Written by Shona Smith on Jan 15, 2020. Posted in Interviews / On Location

Behind the scenes of Sam Mendes' Immersive World War I drama 1917 with Supervising Location Manager Emma Pill

The Location Guide delves into the unique challenges 1917 presented the location department from scout to strike with Supervising Location Manager Emma Pill who says “I have never worked on anything like this before”.

Sam Mendes’ (Spectre, Skyfall) immersive World War I drama thrusts the audience into the trenches beside the two young British soldiers who must cross enemy territory to deliver a message that could save the life of 1,600 of their fellow soldiers. Filmed in a series of extended uncut takes, 1917 appears as one continuous shot capturing the journey of two young soldiers through front line trenches in real time.

What were the principal locations used for the film? Were any international locations used?

1917 was shot in twelve key locations, which included Bovingdon Airfield in Hertfordshire, plus six major locations on Salisbury plain in Wiltshire, a quarry in Oxfordshire, The River Tees in County Durham, The Tees barrage (white-water rafting centre) in Stockton on Tees (pictured below), the disused Govan dry docks in Glasgow, and Shepperton Backlot and stages.

The only international location that we used was the Abbey of Sainte-Trinite in Caen for visual effects elements to create the burning church.

During the planning stages, myself, Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins visited many sites in France for reference, which included the trenches in Thiepval Woods at the Ulster Memorial, and Vimy Ridge Museum and trenches to name a few.

Trench sets built in the UK

How long was the shoot itself?

The Shoot was sixteen weeks that started on April 1, 2019. However, due to the way the film was being made (the appearance of one shot), we started rehearsals on location five months in advance.

The film is mostly exterior scenes – what were the priorities when looking for when scouting for the main locations?

One of the hardest priorities was finding locations with scale/expanse and hardly any trees! The characters never stop moving - they are always travelling from A to B, so finding locations to fit the length of the scenes was definitely challenging.

Equally, the film was to be a single journey, so we had to find locations that matched each other. For example, we leave the quarry in Oxfordshire (pictured above), but we then come over the hill in Wiltshire. Topography and landscape and direction of light were key in scouting.

Normally when scouting for a conventional film you are always looking for great angles to take photos from, for example, imagining where the director might get a good establishing shot from. On 1917 you had to get that concept out of your head when scouting as this film was never going to cut away! The camera was always going to be with the characters on the move. So, during scouting we tried to photograph locations with the journey in mind, and we presented images in this way for consideration.

Equally, another priority to consider when scouting was looking at locations where we were going to achieve the design element, which we knew from the start was going to include a lot time on location building sets, a tremendous amount of digging, and a ridiculous amount of MUD!

Sam Mendes described the process as having all the “challenges of prepping a normal movie x 5’. How long was the pre-production phase for the film, and what did this entail for the location department?

To be honest I have never worked on anything like this before. 1917 was completely different in the pre-production phase. The planning was key to the success of the main shoot, and it was an extraordinary collaboration of all departments working towards the “one shot” aspect. We had so many rehearsals on location. These started five months in advance of the shoot with cast and key members of crew in November 2018, walking and talking on the sets.

Sam Mendes and 1917 co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns on set in Glasgow

In the very early stages of prep, every department had to plan and work out technical challenges due to the length of takes on location. There were numerous scouts/tests with camera, sound, and video to test equipment and work out the logistics of where receivers/masts/4x4 mobile monitors were to be positioned to make sure there would be no loss of signal back to the director’s monitors and sound microphones, to name just one challenge.

We then started building the sets at the majority of our locations in early January 2019, as the following month in February we had full camera technical rehearsals on location. This involved most departments, and the crew numbered approximately 150 on location for these rehearsals alone. From a location department point of view, all the rehearsals had to consider and plan as if we were actually shooting. We still needed all the infrastructure to support the rehearsals, from trackway to power, heating and unit bases.

A separate aspect to the preparation was the official planning applications for the majority of our locations. As soon as the locations were chosen back in November 2018 we had to submit planning applications to the relevant local authorities. Even though all our sets were temporary, we were going to be on each location for such a long period of time (for example, we were on Salisbury Plain for seven months) we needed planning permission for the majority of our sites. This involved ecologists, archaeologists, agronomists, hydrologists, ornithologists. I have never worked with so many “ists” on one single film in my career!

