Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of Skyfall, Spectre and American Beauty, brings his singular vision to 1917, a visceral new epic inspired by the experiences of his grandfather and others who served in World War I.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a breathtaking, beautiful and unforgettable story well told and masterfully realised. It’s a soulful story relevant to the world we live in today, one that will live in your heart long after watching it.
“The first time I understood the idea of war was when my grandfather told me about his experiences in the First World War,” says Mendes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Showtime’s Penny Dreadful).
“This film is not a story about my grandfather, but rather the spirit of him—what these men went through, the sacrifices, the sense of believing in something greater than themselves.”
“Our two main characters are sent on a dangerous journey through enemy territory to deliver a vital message to save 1,600 soldiers, and our camera never leaves them. I wanted to travel every step and breathe every breath with these boys, and cinematographer Roger Deakins and I discussed shooting 1917 in the most immersive way. We designed it to bring audiences as close as possible to their experience. It’s been the most exciting job of my career.”
1917 tells the story of two young British soldiers at the height of the war, Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they are given a seemingly impossible task. In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow soldiers—Blake’s own brother among them. In this immersive cinematic experience, Mendes thrusts the audience into the immediate peril and vast scale of World War I, witnessing the conflict in an urgent and propulsive way.
Crafting the Screenplay
Before the United Nations was formed, prior to NATO—well before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that would draw the world into conflict—nations in the West had primarily acted in their own interests. Never before had countries set aside nationalism for the collective greater good. For that reason, the First World War in many ways unified the West and became the bedrock of modern society.
A global shockwave that made humanity confront our common ground, our joint ideals and shared values, World War I demanded unthinkable sacrifice—calling upon a tested generation’s honor, duty and fidelity to country. The impact of the war, and particularly its effect on the young soldiers asked to rise up and defend their homelands, has intrigued filmmaker Sam Mendes since he was a boy.
The idea for 1917 was sparked by stories that Mendes’ grandfather, the late Alfred H. Mendes, shared about his time as a Lance Corporal in the First World War, as well as the colorful characters he met during his service. In the year 1917, Alfred was a 19-year-old who enlisted in the British Army. Due to his small stature, the five-foot-four-inch soldier was chosen to be a messenger on the Western Front.
The mist on No Man’s Land—the unclaimed land between Allied and enemy trenches on the frontlines that neither side crossed for fear of being attacked—hung at approximately five and a half feet, so the young sprinter was able to carry messages laterally from post to post. His height meant he was not visible to the enemy, and he literally ran for his life. During the war, Alfred was injured and gassed, and was awarded a medal for his bravery. In his later years, the Trinidadian novelist retired to his birthplace in the West Indies, where he wrote his memoirs.
“I was always fascinated by the Great War, perhaps because my grandfather told me about it when I was very young, and perhaps also because at that stage of my life, I’m not sure I’d even registered the concept of war before,” Mendes says. “Our film is fiction, but certain scenes and aspects of it are drawn from stories he told me, and ones told him by his fellow soldiers. This simple kernel of an idea—of a single man carrying a message from one place to another—stayed with me and became the starting point for 1917.”
Mendes spent time researching first-person accounts of this era, many of which are held at the Imperial War Museum in London. As he took notes, Mendes began to compile fragments of stories of bravery confronting terror; in time, he began to dovetail them into a single tale.
During this exploration, he discovered that World War I was so wholly entrenched in a relatively small geographic area that it had very few long journeys. “It was a war mainly of paralysis,” Mendes says, “one in which millions lost their lives over 200 or 300 yards of land. People are justly celebrated in all parts of the world for gaining tiny sections of land in World War I. In the Battle of Vimy Ridge, for example, they gained 500 yards, but it remains one of the war’s greatest acts of heroism. So, the question I asked myself was how to tell a story about a single epic journey, when essentially nobody traveled very far.”
His research stalled momentarily, Mendes soon discovered what would become the backdrop for his tale. In 1917, the Germans retreated to what was known as Siegfriedstellung, or the Hindenburg Line. After six months of planning and digging a huge trench system of defenses and deep-lying artillery, the Germans placed a vast number of troops—once spread over the original, much longer, front line—into a new, enormously fortified, condensed line of defense.
The filmmaker discusses how he found the propulsive narrative of what would become his greatest challenge to date.
