Listen: The Particular Challenge Of Writing '1917'
"Welcome back to the frame. I'm John Horn over the past weekend. The World War One drama nineteen seventeen. Seventeen was a big hit at the box office then yesterday morning. The movie directed by Sam Mendes lended ten Oscar nominations including best picture and best original screenplay. The film script was co written by Mendez and Christie Wilson earns. The two had collaborated before but this is their first project to be produced. Nine hundred seventeen plays out as a single take. There are no obvious. Cut Sir edits and because the camera is never ahead of the action. What's new to the soldiers cultures on the battlefield? Feels like it's new to the audience at the very same time when Mendez called Cairns to pitch his idea for nineteen seventeen she didn't hesitate into say yes he had this one image I am in his mind and it was based on his grandfather. It was this seventeen year old boy carrying a message through new man's land lost in the fog. Your orders are to get to the second. Of course he would one mile southeast of the town of the coast. Deliver this Tacona. Mackenzie it is a direct correct order to call off tomorrow mornings. If you don't it will be a mask. We will lose two battalions sixteen hundred men your brother among them. You think you can get in time this. And then the last thing he said the call was owned by the way. It's all going to be one short. I am and he hung up after he dropped. That bone me Because he likes to do things in person the questions received for our first set down meeting. I guess I I have read that right after he got off the phone when you googled one shot films which probably doesn't get you very far because they're not really no. There's not very many and I was actually. I was looking for scraps because you know scripture Tim please you know so I was. I was looking for the formula that when short movies we'd take like Look on the page so I am I had to. I had to just be like okay. There's there's nowhere to to steal from. You'RE GONNA have to make up as you go along when you have the device of a single take or what looks to be a single take. It changes the perspective of the audience. The audience in some ways is discovering things asked the characters because the camera is never in front of the characters what does does that mean in terms of storytelling in terms of the reality that you're creating for the characters in the audience and how far or how far are you can't push that reality. It was very difficult to put it very simply. It's super heart. I am like you say it. So when you're working in in reality everyone who setting in that cinema understand reality that one show is how we actually all live our lives. We live in one continues. Unbroken teak editing sort of an artifice and film. And so what we're trying to do is strip all that way as a writer Sam Sam and I had to sit down and sort of billable so far. Can we push this home much before. It's too much which I can have like dark and twisted and desperate. Can you make the audience before they start to away because it's an as soon as anyone looks away. You've lost them. Thank you. The audience might look away. It's too graphic of. It's too violent of his. If it's too graphic too violent if it's just too much you know the way I was when I was writing this I had sort in my mind. I had a whole can of like M. E. C. G. Monitor of the audiences Hartley and I was like okay. Now we've we've pushed up so far for so long. People are going to start to fatigue. Quick actions who knows you have to drop it down and make it back into a character plea. Did you hear that story about. We'll see how long is not in the mood. Keep is on the top of the Ridge. They told you shrapnel what what was it. Well you know. He's goes ahead right and he was moaning about the as a writer can of usually your. You're you're so focused is creating a good story. That's a blueprint especially screen. There's a blueprint to make an excellent Gomes. That's your job and with this. There is all these extra extra burdens extra caveat. Okay because there's going to be a traditional edit there's not that phenom rerate in the sense you had to endure in the script so it becomes really tricky a key to sort of manage expectations ahead of time. Because you're doing it for Phantom audience in your head we're talking with Christie Wilson Cairns the CO screenwriter of the movie nineteen seventeen eighteen. So you have kind of the mathematical challenge of how this movie is going to be shot by Roger Deakins but you have a narrative problem too and that is how is this story going a play out emotionally. And how do you try to figure that out as you're writing because if the audience doesn't care about these characters no matter what the technology or the shots look like. They're not going to be in the story. Oh Yeah I mean you can have the best can of Lake Cinematography in the world. And I'm slice. I think we do. But if you don't have one or two characters who you root for. Then what's the point and I think that's the case with everything you know if if you don't have someone that you love someone in the if you represents if you or your brother or your father or your son then what's the point you know. Go Go Watch your documentary if you just want to learn about the war if you just want to see staggering film