Sam Mendes Envisioned '1917' As A Single-Shot Movie From The Beginning [New York Comic-Con 2019]

The reunion of the Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins was enough reason to be excited for the World War I drama 1917. A drama that takes place in one single day, 1917 follows two young British soldiers (Dean Charles Chapman and George MacKay) as they're given an impossible mission of delivering a message deep into enemy territory to prevent a deadly massacre. But one more element would set this war drama apart from the rest: it is a two-hour movie that will be presented in one unbroken, continuous shot. Through a series of camera trickery and clever cuts, Mendes and Deakins are combining their talents to shoot one of the most ambitious war movies yet.

The duo — alongside producer Pippa Harris, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and stars Dean Charles Chapman, George MacKay — seemed almost tranquil at the 1917 New York Comic-Con 2019 panel this Thursday. Here's what we learned about the upcoming World War I drama.

Here's how to get every cinephile to immediately fawn over your movie: shoot it in a single, continuous take. It's a technique that has proven to be an awards magnet across film and television. But Sam Mendes isn't doing it for the praise nor for the technical and physical challenges that one-take movies offer. The director of the upcoming World War I film had always envisioned 1917 as a film that was shot in one long take, he said at the New York Comic-Con panel for his film Thursday at the AMC 34 Theater:

"I had the idea of one person carrying a message and what if it took place in real time, then it became, 'What if we never cut?' It was there from the beginning, written in the script. It was baked in, part of the fabric of the story. We didn't take a structure and compose it on top of the script. When I went to [co-writer] Krysty [Wilson-Cairns] with a story structure, I said this is one shot and that's what we have to write it for."

But that presented a unique challenge for Wilson-Cairns, who had never approached a script with a filming structure already in mind. "The very first challenge was, 'What does a script even look like with one shot?'" Wilson-Cairns said. "And the other challenge is, 'How do you tell a narrative that has a beginning, middle, end and is satisfying?'"

The answer was to create as immersive an experience as possible. As the director of photography, Deakins was given the challenge of turning the camera into a third character, one that would follow the two protagonists, Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman) as they rush to warn of an ambush soon after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line to save a battalion of 1,600 men, including Blake's brother (Richard Madden). "I want to step every step with the characters, I want to breathe every breath," Mendes said. "I think a kind of dream state emerges after awhile where you know you can't escape. Even though it's an ordeal, I didn't want it to become an ordeal. Roger [Deakins] achieves that by making the camera a third character. I want you to live with the two characters and care about them."

Deakins stepped up to that filming challenge, which he described as so "in sync, it's almost like a ballet." The crew would do an extended take that could last up to 8 to 9 minutes. But the biggest obstacles came up during the months of rehearsals to prepare for the film. "You have to measure the set to match the dialogue and measure the dialogue to match the distance," Mendes described. If the script had the characters walking past a tree before jumping down toward a pond, the crew would have to find the perfect location that had a tree and pond within that exact distance of each other — or else stitch together a tree shot in Wiltshire and a pond shot in Glasgow, which they often did.

"We did a lot of research," Deakins said. But the research that left the most lingering impact on the team was not the locations, but the visual references they would use to find inspiration for their World War I soldiers. "There was one particular photograph," Deakins said thoughtful;y, "and it's just a group of soldiers on a standard land. There was one kid looking at the camera, and he looked so...lost. It was very moving. That photograph to me said everything about what we were doing. It's something intangible."

Honoring the memories of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the war was the emotional crux of making 1917 for both Deakins and Mendes, who was inspired to write the story based on tales of the war told  by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes:

"I think the first time I understood the idea of war was when my grandfather told me the story of his time in World War I. He told me the story when we were kids, and it was about carrying a message. That kernel stayed with me and grew from there. This is not based on my grandfather, but the spirit of it is in the soldiers whose lives were lost, the sacrifices made. It's a passion project really."

But Chapman and MacKay lent their own spirits to the soldiers they play in 1917 quite literally, with Mendes molding and shaping the parts to the actors' individual personalities. "The parts subtly changed around them," Mendes described. "We were adding lines all the time, and adding and subtracting around them. The roles became inextricably linked to them. There's some of that old English nobility to George and that scallywag nature to Dean."

As for the boys themselves, they couldn't have been happier to be put through the ringer. Chapman revealed that during production, he had learned of his own great-grandfather's service during World War I after finding his entry in The Western Front Diaries. And MacKay is at the center of one of the film's most dynamic scenes that is sure to be spotlighted in this year's end-of lists — a sequence in which he runs through a barren field as mines explode around him.

"The physical relentless of it that was actually a pleasure. I think Sam said at the end of the shoot that said, "You're going to have to level with the fact that you'll never be this fit again,'" MacKay joked.

1917 hits theaters on December 25, 2019.