Category Archives: Interviews

SAM MENDES, KRYSTY WILSON-CAIRNS, GEORGE MACKAY and DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN ON “1917”

Sam Mendes’ remarkable World War I film “1917” follows, in what appears to be a single tracking shot courtesy of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, two British soldiers sent across No Man’s Land to deliver orders to call off an assault that would put thousands of their comrades at the mercy of massed German forces.  The script, which the director co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, was inspired by stories Mendes’ grandfather had told him about his service in the Great War.

“He fought in the war,” Mendes said of this grandfather in a recent interview in Dallas, a stop on a promotional tour on which he was accompanied by Wilson-Cairns and by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, who play the soldiers Scofield and Blake.  “He went to war when he was seventeen, but he didn’t really talk about it until he was in his seventies.  He didn’t tell his own kids about it, but he decided to tell his grandchildren for whatever reason.  I never forgot [his stories].

“Once I had the idea of this man, or two men, carrying a message in two hours of real time, [the technique] sort of went hand-in-hand with that—that it would be one continuous shot.”

Wilson-Cairns recalled, “He called me up and told me it was going to be about the image of his grandfather, lost in the fog of No Man’s Land, carrying a message, I knew it was going to be a very different type of war movie, so I was very excited.  Then he told me it was going to be in one shot, and hung up on me!

“It was going to make my job very hard—how are you going to write a story in all one shot, which as a traditional narrative is a bit tricky?  But then we got together, and forged a new path as it were and got it down on the page.  We just kept working it back and forth, until it became a proper collaboration…[about] the human experience of war.”

It helped that Wilson-Cairns was, unbeknownst to Mendes, something of a student on the war. “He didn’t [know that], not at that phone call,” she laughed.  “I guess I’m a slightly surprising World War I buff.”

Asked about the film’s approach, Mendes said, “The war exists in literature and first-person accounts, and that war gave birth to an incredible amount of wonderful art trying to express the nature of the war, from the war poets like Wilfred Owen to novelists like Remarque…and there is sort of a cliché of the British as slightly recessive and old-fashioned, but the truth is that the war was savage, and relentless, and chaotic, and massive. And I think that the reality of that emerges more, later on in first-person accounts—in diary entries, things that were not sent at the time. 

“Because the public perception at the time was controlled by the government and the press as being a ‘Good War’ in order to keep people going.  So somebody like my grandfather, he enlisted to a war that he imagined to be totally different, and was shocked when he arrived there.  And the image of the desolation of No Man’s Land goes into twentieth-century literature well into the present day—a play like ‘Waiting for Godot’ is basically set in No Man’s Land.  The barrenness and flat mud and dead tree immediately conjures up images of the First World War.  It was a generation-, world-defining war that was bit defined by combat but death—the level of destruction and chaos. 

“The war starts as the last old-fashioned war, with horses and carts, and ends as the first contemporary war with machine guns and tanks and bombs, weapons of mass destruction—a war in which the killers are persons a thousand yards away but you can’t communicate with men twenty yards away, because there was no commensurate development of communication.  

“So that particular perfect storm of chaos is a very difficult war to get your hands around, and so to try to create a story that was about a  journey within that war was one of the  first things we had to try to find—to find a moment in the war when it was possible to take a journey. That enables you through the keyhole of this micro-experience to begin to understand the scale of the destruction and the vastness of the landscape…that it wasn’t just No-Man’s Land, but trenches and farmhouses, trees cut down,  towns destroyed, civilians killed, vast collateral damage.  Trying to find a way to express the war visually was difficult.

“Also, the fact that there is no definable enemy as there is in the Second World War, where you’re fighting universal evil.  You don’t locate yourself in that moral compass. They’re all the same, in a way.  The German Scofield encounters in town is, as is patently clear, the poor man is as terrified as he is.  They’re just ‘lost boys,’ really, and trying to try to express that human experience in a human story in terms that are visceral and detailed…was the challenge.”

Mendes also explained why the episode was set in early April, 1917, after the Germans had undertaken a strategic withdrawal after the Battle of the Somme—which the British misread as an unruly retreat. “It was one of the few times in the war when you could tell such a story,” he said.  “To be able to walk across No Man’s Land…was very rare.”

Scofield and Blake go through a series of grueling episodes to deliver their message, but ironically MacKay and Chapman spoke of the shoot—a relatively short one, though it required great precision to manage the continuous six-to-eight minute takes, with great affection.  “We had a great time,” MacKay recalled.  “That said, we were blessed with incredible sets and detail.  In a sense so much of the work had been done for you.  It was about knowing the characters well enough that when you got to that scenario, you knew [instinctively] what to do.

“I felt quite close to Scofield, the  man behind the soldier, physically and emotionally.  I read first-person accounts, more than anything—to know where’s he’s from, and also artwork.  I wound up using a postal book.  In the end, though, I trusted that Sam gave me the job.”

Chapman agreed: “You can really get lost in it, fully immersed. At the same time, it’s quite sobering.  It was the least complaining set I’ve ever been on, actually.”

