“He was an immensely confident guy. He didn’t look troubled,” Mendes said of his grandfather during a recent interview in Washington. “But he had a few quirks, one of which was that he used to wash his hands all the time, and we used to laugh at him. I said to my dad, ‘Why does granddad always wash his hands?’ He said, ‘It’s because he remembers how it was in the trenches, in the mud. He could never get the mud off his hands.’ I suppose that was the first sign that, even though he was in his mid-70s, it was still part of his makeup of who he was.”
Though Alfred’s own kids didn’t hear his tales, his grandchildren would bug him, and he “would sit on the porch of his house in Trinidad, which is where he was from, and a couple of rums loosened his tongue, and he would just go.”
To understand “1917” and to understand Alfred’s story that inspired the film, it’s useful to know some basic geographical facts about WWI. It was a stagnant war, fought almost entirely from long, deep, snaking trenches where soldiers lived. When Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins visited “France and Flanders and Belgium to see the remains of what exists,” they climbed into one. The director said: “I realized what it was, really, which is this vast maze that is absolutely confounding when you’re in it. Roger and I got horribly lost, and the only way to find our way out was to climb out of the trench and look from the top. When you’re in it, it’s like a kind of madness. You don’t know which way you’re facing.”
The trenches of the opposing sides were shockingly close together, often no more than 250 yards apart, and the space in between was usually filled with barbed wire and bodies — both of perished soldiers and animals caught in the crossfire of war. This area was called no man’s land, for obvious reasons, and was not a place a soldier ever wanted to be.
Yet that’s precisely where Alfred needed to go during one mission.
“He told one particular story about carrying a message in no man’s land between post to post at dusk, in the mist, and that image of him, that little man alone in that vast emptiness, stuck with me,” Mendes said. “And when I came to have the courage to sit down and write my own script, that was the story I felt compelled to tell.”
And yet therein lay the problem. How do you make a movie about delivering a message in a small, empty space and hold the audience’s attention? The answer created only more complications. Mendes’s solution was to shoot the film so it looked like one continuous take. That would make it seem like everything was happening in real time and place the audience in the soldier’s shoes.
The plot of “1917″ is simple: Two British soldiers are tasked with delivering a message across no man’s land to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to call off an ill-advised attack. Doing so could save 1,600 lives.
Making the journey look like one smooth take was anything but simple. It required meticulous planning and collaboration. Sets had to be exactly as long as scenes. “This film has to be entirely choreographed, down to the dialogue,” said production designer Dennis Gassner. We had to “predict every length of every moment within the context of the film.”
“Everything has to join together,” Mendes said. “Every step has to be accounted for. That’s all very well, me writing, ‘They go through a quarry to a woods, down a hill, through an orchard, to a farmhouse.’ But the land had to be the length of the scene, and the scene had to be the length of the land.”
Mendes and Gassner had pulled off a continuous tracking shot before: the opening Day of the Dead sequence in the James Bond film “Spectre.” Why not try to do it for an entire movie?
So Gassner, Mendes and Deakins took the actors to a giant field to map the movie out “just walking around, planting flags,” Mendes said. Colored poles represented different things, such as yellow for one character’s journey, green for another’s. Red poles represented the camera. It wasn’t easy.
“Constructing a journey for them that has the level of detail and incident and shape required to sustain an audience’s interest with no way out?” Mendes said. “There were times when I thought it wasn’t possible.”
But they practiced for months to get the timing down and create an interesting story. “If you asked [lead actor] George [MacKay] now to walk out the journey of the movie step by step, he could still do it,” Mendes said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Deakins and Mendes tried “to find a language for the camera that wasn’t repetitive and self-serving. You didn’t want it to be too basic like trot along behind them over their shoulder or whatever, and you didn’t want it to be too gimmicky, say, look at this camera going through a keyhole or following the path of a moving bullet going into their ear hole.”
In the end, the approach seemed to work. “1917” nabbed best drama at the Golden Globes and tied “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “The Irishman” for the second-most Oscar nods with 10, just one fewer than “Joker.” It connected with audiences as well, leading the box office in its first weekend with roughly $37 million — something of an anomaly for period pieces.
The critical acclaim might make Mendes smile, but the fact that people are seeing his movie in theaters probably fills him with glee. “I want people to come and see it in the cinema. And it’s a difficult job these days, if you don’t have a superhero, if it’s not a franchise. … That puts us in a tiny minority in terms of movies that are getting a wide release,” the director said.
Plus, considering all the painstaking work that the cast and crew put into creating a unique visual and aural experience, he added, “I’d rather shoot myself than watch it on a phone.”