LOS ANGELES: Sam Mendes’ “1917,” an innovative and deeply personal portrayal of World War I, has exploded into Oscar contention following its dramatic wins at the Golden Globes. Inspired by tales Mendes’ military veteran grandfather told him as a child, the film follows two British soldiers on a perilous mission across no man’s land. They must risk near-certain death to deliver a vital message ordering a calamitous planned attack on German lines be aborted.
The film won best drama, the Globes’ most prestigious prize, as well as best director for Mendes - fending off frontrunners like Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”)
“It’s the biggest team effort ever,” co-lead actor George MacKay told AFP moments after the top prize was announced, adding that he was “thrilled, proper thrilled.”
In a radical filmmaking experiment, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins shot footage that glides from trenches to crater-filled battlefields and through a devastated French town, in what resembles one continuous two-hour-long shot.
“They’ve never made a film in one continuous take,” Dean-Charles Chapman, the film’s other lead, told AFP at a Beverly Hills event hosted by BAFTA. “None of us have.”
Chapman and MacKay described how they rehearsed the scenes for six months, “reading the scenes in an open field” as they paced out their movements and dialogue until they became muscle memory.
A detailed, precisely scaled set was constructed around them.
“We’re walking along stabbing stakes along the floor to mark out - there’s the wall, there’s the start, there’s the finish,” Chapman recalled. “Slowly the set would become a trench, and then we’d adjust the size of the set around the scene. We’d do that with every single scene. It took six months.”
The bold approach clearly paid off as victory at the Globes (which open Hollywood’s award season) and has seen odds for “1917” at next month’s Oscars slashed. It is expected to compete for best picture, best director and multiple technical categories - although it’s relatively unknown stars are not in the awards conversation.
Mendes said he deliberately cast actors who were not “big movie stars” to help audiences empathize with them - and keep viewers guessing about whether they would survive. “Maybe both of them will be killed,” Mendes told AFP in Paris last month. “I don’t know. Whereas if it’s Leonardo DiCaprio, then perhaps you know he’s going to survive.”
Chapman is best known for playing child king Tommen Baratheon in “Game of Thrones,” while MacKay had a supporting role in 2016 film “Captain Fantastic.” While “1917” does feature British stars including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott, they are confined to smaller roles.
The basis for the plot was a story Mendes’ grandfather Alfred told him about serving as a messenger on the western front. This was supplemented with other accounts of the war, mined from letters, diaries and other research. “I suppose it is my most personal because it comes directly from me,” Mendes said, “although I feel that I never made a movie that wasn’t personal at some level.”
Chapman told AFP how his research for the role of Lance Cpl. Blake led him to uncovering his own great-great-grandfather’s journal entry in a book called “The Western Front Diaries.”
The actors also visited France and Belgium to see the actual war sites. The film was shot in England.
The collaborative nature of shooting “1917” mirrored the subject matter, as the actors learnt about the appalling experiences their ancestors had endured together in the trenches, they explained.
“There were lots of themes emotionally and literally, about the story and what the characters go through, that were entwined in the making of the film,” MacKay said. “It’s a wonderful thing where the specialness of that experience aligns with it being received so positively.”