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'It Was Part Of Me': Director Sam Mendes On The Family History In '1917'

Dec 21, 2019

Two young British soldiers, Blake and Schofield, are given an uncommon mission in World War I: deliver a message that could save 1,600 lives — including Blake's brother.

That's the conceit of 1917, starring Colin Firth as the general who gives the order, and Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as the two soldiers. They're assigned to move across a hellscape of gouged-out trenches, burnt ruins, fat rats, and war's wreckage.

Sam Mendes directs, from a script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. It's shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins1917 was made to appear like one continuous take.

"Once I'd had the idea that it was two hours of real time, it seemed like a natural thing to lock the audience together with the central characters in a way that they gradually began to realize, consciously or unconsciously, they couldn't get out of," Mendes says. "It operates more like a ticking-clock thriller, in a way, and so to experience every second passing with the men seemed like a great idea.

The movie is inspired by the war stories of Mendes' grandfather Alfred Mendes, who enlisted as a 17-year-old and fought in World War I. Alfred Mendes became a novelist and writer — though he didn't tell his own children about his war experiences until late in life.

"It wasn't until his mid-70s that he decided he was going to tell the stories of what happened to him when he was in his teenage years," Sam Mendes says. "And there was one particular story he told us of being tasked to carry a single message through no man's land in dusk in the winter of 1916. He was a small man, and they used to send him with messages because he ran 5 1/2 feet, and the mist used to hang at about 6 feet in no man's land, so he wasn't visible above the mist. And that stayed with me. And that was the story I found I wanted to tell."


Interview Highlights

On the wreckage of war depicted

Sam Mendes speaks onstage at a special screening of 1917 earlier in December.
Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for Universal Pictures

This is a war that finished that ended over 100 years ago, and we are still so aware of it, and that the generation of men that went missing. If you go to the Somme, you go to these places which are very, very moving — these beautifully kept memorials to the fallen — the number of unmarked graves is what strikes you, just white crosses everywhere. And it struck me as very appropriate, therefore, that the two men we should follow are unknown, in a sense. You know, it's the first time that I've been on a set and found myself moved by the event that we were depicting rather than anything in the movie. I mean, honestly, a movie set's the least-moving place in the world. You know, it's just full of technicians and equipment. But I found myself lost on several occasions.

On the rats

I just would say this now: No rats were harmed in the making of his film. ... The rats, are in a way, the residents of the land. It's the humans who are passing through. And rats aside, I mean, the fact that this retreat happens in the spring of 1917 meant that we could make another personality in the movie, another character in the movie, which was nature — that despite the destruction of the humans, nature will win out. Nature will push back through those leaves on the trees again and blossom in the orchards. And nature will come back and laugh at the ants that are making such destruction, wreaking such havoc across the landscape.

On the soldier and baby scene

Well, I started writing the script October 2017, exactly 100 years after the movie takes place, and my daughter was born a month earlier. So my youngest child was very much in the house, and I suppose it has something to do with that. And I found it very difficult to shoot because, you know, this poor little creature — Ivy, her name was — you know, she's not aware she's in a movie. And the way she behaved in the scene was so moving.

But, yes, about the collateral damage of war. And I think that when you see what's happening to the civilian life; the sense of the French towns that were destroyed; that kind of lost world, really, of northern France, that was all utterly razed to the ground in that war. And those scenes were really disturbing and upsetting to shoot. But they seemed important.

On if it is disturbing to receive award recognition for this particular movie

Depends on your perspective on awards. If the awards are why you do it, then yes. If you remember that awards are designed to make audiences go to see movies in the cinema, then no. I want people to go and see this movie in cinema. I've very much embraced the fact that it's up for awards because it means it's part of the year-end dialogue, and to have an opinion about it, you've got to go and see it. And these movies are difficult to make now. You know, you are up against superhero movies and franchises and animated films, and if you make a movie of scale that you want people to see in the cinema with no big stars in the leads, you know, you have to take everything you can get. And if being part of the awards discussion is part of that, then good. You know, it is — and we have to keep reminding ourselves — a way of promoting films.

On why he makes films

Masochism, on a large scale, I think. You get a feeling inside you, a kind of Christmas Eve feeling. And it's more and more difficult to find things that drag you away from your family and the things that matter most. But I felt this one, it was part of me. It was part of my childhood. It was part of my family history. And I felt compelled to tell it in a way that I've rarely felt before. Without that, the months and months of, you know, frustration and crazy goals that you set yourself — one of which being to make a movie like this in one shot — would seem to be, you know, really pointless. But somehow it was a rewarding experience and worth all the sacrifices.

Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Steve Tripoli produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield are two British soldiers given an uncommon mission in the midst of World War I - deliver a message that could save lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")

COLIN FIRTH: (As General Erinmore) Your orders are to get to the second by crossing 1 mile southeast of the town of Auguste (ph). Deliver this to Colonel MacKenzie. It is a direct order to call off tomorrow morning's attack. If you don't, we will lose two battalions - 1,600 men, your brother among them.

SIMON: Colin Firth as a general. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are the two soldiers assigned to move across a hellscape of gouged-out trenches, burnt ruins, fat rats and war's wreckage in the film "1917." Sam Mendes directs from a script co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. It's shot by Roger Deakins.

