Sam Mendes explains why 1917 was more developed than Skyfall or Specter

“I remember when the film Les Misérables came out and Anne Hathaway played her big song in one shot,” Sam Mendes murmured behind the scenes at New York Comic-Con last October. “No disdain for Anne Hathaway, who is a great actress, but everyone who has ever performed the song on stage! Go to Broadway, damn it.”

The politics of the long time – when it comes to how to handle the fine interplay of form and content, how to distinguish stylistic bravery from showing – has come to Mendes’s mind since he announced his new feature film in 1917. or is it epic intimate?) The image from World War I, which just won the Golden Globe for the best drama 2020, follows the dangerous mission of two soldiers to tell a squadron of their comrades that they are on the verge of doom it’s too late From the beginning, Mendes knew that her journey through the German-occupied area should be a single, uninterrupted shot. The seasoned director thought it was like a theater where the show has to go beyond everything. And in some places it was enlarged – only a thousand times.

“Before a play, a director will tell the actors: I’ll see you in two hours,” said Mendes to Polygon. “The strange thing about the transition from the stage to a movie is that you are moving across so much land. A scene can be half a mile long. I could only see the actors on a monitor, and it can feel unusually impersonal.”

Credit: Roger Deakins / Universal Pictures

Mendes now has two James Bond vehicles in his luggage, and his most recent assignment is still considered to be his biggest film to date. That is literally. Even splitting the film into several shots that were seamlessly combined resulted in passages of seven to eight minutes that carried the action over hills, in and out of buildings, and through devastation.

“If you think back to Specter, for example, the first sequence is an eight-minute, uninterrupted shot that is actually five consecutive shots,” recalls Mendes. “It was much more developed this time, much more planned. We haven’t left that much to chance, but you always hope for some magic. They look at an attitude and can point out one, two, three things that work as a result of overall accidents. Happy accidents. “

By making himself a little more “obsessive and neurotic”, Mendes was able to keep control of a production with many moving parts. Before the days of 007, he was best known for characterful household melodramas like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. Now he is expanding his focus from the living room to the extensive battlefield, an environment that is captured in the 360-degree photography “You are there”. Between the short questions and answers after the 1917 NYCC panel and this interview, Mendes used the word “immersive” at least four times. However, plunging the viewer into a fully formed world turned out to be a complicated task.

With the camera swirling around to capture everything in sight, Mendes couldn’t let his actors hit when they were moving through a scene. “Sometimes you had to use things to secretly mark – this piece of wire, this tree, this trench, this stone – that can help the actors give a sense of space,” he says. What he calls “intuitive spatial management” was the name of the game until the director began to orientate himself around the premises.

Mendes explained: “Javier Bardem’s first big scene in Skyfall is his monologue about rats, which he performs while walking. When he’s done, he arrives at exactly the point where he should be, so we had to design the set to match the length of his speech. I went to Pinewood Studios and paced up and down until we had an idea of ​​how long the set should be. Take this idea and extrapolate it to two hours. We had to go every scene; Slide each door, measure how far the door would be from the path, the dead dog must be here, so far from the river. It was really a question of geographical development (…) The staging and the surroundings had to be completely synchronized. “

Photo: François Duhamel / Universal Pictures

During the six-month trial period, Mendes, his cast and crew managed to achieve a common understanding of their respective tasks. They learned to accommodate what their director had set for them, and he learned to accommodate them. “Adrenaline makes actors do things faster and louder,” he said. “You have to take that into account, recognize the difference, and this is where stage training comes into play. I saw that we had to let them lose some energy and then they calmed down on the seventh or eighth take. Sometimes I would say, “Even if you make a mistake, continue so that we get the shape of the scene.” Sometimes we ran unacceptable takes and made it productive. Letting an actor breathe can work wonders. ”

But as much as his theater training may have permeated him, its usefulness had hard limits. Mendes was exposed to Mother Nature more than ever. Since his film plays sequentially, each scene could only be shot in cloudy weather, which meant submitting to the elemental forces.

“At the end of the first day of shooting we were back because we didn’t shoot anything,” he admitted. “The weather was not right. At the end of the second day we were ahead. We had spent the first day just rehearsing so that as soon as we were ready to roll, we could jump forward and do everything we had prepared for the shoot. We always rehearsed when there was too much sun. Sometimes we had to hold on while the sun was falling behind its cloud. a few people looking at the clock did crossword puzzles but mostly rehearsed. “

Dealing with fate itself was only part of the job of an experienced filmmaker who broadened his horizons. With all his planning, all his theoretical considerations about the connections between immersive cinema and his stage relatives, all his thinking about the hurdles, he ultimately had no choice but to do it. He took on every challenge, adjusted and went on.

“We were completely in the lap of the gods and we could have been totally stiffened,” chuckled Mendes. “Fortunately, we shot in a country where the weather is reliably bad.”

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