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While the film itself is so much more than just its technical achievements, a lot has understandably been made about how director Sam Mendes’ 1917 is made to look like a single continuous shot. We can all appreciate how cool that is just from an aesthetic standpoint, but what gets lost is just how incredibly difficult that is to pull off. It was so difficult that something minor like a broken cigarette lighter could derail filming, as actor Andrew Scott explained:
What you see is what you get. But the great challenge of it, of course, is in a 10-minute scene, if you make a mistake at the very last minute, you have to go back and start right from the beginning. Even if you’ve done what you consider to be good work. So, it’s just a balancing act. If your cigarette lighter doesn’t work and it’s a scene that otherwise is going really well, it doesn’t matter. You gotta start right from the beginning. So that’s the challenge. But it was a thrill to do.
That sounds like a positively exasperating and incredibly tense filming experience. As Andrew Scott, who plays Lieutenant Leslie in the film, explained, the single-shot nature of the filming on 1917 necessitated much longer takes than you would have in a more traditional movie. And if anything screwed up during the filming of that long scene, you had to start all over, even if it was something as small as a cigarette lighter not working.
That meant that everyone had to be on their A-games every second that the camera was rolling. The production team needed everything to be in place, the cameramen had to be perfect, the actors had to know all of their lines and hit all of their marks, from the moment the director called "action" to the moment he called "cut." And even if everyone was perfect, something minor that wasn't really anyone’s fault like a broken prop could force everyone to start back at the beginning.
That’s because it wasn’t just a quick shot that they had to redo. Even if the error occurred at the very last moment, it was a complete do over. The unbroken shot couldn’t be broken to swap in a better take if something went wrong. It was back to the beginning every time.
Feature filmmaking is already an arduous and laborious endeavor and the one-shot approach used on 1917 just raised the level of difficulty for all involved to a punishing degree. It’s like playing an old school videogame with no save points and no extra lives, where you had to beat the game from start to finish or go all the way back to the beginning.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like if you were the guy who screwed up a take and everyone else had to pay for it. Beyond just being incredibly frustrating to have to do a 10-minute scene all over again, Andrew Scott highlighted another challenge to this style of filmmaking.
As the actor told Hey U Guys, the scene might be going really well and as an actor you might feel like you’re putting in great work, but one hiccup and that all gets erased. So your best take may not be the one that makes it into the movie because of a mistake that occurred over the long duration of the shot that had nothing to do with you. Therefore Andrew Scott said a balance had to be struck.
It’s pretty wild, but although it was far from easy, Andrew Scott seems to have appreciated the challenge of making 1917. The industry seems to be appreciating it too. Following its Golden Globes win for Best Motion Picture-Drama, 1917 just won top honors at the PGA Awards. With 10 Oscar nominations to its name, Sam Mendes’ film is in a strong position to claim Best Picture.
1917 is now playing. Check out our 2020 Release Schedule to keep track of all this year’s biggest movies.