SAM MENDES, the Oscar-winning director of Skyfall, Spectre and American
Beauty, brings his singular vision to a visceral new epic inspired by the
experiences of his grandfather and others who served in World War I.
1917 tells the story of two young British soldiers at the height of the war,
Lance Corporal Schofield (GEORGE MacKAY) and Lance Corporal Blake (DEAN-CHARLES
CHAPMAN) as they are given a seemingly impossible task. In a race against time,
they must cross enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save
1,600 of their fellow soldiers-Blake's own brother among them. In this immersive
cinematic experience, Mendes thrusts the audience into the immediate peril and
vast scale of World War I, witnessing the conflict in an urgent and propulsive
The high-stakes-mission film also stars MARK STRONG (The Imitation Game) as
the compassionate and wise Captain Smith; ANDREW SCOTT (Amazon's Fleabag) as
Lieut. Leslie, the war-weary commander of the Yorks; RICHARD MADDEN (Netflix's
Bodyguard) as Lieut. Blake, Blake's elder brother, marching toward the
Hindenburg Line; DANIEL MAYS (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as Sgt. Sanders, who
chooses Blake for the mission; ADRIAN SCARBOROUGH (The Madness of King George)
as Major Hepburn, senior officer in the 8th; JAMIE PARKER (Harry Potter and the
Cursed Child) as Lieut. Richards; NABHAAN RIZWAN (Informer) as Sepoy Jondalar, a
Sikh Private, wise beyond his years; and newcomer CLAIRE DUBURCQ as Lauri, a
terrified French woman trying to survive against all odds in a war-torn French
They are joined by Oscar winner COLIN FIRTH (The King's Speech) as General
Erinmore, who sends the pair on their mission; and BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
(Avengers series) as Colonel Mackenzie, commander of 2nd Battalion, who is
convinced they have the Germans retreating and is determined to finish the job.
This uninterrupted cinematic experience is directed by Mendes, who co-wrote
the screenplay with KRYSTY WILSON-CAIRNS (Showtime's Penny Dreadful). He
produced the film alongside PIPPA HARRIS (co-executive producer, Revolutionary
Road; executive producer, Jarhead) for their Neal Street Productions, JAYNE-ANN
TENGGREN (co-producer, The Rhythm Section; associate producer, Spectre), CALLUM
MCDOUGALL (executive producer, Mary Poppins Returns; Skyfall) and BRIAN OLIVER
(executive producer, Rocketman; Black Swan).
The creative team bringing the story to the screen includes a blend of
longtime Mendes collaborators and those new to his team. They are led by Academy
Award-winning cinematographer ROGER DEAKINS (Blade Runner 2049); Oscar-winning
production designer DENNIS GASSNER (Blade Runner 2049); makeup and hair designer
NAOMI DONNE (Skyfall); Academy Award-winning costume designer JACQUELINE DURRAN
(Anna Karenina) and fellow costume designer DAVID CROSSMAN (Rogue One: A Star
Wars Story); set decorator LEE SANDALES (War Horse); five-time Oscar-nominated
production sound mixer STUART WILSON (Spectre); supervising location manager
EMMA PILL (Spectre); SFX supervisor DOMINIC TUOHY (Mission: Impossible-Rogue
Nation); prosthetics designer TRISTAN VERSLUIS (Game of Thrones); stunt
coordinator BENJAMIN COOKE (Skyfall); five-time Emmy Award-winning casting
director NINA GOLD (Game of Thrones); Academy Award-winning editor LEE SMITH
(Dunkirk); and 14-time Oscar-nominated composer THOMAS NEWMAN (Skyfall).
1917 is a Neal Street Production, produced in association with Mogambo, for
DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment, in association with New Republic
Pictures. Universal Pictures and Amblin Partners distribute internationally,
with eOne distributing on behalf of Amblin in the U.K.
Before the United Nations was formed, prior to NATO-well before the
assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that would
draw the world into conflict-nations in the West had primarily acted in their
own interests. Never before had countries set aside nationalism for the
collective greater good. For that reason, the First World War in many ways
unified the West and became the bedrock of modern society.
A global shockwave that made humanity confront our common ground, our joint
ideals and shared values, World War I demanded unthinkable sacrifice-calling
upon a tested generation's honor, duty and fidelity to country. The impact of
the war, and particularly its effect on the young soldiers asked to rise up and
defend their homelands, has intrigued filmmaker Sam Mendes since he was a boy.
The idea for 1917 was sparked by stories that Mendes' grandfather, the late
Alfred H. Mendes, shared about his time as a Lance Corporal in the First World
War, as well as the colorful characters he met during his service. In the year
1917, Alfred was a 19-year-old who enlisted in the British Army. Due to his
small stature, the five-foot-four-inch soldier was chosen to be a messenger on
the Western Front.
The mist on No Man's Land-the unclaimed land between Allied and enemy
trenches on the frontlines that neither side crossed for fear of being
attacked-hung at approximately five and a half feet, so the young sprinter was
able to carry messages laterally from post to post. His height meant he was not
visible to the enemy, and he literally ran for his life. During the war, Alfred
was injured and gassed, and was awarded a medal for his bravery. In his later
years, the Trinidadian novelist retired to his birthplace in the West Indies,
where he wrote his memoirs.
"I was always fascinated by the Great War, perhaps because my grandfather
told me about it when I was very young, and perhaps also because at that stage
of my life, I'm not sure I'd even registered the concept of war before," Mendes
says. "Our film is fiction, but certain scenes and aspects of it are drawn from
stories he told me, and ones told him by his fellow soldiers. This simple kernel
of an idea-of a single man carrying a message from one place to another-stayed
with me and became the starting point for 1917."
