Sam Mendes new World War I movie is pulling a Hitchcock's Rope and delivering the hell of war in one continuous take.
When director Sam Mendes' 1917 hits theaters, audiences will experience the WWI epic seemingly in one continuous take. To pull off such a technical achievement required considerable effort from Mendes, his Skyfall cinematographer, Roger Deakins, the cast, and the crew and Vanity Fair has an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how the Oscar contender pulled it off.
1917 centers on two British soldiers struggling through and across European frontlines to deliver a message that could save 1600 lives. The harrowing action -- the entire film -- unfolds in one long take. That's not just for a gimmick, Mendes explains. Rather, it is to service the emotional story as visually exciting as possible.
“It was fundamentally an emotional choice,” the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty told VF. "I wanted to travel every step with these men —to breathe every breath with them. It needed to be visceral and immersive. What they are asked to do is almost impossibly difficult. The way the movie is made is designed to bring you as close as possible to that experience.”
Helping him bring audiences into the trenches with these soldiers was Deakins and Mendes' co-writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful). All stakeholders spent nine months preparing shots and sequences, and coordinating with the production heads to make sure each scene was "matchd and timed seamlessly" as crews spent the spring shooting across various locations.
The video below captures how detailed and challenging this process was. The demands on such a technically difficult execution are high, from the late-day lighting and trying to keep it consistent for continuity (which is a fresh hell onto itself). Designing the story and visuals to unfold in a way that helps disguise and blend in cuts from scene to scene also raised the level of difficulty considerably. When asked how he and his editors chose to hide the edits, Mendes replied coyly: "What cuts."
Mendes and Deakins are no stranger to the oner. See their collaboration on Skyfall and that backlit fight between Bond and an assassin against the neon-lit backdrop of Shanghai's skyline. Spectre's opening "Day of the Dead" sequence also serves as training wheels for what Mendes set out to achieve here, which is nothing short of a revolutionary act in the current blockbuster landscape where IP is king and so is the assembly line feel of its execution. If you're gonna go big, might as well make it worthy of the biggest screen experience possible.
Just make sure you ramp up to it, the way Mendes has with his last few Hollywood films.
1917 arrives in select theaters Christmas Day.