How the new blockbuster ‘1917’ started in Devon

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

You may have recently seen the quite spectacular adverts for Sam Mendes’ new First World War blockbuster ‘1917’. Perhaps you’ve already taken a trip to the cinema where you have watched it in all its glory.  If you haven’t – please go. Soon.

It tells the story of two young British soldiers during the First World War who are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, including a brother of one of the soldiers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

What makes this film so unique, however, is the fact that it is filmed to make it look as though it was one long, unbroken take. At no point do you feel as though the camera cuts away or there has been any editing. You are there with them on their journey – the whole time.

Trying to achieve such a feat is not easy in film. You need a special kind of mind to put the pieces together to make it happen.

Luckily Sam Mendes found such a guy in Devon: Mr Roger Deakins. Deakins was born in Torquay, and continues to split his time between here and the glamour of Los Angeles.

After a legendary career, creating the ‘look’ behind some of the most iconic films of all time including ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘No Country for Old Men’, ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Sicario’, Deakins finally won his first Oscar on his 14th nomination for 2017’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’.

His genius has come to the fore once more with ‘1917’. For a sequence set in a bombed-out French village, for example, he created a scale model of the village, complete with LED lights so he could choreograph every single element.

If the actor goes here, then the camera will need to move in this direction, the light will have to come from this church, everything will need to be angled to that, then a flare will go up here and cast a shadow on that wall there.

All of this, Deakins explained, was done over weeks, well before sets were constructed or rigs were assembled. In an interview given recently, he explained his working: “The crucial thing to start with was, ‘OK, what do we want the camera to do?’ ‘How do we want to interpret the story?’

It’s a single shot, but does that force us to just follow them down a trench all the time? How can we choreograph the actors and the action in a ballet so we can pull them down the trench or see them in profile as they go across No Man’s Land or see a wide shot as they go into the crater? It was those things we really concentrated on.”

Had Deakins the luxury of actual cuts, he might have hidden light sources just out of frame to mold the light to his liking.

But the camera had to move in 360 degrees, and often he’d be shooting in a bunker or a cellar with little more than a few oil lamps on a table. The one exception was during a scene inside the French village.

“We wanted the feeling of, ‘is this his nightmare? Is it a dream? Is it real?’” Deakins said. “We felt we could stylize it to a degree, make it a bit noirish — hence the idea of the flares and of the shadows coming off the shards of the broken buildings.”

Like all great minds, he is particularly modest about his achievement.

“It’s a very particular story, and the technique serves the story,” he said. “I don’t think it’s quite right to think it’s anything exceptional. It’s just this is the kind of story where you want an immersive experience with these characters.”

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