Mendes spent time researching first-person accounts of this era, many of
which are held at the Imperial War Museum in London. As he took notes, Mendes
began to compile fragments of stories of bravery confronting terror; in time, he
began to dovetail them into a single tale.
During this exploration, he discovered that World War I was so wholly
entrenched in a relatively small geographic area that it had very few long
journeys. "It was a war mainly of paralysis," Mendes says, "one in which
millions lost their lives over 200 or 300 yards of land. People are justly
celebrated in all parts of the world for gaining tiny sections of land in World
War I. In the Battle of Vimy Ridge, for example, they gained 500 yards, but it
remains one of the war's greatest acts of heroism. So, the question I asked
myself was how to tell a story about a single epic journey, when essentially
nobody traveled very far."
His research stalled momentarily, Mendes soon discovered what would become
the backdrop for his tale. In 1917, the Germans retreated to what was known as
Siegfriedstellung, or the Hindenburg Line. After six months of planning and
digging a huge trench system of defenses and deep-lying artillery, the Germans
placed a vast number of troops-once spread over the original, much longer, front
line-into a new, enormously fortified, condensed line of defense.
The filmmaker discusses how he found the propulsive narrative of what would
become his greatest challenge to date. "There was a brief period where, for
several days, the British didn't know whether the Germans had retreated,
withdrawn or surrendered," Mendes says. "Suddenly, the British were cut adrift
in a land they had literally spent years fighting over...but had never seen
before. Much of it was destroyed by the Germans, who left nothing of lasting
value, destroying anything that might sustain the enemy. Anything of beauty was
taken or destroyed; villages, towns, animals, food. All trees were cut down. It
was made relatively impassible. The British were alone in this desolate land
full of snipers, land mines and trip wires."
Inspired by the fragments of stories from his grandfather, the first-person
accounts he had researched at the Imperial War Museum-as well as the idea of the
deadly venture to the Hindenburg Line-Mendes crafted the structure of the story
that became 1917. "Like most of the war stories I admired, from All Quiet on the
Western Front to Apocalypse Now, I wanted to create a fiction based on fact,"
Mendes says. He reached out to frequent collaborator Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who,
unbeknownst to Mendes at the time, is a self-proclaimed "history nerd" and was
ideally suited to the material, and their journey began.
Partners in Time
Sam Mendes and Pippa Harris Begin to Build a World
Pippa Harris is Mendes' longtime producing partner at their Neal Street
Productions and the two have known each other since childhood. They studied
together at Cambridge and have joined forces on many projects through Neal
Street, which they run with CARO NEWLING and NICOLAS BROWN.
Like Mendes, Harris has a personal connection to this epoch. When she was in her
twenties, she edited the letters of Rupert Brooke-a poet who was engaged to her
grandmother before dying in the war. "Having edited those letters, I looked in
detail at the First World War-at the appalling loss of life, and what it meant
for those young men going out who had no idea," Harris says. "I think nobody in
Britain at the time had any idea what war was really about. It was the first
time that, through poetry and the writings of people on the front, people back
home started to have a clear idea of what was actually going on."
Mendes and Harris were rapt by Wilson-Cairns' meticulous detailing and deft
ability with character. Building upon their shared history, Wilson-Cairns worked
closely with Mendes as they put onto the page precisely what he needed for
shooting. Together, they created the saga of Lance Corporals Schofield and
Blake, two young men given a seemingly impossible mission: to deliver a
message-deep in the heart of enemy territory-that, if successful, would
potentially save the lives of 1,600 British soldiers. For Blake, the assignment
is deeply personal; his brother is one of the 1,600 men who will die if they
"I wrote a story structure," Mendes says, "Then I brought on Krysty who,
unlike me, is used to writing, 'Page One, Scene One,' and not freezing! She took
that story structure and put it into script form, and then I spent a hugely
enjoyable three weeks rewriting it and then sending it back and forth. After
about two months we had a draft, and the final film remains very close to that
Mendes found a dogged researcher in his co-writer, and additional parts of
their epic tale were drawn from first-person accounts that he and Wilson-Cairns
came across. "I wanted people to understand how difficult it was," Mendes says.
"In a sense, the movie is about sacrifice...and how we no longer truly understand
what it means: To sacrifice everything for something larger than yourself."
Mendes and Wilson-Cairns had ample resources to draw from. "When Sam and I
first started talking about his ideas, I was utterly enthralled; I basically
turned up at his house," Wilson-Cairns says. "We swapped a lot of books, as we
both had so many. We concentrated on firsthand accounts, on individual soldiers
telling their stories and on diaries. There was a lot of that research about the
state of play in 1917, as well as an overview of the Hindenburg Line and of that
Through weaving a story of two exhausted young men in a terrifying, extreme
situation, Mendes and Wilson-Cairns tell a story that speaks of the grit of a
generation tested by the atrocities of war. Says Mendes: "I hoped that by
looking through the lens of a smaller, human story, told in real time, we might
be able to get close to expressing the vastness of the landscape and scale of
the destruction. To see the macro through the micro, as it were." Buoyed by
their screenplay's real-time countdown, they provide a look inside the journey
that countless soldiers took to protect the lives of loved ones...as well as many
more whom they did not know, and would never know.
Mendes and Wilson-Cairns had little interest in repeating the beats of
previous films. They needed Blake and Schofield's saga to feel urgent, relevant
and fresh-and to allow the audience to experience the mission at the same time
these two boys do.
