First Interview: Sam Mendes Launches Final Major Oscar Contender In WWI Epic ‘1917’ – Deadline

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EXCLUSIVE: Landing in New York last night on a UK flight before a whirlwind weekend where he is unveiling 1917 to guild members here and in Los Angeles, Sam Mendes gave Deadline his first one-on-one interview about the final highly anticipated awards season film to be seen by voters. He locked print just in time; Universal releases the DreamWorks/Amblin Partners film in a qualifying run December 25 before it opens wide January 10, with a December 4 Royal Premiere with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles preceding.

Despite the long flight, Mendes was eager to discuss the first film he has co-written, a testament of the bravery of British soldiers in WWI that films like Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan conveyed about soldiers in WWII. The premise scripted by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns seems simple enough. Two young soldiers – played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman — are given eight hours to run miles across German territory and deliver a message to another British front line to stop an imminent British attack that will lead 1600 soldiers into a trap, with both brother of one of the messengers certain to among the massacred soldiers if he doesn’t get there in time.

The method of executing this simple premise was far more complicated for Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakins. The director’s decision to film the entire picture as one continuous shot where the camera never leaves the POV of the soldiers, made for arduous prep. But it unlocked the elusive cinematic potential that has been in the back of Mendes’ mind since hearing personal WWI stories from his grandfather, who served as a soldier/messenger on the front lines in WWI. After trying the one shot technique in the extended opening scene of the James Bond film Spectre, Mendes thought shooting an entire movie that way was the most effective approach to capture the hellish reality of trench warfare and the sophisticated artillery that defined WWI, along with the selflessness and patriotism of soldiers who fought and died by the thousands as ground was gained and lost, yards at a time. Here, Mendes tells Deadline how he pulled off an epic cinematic magic trick that should land his film squarely in the awards race despite being a bit late to the party.

DEADLINE: Most of the big Oscar hopeful films announced themselves at fall festivals. How did this become the last unseen major Oscar season film?

1917 Sam Mendes talks to the crew. (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)1917 Sam Mendes talks to the crew. (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)
Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal

SAM MENDES: We only started shooting on the first of April, this year. By the standards of a big movie, this was a very compressed post. We literally finished five days ago, working on the music and visual effects right up until the last minute. Having been through two very compressed post schedules on James Bond, I took the risk. I thought with this one, I could probably get it there. It was really hard, and touch and go where I thought, are we going to make this or not? We weren’t being coy…

DEADLINE: You mean in holding back your film until late November?

MENDES: We were just not ready. I would have loved to have had it ready a month ago, and could have just screened the bejeesus out of it. But I’m a big believer in healthy momentum with the creative part of the process. That fueled us. There are several people who are obvious front and center heroes of the process. [Cinematographer] Roger Deakins, George MacKay, Dean Chapman and [composer] Tom Newman. The hidden hero here is Lee Smith, the editor. You would think in a one shot movie that his job was fairly limited, but it was pivotal. He was putting the movie together while we were shooting so I was able to watch the first ten minutes, then the first twenty minutes. He worked very hard at scoring it and giving it sound and we’d go back and forth with notes. The movie, which was shot almost entirely in continuity, gradually emerged out of the mist. Because I felt like that was happening as we were doing it, I felt increasingly confident that we wouldn’t need the ten weeks one normally has, to edit the movie. Instead, we could be working on sound, music and visual effects. That was very important when we posted the movie as we shot it. All the muscles you normally use in post and editorial, I was using while we were shooting. The one thing you can do is adjust rhythm and pace, and I had to know it was exactly as I wanted it, before I moved on.

DEADLINE: 1917 was like watching Frodo and Sam bring the ring to Mordor, only they had two days to cover a shorter distance while being shot at by Germans in enemy territory. Coming off two James Bond blockbusters, what challenge were you looking for that led you to do this one shot movie?

