In partnership with BAFTA, ODEON were thrilled last month to present an exclusive online masterclass with the creative minds behind the groundbreaking World War I epic - 1917.

Hosted by Edith Bowman, the behind-the-camera livestream Q&A brought together director Sam Mendes, writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and producer Pippa Harris to break down burning questions from fans of their single-shot, cinematic masterpiece.

Click here to watch the full livestream.

We made it back from the front-line, and picked out five things we learned from the session.

Who was the most difficult character to write?

 

Sam Mendes: In a sense, the most difficult character to write is Schofield (George Mackay), because he’s the centre of the movie, and so much of the movie was carried by him non-verbally.

So what you’re describing is someone’s inner-landscape, their inner journey, as well as what they say.

In fact, in the scenes that are the most emotionally resonant, he doesn’t speak at all.

 

Krysty Wilson-Cairns: Schofield was hard to write, but I think that’s because Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) was so easy to write.

Blake was chatty and confident and would natter away. What he said didn’t necessarily always have to have a huge amount of weight, whereas what Schofield said always had to mean something.

Schofield, played by George Mackay holds a gun in the trenches, in 1917

General Erinmore, played by Colin Firth, gives orders to Schofield and Blake, in 1917

Krysty Wilson-Cairns: The Generals I always thought were the most difficult because in those scenes there was a huge amount of exposition.

Sam Mendes: You’ve only got so much real estate for each of those characters.

Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth - they’re wonderful actors but they’ve only literally got two minutes, or three minutes of screen time and they have to tell a big story.

And they have to be real people, and you have to feel like you’re intersecting with a bigger life for a brief moment.




What was the most important thing you’ve learned that you will take away with you to future projects?

 

crew members capture the sounds of war in one of the trench scenes from 1917

Pippa Harris: It was all a learning curve, the whole notion of the one shot was new, so weather apps are something I will be taking with me, I now have a plethora of very accurate weather apps.

I remember during the Salisbury Plain scene, we were shooting the scene where everyone was singing in the woods and everyone was looking at their different weather apps, trying to work out whether the cloud cover was going to come in just right or whether it would be too sunny and ruin the shot. So that’s what I’m going to take with me.

Krysty Wilson-Cairns: I loved being on set for 1917 - it is unusual for a writer to be on set so I don’t think I can fully quantify what I will take with me.

It was amazing to see something Sam and I wrote in our kitchens or wherever suddenly brought to life.

So for me it’s just wonderful memories and the desire to do something like it again.




How was the process of finding Blake and Schofield?

 

Schofield played by George Mackay, and Blake played by Dean-Charles Chapman look on a deserted house in Northern France, in 1917

Sam Mendes: It’s a two way street, you write the characters that you imagine and what you want is someone that comes in and has everything you imagined.

I had an image of Schofield for example, and what I said consistently to Krysty was to think of a young Ben Whishaw, small, dark, slight, bit of a poet.

And it was Nina Gold the casting director who suggested we should see George Mackay.

He wasn’t physically what I imagined, but he has a soulfulness and old fashioned nobility and he is a wonderful actor.

Sensitive, intuitive, subtle, delicate but also physically capable because he had to go through a hell of a lot.


Then once we’d cast Schofield, our idea of Blake changed because originally he was the larger, more robust character.

Suddenly we shifted him and he became a little bit more urban, a city boy and eventually I came up with this image we gave the boys - an unusual unexpected friendship that wouldn’t happen in civilian life - but in war they gave each other something that they lacked.

In a good casting process, the actors come in and they shift the perception of the roles from the way you’ve written them.

Blake helps Schofield to his feet after they escape the tunnels of the German front-line, in 1917



As an aspiring screenwriter - what advice can you share when sitting down to write that first page?

 

Schofield played by George Mackay, and Blake played by Dean-Charles Chapman rest before being summoned to see General Erinmore, in 1917
1917 writer and director Sam Mendes alongside co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Krysty Wilson-Cairns: Give yourself permission to be rubbish.

People get hung up because they go ‘oh no, it needs to be perfect the first time’ and it really doesn’t.

The wonderful thing about screenwriting is that you don’t have to show it to anyone, ever.

So you could write something terrible and just keep getting better at it and eventually be like ‘oh yeah - this is just something I came up with.’

Give yourself permission to be bad.




Are there any secrets or references in the film personal to you?

 

Krysty Wilson-Cairns: A lot of the names of characters are the names of our friends...

Sam Mendes: Not only that, three of the soldiers in the back of the truck are named after the England cricket team.

You’ll notice Private Buttler, Stokes and Cook.

Krysty Wilson-Cairns: The woman in the cellar is named after my mother, Laurie.

There’s a whole bunch of them!

Sam Mendes: Even I didn’t know that!

England cricket player Ben Stokes, who provided inspiration for the name of one of the soldiers Schofield meets during 1917



Is there a message you wanted to convey in the film?

Different from other WWI films?

 

Schofield played by George Mackay, and Blake played by Dean-Charles Chapman, take cover from German planes in 1917

Sam Mendes: I wanted it to feel like it was about two accidental heroes.

In that regard, those two soldiers could be German soldiers, they could be French soldiers, the situation they find themselves in is hell.

That’s where it touches most closely on my own Grandfather because when we finally pestered him to tell us his experiences in the war, the stories he did tell us were not what we expected to hear...

We expected to hear heroism, bravery, excitement, and instead we got horror and the randomness of how his friend would be standing next to him one second and the next second his head was entirely blown off.

The ‘innocents’ of the war is what I wanted to tell the story about.

We wanted to tell something about just two ordinary people who just happened to be sent, through just pure accident, pure coincidence, on that one mission. That’s where I felt the movie lived.





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