“There was a brief period where, for several days, the British didn’t know whether the Germans had retreated, withdrawn or surrendered,” Mendes says. “Suddenly, the British were cut adrift in a land they had literally spent years fighting over…but had never seen before. Much of it was destroyed by the Germans, who left nothing of lasting value, destroying anything that might sustain the enemy. Anything of beauty was taken or destroyed; villages, towns, animals, food. All trees were cut down. It was made relatively impassible. The British were alone in this desolate land full of snipers, land mines and trip wires.”
Inspired by the fragments of stories from his grandfather, the first-person accounts he had researched at the Imperial War Museum—as well as the idea of the deadly venture to the Hindenburg Line—Mendes crafted the structure of the story that became 1917.
“Like most of the war stories I admired, from All Quiet on the Western Front to Apocalypse Now, I wanted to create a fiction based on fact,” Mendes says. He reached out to frequent collaborator Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who, unbeknownst to Mendes at the time, is a self-proclaimed “history nerd” and was ideally suited to the material, and their journey began.
Pippa Harris is Mendes’ longtime producing partner at their Neal Street Productions and the two have known each other since childhood. They studied together at Cambridge and have joined forces on many projects through Neal Street, which they run with Caro Newling and Nicolas Brown.
Mendes and Harris were rapt by Wilson-Cairns’ meticulous detailing and deft ability with character. Building upon their shared history, Wilson-Cairns worked closely with Mendes as they put onto the page precisely what he needed for shooting. Together, they created the saga of Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, two young men given a seemingly impossible mission: to deliver a message—deep in the heart of enemy territory—that, if successful, would potentially save the lives of 1,600 British soldiers. For Blake, the assignment is deeply personal; his brother is one of the 1,600 men who will die if they fail.
“I wrote a story structure,” Mendes says, “Then I brought on Krysty who, unlike me, is used to writing, ‘Page One, Scene One,’ and not freezing! She took that story structure and put it into script form, and then I spent a hugely enjoyable three weeks rewriting it and then sending it back and forth. After about two months we had a draft, and the final film remains very close to that first script.”
Mendes found a dogged researcher in his co-writer, and additional parts of their epic tale were drawn from first-person accounts that he and Wilson-Cairns came across. “I wanted people to understand how difficult it was,” Mendes says. “In a sense, the movie is about sacrifice…and how we no longer truly understand what it means: To sacrifice everything for something larger than yourself.”
Mendes and Wilson-Cairns had ample resources to draw from. “When Sam and I first started talking about his ideas, I was utterly enthralled; I basically turned up at his house,” Wilson-Cairns says. “We swapped a lot of books, as we both had so many. We concentrated on firsthand accounts, on individual soldiers telling their stories and on diaries. There was a lot of that research about the state of play in 1917, as well as an overview of the Hindenburg Line and of that specific withdrawal.”
Through weaving a story of two exhausted young men in a terrifying, extreme situation, Mendes and Wilson-Cairns tell a story that speaks of the grit of a generation tested by the atrocities of war. Says Mendes: “I hoped that by looking through the lens of a smaller, human story, told in real time, we might be able to get close to expressing the vastness of the landscape and scale of the destruction. To see the macro through the micro, as it were.” Buoyed by their screenplay’s real-time countdown, they provide a look inside the journey that countless soldiers took to protect the lives of loved ones…as well as many more whom they did not know, and would never know.
Mendes and Wilson-Cairns had little interest in repeating the beats of previous films. They needed Blake and Schofield’s saga to feel urgent, relevant and fresh—and to allow the audience to experience the mission at the same time these two boys do.
The rare opportunity for a young female writer to co-write a war film was one that immensely appealed to the screenwriter. “Sam didn’t know this when he called me up,” Wilson-Cairns says. “But I’ve always been interested in the World Wars, and I thought World War I was particularly fascinating and underserved onscreen. I love war movies, I grew up on them and I’ve always wanted to write one. I seized this chance with both hands and dug in.”
Wilson-Cairns found something inherently fascinating about the fact that the global powers of the era seemed helpless to stop the carnage. “World War I was the first war of wholesale slaughter,” Wilson-Cairns says. “It was the first mechanical war in a sense that it represented the first meeting of industry and war. What starts with infantry charges and horses quickly becomes a static war fought with tanks, machine guns, gas and planes. So, it was death at an unprecedented level. One of the most extraordinary things about World War I is that, for four years, 10 million people killed each other and at no point did anyone say, ‘Enough.’”
