The result is 1917, an audaciously thrilling First World War moviealready generating awards-season buzz both for its young English stars – George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman – and the technicians who allowed Mendes to tell the two-hour story as a single fluid shot.
In the hands of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (who won an Oscar for Blade Runner 2049), the camera picks out Lance Corporals Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman) in the opening scene and doesn’t look away until the credits roll. It is a few feet ahead of them as they force their way down trenches packed with weary, shell-shocked men; a few feet behind them as they crawl through barbed wire and rotting corpses in the charnel house of No Man’s Land. The audience feels it is travelling with the young protagonists every painful step of the way. Their mission – to head off an attack by a British division that is walking into a well-planned German ambush – seems to unfold in real time.
None of them were stories of heroism or bravery, or how he won his two medals. They mostly centred on luck and chance.
Mendes used a continuous, uninterrupted take for the opening scene of Spectre, when Daniel Craig’s 007 strolls through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead celebrations. For 1917 he wanted to make an entire film out of long shots lasting up to 10-minutes. These shots were then stitched together invisibly to create a narrative seemingly captured by a single travelling camera.
The technique required every scene to be shot with incredible precision so that two frames could be blended together seamlessly on screen. Mendes and his crew had to know the exact moment each scene would be spliced to the next as it could never be fixed in post-production with a cut to a different perspective.
Deakins, 70, thought it was an audacious idea at first. Single shot movies – the 2015 German crime thriller Victoria, for example – tend to use a small cast and crew and tightly controlled locations. Mendes wanted to apply a similar technique to a film featuring hundreds of extras shot mostly outdoors in the unpredictable British weather. “It [the idea of the single shot] was on the front page of the script, but I thought it was a typographic error or a figure of speech,” laughs Deakins. “I’d done long shots within a movie, but not an entire movie like this.”
Mendes admits there were times when the inability to cut away and combine several short takes was frustrating. A scene in a cellar between MacKay, a young French woman played by Claire Duburcq and an abandoned baby left in her care, was a good example. “We got a beautiful take and even the baby was amazing which is not something you can repeat,” he says. “The scene was six minutes long and in the last 10 seconds the camera operator tripped on the step. We spent two frustrating hours trying to recreate it.”
The key to success, says Mendes, was the careful rehearsal of actors. By the time filming began in painstakingly built mile-long trenches in Hertfordshire, the cast knew exactly how each scene would unfold and where the camera would be at any given moment. “It was like a big choreographed dance,” says 22-year-old Chapman.
As a director who learned his craft in the theatre – he directed Judi Dench in a West End production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard at the age of 24 – Mendes was relatively at ease with rehearsing and shooting these extended scenes. “I’m used to telling stories that last 2½ hours with no cuts,” he says. “So, I’m able to judge rhythm, tempo and overall shape without doing any editing – that’s not unfamiliar to me. I had to bring that to bear all the time on this film and mostly I was able to do it.”
While the techniques used to make 1917 are impressive, the success of any great war film – from All Quiet on the Western Front to Apocalypse Now – lies with the script and actors rather thancamera technology and clever editing. Mendes could have had his pick of any of Hollywood’s young stars, but chose MacKay and Chapman, two young men at the beginning of their careers. That’s partly because the soldiers they play are young – the average age of men enlisting in the First World War was 24 to 25 – but also because their relative anonymity served his purpose.
“Casting unknowns gives you a nice freedom,” says Mendes. “You don’t know if one of them or both of them are going to die. You’re just completely adrift with them in this landscape and don’t know what to expect.”
The film isn’t without stars, but they are in supporting roles; Colin Firth is General Erinmore, the man who sends Schofield and Blake on their dangerous mission, Andrew Scott (Fleabag’s “sexy priest”) is a war-weary officer and Benedict Cumberbatch plays the gimlet-eyed colonel leading 2nd Battalion into the jaws of the German ambush.
Chapman says the open, loquacious Blake and the more withdrawn Schofield are instantly relatable because they’re “just two normal human beings. They’re not superheroes and they don’t have superpowers,” he says. “They’re just two random soldiers telling their story in a very human way.”
Perhaps so. But the sight of MacKay running at full pelt across no man’s land just as the British troops launch an attack on the German trenches – a signature scene that features in the 1917 trailer – is stirring stuff. It recalls the best work of British director David Lean, the master of large-scale epics including Lawrence of Arabia.
Mendes says he had just three takes to capture the heroic 300-metre sprint because of the extended time it took to reload the pyrotechnics used to simulate exploding artillery shells. The heart-stopping moment when MacKay is knocked off his feet by a charging British soldier, but gets up and keeps running, was a “lucky accident”, says the director.
Mendes says he is re-focussing his attention on theatre for the foreseeable future. He has shepherded his production of The Ferryman from London to New York and will do the same for The Lehman Trilogy, another of his stage successes. “I’m looking forward to the calmness of a theatre rehearsal,” he says smiling. “After that I don’t know; a bit of time off perhaps. I need to work out what I want to say next. That’s the thing about 1917 – it was so lovely to find something that I wanted to say and something that I meant. I really did mean this.”