Lee Smith has been editing films since the 1980s, working on such notable projects as “The Truman Show” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” In 2005, he collaborated with Christopher Nolan on “Batman Begins” and began a partnership that would continue with the rest of that trilogy, as well as “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk,” the film that won Smith his first Academy Award.
In 2015, Smith edited “Spectre” for Sam Mendes, a project that would lead to them re-teaming four years later. Their new film, “1917” is a World War I story both epic and intimate as it follows two young British soldiers on a perilous journey to get a message to their fellow soldiers by crossing German strongholds. A technical and artistic achievement, “1917” is drawing a lot of attention for its single-take aesthetic, achieved through close communication between Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor Lee Smith.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Smith about his work on “1917,” what excited him about the project, and some of the opportunities this film presented.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I know you’ve done a lot of work in big productions, and you’ve worked with Sam Mendes before. What was it about “1917” the really excited you?
Lee Smith: I very much loved the script. I thought it was an incredible script and really well written. I think Sam’s a brilliant director, and having worked with him on “Spectre,” and really enjoying working with him, I was incredibly pleased when he asked me to do it. And then he mentioned the “one shot” thing and I fell over (laughs) and passed out. Then I got up again, I read it and it wasn’t a dream. It was real. The one shot thing was a very bold idea, I thought. Because we did a bit of a one-shot thing at the beginning of “Spectre” that ran for about four minutes and that nearly killed everyone, so I thought, yeah, why not do it for a two hour movie? Great idea, Sam. (laughs) I’m up for a challenge and it was a challenge.
KP: You’ve done some really challenging work in your career already. How did you mentally prepare for this particular challenge?
LS: I read several books that were sort of based on letters that were sent from men in the trenches in 1917, so I did quite a bit of reading and I watched Peter Jackson’s documentary [“They Shall Not Grow Old”], which was fascinating. Just did a fair bit of reading and tried to get an understanding of what it was like to be in that war, in those trenches, and got a lot of insight from that. And then basically, off to the races once we went into pre-production and started filming.
KP: With all the research you did and all the things you learned, what is something that surprised you?
LS: The condition of the trenches. I remember, I actually worked on “Gallipoli” as a very young man with Peter Weir, and I do remember a lot of the men that went over — or boys, I won’t call them men — that went over for this war, it was all a bit of adventure and almost like a bit of fun. Until the grim reality set in. And that’s something I think the first World War, certainly the people who knew about the first World War were much better informed when they went into the second World War. So the first World War, I think a lot of those young guys were just looking for adventure, and unfortunately, that was one of the most carnage-ridden wars in history. Men basically jumping over the top of a trench and running headlong into machine gun fire and being shelled with explosives and being gassed. I can’t think of anything worse.
That is one of the most shocking things when you think about it. We wanted to be sure to be really respectful and make sure that the story was told as accurately to the time as possible through sound and Roger Deakins and Dennis Gasner — the Production Designer — being incredibly diligent in what things really did look like. And I think that was important that we get all of that right.
KP: One of the things that really struck me was the fact that you have all this carnage and these horrors of war, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming to look at it. What were some of the conversations you had with Sam and with Roger to make sure this felt like an experience you could sit through and watch?
LS: We were all quite like-minded in not wanting it to be gruesome to the point of revulsion. We were very careful with what was being shown and what was being seen Because you didn’t want it to be taken to a point where if you were kind of squeamish you wouldn’t be able to sit through. And in the end, you still need the film — and want the film — to be seen by as many people as possible. I don’t personally like gory films. I don’t want to see peoples’ heads blown off. That kind of detail throws me more out of a movie than keeps me in it. So we were all of us like-minded in what you needed to see as opposed to what you didn’t need to see. And I hope that balance was struck.
We did test screenings and everything and we never had any pushback on what was seen and the film is never really talked about as “Oh my god, that was so bloodthirsty” or whatever. Because it isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about those two boys risking all to deliver a message to save people. So it’s more about hope than slaughter. But, of course, it’s in that setting. And honestly, when you’re watching it there’s a few moments, obviously, where people flinch or get nervous. But me personally, I was trying to keep the intensity going with the threat. Like when they’re going through No Man’s Land, you don’t know if a shot is going to ring out and kill one of them. And that’s the feeling we continually wanted to get through sound and through which way the camera was pointing and some of the visual effects work. Hopefully we achieved that.
KP: The film opens on a scene of peace and calm. And that’s not usual for films about war. How did you and Sam decide on that opening and how did you know that was the right choice?
LS: I think that opening went through a couple of variations, but it was always the intention that you start in this place. Like with a lot of wars, a lot of it is waiting around. The idea of having them seemingly relaxing in a beautiful meadow was just very appealing. And as they walk forward and start to enter, you start to realize, oh, they’re walking down into a trench and they’re having a bit of banter. Because for these guys, especially Blake, he’s only just joined the war so nothing really bad has happened. His brother’s involved in it, but to him it’s a little bit of an adventure and he’s a little bit flippant in talking about missing Christmas turkey and always concerning himself with where the next meal is coming from, whereas the other character has clearly seen some action and is a little more reserved. And you wanted a little bit of a slow burn.
Again, this all comes down to pace and rhythm. Trying to get this film to not repeat itself and stay with these characters, we were always concerned about keeping the rhythm right, and that was a daily conversation that I would have with Sam, regarding the takes and what I was seeing come in every day. Sam made some adjustments based on our conversations to things he was just about to shoot, regarding whether we had enough of something or we needed to pick up the pace or whether we needed to slow down. Editorially it was kind of different because you were editing and making a film complete every day you were shooting, whereas normally with coverage I’d be doing that in post-production. There’s a lot of pressure to make sure this film was working right out of the box, basically. And that was a fascinating way of working. I haven’t done anything quite like that before.
KP: I don’t think most people have done anything like this before.
LS: It’s a very different way of making a movie. You’re still using the skill set you have, but you’re just applying it in a different order and a different way. But you know, once we got into the rhythm of it, it was kind of cool. I just realized that I had to keep speaking up because there was no going backwards. The manipulation I can do later in post is less than when you’re trying to get a single shot thing going. It doesn’t give me the ability to drop scenes or change rhythms. It just has to work. It was very different, but it was a great challenge and I figured it would be.
KP: People are fascinated by the one shot aspect. It sounds like a gimmick, but the way it’s done doesn’t feel like a gimmick, and sometimes you forget you’re even watching one shot. How did you accomplish that?
LS: As you can imagine, it was shot over 65 days. There’s a lot of work in that. The whole idea was I had to make everything completely invisible. And there was a lot of preparation in how to do that, and then there was in the execution, we had to do a lot in post to get everything to look perfect with the speed. Everything was very delicate manipulation. So hopefully, as you just said, you completely forget that this is in any way a thing and you’re just following the movie. And I would say when we were test screening it early on — this is way before we were completely finished — the audience completely bought into it and I don’t think anybody was thinking about anything in the way it was handled technically. And that is exactly what we wanted. Because the last thing you would want is people saying, “Oh, you know, some of those things worked and some were a bit dodgy.” That just means you’re thinking of it. I believe it’s imperceptible as to what went on, and a million and one things went on, so that’s good.
KP: Was there one scene that was particularly excited to work on?
LS: I enjoyed the plane crash with the German pilot. There’s a lot of complicated things in that sequence and getting the feel right with speed and sound was really complicated. It ends up being quite a moment. But to be fair, I enjoyed the entire film. I loved everything.