2019 NEW YORK COMIC CON: New York Comic Con is always full of surprises, but perhaps none bigger than the announcement of an appearance by Academy Award Winner Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Skyfall”). The NYCC audience was treated to two exclusive trailers and a behind-the-scenes featurette for one of the most anticipated films of the year, the WWI battlefield drama, “1917.” Mendes was joined on stage by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”), Producer Pippa Harris (“Revolutionary Road”), writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”), plus actors George McKay (“11.22.63”), and Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”).
A WORLD AT WAR
The film, set during WWI, takes the audience right into the middle of the battlefield. After a long standoff, the Germans retreated and for about 72 hours the British had no idea where they had gone. Turns out they used this tactic to lure the British troops into a trap, putting 1600 troops at risk. We follow two soldiers, Pte. Schofield (McKay) and Pte. Blake (Chapman) as they navigate an active battlefield to try to prevent a tragedy. It is set over a two-hour period and told with one continuous shot, all in real time. The two lead characters will be on the move the entire time. Likewise, the audience will not receive much of a chance to catch their breaths.
ONE CONTINUOUS SHOT
Director Sam Mendes finds the continuous shot crucial to telling the story. “This movie is written and designed to be one continuous shot. We didn’t take the scripts and impose it on top of the script. It was conceived from the very ground up. Roger (Deakins) did have one question. Which I think is a crucial question, ‘Why?’” Mendes continued, “I said, because I want to step every step with the characters. I want to breathe every breath with them. I want to be dropped on their journey with them. It’s an emotional experience.”
AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE
The director elaborated “I think a kind of dream state emerges after a while where you know you can’t escape and you have to go on it with them. I think what Roger achieved is for the camera to become a third character. I want you to live with these two characters. If you don’t then what’s the point? If you don’t go on the journey, then what’s the point?”
At the outset, Deakins was tentative about shooting the film with just one shot. “I said to Sam when I read it, ’Is it a gimmick?’” Soon he was completely on board, “But it’s not. It’s absolutely integral to the story. I hope — we all hope — when you watch the film you won’t be aware it’s one shot. It’s just this immersive experience.”
NOTHING TAKEN FOR GRANTED
“Nothing was taken for granted. Painstaking shot-by-shot walkthroughs were required to keep the action timing in tune with the dialogue. We were rehearsing for six months to ensure it matched up.”
Deakins noted on the pressure of this type of filmmaking, “It was this really awesome challenge. Everything’s got to be in sync. And, when you’re almost at the end of the shot you’re like, I hope I didn’t blow this. It was a real trip.”
Mendes revealed that his grandfather’s stories about the war inspired the film. One of his grandfather’s missions was to deliver a message to some other troops. Although his grandfather’s story is not the basis of the film, his stories planted the seed in his head and the idea grew from there. It is a very personal film for Mendes — seemingly a way to honor his grandfather and those who gave their lives in the war.
A SURPRISE CONNECTION
Mendes’ personal connection to the film was similarly shared by Chapman, who delivered the panel’s most poignant moment. He spoke about researching for the film by reading a book called “The Western Front Diaries,” a collection of soldiers’ diary entries. “I actually found that my great granddad had an entry in there.” The audience gasped. Chapman continued, “He was part of the cavalry and he was wounded. He survived, laying in no man’s land for four days.” The astounded audience was silent. “After the war, he survived and worked in a poppy factory.”
When asked the same about the character research question, George McKay responded with a smile, “How do I follow that?” to the delight of the audience. Astonishingly, we learned that Chapman’s unexpected revelation had never shared this story with Mendes. The cast, crew, and audience all learned about this personal connection during the panel.
AN EVENT FILM
“1917” certainly demands a big-screen viewing. Mendes’ use of the continuous shot seamlessly connects sweeping aerials that show the scale of the battles to close-ups that put us side by side with these boys as they persevere through the grueling conditions of war. Every step, every booming explosion, every breath — we’ll experience war in a way never done before on film.
The power of Deakins’ cinematography and Mendes’ direction is undeniable. Based on the captivating screened footage, we’re anticipating a meticulously shot, completely immersive film — an intense, engaging two hours. If Mendes and Deakins pull off this ambitious feat, prepare for a technical and emotional masterpiece. There is no denying this film has all the qualities to be a huge player both above and below the line this Oscar season.