MENDES: I didn’t want to direct anything at all after the last Bond movie. I was exhausted. When that happens, I tend to go back to the theater. I did The Ferryman and the Lehman Trilogy. Two plays in three years is by my standards a relatively light work load. I couldn’t find anything I wanted to direct. If you compared the available interesting movie scripts that are doing the rounds, there are probably 1/20th the good projects that were available 20 years ago. All of them now are in television but as a director, I have struggled with the long form television series and haven’t been interested. I like the two or two and one-half hour format. I like an audience to go in, have the whole experience together as a group, and come out and be able to talk about the whole story. It was actually Beth Swofford who said, ‘why don’t you just write a script? You keep saying you want to write something, why don’t you?’ And I did have this one idea.

DEADLINE: Where did it come from?

1917 Audio technicians prepare for a scene. (Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)1917 Audio technicians prepare for a scene. (Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)
Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal

MENDES: The idea was loosely based on a story my grandfather told me. The movie is dedicated to him.

DEADLINE: I saw that. Who exactly is Alfred H. Mendes?

MENDES: My grandfather fought in the First World War. He was very young, and small and very fast. He was given the job of carrying messages on the Western front. I won’t go into specific detail about what things in the movie were specifically influenced by what told me, but there are several. The characters George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play are not my grandfather. But the spirit of what he told me and the central idea of a man carrying a message wouldn’t leave me. It just clung on in there somehow, for the last 50 years.

DEADLINE: We often hear that soldiers carried their PTSD quietly and didn’t speak of their war experiences, especially back then. What kind of things did your grandfather tell you? Were there more specifics that unlocked 1917?

MENDES: It was more this image of a man. It’s a good question actually. There were clear behavioral tics he had, that went way back to the First World War. One of them was, he washed his hands incessantly. And when he did that, he washed them for a very long time. I asked my dad when I was ten or eleven: why does granddad wash for so long? He told me it was because he remembers the mud of the trenches, when he could never get clean. I said, what were the trenches?

And he told me about the war. You and I were born in peace time. I had never even considered the possibility that someone I knew had fought in a war. That was when it first entered my consciousness. I always had a fascination with that war and I think you will find there is an enormous subculture of people who are particularly fascinated in the Great War, the First World War. Partly because of where it sits historically. You’ve got that moment where you start with horses and infantry and end with tanks and planes, the beginning of modern warfare…

DEADLINE: A collision of political ambition and the industrial revolution?

MENDES: That’s very well put. That was the thing that hooked me. I’d always been fascinated with finding in a movie…you are always looking for a perfect form, a shape. I felt when I did the first eight minutes of Spectre, which was that one shot, I wondered if I could do a whole film like this. I was inspired by other people who’ve done something similar…

DEADLINE: Like?

Fox Searchlight

MENDES: The obvious one recently was Birdman, which I thought was wonderful. In its nature it’s a quite different movie. Birdman is almost a circle; you’re going through the same corridors, the same stage. It’s like a state of mind, almost. It was comedic in many ways and it was almost a piece of magic realism in the way that Alejandro [Gonzalez Inarritu] can do. It opened with a man levitating, and talking to a figment of his mind. So it was more of a dream state. But technically I thought it was very beautiful. There were moments of Alfonso [Cuaron]’s Children of Men that I thought were pretty inspiring.

DEADLINE: 1917 also reminded me of Apocalypto, which was…

MENDES: Headlong.

DEADLINE: And propulsive, with one impossible obstacle to survive after another. You mentioned Birdman. You and Alejandro are true storytellers, not gimmicky filmmakers. What did the one shot technique provide in the service of storytelling?

MENDES: I didn’t think much about Birdman when I was making the film. In fact, and I think Roger would agree, we didn’t talk much about any specific film. When we worked together in the past we’d have much more references from other movies, but here we kept saying, this is not like anything we’ve ever done before. It observed a different set of rules. What I wanted was a kind of quality of dream, but with the status of reality. I also wanted — and I believe this is how to tell sometimes stories and moments of great historic magnitude — to look through a tiny keyhole into a vast panorama to use the micro to tell the macro story. I did feel, if we could just understand what these two hours of real time meant for these men, we might somehow begin to reimagine that war in a contemporary way.

