Sam Mendes on the Emotional Challenges Facing His ‘1917’ Artisan Team

1917 Sam Mendes
Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures

There were unique challenges in Sam Mendes’ vision for “1917.” The director wanted the movie to appear as if it were filmed in one continuous take. And that required months of meticulous planning. Mendes says the long prep time and unprecedented demands created an “unusually unified crew.” Here, he pays tribute to some of them.

Roger Deakins, cinematographer
“The choice to shoot in one shot was an emotional choice: How do we link the audience as closely as possible to the life of these two men? We said, ‘Let’s not talk about how to engineer the mechanics of it; in terms of emotion, where would the camera go?’ We had various rigs, and the decision of each was determined by the emotional content of the scene. Much of the filming was outdoors. There is one carefully constructed lighting sequence lit by Roger, in the nighttime town. The town is lit first by flares, on wires hung on giant cranes, which were very carefully controlled and timed.”

Dennis Gassner, production designer
“His work is spectacular. He was building landscapes as much as building sets. He constructed that orchard and farmhouse to look like they’d been there for 50 years. He constructed the town as it would have been before the war: This is where the graveyard is, the tobacconist, the café, the town square. Then he destroyed it all. We’ve all seen big sets that don’t really do anything; his sets unfold like pages in a book. The sets had to be the length of the scene, and the scene had to be the length of the sets. For example, if the orchard is too long, the actors end up moving with nothing to say, but if it’s too short, they run out of land and they have to stand still. It’s all one unbroken chain, and it has to seem effortless. You could argue that it’s one set and it has to be perfect for every single moment in the film.”

Lee Smith, editor
“Lee was absolutely the unsung hero of this movie. He was putting the movie together as we were shooting it, concentrating on rhythm, tempo and pace as we were going, because you couldn’t edit out a section in post. Not only did he give brilliant feedback on performances; he also stitched the shots together where I wanted them. He did internal stitches too. Smith added sound landscapes and a temp score. He gave me a very good sense of what was working and what wasn’t. There was a constant dialogue between production and post — but in this instance, they were happening at the same time.”

Stuart Wilson, production sound mixer
Mark Taylor, re-recording mixer
Oliver Tarney, supervising sound editor
“There was very little looping, very little ADR. Stuart Wilson is brilliant, and the production sound is outstanding. The song ‘Wayfaring Stranger,’ for example, was sung live. I wanted the movie to breathe in and out, and the dynamic is important. It’s only when you go quiet that the loud moments become so frightening and shocking. There is that constant shift between making an audience lean in and then pushing them back again; that’s something we concentrated on. Oliver and Mark were brilliant at understanding that it’s not naturalism, it’s poetic naturalism — there’s a quality of dream. If the movie feels immersive, it’s partly because of sound and music.”

Thomas Newman, composer
“Normally in post, you’re able to control the pace of the film. But here, the only thing that could add rhythm and pace was the music. He added a dimension to the film in a wonderful way. We talked about how the emotion in the movie is sometimes displaced; there are some scenes that are very troubling for the characters, and only later does the emotion enter the score, when the character catches up with what he lived through. There are moments when the music does take over the emotional drive of the scene, such as the final run that Schofield makes in the trenches. That moment is driven by magnificent scoring, which is all the more resonant because you haven’t heard music in that way in the movie. He did 90 minutes of music, and I’m thrilled with the work Tom has done.”

The crew
It was an unusually unified crew, partly because the core crew was small. Everyone was prepping very early. That group also includes Naomi Donne, who did hair and makeup; Jacqueline Durran and David Crossman, who were the costume designers; Dom Tuoey, who was the special-effects supervisor. And a crucial person was Michael Lerman, the first A.D. and co-producer, who among other talents is a genius dealing with the background artists. All of those people joined very early on. Things happened with this movie I’d never experienced before. For example, I had my own monitor in a horsebox that had aerials attached, because I had to communicate at such a long distance. Right next to it was a big tent, so everyone could come at the end of a take and watch what they had done. So it was two actors, Roger, the focus puller, the grips, the whole camera department, costumes, makeup, special effects, visual effects, everyone watched the same image. We’d all talk through it as a group, and then go out and do it again. That feeling of a group tackling a single shot, it was exhilarating. And when we got it, the sense of achievement among all of us was wonderful, and I’d never experienced anything like that before. There were high-fiving and cheering when the shot was done; that kind of thing keeps you going.
And however hard it got — and it did get grueling at times — two things kept us from moaning. One was the fact that as a group, we were all in it together. And second, we were always aware that whatever we were doing, it could not possibly have been as difficult as actually living it. What’s three weeks in the mud when some people spent three years there?