Sam Mendes on the Personal, Political Inspirations for '1917': "The Winds That Were Blowing Then Are Blowing Now"

Premiere of 1917 - Andrew Scott-Sam Mendes - Dean Charles Chapman and George MacKay - Getty-H 2019
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"The movie isn’t about my grandfather but it’s because of my grandfather that it is made," Mendes said of the story behind his WWI film.

For Sam Mendes, 1917 isn’t just another project, but one he’s been waiting to make since his childhood.

At the Wednesday night premiere of the war drama — Mendes’ first-ever at Hollywood’s iconic TCL Chinese Theatre — the director spoke candidly about how his grandfather Alfie Mendes, a World War I veteran who died in 1992, inspired the film.

The director told the crowd inside the screening that his grandfather never spoke of his wartime experiences until he was in his late 70s, and remembered how “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.’”

Upon pressure from the children, Mendes’ grandfather told stories of luck and chance in the war, rather than those of heroism, including how he was sent to carry a message from post to post, in the middle of No Man’s Land, in the winter of 1916. After finally “finding the courage to write,” Mendes wanted to tell the story of “what if that man just kept walking? The movie isn’t about my grandfather, but it’s because of my grandfather that it is made. I hope he’s looking down on us and his spirit is in the film.”

In 1917, two young men during WWI, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, are sent to carry a life-saving message to an ally troop that includes Chapman's character's brother. In addition to its personal meaning in Mendes' life, the film has a key focus on WWI, he said, because “it’s a war that’s in danger of being forgotten.”

“It was 100 years ago, the last survivors are gone now, and the situation in Europe now is not dissimilar to how it was before the first war,” Mendes told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet. “The winds that were blowing then are blowing now, and these people were fighting for a free and unified Europe; that’s worth remembering at the moment, the world is in a powerless state.”

The Universal project is also generating plenty of praise, as well as award season buzz, for its cinematography and style that appears as though it was all shot in a single long take. The director, who also co-wrote and produced the film, said that in taking this approach, mistakes were much more costly. 

"You do six minutes and you do five minutes and 45 seconds of a brilliant take — magic — and then the camera operator trips or an actor breaks a prop and that’s the end of the take, you have to start again. And then you have to get the actors back to that place again where they feel able to re-create that,” he said. “So that’s hard and time-consuming; it makes me exhausted just thinking about it.”

MacKay revealed that the cast and crew underwent six months of rehearsals in order to prepare for the difficult shoot, because when “the camera is always on the move and we’re always on the move because you can’t cut, all the sets need to be the length of the scene and the scene needs to be the length of the set.” Chapman, who previously appeared on Game of Thrones and is no stranger to large-scale productions, added that the rehearsal time gave him and MacKay the luxury “to learn about our characters — we really got to learn about the journey of the men and the amount of layers that went into it.”

Andrew Scott, the "Hot Priest" of Fleabag fame, has a small part in the film, which he said added even more pressure to the challenge of the one-shot.

“If you’re the guy coming in for one scene, I don’t want to be the guy who messes it up,” Scott said. “So if it’s a cigarette not lighting or you’re messing up the lines or bumping into one of the extras or whatever if it is, if you mess up you don’t have the opportunity like you do in regular film where it’s, ‘OK, we’ll just pick up from the cigarette butt.’ So even if you have cinema gold you can’t use it unless it’s 100 percent.”

1917 hits theaters Dec. 25.