Unforgettable war film and real tour de force, “1917” by Sam Mendes is broadcast tonight on France 2. But how did the filmmaker manage to give us the impression that his camera never cuts for almost 2 hours ?
Released in January 2020, directed by Sam Mendes who freely drew inspiration from his grandfather’s memories, meticulously crafted to make the audience feel like one very long sequence shot, 1917 is a film that made history in the history of cinema.
We follow – almost without interruption – the desperate mission of two English soldiers during the First World War, sent through trenches and enemy lines to deliver a message of the utmost importance, likely to save hundreds of human lives.
As it airs this evening on France 2, a look back at the shooting of this feature film like no other, and the tour de force produced by Sam Mendes and his cinematographer, the excellent Roger Deakins (winner of the Oscar for this film).
As the two filmmakers explained in an interview, 1917 is therefore not a real sequence shot, but a succession of long continuous shots, carefully assembled together to offer the audience the illusion that the camera is not cutting Hardly ever.
Even if, of course, the film was therefore not shot in one go, the teams had to film very long takes without interruption (the longest being 8 minutes 30) and sometimes chain several complex camera movements without never press the red button.
“Sometimes the camera is carried by a cameraman, then hung on a cable,“says Sam Mendes in a report on the IMDB channel.
“And that cable carries her over more ground, and then she’s unhooked again. The cameraman runs carrying her, gets into a little Jeep which carries her another 350 yards, then he gets off and turns around the corner. “
Each shot of the film thus represented a veritable obstacle course, both for the actors and for the technicians.
“Preparation was the absolute key”, summarizes the producer Callum McDougall. Before filming, Sam Mendes’ teams therefore carefully studied the terrain, made illustrations, built models, even going so far as to dig a real trench nearly two kilometers long.
“The prep challenges for this movie were the same as a normal movie, multiplied by five”says Sam Mendes, always at the microphone of IMDB.
“We had to measure each step of the journey. (…) The pitch couldn’t be longer than the stage, and the scene couldn’t be longer than the pitch. So we had to repeat every line of dialogue on the spot. This is where it started to look like theater. Because the environment had to be shaped around the rhythm of the script.”
A real theatrical performance in real conditions for the two main actors, therefore. And a choreography set like clockwork for the rest of the team. At the microphone ofEntertainment Weeklyin October 2019, director of photography Roger Deakins compared this perilous exercise to a dance performance:
“You do delicate camera movements, the actors perform and everything has to be in sync because it’s like a ballet. You go through one obstacle, then another, then another, you approach the end of the sequence and you say, “Damn, I hope I don’t screw this up now!” because that would mean starting all over again. It’s been a hell of a ride.”
Add to that the possible weather problems inherent in all outdoor filming and the movement of clouds, which could sometimes create problems with connections between shots, and you will have a fairly precise idea of the difficulties that Sam Mendes may have encountered. on the set of 1917.
The result: a unique work, imbued with a visceral emotion and a power that are directly conferred on it by this exceptional form. A real pinnacle of war film, to see and see again.
(Re)discover the making of “1917”…