Having made two Bond films (Skyfall and Spectre), Sam Mendes isn’t keen to chat about a third. “If there’s one way to take your mind out of it, it’s to make a movie as engrossing as this one,” he says of the transition from 007 to 1917, steering the conversation to his Oscar-tipped war epic, for which he has recently picked up Golden Globe awards for Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama.
You can forgive him for sounding a touch testy when facing the inevitable questions about Bond, his brilliant, spectacularly ambitious new World War I men-on-a-mission film has been an all-consuming journey – often to the outer limits of his sanity.
Following two British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) behind enemy lines, and based loosely on a story his grandfather (a veteran of the war) told him, it’s shot in really, really long takes stitched together with invisible edits. “There were days when it seemed ridiculous,” he laughs.
Did you have any moments where you thought “Okay, I’ve bitten off a bit much here?”
Every day at some point I thought “Why have I done this to myself?” I was sort of trapped a little bit by the script. I wrote it with Krysty [Wilson-Cairns] but really it was my idea, so I couldn’t look to someone else to get me out of it. I’d do a seven-minute take and, after six minutes and 30 seconds of magic, someone trips and [snaps fingers] you have to start again. That can be heartbreaking. But when you do get it, it’s such a high.
Do you have a favourite long take cinema?
There’s one in Children of Men where Clive Owen enters the building under siege, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. Alfonso [Cuarón, director] is a master. I looked at it once in pre-production to see if it was as good as I remember, and I came away thinking it was.
Interesting. People usually talk about the car sequence in that film.
To me that was too dependent on visual effects… Let me rephrase that – it’s an astonishing shot but not the kind I was trying to achieve with this movie. The camera in 1917 does not go through a keyhole, doesn’t pass through glass or go through a wall. I don’t want the audience to be aware of it.
Your grandfather inspired the story. What do you think he’d have made of the film?
He spent 60 years not talking about what happened to him, presumably because he found it extremely traumatic. But being the man he was, I think he’d have embraced it.
The film feels meticulously researched. Did the Imperial War Museum café [in London] know your order off by heart?
It’s an incredible resource, but I didn’t spend a lot of time there. There’s an enormous amount of printed material about the First World War. I had two historical researchers and I told them: “Tell us what we’re doing wrong.” Occasionally, I’d ignore it because you want to make the story come alive rather than please the few history nerds in the audience.
Having said goodbye to James Bond, how did it feel watching the trailer for No Time to Die?
Great, I can’t wait. I’ll be there watching it. But I’ve been so in the tunnel of this movie that the fact they’ve made it is amazing. The time has flown by.
How do Bond and 1917 compare?
I learned a lot doing Bond, no question. Bond is bigger and is more scattered – you’re often having to shoot in one place and judge second and third units from other places. Even when you’re shooting in one place, you’re using up to eight cameras. To go from that to one camera and two hours of time is a blessing.
It must be strange to be in the dark having done so much to plot the arc of Daniel Craig’s Bond?
Yeah, but to be honest with you, it’s rather exciting. Bond is a contemporary myth and you tell your chapter of it and then it’s someone else’s job to carry the torch. I’m a big fan of Cary [Fukunaga]: I thought his True Detective was brilliant. They’re in pretty safe hands.
1917 is in cinemas now.