The World War I epic 1917 is so much more than the sum of its single-take gimmick. The film is the story of two brave Lance Corporals — Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, from Blinded by the Light and Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay, of Captain Fantastic and Ophelia), who make an arduous and tense trek across what is supposed to be one active battlefield after another. The two young British soldiers are asked to deliver a message to the front line of a battle that is expected to launch the following morning. The message is meant to stop the 1,600 troops from charging into a trap that will result in the massacre of most of the men, one of whom is Blake’s brother. Along their journey, the pair stumble upon what is essentially the totality of the war experience at the time — when men with guns on horses were just beginning to be replaced by massively destructive tanks. As a result, the film gets more unbearably immediate with each passing minute.
This outstanding technical and heartfelt achievement comes courtesy of director/co-writer Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, Revolutionary Road), who rehearsed both the geographic and emotional beats more like a stage play than a film where editing can be used to hide mistakes or combine the best parts of multiple takes. But by constructing 1917 to look like a single take, many of his directing tools were stripped away, leaving only the performances to carry the weight of this devastating story.
/Film spoke with stars Chapman and MacKay in Chicago recently to discuss how they made personal connections to a World War I story, the months-long rehearsal process that was required to pull off the single-take appearance of the film, and remembering the emotional heart of the story as well as their choreographed movement.
Whenever a filmmaker makes a period film, I always want to know why they think it’s important to tell that story today. And Sam Mendes told me one of the reasons was to preserve these stories, since they aren’t really in anyone’s living memories any longer. Did either of you have any particular attachment to this war prior to becoming a part of this?
Dean-Charles: Yeah, I read a book called “The Western Front Diaries,” just snippets of diary entires from soldiers who fought in the war. And I actually found out that my great-great grandfather had a diary entry in that book, but I didn’t know that until I asked questions, and my mom and dad asked their moms and dads. He talked about how he fought in the cavalry and he was shot and paralyzed in No Man’s Land, and he survived out there for four days trying to get back to the British side. He survived the war, and he worked in the first Poppy Factory [where remembrance poppies are made] that opened in London until he died. Just reading that story and knowing I had an ancestor and knew his story made me feel so much more connected to Blake.
George: The only one that I know of — who I never met and only found out a little while ago — my dad is Australian, and his granddad came across from Ireland when he was 14, and only a few years after he got to Australia, he joined the Australian forces and fought there in the war and made it home again. That’s all I know about.
I’d love to say you made this look easy, but you made it look very difficult. Was there a particular sequence that was particularly disgusting? I could smell this movie. The sequence that got me was when George cut his hand on the barbed wire and then two seconds later you put it right through the chest of a mushy corpse, and I thought, “Well, that’s going to get infected now.”
George: It’s funny you mention smelling that scene because the spine of all of this is the beautiful script that Krysty and Sam wrote, and that in itself is a piece of art in terms of it has to have all of the information for every department, because it was such a mutual process. But then by the same token, they have to distill it all so that it’s not all stage directions. Krysty said she borrowed from a first-person account, the description of that moment, and I remember that line said, “Blake knocks into Schofield, who puts his hand through the back of a man, the consistency of Camembert [cheese].” That’s how she described it in the script, and you can taste it and smell it, and you know exactly what that looks and feels like, and it’s just one word that encapsulates all of it.
Dean-Charles: It’s really hard to put you hand on just one thing, because all of it was really challenging. But that No Man’s Land bit, particularly for me, was very difficult because the conditions we were in were so realistic. None of it was really made easy for us or even the cameramen — they’re walking on the same mud as we are, and the mud is not like normal mud; it’s the equivalent of walking on ice, that’s how slippery it was. There’s a bit in that scene where the camera lowers down to look at Blake and Schofield’s feet, and they are just slipping everywhere, and that’s not us pretending; that’s us genuinely trying to walk. So that was very difficult, and the rigs and angles they pulled off in that shot just blew my mind.
In a film that’s 90 percent walking, the way your feet are behaving or not behaving is the driving force of this whole story. You rehearsed this for a really long time, almost like a play. What did the rehearsal look like? Were things mapped out already, or did you have to figure out distances?
George: It looked like a bunch of really eccentric people walking across a field. Obviously, the reason we had such a long time rehearsing is that that time is usually spent on the editing and sound. In the edit, you craft the rhythm and the pace, but you can’t do that when you’re just slotting together long sequences, especially when they’re sliced together to look like one shot. Every line, every moment, every yard of the film has to be figured out before we get to shooting. That’s what the process was, layer by layer.
The first thing we did was take the script and we go to an empty field that would become the location, and just walk out the scenes and play the scenes, script in hand, and then when we’d learned our lines, we’d play and suss out the rhythm of it. Basically, because we’re all on the move, the scene needs to be exactly the length of the set, and the set needs to be exactly the length of the scene. So we have to make all the creative decisions, like, “Are we walking or are we jogging? How much stuff is coming the other way? When that line comes, how long is the silence that follows?” That silence at a jog covers 50 meters; that silence at a fast walk will cover 35 meters.