He added where he found inspiration about his character: “In the costume department, there was a picture of a group of four soldiers.  One soldier in particular was leaning against a truck, his jacket open, smiling–he had no teeth.  He had two rings on, one on his pinkie finger.  That photo really got me.  His personality just reminded me of Blake—even in the middle of a war zone, Blake was optimistic.”

Mendes emphasized that the relatively short shooting schedule was misleading. “For me, the shoot began with the rehearsals,” he explained.  “If you think of it as a series of layers beginning with the rehearsals—that meant that they [MacKay and Chapman] did it over and over, and so when it finally came to shoot, it was the final stage of making the film, but we had been making it for a long time.  It went quite fast, as long as the weather was okay—a combination of incredible precision on the part of what the camera was doing and spontaneity on the part of what was going on [in the shot].”

For Wilson-Cairns, the collaborative feel Mendes cultivated extended to her being on set fairly consistently..  “It was wonderful for a writer,” she said.  “I remember one day when we went on set, and it was all foggy, and you felt you were on No Man’s Land…it felt like time-travel.”

Mendes agreed that the decision to create the illusion of a single-shot film led to frustration when some small thing would go wrong near the end of a take: “After six and a half minutes, you had to start over.  And sometimes it would mean four or five takes before you got back to where you’d been.” 

He recalled one harrowing sequence in which Scofield is escaping enemy fire in a bombed-out town.  “George, where he’s running along the trench, and stumbles, that was an accident,” he said.  “He just carried on, with all the people cheering behind the camera.”

Mendes closed by noting how satisfied he had been with one sequence toward the close of “1917,” in which Scofield finds the troops he’s searching for by following the voice of a soldier singing a song.  The episode was inspired by a recollection in one of the first-person accounts he read: “[The soldier] was wandering through the forest, and he heard music.  It was a soldier playing a piano looted from a farmhouse.  He was playing Debussy, a nocturne.  [The writer] said it was the most beautiful music he’d ever heard.  He hadn’t heard music at all for two years, and hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it.  I just thought that an amazing thing, and it became the scene in the wood with the singing soldier, used in an entirely different way.  Sometimes when you find a piece of research and it finds its way into the movie like that, it’s very pleasing.    

“Everything stops, and you bear witness to the extent of the human tragedy.”

“1917” is a Universal Pictures release.   

RUPERT EVERETT ON “THE HAPPY PRINCE”

Rupert Everett brought his film “The Happy Prince,” about the last years in the life of Oscar Wilde, to Dallas last week, appearing at a screening for members of the USA Film Festival and in Q&As following premiere screenings at both of the area Angelika theatres. Part of his schedule included sitting down for interviews with local press.

Everett wrote and directed the film, as well as starring in it as Wilde; he’d been working on the script since 2006, and after completing it portrayed the author in a successful London revival of David Hare’s play “The Judas Kiss” in 2012.

“I did the play because I’d still managed not to find any money for the film, so I thought if I did the play, I might be able to drum up some interest in the film. And that’s what happened in the end. We did the play in London, it was quite successful, and then I got the first deals together from that.

“It was all done, my script, really. David’s play is wonderful, and I think it had a definite impact on me playing the part. I did that play for a year and a half, on and off. I came to New York with it, and we went on tour with it, and it really helped me in terms of being in the film, because I got the look of the part together doing the play, and the silhouette of the body of the character, which was very important for me. And so the play was incredibly helpful to me. I got to know the part so well, I had no difficulty slipping into it [even while directing the film].”

Unlike previous films about Wilde—“Oscar Wilde” (1959), with Robert Morley, “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” (1960), with Peter Finch, and “Wilde” (1998), with Stephen Fry—Everett chose to concentrate on the last three years of the writer’s life, the period of continental exile after his release from prison after serving two years at hard labor for “gross indecency” in 1897.

“Partly for that,” Everett explained. “When you’re making a film you want to find virgin territory if you can, and all three of the other films for some reason stopped at the moment Oscar Wilde goes into prison. There was a tiny bit about prison, but they deal with his life as a celebrity. I think it’s a bit of a cop-out, in a way, but then you have to remember that two of the films were made when it was still illegal to be gay in the U.K., so they were both very daring films just to start with. But the fact of the matter is that it made them treat the character in probably slightly too reverential and iconic a way in one sense. And my feeling was that Wilde wasn’t quite like that grave, serious intellectual. He was more of a character, in a way. and so I had a good angle on trying to make a new version.”

Everett emphasized that the choice made by the earlier films wasn’t really determined by a lack of information on the later years. “You might think that,” he said, “because Richard Ellmann, who really brought Wilde back to life in the 1970s [in his monumental biography], was dying by the time he got to the end of the book, so his last chapter, which is the chapter of Wilde in exile, is a very short—but actually quite wonderful—chapter. Actually there are tons of books written at the time—[Robert] Sherard, Frank Harris, [Wilde’s agent and friend] Robbie Ross himself, Bosie [Alfred Lord Douglas, whose relationship with Wilde led to his conviction]—they all wrote about Wilde in exile. And because he’s one of those characters, there are so many letters, and so many people writing about him, you can get tons of information.

