The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, it’s John. So, one perk of the Writers Guild is that almost every week there are screenings of new films, often followed by Q&A sessions with the screenwriters. This past Saturday the film was 1917 and I sat down with the writers after the film to talk about the process. There are spoilers, obviously, and really truly if at all possible I’d urge you to see the movie with as information as possible in advance. That’s how I saw it and I really dug it. So, once you’ve seen the movie come back to hear what we talked about. Enjoy.
Hello. My name is John August. And it is a pleasure to be welcoming the writers of the film, Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Sam Mendes. Come on up.
Sam Mendes: Thank you.
John: Congratulations. This is a remarkable achievement.
Sam: We’ve got the credits playing over our faces.
John: We’ve still got the credits. Absolutely. It’s nice.
Sam: It’s a nice effect.
John: Tell me about the genesis of this movie. What was the first time that this idea became possible as a movie?
Sam: As you can tell from the dedication it was inspired by my grandfather who told us stories of his experience in the Great War. He fought between 1916 and 1918. He enlisted as a 17-year-old. But he didn’t tell any of his kids the stories. He only told his grandchildren, so he didn’t speak about it until he was in his 70s.
And I was first aware of it, I suppose, because he used to wash his hands incessantly and we used to laugh at him, me and my cousins. Then eventually I said to my dad, “Why does grandad wash his hands all the time?” And he said, “Because he remembers the mud of the trenches and the fact that he could never get clean.” And it struck me even then. I was probably 12 years old or something that it was so strange that somebody who was so confident and such a great storyteller, he was a novelist and a great bon viveur, and a great charismatic person. And that it should be so much part of him, still, all those years later.
Anyway, the stories he told us were all – they were none of them stories of bravery and heroism. None of them conventional stories. They were all about luck and chance and how fortunate he was to have survived when his friends died standing next to him. He told one story about his best friend being hit by a shell directly and just disappearing. And there being nothing of him to bury. Nothing of him left. And you tell those stories obviously to an 11-year-old, 12-year-old boy and you don’t forget them.
But he told one particular story about carrying a message through No Man’s Land. And he was a short man. And in the winter the mist in No Man’s Land hung at six feet. And they would give him the message because when he ran he would never appear above the mist, so he couldn’t be seen. And that image of that one little man alone with his message, surrounded by death, that stuck with me. And although it took me a long time to come to write my first script, when I eventually did sit down that was the story that was sort of pulling at me.
And then I spent maybe three or four months researching and trying to construct a moment in the war – trying to discover a moment in the war when a long journey was possible, when that man could carry a message longer than just 200 yards. And worked out a story structure. And then I stalled and I kind of put it down. And it was my producing partner, Pippa Harris, who said why don’t you get someone to help you turn it into a proper screenplay, a real writer in other words.
I’d done two, well three projects really with Krysty. I was exec producer on Penny Dreadful which was her first job. And then I asked her to write a screenplay for a project called Voyeur’s Motel which was also for DreamWorks which didn’t come to anything, but it was a wonderful screenplay. And we had a shorthand. I loved working with her. And I wanted a totally different perspective and someone who thought fast and wrote well, which she does. And she was the person who kind of crystallized it and brought it into screenplay form. Without her it would still be sitting on my desktop saying Untitled WWI Project. Gathering whatever the computer version of dust is. Pixels.
John: Yeah. So, Krysty, he had a way into it which was from his grandfather’s stories. What was your way into it? As you first were approached with the story what could you hold onto? What was the way in?
Krysty Wilson-Cairns: Well, I mean, what was a little random and pure luck was that I was a massive World War I nerd. I had grown up just fascinated by that sort of, well both World Wars, the idea of humanity. Humans pushed to their absolute extremes. Just always interested me from like a character point of view before I even knew I wanted to be a writer. So I had always wanted to write a big WWI story. And I think when Sam told me that one image of this young boy, essentially 17 years old, lost in the fog of No Man’s Land carrying a letter I thought, my god, he’s going to tell a story that’s personal, that’s character-driven, and it’s unlike any other war story.
