Broadcast this Saturday evening on Canal +, do not miss the wonderful film “1917” by Sam Mendes, crowned with three Oscars. A terrifying and suffocating plunge into the trenches of the 14-18 war.
Released urgently by Universal at the end of 2019 in the United States, in order to be able to place it – even late – in the race for the Oscars vintage 2020, 1917 is the new film by Sam Mendes. A director not so prolific by the way: barely eight films in 20 years.
Covered with rave reviews at the end of the first screenings, saluting a work shot in (almost) sequence shot of rare visual power, but where emotion is never absent, it relates a conflict ultimately not so often treated in the cinema, unlike WWII.
Especially since the story of 1917 also has intimate, family resonances for the filmmaker. As he himself recalled, “My film does not tell the story of my grandfather, but rather focuses on evoking his spirit – what these men went through, their sacrifices, and their faith in a cause that was beyond them.”
Take the story of two men in the turmoil of World War I, Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman), two young British soldiers, who are assigned a truly impossible mission. Carriers of a message that could prevent a devastating attack and the death of hundreds of soldiers, including Blake’s brother, they embark on a real race against time, behind enemy lines …
It was well before the film’s release in France that we met its director in Paris. A warm, passionate director. Modest even, in front of the compliment that we whispered in his ear on his film.
A work that touches the summits, not very far from the master stallion of the genre on this conflict, The Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick, whose assault on the place called “the Fourmillion”, preceded by a fabulous tracking shot before and back in the trench, still haunts our cinephilic memory. Mendes’ eye lights up. “Ah! Kubrick … The master! Your compliment touches me” he said, before asking how much interview time we had. “About 15 min!” let go of the operator who was filming our meeting. Mendes burst out laughing. “Ah, perfect! We will be able to rest a little and especially develop the answers!” he called out to us facetiously.
Our interview breaks down into two sequences. A video part, to discover below, and supplemented by three questions answered in writing, not present in the assembly.
AlloCiné: You wrote the script with Kristy Wilson-Cairns. How did you work with her?
We have already done a lot of research, which we have pooled. We each developed a script treatment that we also merged, so I had in fine an overall structure at the level of the plot. In fact, initially when I sat down to write an elaborate version of the script, from the first scene, I stopped. I’m not naturally a screenwriter, that bothers me, and the prospect of having to write a hundred pages blocked me.
So I temporarily stopped the writing work. My producer, Pipper Harris, then told me: “you absolutely need someone to help you write the story.” It was she who directed me to Kristy, with whom she had already worked on two occasions. She is brilliant, young – not like me! – she is a woman …
It may give rise to a smile that I insist on this point, but I just think that it opens up an interesting and totally new perspective and point of view on the story. In my position, the danger comes from the fact that it is as if I were in an echo chamber. Working with people who are the same age as me, think the same as me, etc.
So the idea of working with someone outside of my generation, younger than me, was important. What I didn’t know until I gave her the script writing was that she was already basically passionate about the period. She is very much at the top of the world wars, and films set in these periods. She got to work very quickly on the first draft of the script, which I rewrote afterwards and then sent back for her to make changes in her turn …
We operated like this by shuttle for about six months, and it was really a very pleasant process. I like having this ability to rewrite a script without having to ask for permission. As I have always worked with a screenwriter until then [NDR : 1917 est le premier scénario co-écrit par Sam Mendes], it’s nice to ask for modifications to a script without feeling guilty, given my investment in it (laughs)!
Among its many qualities, the film is visually fantastic, and even recalls at times in the composition of the image, when one sees the mud, corpses, skeletons, blood and the desolate expanse of No Man’s Land, the work of the German expressionist painter and printmaker Otto Dix (1891-1969), with his series of engravings Der Krieg as well as his famous triptych “The war”. Did you have specific references in mind?
(Smiles) That’s a very interesting reference, but no. Often on the films I have made so far, I would say to my technical team “you should watch this movie, that one and that one”, because they nourish me, also influence me, even unconsciously, give ideas for staging, or are references for photography, etc.
But, for once, the only reference I gave to my team to prepare for 1917 was a hundred pages with photos of the First World War. For me, everything is in these photos, which are also absolutely remarkable, not only from a qualitative point of view, but also by their ability to capture the moment and the detail.
Some of these photos clearly indicated the direction we wanted to take for the visual approach of the film. On the other hand, I did not have in mind a particular reference in terms of painting, and very few films, because very few obeyed the rules and conditions that we have set for ourselves. In a sense, from that point of view and no pun intended, we’ve been operating blind most of the time.
There are many more films about WWII than there are about the Great War. How do you explain that ? Is this due, for example, to an overall lack of interest for the period?
I do not believe that. In fact, I think the main reason is that WWI was primarily a war of paralysis, very static, at least for much of the conflict. It ultimately offers little variety in the landscapes, sometimes lunar, and because of that, can also present a difficulty to create a sufficiently exciting story. Add to that the fact that what also stands out from this conflict is the color brown. In other words, the mud. Mud that sucked up men everywhere. Mud and more mud.
Interview by Olivier Pallaruelo in Paris on December 2, 2019.
1917 by Sam Mendes, broadcast this Saturday evening at 9:00 p.m. on Canal +