That for me was why I had been drawn to that war and telling the story in this way. I wanted to feel like we were connected to the central characters in an emotional way. I felt there was a way to construct this shot. The normal grammar of filmmaking is, we cut wide for geography and cut tight for emotion. I thought there was a way to construct this shot, which did all of those things, without ever cutting. A lot of it was having the confidence to know what you didn’t want to show, and believing that not showing things can add to the tension, rather than subtract. What I didn’t want — and we talked about a lot –was to feel in any way that the shot was self advertising; look at this, look at what the camera is doing. I wanted you to forget about the camera and for it to simply be about these two men.

1917 - Sam Mendes is shown with the cast and crew. (Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)1917 - Sam Mendes is shown with the cast and crew. (Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)
Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal

But there is something that happens, I hope, in the lack of editorial space. When you make a cut, your brain removes itself immediately from the reality of the situation, ever slightly. It’s like you are given a tiny pocket of air between you and the image. But if there is no cut, what happens to your brain and the way you receive the information? That is something we were really exploring. The big difficulty, as you put it just then, a lot of it is headlong and you are moving with speed through different events. But a lot of the movie is quite quiet. There is a scene in the woods with a soldier singing a song. There are long stretches where no one speaks. The second half of the movie has maybe 12 lines of dialogue. It’s a visual story, in many ways.

When George’s character wakes up after blacking out and he doesn’t know where he is or what time of the day it is, the audience should feel like the ground is moving beneath their feet. You’re not quite sure: is he awake? Is he dreaming? Is he alive or dead? What time is it? The next day or two days later?

DEADLINE: There is discipline in the storytelling to fit the constant motion. Your main characters reveal only small parts of themselves in interludes between the action. We learn that George MacKay’s character has seen some of the trauma of war, and that Dean-Charles Chapman’s character hasn’t, and charges forward with a naivete and desire to save an older brother who is part of that other British unit being drawn into ambush. Your characters seem naïve until caught in the teeth of carnage…

MENDES: You had that in this country with Vietnam. These men didn’t join up; they were conscripted. It was a different kind of war, where they were told, you’re coming. They didn’t know, because the propaganda and the press at the time was determined to not reveal what was actually going on. So they went with a great deal of innocence. One of the things I loved about using the form here is, you did not need to know anything about the first World War to enjoy this movie. Even a movie like Dunkirk, which I admired tremendously, had to start with a description of what the hell were they doing there. The English have abandoned them and they’re in France and the Germans are …you know what I mean? You needed that to be able to understand that movie. But there’s something so pure about a date. It’s a day in 1917. That’s all you need to know. That form, and only learning about those characters when they come under pressure, when something is demanded of them, seemed to me a fascinating way to tell a story. To reveal information very slowly. So you’re constantly leaning in, waiting to find out, well who is that guy? These are our two central characters, but who the hell are they?

DEADLINE: Another genius plot mechanism is to have had the Germans abandon their trenches, and the lethal No Man’s Land between them that was littered with bodies. In Gallipoli, every time we saw those young Australian soldiers climb out of the trenches and over the wall, they were gunned down. Here you found a way for these men to come out and see the entire landscape.

MENDES: This was the most difficult thing to figure out. I decided I wanted to make a movie in the First World War about a man carrying a message. But the war was a war of paralysis, where nobody moved more than 200 yards. In fact, many people were celebrated for taking land that was 300 to 400 yards away. Millions of people, literally were killed over 300 yards of land; sometimes there was 150 yards between the two lines. It was entirely static in that regard, with very little movement back and forth.