techniques which music videos. Because they're usually cutting edge for that but for us. I mean the whole point of this story from the very beginning with to to make a film that felt like one hundred hundred and ten minutes in someone else's life that fail transport of an immersive. And you could only do that with two characters that you love and you hope they survive. I WANNA ask about research. I want to start by talking about physical locations when you were walking around battlefields from were one. What was the physical impression that you took took away in? How did that shape the movie that you wrote? I mean my research in France was obsolete. How doing I've been to France? Several teams Guna had gone with my school had gone with my grandparents. I am too to the first world. War Battlefields and I can remember the impression that being younger thinking that soldiers were were big. Men were adults were grew in people who made a conscious decision to go and fight and die for their country and not last time. When I was there which was when I was writing the script so a year and a half ago I I was struck by the fact that you know what there's a mile of rude in just outside Lille and there's five sandwiches packed full of young men and I find myself all of these sandwiches and I was older than every boy buried there and I'm thirty two? I don't feel particularly old but at thirty two. If I was a man at that time I would have probably either. There'd been dead or been leading men into battle. I'm to me that really hit home. The coast of human life of young human life am not to that. was something something that really went into the script. Because Xijiang you know bleak in an Scofield George Dean are so young and they look very young. And it's it's quite staggering. Getting to think of these young men having to live through the unimaginable horror. I was in London over the holidays and I took my boys who are Big World War One and World War Two fans is to the Imperial War Museum and they have an exhibit about World War One. That's incredible and on the top floor. There's an exhibit about heroism and the personal stories that you encountered in doing your research because I think you did some research inch. Imperial War Museum spent a lot time there. Even though you're telling a fictional story what parts of the true life tales that you took away from your research that are incorporated into the story. What we were trying to do was tell a story that felt completely real and so we were going through? All these different archives amfar signed accounts. We were soldiers diaries. Because we were looking for sort sort of these moments that Phil Filming but also felt very human quite profound one of the ones affected me. Most is The milk so in nineteen fourteen. Actually you can you can at the Imperial War Museum. You can listen to the veteran himself and his own words telling the story because it was recorded Jordan in the seventies. I believe I'm he talks about the nineteen fourteen retreat the British exertion force were on the run. He stole milk from a farm arm and he was a performer himself and he was wracked with guilt at this theft. He wasn't a thief and he he thought he'd taken food out of the MOS of innocent people of people that were you know fearing for their lives and a couple of days later he found himself a sailor during a bombardment and it was him an a young woman in a baby in the baby be was starving and the baby needed milk and he had it in his canteen. He'd stolen delete a day earlier. I am an for the first time in in the whole war he. He felt like he had served his purpose. He'd be never a reason to not was really Kenneth Shocking and profound to me in that went straight into Scofield's character. Just the idea feeling feeling lost feeling lost feeling overwhelmed and then there's just one woman where you're like. Oh I've done I've done a good thing. Sam Mendes has talked about the stories his grandfather told influencing him. was there any family story of yours that affected you or that you brought to this film. My grandfather was to wasn't born until nineteen twenty nine to go t- never had to fight in the first World War but am he was profoundly affected by the where he grew up in quite abject poverty and Glasgow last school. I am been born ten years after the conflict. The the marks of that generation of Los men were still very much in his life. It was a huge part of him and he'd lost first cousins and uncles in the war until he was really shaken by and I think for him even though he wasn't highly educated he really believed that we had. How did you T to history that we as civilization should learn from the mistakes of our past and hopefully avoid repeating them constantly and then also we as people should should understand fantasy so that we can we can be better men and women and he really kind of pushed out on me is when I was younger? The value of learning the importance importance of education. And so my love for the war my kind of my interest in that the first and second row will really come from Hemingway which was secondary. So it's not he never fall on the battlefield. He was profoundly affected along with the whole generation of people. Christie Wilson Cairns is the CO screenwriter of nineteen seventeen Christie. Thanks so much for come on the show thank you so much for such a pleasure."