NOTE: This interview discusses in detail several story elements of the upcoming Universal Pictures release, 1917, written and directed by Sam Mendes.
An accomplished theatrical and motion picture director and producer, Sam Mendes now brings to screen his first self-authored film. Based on stories related to him by his grandfather, author Alfred Mendes, 1917 depicts a harrowing journey across eight miles through No Man’s Land in a pocket of Northern France, 20km southeast of Arras, where one of the bloodiest battles of World War I is about to erupt.
Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss with Mr. Mendes his Best Picture/Director winner of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Film Critics Association Awards. Opening in select theaters on December 25 and wider in January, critics laud its striking cinematography—giving the appearance of a single, unbroken take (albeit with seamless stops/edits). Technique aside, I wanted to explore the richness of the story, characters, and their motivations.
CL: In what ways do you aspire to re-define what we expect from a war movie? 1917 is a little different in that it’s about avoiding a costly battle.
SM: I don’t think there are many war movies that are about people trying to stop fighting, rushing to stop fighting. I don’t think you ever start by thinking, “I’m going to redefine a genre.” You avoid the big statements. What you want to do is tell a story where the central characters are vulnerable in some way. For me, the big shift with SKYFALL was the fact that I was being allowed to make a Bond that was aging and vulnerable, and allowed time to enter the Bond franchise for the first time. For the first time, M dies. And that alone, rather than the sort of airbrushing that goes on, normally, where one Bond disappears and the next movie, suddenly, he looks different and no one ever mentions it!
I was pushing very hard to make him vulnerable. I felt like there’s a human being here and we need to try and remember how complex the character was when created by Fleming. That had become narrowed in the franchise to the point where Bond was the constant. Everyone else was changing. Bond was just the static figure in the middle of it raising an eyebrow and going, “Shaken not stirred.”
CL: Fleming described Bond as this sort of ordinary man with extraordinary things happening around him.
SM: Yes. I always felt that Bond was an antihero, that you love him for his foibles. You know that he’s a womanizer, a drinker. You know he’s a smoker in the novels. He’s amoral in many ways, immoral in others. So those are the things that- that’s where you get drawn to him. There’s darkness in him and I thought that was always interesting.
With this movie I was really conscious of trying to tell a story about two men amongst two million. I felt like I wanted them at the beginning—it sounds counterintuitive, but—to not feel special in a way, for their heroism to be accidental if we encountered it in the movie. I was also conscious—in the sort of canon of World War I stories/fiction/movies, the repeated pattern of stories abut the First World War—of stories of stasis. That’s because ninety-nine percent of the experiences of this war were static. It’s a war of paralysis… trenches, No Man’s Land, that’s basically it. Hundreds of thousands of men dying fighting over 200 yards worth of land.
CL: Is that stasis why you think more movies aren’t made about the First World War?
SM: I do. I also think that in the twentieth century movies were governed by the tastes of the American public. [They] did not have as much of a stake in World War I as they did in World War II. And so, because of the lack of American presence, there was that. Plus visually it doesn’t present much options. So, for me, the key… was in unlocking a journey, that took us out of the expected landscapes of that war and into something completely different.
CL: According to Canadian historian Mark Humphries, 1916-1917 marked a change in British Expeditionary Forces tactics, from fixed bayonet line attacks to tactical deployments of small groups concentrated around heavy artillery, as a response to the overwhelming force of mechanized warfare never seen before. The men of Company D are about to walk into exactly such a trap, and Schofield plays to Mackenzie’s ego by shifting away from “these are orders” to telling him the Germans already know, i.e. they’re outsmarting you. Captain Smith’s forewarning sets up Mackenzie as some kind of foolhardy jerk, but here when we finally meet him, he shows some sense. What was Mackenzie like in the off-camera cutaway in your head?
SM: I think there was a kind of narrative pressure to create a baddie in the movie. There was a pressure to make Mackenzie into this sort of Kurtzian figure, who’d gone rogue. And was, in his insanity, his madness, sending men over the top, knowingly, to their death. And I didn’t want that. What I wanted was for Mackenzie to be as lost in the fog of war as everybody else, and to be doing what he thinks is right in the circumstances.
The reason I have Mark Strong say that line about, “You know some men just want the fight. Make sure there are witnesses,” is because I wanted audiences to not know, when he stumbles into that dugout at the end, whether he’s going to take the orders or not.
So, for me the war is a horrific mixture… a kind of perfect storm of, on the one hand, immense technical developments during the course of the war, that started with horses and carts and ended with tanks and machine guns. At the same time [there are] no commensurate development in communications. So you could shoot a man with a machine gun at a thousand yards but you couldn’t communicate with him at twenty yards. And that awful combination of the two things created this sense of paralyzed fear—this sense that you just didn’t know what was happening a hundred yards away.
The movie starts with the general telling them the Germans have gone. The enemy have gone. Two hundred yards later, they meet another officer played by Andrew Scott, playing Lieutenant Leslie. He says, “No they haven’t.” And the men don’t know [whom] to believe and neither does the audience. To me that puts the audience in the shoes of… it gives a direct recreation of the blindness that was felt by everyone within this war. And that, in a way, is also what’s behind the one-shot technique: put the audience in a position where they too are blind to what’s up ahead—don’t know the truth, don’t know the reality. That was what it was like, fighting in this war.
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