1917 - A war scene from the film. (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)1917 - A war scene from the film. (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)
Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal

But then I discovered that in this period in 1917, the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line. They covered their tracks very well; they literally abandoned the existing line overnight, 42 miles worth of line and they were just gone. The British for a limited period did not know whether they had retreated or surrendered. The research shows everyone was disagreeing. Someone 100 yards away from someone else can have a completely different impression of what is going on. There was no communication. Everybody was in disagreement. So you have a dramatically wonderful situation, where you have a general say, they’ve gone, they’ve abandoned their position. Trust me, go across no man’s land. And 200 yards later, you will meet someone else saying, that’s absolute nonsense. You’re going to die if you go over the top. We did that last night, and we died. What the fuck are you doing? That’s indeed what happens to them. And you the audience should not know who is correct.

When I got that piece of information about the retreat of the Hindenburg, I immediately thought, well there’s the movie. The more you read, the more fascinating it is. [The Germans] destroyed the land [behind their line]; they cut down the trees, they killed the livestock and cattle. They destroyed anything of lasting value. They laid trees across the roads…

DEADLINE: Scorched earth…

MENDES: Absolute scorched earth. Retreated and left nothing behind. Except for some snipers, landmines, booby traps. They left enough to fuck them up. That stretch of the British army, it took them two months to advance to that new line. History is written by the victors, obviously. Had Germany won the war, the retreat to the Hindenburg Line, which was a brilliant military maneuver, would have been celebrated as one of the defining strokes of victory. As it happened, they didn’t win. But at the time it was touch and go and one of the reasons was they took an enormous stretch of line and reduced it to a much smaller area, incredibly well fortified and defended with huge deep lines of artillery. Three miles deep the lines were, and 42 miles wide.

The movie is a fiction based on a fact, like all of my favorite war literature movies. Like Apocalypse Now and All Quiet on the Western Front. These things historically are accurate but the characters are creations. I felt like what we could get through was something that allowed us to go through the strata of that war, like going through the circles of hell, section after section where the atmospheres change and shift. And what you think is going to be just a war with people in the mud, wasn’t that at all.

The trenches were dug in chalk and clay. No man’s land went through all shapes. Shell holes that were created by the Germans to stop the English from getting to their lines. They dug many miles of tunnels, underground. There were roads, destroyed towns and villages and forests, rivers and canals. This is the landscape these soldiers find themselves in and they couldn’t possibly have imagined it. They’d lived in these tiny little claustrophobic holes for years and suddenly they were cut adrift in this vast panorama of destruction and death. One of the most difficult things to express about the First World War is the scale, because the British and German lines are so close together. How do you express that?

DEADLINE: It is also a challenge to make those muddy trenches cinematic. When you told Roger Deakins you wanted to tell your WWI story in one continuous shot, what was he most hesitant, and excited about?

MENDES: I said, I’m going to send you a script and the front page of the script is going to make you laugh. He went, alright.

DEADLINE: What did it say?

MENDES: The front page said, ‘this movie takes place over two hours of real time and with one exception, it is written and designed to be one single shot.’ I didn’t want anyone under any illusions. In the way I had had that in my head before I ever put pen to paper, even with the first rough outline, this was going to be one shot, and real time, with one exception. Roger will always cut to the chase, and asked the elephant in the room question. When I first told him about Skyfall, he asked, ‘why do you want to do a Bond movie?’ I was very aware that despite our good relationship, he was going to do or not do it based on my answer. So it’s pretty tense. Here, he said, ‘why are you doing this one shot? This is a really good script. It doesn’t have to be one shot.’ I explained it to him. His main concern was, we wouldn’t just be trotting behind their heads, or pulling them in a straight line. How were we going to let the movie breathe in and breathe out. To suddenly see them at a distance and then get close. What was the dance of the camera? That for us, was prep, nine months of talking about how were we going to find a way to make this snake, this long thread, where the characters and the information you need as an audience just happen to fall in front of where the camera is pointing. And the information you don’t need, we were unafraid and unashamed to not show. That was the big discussion, it was everything. We storyboarded over and over with certain sequences, until we found the right version. I think there are six or seven storyboards of the scene crossing the canal, until we found it.

