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Sam Mendes on directing 1917: ‘We were completely in the lap of the gods’

The WWI epic is ‘more evolved’ than his two Bond movies

a man runs away from a bomb hitting the trenches Image: Roger Deakins/Universal Pictures

“I remember when the Les Misérables film came out, and there was lots of buzz about Anne Hathaway doing her big song in one take,” Sam Mendes muttered from behind the scenes of New York Comic-Con last October. “No disparagement to Anne Hathaway, who’s a great actress, but so has everyone who’s ever performed the song onstage! Go to Broadway, for fuck’s sake.”

The politics of the long take — when it’s called for, how to manage the delicate interplay between form and content, the line separating stylistic bravado from showing off — have been on Mendes’ mind since he announced his new feature 1917. The intimately epic (or is it epically intimate?) WWI picture, which just won the 2020 Golden Globe for Best Drama, tracks two soldiers’ perilous mission to inform a squadron of their fellow troops that they’re about to march into certain doom. From the start, Mendes knew he wanted their journey through fraught German-occupied territory to play out as a single, continuous shot. The veteran stage director figured it’d be like mounting theatre, in which the show must go on above all else. And at some points, it was — only magnified one thousand times.

“Before a play, a director will say to the actors, ‘See you in two hours,’” Mendes told Polygon. “The strange thing about going from the stage to a movie is that you’re moving over so much land. A scene can stretch over half a mile. I could only see the actors via monitor, and that can feel unusually impersonal.”

a soldier holding a rifle walks toward a firebombed town in silhouette in 1917 Image: Universal Pictures

Mendes has a pair of James Bond vehicles under his belt, and still his latest effort ranks as his biggest movie yet. That’s in the most literal sense; even divvying 1917 up into multiple shots seamlessly stitched together left seven-to-eight-minute passages carrying the action over hills, in and out of buildings, and through devastation.

“If you think back to Spectre, for example, the first sequence is an eight-minute, unbroken take, which is actually five shots stitched together,” Mendes recalled. “It was much more evolved, much more pre-planned this time around. We didn’t leave as much to chance, but you always hope for a little bit of magic. You’ll watch a take, and you can point out one, two, three things that work as a result of total accidents. Happy accidents.”

By making himself a tad more “obsessive and neurotic,” Mendes was able to maintain control over a production with a lot of moving parts. Before the 007 days, he was largely known for character-driven, household melodramas like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road; he now expands his focus from the living room to the sprawling battlefield, an environ captured in you-are-there, 360-degree photography. Between the brief Q&A following the 1917 NYCC panel and our interview, Mendes used the word “immersive” at least four times. But plunging his viewer into a fully formed world proved a complicated task.

With the camera whirling around to capture everything in sight, Mendes couldn’t leave his actors marks to hit as they move through a scene. “You occasionally had to use things to secretly mark — that bit of wire, that tree, that ditch, that rock — that can all help to give the actors a sense of space,” he said. What he calls “intuitive spatial management” was the name of the game, to the point that the director started taking cues from the terrain around him.

Mendes explained: “Javier Bardem’s first big scene in Skyfall is his monologue about rats, which he performs while walking. By the time he finishes it, he arrives right in the point he’s supposed to be at, so we had to construct the set to be the length of his speech. I went to Pinewood Studios and walked up and down until we had an idea of how long the set should be. Take that idea and extrapolate that to two hours. We had to walk every scene; push every door, measure how far the door would be from the path, the dead dog has to be here, this far from the river. It was really a matter of geographical engineering […] The staging and environments had to be completely in sync.”

sam mendes speaks to two actors on no man’s land Photo: François Duhamel/Universal Pictures

Over six months of on-and-off rehearsal, Mendes, his cast, and his crew reached a unified understanding of their task at hand. They learned to accommodate what their director had set for them, and he learned to accommodate them. “Adrenaline makes actors do things faster and louder,” he said. “You have to account for that, spot the difference, and that’s where stage training comes in. I saw that we had to let them burn off a bit of energy, and then by the seventh or eighth take, they’ll have leveled off. Sometimes I’d say, ‘Even if you make a mistake, keep going, just so we can get the shape of the scene.’ We’d let unacceptable takes run sometimes, and get something productive out of it. Letting an actor breathe, that can work wonders.”

But as much as his theatrical training may have seen him through, its utility had hard limits. More than ever before, Mendes was at the mercy of Mother Nature. Because his film takes place sequentially, each scene could only be shot under overcast weather conditions, which meant submitting to elemental forces.

“By the end of the first shooting day, we were behind, because we didn’t shoot anything,” he admitted. “The weather wasn’t right. By the end of the second day, we were ahead. We’d spent that first day doing nothing but rehearsing, so that once we were ready to roll, we could leap forward and shoot everything we had prepared to shoot right away. We always rehearsed whenever there was too much sun out. Sometimes we’d have to hold while the sun slunk back behind its cloud; a couple folks checking watches, doing crosswords, but mostly rehearsal.”

Contending with fate itself was just part of the job for a veteran filmmaker broadening his horizons. For all his planning, all his theorizing about the links between immersive cinema and its stage cousin, all his thinking around the hurdles, there was ultimately nothing to do but do it. He took each challenge as it came, adapted, and forged onward.

“We were completely in the lap of the gods, and we could’ve been totally stiffed,” Mendes chuckled. “Luckily, we were shooting in a country with reliably shit weather.”

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