George MacKay explains WWI epic 1917 using Super Mario and Luigi

Sir Sam Mendes’ new film, starring MacKay, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and more, is winning plaudits for its one-shot exploration of World War I

The new film from director Sam Mendes, which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is a technical masterpiece. Despite being shot at locations as far apart as Glasgow, Wiltshire, Teesside and Shepperton Studios, 1917 looks like one continuous shot – as George MacKay (playing Lance-Corporal Schofield) and Dean-Charles Chapman (LCpl Blake) embark on a daring mission via trenches, no-man’s land and bombed-out French towns to stop 1,600 soldiers walking into a German ambush. Expect it to feature at the Oscars. MacKay’s star has been rising for years thanks to turns in indie films Pride and For Those in Peril plus an adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63. But this intense and innovative First World War film takes him to a new level.

The Big Issue: Can you talk us through the challenges of making a film like this – like continuity of storytelling, of mood, of intensity?

George MacKay: The biggest lesson was the rhythm of the story, and that’s why we rehearsed for six months. Usually there would be time after filming for Sam to craft the edit and the pacing, but we couldn’t do that. Although we may not have filmed it in one go, we were filming chronologically in long sequences and you never cut away from us. Then they just slotted it together.

How did that impact on how you made the film?

Once the emotional rhythm of the scene was decided that dictated the actual length of the trenches they built. Because the story is always on the move. An emotional pause in a scene might eat up 100ft without you saying anything when you are jogging down a trench. So the scene needed to be the size of the set and the set needs to be the size of the scene. We would go to the area where the trenches would be dug and work through the scenes, putting markers in the ground where the trench needed to turn a corner.

What did you learn during this shoot?

Oh, man. Well, firstly I learned in life and in work that teamwork is best. And I’ve now got a more three-dimensional understanding of working, that it is a mutual dance between the camera and the set and us. But a personal lesson I took is that when I watched it, I became very clear on who means most to me in my life and what I root myself in. Because the film is about the way extremes of human experience teach you what is essential. When you have nothing left, what do you have? Who do you think of when you’re at your lowest ebb?

It’s slightly facetious, but at times it was a bit like you’re playing a computer game and if you survive to the end of the level you get an Andrew Scott, a Richard Madden, a Benedict Cumberbatch, a Mark Strong, a Daniel Mays to act with.

Yes! You get a boss. You level up. That is the best way of putting it. We are like the small Mario and Luigi going along – and we’re not far off actually in terms of stature. How have we managed to take 1917 back to Mario and Luigi? But it was so exciting. And there wasn’t a sense of awe in the way there might have been working with [those actors]. There was always a bigger thing. All of us making the film were equal. When those actors came in, they picked up on that – it’s quite animal, you sort of smell the environment, and they were like, ‘OK, yeah – it’s not about me, it’s about the story.’ And it was. So they just did their job. But the brilliance with which these guys do their job is really something to behold. I don’t mean this in a competitive sense, but you almost go toe to toe with them, you know?

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Andrew Scott was particularly impressive.

I completely agree. And it’s in the detail. It is so many things at once. There’s a cynicism in his character, a meanness, a hopelessness, a kindness, and there’s a deep sadness that this is such a – excuse my French – fucking shame because it’s bloody pointless. The reality of the weight of a body, the smell, the stuff those men would have gone through – how do you process that?

The moments of connection and humanity that puncture the trauma and intensity almost serve to make the rest even worse – because you’re showing a glimpse of another way of being.

It takes extremity to help you realise the importance of the small gesture. The film doesn’t make those tender moments or gestures bigger than they are in reality. It just allows you to see them for what they truly are. I found myself getting very emotional when I first watched the film in ways I didn’t expect. The bit that got me was before we go over the top, when Schofield says: “Age before beauty.” Saying you’ll go first when the expectation is that as soon as you put your head up you are going to die – you can’t articulate the massiveness of that gesture, it gets distilled into three words. I think there’s something old-fashioned and beautiful about that restraint.

At The Big Issue our mission is to eradicate homelessness and dismantle poverty, and we see far too many ex-service people ending up homeless. Having walked a mile in their predecessors’ shoes, do you see the need for more support for them?

Absolutely. We did some work with the charity Walking with the Wounded on this recently. In all aspects of society, but especially the military, we’re becoming aware of mental health being so important. Oftentimes the wounds people come back with can’t be seen.

1917 is in cinemas from January 10