1917 Behind the scenes image. (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)1917 Behind the scenes image. (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)
Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal

We also had to measure the distance for every single thing. If you’ve written a scene that goes from a quarry to a woods, down a hill through an abandoned orchard, through a farmhouse and a barn, the dialogue has to last the length of the journey. And the journey cannot be longer than the dialogue, nor can the journey be shorter than the dialogue or they will be standing still and speaking. Every step of the journey had to be measured. We were out in the hills and fields of Salisbury Plain in England, walking with script in hand, months before we started shooting. And they were in costume and got so used to talking to each other and being in character and occupying the space, putting on the packs, the kit and holding their rifles, that when we came to shoot it, it was probably the sixth time they’d done it. From that respect it was more like doing a play, on a very long stage that went on and on.

DEADLINE: What happens if one of the actors screws up a line, or if things go awry with the explosions all around them as they are running for their lives?

MENDES: It happened plenty of times. We had to do every scene all the way through, until we got it exactly as I wanted it. Many times, there were happy accidents, and things that were magic, which is what happens when you recreate a slice of life. Every take was like a play in its own right, and if you made a mistake, we had to stop and go back to the beginning of the scene and do it again. On these six to nine minute takes, we did them 40 to 60 times.

DEADLINE: What was the most helpful thing you got from doing those Bond films? What was harder to do, and why?

MENDES: Gosh. One big thing was being in the writers’ room on the Bond film. That was very helpful because I’d never really put together a script from scratch before. Knowing that I could get it from nothing to a final movie, from page one, scene one…I’m not saying I wrote the Bond movie, but I was there with the writers. I midwifed it and that gave me the confidence I could create something from scratch.

MGM

Which was harder? Bond is harder because it is a marathon, and the amount of time it takes and the number of units. Here it was such a treat after Bond to work with one camera, all the time. But, this was much harder because I had no way out with no get out of jail card, ever. I had to be so vigilant. Was the rhythm right? Was it too fast, or slow? Is there enough information here? Have I gotten the performance I wanted? Does the background work? They pass by hundreds of people in the trenches. That feeling is like someone has their hands around your neck, every day, saying, you’d better get this right. Because if you don’t, there’s no way out. It’s a big fucking movie, not Bond scale but not far off. And you pushed really hard to have two actors who are perfect for the roles and deliver everything you want, but they’re not big names. So you’d better get this right. From that respect, I think there was more pressure on me in a weird way here. Bond is a different sort of pressure.

DEADLINE: The other thing is you relied a lot on natural light, and you had to wait for the sun to go away for continuity. As a Brit who grew up in the ever overcast and rainy UK, did you ever imagine you would be cursing at the sun, and rooting for the clouds?

MENDES: That was an unusual feeling.

DEADLINE: Seriously, what was the biggest hardship nature lay at your feet?

MENDES: Whatever it was, it was not even 1% of what was laid at the feet of the men who actually fought, and because of that, you just felt it was a walk in the park compared to what they had to do. Just in terms of understanding what they went through? You cannot stand up in that mud. You can’t stand up because the ground is constantly slipping away from under you and it doesn’t matter what kind of crampons you put on your feet. You go down, on a regular basis. I was covered in mud. But nobody complained because how could you? You knew that hundreds of thousands of people went through this for years. We were there a couple of weeks so it was no big deal.

In terms of physical hardship, there was a lot of being outside, and we covered a few miles each day, just walking and moving constantly. Technically, because you’re shooting 360 degrees often, we had to be a long way away from the action. Roger was operating remotely, in a tent a long way from where the camera operator was. He was operating it on wheels. We had six or seven different rigs that we shot on. That was tricky, not being near the actors and having to walk half a mile to give them a note, and then having to start again.

