with the action on screen. 

An example given was that there’s a scene where Mark Strong is driving in a caravan with several jeeps and has a brief scene with MacKay and Chapman. When their scene concluded, the jeeps had reached their destination naturally without the need for a cut. No edit, no cheap tricks, just a scene that was written to be exactly as long as it needed to be. Wilson went on to describe that the set was measured to match the length of the script, with one discussion being whether or not to move a tree ten yards due to the need of the script. If they took too long to get to the tree, there would have been an awkward pause they didn’t want. If the tree was too close, they wouldn’t be able to complete their scene in time before reaching the destination.

It’s a fascinating concept to be sure and I’m certainly interested in seeing how this meticulously constructed script is conveyed on screen. It’s difficult to talk about the integration of these elements without actually seeing it in action and while we may not have seen any new footage outside of an extended look at the most recent trailer, it’s still difficult to wrap my head around such an ambitious concept. Can this work? Can it all come together? If so, it’ll be an amazing feat of cinema if it does. If not, it will be an example of ambition outpacing technical acumen. However, given the experience of everyone involved, most notably the legendary Roger Deakins, I’m optimistic that they can pull it off. It won’t be long now until we see for ourselves if these cinematic madmen can create a true war epic. 

1917 releases December 25, 2019. 

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.