How the Actors in '1917' Helped Pull Off the Crazy One-Take Structure
This post contains spoilers for 1917.
For actor Dean-Charles Chapman -- probably best known as Tommen on Game of Thrones -- the preparation process for Sam Mendes' new WWI drama 1917 resulted in a major revelation about his own family's history. He discovered that his great-great-grandfather was shot, paralyzed, and stranded in No Man's Land for four days. His story is part of a book Chapman encountered while researching his role as a soldier who undertakes a dangerous mission with the hope of saving his brother. "When I found that out I just automatically felt so much more connected to the story we were telling," Chapman says. "Just by knowing that I had an ancestor who went through a similar thing."
That emotional connection added another layer of immersion to what was already an already immersive experience for the performers in Mendes' film, a quality it aims to translate to the audience. Mendes, who dedicates the film to his grandfather, chooses to shoot the action as if it were in one continuous take, following Chapman's Lance Corporal Blake and George MacKay's Lance Corporal Schofield as they attempt to deliver a message across the ravaged French landscape that could save English troops from a deadly German attack. It's a fairly simple, linear story told in a manner that was anything but simple to pull off. In the opening moments, your eye tracks Blake and Schofield as they receive their task, and the movie doesn't end until that journey is complete. It's a risk that has paid off so far: 1917 has been nominated for multiple Golden Globes and is in the thick of Oscar conversations.
Mapping out the narrative required six months of rehearsal for Chapman and MacKay. "Usually you can craft the rhythm and the pace of the story in the edit, but you can't do that when you're basically putting the film together with no cuts in it," MacKay recalls. "We had this big rehearsal period because we had to decide the rhythm of the story beforehand and the pacing of the story." That meant that Chapman and MacKay had to nail down how they were going to deliver their dialogue, down to the pauses. It also involved clocking out the length they would travel over the course of a conversation so that the production team, led by designer Dennis Gassner, could build the sets -- massive trenches, fields littered with dead human and animal bodies -- around the timing of the scene.
Chapman notes that even during filming they would rehearse sometimes more than 20 times before rolling. If the weather conditions weren't right, they'd spend that downtime running scenes, nearly constantly in movement. "We should have had like a pedometer or something," MacKay jokes.
The shoot also required its performers to participate in entire filmmaking process. During one sequence, set in a German bunker, Chapman and George were in possession of the only light source, essentially serving as assistants to famed cinematographer Roger Deakins in capturing the atmosphere. "Roger would be very good at giving us notes and we would have to be very specific on what we were pointing at to light what the camera was seeing," Chapman says. When the detailed choreography went awry, that was often incorporated into the final product. Such was the case of the climactic sequence wherein MacKay makes a mad dash amid exploding bombs as his fellow soldiers are going over the top. "When some sort of mistake happened we had to give it a real life and energy," he says. "When I get knocked over a bunch of times that was just what happened. But everyone was just like we do not say stop until someone says stop."
For Chapman, the intensity of the environment made his character's ultimate fate, a shocking demise midway through the action, more emotional. The moment in which Blake is unexpectedly stabbed after trying to aid a downed enemy pilot is the only one Chapman didn't rehearse. "As an actor, these continuous takes really allow [you] to just become fully immersed in what you're doing," he says. "I know this sounds stupid, but I genuinely believed I was dying. When they called cut, I'm serious, I couldn't stop crying." With Blake's journey left incomplete, Chapman felt his was too. "I literally got so lost in it I was living in it rather than acting," he says. "It was a weird experience."
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