DEADLINE: Sounds like you had the same level of communications that the Brits had in WWI that forced your messengers to run behind German lines…

1917 Benedict Cumberbatch (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)1917 Benedict Cumberbatch (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)
Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal

MENDES: That’s right. None [laughs]. But that distant turned out to provide a wonderful freedom for actors. When you say action, they just go. They know unless they make an obvious mistake that you’re going to just keep going until the end of that scene. I am so familiar with that, in trusting actors in the theater. When I know something is properly prepared, it’s a wonderful thing to see it take wing. And a good actor will always take it somewhere better than you’ve imagined. And they did that here, consistently. And then you had actors like Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong and Richard Madden turning up for a couple days at a time, they were great. It was difficult for them to hit the bullseye in a short time, but I wanted that feeling, that you were intersecting with lives that were in many ways bigger than the lads were living. You only see those guys for a few minutes, but you got to believe you were part of a huge giant fabric of war that surrounded them.

1917 (Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)1917 (Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)
Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal

DEADLINE: Mark Strong has a line where he advises that the message be delivered in front of witnesses so the commander on the front lines doesn’t disregard it and attack anyway. You imagine being stuck for months in the same trench and suddenly seeing the opportunity to take all that space? Of course the commander played by Benedict Cumberbatch is going to be eager to charge…

MENDES: A lot of the men there at the time did. They thought, we’ve got them on the run. How can this be bad? Of course, the Germans knew they would be thinking that and so they were just waiting for them. It was an extremely brilliant military maneuver, just fascinating and extraordinary.

Universal

Every day, I thought about my granddad and what he went through and the descriptions he told me. He lost his best friend, to a direct shell hit, very much like a scene in the movie where Schofield encounters a captain who is just standing there, crying. And you just see it, bam. He evaporates. That is what happened by my granddad’s best friend and he wrote about it in his autobiography. He turned around and he was simply gone. There was nothing left of him, at all. My granddad was gassed and suffered all sorts of strange wounds. He was sent to the military hospital and was then sent back out to the front. But I think the point of it in so many ways, I speak entirely for myself, but we live in a selfish culture, and the idea of sacrifice on this level, for something bigger than yourself, seems to me to be something we have to acknowledge.

DEADLINE: It doesn’t exist, or at least not to that level, in today’s cynical world…

MENDES: Not really.

DEADLINE: It was striking that the young soldiers in this movie were not gung ho to kill German soldiers the way soldiers are depicted in WWII movies, when there was anger toward the Nazis and a job to be done. Your movie shows a group of young men who were told to show up, and told, I hope you come back. But you might not.

MENDES: This was a war where they played football with the enemy on Christmas Day, on No Man’s Land. There was a real sense of, look, we are just the same. There are moments where you see that what Schofield and Blake are encountering are shadow versions of themselves. Walk into that abandoned bombed out schoolhouse in the night and there’s a boy facing him who could just be another version of him, really. And it’s him or me.
One of the things I felt was very important was there is no baddie. I could have turned Colonel MacKenzie [Cumberbatch] into Kurtz, where he would have gone rogue and it would be about let’s find the guy who’s sending people over the top because he’s nuts. I thought, no. He too is just doing his best. They are all lost in the fog of war and none of them are wrong and none is entirely right. That is the complexity of that war in so many ways. They are fighting people who are struggling and doing exactly the same thing. Even when they are walking through the empty German trenches and Schofield walks by that photo of two kids. Just the shock of knowing there were people in that trench minutes ago who were exactly like him. If you go back and see the movie again, you will see all those echoes. I wanted it to be humane, and the baddies as they are, are invisible. They just disappeared, like phantoms.

DEADLINE: You mentioned breaking down the Bond script and learning enough from that process to co-write your first script here with Krysty Cairns-Wilson. I recall when you were a heralded theater director and made your film debut on American Beauty, a pretty flawless Best Picture winner by an artist who’d never directed a movie and also won the Best Director Oscar. I thought back to others who made such a stunning debut like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, and how it might be possible for you to peak so early. It sounds like what you’re saying here is that even the great Sam Mendes is learning, still.

