1917 is a thrilling new World War I drama from Sam Mendes, the Academy Award-winning director behind American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, and Skyfall. The film stars George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones) as two British soldiers tasked with crossing into enemy territory to deliver an urgent message.
Mendes teamed up with screenwriter, Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), and legendary cinematographer, Roger Deakins (Fargo, Sicario), to create a movie unlike anything else in 2019. 1917 seamlessly unfolds in one long take without any apparent cuts, which means moviegoers experience the film along with the characters in real-time. This conceit leads to a visceral and immersive film that makes the audience feel like they’re right in the trenches alongside the soldiers.
1917 is an exhilarating watch and a technical marvel that required extraordinary effort in front of and behind the camera. MacKay, Chapman, and Wilson-Cairns passed through Toronto while promoting their film, and my inner movie nerd was chomping at the bit to discuss the story behind 1917 with its screenwriter and stars. Our conversation touched on adjusting to the film’s difficult filming process, dealing with self-doubt, and what this trio keep on their shelves.
Victor Stiff: Can I get one of you to describe 1917 to me, please?
Krysty Wilson-Cairns: 1917 is about two young soldiers who are given the impossible task to deliver a message through enemy lines across no man’s land when they’ve got no ideas where the Germans are. And what they’ve got to do is deliver this message in time to save 1600 lives. And if they fail, an entire battalion will be wiped out, including one of their brothers,
Dean-Charles Chapman: That’s really good.
KWC: I wrote it, I had to do good. The pressure was on.
VS: So, we’ll get to what sets this film apart from other movies stylistically in a minute. What do you think sets 1917 apart thematically and as a war movie?
George MacKay: It’s funny because I think war is… of course, it’s within the war genre, but the war is the context, and it’s the circumstance that provides the arena for humans to be physically and emotionally stretched to their limits. The war is the context that comments more about what it is to be human and the human experience.
KWC: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s not an accident in this war movie, it’s two men fighting to stop a battle. It doesn’t glorify war. We’re not interested in saying war is great and should happen. In a way, it’s a very anti-war movie.
VS: Can you tell me a little bit about joining the project?
DCC: I don’t know about Krysty, but we had to do the whole audition thing.
KWC: Me too.
DCC: We did three auditions in total. The first two auditions, we didn’t read a script. We only got sent, I got sent a scene, [George] got sent two scenes. But after reading those four or five pages, I had a good idea of what sort of man Blake was. I gave it a shot, but with an Irish accent. And then the second audition I found out that 1917 was going to be [shot] in one take. And then the third audition was the first time we met George.
VS: I’m really interested in performers and how you always have to modulate your performance for the medium. You act one way in theatre; you act differently in a sitcom than you would a horror movie. So, with the unique way 1917 was shot, there are so many times when the camera’s just floating behind your backs, or it’s so far away from you. How did you pitch your performance to be in sync with the style of this film?
GM: It’s a really interesting question. First and foremost, the kind of modulation is in that we were, you know, it may or may not be one actual take. And so we had to have in mind the beginning and end of each sequence was never a beginning and ending, it was within a greater moment. And so that in itself is just something to keep in mind.
I remember Sam saying to me, you would never get that kind of satisfied… “That was a day at work feeling.” He said, “You only feel that at the very end of the entire shoot.”
VS: That sounds daunting.
GM: Yeah, it’s exactly that. You’re part of a continuous moment. And that was a lovely lesson in acting in general, to not separate, because life is not… you don’t separate moments in life. Life, it just keeps flowing and then it’s in hindsight that you recognize the milestones. So it was that, and then, also, because we were collaborating with everyone, particularly the camera crew in what was being shown.
Sometimes we were very, unconscious of the camera and how it existed. And then other times, you had an awareness of what part of yourself you used to play the scene. So, if there’s no words and if the camera’s following you, there’s something that goes into the physicality of it and then sometimes if it’s dialogue, then it’s about the connection between yourself as characters in the script, having an inside-outside view. And it’s funny because it was both, let’s just play the moment and being natural and now and again having a sense of how you were being seen too.
VS: As a writer, how do you rise to that challenge. It’s against screenwriting etiquette to put too much direction in the script, but knowing that 1917 won’t be shot with the usual close-ups and establishing shots, how do you deal with that?
KWC: It changes literally every part of the writing of it. There are two distinct challenges. The first one is you’re telling a story in real-time. And if you take your own life as an example, do you have any kind of minute-to-minute window that has a beginning, a middle and end, a satisfying character arc, a couple of action set pieces and is worth a $90 million-like movie budget? And the answer for me is no, I don’t know… you guys may lead way more interesting lives, but that wasn’t me.
And so everyone who was going to sit and watch this film, all of the audience members have a natural feeling for how far you can push reality before they would peel back and go, no, that’s not possible in that time period, or they couldn’t survive it, or they couldn’t just process it. So you have that task of telling a story in real-time, and then you have the other task of how to write a screenplay that is one shot, and then I could get into a huge amount of detail about that, I’ll sum it up as, it’s pretty tricky.
VS: So, what was a good day at work for you? What did it take for you to home and feel satisfied after being on set all day? It’s not like you were locking down standard two-minute scenes.