So I never really had to work hard to find a way in. I was just completely excited to be there.
John: How early did the character structure of the story begin where you knew you would start with two characters and then there’d be a reversal? How early in the process did you figure out who you were going to follow and sort of what the directions and misdirections would be in the story?
Sam: I think we knew fairly early on, didn’t we, that one of them was going to [carpet/cop it]. One of them was going to die. I felt that Schofield always, who I had quite a different idea of than George when I first imagined him. George I thought brought something wonderful and extra. But he was always going to be the through character. The second character, Blake, was always going to die. But Krysty added something that was pivotal which was Blake’s brother.
You know, when I pitched the project to her he was going to save a number of men, however many, and one of them was going to die. One of the two men was going to die. Krysty halfway through the process of turning it into a screenplay called me and said, “I’m really enjoying it. And it’s going well. But I think we need a personal reason as well. And what if Blake had a brother?” And I thought that’s a brilliant idea. So I just said, yes. You know, great. Let’s try and factor that in.
And why that was interesting in terms of the story structure was it’s the character who has the brother who I suppose unconsciously perhaps you don’t expect to be the person who dies. So that gave us a sort of slight misdirection which I really liked as well in terms of the narrative.
So, yeah, that came to you about halfway through the writing process, didn’t it?
Krysty: Yeah. Well the real reason that started to kind of eat away at me when I was in the first draft was because of the nature of this film you can never show the 1,600 men you’re going to save. They become faceless uniforms. And it occurred to me in the first sort of writing, the first sort of well act if you will, but it’s not really an act structure, was that what was so crucial was the personal element. It was the thing that drove you through the entire film. You loved Blake and Schofield. You want them both to live. You want them to get their message delivered. And I thought well we need to do that with the 1,600 men and by the nature of problem solving I was like, hey, what if one of them is Blake’s brother? Because you love Blake and he’s so young and innocent and I thought well that would be perfect. We’ll kill him.
John: [laughs] Now, let’s talk about the priors going into this, because every other war film made, you know, we sit down as an audience with all of the expectation of other war films. But watching this I also felt like – and tell me if I’m wrong here – first player videogames or sort of the sense of playing videogames as a continuous journey is something I definitely noticed in this. The sense that you can’t ever cut away or escape to anything else. How early on in the process did you get a sense that you wanted this to be continuous time? That this was going to be really locked in focus on these characters?
Sam: Well, the pitch, I mean, for me it was always two hours of real time. And shortly after that I thought it should be one shot. And I never changed off that from the very beginning. So even my story structure was based around that idea, what could credibly happen within a two-hour period of real time. I call it real time. Obviously there’s a break in the middle when he gets knocked out. But in terms of the way you experience time you experience it as the central character does. And every second that ticks down for them is one for you, too.
And once that you understand that you’re locked into that and you can’t escape you begin to judge image differently, too. You know that you’re not going to jump space. You know you’re going to do 200 yards down the hill. So you begin to both lean in for information and also at the times when we wanted within this dance of the camera to shift from the intimate to the epic, from the subjective gaze to the objective gaze, and push them further away, you were able to scrutinize the land around them in a different way and observe their environment more like you observe your own as you’re walking through it.
So, for example No Man’s Land, we weren’t pointing to dead people. But they were always in your peripheral vision, that sense of death, being surrounded by death of different, you know, of the people who dwell in No Man’s Land – the rats, the crows, you know, and the different shapes that when you first look at that, the pictures of No Man’s Land just appear to be flat land. In fact, it’s a whole world of destruction. Once you’re up close to it it’s endlessly detailed and strange and haunting.
And, you know, the videogame thing, I think some of the most incredible, I mean, you know, anyone who has played Red Dead Redemption and got lost in that world, you know, is aware of the extraordinary creativity of the people who put these things together. I mean, and infinitely more complex in some ways than a movie structure. But it’s also a lazy comparison because, you know, it’s for a start you’re not in control of this. And it’s a human being. You’re asking for and hoping for a different level of emotional engagement. And you’re being told a story so you are not – you are passive. And I believe people like to be told stories and not necessarily to be a part of them in an active way. That’s what you must believe if you want to make movies. You know, you’re not asking for people to contribute anything but their attention.
