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‘1917’: Sam Mendes Explains the ‘Emotional Choice’ to Design His War Epic As a Single-Take Drama

As has been long-rumored, the filmmaker's next film will play out in real time and is designed to look as if it was filmed in a single shot.




As has been long rumored, Sam Mendes’ upcoming war epic “1917” will tell a pulse-pounding story in ambitious fashion, with the filmmaker opting to design the film to play out in real time and to appear as a single, continuous shot. In a revealing new interview with Vanity Fair, Mendes explains that the decision to tell the story of a pair of British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) as they race against time (and across enemy lines) to deliver a key message in such an ambitious way sprung from his emotional attachment to the tale and its characters. The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Andrew Scott, and Mark Strong.

“It was fundamentally an emotional choice,” Mendes told Vanity Fair. “I wanted to travel every step with these men — to breathe every breath with them. It needed to be visceral and immersive. What they are asked to do is almost impossibly difficult. The way the movie is made is designed to bring you as close as possible to that experience.”

That doesn’t mean it was an easy choice, however, and Mendes told the outlet that he spent nine months working with lauded Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins to prep for the undertaking. While Mendes is shy about divulging where any actual cuts were made (he joked to the outlet, “What cuts?”), Vanity Fair has also unspooled a behind-the-scenes video that dives deeper into the inherent challenges of such a shoot.

Single-take films — or, at least, films made to look as if they were made in just one take — aren’t new in Hollywood, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” to recent Oscar winner “Birdman,” but “1917” boasts an “epic scale” that follows its two main characters as they “[journey] across a vast and chaotic outdoor landscape.” “The movie is essentially linear, and moves through a huge variety of different locations,” Mendes told VF. “From the trenches, to No Man’s Land, to open countryside, farmland, orchards, rivers, woods, and bombed-out towns. It bears witness to the staggering destruction wrought by the war, and yet it is a fundamentally human story about two young and inexperienced soldiers racing against the clock. So it adheres more to the form of a thriller than a conventional war movie.”

It’s an ask that required nerves, smarts, and some nimble moves from every member on set. From the locations (“every location had to be exactly the correct length for the scene. We had to walk every step the characters would take long before we designed the sets and built them,” Mendes explained) to the cameras (the filmmaker said the Arri Alexa Mini LF made the film possible) and even the screenplay (there were two scripts, one with the usual dialogue and movement notations, another that was “made up entirely of schematics and maps” to plot out everyone’s moves), “1917” was in many ways a grand experiment. We’ll see how that plays out when the film arrives in theaters later this year.

Head over to Vanity Fair to read the full article and check out a new four minute video below which goes deeper into Mendes’ filmmaking process.

“1917” opens in limited release on December 25 and expands wide on January 10.

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