Sam Mendes’ Golden-Globe winning masterpiece 1917 poses quite the conundrum when talking about its editing. Mendes and team famously built the World War I drama to appear as if it took place in a single take. Given the intensely dramatic moments and scope illustrated in the film, the sheer logistics of filming this in one take make the task obviously impossible. But all aspects of the film are orchestrated to make you believe it runs in real time.
So, how does one interview an editor when the very film he’s promoting pretends his task doesn’t exist?
When editor Lee Smith first read the 1917 screenplay, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the very first page indicated Mendes’ intent to pursue the single take. Smith’s first reaction was to laugh and marvel at the audacity. As reality settled, he began to categorize all of his concerns inherent within the process.
“It read like a conventional script, and I was getting into the scenes where they’re going on the mission. I’m imagining all of the coverage, and I had to keep shaking my head and saying that’s not what they’re going to do,” Smith shared. “How would it affect the pace? Would it be boring? That ended up being the base of the conversations I would have with Sam later on. We talked about things that I thought could be a trap in the one-take format. But we were all committed to doing this and doing it right.”
Smith and Mendes’ process in building the one-take film required cutting together the various shots as the shoot progressed. The two operated in close collaboration because anything that didn’t work or didn’t allow for seamless transitions had to be corrected immediately. The one-take process doesn’t allow for making significant changes in post-production as on a standard film. The requirements of the project gave Smith the opportunity to engage with the production team in a way he never had before.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in talking about scene transitions so much on any other film,” Smith remarked. “A lot of the filmmakers I’ve worked with, they know how to transition from scene to scene. We might comment about something to look out for, but this film is nothing but continuous scene transitions.”
On any given day, Smith could have received 30+ different versions of a single scene. It was up to him to determine what the best take was and how that would plug into connecting pieces of the film. This resembles other films, of course, but here, once made, the decisions were locked in as the shoot progressed. Smith and team screened the film about halfway through the shoot to ensure they’d adhered to Mendes’ vision. Fortunately, they were on the right track.
So how does one hide cuts within a one-take film?
“There are many ways to hide edits. You could do them in convention fashions like with action sequences with strobe effects,” Smith said. “Some of the transitions in this film ranged from very easy to incredibly difficult, but I have to keep the magic alive. Can’t tell you everything.”
He also can’t reveal how many edits exist within the film. Rest assured, whatever number that audiences or critics settled on for 1917‘s edits, they’re all wrong. They’re not even close.
Technical wizardry aside, Smith, Mendes and team constantly reminded themselves that 1917 is first and foremost a tribute to those who died in the Great War. Their intensive research allowed them to craft the film as realistically as possible. The production team relied on expert war historians, art, books and other written accounts to infer how they would tell the story. As a side result, they all nearly became war historians themselves.
“There’s a lot of respect for the people that were involved in the wars,” explained Smith who also worked on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. “My worst nightmare would be to show a film like this to an ex-serviceman and have them not happy about it. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened on any of the films I’ve worked on that have touched on this subject.”
Critics groups responded warmly to Smith’s work on 1917, bestowing multiple award nominations in their year-end round-up. Monday’s Oscar nominations announcement could also bring Smith his fourth nomination for Best Film Editing, a category he won in 2018 for Nolan’s Dunkirk. But these days, his focus extends to his native Australia and the tragic brush fires gutting the country. He remains in constant contact with family and friends there, and they all remain safe.
“Hopefully, it’s a wake-up call to climate change, and people in government are taking it seriously,” Smith remarked. “It is bad. It’s apocalyptic.”
1917 opens in theaters nationwide today.