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Nation & World

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

George MacKay (center) plays the British soldier Schofield in <em>1917</em>, the war drama co-written and directed by Sam Mendes.

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

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.