So we had to make all of those decisions gradually, including with Roger [Deakins, cinematographer] and his camera operators: how are we going to film it? At certain points emotionally, the camera wants to come around [to see our faces], so we have to ask the production designers, how can we make the set facilitate that? Do we need to put in a shell hole in the trench where it’s blown out to allow the guys, without noticing, be seen from front to back? At no other point could you do that. It’s this layer by layer, and it wasn’t “scene, camera, set”; I was a constant fluid handoff.
It’s amazing how much you two have to know how and where sets are built. Actors don’t usually have to deal with those decisions. How are you ever going to go back to making a normal movie where the sets are built before you ever arrive?
Dean-Charles: It’s going to be weird. Neither of us have made another movie since this either, so it is going to be weird, but I’m just so thankful that we got to experience it and work with Sam and Roger, who are so good at what they do and are so inspiring; they are inspiring me.
There are departments working together on this that sometimes that never cross paths in a film’s production — another reason it feels like theater.
George: I guess that’s why Sam is masterful. He knows that with theater. It’s lovely doing this press and hearing him talk about it, about controlling the emotional rhythm of anything for two-and-a-half hours. How do you build tension without you not even knowing that the tension is built and then hit you with something? He’s a master craftsman.
You’re so busy worrying about the choreography of each scene, was it more difficult to hold onto the emotional core of this exercise?
Dean-Charles: The thing is, with these one continuous takes — the longest one we did was nine minutes long — as an actor, you get completely lost in that, so even if you know you’ve been rehearsing for six months, and you’re rehearsed 20 more times on that filming day before you took one take, it’s still feels so realistic, and you don’t feel like you’ve rehearsed it at all. You just get completely lost and finding that balance between what you’ve rehearsed and reacting the way the characters would react and being human and natural about it. The emotional thing never felt robotic; it felt realistic and lived in.
George: It’s kind of like, you know it so well that it’s in your muscle memory. When we talk about the scale and the choreography, you forget that it was all built very gradually. It’s like you’re able to have a phone conversation on your way to work because you don’t need to think about which left or right you’re taking because you do it every day, and it was like that with the rehearsal process. We knew these steps so it didn’t feel deadened, but you know intuitively where the route was. Also that route had been a fluid process of working out what felt best. It wasn’t like on the first day we went, “Okay, these are the step, now you have six months to learn them.” It took three months to build the steps, if you know what I mean.
The thing I couldn’t stop thinking about as I watched this film is that you two went through this together; this is going to bond you forever. Nobody else is going to get to experience something exactly like this as film actors. Does that mean something to you?
George: Oh yeah, of course. As you say, we went through this together, and it bonds you all the more when you go through so many new things, and you go through something unknown together, you have your ups and downs. It’s completely unique, and I’m going to make him blush, but to do it with Dean is such a privilege and honor. At his core, he is just good and so in the moment when he’s working, so brilliant and such a craftsman and has such high standards about his own work, and it’s inspiring to be around. The immediacy with which Dean acts and the natural and truthful way he acts, when you’re surrounded by so much technicality, it’s essential. So I couldn’t have done it without him.
Dean-Charles: And I couldn’t have done it without George. George is an actor who gives 100 million percent with every single inch of him. And to be able to go through it together, and as you said, there are not a lot of actors who will experience doing a one-take film, so we’re the only ones who knew what we were feeling and what we were going through. And at the end of the day, if we knew we both had a hard day, we were like “Wanna get a bit of food?”
How do you feel like this whole experience changed you?
George: Well, there’s work, and there’s life stuff. In the work, with our roles as actors, you sometimes understand that the more focused you are on the character, the more that your understanding is pure, the better it is. I think that’s true sometimes, in moments, but the fact that we had no choice but to have a very collaborative experience and be aware of everyone’s role on the set because they were aware of our roles. And it was a very mutual, fluid handoff and you had to have an inside/outside perspective on every scene; you were simultaneously lost in it but also aware of what the camera operator was doing. You were a small part of this story; the story wasn’t about you. That’s been a really healthy work lesson, learning about collaboration.
And then just in life, the story in general is about humans being stretched, and when that happens, it’s the test of what it is to be human. How far can a human go, physically, emotionally? And the experience was that to an extent, and the story very much is that and doing that in service of something else. And what that thing is usually is what means most to you, like your values and who you love; that was the process of making it clearer to me.
Dean-Charles: What George said about the collaboration with the other department is like nothing you see ever, on any other job. And really, I learned a lot about acting; I know that sounds stupid, but I learned so much and I walked away with so much knowledge of every department. And filming this film, I had a lot of reality checks about this world we’re living in now. We’ve got it so much easier compared to how they had it, and to be so thankful for that and take every day and live it and regret nothing and live every single second of your life. And remember the men who sacrificed.
Well, congratulations to both of you. Best of luck. Thanks for your time.
George: Great to meet you.
1917 is in theaters now.
Source: Slash Film