The rare opportunity for a young female writer to co-write a war film was one
that immensely appealed to the screenwriter. "Sam didn't know this when he
called me up," Wilson-Cairns says. "But I've always been interested in the World
Wars, and I thought World War I was particularly fascinating and underserved
onscreen. I love war movies, I grew up on them and I've always wanted to write
one. I seized this chance with both hands and dug in."
Wilson-Cairns found something inherently fascinating about the fact that the
global powers of the era seemed helpless to stop the carnage. "World War I was
the first war of wholesale slaughter," Wilson-Cairns says. "It was the first
mechanical war in a sense that it represented the first meeting of industry and
war. What starts with infantry charges and horses quickly becomes a static war
fought with tanks, machine guns, gas and planes. So, it was death at an
unprecedented level. One of the most extraordinary things about World War I is
that, for four years, 10 million people killed each other and at no point did
anyone say, 'Enough.'"
Much like producer Harris, what also interested Wilson-Cairns was the way in
which stories from the period were told. All society was swept up, including
actors, artists, poets and authors. Many years prior to our understanding of
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, many did not discuss, privately or publicly,
their experience until they returned home, or many years later. The works that
were created after the war, alongside the personal diaries of first-person
accounts, eventually told the truth of war in a different way, focusing on its
devastating impact on humanity.
"The Great War was told and rendered in a very different way from the wars
before," Wilson-Cairns says. "It wasn't Kipling's 'The Last of the Light
Brigade,' nor was it just surface-level factual reporting. It was poetry and
fiction and painting and a vast number of first-person accounts of lived
As they crafted narrative and dialogue, what struck Mendes and Wilson-Cairns was
the depth of terror that their two young men would have experienced as they
attempted to deliver this message across the vast wasteland. "These are moments
of real isolation and solitude against huge adversity," Wilson-Cairns says.
"You've got snipers, you've got who knows what other dangers in the land and
towns beyond. And from just a great story and movie point of view, I think the
present-tense action of the movie is mesmerizing."
She admits one of the biggest challenges of penning the film was that, on
every single day of shooting, dialogue may have needed to be re-written and
quickly finalized. "Because of the nature of 1917, there was no edit,"
Wilson-Cairns says. "There was no final rewrite. The story and the dialogue was
very much set and rooted when we wrapped each day, and there wasn't really any
option to change it in post. Literally, after every take, we would pick the
favorite take and then match it. There wasn't even the option of using different
Revisiting Hallowed Ground
Search for Truth and Memory
As part and parcel of her research, Wilson-Cairns and her mother went to
northern France and to the River Somme, locations they found to be
extraordinarily poignant. During the almost five-month battle in 1916, more than
one million men were injured or died. By the end of the first day of fighting
alone, on July 1, 1916, more than 19,000 British soldiers had been killed.
"I went to the Somme and traveled around the areas where this story is set,"
says Wilson-Cairns. "It was very moving, a staggering amount of death. I went to
Ecoust, Thiepval [Memorial to the Missing], Beaumont Hamel [which commemorates
the sacrifices of Newfoundlanders] and the Lochnagar Mine Crater [largest
man-made mine crater on the Western Front, detonated by the British Army's Royal
engineers]. You can't possibly imagine the scale of a mine crater. It looks like
an asteroid hit; it's so unbelievably large."
The writer knew that to set foot onto these locations was vital to her in her
writing of the script. "It helped me understand the scale in a literal sense of
the journey the characters would have to take, but also, in a far greater sense,
it afforded me the chance to understand the cost, the thousands of young men who
died for inches of land," Wilson-Cairns says. "Going there brought it home to me
in a way that would otherwise not have been possible."
Likewise, supervising location manager Emma Pill travelled to France, as did
Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner, to
visit the actual locations. They walked through the various trenches that still
exist, as well as No Man's Land. They immersed themselves in the vast
landscapes, as well as the villages where their characters would have
As it would not be appropriate to disturb the historical battle zones,
filming 1917 in France was never an option. These are sacred places. "Most of
the actual sites over there are real battle zones," Pill says. "There's still
ammunition that is in the ground. So, we would never have been able to do the
amount of excavation that you see here in France. Plus, there are still bodies
in the ground. We needed to find a location that we could do the work without
disturbing anything historical...or dishonor the fallen."
The only way to find a similar scale of landscape-a place with few trees and
no signs of modern life in the United Kingdom-was to travel outside of London
and the Home Counties to find open vistas. It was Pill's job to look around the
U.K. for locations that matched the scenery in France and discover where sets
could be built. Her scouting brought the team to Salisbury Plain, in
southwestern England and home to the renowned Stonehenge, to Northumberland, as
well as to Glasgow, Scotland, for key sequences set in northeast France, and to
Bovingdon in central England for the endless line of trenches.
Ultimately, the film pays tribute not just to World War I soldiers but to all
our military members, past and present and their sacrifice for the greater good
and pursuit of freedom.
CASTING THE LEADS
Finding Schofield and Blake
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman
Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, of the 8th Battalion, have a comradeship
and friendship, which in a short space of time is tested far beyond the point of
what either could have imagined. Armed with only their kits, maps, torches,
flare pistols, grenades and a bit of food, they must cross No Man's Land and
find Blake's older brother, a lieutenant in the 2nd Devons. Their orders: head
southeast until they reach the town of Ecoust, then locate the waiting battalion
at nearby Croisilles Wood. Hand the Commanding Officer a letter from General
Erinmore and save hundreds of their fellow soldiers from potential death at the
hands of the "retreating" Germans. The unexpected, terrifying mission they are
sent on changes the course of both of their lives.