“There’s nothing really imagined in the whole story—it’s all referenced in some way, except for Oscar standing on the table and singing. That didn’t actually happen, but I wanted to try and draw a parallel between him as a performer in his previous life and somehow him continuing to perform, but in his reduced circumstances. It’s rather like being an actor when you don’t get work—he proactively found other ways of performing—if it was singing on a table, or reading to a little child, a street urchin. And that’s how he kept entertaining. I think he really was an entertainer, essentially, that’s where he was most alive, entertaining.

“I think that what’s great about his exile is that it’s not the exile of a victim, it’s the exile of someone who’s just plowing on, in one way, creating his own constitution, albeit on a street corner now, with petty criminals and rent boys. But he somehow retains his fascination about life and his curiosity. He made the most of his life, and that’s what I find very inspiring about him.

“All his old friends used to cross the road to avoid him, so he’d sit in the bar really from dawn to dusk. Sometimes he’d have money, so he’d pay for the drinks, sometimes he wouldn’t. Graham Greene’s father was a mathematics teacher, on holiday with another mathematics teacher in Paris in 1899, and they were sitting in a bar and they met this rather smelly person who charmed them and told them stories and made them laugh, and they bought him drinks. He did this all the time.

“That’s part of the charm of the story, in a way—he managed to make a world [for himself]. He knew all these terrible low-life people, and he existed in a new and very weird world.”

The portrait of Oscar Wilde that Everett presents is quite different from the one drawn of him during his years of celebrity as the supreme wit of his age. “I decided not to try to write him too ‘brilliantly,’” Everett explained. “I thought I must just concentrate on what was happening to him psychologically, and not obsess about trying to make it clever enough, or funny enough or witty enough. In one sense it’s not so difficult, because you have so much to access of his own work. But I definitely thought it best not to try and make up my own aphorisms. There are two or three of his lines that I’ve put in. But I didn’t want to make it too much about the funny lines.

“What’s really extraordinary about Wilde is he’s before Freud. So all of what we have—which is, how am I feeling, what do I feel like inside?—this hadn’t happened in Wilde’s day. It’s not very easy to imagine, because it’s so much a part of our language now, but it wasn’t then. Wilde really was on the cusp of that, because he does say things like ‘suffering is nothing when there’s love.’ He is very much into a new version of psychology.” He added another “modern” element to Wilde’s life: “He’s the prototype of [those who are] famous for being famous.”

Everett got a taste of what the exile must have been like for Wilde when he followed the writer’s European itinerary while trying to secure financing for the project. He first went to Dieppe across the channel, but felt the reality most deeply when he made his way to Berneval, the tiny town near there where Wilde stayed for several months before Bosie arrived to take him to Naples, ruining any chance of reconciliation with his wife and sons. “I could suddenly feel the kind of loneliness and desperation of someone who had been the life and soul of everywhere, people hanging on his every word, suddenly stuck in a bed-and-breakfast in a little village where there’s nobody there to see him,” he said. “So I think he went back to Bosie out of depression and loneliness, actually. But once it happened, that was the end.”

Ultimately “The Happy Prince”—the title taken from one of Wilde’s short stories, which Everett uses to bookend the script—was shot in four countries, including one where Wilde did not set foot. “We got most of the money out of Germany,” he explained, “and once you get the money, you have to make it there. That was a bit of a problem, because Wilde never went to Bavaria. But I found these three old castles, in an area called Franconia, which is on the Czech border. They hadn’t been restored at all, and they had all these amazing rooms, and I really used them as a kind of studio. All the rooms of the whole film were in those three castles.”

Though Everett looks very different from himself as Wilde, he noted, “I didn’t have any prosthetics—except a tooth thing that make my jaw slightly wider, but that’s all I had. With such a hectic shoot, we wouldn’t have had time for prosthetics.”

He did have time, however to recruit friends to appear with him in the movie—Colin Firth as Wilde’s loyal friend Reggie Turner, Emily Watson as his estranged wife Constance, and Tom Wilkinson as Father Dunne, who receives Wilde into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. “I blackmailed everyone I knew to be in the movie,” he joked. “I was so lucky that they all did it in the end. Without Colin and Emily and Tom, there would have been no financing of the film.” Their prominence, however, did not moderate Everett’s insistence on a close adherence to his script. “I was quite strict about that, really. I knew it backwards,” he explained.

Wilkinson’s cameo, however, was designed to provide a smile to the film’s poignant close—along with the documented quarrel between Bosie and Ross at Wilde’s burial, with Bosie nearly tumbling into the grave in slapstick fashion. “I wanted to have something fun at the end, to take some of the strain out,” Everett said, though he added that he had to imagine what their argument was about.

“I’m always hoping you can be funny and tragic at the same time,” he explained. Like Wilde himself, one might add.

“The Happy Prince” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.