And so it operates in a different way and it’s trying to tell a story that is both in real time and also simultaneously compressed in odd and interesting ways. So, I guess, you know, it occurred to us, but it didn’t concern us massively.
John: Now Krysty talk to us about, you know, we’re talking about compression, because usually what we’re doing as screenwriters is trying to compress a bunch of things down in the tightest versions of things. Was there tension between the normal job of a screenwriter sort of trying to get a bunch of information down into a small thing and to let this real time thing play out? It must have felt different writing this script.
Krysty: Yeah. It was completely different. In fact, every morning when I started writing I had to be like, no, not that way. Because you’re so used to as a writer, I mean, you do it visually. You should write visually. I believe that when you write a screenplay whoever is reading it should be able to see the cut of the film in their head. Not the final cut film, but your best version of it. And with this every day I had to remind myself no I can’t cut, so instead of suggesting a wide shot and suggesting a close up, a tear rolls down his cheek, you had to suggest every movement of the camera in between, which is just not the normal thing that’s done.
So then you have to then pack every sort of frame, every image in a sense for the reader. And so you are writing incredibly visually and it was only really possible because Sam knew what he wanted as a director. And so the collaboration was absolutely key to getting this right because the rhythm, everything like that, had to be set.
The way I describe it is usually a script is a blueprint. It’s like a map to a destination. Whereas this script had to be the destination. It had to be the final film.
John: Absolutely. I mean, we talk about editing as being the last rewrite of the film. And obviously there’s an editor. There’s tremendous work being done here. But you can’t make a massive change here. On day one you’re starting to shoot this film and it needs to be the movie you’re shooting.
Sam: Yes. I mean, in that regard it was much more like I use the muscle I use in theater which is I use the part of my brain that judges rhythm and temp and pace and shape without recourse of editing. I’m not unused to putting a story together that lasts 2.5 hours that has no cuts in it. Because that’s a play. And so for me I was having to engage that part of my brain. And at the same time the moviemaking part of my brain because the camera and the actors were a constantly shifting relationship. And in a sense the audience and the audience’s perspective on the characters was changing constantly, as was the landscape.
But I think that one of the things – forgive me if anyone was here last night, and this is the same theater, I made a point I think about the reason why we worked so hard to get exposition out of the script. You know, because the sense in which you’re being dropped down and you want to experience two men who are just idly chatting. You may lean in and just ever so small details that just begin to mount up. So they have two different relationships to home. One of them wants to go home. The other is not so sure. One of them has been there longer than the other. One of them has won a medal. And the different relationships with how long they’ve been there. Their own experience of the front. Those things are revealed gradually. And obviously there are some very key pieces of exposition that are left right to the end of the movie.
You don’t know that Schofield has a family until the last shot of the film. You don’t know what their names are until the last scene of the film, their first names. So those are things that are very deliberate. That gradual revelation of their past, of their backstory such as it was.
But one of the things that we struggled with the most, Krysty and I, was the scene in the truck. Not struggled but the biggest challenge which for me is you’re dealing a lot of time in the movie with displaced emotion. Because you’re in the present tense, confronting the fact that most human beings are not able to process things that have happened over them, you know, great extremity in the moment. They don’t sob just in the moment that their friend dies in their arms. They are literally incapable of understanding what they’re going for. And their practical brain is saying in the case of Schofield I need to get the letter. I need to – I’m going to have to show his brother that he’s dead. I’m going to have to give him his valuables. So I’m going to do those things. And I’m going to need to lie him down somewhere where – I can’t leave him in the middle of this here.