When Mendes was choosing the actors to portray these young soldiers, it was
crucial to him that audiences experience the story with relative newcomers.
George MacKay, supporting player of Captain Fantastic, was cast as Lance
Corporal Schofield, and Game of Thrones' Dean-Charles Chapman became Lance
"The movie is based around the journey of two young and-at first
glance-unremarkable soldiers, and ideally I wanted an audience to have no prior
relationship with them," Mendes says. "It was a real luxury, with the unstinting
support of the studio, to make a movie on this scale with two actors in the
central roles who really are, relatively speaking, new to the game."
In MacKay, Mendes found not only a fantastic young actor, but a performer who
embodies qualities he attributes to the hero he and Wilson-Cairns imagined.
"There's something about George that's slightly old-fashioned, in that he
embodies some virtues-honor, dignity, heroism-that are almost of another time.
He feels ageless," Mendes says. "There is also a class element buried in the
story. Schofield has a grammar-school-boy quality to him-in this country we
would call it 'middle class.' He's been brought up polite, reserved, quite
English. But he also has this huge inner landscape. George has immense subtlety,
and the skill to convey all those things with the lightest of touches."
MacKay was drawn to those nuances in his character. "Schofield is a quiet
man," MacKay says. "He's someone who deals with what he's going through and what
happens to him by kind of burying it. He's got a family back home whom he loves
very, very much, but because they're not here and because he can't be with them
he sort of keeps them completely to himself. He tries to navigate the extremes
of what he's living through by keeping himself very levelled, which I found
really fascinating to play."
Schofield, in his early 20s, is a veteran of Thiepval, an attack against
German forces that proved devastating for British Commonwealth forces. "When
Schofield receives the news about the mission he's wary at first," MacKay says.
"Schofield is the more experienced solider of the two of them. He's been doing
this about a year longer than Blake has. That doesn't make him a super solider
or anything, but he's more practiced at all of it. He's a moral man and he
understands what has to be done, but he's trying to do it as safely as possible
because he's experienced. It's alluded to that he survived the Battle of
Thiepval, where soldiers were acting on information that they realized wasn't
correct and suffered terrible, terrible losses. He's lost people, he's almost
died himself, and he doesn't want to do that again."
So, committed to his character was MacKay that he insisted on doing the
majority of his own stunts during filming. One of the few times the production
used a stunt double for him was when his character falls backward down the
lock-house stairs. "I was afraid he might knock himself out," Mendes says,
"which, knowing the level of George's commitment, he would probably have done
without a second thought!"
As Schofield's comrade, Blake, the director aimed to cast a young man that
could channel the character's innocence and simplicity. "I hadn't seen
Dean-Charles at all until he came in and read for the part," Mendes says. "He
has a wonderful vulnerability and a sweetness; he's a really good, natural,
Only 19, Blake is quite good with maps and eager to volunteer for any
assignment that would take him back up the line-or even get him more food. "The
first time I read the script I just absolutely fell in love with Blake,"
Dean-Charles Chapman says. "He's this country boy who loves his mom, loves his
dog, loves his brother. He's such a lovely, sweet kid that it's pretty much
impossible to not fall in love with him."
But when he is selected to pick a fellow member of 8th Battalion and give a
vital message to the 2nd Devons, he has no concept of what he is signing them
both up for. "He hasn't had much experience with war, at all," Chapman says.
"He's only recently just been deployed there. Throughout their mission, Blake is
constantly reminded about his family and his brother and missing home, and his
desperation keeps him fighting on, no matter what."
Blake's commitment will gradually have powerful impact on Schofield.
"Schofield's journey is to save hundreds of men, but it ultimately becomes about
saving Blake's brother," MacKay says. "It becomes personal to Schofield. If it
weren't for his promise to Blake to complete the mission, I'm not entirely sure
he would get there. It's his promise to Blake that keeps him going."
As the film centers on this friendship, and what happens when it is tested to
the breaking point, Mendes knew the two young actors had to have an instant
connection. "In this war, thousands of men were put together in a situation
where class boundaries and generational boundaries were dissolved," Mendes says.
"Bonds are made and friendships are created that are sustained for the rest of
people's lives. I wanted to find that unexpected friendship between the two men.
They like each other and feel a bond, but don't entirely understand why. They
help each other, but in ways they don't fully comprehend."
MacKay and Chapman joined the production in November 2018 and extensively
rehearsed their parts, along with participating in exhaustive military training.
"We did a lot of training, for about five months before we started shooting,"
Chapman says. "Our military advisor PAUL BIDDISS talked to us a lot about what
it's like to be a soldier, even down to how to salute, how to hold the weapon.
We also did some weapon firing with some of the armory guys to get our stances
down and to make sure that we knew our weapons inside and out. I even learned
how to take a proper bearing with a compass."
It was during these rehearsals that it became clear to MacKay that he was
going to need to enhance his personal fitness training before filming began.
"Schofield and Blake are literally on their feet for almost the whole film,"
MacKay says. "There may be only two or three scenes where they actually sit
down. In addition, you might do a given run or a walk sixty times in a day. You
think about that and you go, 'Oh, god.' You realize pretty quickly that you have
to be fit for it, just the sheer physical labor of it."
