“It’s really complicated. I’m not religious but it requires a lot of praying,” said cinematographer Roger Deakins about the challenges of shooting “1917,” especially outdoors. He has shot war films before (“Courage Under Fire,” “Jarhead”), but the difference is that this one was conceived as a single continuous shot. After much anticipation the film was finally unveiled to press and industry members on Saturday, November 23, at the DGA Theater in New York City. Watch some of Deakins’s Q&A with director Sam Mendes, lead actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and producer Pippa Harris above.
The film follows MacKay and Chapman as a pair of young British soldiers tasked with delivering a message warning of a German trap that would lead to the certain deaths of more than a thousand men. But the rehearsal process started long before shooting. Chapman explained, “We started six months before we actually started shooting … but the whole one-shot thing, I mean, I found it very beneficial as an actor because it allows you to jest become fully immersed in what you’re doing.”
MacKay added, “It’s the most mutual experience I’ve ever had on a job because everything has got to be in harmony … You affect how the camera moves and the camera affects how you move.”
The work behind the scenes was just as labor-intensive. For Wilson-Cairns, “it completely changes your approach to the script because you need a story that exists in real time; has a beginning, middle, and end; and feels satisfying.” Harris remembered, “We built about a mile of trenches in all” with production designer Dennis Gassner, and they had to dig even more if Mendes decided it wasn’t long enough for the duration of a particular scene.
And Deakins remembered one shot in particular following MacKay as he runs alongside a trench: “One shot we did … starts on a 50-foot technocrane with the camera on it stabilized head … Then George gets up at the top of the trench. The grips take the camera off the crane and a whole load of guys are hanging on the crane because of the weight difference … As he starting to run they hook it onto another crane … and then those guys run across the shot because they’re in costume … and the tracking rig tears off down the lane for like 300 yards or something. Then at the end George runs in the trench, and the camera is on this arm on the tracking vehicle and the arm pushes out, and we get down into the trench with him.”
Whew — and all that was just for one shot. Imagine all the others.
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