All of those practical. And it’s only later when he gets in the truck and he starts to realize what’s happened to him. But how does he express it to the men in the truck? You know, we needed it to be possible that by the time he got out of the truck they knew what he’d been through. Do you put a speech into his mouth in which he says, “You know how difficult it is to have your friend die in your arms? You don’t understand.” No. That is always the pressure. Express it in words. But what you’re trying to do is turn psychology into behavior, not words. Not speech. So we had to find a way to dramatize what he was going through. And that’s when we came up with the idea and it took us about two weeks walking around the streets of New York of the truck getting stuck in the ditch. And him trying to push it out and screaming. In that moment he’s expressing all the rage and impotence and the hurt and the grief of his friend dying.
And when he gets back in the truck every single person in the truck knows that something is wrong. And all he has to say is, “There were two of us.” And everyone in that truck knows what’s happened without him ever saying my friend died. They all intuit it. And that to me is what we were searching for all the way through, trying to find a way to turn psychology into behavior. And that’s what informs the whole second part of the movie. You know, Schofield is barely conscious for the descent into hell as the journey through the burning town. He’s working on instinct. And so many things bubble to the surface that he’s unaware of. So it’s just trying to find a way in to that, into the unconscious.
John: Krysty, we talk about exposition and how much information an audience needs to get started, and what were the tensions, what were the pressures there? Because you could watch this movie and not know what WWI was and sort of end this movie kind of not knowing what WWI was, except you would have a sense of what it felt like, which is what movies have such a hard time doing.
Krysty: Well that was hugely deliberate. Even though Sam and I are both obviously very interested in the war, we didn’t want to write a film where you had to know on April 6, 1917 the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line. Because what would be the point of that? It wasn’t an education, not a we don’t want to eat your pees kind of film. We wanted to create an experience, an immersive experience in which you understood what it was like to live through that war. And so reality became our North Star. And in a way I think in the script, and perhaps every department to an extent was trying to disappear. We were trying to be invisible so that you wouldn’t feel the author. You wouldn’t feel the hand that moved these characters through. And that’s really tricky.
Because exposition is super useful. And so it was just a case of problem solving exposition. How do you work around it? How do you – as Sam says through contrasting the two characters you understand their differences. And a lot of it came down to treating the audience as intelligent people who wanted to engage. The very first draft we did we made a rule no exposition. And then I think I phoned you up and said, “Some exposition?”
But that no exposition rule was a really great foundation to start from because it meant everything was stripped back. And so anytime you put something in you could see it. And then it was almost like woodworking. There’s the knot and you were just sanding, and sanding, and sanding until it just felt natural. So I mean the lazy version of the first draft might have been something along the line of Blake waking up and being like, “Oh, I miss my mother so very much.” Because you would never do that in real life. So everything had to come back to how would you behave in real life. How would we behave if we were there? And I think that lends it to obviously making it very character-driven.
John: Now the behavior is very human, but there are movie moments. And so, I mean, it must have been an early decision – there are moments that are of great suspense. Great sort of ups and downs and upheavals. Did that scare you at all as you were working on this very naturalist sort of realistic behaviors but there’s still movie stuff that happens? Mines collapse. And planes smash into barns. And remarkable things happen. Were there long walks around New York talking over those things, too?
Sam: Weirdly not. I mean, everything was discussed obviously. We talked about everything. But I felt like there were so many ways. I mean, there are so many possible dangers in this world. The challenge was to make us feel like something was constantly potential. You know, there was a potential danger at any moment, but it came from the least expected places. In the first half of the movie as you say the two action sequences as such are caused by a rat and a bag and a plane. But for me in both of those cases what was important was the prefiguring of those things that are actually in the movie long before they happen. The rats come into the No Man’s Land long before. So you’re almost used to the rat. The rat is not a special thing for them when they see it the second time in the German dugout.
The planes feature twice before the third time they crash into the barn. And in both of those you establish the sort of wonder and admiration for those people up there. But their distance from them. A sense of them being on a whole other plane, on another plane, excuse the pun, on another level entirely. But you also in that first time when you hear the planes in No Man’s Land feel their power and their scale. So you’re prefiguring them so when they do happen they don’t just get conjured out of nothing. They’ve already been there in the movie, you just haven’t really been aware of what the significance is until it crashes.
