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Sam Mendes on the making of his one-shot masterpiece 1917

It has picked up two of the biggest awards at the Golden Globes, is nominated for nine BAFTAs and looks set for Oscar success too.

But 1917 director Sir Sam Mendes has told Sky News that he questioned himself at times while making the critically acclaimed war epic.

The reason? The film is shot as if in one long take, using clever camera work and editing to create a sense of continuous motion – an incredible and difficult technical feat masterminded by Mendes and the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.

James Bond director Sam Mendes
Image: Mendes is best known for Spectre and Skyfall, and also won an Oscar for American Beauty in 2000

1917 tells the story of two young soldiers who have been given an almost impossible mission to save their comrades during the First World War.

The film’s production notes explain that it was not shot in one take, but rather “filmed in a series of extended, uncut takes that could be connected seamlessly to look and feel as if it is one continuous shot”.

Mendes admits the method was “stressful” and that “pretty much every day at some point I thought, why have I done this myself?”

“It would be so much easier to make this in a conventional way, you know?” he says. “[But] when you get the shot and these are long, long takes, it’s so exhilarating and so exciting that you want to do it again.”

The hard work and six months of rehearsals, which included daily military drills for the lead actors so they were used to the weight of the uniforms and weapons before filming began, have definitely paid off.

The film was named best drama and won Mendes the award for best director at the Golden Globes, and is also up for both best film and best director at the BAFTAs, as well as a host of other gongs.

Next week, it is expected to be included in the Oscar shortlists, too.

Mendes, who received his knighthood in the New Year Honours, says he was inspired by his work on the Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, with a similar technique used at the start of Spectre.

He says he wanted 1917 to be “immersive” and “to make it feel as if the audience is alongside these actors and experiencing time” with the characters.

“You know, just feeling every second passing, taking every step with them and understanding geography and distance and difficulty and all those things,” he says.

“It sort of just feels different when you know you’re not going to cut out, you’re not going to jump 100 yards, you’re not going to see a sudden God shot and see what they can’t see. You can only ever see what they can see…

“We didn’t want it to feel monotonous, you know, because in an epic film, you also want to see the vast – sort of almost through this keyhole of the two men’s experience – see the vast panorama of death. That was the First World War.”

Benedict Cumberbatch in 1917. Pic: E One
Image: Benedict Cumberbatch is part of the ensemble cast of 1917. Pic: eOne

The film stars George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman, who play the young men sent out to deliver an urgent message which could potentially save thousands of men heading out into battle.

Mackay agrees that the way the film is shot gives audiences an immersive experience. “You can’t leave these men… once you subconsciously understand this is in real time you know that whatever’s going on, however sort of treacherous or enjoyable, you can’t get away from it, you are with them all of the time,” he says.

“[Mendes] and [Deakins] never wanted it to be a gimmick of can we do this – it was purely the best way to tell the story.”

Chapman says the way the film was shot did bring its own unique problems.

English actors George MacKay (L) and Dean-Charles Chapman (R) arrive for the premiere of "1917" at the TCL Chinese theatre in Hollywood on December 18, 2019
Image: Stars George MacKay (left) and Dean-Charles Chapman pictured at the film’s LA premiere

“The last thing you want to do is forget a line or misplace a prop or something – be nine minutes into a scene and just cock it up,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to do that! But it happened.

“You know, what we had to do was just carry on. In the final cut of the film, there are mistakes in the film, whether its slips, trips, bumping into people, but that’s something that makes it authentic and realistic to how it would have been, because that was what was happening to us on the day.”

Mendes both wrote and directed 1917, alongside the script writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. It is an epic but also very personal tale inspired by stories Mendes’ grandfather told him about his own experiences of the war.

“I must have been about 11 or 12… but he hadn’t talked about it for 50 or 60 years and then only with his grandchildren, really,” he said.

“He used to wash his hands all the time. And I asked my dad, ‘why does granddad wash his hands?’ He says, because he remembers the mud of the trenches and he could never get his hands clean. And that really struck me as well, that it was still in his body, in every fibre of his being, almost unconsciously, even though it had been so long ago.”

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre
Image: Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre, which was directed by Mendes

Mendes’ grandfather told him one particular story about carrying a message through No Man’s Land in the mist at dusk.

“That was the little fragment that kept pulling at me. And when I finally sat down to write a screenplay, I found that that was the story I wanted to tell. But to take that and expand it, develop it into something, live, perhaps a little bit more epic.”

1917 also has an impressive ensemble cast which includes Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Colin Firth, and is released on 10 January.

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