Production designer Dennis Gassner first became aware of “1917” when he received an unexpected email from director Sam Mendes after a roadtrip to Alaska: “Do not do the Bond film. I have a film — very ambitious — sending script.” When the script by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Caims arrived by email, he read it quickly on his cell phone, and was instantly intrigued about the World War I adventure.
So Gassner turned down “Bond 25” (“No Time to Die,” when Danny Boyle was still signed to direct) and threw himself into Mendes’ passion project, based on a fragment told to him by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, about two young British soldiers — Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — sent on a seemingly impossible mission to deliver a letter past No Man’s Land to prevent a battalion of 1,600 men from being ambushed by the Germans. The trick: Mendes wanted to shoot it as one continuous take with their creative partner in crime: legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. (Gassner and Deakins first worked together on the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink,” and were reunited with Mendes on “Jarhead” and “Skyfall.”)
“Sam said let’s do something interesting and that’s what it was: an interesting look into a world that is enormously horrific, but with a grace and style,” said Gassner, who designed a dangerous obstacle course for Schofield and Blake to run through as a choreographed dance with the camera. It was like two soldiers running through a fog of war that’s frozen in space.
“When I read the script, I said to my wife, Amy, I just read a dream,” Gassner said. “And when Sam asked me what I thought when we first met in his office, I told him that he dreamt his grandfather’s story and that’s what we should do. We were in a dreamstate during the shoot because of the movement of the camera.”
But everyone said it was impossible to shoot “1917” as a series of long takes (stitched together by editor Lee Smith and the VFX team at MPC Film). Fortunately, Gassner and Mendes had already succeeded in shooting the bravura “Day of the Dead” pre-credit Mexico sequence from “Spectre” in this fashion. In fact, that’s what planted the seed in Mendes’ mind when he proposed to Gassner that they shoot a whole film that way.
“You put that many experienced people together to solve a problem and you’re going to solve it,” Gassner said. “We had English winter, snow, everything was against us to try and get to a place where we knew what we were doing. Then we had to build it all and we lifted it right out of the history. I did it all in this massive sequence of concept art that Sam and Roger and I were involved with.”
Gassner visited the actual locations in Northern France, discovering, for example, that the trenches were made of chalk, and referenced about a hundred paintings from the period. He became an expert at mud, archaeology, and architecture. “We found the locations and had no idea what was under the grass and started digging and there was chalk,” he said. “We had been in mud clay forever and loved it. It was so unusual and we never expected it but that was the reality. The engineers who designed all these trenches made them a certain way. Using the narrative, we built them in the way that would tell the best story [5,200 feet at Bovingdon and Salisbury]. Every 10, 15 feet would be a habitat, it’s where people lived. There was so much detail that you went into a rapid pace…and it just kind of went by. It was more of an emotional feeling.
“After design, came the interfacing with Roger and the camera department [with lots of storyboarding]. We made adjustments and it was a giant piece of sculpture, sizing everything precisely to the camera. We looked at it and examined it and rehearsed it at least 25 times. Of course, lighting was the elephant in the room.”
But The Great War was fought under overcast skies and that’s the look Deakins achieved for the authentic exterior sets. In addition to the claustrophobic trenches, there was the creepy No Man’s Land (strewn with barbed wire, corpses, and craters) and a destroyed town. And they built the enormous village set with a burning church on the backlot of Shepperton Studios. Deakins lit the bizarre landscape with a giant lighting rig in concert with timed flares to create moving shadows for a hallucinatory effect.
“We had to design the entire city…150 buildings…and then we had to destroy it,” Gassner said. “The art department designed it in 3D modeling, and then we destroyed it, and then we built what we destroyed in the modeling. And then on site was the dressing and all the [period] pieces we had found on trips to France that we could bring in, and destroy all that. It was the same as everything else, a dance: running from one set to another. It was so well planned.”
And yet, despite the horrific devastation, there were hints of beauty everywhere, marked by the beginning and end of the journey beside two lovely trees. “That was intentional,” Gassner said. “All my crew ended up working on the Bond film and I had to choose a whole new crew in London. And the first thing I said was: ‘When in doubt, make everything beautiful.’ And that beauty was connected to the landscape of The Great War. There was no artifice. It was the Art of War. I remember walking with Roger after we shot on the last day. I looked and him and asked, ‘How are you doin’? He said: ‘I don’t know how we did this, man. I can’t even remember yesterday.’ It was like fighting a war.”