“1917” is audacious cinema executed by masters at the top of their craft, and led by two young British actors who will go far: Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. “We finished this movie a week ago today,” Sam Mendes told a packed Sunday Academy and guild screening in Los Angeles. The weary director had jetted with his UK team from London to New York for a series of Saturday screenings which ignited the first tweet reactions, followed by Sunday’s equally enthusiastic Los Angeles round.
Mendes dedicates the film to his grandfather Alfred, who served in World War I, and did not speak about it for 50 years, until he shared stories with his grandchildren. One was about a man carrying a message, which formed the germ of Mendes’ first screenplay. He wrote that with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”) at the behest of his long-time CAA agent Beth Swofford, who told him after back-to-back Bond films “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” “get off your ass and write something yourself.”
“It was a hard movie to make, but incredibly rewarding,” Mendes told the crowd at the post-screening Q&A moderated by Vanity Fair’s Anthony Breznican, which also included the two lead actors, producer Pippa Harris, screenwriter Wilson-Cairns, composer Thomas Newman and jovial cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is likely to win his second Oscar.
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The single takes serve the story, as the viewer follows the action with the two young World War I British infantrymen assigned to carry an urgent message to the front line: Their army is about to enter a German trap. If the soldiers don’t reach the front by the next morning, 1600 men will die, including one of their brothers. We track the immersive action through two hours of seven-to-10-minute unbroken sequences through a landscape of destruction, artfully knit together in the editing room, our eyes anxiously searching the space for the next deadly rifle shot. The narrative is interrupted only once: The screen goes black when one of the soldiers is knocked out flat. We don’t know if he’s dead or alive. With two relative unknowns carrying the film, anything can happen. (Mendes joked: That’s why he did not cast Leonardo DiCaprio.)
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Post screening, Mendes and his team explained that they rehearsed and blocked on a London stage with cardboard boxes. Once in France, they precisely mapped out and timed the pre-planned sequences — at which point, production designer Dennis Gassner had to design and build on location to match. Harris said she couldn’t believe how long the trenches had to be– but if you’re not cutting away, you have to build the whole thing.
The scale of the bomb craters were monstrous, as was Gassner’s construction of a surreal French town that he built, then destroyed. In the film’s most stunning achievement, comparable to Gassner and Deakins’ collaboration with Denis Villeneuve in “Blade Runner 2049,” Deakins lights the town at night via intermittent (perfectly timed) flares and “the biggest single lighting fixture I ever created” — namely, a 360-degree burning church lit by 2000 1K bulbs with dimmers. The famed director of photography modeled the effect on “Jarhead,” when he staged oil rig lights on location and added CG fire in post.
Deakins deployed two skilled Steadicam operators as well as remote-controlled devices he controlled, with one stunning shot skimming across the water at the bottom of a crater captured by a remote camera on a wire. “I didn’t see my focus-puller for three months,” joked Deakins. “It was daunting from the first page, but so much fun. I love my job.”
For the camera operators, it meant slipping in mud, and getting shelled and battered. “It was a feat of endurance for the crew,” said Mendes.
The movie moves pell-mell from the trenches through no-man’s-land and the German front line, with unseen danger at every turn. The actors had to execute on a dime, but after months of rehearsals it felt liberating. “It was the most mutual and collaborative thing I’ve ever done,” said MacKay (“Captain Fantastic”), who could be a long-shot entrant in the lead actor race.
Added Chapman, “We were very stressed. It wasn’t easy. It felt like the first time doing it on the day.” They don’t talk much, and do a lot of running. The last 45 minutes of the film boasts only 20 lines of dialogue.
After each take, the actors trudged back to the starting line to repeat the entire shot. Sometimes they were so far away that they couldn’t hear the director call “cut.” Sometimes they did 20 takes. “We were releasing them, off you go,” said Mendes, “to give them the freedom and confidence to be able to do it without even thinking.” There were as many “happy accidents” as mistakes, he said.
“1917” jumps to the head of a crowded field of Oscar contenders, and will land likely nominations for directing, cinematography, picture, score, sound mixing and editing, and production design. Think “Dunkirk” or “The Revenant,” which are similar serious action dramas achieved with extraordinary skill. If “1917” were to win Best Picture, it would follow 20 years after Mendes’ debut feature, “American Beauty.” That’s never happened before.
“It’s a good year,” one Academy member said on the way out of the screening. People are buzzing about Netflix’s actor-friendly entries: Martin Scorsese’s frontrunner “The Irishman” also boasts technological innovation (de-aging leads Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), and hits streaming over the Thanksgiving holiday, Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Eddie Murphy vehicle “Dolemite Is My Name,” and two-hander “The Two Popes,” starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. But in a competitive year, despite Netflix’s mighty awards resources, these movies lack the momentum that comes from a box-office hit.
Other movies heading into the stretch are “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” from popular director Quentin Tarantino, another well-mounted period epic with stellar performances from DiCaprio and Supporting Actor frontrunner Brad Pitt. Still in the hunt are Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, as well as two beloved foreign-language contenders, Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain & Glory” starring Antonio Banderas, and Bong Joon Ho’s global hit “Parasite,” along with indie hits “The Farewell,” starring well-reviewed Awkwafina, “Harriet,” starring breakout Cynthia Erivo, and two movies starring Shia LaBeouf, “Honey Boy,” and “Peanut Butter Falcon.”
Opening soft is Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, which has been the focus of the ad campaign. The film earned strong reviews and an A Cinemascore, which should help pick up word of mouth.
Coming up strong at year’s end are Clint Eastwood’s true story “Richard Jewell,” starring “I, Tonya” discovery Paul Walter Hauser as the maligned hero of the 1996 Atlanta bombings. Eastwood knows what he’s doing; every detail builds to the right moment; his cast and crew deliver. But Eastwood’s customary restraint may not grab enough Oscar voters for the movie to squeak into some categories. Still, the Academy likes the 89-year-old filmmaker — see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Letter from Iwo Jima,” and most recently, “American Sniper.”
Similarly “Bombshell,” Charles Randolph and Jay Roach’s story of the women who rose against Fox News czar Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) is a winning crowdpleaser led by the mighty Charlize Theron, who could win the Best Actress race. It should also rack up some nominations.
Screening well are the Safdie brothers’ festival hit “Uncut Gems,” starring Adam Sandler, two death-row dramas, “Just Mercy” starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx and “Clemency,” starring Alfre Woodard, and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” starring Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, who should both land acting nominations.
The last movie to break is Tom Hooper’s extravagant musical “Cats,” which will squeak under the Golden Globes wire with a work-in-progress screening, as Universal hopes for some music nominations. Critics and the rest of the press will have to wait. Innovative VFX are forcing the director to push for the last, best possible furry creatures. “This isn’t ‘Les Miserables,'” said one Universal executive.