Sam Mendes on his single-take war movie '1917': 'It's not a comment on contemporary political events'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

On first glance, you might wonder why Sam Mendes chose to unveil the buzzy new trailer for his World War I drama 1917 at New York Comic Con. But when you learn the story behind the movie, you’ll realize that it took a superhuman effort to bring it to life. As conceived and executed by the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty and his crew, including legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, 1917 unfolds over the course of two hours in real time and in a single continuous shot. If Mendes is being honest, there are hidden cuts throughout the movie. But if he’s done his job right — and based on the footage we’ve seen so far, he definitely has — moviegoers will emerge from the theater believing they saw the entire story play out in one long take. “It said it on the front page of the script,” Mendes told an audience of press and fans before the new trailer premiered. “This movie was written and designed to be filmed in one continuous shot.”

At the same time, the director wants the audiences to be as equally entranced by the characters as they are by the filmmaking. And the new trailer (watch above) does provide more details about the narrative that Mendes and his co-writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, conceived. Loosely based on real events, the movie takes place on a single day in 1917 when British troops nearly walked into a German ambush on the Western Front. In the film, two soldiers — Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — are dispatched across enemy lines to warn a battalion of their brethren of the Germans’ plans. Colin Firth plays the officer who gives them their marching orders, and Benedict Cumberbatch plays a grizzled colonel who has clearly seen more than his fair share of wartime horrors.

Sam Mendes on the set of his single-take World War I movie '1917' (Photo: Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

Prior to the release of the new 1917 trailer at NYCC, Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Mendes about directing his first war movie, what it feels like to potentially be back in the Oscar race two decades after American Beauty and the secret Apocalypse Now homage people should watch out for.

Yahoo Entertainment: Based on the concept behind 1917, I feel like my first question has to be: what’s your favorite single-take sequence?

Sam Mendes: It’s a good question! I’ll probably get asked that a lot. I should think of more.

I just re-watched The Player recently. That opening eight-minute tracking shot is still fantastic.

That’s a great one. The way it goes in and out of the studio offices? I love it. I also love the opening of Boogie NightsTouch of Evil is an obvious one — they talk about it in The Player! Even though it’s not a long take, I love the tracking shot behind the tricycle in The Shining. It only lasts 30 seconds, but it’s so f****g tense. You’re just like, “Why am I absolutely terrified and nothing is happening?” [Laughs] That’s what it’s like to be in the hands of a master. The most famous one is probably the Goodfellas shot. That’s Scorsese at his most magnificently effortless. You’re so aware of the filmmaking, because there’s really nothing else going on in that shot except the environments, one after the other. You’ve just reminded me of the high bar we have to clear. Thanks for that!

Well, you’ve got to know what to compare yourself to.

Exactly, you’ve got to know what you’re not good enough to reach. [Laughs]

In your own work, the opening sequence of Spectre features a lengthy single take, with James Bond pursuing a target across rooftops in Mexico City.

Yes, it’s a seven or eight minute shot. At one point, I was going to do the whole sequence in one shot, and then it reached the point where it just didn’t want to be that anymore for the story. But that was helpful, because it made me aware that if you’re going to do something like that for the whole length of a movie, it has to be baked into the very DNA of the whole thing. It has to be part of the fabric of the story from the beginning. You can’t impose it — and that was the case with 1917.

It’s often said that it’s difficult to make a true anti-war film, because there’s that element of having to make it exciting for the audience. Is that something you wrestled with here: how to balance the horrors of war with the thrilling element of a ticking clock?

It’s always so tricky talking about a movie ahead of time — that’s a question I can answer with specifics when you’ve seen it! Right now, I’d have to answer, “Yes, but this!” [Laughs] I think that World War I is a war that on the whole is under-explored in film. It’s also a war that’s associated with stasis, paralysis, and claustrophobic enclosures. But that’s not what the movie is: through the micro-story of these two men, this movie seeks to expose you to the macro-picture, which is the scale of destruction that’s taken place in the three years since the war began. You see the lost world of Northern France: farm houses, industrial buildings, canals and all of those things. So when you see this movie, I don’t think that you’re going to feel it’s a glorification of what these boys went through.