They two actors also went to the locations for technical rehearsals and spent
time in the landscapes they would be traveling through. This gave them a real
indication of how it might feel to be pawns in a global conflict, as well as
giving them an understanding of what Mendes wanted to achieve with their
"George and I went out to France and Belgium," Chapman says. "We looked at
memorials, museums. We even got to walk through some preserved trenches. I
gained so much from that trip. I also read a book called The Western Front
Diaries. It's just snippets of soldier's diaries, but my great granddad had a
diary entry in that book. He had gone into No Man's Land and had been shot
through the hip. He laid out there for four days and survived. I read that book
pretty much every day before I walked onto set just to sort of get me into the
What attracted MacKay most to the role of Schofield was not only the chance
to work with masters of their craft, but the enormous challenge that would be
the production. "The movie in itself is a slice of time, and filming was like a
piece of theater, every take," MacKay says. "Once it started, it couldn't stop.
If something went wrong, you just had to keep going."
Chapman agrees with his co-star. "The camera never ever comes away from these
two characters," Chapman says. The actor also appreciated how every single
member of his cast and crew had to be at the ready, waiting for the split second
when the fickle weather gods would allow for shooting. "We'd be waiting around,"
Chapman says, "and everyone would have their eyes up in the sky trying to see
how long it would take for the sun to move behind the cloud. But when it all
came together, it was pretty thrilling."
For the two young lead actors, the experience of 1917 bonded them in a way
they couldn't have foreseen, but that echoes the friendship that is forged
between their characters. "It sounds so simple, but at the heart of it all,
Dean's just a good man; he's a really good, good man," MacKay says. "I think
that's the main thing that Dean has brought to Blake. He's a fantastic actor and
shining through all of that is just this ... goodness. He incredibly supportive,
incredibly caring. Wherever you are with him, whatever you're doing, he's not
just there; he's fully there with you. He gives you his focus without even doing
it consciously. It's just who he is."
His co-star shares that admiration and affection. "George and I, we went
through the ups, the downs, the hard work, the tears, everything, together,"
Chapman says. "I never once thought that I was on my own with any of it. I love
him to pieces."
For both, the making of 1917 had an impact that resonated even beyond the
work itself. "The scale of the film is so big, but it's about something so small
and intimate, too," MacKay says. "It's about these two men, these two ordinary
men who are forced to do this extraordinary thing. You come to know them, and
understand them, and that then reverberates out to all the men around them,
each, you realize, the hero of his own story. Blake and Schofield could be any
other two men, but it's these two men we get to know and that reveals something
about all of them-about all of us, really."
THE CHARACTERS OF 1917
Because the story is fundamentally linear-these are two men carrying a
message to save hundreds of fellow soldiers-the supporting characters are
comprised of those whom Schofield and Blake meet on their mission. For those
pivotal characters, many of them officers, Mendes needed actors who could
generate intensity in the short period of time they were on screen. "You only
meet them for five or ten minutes, and then they're gone," Mendes says. "We
needed them to bring a sense of history and life lived-to feel like you're
intersecting with these other enormous stories that just happen to cross paths
with ours. For that, you need actors of authority and status and skill. Many of
these actors I had worked with either on stage or on screen before, and I felt
certain that they could all create vivid portraits, despite the brief time we
spend with them."
"Listen, Erinmore is inside, so tidy yourselves up." When the hardnosed Sgt.
Sanders orders Blake to "pick a man and bring his kit," he has no idea two of
his soldiers will be headed straight to the Hindenburg Line on one of the most
crucial operations of the changing war. "Sanders is your typical Sergeant within
the British Army," Daniel Mays says. "He is bullish, battle worn, cynical and
very pragmatic. He obviously cares and is in charge of his platoon, and that
manifests itself in humor and wise-cracking with his men, particularly with
Blake. With any Sergeant, it's about positivity and keeping morale up."
Sanders does know that the Germans are up to something, but he hasn't been
made privy to the fact that they have been creating a massive infrastructure
behind their new hold. When he does learn what Blake and Schofield are being
asked to do, he immediately feels the weight of it. "Sanders' reaction is much
like the others, one of total shock and surprise," Mays says. "The enormity and
gravity of the mission given to them by General Erinmore is not lost on anyone
who hears it. The fate of hundreds of lives is now in the hands of Blake and
Schofield, and it goes without saying Sanders wishes them well and wants them to
come back in one piece."
The weight of the war on his shoulders, General Erinmore tasks Blake and
Schofield to make the impossible journey across No Man's Land and find the 2nd
Devons-who are on the verge of advancing at Croisilles Wood in the epicenter of
occupied territory. The Lance Corporals' mission: to deliver a letter to Colonel
Mackenzie, which demands he call off an upcoming attack on the recently
retreated Germans. Few but Erinmore know that the Germans have staged a
strategic withdrawal and are now fully prepared to obliterate any troops that
"It may be that Erinmore himself privately feels sympathy for the boys," says
Colin Firth. "It may be that he doesn't allow himself such feelings or simply
doesn't have them. I'm sure he would say that in the end it's all same. The job
has to be done.
"All we see of Erinmore is the tactician," Firth continues. "He has, in a
short space of time, studied his choice of messenger and deliberately targeted
someone who has a deep personal investment in the mission: this young man will
want to save his brother. It's a cruel tactic and hard to imagine a more
effective one in the circumstances. Erinmore displays a sense of urgency and
pragmatism by that fact that he makes the visit to the dugout himself, to give
the orders personally and ensure they are understood. Sam was very keen to keep
the tone professional: serious, sober and not melodramatic. All we needed to
understand is the mission, what is at stake and what must be done. Not how the
General feels about it."
After some rehearsal, Firth shot his scene in one day. "Getting the whole
scene as a single shot requires a great deal of advance preparation by all
departments," Firth says. "For the actors, it's rather like the first night of a
play. There is nothing to cover any mistakes. Of course, one does multiple
takes, but not endlessly, and one of them will have to be perfect from beginning
to end, from every point of view. You can't edit. So, the tiniest slip means
that the entire unit has to reset and go again."
