'1917': How an Ambitious Narrative Changed the Approach to Filmmaking

Roger Deakins (left) and Dennis Gassner on the set of 1917- Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Universal Studios

A pair of Sam Mendes’ trusted partners — cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner — returned to work on the director's World War I film, but in entirely new ways.

No one is an island, and nowhere does that ring truer than in the craft of filmmaking. Every crewmember must be, in the words of John Donne, "a piece of the continent, a part of the main" — because making a movie is the ultimate trust exercise. Trust makes filmmaking possible, and when it exists, magic happens — as in the case of cinematographer Roger Deakins, 70, and production designer Dennis Gassner, 71. They first worked together on 1991's Barton Fink, and since then they've collaborated on three more Coen brothers films: 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy, 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? and 2004's The Ladykillers. They teamed up with director Denis Villeneuve for Blade Runner 2049 and have joined forces with director Sam Mendes three times: on 2005's Jarhead, 2012's Skyfall and, most recently, 1917. For their work on the epic World War I drama, Deakins earned his 15th Oscar cinematography nomination (he won in 2019 for Blade Runner 2049) and Gassner his seventh for production design (he prevailed in 1991 for Bugsy). The pair recently spoke to THR about the challenges of making 1917, their friendship and three decades of collaboration.

When you first read the script for 1917, what were your initial thoughts?

DENNIS GASSNER "How are we going to do it?" It's a big ask, a big story to tell — actually it's a simple story to tell, but in a big way. [With] every movie with Sam, it's like you jump off into the abyss, and as you're following, you just figure it out.

Roger, I heard that when you first read it, you thought the one-shot description was a typo or perhaps a way to sell the project.

ROGER DEAKINS Yes, because Sam hadn't mentioned that aspect of it to me. He just sent me the script and said he was going to do something set during the First World War, which had me hooked straightaway. It was on the front page that it was a single shot in real time, and I wondered about that because I think those sorts of things can be a gimmick. But then reading the script, it's quite a simple tale of these two young guys, and you follow their story in real time. It seemed like a really interesting idea, and he'd obviously written the script with that idea in mind, the single take.

When you were scouting, you visited the locations in France where the actual battles were fought. What emotions did you feel in those places, and what impressions did you take away?

GASSNER It was really interesting because we went to the Somme and Vimy. And there was a young woman who was guiding us into all of these areas, and I detected a hint of an accent. I said, "I have a suspicion that you may be Canadian." And she said, "Yes, I am, and this is where the Canadian battle took place." I wasn't really invested in the war at that point, and all of a sudden as a Canadian-born and American-raised [person], there was this incredible DNA pride that kicked in. I think that's what permeated throughout the entire film, through everybody that we all started to work with — starting with Sam and his grandfather — the pride of what it took to do these things. I never really kind of understood the huge context of history, and this really was the foundation of it for me.

DEAKINS I'd been there a few years ago, actually. I've always been interested in the history of World War I, I guess because I grew up in Devon, [England,] and in Devon every little village has a memorial to the fallen. Even if you go to a tiny little village in North Devon, there can be a dozen names on a cross in the village square. I once did a whole journey along the front line from basically Ypres almost to the Swiss border, and although obviously it's a hundred years ago, there's still quite a lot left that informs you about the scale of it. As Dennis was saying, the number of nationalities that were involved — it wasn't just the British and the French and Germans. It was Canadians and New Zealanders and Belgians and people from all over the world. I went [to Vimy Ridge] with Sam as well, where the Canadians fought. Although the actual front line and the main sort of depth of the trenches is all overgrown — it's almost in a forest now — the landscape is still potholed for miles. It's very moving because it really gives you a sense of the kind of history and the scale of it and the way the world turns and changes.

Was there a key piece of reference material or inspiration that you kept revisiting during production?

DEAKINS I think it was photographs from the period. There was one photographer, a guy called Frank Hurley, who photographed the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic in 1915 and actually came back from that and joined the Australian troops at the third battle of Ypres. He took some of the most visually amazing photographs of the First World War; he went from photographing the Antarctic to photographing the trenches and the horror of the Western Front. So I looked at his work quite a lot. I know Dennis had quite a few of his photographs on the wall in his office. It was a really interesting piece of history. I'd love to have had a chance to talk to that man about his experiences. What a life!

GASSNER There was so much information when I arrived in London, and there was so much imagery that was documented. Sam had a historical research person who did a pass on the script, just going through the hundreds of thousands of images that were taken, and I think culled it down to about 50,000. I remember going through those and pulling things out. I didn't want to know anything about the war — when I arrived in London, I wanted to be at ground zero and kind of let it just wash over me and keep picking things. Then we ended up putting all of these categorically onto the wall of the art department so everybody in the company could come through and look. And as Roger said, there was so much imagery there — it was so overwhelming all the time, you had to kind of pull back a little bit before you got too consumed by it because you still had to do your work. There had to be a fail-safe there at some point, and the fail-safe was the inch-by-inch for me, trying to make the choreography work with Roger.