At the same time, you are also seeking to grip people and make them willing participants [in the story]. So even though there’s an ordeal the characters have to go through, you don’t want watching the movie to be an ordeal. You want to take people with you. It’s always that balance between wanting to shock people at the scale of devastation and the horrors of war, but at the same time not repulse them or turn them off to the point where they no longer can look. I certainly feel that 1917 is dedicated to the selflessness of the people who fought in this particular war.

George McKay as one of the soldiers at the center of '1917' (Photo: Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

I’m sure you watched a number of war movies before embarking on making this one. Did you notice a difference in the films made by directors who experienced war firsthand — like John Ford or Sam Fuller — versus someone like Stanley Kubrick with Paths of Glory?

Not really. You are aware of those who have been to war, like Oliver Stone with Platoon. I remember knowing when I sat down to watch it that this was basically him, and of course you watch it differently then. But at the same time, Francis Ford Coppola was nowhere near the Vietnam War and he made the greatest war movie ever made with Apocalypse Now! I don’t ultimately believe that you have to live through it to make a movie about it. It helps, I’m sure! And you do feel the Kubrickian detachment in Paths of Glory, but that film is about the generals as much as it’s about the men. 1917 is ultimately not a political movie, nor is it a combat film about a particular battle. It’s its own beat, and it’s best judged when you see it.

Are there any parallels you’re hoping people might draw between World War I and the present day?

Put it this way: that’s not my motivating factor in making this movie. I think the concepts that we’re dealing with in the movie — selflessness and sacrifice on that level — are pretty much alien to us now. I speak for my generation and myself when I say that I can’t imagine how they did it. But I also think there’s something extraordinary about sacrificing yourself for a greater good. I think that’s something we’ve increasingly become less and less aware of. That’s also lucky for us, because our countries aren’t at war now! So I think there are parallels to be drawn if you want to draw them, but it’s not designed as a comment on contemporary political events.

But it’s potentially there if you want to see it.

Well, why do people go to see war movies and why do people make them? I think because you’re putting human beings in the most extreme conditions and stripping them down to the point where you’re finding out what it means to be human in the first place. It’s an attempt to talk about what it is to be alive rather than dead. That’s what the form of the war movie gives you. You don’t have to know anything about history, you just have to know that it’s about something bigger than the particular moment. That’s why we’re drawn to it: without sounding too pretentious, it’s about human beings in extremis and those are the points where we find out who we are.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie in '1917' (Photo: Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

You won an Oscar 20 years ago for your first feature film, American Beauty, and — not to jinx it — but you’ll probably be back in contention this year. How do you feel about that experience looking back on it now, while preparing to embark on it again?

It’s a weird dream, still! I feel now much more relaxed about everything, I think that’s fair to say. [Laughs] I feel like what I want most for this movie is that it finds an audience in a cinema. That’s why I love it and have dedicated two years of my life to it and I feel closer to it than anything I’ve ever done before. In many ways it’s a passion project. The rest of it is gravy. At the time, the chances of what happened to me with American Beauty were ridiculously slim, and I thank my lucky stars that it gave me the ability to make movies after that. For all that, I’m grateful for it — but it does seem like a long time ago!

Since you consider Apocalypse Now the greatest war movie ever made, are there any homages to it in 1917?

There’s definitely a moment where we all went, “That’s a bit too much like Apocalypse!” But I can’t say what it is — you’ll have to spot it when you go. It all popped into our heads at the same time, because the movie is so much a part of the culture. But there are no helicopters flying by playing Wagner.

Or you on camera shouting at the soldiers.

Yeah, right — going, “Go, go, go. Don’t stop!” [Laughs]

1917 opens in theaters on Dec. 25.

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