The Theatre of Operations

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, BSC, ASC, discusses his work on Sam Mendes’s film "1917"

La Lettre AFC n°305

[English] [français]

Besides being a direct journey through a war-torn landscape, 1917 is also a literal dive into the heart of time, and Sam Mendes uses a vast palette of directorial techniques to recreate it. The set, which in the opening sequence literally sets the viewer in the middle of a trench in the Somme, the extremely profound sound, with extreme dynamic effects, and the image with its single shot that transforms this simple tale of a suicide mission into a sort of theatrical play where the style gradually transcends the authentic. An exceptional project requires an exceptional director of photography, namely Roger Deakins, BSC, ASC, who has graciously agreed to discuss the behind-the-scenes of this unique film with us. (FR)

This film must be pretty special for you, isn’t it ?

Roger Deakins : One of the magical things about making movies is that you can juxtapose shots, play with time, and create ellipses… On 1917, Sam Mendes decided from the get-go that this story would be told in real-time, not through assembly. And of course, it’s very rare to have the opportunity of participating in an experience like that. The key to making this film was our preparation, which literally took months before the first day of shooting. After we’d come up with a full storyboard for the whole film, we spent weeks rehearsing all of the scenes with our main actors, and sometimes on the locations chosen for shooting (or on others that were similar). This crucial step allowed us to create an extremely precise map of Scoffield and Blake’s progress, and to gradually finalize our choice of shots, rhythm or technical approach to each set. The timing between the camera position and the actors’ movements was at the heart of our rehearsals, because everything would later be filmed in long master shots. All that allowed Dennis Gassner, the production designer, to literally build custom sets that would exactly match our choreography.

Roger Deakins et Sam Mendes sur le tournage de "1917"

Any specific examples ?

RD : Well, there are naturally the trenches, whose set-up and length depended entirely on the actors’ rhythm and the time they needed for their actions and lines… For the scene at the abandoned farm, we had to find a very open landscape with prairies and hillocks that were a total break from the no-man’s-land. You know, that war was so static ! Just a few kilometers away from the battlefield were farms and a few people who tried to continue with their lives. Because we were instructed to stay close to London in order not to send the crew on a trip away from home, we ended up using a military training area on Salisbury Plain. That’s where Dennis Gassner built his farm, with the garden on the side of the hill and the cut cherry trees. The location for that scene, like many others, is at the centre of the narration, entirely recreated according to the rehearsal layout so that the actors and the camera could be placed inside with enough space. Another example, the scene with the collapsed bridge. A pretty technical camera movement was required, using a camera on cables. In order to do it, we totally reconstructed the bridge using simple scaffolding on a parking lot at the Shepperton studios. We finalized the set in Scotland, near Glasgow, using as our guide that initial, extremely technical camera setup.

Did you take inspiration from authentic locations ?

RD : We had a scouting and documentation sessions in the Somme at historical locations. During this trip, we were shown a preserved trench near to Verdun, built into the white chalk, which totally contrasted with the more traditionally image of trenches deep in the mud that we’ve seen over and over again in the cinema. Sam decided to film the exit from the underground sequence in a similar white environment, as was available to us on Salisbury Plain, providing a very strong visual counterpoint to the whole beginning of the film. A bit as though the characters were suddenly passing over into another world, which was the world behind the trenches.

At a certain point in the story, night falls.

RD : The night sequence forced us to identify the only moment that is at the limits of continuous narration. According to the screenplay, Schoffield was supposed to get knocked unconscious… Choosing to imagine him at the last hours of the day, only regaining consciousness at the end of the night, was the only way we would be able to take advantage of the night for a part of the film, without being obliged to stay in the night through the end of the film, and Sam really wanted to shoot at sunrise to wrap up the film. But let us return to the night sequence in the ruins of Ecoust.
In order to perfect that scene, we were inspired by flight films taken in 1919 from dirigibles. On these films, we saw cities in ruins where fighting had taken place. This desolate world, which really looks like a hallucination, has a darkness that I really wanted to bring to the screen. For example, the shot where Schoffield comes too is important. It’s the only time in the film where the camera goes away from the character and slowly passes through the window. To my mind, that affirms that we’re definitively in a nightmare. Especially since he reappears in the frame on the ground floor, to continue his journey… We really wondered whether or not this departure from pure objectivity that we’d developed from the start of the film was acceptable and I think it was because we were entering a destroyed world that was, in some way, less real. As I said, a nightmare.

How did you light that incredible scene ?

RD : Using special flares made up by our effects supervisor, Dom, and a large light tower that could fake the burning church. I had a 10 meter by 20 meter structure built, and on it the electric crew set up around 2,000 1K tungsten bulbs. They were all placed on dimmers, so that we could use the bulbs in the lower range of their intensity, so that we could imitate the color of a firelight as much as possible. The intensity of the light was controlled on a dimmer system and was adjusted to the camera angles and shots, and was erased in post-production to be replaced by the plates of the burning church. For the lighting flares, it was a little more complicated. During preproduction, we built a full diorama of the city with the help of Denis Gassner’s team, and we imitated the effect of the flares using little LEDs attached to simple wires. Having tested the flares, made up by our effects team, on camera we decided to opt for real flares. We did wonder about the trajectory that the rockets would take in the air, and how we could control them. In order to do that, we set up cranes on the location, and metal cables were stretched between the cranes. We attached the rockets to them and were thereby able to control their trajectory on each take. It was a pretty heavy set-up, but again, we were able to perform many tests beforehand and so we only had to spend about a dozen days actually shooting the entire sequence from the time the character awakens to the time he falls into the river. In any case, I remember the shooting being rather quick and fluid. Always thanks to our solid preparations.

