Golden Globe-winning film '1917': 'There was a surreal element to what these guys were seeing'
Sam Mendes' Golden Globe-winning film '1917' uses long takes and incredible choreography to re-imagine the Great War. Its star, George MacKay, explains how it was made
Netflix were no doubt hoping their much-touted heavyweights Marriage Story and The Irishman would win big at the Golden Globes last Sunday, but instead it was Sam Mendes' 1917 that scooped the coveted Best Picture and Best Director awards. It opened here yesterday, but hasn't been getting quite the advance publicity it deserves - it's a remarkable, visceral piece of cinema, an instant classic.
Shot to look like one continuous take but in fact comprising a series of cleverly stitched-together long sequences, it stars George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as battle-hardened soldiers given an unenviable mission. The Germans have pulled back from the front line in northern France, leading the Devonshire Regiment to plan an ambitious attack. But it's a trap, and Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake must sneak through booby-trapped trenches and hostile enemy territory to avert a pointless slaughter.
For MacKay, who leads the audience through a terrifying incarnation of the trenches, it must have been a hugely demanding role, but he's a revelation in it. In films like Captain Fantastic and Marrowbone, MacKay has proved a very promising young character actor, but he displays charisma and new depth in this memorable move centre stage.
1917 all began with Alfred Mendes, the director's grandfather, who joined up aged 17 and saw terrible action during the Great War.
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"He never told his children what he went through," George tells me, "and Sam used to ask his father why his grandfather would wash his hands incessantly. His dad told him it was because he remembered the mud of the trenches, and never being able to get clean.
"Eventually, he got his grandfather to tell him the stories, and one of the things he mentioned was that he'd been a messenger, and had to run errands across no man's land. That image of one man delivering a message was the seed that stuck with Sam for a long time, and became the inspiration for his story.
"I don't play his grandfather, but the film is in the spirit of Alfred Mendes, definitely."
The shoot itself was a massive undertaking, a logistical nightmare that required a different approach. 1917's continuous chronological forward thrust meant that every pause and explosion, every terse encounter and dodged bullet, had to be worked out in minute detail beforehand.
"We rehearsed for six months before we started shooting," George explains. "Usually with an edit, you craft the pacing of a film after you've shot it. But Sam couldn't with this one, because the way we were piecing it together meant you couldn't change the pacing because the camera never leaves them at any point.
"Once we had Sam and Krysty Wilson-Cairns' beautiful script, we started going to locations, empty places where the sets would eventually be grafted from the land, and working through the scenes, to basically then put stakes in the ground to mark out where the trench needed to be.
"Because of the way we made it, the scene needs to be as long as the set and the set needs to be as long as the scene. Say you're steaming down a trench at a jog, and then you need someone to stop you and talk to you, we needed to have worked all that out, then we'd mark it out and the set would be built around that. That's what made 1917 totally unlike any other film, because everyone was working together, and as an actor you're party to so many conversations you'd usually never hear, because there was this mutual hand-off in the making of the film between set, camera, sound and acting."
The shoot lasted 16 weeks last summer, in locations across rural Wiltshire and central Scotland.
"The whole process was amazing," says MacKay. "It's the best team experience I've ever had on a job, because in a way there was no lead element other than the story, and each shot was a kind of dance between ourselves acting it, the environment and the camera crew. The physicality of some of the operators was really, really amazing: we're the ones that you see doing all that hard stuff, but there was a person holding the camera most of the time who was doing it all with us."
To prepare himself psychologically to play William Schofield, MacKay read widely.
"When I first auditioned for the role, I felt like I knew the man… his character and who he was as a person, I felt connected to him. But in terms of understanding the context, there were two books which Sam said he'd really like me to read: one was a first-person account called With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, and the other was All Quiet on the Western Front, which gives you an idea of the German perspective. Also, there was an audio book called Forgotten Voices of the Great War, which had hundreds and hundreds of first-person accounts from veterans that you could actually listen to.
"Another thing for me was the war poets: so much amazing poetry came out at that time, and that really helped me to understand the surreal nature of what they were seeing.
"We tend to associate that war with just static, muddy trench life, but there was a surreal element to what these guys were seeing. I mean there was an industrial revolution happening in warfare, like for instance no one had ever seen a tank before, and imagine seeing that or mustard gas or whatever, and what that did to people, how it would bend your mind."
Schofield's journey through hell is frequently interrupted by powerful cameos from heavyweight actors like Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott: the latter's appearance made a particularly big impression on MacKay.
"I loved the character of Lieutenant Leslie, who Andrew plays so brilliantly - he's such a mercurial actor, and it amazes me how he manages to do so many things at once.
"The beauty of Sam and Krysty's script is the greyness of it all, in the sense that these are very clear characters but they're also full of contradictions, and Andrew in his scene sums that up.
"There's a real cynicism to Leslie, and frankly he's just pissed off, he's been hurt by what he's seen and he's outraged; there's also a dark humour and a sort of meanness to him, but at the same time he added an incredible sadness which I didn't get when I first read the scene.
"When he sends Blake and Schofield on their way, he essentially makes a nasty joke about them, but then that final look is like, such a f***ing shame, because all of this is pointless. Andrew got so much out of it."
When MacKay first saw the film, he was surprised by his reaction.
"I didn't know what to expect really, I thought it would remind me of the memories of making it or whatever, but there's a real emotional heart to it, and honestly the first thing I thought was, it made me really clear on who I loved most in my life, who I would miss," he says.
"The film and the doing of it was a massive effort on everyone's part in the service of something bigger than themselves.
"And so when I watched it, I thought about what was bigger than me in my own life."