Even in his brief time on set, Firth was impressed with the technical
precision of what Mendes and his creative team were achieving. "It was
fascinating to watch the skill and ingenuity with which the scene was shot,"
Firth says. "The preparation and skill on display by all departments was pretty
Now in command of the Yorks division, after Major Stevenson and three of his
men were killed two nights prior, Lieut. Leslie is delirious from both the flu
and exhaustion with the campaign. Holding the line at No Man's Land, Leslie
tells our heroes they are foolish to believe that the Germans have gone and
reminds them that the Germans had fought and died over every inch of this land.
He asks Blake and Schofield to consider: Why now has their enemy decided to
retreat and give the British miles?
"Lieutenant Leslie is a very intelligent character," Andrew Scott says. "His
purpose in this story to my mind is to inject a bit of resistance into what
might be a straightforward mission, and to show that much of this war was very
much a battle of the mind. I think he cares deeply about his men, but he is
battle weary, and enormously frustrated. He has to function, and to make
decisions while completely exhausted and very sick, living under incredibly
torturous conditions. A big challenge for me was to convey that in a few-minute
scene, and we tried to accomplish it in whatever ways we could-the tremor of a
hand, biting humor, the incredible makeup team, the costumes. When you see this
man, you should immediately know the weight of what he's going through."
As with most of the supporting actors, Scott needed to communicate a lot
about Lieut. Leslie in a concise amount of screen time. "I worked on the film
for two days," Scott says. "This was the third time I had worked with Sam, so it
was great to have a sense of the way he works, although, this time around was
very different. The best advice he gave me was to relieve myself of the pressure
of having to nail it in two or three takes. But it meant that the scene had to
work in its entirety on all fronts from start to finish. So, it required a lot
of focus. Whether it was about the dialogue, the choreography, the camera and
supporting artists, the cigarette lighter lighting at a particular time or being
properly engaged with the other actors. There was an enormous amount of pressure
because of course we didn't have the reliance on quick edits or pickups. It
makes the actor very vulnerable, but conversely makes the actors very powerful,
and I think that's where Sam's theatrical background came into play. It was a
thrilling way to work and allowed the imagination to run free, which is the most
important thing on set I think."
When Captain Smith's men happen upon Blake and Schofield at an abandoned
farm, the Captain is exhausted and reeling. Wise, insightful and kind, he gives
Schofield strategic advice regarding the prickly Colonel Mackenzie: If you do
get to him, make sure there are witnesses. Smith knows that some men just want
the fight...and are willing to ignore any command given them in order to get it.
One of Captain Smith's men, with whom Schofield hitches a ride to get as
close to the new line as possible, Jondalar is a Sikh Private who defies his
fellow soldiers' open prejudice and amuses them with spot-on impersonations of
senior officers. Only last night, did Jondalar's unit cross No Man's Land just
outside Bapaume, and the private is rightfully suspicious of just how cunning
their German foes can be.
A brave young woman whom Schofield encounters in a battered hovel in the town
of Ecoust, Lauri tends to his wounds while enlisting his help in securing
nourishment for an abandoned infant left in her charge. "Lauri doesn't represent
a territory or a nation, but she represents life, which is full of fragility in
the hostile ground of war," Claire Duburcq says. "I have a great grandmother who
is 103 years old. She has always told me that during war, we lose everything. I
think Lauri has lost everything. All her bearings. But she is a survivor. She
doesn't have a choice but to stay hidden because since Germany invaded France,
soldiers have become omnipresent."
Initially unwilling to trust any soldier, Allied or German, the teenage Lauri
instinctively senses that Schofield is one of the few people she's encountered
in this endless war who will help her. "She can't trust any soldier because they
are all armed," Duburcq says. "She can't see a difference between a German
soldier or an English soldier because they all represent violence and any armed
man has power over her life. She is guided by her instinct. She's alive because
of her humanity, and she shares that with Schofield. When everything else is
lost, Lauri's instinct drives her to repair the living people, because if she
can live, she can help others live as well."
Commanding officer of 2nd Battalion, A Company, Lieut. Richards leads the men
who will serve as the first wave into the recently redrawn No Man's Land
southeast of Ecoust. "In the glimpse we have of Richards, he seems, in the best
way, anonymous," Jamie Parker says. "Not a man in a set of clothes, but a duty
being performed by a ranking officer. That example would, I imagine, gain him
respect from the men, who see him there right in the same boat as them. If I
were one of his men, I imagine I'd have no alternative but to trust in the
notion of order Richards is trying to maintain amidst all that chaos."
At the edge of No Man's Land, Richards keeps his focus on his duty. "I can't
comprehend what it must have been like to be in No Man's Land," Parker says.
"Richards' attention is on the job-focusing on that, I imagine, is what keeps
him going. It doesn't allow room for his own thoughts. But the long stretches of
quiet in-between the action, as I understand it, are when the dread gnaws away
at self-control. For some men in the story, that process is already so complete,
it's rendered them effectively useless in action. But for Richards, by the time
we see him at least, he still seems able to lose himself in the task at hand."
When Richards tells Schofield that Colonel Mackenzie is 300 yards further up
the line-in a cut and cover-Richards cannot believe his eyes when he witnesses
what the Lance Corporal is willing to do next. "Richards' focus is broken by
Schofield, and if he had time to contemplate Schofield's message, I think he
might just be as destroyed by the cruelty of that timing as it's possible for a
man to be," Parker says. "But the vein Richards is in means that his first
thought is not for himself, but for the sake of others who will shortly come
after him. That's why he tries to stop Schofield making that decision."
