If there’s one late-arrival film that has the potential to go all the way to Oscar this awards season, it’s Sam Mendes’ World War I story “1917.” Directed and—for his first time—co-written by Mendes and screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the film is in part inspired by an account told to Mendes by his paternal grandfather, following two young soldiers-turned-messengers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), as they work to warn a faraway battalion of an impending German ambush. Thousands of lives are in the hands of these young heroes as they race the clock through no man’s land, booby-trapped enemy territory, and desolate, bombed-out towns.
Over the film’s two hours, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins pull off the astonishing illusion of one nearly unbroken, real-time take—a visual trick that, when paired with its moving performances and compelling story, has gripped awards audiences. Storming the race after its Christmas Day premiere, “1917” notched 10 Oscar nominations on Jan. 13, including for best picture, director, and cinematographer. And at the Golden Globes earlier this month, it won best drama feature film and best director.
Sitting with Backstage during a whirlwind weekend of mid-December press in New York, Mendes and MacKay explain how their combined powers brought together the film’s massive technological and cinematic feats, the unlikely places that MacKay found his world-weary Schofield’s heart, casting the sprawling ensemble, and how the way in which this film relied on its actors was unlike anything Mendes has done before.
Sam Mendes: Nina Gold cast the movie. I like to have first auditions on tape, just with one little scene to get a flavor. I don’t want it to be a full reading; I just want to see their face and hear their voice. We probably saw over 100 people for both Schofield and Blake. I knew George because I’d seen him in “Captain Fantastic” and in “The Caretaker” onstage. But that wasn’t initially my image of Schofield. I had someone dark-haired in my head, and so I was interested but unconvinced. And then he came in. Nina was and is a big believer in him, and he came in with two scenes, and that thing happened that you hope happens with actors. In this case, I co-wrote the part, so I felt like I was closer to this character than ever before. He was everything that I had imagined, but something else, and I began to reimagine the role with George in it.
George MacKay: I found out I got the part when I was watching “The Lehman Trilogy,” [which Mendes directed in the West End and is transferring to Broadway this spring]. I called my agent beforehand and I was like, “You know, I had that third meeting—any news on that?” She went, “No, I think we’re meant to hear soon, but nothing yet! But what are you doing tonight?” I said, “Well, I’m going to the theater.” She said, “Same here! What are you seeing?” And I said, “ ‘The Lehman Trilogy,’ ” and she went, “Same here!” So I was there and I got a text [from her] at the interval saying, “Meet me after for a squeeze.” I went to see my agent, and she took me around the corner and said, “You’ve just been offered it!”
SM: And if you come to “The Lehman Trilogy,” you, too, might find you’ve been offered a role at the interval!
SM: I’m always fairly keen on people who’ve had some experience with theater, whether I’m working on a movie like this or not. They have a few more muscles, sometimes, than others. Across the board, with the rest of the cast—people like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Richard Madden—I’d worked with most of them either onscreen or onstage or both, in the case of Mark and Andrew. And a lot of the smaller roles are populated by people I’ve worked with onstage—in fact, pretty much everyone is! I used that depth of knowledge of the acting pool in British theater to give specificity to even the smallest roles as much as I could. I mean, what defines good acting? What you’ll see is every single person and every single role is very distinct. They don’t conform. They’re not in any way predictable. They all bring something that is definably themselves. Every person [Schofield] encounters, every one of them, I’ve worked with onstage, and every one of them is quite unlike the next.
GM: We started in November  and we began filming in April, so we had six months. We did a week, initially, just kind of sketching it through. Dean and I got there, and at first, we had the lines half in our heads and we were doing it with scripts and things like that, just us and no other actors.
SM: We were on open fields in the middle of nowhere, walking it out and marking what happened where with poles. Until we had done that, we couldn’t construct any sets. We couldn’t build a trench until we knew exactly at what point the trench had to turn left, turn right—where the scenes would happen within it. Everything started with the empty field and the script. The big difference was that the actors were with the crew and me from the first day of prep, and everything was built around their journey. It was the polar opposite of normal movies, where you prep for six months and then the actors arrive and you say, “These are the sets.”
