The Stars of ‘1917’ on How It Breaks the War Movie Formula

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman lead an outstanding band of brothers in 1917. The film envisions the First World War with a psychological realism few films have ever seen. It puts audiences alongside two young soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Chapman) as they scurry to the front line with an urgent message. 1917, which recently scored three Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture (Drama), is an intense artistic and technical achievement that demands to be seen on the big screen this holiday season.

Photos by François Duhamel, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Dreamworks Pictures.

This riveting film from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) takes the hashtag #OnePerfectShot to another level. The conceit of 1917 is that Mendes stages the drama à la Birdman to resemble a single long take. Through expertly choreographed scenes shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) and imperceptibly edited by Lee Smith (Dunkirk), the film lets viewers experience war in real time as they wade deep into the trenches and onto the battlefields to witness the horrors of war alongside Schofield and Blake.

The technically precise bravura act of 1917 puts considerable responsibility on the shoulders of the rising stars. While the long take could have overwhelmed the soldiers’ story, it emphasizes the human element of 1917. For MacKay, who previously appeared alongside Viggo Mortensen in the indie comedy Captain Fantastic, and Chapman, best known for his role as Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones, 1917 is a physically and emotionally demanding opportunity to retrace the footsteps of soldiers who changed history. It’s also an exhilarating opportunity for the actors to connect with audiences as they provide the eyes through which we experience the war through every step of the soldiers’ journey.

We recently spoke with George MacKay (GM) and Dean-Charles Chapman (DCC) ahead of 1917’s release this Wednesday.

 What makes a great war film?

DCC: Just a good story. Good characters. The thing I love about this film is that it’s much more than just a “war film.” It’s not really an educational film about war. You don’t have to know anything about the First World War. It’s just a very simple story about two random men sent on a mission to deliver a message. It’s a very human story that’s about more than one battle.

GM: What I love is the way that [screenwriters] Sam [Mendes] and Krysty [Wilson-Cairns] have chosen to place this story in the war is that it’s not about the war itself. The story is a circumstance where humans are stretched to their absolute limits. Where people are pushed emotionally and physically beyond themselves. As viewers, what does that teach you when you watch that happen? At least for me, it makes me think about what it is to be human and how far we can go.

A lot of people are saying that 1917 is the best war film since 1998, but are pretty divided between whether it tops Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line. Which film might be the better point of comparison?

DCC: I think it’s its own thing. We’ve been asked as well if we watched any other films to take something to put into this or that character. The only thing that we did watch was They Shall Not Grow Old, which is the Peter Jackson documentary. That’s an amazing film. But other than that, we didn’t watch anything to learn from or take from. 1917 is very much its own thing and they’re their own characters.

1917 actually reminded me more of The Revenant than either of those films.

GM: Right, it’s a journey film. The thing about The Revenant is that it sees someone get into the depths of themselves, physically and emotionally. War is examined in art and in films because it’s an arena where humans are stretched. That teaches you about what’s in your core.

I’m guessing the shoot for the film must have really tested your limits as actors with the long takes. What was the rehearsal process like?

DCC: We rehearsed for six months before we started shooting. That included a little research period. We went to Belgium and France together, did military training, worked with a military advisor, and spent time learning the weapons. We were making everything look like it was second nature: to be able to reload, put bullets in, close the pouches, and know where everything was and what everything did. We were breathing and living the characters before we actually give it a shot. But it was intense, very physically demanding and very emotionally demanding. People always ask, “What was the hardest scene to shoot?” It’s impossible to put your finger on one.

What about your work in theatre? I imagine this performance, like a play, requires a great deal of stamina.

GM: The idea of theatre is quite romantic, but there is also a workforce element to it. A play starts right at a certain time, you have to do it again, and you have to do it eight times in one week. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel up to it in the morning. The play is bigger than you are. The story is bigger than you are and you serve it when it tells you to serve it. That was kind of what this process was like: their story was bigger than us. Whether we felt up to it or we were a bit tired, we were in service of it.

