‘1917’ Producer Breaks Down “Complexities” of Filming in One-Shot Style
Sam Mendes' ambitious World? War ?I epic — nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture — follows two British soldiers who venture into enemy territory in a race against time, just like the film’s own dramatic entry into the awards battle.
After an eleventh-hour shimmy into the awards race, Sam Mendes’ seemingly one-shot World War I epic 1917 has enjoyed a dramatic last-minute entrance of which even the director of two Bond titles would be proud. Following two young British soldiers (played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) as they undertake a daring mission across the trenches into No Man’s Land, the Universal film has been hailed as a visually sumptuous masterpiece, lauded for not just its technical wizardry (thanks largely to Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the stitchwork of editor Lee Smith), but also its immersive storytelling and sound.
Already a double Golden Globe winner (for best picture, drama, and for best director) and appearing on many critics’ top 10 lists, 1917 has amassed nine BAFTA and 10 Oscar nominations. Among those preparing a trip to the Dolby Theatre is Pippa Harris, Mendes’ longtime producing partner and his Neal Street Productions co-founder. Speaking to THR, Harris discusses how the production complexities of 1917‘s one-shot style made her a “weather geek,” recalls meeting Taylor Swift at the Golden Globes (where she also stalked the Succession team) and reveals which newly anointed Oscar nominee reminds her of Kate Winslet.
Sam Mendes has talked about how 1917 was inspired by stories that his grandfather, a World War I veteran, told him. When did he start speaking to you about the film?
The funny thing is, we’ve known each other since we were kids, so I remember his grandfather, Alfred. He was a great bon viveur and great raconteur. But it was only when Sam and his cousins were little kids and bothering him to tell them stories that he started really talking about the war. But the one that really stuck with Sam was this story of him having to run below the level of the mist and take a message into No Man’s Land. In terms of the film, he first mentioned it to me around three or four years ago, just as a sort of kernel of an idea. His agent and I both said, “Well, why don’t you have a go at writing something?” He did a first draft, which was really just an outline document, and it slightly ground to a halt. We chatted again about it, and I said, “Maybe you should work with a writer, because otherwise it could be one of the things that ends up in a file on your shelf.” And that’s where Krysty Wilson-Cairns came in. We’d both worked with her on Penny Dreadful, and Sam had developed two movie scripts with her — which didn’t see the light of day, but he loved working with her.
Was the plan always to shoot it in this uniquely one-shot style?
That was on the very first document I saw. It’s not that I think Sam’s a particular evangelist for one-shots — he’s not going to make everything in this way. I just think he wanted to tell a very intimate story set against a vast landscape, both literally and metaphorically. And he felt very strongly that if you could stay close and connected to the leads throughout and follow their journey, literally step by step, that it would be a really immersive way of telling this particular story.
As a producer, what sort of challenges did this style of filmmaking create?
The actual truth is that I don’t think any of us really knew the complexities or challenges of it all! It was only when we went on the first location scout that it became clear we weren’t going to find our landscapes anywhere close to each other, and we were going to be stitching them together. There were 12 or so major locations, which were geographically so far apart, and these all had to link up and be conceivably one piece of one journey, and that was very tricky. The other big challenge was the weather. We shot across 65 days and the weather had to look the same. Once we started, we knew we wanted it overcast, because we didn’t want bright sunshine, which would cast a shadow. And we became slightly obsessive weather geeks. My fellow producer Callum [McDougall] and I were rivals in terms of who could find the most obscure weather app with the most up-to-date information. There were very few interior sets, so it wasn’t a case of “OK, it’s bright sunshine, let’s shoot something else.”
Was there a lot of waiting around for the right shade of gray?
Not so much waiting around, but we got into a slightly odd rhythm because we didn’t actually film on the first day, which you can imagine for Amblin [one of the film’s production companies] was slightly disconcerting. We obviously rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. And on the second day, when the weather was spot-on, we just went for it. And, in fact, we shot everything scheduled for Monday and for Tuesday and we got ahead on Wednesday’s work. So we would sort of get behind and then ahead of ourselves, which was a real challenge for the locations department and production design.
1917 came into the awards race pretty late in the day but had an instant impact. Did you always have this dramatic last-minute entrance in mind?
I would love to say that this was a sort of cunning plan. But the reality was that we started filming in April and finished in July, and the plan had always been that it would be released in January. And I think Sam and I just hadn’t factored in the whole “OK, if you want to be eligible for the Globes, you need to screen by X date.” And so it just so happened that we finished the film and I think two days later had the first screening for the HFPA, and then went straight into all the guild screenings.
What’s been the most surprising interaction you’ve had in the awards season so far?
Well, I did meet Taylor Swift at the Golden Globes, which, in terms of my daughter who’s nearly 16, was the most cred thing I’ve ever done. But you do find yourself in these strange scenarios where you walk into a room and Dexter Fletcher is on one side and Brad Pitt’s on the other, and it’s just very odd. Sometimes it’s really lovely, because Sam and I are massive fans of Succession, so we were following them around like groupies [at the Globes]. I’m sure Brian Cox thought we were pursuing them. We kept saying how much we loved the show, which was probably a bit embarrassing.
Did they reciprocate and tell you how much they liked 1917?
They did, actually. They were very nice about it.
Have you learned anything new about your cast or crew while on the awards circuit?
Not so much the awards process, but on one of our very first panels, Dean-Charles Chapman talked about how, when he’d been doing his initial research, he’d read a book of war diaries from World War I. In it was a diary entry by his own grandfather, which he’d known nothing about. That was pretty extraordinary.
Are there any other films or performances that you’ve seen recently, and are perhaps in the awards season discussion, that you’ve particularly admired?
Oh God, masses. I’m a huge fan of Florence Pugh, so I was thrilled that she was nominated for both BAFTA and the Oscars. She reminds me of Kate Winslet a lot. She has a sort of really rooted quality where you totally believe her and whatever she does, and she brought a passion and an energy to that performance in Little Women.
Among all the reviews and recognition 1917 has received so far, is there anything in particular that stands out or is special for you?
The thing that I found, which I’ve never had on previous projects, is that I’ve had so many people saying, “I saw your movie, I loved it, and I’m going to see it again.” I spoke to someone yesterday who’d seen it three times, and I think that’s a real testament to the immersive nature of it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.