SM: The world here was created around them, around their rhythms, around their acting decisions and what I felt they should be doing from moment to moment. That was the basis for everything—it wasn’t just trenches. How long should the no man’s land be? Well, let’s walk it out. How long should the German dugout be? The farmhouse, the orchard, the roads, the canals, the town at night—everything was built around the actors. And, therefore, until the actors had done it, there was no way of even starting.
GM: Well, it was wonderful to be involved that early on. I don’t think I ever felt a weight of responsibility, like, this is solely mine to bear. Genuinely, this was the biggest team effort I’d ever been a part of.
SM: I don’t think you felt the pressure, particularly.
SM: Because, in a way, there was no right or wrong. I wasn’t testing them. I was exploring with them, so there was no sense of “Well, you’ve gotta get it right now, because otherwise we won’t be able to build the sets!” It was more to do with, “Well, what is the physical shape of their journey? Let’s do it together.” We were able to not only understand the little shifts that happen constantly in the story, psychologically, we were able to know where we needed to be with the camera to capture those key moments, and when we needed to let them walk away from us—or when we weren’t so worried about the internal landscape of the characters and more worried about the external landscape of the story and the physical distance they had to travel. We could make those decisions based around the emotional life of the characters, and that was a very unusual situation. But it also meant that they rehearsed almost without knowing they were rehearsing. They felt like guinea pigs walking up and down hills, but actually, subtly, they were learning their lines, getting to build a physical relationship, learning to act with their kits, their rifles. When we actually came to shoot, many of those things that seem alien to actors in those early stages were not alien to them at all. What you feel when you first see them in the movie is that they are very used to being there. And that’s not acting! I mean, it is acting, but they were very used to being there. They were completely at ease in that world.
GM: Well, we had a week’s rehearsal in November, and then we had December off, essentially, to start at the beginning of January. I wanted to [come back with] offerings and I wanted to know my lines so that the pace I set was the pace of someone who knows what they’re going to do. A friend of mine works at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, so I said, “Do you have any spare rehearsal rooms?” I spent four weeks in December just crawling around on my belly to memorize no man’s land in a rehearsal room doing the lines.
SM: I never knew that! That’s fantastic.
GM: A lot of the sets we had walked across, so I could [think], OK, so I know that’s the hill, I know that’s the barn, and we’re going to go in the barn and I’ve got to look in the room—just so I had it there. That was this time last year. And then [there was] all the research. So much of who both of these men are is their home, so I needed to know where Schofield’s home was and what home meant to him. A big thing was working out where he was from, and that came from Dennis Gassner, the production designer. When I was first introduced to him, I saw a book of a British painter named Stanley Spencer with a beautiful [self-portrait] on the front, and the tone of it reminded me of Schofield. He had served, and he had this love for where he was from, this place called Cookham. So I went to Cookham and I looked at his gallery around there, and I thought, OK, this is a nice place for Schofield to be from. That provided loads of stuff. And first-person accounts, as well, to understand the battlefield experience. That was the literature and imagination side of things. Bringing all of that fizzing in the back of your head to the pragmatism and practicality of physically walking it, certain things bubble up to the surface. It edits itself. It’s like you’re sculpting something: You start with this big old rock, and the more you do it, you’re just chipping away, and hopefully you’re gonna come to what you come to at the end.
GM: To an extent, but I also realize that I enjoy working hard, and some of the time, I will work hard for the sake of that feeling, even if it’s not necessary. I remember Sam saying, “You’re gonna have to Björn Borg and not John McEnroe this. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and you have to be economical. But you can never cut corners.” This process has taught me accuracy, which, in a sense, is almost the biggest difficulty.
SM: Yes, this was really difficult, and I am drawn toward things that are difficult, because challenge is what gets you out of bed in the morning! I do have a justifiable dislike of getting stuck in a rut and repeating myself. I just think, How can I find a way to push either the form or the storytelling? In this case, it was writing for the first time, and the technical aspect was thrilling; it robbed me of a few hours of sleep at night. [Laughs] The number of ways in which we could’ve failed actually only becomes evident to you after you finish, often. But I feel very proud of this one.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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Photographed by Stephanie Diani on Dec. 15 in NYC.