Chief among Colonel Mackenzie's senior officers, Major Hepburn is ready to
give the word for Devons, B Company to advance on the German soldiers that
Mackenzie believes are outgunned and on the run. Prepared to send in wave after
wave of his men over the top, Mackenzie thinks victory is 500 yards away...yet
even he cannot be certain about defying a new Army Command.
Lance Corporal Tom Blake's brother, Lieut. Blake is a proud officer in the
Devons, A Company and he has followed Colonel Mackenzie to the brink of the
Hindenburg Line at Croisilles Wood. He has no inkling that his younger sibling
has been tasked to stop his mission. Like his commanding officer, he is
uncertain what's behind the Germans' new blockade: a three-miles deep arsenal of
destruction-with field fortifications, defenses and deep-lying artillery-the
likes of which the British have never seen before.
In command of 2nd Battalion and leading the march toward Croisilles Wood,
Colonel Mackenzie is convinced that he has the Germans on the run and can break
their lines. Potentially ignoring incoming orders to stop the attack, Mackenzie
is positive that his newly unauthorized mission will turn the tide of the war.
Yet, General Erinmore is certain that the Colonel, who has ceased all contact
with his command, is ill-informed and outgunned.
Crowd (Background Actors)
Unlike most films that entirely use digital extras for crowds, the background
actors in 1917 were real men, just like the husbands, fathers, brothers and sons
that fought the actual war. Mendes selected the film's 500 supporting artists
personally from an initial group of 1,600 recruits by the production team. The
film's military advisors put them all through boot camp, which included teaching
them about battle tactics, aggression and weapons handling.
A huge number of the men who served in World War I were quite young, and in
some circumstances, there were boys under the age of 16 who lied about their age
to sign up. For the scenes that required crowds, extras were cast in the London
area for the Bovingdon portion of the shoot. For Salisbury, due to the long
period of filming in the area, local men aged between 16 and 35 were invited to
attend open casting auditions.
These auditions took place in February 2019, when crowd second assistant
director EILEEN YIP and HOLLY GARDNER of Two 10 Casting saw 1,600 men over two
days of open auditions. A certain level of fitness was required, as the men
needed to be able to run long distances while carrying weapons. Many of those
selected were asked to grow moustaches and no beards were permitted-apart from
for the Sikh soldiers-who also wore turbans.
In sum, 500 extras were cast for the scenes in Salisbury. Some of the extras
from Bovingdon enjoyed their time on set so much that they travelled to
Salisbury as well.
THE CINEMATOGRAPHY AND EDITING
Immersive, Visceral, Continuous
How 1917 Was Lensed
Mendes' vision to capture the story in real time in a way that plays as one
continuous shot requires the audience to join the characters and immerse
themselves in their turbulent journey. To be clear: 1917 was not shot in one
take, but was filmed in a series of extended, uncut takes that could be
connected seamlessly to look and feel as if it is one continuous shot. As there
is no cut within a scene, the viewer, much like Schofield and Blake, is not able
to step away from the mission that lies in front of them. Although Mendes had
shot the opening scene of Spectre as one continuous shot, shooting an entire
film this way was a new experience for everyone, including Mendes. "I've never
been in a situation where we'd start shooting on Monday, and I knew for a fact
that what we shot on Monday would be in the movie," Mendes says.
Shot in this way, the audience gets an authentic, tangible sense of what
these boys would have gone through. "The reason I chose to do that with this
material is, from the very beginning, I felt it should be told in real time,"
Mendes says. "The sense of distance traveled is very important. But it is also,
most importantly, an emotional decision, that I hope connects you even more
closely to the journey of the two central characters. I wanted an audience to
take every step of the journey with them, to breathe every breath. It wasn't a
decision that was imposed on the material afterwards. I had the idea alongside
the idea for the story - style, form and content all came at the same time. You
begin to construct the narrative so that every second forms part of one
continuous, unbroken thread."
Mendes and Academy Award winner (and 14-time Oscar nominee) Roger Deakins
worked with one another on Jarhead and have collaborated on films from
Revolutionary Road to Skyfall and have a shorthand with each other. "From the
first moment I talked to Sam about the idea as a one-shot movie, I knew it was
going to be immersive and that it would be essential for the storytelling,"
With the one-shot premise, it was imperative to block the scenes during
1917's four-month rehearsal process, and to discuss the layout of the sets in
great detail. Once it was established how the actors would move within the space
for the scenes, it became possible to map out exactly where the camera would
The cinematographer expands on this process. "Sometimes, you need to be
close, and sometimes you want to pull away and see the characters within the
space, within the landscape," Deakins says. "So, it was getting a balance
between that. A lot of the blocking was done in our heads, then Sam would
rehearse the scenes, then we drew schematics and had a storyboard artist who
gave different options within those basic ideas. It gradually evolved, but then
when we worked with our actors on location, it evolved even further."
The director reflects that with standard filmmaking, there's always a
"get-out-of-jail card" that allows fixes and changes in post. "Your normal
thought process is, 'We might be able to cut around this moment, or shorten this
scene, or we might take that scene out altogether.'" Mendes says. "That wasn't
possible on this film. There was simply no way out. It had to be complete. The
dance of the camera and the mechanics all had to be in sync with what the actor
was doing. When we achieved that, it was exhilarating. But it took immense
planning, and immense skill from the operators." Deakins often needed to be with
the focus puller and DIT in a small white van, remotely operating the camera
even if it was being carried. As they were frequently operating the camera
remotely across vast distances, it was very tricky. "Sometimes, we'd have a
camera that was carried by an operator, hooked onto a wire," Mendes says. "The
wire would carry it across more land. It was unhooked again, that operator ran
with it then stepped onto a small jeep that carried him another 400 yards, and
he stepped off it again and raced around the corner."
