How does Sam Mendes' 1917 make an epic WWI story very personal?
War movies are one of the standard genres in film history. Why?
Because conflict is drama. War is conflict (and hell).
Where there is a subject as ripe and as well-trodden as this one, it's hard to imagine sitting down to a war movie and being shocked and surprised.
Yet 1917 takes the familiar genre to an entirely new plane in ways that are impressive, and at times invisible. The filmmakers from the top down are at the peak of the craft for this one, the combination of talents fit like the pieces in a puzzle. These are some prolific creators too.
But it's hard not to walk away from 1917 and think they've all crafted their crown jewel. That's saying something.
We were lucky enough to hear the three of them speak at a Q&A following the film, along with producer Pippa Harris, co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns, and two of the films young stars. There was a through-line to the comments made by the filmmakers, and it speaks to what the movie does so well that movies of every genre and on every level can learn from...
"The Micro In the Macro"
This was the phrase Sam Mendes used when he spoke about crafting the story. He spoke about World War I being a brutal conflict that wiped out a generation. The stories about it, ones that he personally heard from a grandfather to whom he dedicated the movie, are vanishing. Knowledge of World War I has faded in time.
Mendes felt a responsibility to make the stories known, to make the sacrifice understood, and in his own words to remind people today of its relevance. This was a war about the unification or division of Europe. He felt strongly that as much as he was attempting to breathe vibrant life into the story and steer away from a dusty history lesson, he also wanted to tell a story that applied to the present day.
These are very big ideas -- ones that exist on a macro scale. The challenge is how to achieve these goals.
For Mendes, that's where the idea of the micro came in. This story would actually be very small, very personal, focusing on the individual human experience.
Making the Story Personal Was a Technical Challenge
Roger Deakins said he had concerns when he opened the script because the first thing he read was: "This is all meant to unfold in one shot."
But his concern wasn't about technically achieving such a thing(as hard as that would be). It was more specifically about how he'd do what he always strives to in any work; serve the story and not allow the technique to be 'ostentatious' and call attention to itself.
We'll follow up soon with our in-depth interview with Roger Deakins, where he discusses at length his process for shooting 1917.
Even if you are aware that the film unfolds in "oners", it is impossible not to be completely drawn into the drama.
You've simply never experienced oners (or long takes) crafted at this level before. And again, it's not because of the impressiveness of the feat (and the feat is beyond impressive) but because the oners themselves serve as perfectly crafted story sequences, that build upon each other, finding a rhythm just like cuts and edits would, weaving along with the screenplay and the score. The result in the highest caliber of cinematic story experience.
Filmmakers love them. A certain buzz happens on set when you know one is coming. Crews like to work in tandem and take on the challenge. It's ambitious, it's complex; it's a ballet. When it works everyone "oohs" and "ahhs." When it doesn't it costs you big time.
Mendes said there were days on set where he wondered why he'd gotten himself into this. But he leaned on something from his background that not all filmmakers have in their arsenals.
His rich history directing theater. Theater is, after all, one take.
Mendes said he was conversing with a friend who mentioned being amazed at how some songs in the movie version of Les Miserables were done in one take. Mendes quipped back, "I'm pretty sure they've been doing it in one take on stage all this time."
Many filmmakers don't have experience in theater. But Mendes does, and it allowed him a certain fluency with this type of process of rehearsal and integration of elements.
On days when they couldn't shoot for various reasons, they rehearsed. Rehearsal is the backbone of theater, and it became so for 1917 as well. The result of the "oner" tactic is that audiences experience the personal nature of the journey and the war. The idea of the micro experience in the macro context of a World War is achieved.
But there is another effect of the technique that makes the film stand apart.
What You Don't See
Audiences are accustomed to seeing many types of war depicted onscreen in many ways. From the high-concept and fantastical to the gritty and real; we've seen it all.
That's why one of the greatest dramatic tools in 1917 is the power of what we don't see.
Jaws has long been held in high esteem by filmmakers because it uses the looming off-camera threat of the monster to motivate the drama and the anticipation/anxiety of the audience. Once you see the monster, it's not as terrifying as what you'd imagined and feared.
By placing the camera with the characters at all times, literally in the trenches, and having them discuss the larger scale of the war, 1917 does the exact same thing. Conflict and violence erupt suddenly in small ways when the war reaches the individuals that the story follows. For the most part, the threat and the battle are happening offscreen.
Sometimes just out of frame.
This is an amazing technique for a war movie because it can add compelling suspense to brutality and horror. Where Saving Private Ryan introduced characters and audiences to a massive large scale battle, 1917 withholds, draws out tensions, and surprises.
The threat of a full-scale war looms large throughout the film. We are aware that it is happening around us, elsewhere -- and we can't see it at all times because our characters can't. We are literally experiencing war as the soldiers do. In their POV.
1917 is a reminder that there are constantly new creative avenues to explore. Techniques we know well can be utilized and repurposed to tell stories we think we know in entirely fresh ways, that create memorable experiences. The film and its craftspeople are a testament to the power of visual storytelling.
1917 opens in select theaters on Christmas Day.