MENDES: [He laughs]. Oh, yeah. Every movie, and I learned a huge amount from Bond. To respect the broader strokes of populist filmmaking. That muscle you build up of embracing a sort of genre movie, really helped with this. This is not a particularly genre-ish war movie, it’s a very unusual film in many ways.
But I felt like, when you’ve driven a car at 200 mph, you know the feel of that and you know how to get the best of it and to me that was a big thing. Also, I’ve tried not to make the same movie twice, and I know that sounds ironic in that I just made two Bond movies. The big struggle for me was how to make the second one a challenge and push it in different ways. I shot the first one digital and the second on film. The second was a romantic old school thing and the first was perhaps a bit more daring narratively. Other than that, each movie has been its own adventure. I do feel like this is the first time I’ve had something from the seed right through to the end, something that came directly out of my imagination.

DEADLINE: Did that make you take everything more personally?

MENDES: You feel more vulnerable. When I sent the script out to actors, I was checking my email every five minutes. Have they read it? What do they think? I’m more phlegmatic than that normally. This one? Do they like it? Are there notes? You become a bit more neurotic because these are your words and you’ve really put yourself out there, on paper.

DEADLINE: It also came from your grandfather’s story. Would you say you had more skin in the game here than on any movie you’ve made?

MENDES: By far. It takes quite a lot to make yourself vulnerable. But the other thing I brought was being back in the theater and giving the actors the courage and fuel they needed, to just go. And not to second guess themselves and cut loose in that landscape and that comes from me saying the same thing to the people going out on the stage every night, giving them that ability to self-generate and be self-sufficient. I’m giving you the tools you need to survive this journey. And I’ll see you at the end. I believe in you.

And their muscle memory built up and this became theirs, the way that the play becomes the actor’s. Go, you own it. We’ll just be here with the camera, and we’ll say, just wait a second longer here because the camera will just come around and catch that moment and what you’re doing over there. They became so confident in their own emotional journey, they can allow little technical moments and they can feel where the camera is and they get a sense of the dance between the camera, them, and the space. Which is the three things going on the whole time and the ground being the one that is changing. We are in nighttime, towns and rivers, woods, valleys and trenches and the river sequence…that was difficult.

DEADLINE: That seemed a tough sequence, but one byproduct of what you got in those landscapes with natural light was a look I would call singular, that I’ve never seen before in a film…

1917 - Sam Mendes directs a scene. (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)1917 - Sam Mendes directs a scene. (Credit: Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal)
Andrea Foster/NBCUniversal

MENDES: Singular is a good word. You don’t want to make claims on your own movie. What I’ve always wanted for this movie was for it to be seen by lots of people, and hopefully in a cinema. I don’t say that because I’m on any crusade, but because it’s an immersive experience in terms of sound and music. What our sound team and what Tom Newman has done with the score is wonderful. For me, singular is a good word. I don’t think I’m going to make another movie like this one. Hopefully, I’ve learned a few lessons I can take with me. I was struck watching The Revenant after Birdman. Alejandro did a lot of long takes, but it was not a one shot movie. I’m sure it changes the way you think about how the camera and the actors can interact.

After I finished, I was thinking, wow, once you’ve made a movie with no coverage, you think, this is great. You become aware of how you fall into a lazy-ish thought pattern of how you make your movies. Okay, I’ll do an over shot, then the close-up, then a two shot and a wide one from the corner of the room and maybe I’ll do a fancy shot coming through the window. And I’ll do that in the next scene and the one after. That happens, you get into a pattern you repeat because you can tell the story with those tools. When you remove those tools, it’s exhilarating and scary because you have no crutches anymore.

I wrapped [1917] and a couple weeks later was thinking, wow, it’s going to be tough, making another movie after this. I wonder what I’m going to do. And I got on a plane, and I watched Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. I thought, that’s how you make a movie, after this. You just make a fucking good one. That movie is so well made. Intensely cut, and at other times, he lets scenes play out, two, three minutes just in a simple take.

The answer is, you have to find the style that suits the material. It would be inappropriate to do a one shot movie on something like that, it would be meaningless. The form has to match the style and content. Those three things must be inextricably linked. I feel fortunate, like I found a story that responded to this idea of style. It would be naïve of me to assume I could do it with anything else.

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