NYCC 2019: The Wonder of “1917”

Next Tuesday, the “Lass is More” podcast will be offering up one-on-one interviews with director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, actor Dean-Charles Chapman, and actor George MacKay.  The four individuals, along with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and producer Pippa Harris, were all present in New York on the first night of New York Comic-Con this year to give the audience a little taste of “1917.”

Releasing later this year, the film focuses on two hours of one day in the spring of 1917, as two young soldiers (those played by Chapman and MacKay) are tasked with delivering a message to inform British troops that they are about to be ambushed by Germans.  Should the message note not arrive in time, there will be massive casualties.  And, because clearly such a tale is not enough for a movie, Mendes, Deakins, and company shot the whole thing to appear as though it is one long continuous take.  It isn’t, the longest take is about eight-and-a-half minutes according to Deakins, but it will appear to be one take (like “Birdman” or “Rope”).

It is this aspect of the film that the panel, moderated by Erik Davis of Fandango, focused on, and it was undoubtedly one of the most interesting New York Comic-Con panels I have ever attended.

My opinion here may be skewed because I’m a cinephile, but as opposed to looking at the popular celebrity/IP aspect of an affair, this was a nuts and bolts panel about making a movie.  To be clear, there is nothing wrong with something more celebrity or IP focused, I love that stuff too, but this was different.

When discussing how the concept came about, Mendes said that it took about a minute for his thoughts to go from making a movie about one person carrying a message to two people carrying the message to the idea of doing it in one continuous take.  It was at that point he called Wilson-Cairns to write the script with him.  Clearly they were able to make it happen.

One of the interesting things to note were the various ways people found out about the one take plan.  Deakins said didn’t know until he got the script what Mendes was thinking.  One of the actors said it didn’t strike him until after he got off the phone and was calling his mom about the project that it was going to be one take.  Wilson-Cairns, on the other hand, did seem to understand immediately and to have kind of freaked out about it.

Importantly, one of the elements that they came back to during the panel was, as Deakins put it,  that it wasn’t a gimmick this one take nature of the movie.  Mendes said that Deakins asked why he wanted it this way and Mendes in part answered that it was about being with the characters.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of it all, Harris told us that they had to construct about a mile worth of trenches so that they could make shots last long enough.  Stories were told about walking back and forth across places with the scripts in their hands as they worked out just how much space they needed, or how the dialogue could be edited.  Mendes spoke about one actor, Mark Strong, coming in to do a part of the movie and noticing that the conversation he was doing ended exactly as he finished going past a set of four trucks.  Mendes explained to Strong (who then instantly understood) that there were four trucks there because that’s how long the dialogue took.  They could have had more trucks or less trucks, but they had four because that was what they needed.

I am, as ought to be clear, utterly fascinated by the process of it all.  But, the goal is, that when I (or anyone else) sits down to watch the movie, that all of that process becomes invisible, that we simply notice the story itself.  I cannot wait to find out whether that happens as “1917” is now my most eagerly anticipated film this fall.

photo credit: Universal Pictures

Categories: New York Comic Con

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