'1917' Editor Lee Smith On Being The Film's Invisible Secret Weapon [Interview]

The "hidden man" is how editor Lee Smith sees himself in 1917. Not for a second did Smith want audiences paying attention to his cuts or tricks, but to instead immerse themselves in director Sam Mendes' World War I story, which is constructed to take place in one seemingly unbroken take. Despite the obvious technical wizardry and razzle-dazzle, they pulled it off. Audiences were caught up in the feeling and exhilaration of 1917, not the craft of 1917.

The war pic isn't the first time Smith and Mendes collaborated. The two worked together on Spectre, which involved a long take that gave the editor and filmmaker some ideas of how to accomplish 1917. Outside of Smith's collaborations with Mendes, he's edited several Christopher Nolan films, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and an underrated gem from the early 2000s, Buffalo Soldiers.

Recently, Smith spoke to us about his intense work on 1917, a few of the movie's standout sequences, and doing what hasn't been done before.

Congratulations on the movie. I think it's an incredible accomplishment.

Thank you. I was definitely the hidden man on that one if I did my job correctly.

That's what you always want anyway, right?

Yeah, exactly.

It's impressive how you can admire the craft while watching it, but not in a way that makes the movie feel artificial. 

That was the thing we always spoke about. The film itself had to be front and center. We never really wanted anyone thinking about how it was made while watching it because our leading thought was just making a great story with great performances. That's what we were aiming for. As we started to test screen the movie, we realized we achieved that. A lot of people around us were talking about the technique before we started screening, so I'd go, "We gotta stop banging on about technique and make sure the movie works." As soon as we started screening it, we realized everything is working and all the audience can do is talk about the film. That's exactly what we wanted to do.

You were editing as they were filming and on the set often. Usually, you have so much time to decide on a take, so how intense was moving at that speed? 

Yeah, you could say you're flying by the seat of your pants. Every day I would watch the shoot the day before the shoot, which could run for two hours worth of material and 39 takes for big sequences. I'd have to talk to Sam in the morning. He'd tell me what he likes, I'd tell him what I like, and we'd ask each other why we liked certain takes. It was a fun conversation, but we had to make up our minds because they were setting up for the next shot.

Generally speaking, you want the shot you're really connecting to because of performance and everything else. There were subtle differences between all of those shots. There was no motion capture or computer controlling the cameras. Each shot was an individual organic take. If you take the wrong take, it'd be a snowball effect and you'd dig yourself a hole in the process. The interesting thing was we never changed a single take after the entire shoot. You're right, it was intense.

Say for a sequence like the incoming plane, what other work went into crafting a scene like that?

Well, first of all, that sequence is rehearsed with the actors with just a couple of sticks. They just rehearsed and rehearsed. The set was built on location. We had drones flying for eyelines and all sorts of things happening to get the timing perfect. Of course, there's quite a lot of editorial work in that sequence. In any stunt sequence, it's very difficult to shoot an entire stunt in one shot. The flames and everything were organic and there at the time. The timing of it all was really complicated. That whole scene was two or three days, including the fatality that happens. It was a fascinating sequence. There was a combination of CG and live-action. All kinds of things followed. As a result, it looks quite simple. It wasn't.

Deceptively simple.

[Laughs] Yeah, it's not that simple.

1917 featuretteThe scene with George McKay's character running through the village with the light show happening, it's stunning. How'd you find the right pace and rhythm for that scene?

That was an incredible sequence. My main job on the film was always watching the pace and rhythm. I knew we couldn't let anything go without talking about it, because we'd have to redo it. It's not a film you can readjust in post and go back and do anything. There was stuff shot again, but that was during the shoot because things didn't quite work out the way we were hoping.

The great thing with Sam is, if you say it's not right, he'll go, "Okay, we're doing that again tomorrow." It's always great to work with directors who have that control, and you're not working on a film where they're terrified or go, "No, we got it in the can. We're moving on." You know, when they only half have it. It always had to be the best and most perfect thing we can do.

Sure, there were things that weren't perfect, but we could tweak things very cunningly later. There was always only so much you can do because you don't have traditional coverage. The whole shooting process, in my entire career, I've never experienced anything like that. Normally, there is pressure because I'm supposed to be the gatekeeper, like, "The scene is complete. We can move on. I'm happy." That's very important when you're doing a super high-budget film moving forward, so you don't want to make any mistakes. Having said that, this one was even worse. You can't hold sets and things forever, and we were covering a lot of territory. It was kind of terrifying, but the good news is, it works.

You watched The Revenant and Birdman again as prep for 1917. With your eye and experience, what did you get out of watching those movies?

Well, the first time I watched both of those movies I just enjoyed watching the movies. I think like yourself, once I start watching a movie, I'm in it. I'm not really thinking about technicality. A movie has to basically be a failure for me to start thinking about technicality. I watched them again just out of interest and imagining where they did their cuts and how they accomplished them. Now, I'm kind of like the guys who did those films. You become a bit of an expert on recognizing what the cuts are and where they are.

With 1917, the idea was to literally not do it how it's been done before. We didn't want to copy another version of how something was accomplished. It was more just figuring it out for ourselves. It's always a fun thing to do to make your own mistakes and figure out what you can do and build on it as you're shooting. We learned a lot as we were shooting with what was working and what was problematic. You just make intelligent, educated guesses as you go along to improve the situation. Thankfully, we had a great team working with us. All of the best brains were finding the best possible paths. In the end, I guess I'm kind of an expert on this kind of movie now [Laughs].

Were there many long takes you worked on in the past prior to 1917?

Only the beginning of Spectre. Sam wanted to do the same thing and make it look like one shot. I remember when we were talking about that, it was really complicated. It took a lot of time. We accomplished maybe four or five minutes of screentime. At the time, that scene was very difficult. Then when he sends me this script and says, "I want it be one shot," I was rolling around on the ground going, "No! You're trying to kill us." [Laughs] Even after working on Spectre, that opening sequence was very informative. We got to a point where we just had to abandon the one-shot methodology. I'm sure Sam would've loved to have kept it going. I think the original idea was to do it all the way through the helicopter fight. It just wasn't possible.

Why not?

Well, when I say not possible, I think because the stunt action would've had to have been completely revised to accommodate that. I think once they hit that stunt world, it would've been a rejig of the entire sequence. I think one of the reasons why 1917 works so well is because it was highly prepared. It was thought about. There was just a lot of meetings, camera testing, and more testing than probably anything I've worked on before. I think that's just how you have to do it. It's a very rehearsal-driven way to make a movie, and that suited Sam. Sam wanted to do that. When it's planned for and prepped directly, you get a great result. If someone said halfway into a shoot, "Hey, let's do it in one shot," I'd think, "Yeah, it's not going to work, trust me." Massive, massive pre-thought and preparation involved if you want to go down that path.


1917 is now available on digital and Blu-Ray.