'1917' Movie: How Director Sam Mendes Made His 'One-Shot' War Film

One-shot movies have long been the calling card of the most ambitious directors and cinematographers, whether they are movies with hidden cuts designed to look they were filmed in one take (like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope or Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman), or genuine one-take movies like Alexander Sokurov's 2002 Russian Ark.

The latest in a long line of so-called 'one-shot' movies is 1917, the most recent offering from American Beauty director Sam Mendes and the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose resume includes The Big Lebowski, The Shawshank Redemption and Mendes' previous films Skyfall, Revolutionary Road and Jarhead.

Technically, 1917 is not a real one-shot film. As film critic at The Telegraph Robbie Collin pointed out on Twitter, "I appreciate resisting The Narrative™ on this one is going to be like paddling with Canute, but 1917 is presented in two distinct 'shots'. There's an obvious cut to black after about 1hr 10mins that takes us from daytime to the middle of the night."

Despite 1917 technically being a 'two-shot' movie, Deakins found himself thinking a lot about one-shot movies of the past, with the Oscar-winning cinematographer telling Den of Geek that it was Rope that he thought most often about, though more for the problems of the film, which is actually 10 cuts hidden by, for example, zooming into a dark surface, cutting and then starting the next shot on the same surface.

Deakins said: "I was a bit aware of it on Rope, I must say... it was a little bit of the tail wagging the dog; the technique was pushing the film whereas, I hope, and certainly the way Sam wanted this... is the technique is not altering the story.

"I feel on Rope, especially because the equipment was so big and everything, they were forced to do these particular setups on the scenes, and it all felt a little bit like a technical exercise. And I must say, I felt the danger when Sam said he had conceived this as a single take. I thought, 'Well, let's hope we don't get bogged down and it becomes a technical exercise.'"

1917 movie one take
The movie uses long, extended takes to immerse viewers in the horrors of the First World War. Universal Pictures

However, Mendes manages to avoid this by using the extended shots to express the pure horror of trying to survive in the trenches of the First World War. Speaking to Variety about this, Mendes said, "It felt like the best way to give you a sense of all this happening in real time. I wanted you to feel like you were there with the characters, breathing their every breath, walking in their footsteps. The best way to do that is not to cut away and give the audience a way out, as it were."

This attempt at a singular perspective film stems from Spectre, Mendes' second James Bond film, which begins with an acclaimed long shot that sees Daniel Craig walking on roofs above a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. However, it is one thing to have a shot lasting a dozen minutes or so, but quite another to make a film look like one unbroken shot.

Rather than filming in a real unbroken shot, something that would be all but impossible with a film that covers so much ground, the film is actually made up of a selection of extended slots, carefully choreographed to appear like an unbroken shot once they are digitally stitched together.

According to an interview Mendes gave with Total Film (via GamesRadar), the experience was mostly one of frustration. Talking about one scene, he said, "We got through this whole scene—five-and-a-half minutes of absolutely everything in the right place, just beautiful, and the camera operator tripped on the mattress. Total human error. And it's like 'No!!!'"

1917 is in cinemas from December 25.