Doesn’t the sun rise rather soon after that, though ?

RD : Oh… you noticed ?! But to me, that’s also part of the poetic license that runs until the end of the film, like in the strange scene of soldiers singing in the forest just before the assault. That scene seems ‘poetic’ but it was based on an actual account written by a soldier in the war.

Did you shoot in the exact order of the story ?

RD : Truth be told, we tried to follow the chronological order, but for the eternal reasons of bringing together sets and production, we had to make a few exceptions. Concretely, the first scene we shot was the one where our two characters are exiting the first bunker, and then go through the trench up to the point when they climb up the ladders and end up in no-man’s-land. But earlier in the “edited” film, there is the opening under the tree, with the landscape in the background, as well as the journey through the trench to the bunker, all of which was shot in the same place, but a few weeks later on location in the Salisbury Plain… !
This kind of matching shows you why the biggest difficulties I experienced on this film were the weather conditions. Truly the only thing that that can’t be controlled on a shoot like this.

What was your approach faced with that unique variable ?

RD : Logically, we had to shoot when it was cloudy. That’s what I wanted, except for the last scene, where I wanted to see the sun come out. But the weather in England is always unpredictable… and following on from our first day of shooting where the sun was shining brightly, it was my main concern. I must say that overall we were rather spoilt.
We did, of course, lose a few days to rehearsals… under the sun, but nothing really serious happened overall. I even benefited from a splendid ray of sun on the final shot… as the cloud parted as if on cue… and on the first take ! (We did many more takes of that section but, luckily for me, that’s the one that ended up in the final cut).

You didn’t play the rain card at all, and that’s another ambience that one often sees in WW1 films…

RD : Except for when Scoffield wakes up, and where you hear the sound of rain flowing, which perhaps indicates a rainstorm during the night. Otherwise, we did include the rain in the film. Not because, for example, the ambience of that night scene didn’t lend itself to it, but objectively because of the difficulties and the time one spends recreating rain on set, added to the already very complex level of the choreography, it was rather impractical on our schedule and would have compromised the look of the film in other ways. For instance, we were using a lot of smoke on the ruins set, which is often incompatible with rain, since they interfere with one another…

What about your choice of lenses ? A single lens, I presume ?

RD : I wanted to shoot the film with an Alexa LF, especially to have a slightly shallower depth of field than is usual. Starting from there, I thought about it and I did a lot of screen tests to find the lens that would enable me to take both the close ups and wide shots described by the storyboard at the key moments of the film. And so we chose the 40mm Arri Signature Prime, and shot 95% of the film with it. it is the ideal focal length for me with the LF, and it can do almost anything.

What about for the rest ?

RD : A few exceptions : the interior of the German bunker was shot with 35mm to visually provide a bit more space to the set. A few other parts were shot in the opposite direction in 47mm… but truly, the 40mm was our main tool.

Weren’t you frustrated not to be able to compose your image the way you’re used to doing ?

RD : I did operate most of the film as we were working on a remote head for about 60% of the film. But I was also controlling the framing of all the shoot through our rehearsals. If something changed on the day, the operators and I were always in communication and could adjust the shot as necessary. Of course, it was a bit strange to film shots so close to the actors from so far away in my technical tent, but that gave me the opportunity to do physical exercise by often going back and forth between each take to talk face-to-face with my operators, grips and the actors too ! When the camera was set up on the Trinity System, I was generally the one operating the third axis, while also handling the changes in aperture… But both Charlie Rezik, who operated the Trinity rig, and Peter Cavacuiti, who operated Steadicam, had been with us for many weeks before we began shooting and by that time we had rehearsed every shot. We were all very much in sync about what we were after by the time we came to shoot.

Roger Deakins préparant un plan avec Charlie Rizek
Universal Pictures France

Were there a lot of takes ?

RD : About twenty... sometimes up to 40 on certain shots. But truly, each take was such a pleasure… Each time, you could feel the crew giving its all for each of them. The very long take following the airplane crash, for example, which we shot with the Trinity, was a particularly hard to film for Charlie Rizek. And, if I remember correctly, we had to do, maybe, ten takes. Or the other scene, also shot with the Trinity, with the soldiers singing in the woods… this was a shot that was extremely hard to carry out with very slow moments that then become very fast movements that leave no margin for error… In the end, if there is something I am particularly proud of on 1917, it is truly the wonderful team work that enabled us to carry through this shoot to its end.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe)

Director & CoProducer : Sam Mendes
Director of Photography : Roger Deakins, BSC, ASC
Production Designer : Dennis Gassner
Costumes : David Crossman, Jacqueline Durran

Camera Operators : Charlie Rizek (Trinity), Peter Cavacuiti (Steadicam), Roger Deakins
Focus Puller / 1st AC : Andrew Harris
Assistants : Ryan Taggard, Guido Cavacuiti
Second Assistant Camera : Chloe Harwood
DIT : Josh Gollish
Gaffer : John Higgins
Key Grip : Gary Hymn

Technical data
Camera : Arri Alexa Mini LF, Arri Signature Primes
Post-production : CO3
Colorist : Greg Fisher