Roger, I understand that each day, editor Lee Smith would assemble a cut from the dailies so you and Sam could choose the last hero take of the day, and that would determine exactly where the camera would begin the next day. So decisions had to be made daily that would normally be played with in post.

DEAKINS We knew how we were breaking the one shot down into sections, so we knew where we thought one shot was going to end and the next one was going to begin. We knew where the match point was. But obviously when you do such complex camera movement, every take is slightly different. The framing on the end of one take might've been slightly wider or looser than another, or the whole thing might have been slightly fast or slow. So it was really crucial that before we moved, Sam and Lee needed to choose the hero take that we had to match to the next section.

Did this change your workflow?

GASSNER It was paramount to everything because we had only a certain amount of spaces that we could build and [we had to consider] how that all knitted together through the planning process. We did it in drawings first because that's the cheapest thing to do. Then we made models to bring it up into a three-dimensional form to see how that was going to work. Then eventually you had to build it because the clock was ticking. There's a great line on the film poster, "Time is the enemy." That's pretty much [the situation] when you come down to it.

After all these years of collaborating, you must have a shorthand. Were there specific experiences from past projects that informed how you worked on 1917?

GASSNER It's the collective, when it comes down to it. I wouldn't have jumped off into the abyss unless I knew that I had friends doing it with me.

DEAKINS The three of us did a film together, Jarhead, the first film that I worked with Sam and Dennis on. Dennis had worked with Sam before that. I thought Jarhead had a lot of parallels to 1917, not just because it was a war story but because it was a story of one individual's experience of a war. It's a very different story and a very different approach to the way we shot it. But in terms of how we developed the look of it and the sets and the feel of it, that experience probably was very helpful for our group experience on 1917.

GASSNER It's just hard to imagine not having the experience that we've had together and actually making this film. It wouldn't have been done the way we did it.

DEAKINS I agree with that. It was one of the closest collaborations I think I've experienced … You're shooting a film like that in England, and there are not many films made about 1917. Most people in England have got some connection with it through great-grandparents or through where they live and they see the war memorials. So there was a passion, and I hadn't really experienced that kind of sense of comradeship in a way. Every film is like that when you work hard together with a group of people. But there was something special about 1917. We would finish shooting a certain long take and Sam would say, "Yeah, I think that was OK," and everybody would kind of high-five each other. There was such an atmosphere. I've never really seen that before.

Villeneuve, with whom you both collaborated on Blade Runner: 2049, gave a talk at Google, and he said that movie was "Deakinized from the very beginning." Dennis, having worked with Roger for so many years, what would you say it means for a movie to be Deakinized?

GASSNER I'm in! This is my relationship with Roger. It actually goes back to Barton Fink and many Coen brothers films. Roger is a storyteller, I'm a storyteller, and we wanted to tell that story, and how do we go about doing that? The thing that makes what I do — the architecture of a space — magical, is what Roger does. And that's basically what Roger does. He'll take and transcend that into the emotional content.

Roger, what defines a Dennis Gassner movie?

DEAKINS The care and the love of the job. I mean, obviously we've worked together for so many years, there's a level of trust and knowledge about each other's likes and dislikes, and we can have a laugh about things. We can disagree but kind of tease each other about those disagreements, and it's a very relaxed way of working. So I'd say it's a common passion for the work.

You've both worked and collaborated on so many different types of movies. Is there a subject or story you haven't tackled that you'd like to?

GASSNER My wife and I were just talking about that the other day. She said, "What's left?" And I said, "I'm sure there's going to be a story that's going to come that we feel we can help tell." To me, it's always been about the story. Every moment I think about it: Are we telling it the right way?

DEAKINS There are so many stories and so many situations and so many worlds you could help conjure up. Who would have thought that Sam would come back with a film set in 1917 and that particular challenge? It's very hard to tell what gets made — that's the only thing I would say. Dennis and I've been very lucky in what we've done individually and what we've done together. I think I've had some exceptional luck, given the kind of films that are being made today, most of which I'm sorry to say I'm not that interested in.

GASSNER I totally agree with Roger on that. It's a fun thing to say now because I never think of myself as a senior member of the film community.

DEAKINS Funny that, isn't it? We both look forward to the next thing. I think Dennis is the same — I certainly don't look back. I consider myself incredibly lucky in kind of the work I've managed to do, the people I've worked with and especially Dennis and his crew, but especially this last film. But I'm looking forward to the next thing and the next time and the next challenge. That's why you do 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.