The main challenges during this process was making sure the ecology and any archaeology was not disturbed or damaged during our build, and we had some very rare species to consider at various sites. Due to the amount of digging of trenches, we worked daily with archaeologists, making sure we were not going to disturb anything of archaeological importance.

What were the main challenges during filming itself?

There were many challenges along the way, but the main challenges during the shoot was the weather and logistics.

First, the weather was key. We began shooting in overcast/cloudy conditions which was the requirement for the film, so from that moment on every shoot day had to be cloudy! There were days when we just rehearsed and waited for the weather. On most occasions this worked very well, however, we had to plan for “wet weather cover.” The majority of the film takes place on exterior locations, but we had very few interior sets that could be our cover, so these sets had to be close to where we were shooting, especially when we were away from the studio.

So, when we were in Wiltshire, we set up two large barns with interior sets that we could go to if the weather was bad. As these were not sound stages, we had to pull out all the stops to make them as sound proof as possible which included putting a layer of material over the roof of the barns to disperse the noise of the rain as it hit the roof and black drape all the interiors.

Ironically, we did not have to use the barns when it was “wet,” and instead used the weather cover sets when it was too sunny!

Another challenge was keeping up with the schedule. Most films have a set schedule to work to, and even though we did, it was easy to get ahead or behind due to the nature of how we were shooting. A scene could be scheduled to take three days, however sometimes we got the “shot” on day two, so we moved on to the next location. Everything had to be ready ahead of time for this eventuality. We made it work, but I did feel for the accommodation team sorting out hotel accommodation when we were moving around the country.

The logistics were challenging, and the French farm being the hardest due to its accessibility and available servicing space. It was a long build, in a valley with one chalk road in and out that only 4x4 vehicles and tractors and trailers could use. First, organising the build process for every department so they weren’t on top of each other. We couldn’t allow departments to drive over the meadows as it was going to create too many track marks, it had to be coordinated for access in and out. During the shoot, we had up to 20 off-road vehicles for departments that had to be out of shot as the camera moves 360 degrees. Everything had to be 4x4 for the terrain, and occasionally we had to pull out the odd vehicle from boggy chalk tracks.

One scenario that I have never had to deal with before was that we had birds, swallows and wagtails to be exact, decide to nest within our farmhouse and barn sets. We had created a perfect environment for them. We had finished shooting on these sets, and were waiting for the strike orders, but within a matter of days our feathered friends had moved in! Active bird nests are protected by law, so we were unable to strike the sets until the eggs had hatched and the birds had fledged. We set up cameras and had an ornithologist visit frequently to monitor the nests, keeping us updated on when they were expected to fly. This extended our time on this site for the strike for a substantial amount of time.

How did the shooting style implicate planning the shoot & deciding the locations?

We actually shot the end of the movie’s battle sequence and the final scenes when we were in Wiltshire before we moved on to the rest of the country, and the French town was shot at the end of the schedule so story order did not really apply to deciding where the locations were. We were very lucky as a location department to being given the freedom to look for the best locations to fit the vision our director wanted. However, we were very mindful of sustainability for the project, aiming to get the Albert Sustainability accreditation (which we achieved -the first major UK production to do so) and therefore every element had to be looked at through this prism to minimise our carbon footprint.

I was extremely lucky to have the best location team to support me, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Massive thanks goes to Location Managers, Eleanor Downey, Lindsey Powell, Luke Stevenson and Jason Allen who headed up the locations around the country. The army of Assistant Location managers, Mitch Green-Miud, Carrick Welsh, Danny Newton, Sam Turner, Paul McCluskey, and Jess McDonald. The the location assistants , Nasar Sadeddin, Joshua Bradly, Matthew Cooper, Jake Kilmister, Harry Wyeth, Josephine Kennel, Ariel Murray Simmons & Mauro Crolla, The unit team, Alice Doughty & Lorenzo Bertolazzi, with the location marshals, Duncan Sharpe, Ania Polewiak, Zak Jarvis and Sam Seccombe. The backlot team, Michael Mcdermott and Sam Lincoln, Edward Bottenheim for coordinating us all, Paddy Anstey our sparky keeping us powered, the 4 x 4 location team Lee, Scott, Geanie, Richard and Marcus for keeping us moving in the mud and David Taylor and all at Main Unit security keeping us safe.

Image Credits: Amblin Partners

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