KWC: Well, for me, I know you guys didn’t get this experience, but when I was on set by about day five, Sam went, come here and into his trailer, and I watched the first six minutes of the movie. And so, in a way, at the end of each day for us, from a technical point of view, you had a portion of the film that’s going directly on the screen and wasn’t going to be edited in the traditional way. It didn’t have to pass go. It was just there. And so that was a little trick to me to see it at the end of every day you had one, two or ten minutes. It was really something.
VS: You guys have such great chemistry in this movie. Again, this film doesn’t give you a prologue like most films would, but from the opening scene, we feel like we’ve been with you guys for a long time. Did you do anything off of the set, to get to know each other, spend some time building that chemistry, or is it just your insane skills?
KWC: It is just insane skills, if I can speak on their behalf. They’re very modest.
DCC: We just spent so much time together before we started shooting and it was six months, the rehearsal period. And in those six months, we were training together with military advisors and working with the weapons. We took a research trip to France and Belgium, literally every single second in that working day we were together as a pair, and we bonded a lot before we even started playing the characters. So I think that was a big part of it.
And I’ve got to quickly say, I’ve said it in a lot of interviews, but I mean it every single time. I could not have done it without George, could not have done it without George. This man is so good at what he does and so helpful to the other actors and to be in a scene and be able to bounce off him as someone who brings 100% to everything he does only makes you try to do the same thing.
It was nice as well because not a lot of actors have experienced making a one-take film. And George and I did. And we mutually felt the same about everything. So we understood each other without even having to say what was hard about it or good about it or fun about it. We just knew what we’ve got. We’re both going for the same thing.
VS: I do a lot of writing about dealing with anxiety and how people overcome obstacles. You’ve been doing this for so long, and you come across so naturally on the screen that it seems effortless. Could you talk about approaching such a daunting role, having any sort of doubts at first or how you felt about facing a different set of challenges?
GM: My dad actually gave me a really good bit of advice, and Sam, did too.
There was this one scene in particular where I’d set what I thought I should do in this scene which was a considered decision, but, more so than in other scenes, I had a goal in mind of what I wanted to achieve, and I felt I didn’t get there. And I was talking to Sam, and I said, I don’t really feel like I’ve got this. I don’t have that. And he felt like we’d got the scene. And he said, in life, as long as you’re being present when you’re acting, if you’re just being present in that moment, that will be truthful.
If you set your final goal, you’re actually going to be outside of the scene. And so just relax and trust that moments of emotion might hit you at further [along] when you don’t expect them. And that’s true of life. So what you need to do is come properly, commit to being truthful in that moment. And if you were, then the results of that effort is what’s real, and that emotion that you perhaps planned will hit you down the way.
But I remember speaking to my dad a little while after that and I said, Oh dad, I don’t feel like I’ve got this, and I said Sam was happy and I trust if it’s good for Sam, it’s good for me, but I don’t really know how to move on because I don’t want to get stuck on this, but the only way that I feel I can get past this is simply to care less. But this means so much to me, and he went, “No, no, no. Don’t think about it as caring, less; just trust more.” And I just thought that was a really nice bit of life advice in general,
VS: It’s kind of beautiful.
One question we always ask at my outlet is, what kind of cool collectible or nerdy passions do you keep on your shelf? If I came over to visit you at home, what would you show off?
GM: I’ve got a mixture of trinkets. I try and take something really small from each job. And so I’ve got, it’s a drawer on top of a shelf which I actually built myself, a little shelf. And then it’s like a little drawer with a ring from another project. I took my dog tags from this, I have a zipper. I did a play, and the character is, I always thought he was like a chess master, and a boxer. And so he had this black leather jacket and I got a queen chess piece, which is the chess piece that can go all over the board. I’ve got that, I’ve got coins from jobs. So that will probably be my nerdy thing. Yeah, that’s a good one.
DCC: Well, I actually nicked a couple of things off this set, I’m not going to lie. I nicked Blake’s rings that he wore. There were two rings, one on his pinky finger, one on his middle finger. And I also literally ripped off a button off the jacket. I shouldn’t probably say that, grass myself up, but I did it. I went boomp. [mimics plucking a button] and that literally sits on my window sill, facing out.
KWC: I like that. That’s good. I have a really nerdy thing in my house. I have a collection of antique bricks. Yeah. Some of them are made with a foundry imprint on them. They actually say where they’re from. And my grandfather was a builder, and he dreamed of being an architect, but he grew up too poor, he never got the education. But he used to design roofs and everything, and he had four of these that were for buildings that he built, and I took them and then I started adding to them. And actually, on the set of 1917 in the rubble of [inaudible], they had brought back a brick from France, and I pulled it out of the set, and I stole it, and since I’ve got a glass coffee table they’re all under it.
DCC: How many have you got?
KWC: I’ve got nine now. They’re quite hard to come by. So if anyone wants to send me antique bricks, please go ahead.
VS: Probably no one’s going to get mad when you nick them off the set.
KWC: Well, no one cares. In fact, I probably saved them money cause they had to pay to ship away the rubble. So, in a way I did them a favour. You stole and I made it good, so we’re all right.
DCC: Thank you!
1917 arrives in select theatres on December 25, 2019, and in wide release January 10, 2020.
*This transcript was edited for clarity.