Last night I finally saw the film 1917 directed by Sam Mendes. Roger Deakins, its cinematographer, is the real star. I read a lot about Deakins’ work on the film when I got home. Here is some of what I discovered.
“We would go out in the field and mark out a line of trenches and, say, rehearse where the tree is in the beginning and how far do we want them to walk,” Deakins has said. “The shots developed as we were doing that and the way the camera moved developed and some of the staging developed. In January/February we went to Salisbury Plains where the bulk of the shoot was and mapped out, say, the farmhouse and the orchard and everything with stakes. Mapped out the whole location and then played the scene with the actors.” Indeed, the sets for 1917 were built to the specification of the cinematography. Deakins: “We eventually shot it with a proper camera so I could test equipment as well. That was so that we could move the orchard, make it bigger or smaller. We could move the barn where we wanted it and really lock down exactly what the camera was going to do.
Deakins even went to the Arri company and asked it to expedite its camera production so 1917 could be the first film to utilize its latest technology. “My wife and I went to Munich and twisted their arm and said, ‘We think you’re going to make a mini version of this camera at some point,” said Deakins. “[They said,] ‘Well, yeah, but it’s going to be a year or two.’ We said, ‘Well, can it be by next February and can we have three?’ They came back to us and said yeah, okay because they realized they had to do it because everything was going to be shot on the same camera. It was such an opportunity for them and the last camera turned up about two weeks before we started shooting I think.”
Deakins met cameraman Charlie Rizek at Arri’s offices and saw his single-take work and hired him for 1917. “[The camera] was on this rig called a Trinity which is Arri’s kind of steadicam version,” Deakins said. “It’s quite heavy but Charlie was demonstrating it for us at Arri in London. The singing soldiers in the forest is one of his. They’re long shots, like eight, nine minutes and it’s so much movement and some of it’s really delicate, and then he’s off running. … Some of the things it’s like on a four-point wire,” Deakins said. The canal shot is on a wire but when he drops down off the bridge, the camera’s taken off the wire and then the grips run with it behind him up the stairs and into the lookouts. … We were working with this remote stabilize head called the Stabileye which is a very lightweight little head which has saved our ass really,” Deakins said. “I don’t think we could’ve done it without it. One of the most complicated shots was the final run, when he’s running along in the battle. The camera is on a stabilizer. It’s all remotely operated. It starts on a 50 foot Technocrane down in the trench. Then it booms up with George [MacKay] as he comes up and looks down at the Captain and then he decides to go.”
Camera grips, dressed as WWI soldiers so they would blend in, would also pick up the camera and continue the shot. “As George does that, the grips take it off that Technocrane, carry it on a bar like this, walk back with him, get up to speed. There’s a tracking vehicle, a 22-foot Technocrane on it. They hook it onto that. The tracking vehicle takes off at speed. The two grips doing are dressed as soldiers so they run through the back of the shot. The tracking vehicle takes off with George, gets to the end of the trench where he goes down. The vehicle goes really tight in and then it booms out and takes him all the way down in the trench as the explosions go off. There’s 13 grips involved in that. Charlie and Pete [Cavaciuti], the two operators who did steadicam and Trinity were involved as well.”
I was deeply moved by 1917. I found it to be a “silent movie” made in 1917 except with the technology of 2020. It had the constructs of a silent film. 1917 in 2020 has become known for its appearing to be told in one continuous shot and the year 1917 itself is known in cinema history as the year that saw continuity cutting as an emerging technique. 1917 even has a Lillian Gish-like scene when the lead character stumbles upon an innocent girl and a baby in the middle of the film. I thought: God! This is an allusion to Gish.
There is one aspect that could have worked against the film for those of us who love theatre and acting and that is the cameo appearances of British actors, some more famous than others but all deeply respected in the small, tight world of theatre and film in London – Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Andrew Scott, Richard McCabe, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Benedict Cumberbatch, et al. – as if The Love Boat were being presented by Masterpiece Theatre. Even at the end when the young solider is asked to state his name and he pronounces his name with stentorian resonance – “Schofield,” which he pronounces as “Scofield” – it was a kind of coda to all these British actors having appeared by invoking the name of perhaps the greatest of all British actors: Paul Scofield. But even that gave the film a kind of mythic, meta quality that quieted and settled in the film’s last moment when the young soldier closes his eyes and presses the photos of his family to his exhausted, living chest and the film itself comes to rest in one final note of grace.
That young solider is brilliantly portrayed by George MacKay and I am amazed that he has not received more attention for his work. He carries the film on his war-weary, wondrous shoulders and holds it together in his many closeups. There is an artful stillness – the quality that all great actors have – within the frenzy of the chaos of war that is depicted. His comrade in the film’s first act is portrayed by Dean-Charles Chapman who is also quietly – even sweetly – magnificent. Spoiler alert: the latter’s death scene in the arms of the former had echoes to it of the tenderness and love and devotion – if not quite the same homoeroticism – of the scene in Wings from 1927 which was another groundbreaking film about WWI. Wings was the first film to win the Oscar as Best Picture as well as the only silent one ever to be so honored. Will 1917 be the next film to win for Best Picture? Fine with me if it does. Although I think Hollywood loves to reward itself for being Hollywood so Quentin Tarintino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood could easily win.
I’m finally seeing Parasite tomorrow.
In the meantime …
STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS
THAT SCENE FROM WINGS