‘1917’ stars George MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman on those long takes: ‘We rehearsed for six months’

Cinematographer Roger Deakins is on track to win his second Academy Award for “1917” as the WWI epic is made to look like one seamless shot. And these long takes were what dominated the production, say stars George MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman. “We rehearsed for six months beforehand to prepare for the tracking shot, so we were around all of the departments months before,” reveals Mackay. “Everyone started on the same day when usually as actors, you come into it later. But we were in pre-production with everyone else for about five months – so it was a real lesson in understanding everyone else’s departments and how we could help them, how they could help us.”

With such long takes, there was little room for error. And while there were no 21st century slips like mobile phones going off or coffee cups sneaking into scenes (Charles-Chapman, who played Tommen Baratheon in “Game of Thrones,” laughs and rolls his eyes at the mention of the latter), “Making a mistake in the middle of a take could have meant resetting painstakingly and carefully choreographed scenes, so they just had to power through the mistakes if they could,” says Charles-Chapman. “We really would try to carry on. It depended on how bad the mistake was. The majority of the time we’d have to complete that scene – so we’d try and carry on. The longest take was about 9 minutes.”

“It did feel like theatre,” agrees Mackay. “Everyone has been talking about the technicality of it but once you get going in those scenes, those takes, as an actor you get lost in it. The physicality of the piece is that what you see on screen was actually there in real life when we were shooting. Often, by the end of the take, we’re so far away from the rest of the crew because we’ve traveled such distance within the shot that it felt very much like our own world.”

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This, then, meant that the actors were working in conditions that felt very realistic and the latter says this gave them a taste of what it must have been like for those soldiers. “It was a very hard shoot – the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, physically and emotionally,” says Charles-Chapman. And you got to remember, every time we’re walking through mud so are the camera guys and the whole crew. But that’s what we do as actors – rather than pretend, we just live and experience through it so I think we had a good sense as to what it would have been like – but at the same time, we obviously had it easy compared to what they would have had. We were safe every day.” Mackay agrees: “It’s always a leveler – the story we are portraying is nothing to what those men would have gone through.”

The story of “1917″  follows two young British privates during the First World War attempting to deliver a message deep in enemy territory, The goal is to stop 1,600 men, including one of their brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap. Writer/director Sam Mendes was inspired by tales his grandfather told him as a kid. For Charles-Chapman, the story of “1917” is equally personal. “My great, great grandfather was in the cavalry in the first world war. He got shot and wounded and he laid out in no man’s land trying to survive for four days, He survived the war and worked in the first poppy factory that opened in Richmond in London until he died.”

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