Much like producer Harris, what also interested Wilson-Cairns was the way in which stories from the period were told. All society was swept up, including actors, artists, poets and authors. Many years prior to our understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, many did not discuss, privately or publicly, their experience until they returned home, or many years later. The works that were created after the war, alongside the personal diaries of first-person accounts, eventually told the truth of war in a different way, focusing on its devastating impact on humanity.
“The Great War was told and rendered in a very different way from the wars before,” Wilson-Cairns says. “It wasn’t Kipling’s ‘The Last of the Light Brigade,’ nor was it just surface-level factual reporting. It was poetry and fiction and painting and a vast number of first-person accounts of lived experiences.”
As they crafted narrative and dialogue, what struck Mendes and Wilson-Cairns was the depth of terror that their two young men would have experienced as they attempted to deliver this message across the vast wasteland. “These are moments of real isolation and solitude against huge adversity,” Wilson-Cairns says. “You’ve got snipers, you’ve got who knows what other dangers in the land and towns beyond. And from just a great story and movie point of view, I think the present-tense action of the movie is mesmerizing.”
She admits one of the biggest challenges of penning the film was that, on every single day of shooting, dialogue may have needed to be re-written and quickly finalized. “Because of the nature of 1917, there was no edit,” Wilson-Cairns says. “There was no final rewrite. The story and the dialogue was very much set and rooted when we wrapped each day, and there wasn’t really any option to change it in post. Literally, after every take, we would pick the favorite take and then match it. There wasn’t even the option of using different takes.”
Revisiting Hallowed Ground: Search for Truth and Memory
As part and parcel of her research, Wilson-Cairns and her mother went to northern France and to the River Somme, locations they found to be extraordinarily poignant. During the almost five-month battle in 1916, more than one million men were injured or died. By the end of the first day of fighting alone, on July 1, 1916, more than 19,000 British soldiers had been killed.
“I went to the Somme and traveled around the areas where this story is set,” says Wilson-Cairns. “It was very moving, a staggering amount of death. I went to Écoust, Thiepval [Memorial to the Missing], Beaumont Hamel [which commemorates the sacrifices of Newfoundlanders] and the Lochnagar Mine Crater [largest man-made mine crater on the Western Front, detonated by the British Army’s Royal engineers]. You can’t possibly imagine the scale of a mine crater. It looks like an asteroid hit; it’s so unbelievably large.”
The writer knew that to set foot onto these locations was vital to her in her writing of the script. “It helped me understand the scale in a literal sense of the journey the characters would have to take, but also, in a far greater sense, it afforded me the chance to understand the cost, the thousands of young men who died for inches of land,” Wilson-Cairns says. “Going there brought it home to me in a way that would otherwise not have been possible.”
Likewise, supervising location manager Emma Pill travelled to France, as did Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner, to visit the actual locations. They walked through the various trenches that still exist, as well as No Man’s Land. They immersed themselves in the vast landscapes, as well as the villages where their characters would have intersected.
As it would not be appropriate to disturb the historical battle zones, filming 1917 in France was never an option. These are sacred places. “Most of the actual sites over there are real battle zones,” Pill says. “There’s still ammunition that is in the ground. So, we would never have been able to do the amount of excavation that you see here in France. Plus, there are still bodies in the ground. We needed to find a location that we could do the work without disturbing anything historical…or dishonor the fallen.”
The only way to find a similar scale of landscape—a place with few trees and no signs of modern life in the United Kingdom—was to travel outside of London and the Home Counties to find open vistas. It was Pill’s job to look around the U.K. for locations that matched the scenery in France and discover where sets could be built. Her scouting brought the team to Salisbury Plain, in southwestern England and home to the renowned Stonehenge, to Northumberland, as well as to Glasgow, Scotland, for key sequences set in northeast France, and to Bovingdon in central England for the endless line of trenches.
Ultimately, the film pays tribute not just to World War I soldiers but to all our military members, past and present and their sacrifice for the greater good and pursuit of freedom.
Immersive, Visceral, Continuous: How 1917 Was Lensed
Mendes’ vision to capture the story in real time in a way that plays as one continuous shot requires the audience to join the characters and immerse themselves in their turbulent journey. To be clear: 1917 was not shot in one take, but was filmed in a series of extended, uncut takes that could be connected seamlessly to look and feel as if it is one continuous shot. As there is no cut within a scene, the viewer, much like Schofield and Blake, is not able to step away from the mission that lies in front of them. Although Mendes had shot the opening scene of Spectre as one continuous shot, shooting an entire film this way was a new experience for everyone, including Mendes. “I’ve never been in a situation where we’d start shooting on Monday, and I knew for a fact that what we shot on Monday would be in the movie,” Mendes says.
