From left, Dean-Charles Chapman, director Sam Mendes and George MacKay work on the set of “1917.” (Courtesy François Duhamel/UniversalPictures)

Sam Mendes combines tech, heart in epic ‘1917’

World War I flick dazzles like a ticking-clock thriller

“When you’ve begun to be aware of it, consciously or not, you can’t escape it; you’re going to have to take every step with them,” says Sam Mendes about “1917,” his impressive war film designed to appear like one 118-minute unbroken take.

“You experience time differently, too. You can’t jump 100 yards or jump an hour. In a movie that more resembles a ticking-clock thriller than a conventional war movie, you’re feeling every second counting down,” says the Oscar winner (“American Beauty,” “Skyfall”), recently in San Francisco (with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and cinematographer Roger Deakins) to promote the movie, which opens Christmas Day.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play a pair of lance corporals in World War I sent on a dangerous mission across the French countryside to warn a battalion of a deadly ambush. Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch also appear in smaller, crucial parts.

The concept for the movie came from Mendes’ grandfather, who told young Sam stories of the war. Mendes hung onto a fragment, about a crossing into “no man’s land” to deliver a message.

He wrote about 10 pages of notes, then hired Wilson-Cairns, a writer on the TV series “Penny Dreadful” (which Mendes executive produced), to pen the screenplay. Not only fast, Wilson-Cairns, a war buff, fleshed out the story in unexpected ways.

“I wanted someone that would bring another perspective and wasn’t going to reflect my own opinions,” Mendes says of his collaborator.

To make an impossible shoot possible, Deakins persuaded camera manufacturer Arri to develop a smaller version of its Alexa camera that could move through tiny spaces, like “foxholes and trenches and craters.”

Mendes says the physicality of the shoot allowed for the actors to be in the moment: “If you fall, you get up and keep going. It becomes muscles. You’re reacting to real environments. It’s not green screen. A lot of filmmaking today is, ‘Just imagine behind you the wolves are chasing you and it’s really cold’ — and you’re on a treadmill,” he laughs.

Mendes and Deakins, stationed at either the beginning or ending of each long, traveling shot, watched on monitors.

“Because the shots were so long and there was so much background and so much detail, one small thing can derail the whole shot, and you might not see it,” says Mendes, explaining how he essentially had to edit while filming, judging tempo and rhythm as he went along.

On most films, there’s an option to throw away or change a shot that isn’t working in the editing room. But here, everything had to be exactly right before they moved on.

“This is going to be in the bloody movie whether we like it or not, so we’d better like it,” he says, smiling.

Mendes acknowledges that, while “1917” would not have been possible without current digital technology, he still loves old-fashioned film.

“It terrifies me that the whole movie is stored on something the size of a wallet,” he says. “It’s a whole new world, that’s for sure.”

IF YOU GO: 1917

Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Written by: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Rated: R

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Movies and TV

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