John: Let’s open it up to the audience if there’s any questions. I see a hand right there in the middle.
Male Audience Member: First of all, I loved the movie. I thought that was so great. And I had high expectations and you met them, first of all.
Sam: Thank you.
Male Audience Member: Second of all, I thought that – movie scores are kind of out of style and I thought the score for this was amazing. And so I was just thinking like what was the creative process with figuring out the score? Obviously you had an incredible composer. But what was your involvement with it?
Sam: Well, I mean, I’ve worked with Thomas Newman on all my movies, so I’ve been working with him 20 years. And even though we did two Bond movies together and that was a challenge for both of us, this was the most difficult. And it was partly because the moment there was too much – the music – heavy inverted commas – it felt like it was commenting. And it took you away from it. So a lot of very, very subtle, low grade underscoring that exists for the first part of the movie. There’s not an enormous amount of expressive music.
But then the movie shifts when it goes into the nighttime town into a kind of – something much more hallucinatory and surreal. And for the first time the camera detaches from the actor. And it’s moves in a way from being a naturalistic story into being something much more mythic. It’s a kind of descent into hell really. And at that point the movie becomes much more expressive. And we use everything available to us.
And it was a really tricky process and time-consuming, but I would say it’s the score he’s written for me that has the greatest dynamic. In other words it goes the quietest and the loudest. And it has an enormous shape to it. It’s very daring.
But, you know, the other thing that happened which has never happened before is Tom normally waits until the movie is finished and then starts to write music based on our temp score. But on this one he sent us quite a lot of pieces early on because we were putting the movie together in great chunks very quickly. You know, Lee Smith who you would think would have no job as an editor at all actually was incredibly crucial to the process because he was putting the movie together straight away and feeding it back to me so I could judge whether the take that we had selected we were going to match to the next day. So the back and forth was – and he was also putting music on. So the movie was emerging quite fully formed very quickly.
And we got Tom to write some temp score that we used and it’s still in the movie. I mean, some of the stuff he wrote instinctively in the moment is in the film exactly as it was written. Just recorded in a studio. And that’s never happened before as well. So it was both instinctive and highly wrought kind of at the same time.
John: Another question right here. Great. I’m going to repeat back the question because people in the back sometimes can’t hear them. First is like what does the script actually look like because there’s giant chunks without dialogue in them? And the second is about Steadicam.
Krysty: So when I first was told it was going to be one shot, which was at the end of a phone call, and then I was hung up on. I’m not angry about that all. I didn’t actually know how a one shot script would look. And so I started Googling it and then I couldn’t find anything. And so I was like, well, we’re just going to have to kind of invent as we went along. And so to make it manageable in a production sense we actually broke up by location. But everything is obviously continuous.
The script itself, there’s descriptive text but it’s all emotionally descriptive text, or just stuff that you’re seeing that’s incredibly relevant to the characters. Then the dialogue of course. So, you know, I think it runs about 112 pages. But then there’s a whole other script which Sam and Roger and the producers and Dennis Gassner put together which was 45 pages which is the kind of movement of everyone so the two characters, the camera, the sets, the turns of the camera. And so that allowed us to keep one script to be a purely emotional character-driven piece that was engaging rather than be something like “and now we move into, and this becomes, and this screen goes here,” which I think was very important because while the script was proof of concept that the studio would work and any time we were making changes it needed to be that emotional through line that you could understand.
Sam: Yeah. We had 45 pages of schematics, basically maps with the diagram of where the actors moved and where the camera was going to go. But as Krysty says, we did break it up. And actually you say there’s very little dialogue. There’s actually a lot of dialogue. It’s just that what it feels like. But there’s an enormous amount of dialogue in the first half of the film. They almost never stop talking. So it did look like a conventional script really. It wasn’t that different. There was a lot of description of things like No Man’s Land. What exactly they were seeing at any given moment.