Shot in this way, the audience gets an authentic, tangible sense of what these boys would have gone through. “The reason I chose to do that with this material is, from the very beginning, I felt it should be told in real time,” Mendes says. “The sense of distance traveled is very important. But it is also, most importantly, an emotional decision, that I hope connects you even more closely to the journey of the two central characters. I wanted an audience to take every step of the journey with them, to breathe every breath. It wasn’t a decision that was imposed on the material afterwards. I had the idea alongside the idea for the story – style, form and content all came at the same time. You begin to construct the narrative so that every second forms part of one continuous, unbroken thread.”
Mendes and Academy Award® winner (and 14-time Oscar® nominee) Roger Deakins worked with one another on Jarhead and have collaborated on films from Revolutionary Road to Skyfall and have a shorthand with each other. “From the first moment I talked to Sam about the idea as a one-shot movie, I knew it was going to be immersive and that it would be essential for the storytelling,” Deakins says.
With the one-shot premise, it was imperative to block the scenes during 1917’s four-month rehearsal process, and to discuss the layout of the sets in great detail. Once it was established how the actors would move within the space for the scenes, it became possible to map out exactly where the camera would move.
The cinematographer expands on this process. “Sometimes, you need to be close, and sometimes you want to pull away and see the characters within the space, within the landscape,” Deakins says. “So, it was getting a balance between that. A lot of the blocking was done in our heads, then Sam would rehearse the scenes, then we drew schematics and had a storyboard artist who gave different options within those basic ideas. It gradually evolved, but then when we worked with our actors on location, it evolved even further.”
The director reflects that with standard filmmaking, there’s always a “get-out-of-jail card” that allows fixes and changes in post. “Your normal thought process is, ‘We might be able to cut around this moment, or shorten this scene, or we might take that scene out altogether.’” Mendes says. “That wasn’t possible on this film. There was simply no way out. It had to be complete. The dance of the camera and the mechanics all had to be in sync with what the actor was doing. When we achieved that, it was exhilarating. But it took immense planning, and immense skill from the operators.” Deakins often needed to be with the focus puller and DIT in a small white van, remotely operating the camera even if it was being carried. As they were frequently operating the camera remotely across vast distances, it was very tricky. “Sometimes, we’d have a camera that was carried by an operator, hooked onto a wire,” Mendes says. “The wire would carry it across more land. It was unhooked again, that operator ran with it then stepped onto a small jeep that carried him another 400 yards, and he stepped off it again and raced around the corner.”
Due to the prep period and many lengthy rehearsals on shooting days, there was always a clear starting point and physical structure to the scenes, but this did not mean the filmmakers and cast were fixed entirely in their approach.
Because the film needed to play as one shot, primarily filmed outside, Deakins relied upon light that was as natural as possible, which meant Mother Nature was as much in charge of the shoot as the filmmakers were. Instead of blue skies and direct sunlight, which bring with it shadows that are difficult to shoot around and impossible for continuity, the production prayed for the days to be consistently overcast.
No location ever repeats in 1917, so the camera is constantly moving through landscapes. “Being such an exterior movie, we were very dependent on the light and the weather,” Deakins says. “And we realized, well for a start, you can’t really light it. If you were running down a trench and turning around 360 degrees, there’s nowhere to put a light anywhere. Because we were shooting in story order, we had to shoot in cloud to get the continuity from scene to scene. Some mornings the sun would be out, and we couldn’t shoot. So, we would rehearse instead.”
For the director, total engagement from all involved in his production was paramount. “That is behind the way in which we decided to shoot 1917,” Mendes says. “I wanted people to understand how difficult it was for these men. And the nature of that is behind everything.”
His comrade in arms shares that the film must be experienced to believe. “Until you actually see this on a screen,” Deakins says, “you don’t really realize how immersive it is and how this technique draws you into it.”
Fresh from the Manufacturer: Deakins Wields the ALEXA Mini LF
Deakins has long used ARRIFLEX cameras on his productions, and during summer 2018, he and JAMES ELLIS DEAKINS (Sicario)—his wife and digital workflow consultant—went to ARRI Munich and discussed a mini version of the ALEXA LF camera that could deliver the intimacy and speed Mendes required of the shoot. ARRI advised that it was in the process of developing one, and the couple asked if the manufacturer could have it ready by 1917’s start of shoot: April 2019.
