The film earned a whopping 10 nominations, including for best director, original screenplay and cinematography.
Following two British infantrymen as they sneak through the World War I trenches in order to prevent the slaughter of a fellow battalion — and its 1,600 soldiers — 1917 is one of nine contenders for the 2020 Oscars' best picture statuette.
The film earned a whopping 10 nominations, including best director for Sam Mendes, best original screenplay for Mendes and his writing partner Krysty Wilson-Cairns and best cinematography for Roger Deakins.
One of the most notable features is that the movie is presented in one continuous shot ... or at least what appears to be one continuous shot.
Read below for 10 things to know about 1917.
Pulling off the choreography required to achieve the one-continuous-shot look was an extraordinary undertaking for 1917 director of photography Roger Deakins. He even had to use cameras that hadn't been made available to the rest of the world yet.
Deakins spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the making of 1917 just before its wide release on Jan. 10. He utilized a trio of ARRI's Alexa Mini LF, a lighter version of the company's large-format Alexa digital camera, making use of their small size to choreograph the long shots of the two leads as they precariously march through No Man's Land.
Explained Deakins: "When we got on No Man's Land, it was like, 'OK, well, how do we work with the actors and choreograph the camera movement with the actors so you see details, and then you go from one character's close-up to another character?' And then you see them wide, and then you see what they're looking at. That was really interesting. That informed a lot about what we were going to do with the rest of the film — how we could free the camera at moments where we needed to."
Twenty-seven-year-old British actor George MacKay portrays Lance Corporal William Schofield in the $90 million epic film. MacKay has had steady work as an actor since he was a child, but his early successes weren't enough to help him land a spot in a couple of top drama schools.
In an interview with THR, MacKay confesses that he was rejected from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where his 1917 co-star Benedict Cumberbatch is now president.
"It was a good lesson," MacKay said. "Like, of course I wanted to get in, but if anything, it was an inspiration to open my eyes and ears more to any learning experience that came along in work. I'm going to listen to everyone more. I'm going to watch. I'm going to try stuff out. And that helped me loads. It also helped shape the choices in the work."
Composing the score for a film that teeters on the edge of dramatic action for almost two hours is no small feat, as composer Thomas Newman knows well. The 1917 maestro sat down with THR to discuss just how he achieved the rhythmic sound that propels the film forward.
To achieve the "neutral propulsion" the movie required and to hint at the feel of a military march, Newman incorporated a few "processed and modulated" field cadences and opted for "pale instruments" like the lap dulcimer, a string instrument that can be struck to create a rat-a-tat sound. "We were compelling the drama forward — the whole notion of the tick-tock of a ticking clock," he said.
Screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns hadn't written a produced screenplay when director Sam Mendes asked her to join him in co-writing the script for 1917.
In an interview with THR, Wilson-Cairns described the two previous attempts to get her work made, the first of which was also a job given to her by Mendes.
She said of the two unproduced screenplays, "One of them was The Voyeur's Motel. There was a big splashy announcement that I was writing it and there was Sam and Steven Spielberg. And then, just as I handed in the first draft, they were like, 'Oh, did anyone hear about this documentary that's being made about this exact same thing?' Turned out the rights had been sold twice. And [Spielberg's production company] Amblin didn't actually have them. It was a cluster! And then I had another project, which fell apart. And then Sam phoned me up for 1917 and said, 'Third time's a charm!'"
Wilson-Cairns also said that Mendes hired her without the knowledge that she was already a World War I aficionado, but then he dropped the bombshell about the movie's formatting.
"What he didn't know was that I was a World War I buff, which helped as well and was pure luck," she said. "And then the very last thing he said in that call was, 'By the way, it's all going to be one shot,' and hung up on me. I was just standing there and I was like, 'What the fuck?'"
This was not editor Lee Smith's first war film. The Dunkirk veteran won an Oscar in 2018 for that film, but the challenge of 1917 would prove far more demanding, and at a much faster pace.
In an interview with THR, Smith described the necessity of filming the story in-sequence and having to edit the movie as it was shot, often at a frenetic pace.
"The film had to be finished basically as it was being shot," he said. "There's no traditional postproduction. We were doing very elaborate sound work. I also had four compositors madly erasing cranes and camera platforms — erasing all the things that would distract you from watching the film — so that we could get something that was very watchable very quickly."
Smith also said that the effects team was working so quickly that when production wrapped, the edit was effectively finished.
Though the goal was certainly to make the movie appear as one continuous shot, actually filming that way presented too many logistical challenges.
In an episode of THR's podcast Behind the Screen, Deakins and Mendes spoke with Carolyn Giardina about the process of stitching long takes together in order to make the audience perceive the pic as a continuous shot. The filmmakers estimated that the longest shot of the film was roughly eight-and-a-half minutes long.
Each shot was a technical challenge all its own, as Deakins described in the interview. Regarding the setup of just a part of one shot, he said, “The camera comes off a 50-foot Technocrane, it gets carried up the hill and walked backwards [with a] Mini Libra head. Then it gets put on another Technocrane that's on the back of a truck and it goes racing off and the grips that carried it are in uniform so they got paid as being extras. There was probably 13 grips and our camera car driver."
Mendes' dedicated the film to his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who served as an infantryman in World War I. The plot of the movie is largely based on stories that Mendes was told by his grandfather decades ago, but the initial curiosity about his grandad's war stories was piqued by a very simple habit: the way Alfred would wash his hands.
At the premiere of the film at the TCL Chinese Theater in December, Mendes spoke plainly about how exactly he was inspired by his grandfather to write the pic.
“He used to wash his hands all the time — repeatedly — and I used to laugh at him, and I asked my dad, ‘Why does Grandpa wash his hands?’ And he said, ’It’s because he remembers the mud of the trenches and the fact that he could never get clean,’” Mendes said.
In THR's making-of feature, 1917 producer Pippa Harris discussed many aspects of the film production and how they differed from a typical movie. Much of the pic was shot on an old military base in Salisbury, England, where many of the trenches seen in the final film were constructed. When they realized that the base retained much of its active infrastructure — including barracks for housing soldiers — Harris had an idea.
"I thought, 'I bet we could rent these barracks cheaply,' and [DP] Roger Deakins said, 'I'd be up for that. I wouldn't mind sleeping in one of these,' but of course as we got closer to the actual shoot, I thought, 'There's no way I'm going to ask any of the crew to sleep in barracks,' " she says.
In that same making-of feature, director Mendes confessed that he stuck close to the ticking clock thriller-esque feel of 1917 by rushing to finish the movie before its first screening at the Directors Guild of America on Nov. 23. Mendes finished the pic just six days prior.
It was after that screening that the awards buzz began in earnest for Mendes and the rest of the team behind 1917. After winning best drama film and director honors at the Golden Globes, its sights are now set on the Oscars. Speaking of which...
Following critical reviews have given 1917 near-universal praise, it may have seemed obvious that the film would be nominated for at least one Oscar — it ended up scoring 10 noms.
But the British director isn't a regularly nominated name like Martin Scorsese. The last time that Mendes was nominated was for a best director Oscar for American Beauty way back in 2000, and that nomination turned into a win. Mendes himself is also nominated in two other categories: best original screenplay (along with his co-writer Wilson-Cairns) and best feature film.