Few would ever consider how frustrating a pair of flashlights can be on a movie set. Roger Deakins prefers it that way. Still, when those flashlights have to light seven, eight, or ten-minute shots without affecting actors’ performances, their presence becomes its own kind of battle on the set of Sam Mendes’ 1917.
“There’s a scene in the trailer where they’ve got flashlights,” Deakins tells us at New York Comic Con. “Well, we spent a number of weeks getting the right beam, getting the right bulb, the right LED to go in it, and get the right batteries so the thing would last long enough for very long takes and not interfere with the performances—and it was all controlled on a remote dimmer.” Pausing long enough to offer a soft chuckle, he adds, “I mean it looks like just a little flashlight, but actually a lot of high-tech stuff went into that flashlight!”
Such are the hidden battles Deakins fought for his one-take film set during World War I. The legendary cinematographer (who finally won an overdue Oscar for Blade Runner 2049 after 13 nominations) has taken on many daunting projects, but he was immediately aware of the risks inherent in a film built on the illusion of a single, uninterrupted shot. That risk, and the Hitchockian shape it formed in his head, was there when director Mendes first broached 1917.
“I was a bit aware of it on Rope, I must say,” Deakins says of past films that have done one-take illusions. “And I think 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. It’s adding to the audience’s experience of 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.’”
But with 1917 being far more ambitious than either Rope or even Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s one-take Birdman, the scale of shooting a high-stakes survival drama across a war-torn countryside became as much an advantage as it was a filmmaking Everest.
“We literally travelled miles with the camera, miles, in various situations and conditions,” Deakins says. “It was a technical challenge, but if any of that is on the screen, we failed, you know what I mean? We don’t want it to impinge on the feeling of being there that we want to give the audience.”
Hence viewers shouldn’t notice that all the daylight scenes are shot in actual daylight, or that those damned flashlights had to be as meticulously thought out in a six-month rehearsal process Deakins participated in with Mendes and the actors.
Says Deakins, “A lot of the rehearsal time was just to sense how long the trenches needed to be, how big the sets needed to be, the geography of the sets before they could get started designing and building [them]. We had to know if that was the right space, walking at the speed Sam wanted the actors to walk at, and saying the dialogue. All the action had to fit.”
1917 marks the fourth film that Mendes and Deakins have made together. It also might even be more action heavy than their last joint effort, the most successful James Bond movie of all time, Skyfall. Yet it bears a closer similarity in Deakins’ mind to their earliest collaboration, 2005’s Jarhead—a war movie about American soldiers frustrated that, in the Gulf War, they never saw action.
“When you work with anybody [frequently] it helps, just because it helps build up a kind of understanding of each other’s likes and dislikes and a trust between each other,” says Deakins. “But I mean the first film I did with Sam, Jarhead, I think had more influence than anything on this… Jarhead was shot handheld and we didn’t rehearse, we basically shot rehearsals and built the coverage and the shot up as we kept rehearsing.  was something we very much had to work out beforehand, but I think that informed a way of working as much as anything for me.”
Deakins also suggests his documentary experience informs 1917, which might be apt when so much of this is about capturing the madness of World War I in a microcosm for modern audiences. It is a madness Deakins has been aware of his whole life, having grown up with the lessons of the First World War.
“I’m a bit of a history buff, really, especially the First and Second World Wars,” Deakins explains. “That was part of the excitement for me, to be asked about this film. I didn’t have any family in the First World War, my dad was in the Second World War, and it was a pretty amazing experience. But I think [WWI] still quite a big part of people’s psyche in Britain, certainly people of my generation.” And 1917 aims to pass that heritage of identity to the next one.
1917 opens on Christmas Day.