Once the ALEXA Mini LF prototypes proved ready, from February 2019, Deakins and his team ran camera tests with the ALEXA Mini LF. They tried it out with a variety of rigs they wanted to use during filming—including the Trinity, Steadicam, StabilEye, DragonFly and Wirecam.
Just in the nick of time, 1917 would be shot on the brand-new ALEXA Mini LF with Signature Primes in combination with the Trinity Rig. The camera has a large-format ALEXA LF sensor in an ALEXA Mini body.
Especially for use on this epic, ARRI Munich had three cameras ready early. The size of the cameras was ideal for the epic film, as well as its large-screening format. Officially launching in mid-2019, the ALEXA Mini LF expands ARRI’s large-format camera system.
At the time, the 1917 production had the only working ALEXA Mini LF cameras in the world. ARRI had released only the large version of the camera a year earlier, in 2018. Says the manufacturer: “ARRI’s large-format camera system is based around a 4.5K version of the ALEXA sensor, which is twice the size and offers twice the resolution of ALEXA cameras in 35-mm format. This allows the filmmakers to explore their own take on the large-format look, with improvements on the ALEXA sensor’s famously natural colorimetry, pleasing skin tones, low noise, and suitability for High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut workflows.”
Invisible Edits: How to Cut a Film with No Cuts
The challenge of joining the cuts in 1917 is that every scene had to be shot with incredible precision…so that two frames could be blended together seamlessly on screen. That painstaking attention to detail added another layer of continuity because the pacing needed to match, as well as other elements in the scene, such as the weather, cast and sets.
As it was crucial for the takes to be tracked, it meant fully focused attention—and constant vigilance—from the script supervisor, visual effects and the editor. It was imperative for Mendes, Deakins and their fellow Oscar® winner, editor Lee Smith, to know the moment at which the shot would be stitched from one scene to the next, as it could never be fixed in post with a cut to a different perspective.
In order to take the characters seamlessly from one cut to the next, Mendes made sure that blends happened in a variety of subtle ways. That could mean traveling through doorways and curtains, or when the characters enter a bunker, or with a silhouette, or a body movement, or a foreground element or a prop…or even a 360-degree shot.
Producer Jayne-Ann Tenggren walks us through the logic. “How we blended from one shot to another was designed around the action, sometimes because of a change in lighting environment, sometimes because of a need to change the camera rig, and sometimes simply an emotional choice as to how long the scene should run,” Tenggren says.
Lest you believe editor Lee Smith had it easy on the production, think again. “This has been a very complicated film to edit because the whole process of the blending, making it look like one shot—and doing the kind of the mixing of those shots—is so crucial, and has had to be done so fast, in order to give Sam instant feedback,” producer Callum McDougall says. “In the opening of Spectre, we created one long shot in Mexico City. But it’s nothing compared to what Lee, who’s our same editor, has had to do here.”
For Mendes, this production has been an embarrassment of film-artist riches. “We have Roger Deakins,” Mendes says, “who you could argue is one of the two or three greatest living cinematographers, fresh off his Oscar® win for Blade Runner 2049, collaborating with Lee Smith, who just won the Oscar® for editing Dunkirk, and Dennis Gassner, who I’ve worked with five times now. We started working together on Road to Perdition way back, and he also designed Blade Runner, Skyfall and some of your favorite Coen brothers’ movies.”
Steps of the Journey: Departments Work As One
Mendes would not have been able to consider shooting a movie in such an unusually daring way without the steadfast support of his core group of collaborators, many of whom he had known for decades. As a great number of the crew had worked together previously, there was an easy camaraderie and shorthand. This symbiosis would prove beneficial, as all departments needed to be fully prepared before stepping onto the sets. In fact, 1917’s intense rehearsal process was quite similar to the preparation of a piece of theater.
Mendes reflects that what made 1917 differ from any other movie he has made is the way in which his entire team constructed it. Mendes says, “It was such a unity. The collaboration between heads of department and my main collaborators was daily, and started much earlier in the process than ever before. We rehearsed for seven or eight weeks on and off location. Everyone was involved and continued to be involved throughout the shoot. That’s very moving when you see such great artists at work, all as equals, with immense mutual respect, and very little hierarchy.”
Rehearsing World War I
Although all films require preparation, the prep period for 1917 was even more important than on conventionally shot films. In fact, it was paramount. The technical demands of how the epic would be shot meant that every step of the journey had to be timed precisely during rehearsals.