So it read a little bit like an action section of a Bond movie which is just blocks of – just chunks of descriptive prose really.
The Steadicam question is interesting. About 20% is shot on Steadicam. But most of it is shot on stabilized heads which is different. And moved differently. So we were on a stabilized head, we called it the Stable Eye. Two different Steadicam rigs. The Trinity and then a little thing called the Dragon Fly which is a mini Steadicam. But then there’s wire and dolly and crane and truck and motor bike and, you know, etc.
But the key was to keep this slightly, this stealthy forward motion, this slightly threatening, never rushed, you know what I mean? It feels like a kind of snake moving forward through the land. And that was the feeling I wanted it to feel like and we’re being pulled through the movie by gravity. And the motion I talk about with Steadicam is the sea sick motion, this is this movement as we go, and we eradicated that as much as we could, as much as humanly possible.
John: Another question. Right there.
Female Audience Member: First of all, bravo. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a movie where I’m literally on the edge of my seat.
Sam: Thank you.
Female Audience Member: So very well done with that. I’m really curious about some of the photography which is mind-blowing. Again, back to the long shot. So just technical questions. How many long shots were there? I think if my eyes didn’t deceive me the first one was cut with the dog.
Female Audience Member: It was longer?
Sam: But a good try. Shorter.
Female Audience Member: OK.
Sam: Just so you know, I don’t want to be coy about it. It’s a serious of long shots stitched together obviously. Some are shorter than others. And some are long. Genuinely long. You know, eight, nine minutes long, which anyone who has tried to do a two-minute Steadicam or a camera move knows that nine minutes is an eon in movie terms. So the reasons for changing from shot to shot sometimes were practical. We’re moving from one location to another. Or we’re going from an exterior to an interior which would be constructed on a stage and we’re going through a little patch of dark or something like that.
Sometimes they were emotional. The character, you know, the actor I just thought he needs to get to the end of this beat and take a breath and keep moving. And sometimes they were to do with the rig themselves were shifting from a wire to a – you know, we literally couldn’t move the camera any further without stopping and changing the rig substantially. Although that was often the least reason, because you know there are many shots that start with two grips holding the camera, hook it onto a wire. The wire crosses let’s say the big crater in No Man’s Land or the canal. Then gets unhooked, dropped down. They follow him under the bridge, up the stairs, you know.
So you’ve got multiple rigs within one shot often, which was beautiful to watch. I mean, it was a lot of motion behind the camera. I mean, something that looks simple, for example, the Erinmore scene, the Colin Firth at the beginning, in which the camera enters the room, floats across two tables, becomes a two-shot, pans while they go over to get their provisions, and then looks back into the room to see Colin Firth sitting having his cup of tea and saying good luck. And quoting Kipling. That is a techno-crane pushing across. And then the grips unhooked the camera from the techno-crane, pan, and as they’re panning the techno-crane retracts its entire – the whole techno-cam retracts. The wall opens up and the back of the set closes and then the ceiling closes just in time for the camera to come around and see Colin. That looks so easy that move, right? But there were so many people in that room. Colin was like, it’s like right at the last minute everyone just disappeared and there was Colin.
So, and then you go back to Lee Smith and the editor who is like the first three or four takes people were looking a little uncomfortable, I don’t know why. And he had no idea what was going on. Even the editor. And he’s a sophisticated watcher. So a lot of it was just, you know, the feet frantically paddling under the surface of the water while the duck kind of…
So, you know, that’s what it felt like sometimes. And then other times it was very simple. Just one person. We also constructed a new camera. Well, Roger Deakins, obviously cinematographer of genius, and was a huge, huge part of the whole film from the very beginning, but he has a great relationship with Arri and Arri understood were developing a small bodied Alexa LF which is their best camera. And he got them to give us the prototype. So we had a camera that was not much bigger than a transistor radio. It was about this big. And we needed it because we were going in holes and dugouts and down trenches with people on both sides. It was pretty intense.