Due to the prep period and many lengthy rehearsals on shooting days, there
was always a clear starting point and physical structure to the scenes, but this
did not mean the filmmakers and cast were fixed entirely in their approach.
Because the film needed to play as one shot, primarily filmed outside,
Deakins relied upon light that was as natural as possible, which meant Mother
Nature was as much in charge of the shoot as the filmmakers were. Instead of
blue skies and direct sunlight, which bring with it shadows that are difficult
to shoot around and impossible for continuity, the production prayed for the
days to be consistently overcast.
No location ever repeats in 1917, so the camera is constantly moving through
landscapes. "Being such an exterior movie, we were very dependent on the light
and the weather," Deakins says. "And we realized, well for a start, you can't
really light it. If you were running down a trench and turning around 360
degrees, there's nowhere to put a light anywhere. Because we were shooting in
story order, we had to shoot in cloud to get the continuity from scene to scene.
Some mornings the sun would be out, and we couldn't shoot. So, we would rehearse
For the director, total engagement from all involved in his production was
paramount. "That is behind the way in which we decided to shoot 1917," Mendes
says. "I wanted people to understand how difficult it was for these men. And the
nature of that is behind everything."
His comrade in arms shares that the film must be experienced to believe.
"Until you actually see this on a screen," Deakins says, "you don't really
realize how immersive it is and how this technique draws you into it."
Fresh from the Manufacturer
Deakins Wields the ALEXA Mini LF
Deakins has long used ARRIFLEX cameras on his productions, and during summer
2018, he and JAMES ELLIS DEAKINS (Sicario)-his wife and digital workflow
consultant-went to ARRI Munich and discussed a mini version of the ALEXA LF
camera that could deliver the intimacy and speed Mendes required of the shoot.
ARRI advised that it was in the process of developing one, and the couple asked
if the manufacturer could have it ready by 1917's start of shoot: April 2019.
Once the ALEXA Mini LF prototypes proved ready, from February 2019, Deakins
and his team ran camera tests with the ALEXA Mini LF. They tried it out with a
variety of rigs they wanted to use during filming-including the Trinity,
Steadicam, StabilEye, DragonFly and Wirecam.
Just in the nick of time, 1917 would be shot on the brand-new ALEXA Mini LF
with Signature Primes in combination with the Trinity Rig. The camera has a
large-format ALEXA LF sensor in an ALEXA Mini body.
Especially for use on this epic, ARRI Munich had three cameras ready early.
The size of the cameras was ideal for the epic film, as well as its
large-screening format. Officially launching in mid-2019, the ALEXA Mini LF
expands ARRI's large-format camera system.
At the time, the 1917 production had the only working ALEXA Mini LF cameras
in the world. ARRI had released only the large version of the camera a year
earlier, in 2018. Says the manufacturer: "ARRI's large-format camera system is
based around a 4.5K version of the ALEXA sensor, which is twice the size and
offers twice the resolution of ALEXA cameras in 35-mm format. This allows the
filmmakers to explore their own take on the large-format look, with improvements
on the ALEXA sensor's famously natural colorimetry, pleasing skin tones, low
noise, and suitability for High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut workflows."
How to Cut a Film with No Cuts
The challenge of joining the cuts in 1917 is that every scene had to be shot
with incredible precision...so that two frames could be blended together
seamlessly on screen. That painstaking attention to detail added another layer
of continuity because the pacing needed to match, as well as other elements in
the scene, such as the weather, cast and sets.
As it was crucial for the takes to be tracked, it meant fully focused
attention-and constant vigilance-from the script supervisor, visual effects and
the editor. It was imperative for Mendes, Deakins and their fellow Oscar
winner, editor Lee Smith, to know the moment at which the shot would be stitched
from one scene to the next, as it could never be fixed in post with a cut to a
In order to take the characters seamlessly from one cut to the next, Mendes
made sure that blends happened in a variety of subtle ways. That could mean
traveling through doorways and curtains, or when the characters enter a bunker,
or with a silhouette, or a body movement, or a foreground element or a prop...or
even a 360-degree shot.
Producer Jayne-Ann Tenggren walks us through the logic. "How we blended from
one shot to another was designed around the action, sometimes because of a
change in lighting environment, sometimes because of a need to change the camera
rig, and sometimes simply an emotional choice as to how long the scene should
run," Tenggren says.
Lest you believe editor Lee Smith had it easy on the production, think again.
"This has been a very complicated film to edit because the whole process of the
blending, making it look like one shot-and doing the kind of the mixing of those
shots-is so crucial, and has had to be done so fast, in order to give Sam
instant feedback," producer Callum McDougall says. "In the opening of Spectre,
we created one long shot in Mexico City. But it's nothing compared to what Lee,
who's our same editor, has had to do here."
For Mendes, this production has been an embarrassment of film-artist riches.
"We have Roger Deakins," Mendes says, "who you could argue is one of the two or
three greatest living cinematographers, fresh off his Oscar win for Blade
Runner 2049, collaborating with Lee Smith, who just won the Oscar for editing
Dunkirk, and Dennis Gassner, who I've worked with five times now. We started
working together on Road to Perdition way back, and he also designed Blade
Runner, Skyfall and some of your favorite Coen brothers' movies."
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