Mendes admits that the challenges of prepping were the challenges of getting ready for a normal movie…times five. “You have all the things you normally have to do,” Mendes says, “but here we simply had to work in much more detail. For example, we had to measure every step of the journey. It’s fine to write, ‘They walk through a copse of trees down a hillside, through an orchard, around a pond, and into a farmhouse,’ but the scene had to be the exact length of the land. And the land could not be longer than the scene! We had to rehearse every step of the journey, every line of dialogue on location.”
The level of detail called for Mendes, MacKay, Chapman, Deakins, Gassner, supporting cast, key creatives and team members to rehearse not just on location, but on a huge soundstage at Shepperton Studios. There, they marked out on the floor the dimensions of the sets for each scene. Every step of the journey was rehearsed in this space. “We were in this massive room, the rehearsal room, with all these cardboard boxes stacked up around us to sort of map out the set shape,” Chapman says. “Sam already knew exactly how the blocking should look, but sometimes we’d come across something that didn’t sync right or didn’t look right. When that happened, Sam would just stand there, he’d close his eyes, think about it, and then just solve it. I’ve never seen anything like that. His ability to do that was amazing.”
Next, they went out on location for tech rehearsals. “This world had to be crafted around the rhythm of the script,” Mendes says. “You can’t just jump 100 yards in a cut. If your location is 100 yards too long, you’re not going to have the scene that lasts the journey; the two things are obviously interlinked. That made the prep much more complicated than normal. In many ways, it was more fun, because we had to do it very early and walk the land, and physically feel the reality of their journey. Then, we had to discuss and test the camera movement and positioning for every moment of every scene, long before we shot it.”
As well as storyboards, a schematic document of diagrams was created to accompany the script. This mapped out where each character was moving at any given time, as well as exactly where the camera would be during any given scene—and in which direction it would be pointing.
By the time prep was finished, producer McDougall was confident that his team was more than up to dealing with the myriad complexities of the shoot. “When you have a film as well-prepped as we were—and with the expertise of the people we’ve engaged—with our locations, production team, special effects and other departments, we knew that whatever would be thrown that we were able to handle,” McDougall says.
During prep, Deakins and his crew were working on the camera moves and how they would be able to complete a shot without cutting—all while constantly moving. At times, the camera would need to seamlessly interchange—using a variety of rigs during a take, which could involve a Steadicam operator, followed by a wire cam and back to the operator on foot or on a vehicle.
One of the biggest challenges of production was that they were unable to employ long-familiar tools. “We’re used to having coverage and cuts and camera placement to tell a story,” Mendes says. “We can normally change the pace in editing. We can tweak performances, timing, rhythm, dialogue. That is the language of film. You can cut to a wide shot to establish geography for example, or you cut to a close up and push in to feel connected to a character. We didn’t get to play with any of those tools with 1917, yet we still had to do all of those things.”
Marrying Script to Mileage: Designers Lead the Charge
As the majority of Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay exists in the exteriors, and no location through which the two principal characters move repeats on screen, the enormity of the challenge in front of Oscar®-winning production designer Dennis Gassner and his colleagues was obvious to all involved.
With the landscapes came the inescapable and unpredictable British weather. Because the story is linear, the weather needed to consistently match from scene to scene. While the production could control many aspects of the shoot, weather would never be one of them. Armed with a Farmer’s Almanac and weather.com, Gassner examined multiple weather forecasts—from long range to daily and hourly. At the mercy of the sun, clouds, rain, sleet and snow, the indefatigable crewmembers crossed their fingers and said respective prayers every night before the next shooting day. “You’ve never seen a group of people so happy for bad weather,” George MacKay says. “You get a bit of cloud of and everyone will be like, ‘Okay, let’s go!’ We’re going to get two shots today!’”
Gassner has known Mendes for two decades and Deakins for three and offers that their shorthand was the only way they could accomplish so much in such a period. “I needed to build the world, Roger needed to light it, and Sam needed to take us on the journey,” Gassner says. “That connection among the three of us was wonderful. We all did our jobs in the best way that we were possibly able to do.” The production designer extends the kudos to his fellow crew. “Everybody on the production was so engaged,” Gassner says. “I’ve never seen a film crew that bonded together in such a strong way. It was technically really hard work. That focus kept driving us forward to see what we were going to get. We got through this because of all of our experiences…and a tremendous amount of luck.”