And in many ways we couldn’t have made a movie like this 10 years ago, because the technology wouldn’t have been there and the camera size wouldn’t have been – it wouldn’t have been possible to get an image like this anyway. Put it that way. And sometimes it was comical because you had a 200-foot crane with a tiny little thing on the end of it. It was like an iPhone. It was like where’s the camera? You know, and it’s just a little dot.
So, you know, it was a remarkable feat from the grips and everyone behind the camera. They were incredible.
John: Now, with the script being broken apart from the choreography plan for things, were there any moments in storytelling where the necessity of how you were doing things had to change some stuff in the actual writing in your script, Krysty? What were the things that changed just because of this plan?
Krysty: Not much. Structurally we never changed. In fact, the structure is the same structure we sat down at your kitchen table with, which has never happened to me. And I wonder if it has happened to anyone.
I think the only times we ever really changed anything was perhaps if I’m remembering correctly the rehearsals for the Erinmore dugout. We needed to change the way we shot it. So we changed the order in which some lines were delivered because we wanted to see a reaction shot from the voices. So we kind of reshaped scenes occasionally like that. But again it was like surgical reshaping. It was never oh we need to do a complete rewrite. Most of the rewrites happened before we started the rehearsals.
Sam: Yeah, I mean, I had certain rules of myself. If I reached the point where I thought ever I wish we could cut here, then I’d got it wrong and I had to go back and either rewrite or restage. And mostly it was restaging. And there were a couple of moments where right to the end I was nervous. Even the scene with Richard Madden, with Blake’s brother at the end, which plays almost entirely on Richard’s face, was a big leap of faith that the audience would intuit what Schofield was thinking in that scene. But there’s a key moment which is he turns towards camera for a couple of beats and it gives you an opportunity to reengage with him before he goes back into that conversation. And that’s an example of a piece of staging that just allows you access to the character before the second part of the scene, which would be the equivalent of, you know, a reverse which we couldn’t shoot.
So sometimes there was a physical way of solving the issue, which normally you would say – without thinking you would blame the script. You would say, oh, we’ll just shoot a reverse. And it makes you realize working this way how – not how lazy – but how we simply take editing for granted. And you don’t ever – you often don’t push through and find a different solution and a more challenging solution.
You know, for me the one-shot thing, that’s how we experience the world. We walk through it facing in one direction. We look back, we can look forward. We can’t look both at the same time. And editing, which has become the grammar of film, obviously is an amazing tool in which you can jump time and distance. But it is so often overused. And every line and a piece of dialogue, back and forth, back and forth, we’ve got to see every line. Why? You know?
And if you think about it editing obviously is something that there’s now the given in filmmaking mostly. But it was created in large part, or rather the inability to move the camera was because the cameras were big and heavy and immobile and you could only shoot for two minutes at a time, and then four minutes, and then 10 eventually. But even until – even if you were shooting a movie now, it’s only 10 minutes. You know, you have to cut after 10 minutes. There was film projection. You know, every reel there was a cut. There’s a change. You know, even the best projectionist there would be a little jump.
So until very recently this was not even possible. And even though we’re all involved in a kind of excitement of what editing can do post-MTV, you know, there hasn’t been a commensurate movement in the other direction. Well how else can you express things with a camera and characters in space? There are multiple ways. And we immediately default to close up, close up, over the shoulder, over the shoulder, two shot, moving shot, fancy shot, every three scenes, boom. 16 set ups. Let’s go. And it’s like, what?
You know, that’s not the only way. But it has become the only way. And I think that anything that challenges and pushes in the other direction has to be a good thing. For me, therefore, people say is it a bit of a gimmick? It’s like, you know what, if you think about it editing is the gimmick. Not just training a camera. That’s the trickery. That certainly made me rethink how I shoot films and how if you commit to something how you will find solutions if you think hard enough.
John: Krysty, Sam, thank you very, very much for your movie. Congratulations.
Sam: Thank you.
Krysty: Thank you.
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- 1917 Behind the Scenes
- Krysty Wilson-Cairns
- Sam Mendes
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- Outro by Michael Karman (send us yours!)
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