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George MacKay & Dean-Charles Chapman NYCC Interview: 1917

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in 1917

In Sam Mendes' World War I movie 1917, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as young soldiers Scofield and Blake, respectively, who are tasked with bringing an important message to their fellow troops in order to avoid an ambush. Told in real-time and presented as being all one continuous shot, Mendes' film is an ambitious endeavor. Written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 hits theaters this Christmas. At this year's New York Comic Con, Screen Rant had a chance to discuss the film with its two stars about the one-take nature of 1917 and what it was like preparing for this movie.

I saw the footage, it looks great. What was it like filming this immersive movie, was it as immersive as it looks?

George MacKay: Yeah!

Dean-Charles Chapman: I mean, it really was. I think the whole one-take thing allows us as an actor to lose yourself in the scene and be able to just be, and live it. We did six months of rehearsals in order to just be prepared to start shooting.

And the rehearsals, how intensive were they?

MacKay: They kind of varied, like sometimes they felt intense because we were getting up to match fitness, but it was a real mixture. It was a huge amount of physical training, military training, but then there was also - we were kind of constantly, not working the story, like Sam and Krysty were, I think, tailoring the story in such a detailed way. And also the sets themselves as well everything - because you can’t edit the film, like a normal film, you have to set upon the rhythm beforehand so you can’t dictate the rhythm in the cut. So we’d spend time going over and over scenes and making sure that they fit within the locations that we were doing, and also that the locations could fit around that. So it was intense and there were levels to it. Sometimes it was quite literary and other times it was very physical.

There are so many cool aspects to this film: Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, the one-take aspect. What was it that really hooked you, that you were like, I need to get this movie?

Chapman: I mean, at first - during the audition process, like the first couple rounds, I didn’t actually get a chance to read the script. So we only got like three or four pages of a scene to be able to look at. So at first, my initial attraction was to work with Sam. I mean, he’s a brilliant director I’ve admired for a long time. American Beauty is one of my favorite films. And then obviously, when I got to read the script for the first time, I was blown away. I was really engaged and immersed even just reading it, let alone seeing the final product.

What was your reaction to the full script?

MacKay: It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. It’s so eloquent - not eloquent, that’s too neat a word. It’s so… It’s a thriller, first and foremost in terms of it’s so exciting, it’s a page-turner, because these guys are constantly on the move, always. In the reading of it, you just want to go and go and go. So you’re completely there with them. But I remember thinking that the very first time as a sort of the hook in, which was part of the script ‘cause I similarly, when I auditioned we weren’t able to read the script, but I remember just even those two scenes, I felt like, oh I know this man, I know Scofield. I’ve got an interpretation, whether it’s right or it’s wrong, but I know what I would want to do with him and that was a really exciting feeling because you don’t always get something that you connect with so firmly.

Director Sam Mendes with stars Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay on the set of 1917

Can you talk a little bit about your characters’ dynamic and how they interact with each other?

Chapman: I feel like Blake and Scofield are very different people. They come from different backgrounds, different personalities. Blake hasn’t been there very long and he’s not an experienced soldier as much as Scofield is. And Blake’s a really sweet guy, he’s the sort of person who will tell you anything, he wears his heart on his sleeve and just a real honest person. Where Scofield is…

MacKay: Scofield is more reserved and I think that’s what their relationship... That’s what Blake teaches him, is about sharing because, simply, Blake talks more. So on this journey together, you sort of learn, I think they come towards each other as well. As Dean said, they’re people who on the surface level of things are very different and they come towards each other in their journey.

You guys have talked about the collaboration between you and Sam and Krysty, can you talk about anything specifically that you brought to your characters that they ended up incorporating into the movie?

Chapman: This is only a tiny thing, but I saw a picture of three soldiers and normally the soldiers are buttoned up, ready to go and they look proper in their uniform. If they get caught with a few buttons undone. they get told to do it up and in this photo particularly, they were just chilling out, all their buttons were undone, they just didn’t really care. They were just three lads and they just looked like normal people, not soldiers. And I saw one of the soldiers had two rings, one on his middle finger, one on his little finger, and I loved the picture so much I just thought, I’ll have Blake wearing [rings on his fingers]. So every time I looked at the rings, I thought of that picture.

What other kind of preparation did you do. I mean you talked about reading the book about the soldiers’ journal entries, did you do any other kind of preparation that stuck with you and you brought to the movie?

MacKay: Yeah, there’s tons of stuff, like some things that you do for interest that you can kind of let go of. Like, I think there’s a quietness to Scofield and there’s loads of amazing artwork that’s come from the first world war because it’s like a kind of dream it’s so strange, some of the landscapes and some of the settings. I got quite into the war artists and I think, just in terms of like that’s something that’s not relevant for the film, but for myself just about kind of watching, looking at people’s work who, I imagine to be the kind of quieter man’s view of the world. Doing anything that can inform that, I got quite into. And then just the physical training, the physicality of... I mean we did military training every day, just really simple stuff like getting the pockets open and loading your gun. When we started we were completely fingers and thumbs. We couldn’t do it quickly, kept on leaving the pockets open and the bullets are falling out - which you would’ve gotten a slap on the wrist for had you been in the army. So it just took doing that again and again and again and again. How you carry your rifle, being wary of where you pointed the bayonet everything so it became second nature, so that we could do it convincingly in the film.

Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns on the set of 1917

When you were shooting in daylight and waiting for cloud cover in order to maintain the continuity of the one-shot aspect of the movie, how did that inform your performance, if at all?

Chapman: I mean honestly like, even when we weren’t filming and we were waiting for the sun to go behind the cloud, we were rehearsing. There never really was like a standstill moment of a filming day. It was either filming or rehearsing, filming or rehearsing. It was constant. So there never really was like a down period where we’d get out of character or fall asleep. Never. We were just go go go go.

That sounds rough.

Chapman: Yeah it was, it was like being in the war.

So out of everything what was the biggest challenge on this movie?

MacKay: I think it’s that thing of, because you can’t edit it, you can’t leave until you’ve got it. And there’s this - it’s quite inspiring but it’s also quite intimidating - this uncompromising attitude that, like, yeah we don’t go home until we get it. Not that thing of we’ll get it and we’ll put it together. No, we’ve got to get it all today and we don’t stop and if, worst case scenario we don’t get it today, we’ll just come back tomorrow. It’s that sort of thing where we go and we go and we go because what we get now is what will be on screen. That was hard, but exciting.

You mentioned that it’s a lot like theater in the featurette, can you talk a little bit more about that?

MacKay: Yeah there’s that pragmatic thing about theater where once you start, you can’t stop and you don’t… In a way, sometimes with film, you’re aware that you’re doing it in bits, so you know that even in a scene, the camera might be on you for a whole scene, but you know that the camera’s not going to be on you in the edit, you know that there’s going to be bits chopped out and if the good bits are there then that’s OK. And that’s not necessarily a healthy way to think, but we knew when we were doing this, like in play, once they said go, you cannot stop until you get to the end and something might happen, you might trip up, you might forget where you are, but you just have to get through it. And that’s where the parallels are between a play. It felt like a filmed play in a lot of ways.

It was mentioned that you filmed in chronological order…

MacKay: Yeah as much as we could.

That’s different from how movies are typically done, so did that help you immerse yourselves in the movie and the story?

Chapman: Definitely. I mean, before we’d do a certain scene halfway through the film, we would just sort of line run from scene one, just to be able to remind ourselves of what we went through. The scene previous we’d shot yesterday, so it was still fresh. That was really helpful to be able to film in almost order. Really helpful.

Colin Firth in 1917

This was a very different kind of production, so what was the biggest lesson you both learned?

MacKay: The biggest lesson was just that because of that nature of it, it was the most mutual experience I’ve ever had on a job in terms of a shot or a scene can’t work unless you’re in harmony with the camera, the camera’s in harmony with you, the set has been built around what’s required of the scene, you are existing in the set. It’s a constant equal handoff. Where I think in other films, there’s sometimes a bit of hierarchy, which isn’t always necessary and there is a kind of awareness of the broken up nature of it. Where the biggest lesson was, and this might sound a bit naff to say it, but that collaboration works and working together and working fairly is the best way to do it. Because with these shots, they literally can’t function if there’s one thing that’s bigger than the other at any one point. It’s this constant awareness of each other that made us be able to do it.

This movie also stars Colin Firth, Richard Madden, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. What was it like working with your cast members?

Chapman: Yeah, brilliant. I mean, they’re great actors. Looking into Colin Firth’s eyes, I had a moment of like, oh my god it’s Colin Firth. That’s really cool. He’s lovely. So yeah very starstruck.

Did you guys learn anything from them?

MacKay: They’re so specific. I found especially, they’re so great, the actors we were working with and just the specific nature of… It’s difficult to say, you’d have to name each one individually, but I think it’s the specificity with which they work, their awareness of the tiniest detail. They were so detailed, every one of them was so detailed in their work. That’s one thing. It’s a lesson of like you can never be too detailed.

What do you want audiences to take away from this movie?

Chapman: I really hope that people, if they don’t know already, know their ancestors' history. I know a lot of people that - I mean, I didn’t know about my great-grandad before I started this movie, so I hope people get inspired and think, oh did I have a grandad who fought in the war or a grandmother who worked in munitions and helped build the ammo or whatever it was. I hope they look into that out of remembrance.

MacKay: I feel, first and foremost, this film has been made for the cinema. So I hope that people see it in a cinema because I think that that’s a rarity nowadays. The thing that Sam talked about in the featurette is this kind of old-fashioned values of sacrifice and things in service of something bigger. I think we’re in such an immediate culture nowadays that we want things immediately. There’s a brilliance thing to that and there’s a brilliance with the way that things are streamed and you can watch everything immediately and in the comfort of wherever you are. But this was made in service of something bigger in terms of a story and an experience when you watch it, an immersive experience. So I hope people see it in the cinema and I hope they’re moved by the story and the emotions within it.

More: How 1917 Was Made to Look Like One Continuous Shot

Key Release Dates
  • 1917 (2019) release date: Dec 25, 2019
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