How Director Sam Mendes Made the Oscar-Winning War Drama ‘1917’ Look Like One Unbroken Shot

1917 Movie / Universal Pictures
1917 Movie / Universal Pictures

From Saving Private Ryan to Apocalypse Now, there’s no shortage of memorable war films. But this Christmas, director Sam Mendes added a new entry to the genre when released the World War I-set drama 1917. The film has already made a major impact on awards season: At the 2020 Golden Globes, Mendes won Best Director and the film won Best Motion Picture – Drama at the ceremony, and now it has won another big award, taking home the Outstanding Motion Picture award at the Producers Guild Awards.

A Big Awards Contender: 1917 won two major awards at the Golden Globes, and has now been nominated for 10 Academy Awards for the 2020 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Sam Mendes, and Best Cinematography for Roger Deakins, among others. The film is one of the major contenders for Best Picture, and is considered the favorite going into Oscar night. For Best Picture and  Best Director, 1917 lost to Parasite, but it took home three awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Mixing.

What’s 1917 About?: The story follows two British soldiers, Schofield, played by George MacKay, and Blake, who will be played by Dean-Charles Chapman. In the film, they are tasked with delivering a message that will help save thousands of men from a trap set by German forces. Sounds like a typical war movie, right? Well, here’s a reason why this one has the potential to be a war movie classic: 1917 was filmed to appear as one continuous shot for the entire two-hour movie—with no cuts.

“It’s set on one day, told in real time in two hours, all in one unbroken shot,” Mendes said at the New York Comic-Con panel for the film. “It’s about going through the journey with the characters. The idea was there from the beginning, it was even written on the cover of the script.”

Here’s the final trailer for the film:

How the Crew Prepared to Shoot It: Mendes said that his production team took six months to prepare for the actual shoot with the actors, because scenes would be choreographed to fit in with continuous takes. The film itself was shot over the course of months, and while the entire film wasn’t shot in one unbroken take, Mendes and his crew used long scenes, editing techniques and matching techniques in post-production to blend scenes together, creating the two-hour ride with no cuts.

The fact that the film was shot mostly in exterior locations added an even bigger degree of difficulty for Mendes and his crew. Unpredictable weather meant that the production had to be ready at a moment’s notice, and because there would be no cuts in the film, the dialogue had to match the distance in each location and each scene.

“We rehearsed more on this movie than I have done with any other movie,” Mendes said at Comic-Con. “You couldn’t just cut away from a scene or a moment. You had to measure the set to the dialogue and vice-versa to make sure it would fit. We went to locations months before with the script to measure it out, taking things step-by-step and to see where we would want the cameras.”

1917 Movie / Universal Pictures
1917 Movie / Universal Pictures

How Oscar-Winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins Prepared: Mendes collaborated on 1917 with his Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was coming off of his first Oscar win for Blade Runner 2049 after being nominated 14 times without a win. At the Comic-Con panel, Deakins said the experience of making the film in one continuous shot was an exciting one, and a challenge he was ready to take on.

“It was this awesome challenge, and you knew where it was going,” Deakins said. “It was right there on the front page. It was kind of weird. But then you read it, it makes sense. It’s not a gimmick, it’s integral to the story. It’s an immersive experience, and it wasn’t just for the sake of being cool. You’re doing a long extended take, the longest takes were probably eight-and-a-half minutes. The camera guys are doing a performance in a way and everything’s got to be in sync because it’s all a ballet. So you’re doing one hard moment, then another, then another, and you’re almost to the end of the shot and you’re just like, ‘Oh man, I hope I don’t blow this one.’ Because then it would be all back to the beginning. It was a real trip.”

Below, take a look at a behind-the-scenes featurette about making the film, showing some of the ways the filmmakers achieved the one-shot look:

1917, starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch, will be released on December 25.

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