Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a harrowing journey through the hell of the first World War. Yes, the movie is presented as one long take (well, two, really) but what makes this remarkable is that since we stay with the same character throughout the film, it does have a weird effect on the human brain. It does kind of make a person feel like it’s a video game where we have some control over the character, which has led to a lot of screenings with people clawing at the screen. It’s unlike anything else that has really come before in that regard. Mendes has seen this comparison and, kind of surprisingly, doesn’t completely disagree. But there are some notable differences.
Mendes has also been pretty honest about how his last James Bond film, Spectre, exhausted him after doing two of those (along with Skyfall) in a row. But, ahead, he also takes us through how 1917 doesn’t exist without his experiences making Spectre.
I was at that first screening in New York you were at and I’m guessing you had to enjoy watching the audience literally claw at the screen during this movie.
[Laughs] I’ll tell you a story about the first preview. We did it in Paramus, New Jersey. I’m there and very nervous about how it’s going to go. You’re super tuned to every reaction, but there was a quite large gentleman sitting near me and he got lower and lower in his seat. And at the point where George gets shot at on the canal, he literally fell on the floor.
I’ve never seen that happen. He had to sort of scramble back up again. Obviously, it’s great to see people being affected by your movies in any way, but it’s really rewarding to have that kind of reaction.
To be fair, that scene is horrifying: especially when the noise hits, the clanging off the bridge. You feel like you’re there.
And there’s a scene involving a tripwire and a rat. Is that scene an audience barometer for you? People screamed. That seemed to get to people.
It does, it does. Yeah. Again, and that was, I suppose, the first moment I knew they were totally with it.
I’ve seen 1917 compared to a video game, and I’ve also made that comparison. What’s your opinion of that? Obviously video games have become a highly respected medium, but with the continuous shot aspect, I think this movie tricks our brains and we think we have some control.
Well, first of all, you’ve got to accept these days that the sheer imagination and the sheer endeavor of open-world video games is a thing to behold. But I don’t play a lot of them and there is a significant and fundamental difference, of course — and that is that the audience can’t control this journey.
But your body sometimes thinks you can, and that’s what’s remarkable.
Yeah, well, but also the camera behaves in very different ways. There is this constant dance between the subjective and the objective; it’s not purely subjective. And also it’s about more than one person and the story is being told to you. And so it demands — and I suppose this is the crucial difference between video games — it demands an emotional response. It’s asking for you to emotionally engage. So it operates on a visceral level, which is like a game, but on the other hand it asks for you to imagine these men’s lives and imagine the lives of people who lived through this for real. And so hopefully it goes a little deeper.
Oh, of course. And there’s an extremely emotional scene in this movie I won’t spoil. But I just meant more like the scene on the canal you mentioned earlier. You want to dodge the bullets.
It also plays like a horror movie. I was more scared during this movie than I’ve been during actual horror movies.
[Laughs] Well, yeah, it puts you in a position, not unlike certain horror movies, where you are terrified of what’s around the corner or what’s over the hill, but you know you have to go there anyway-
Because you’re being pulled through it almost like a sort of gravitational pull, and so that is deliberate. It doesn’t behave like a traditional war movie in that it’s not a combat film. That’s the other thing, there isn’t a lot of bloodshed. And so it depends on low-grade simmering tension a lot of the time. That sense that you’re wide open and anyone can be looking at you from anywhere is part of what you want to put the audience through because it’s what the men are living through. So that is a perfectly valid parallel, I think.
Well, the scene that I still have nightmares about is the one where the shadowy soldier coming across the courtyard and we don’t know if it’s a friend or foe. It’s haunting.
Well, I think it is something that we’ve all, most of us, had nightmares about. And when you first see him, it’s almost like a mirror image of himself. Which happens a lot in the movie. If you look at him, if you were to see it a second time, that sense in which he’s seeing versions of himself throughout the film. That’s another example, and it’s also saying what’s the difference in this particular war between the two sides? Well, not much more than the shape of their helmet. It’s just another shadow. As a movie, hopefully, it’s a very non-nationalistic film. It’s not about how great the British were and how terrible the Germans were. These two men could be any nationality. They could be two Germans, two French, two Belgians. It doesn’t matter. It’s about the human experience of war. And when, eventually, he does bump into a German soldier in the burning town, face-to-face, he’s clearly younger and more terrified than he is. So it’s definitely not something that requires any knowledge. It’s not a history lesson! It’s designed to put you in their shoes. And you’re reaching, I hope, for thinking a little bit more universal than a history lesson about the war.
I’ve seen you say multiple times how “exhausted” you were after Spectre and then you had to take time off from movies.
[Laughs] Oh dear, I’m sorry. “Multiple times.” I’m sorry. I really was tired, though.
So yeah, I really got the impression you were tired after that movie. But if you don’t do Spectre, does 1917 happen?
I don’t think I would have made this movie without Bond. I think that the Bond experience — which was an almost wholly positive one — put me in the writers room developing scripts from nothing. And they gave me the courage to write. They gave me the chance to try out a long eight-minute take at the beginning of Spectre, which was one continuous shot. It made me unafraid of a few big bangs and the bigger tools of filmmaking action sequences and what have you.
So it was all very, very helpful. When you’ve dealt with Bond, which is so spread out, so it’s happening on multiple continents often at the same time with many, many different units — even a normal scene shot is with multiple cameras. To go to a one-camera shoot, of whatever complexity, following just two characters in two hours of real time seems really like a release from all that plate-spinning that is involved in making a big action movie.
But it sounds like that time you took off is where this came from. Am I getting that wrong? After Spectre, you made a decision to not make a movie for a while, and then this came to you. Is that accurate?
Yeah, it is. But if you look at the way I’ve worked, I mean, I didn’t do nothing for those last three years.
Right, you did a lot of theatre work.
And I did the Lehman Trilogy, which is coming to Broadway this spring. So, I did occupy myself. And, generally speaking, I always go back into the theater and do take time between movies. So, yeah, of course that time off is where I had the idea to do this. And had the time to write it and all of those things. So yeah, those things are all interlinked.
‘1917’ opens on Christmas day. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.