Since exploding onto the scene in 1999 with the Best Picture-winning American Beauty (for which he also won Best Director), Reading-born Sam Mendes has made just a handful of films among them Revolutionary Road and the Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre. Anything new from this talented visionary is therefore a very big deal...
Helping Mendes create this epic World War One drama was cinematographer and 14-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (“one of the two or three greatest living cinematographers,” hails Mendes), editor and fellow Oscar winner Lee Smith and production designer Dennis Gassner, also an Academy Award alumni.
Starring George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Blake, 1917 sees two young soldiers being given a seemingly impossible task. With the clock ticking, they must cross enemy lines to deliver a message that could save the lives of a battalion of 1,600 British men.
There are some sneaky edits, but overall the action is a continuous fluid traveling shot. We see what the soldiers see, as they see it.
“I wanted [the] audience to take every step of the journey with them, to breathe every breath,” explains Mendes.
“The story is based around the journey of two young and – at first glance – unremarkable soldiers, and ideally I wanted [the] audience to have no prior relationship with them,” elaborates Mendes. “It was a real luxury, with the unstinting support of the studio, to make a movie on this scale with two young actors in the central roles who really are, relatively speaking, new to the game.”
To ensure the necessary impact was made, Mendes turned to some of the most respected names in the British film industry, from Colin Firth as General Erinmore and Andrew Scott as Lieutenant Leslie to Richard Madden as Lieutenant Blake (brother of Lance Corporal Blake) and Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie.
As a boy, Mendes was riveted by the tales his now-late grandfather Alfred H. Mendes told him about his time as a Lance Corporal during the First World War. Due to his small size, Alfred was a messenger on the Western Front, an incredibly dangerous job.
“Our film is fiction, but certain scenes and aspects are drawn from stories [my grandfather] told me, and ones told to him by fellow soldiers,” reveals Mendes.
Because the story is told via a ticking clock plot-line, the weather needed to match from scene to scene, something beyond the control of even this most meticulously planned of productions. The crew simply had to cross their fingers.
They got lucky – for much of the 65-day shoot, the production was blessed with dry, overcast days.
Although the 1917 production team visited the various sites in France where fighting had taken place, actually shooting on these sites was not possible – both for safety and respectful reasons. Instead, filming took place in the United Kingdom, from Salisbury Plain in Wilshire to Glasgow, Scotland.
Known as the ALEXA Mini LF, it enabled cinematographer Deakins to ‘deliver the intimacy and speed Mendes required of the shoot’. Production of the camera was actually brought forward to coincide with the start of filming.
Most films with large crowds these days use digital extras. Not 1917. Everyone you see alive in this film is real. There were over 500 supporting artists in total, all of whom were selected by Mendes personally from an initial group of 1,600 recruits.
Led by ex-paratrooper Paul Biddiss (who served as 1917’s technical advisor), the film’s main players were taught everything from weapons handling and safely to how to ensure their military boots didn’t give them blisters.
With so many extras to dress, 1917’s costume department was understandably substantial.
Twenty-seven individuals worked on the film full-time, but on the days that the crowd scenes were being shot, that grew to 60. In total, around 400 military uniforms were made, with the rest being stock.
1917 currently has 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, from 38 reviews. Time Out called it a “nerve-fraying rollercoaster of a war movie”, while New York Post described is as “a modern war classic and one of the best movies of the year”. “An astonishing piece of filmmaking,” concurred Empire Magazine, while Hollywood Reporter hailed it as “virtuoso filmmaking”.
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