The other thing with theater is that inside/outside perspective. You get lost in a moment. Sometimes, you’re on stage and playing a scene, but you’re also listening to the audience. Part of the craft of theatre is knowing, say, how long you hold a laugh. As soon as you’ve done a funny scene, you’re in that moment with your fellow characters, but you have one ear out, going, “Okay, they’re still laughing, so I’m going to hold this pause. But I’m not going to make it too long because otherwise it deadens.” And you’re like [pauses a beat] “Okay, here we go again.” This film works that way with the camera. In one scene, we’re looking at airplanes and these planes mean that and I’m thinking of home, but the Charlies come around the corner and I know now is the time to keep the line, so I’m going to pull them this way. Theatre was beneficial for that three-dimensional craftsmanship.

1917 has quite the band of brothers. What was the challenge of building a relationship with major names like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Richard Madden with just a few lines or minutes?

GM: I think that was credit to them as actors. They played the scenes so naturally. They all came in and did the rehearsals as they were needed to. They didn’t just rock up onto set. I remember the first time, for instance, meeting Colin in the rehearsal. He just did it and we sort of looked at each other, like, “This is really great!” [Both laugh] They managed to pull extra stuff out of it, but also I think they were at ease with themselves enough that they didn’t make the scene about how they do it to spotlight themselves. It was, again, the process of knowing that we’re all in service of the story.

After the screening, one of my friends compared 1917 to a video game in that it has a point of view mode as we follow Schofield and Blake through the battlefield, like the viewer is third soldier seeing the story from their eyes. Did you ever see 1917 through the eyes of a gamer?

DCC: We never saw anything during filming, so I didn’t really think about how it was going to look at you from the camera. There was one moment where Sam sat George and me down in the trailer to show us literally six seconds of footage. George and me were shocked. We’d been living for six months as Blake and Schofield and only seen that scene from our perspective. But seeing it from a third one was mind-boggling. I understand what they mean about the first person thing, but obviously the difference from a game to this film is that you’re not in control. Neither are the men in the film — they don’t know what’s around the corner and neither does the audience.

We talked a bit about the rehearsals, but what sort of research did you do to see the world through the eyes of these characters?

GM: This film starts on the move and ends on the move. The film is so much in the present. All of who these men are is up to that point. There are so many accounts that you can read that help you understand what their day-to-day would be like. It was important to know what their schedules might have been, like when were they last at the front line.

I didn’t know that it was basically four days on the third line, four days on the second line, four days on the front line, two weeks off, and back again. What would they be doing with the two weeks off? How often did they get rations? How hungry were they? All the bits and bobs of stuff, like the way you probably have your coffee shop on the way to work, helped imagine their routines. What would their homes be like? Home is such an important part of who these men were. That was another thing to build with a mixture of imagination.

You’ve both taken on some darker material lately: George with Marrowbone and The Kelly Gang and Dean with The King and Game of Thrones. What attracts you to these darker tales or is it just a matter of what come up?

DCC: It just depends on the character and whoever’s directing it. It all depends on that one specific story. For me, it’s a coincidence.

GM: It’s a mixture. Those parts beforehand are looking at the darker side of being human. We usually don’t talk as much about something that’s a little darker — that doesn’t make it right or wrong or anything. I like to examine what’s at the crux of people. I’m not saying that the crux of people are actually bad, I like the stories that don’t get investigated on the basis of the day to day as much.

It’s interesting to see this film coming out at a time when England is in such a state of crisis with Brexit. What do you think Schofield and Blake would say about the state of things today after what they went through in the war?

GM: I’m reticent to say what the war was fought over because there was so much confusion, but some of the lessons that we’ve learned and what’s come through the other side of it is a beautiful unity. We learn from conflict. It’s a great shame if we were to let that go.

1917 opens in theatres December 25.