Sam Mendes, OBE, the Oscar-winning director and James Bond's favorite director, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

SAM MENDES: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Film is dedicated to your grandfather Alfred Mendes, whose experience, I guess, fired your imagination. Tell us how it led to this film.

MENDES: Well, my granddad fought in the first world war from 1916 to 1918. He enlisted as a 17-year-old. And for years, he didn't tell the stories of his experiences in the Great War - didn't tell his own children.

SIMON: We should explain. He became a novelist, too.

MENDES: He was a storyteller. And it wasn't till his mid-70s that he decided he was going to tell the stories of what happened to him when he was in his teenage years. And there was one particular story he told us of being tasked to carry a single message through no man's land in dusk in the winter of 1916.

He was a small man, and they used to send him with messages because he ran 5 1/2 feet, and the mist used to hang at about 6 feet in no man's land. So he wasn't visible above the mist. And that stayed with me, and that was the story I found I wanted to tell.

SIMON: The film is presented as kind of a single, seamless take. The camera almost never stops moving. Why was it important to you to try and tell the story that way?

MENDES: Well, once I'd had the idea that it was two hours of real time, it seemed like a natural thing to lock the audience together with the central characters in a way that they gradually began to realize consciously, or unconsciously, they couldn't get out of. It operates more like a ticking-clock thriller in a way. And so to experience every second passing with the men seemed like a great idea.

SIMON: One of the many images in the film that just bore into you - the enormous mounds of things, stuff that war manages to leave behind - you know, the piles of brass mortar casings, rubble, the fields, the carcasses of horses, human beings. A lot goes into war, doesn't it?

MENDES: Yeah. This is a war that finished - ended over a hundred years ago, and we are still so aware of it and the generation of men that went missing. If you go to the Somme and you go to these places, which are very, very moving - these beautifully kept memorials to the fallen - the number of unmarked graves is what strikes you, just white crosses everywhere. And it struck me as very appropriate, therefore, that the two men we should follow are unknown in a sense, you know? It's the first time that I've been on a set and found myself moved by the event that we were depicting rather than anything in the movie. I mean, honestly, a movie set's the least moving place in the world, you know? It's just full of technicians and equipment. But I found myself lost in it on several occasions.

SIMON: I have to ask about the rats.

MENDES: Yeah.

SIMON: Most cunning group of rats.

MENDES: Brilliantly trained.

SIMON: Is that what it is? I mean, you - they do seem to respond to order.

MENDES: I just should say this now. No rats were harmed in the making of this film (laughter).

SIMON: I saw this. And, of course, you root against them. But, I mean, they do...

MENDES: The rats are, in a way, the residents of the land. It's the humans who are passing through. And rats aside, I mean, the fact that this retreat happens in the spring of 1970 meant that we could make another personality in the movie, another character in the movie, which was nature - that despite the destruction of the humans, nature will win out. Nature will push back through those leaves on the trees again and blossom in the orchards. And nature will come back and laugh at the ants that are making such destruction, wreaking such havoc across the landscape.

SIMON: There's a very difficult and beautiful scene in the movie, the soldier and a baby. My God, that took my breath away.

MENDES: Yeah.

SIMON: What put it in the film?

MENDES: (Laughter) Well, I started writing the script October 2017, exactly 100 years after the movie takes place. And my daughter was born a month earlier. So my youngest child was very much in the house. And I suppose it has something to do with that. And I found it very difficult to shoot because, you know, this poor, little creature - Ivy (ph), her name was - you know, she's not aware she's in a movie. And the way she behaved in the scene was so moving.

But, yeah, it's about the collateral damage of war. And I think that when you see what's happening to the civilian life, the sense of the French towns that were destroyed, the kind of lost world, really, of northern France that was all utterly erased to the ground in that war - and those scenes were really disturbing and upsetting to shoot, but they seemed important.

SIMON: This movie's already been nominated for awards, presumably will be nominated for others. Is it difficult to contemplate awards for telling a story that is so bound up with human suffering?

MENDES: It depends on your perspective on awards. If the awards are why you do it, then yes. If you remember that awards are designed to make audiences go to see movies in the cinema, then no. I want people to go and see this movie in cinema. I'm very much embraced the fact that it's up for awards because it means it's part of the year-end dialogue. And to have an opinion about it, you've got to go and see it.

And these movies are difficult to make now. You know, you are up against superhero movies and franchises and animated films. And if you make a movie of scale that you want people to see in the cinema with no big stars in the leads, you know, you have to take everything you can get. And if being part of the awards discussion is part of that, then good. You know, it is, and you have - we have to keep reminding ourselves, a way of promoting films.

SIMON: What makes you want to do a film, do you think?

MENDES: Masochism on a large scale, I think.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MENDES: You get a feeling inside you, a kind of Christmas Eve feeling. And it's more and more difficult to find things that drag you away from your family and the things that, you know, matter most. But I felt this one - it was part of me. It was part of my childhood. It was part of my family history. And I felt compelled to tell it in a way that I've rarely felt before. Without that, the months and months of, you know, frustration and crazy goals that you set yourself, one of which being to make a movie like this in one shot, would seem to be, you know, really pointless. But somehow, it was a rewarding experience and worth all the sacrifices.

SIMON: Sam Mendes - his film "1917" - thank you so much for being with us.

MENDES: It's a great pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.