Working on the award-winning war masterpiece 1917, Australian editor Lee Smith was set the daunting task of creating the illusion that the film was shot in one continuous, unbroken take. STACK asked him how it was done.
At the height of World War I, two young British soldiers are tasked with a high stakes mission requiring them to cross into enemy territory to deliver an urgent message that could save 1600 lives.
1917 is one of the most intense war films since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk – the result of director Sam Mendes’ bold vision to capture the story in real time and create the impression it was filmed in one long, continuous shot, with the camera never leaving the protagonists.
With this in mind, eagle-eyed viewers will no doubt be on the lookout for cuts, but the result is remarkably seamless and a testament to the skill of editor Lee Smith.
When STACK speaks to Sydney-born Smith, he’s happy to be back home catching up with friends following a hectic awards season that saw 1917 receive the BAFTA for Best Film and Oscars for Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. Of course there is the rather cruel irony that Smith couldn’t be nominated in the editing category, because that would have given the one-shot game away.
“We laughed about that on numerous occasions,” he says. “Sam said, ‘I’m going to tell everyone you’re the unsung hero, which he did, to his credit. But not to worry; it was an extremely gratifying experience and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was one of my favourite films that I’ve worked on in my career.”
With a body of work that includes the aforementioned Dunkirk, as well as Inception, The Dark Knight and Master and Commander, Smith, not surprisingly, counts 1917 among his most challenging and unconventional editing jobs to date.
“It utilised parts of my brain I don’t think have ever been switched on before,” he says. “It was complicated in the extreme and just changed the whole dynamic as to how you edit a movie, and what timescale you do it.
“This is kind of reverse timescale, because you’re doing everything you’d be doing in post-production on a daily basis. And, importantly, trying to get a film that looks like it’s complete as you’re shooting it, because there’s no going back and it’s very difficult to change the film, which you can do quite easily in post on a conventional coverage film. You can’t do it on a film like this.
“So the pressure was top-loaded for me. Even with all of our preparation, it was still a surprise once we were out of the gate and started filming. This film had to be perfect every day. There was no compromise, which made for some interesting and difficult decisions that had to be made as the film was being shot.
“We had to build the film as we were going to prove that it would work, which is, again, slightly unusual. You had to make the film continuously look like a finished product, because it informed what was going to be shot the next day.
“You might have 25 to 40 takes of a certain scene, and you’ve got to pick the right take. So I’m watching two and a half hours worth of dailies, all to pick a five-minute section – it’s pretty daunting, but we got it done.”
Smith’s previous collaboration with Mendes on Spectre involved creating the extended, unbroken chase sequence that opens the Bond film, and when the director approached him with the idea of making an entire feature resemble one continuous shot, he laughed.
“Spectre was hard enough with five and a half minutes of one continuous shot as opposed to two hours of one continuous shot. I wondered why Sam wanted to torture us so. But having read the script, I realised what he was going for, and even though I had to remind myself as I was reading the script that it was going to be one shot, I was worrying about coverage, pacing… There were a lot of faults as I was dissecting the script, but that sort of melted away once we started shooting, because the performances were so great.
“It was a bit of a learning curve – every day was kind of, ‘What can we possibly do to make this even better than it was in our heads and it just kept evolving as we were shooting.”
There is one obvious cut in the film, however, that facilitates the transition from day into night. “That was actually scripted,” reveals Smith. “It was designed because we needed the time passage; George had to be knocked out and then wake up later.
“Being faithful to the day/night timeframe of the film, it was decided we weren’t going to cheat. We could have easily made it more like one shot, but the idea was the time transition was required to have him knocked out for several hours, so as he moves forward we come into dawn. So there is a cut listed in the script and we were faithful to that cut.”
When asked if the editing process on 1917 was similar to another one-shot film, Birdman, Smith points out some differences.
“I can’t say exactly how they did their work, but what I noticed in Birdman was the camera would quite often drift off the subject and they would make a transition and then drift back on again. We never did that. We decided to never have the characters leave the frame. So there is a stylistic difference between the films. The beauty of 1917 was you were never in the same location twice, you were always moving forward.
“We had the whole film on a schematic; they basically start at Point A and end up a Point B and they never go backwards. I think that’s vitally important for the rhythm of the movie – the landscape is continually changing and the environments are changing.”
Verisimilitude was also crucial in creating an intense and immersive experience for the audience.
“We put a huge amount of work into the detail of everything. Those guns you’re hearing are the real weapons. We got German guns and took them out with special sound recording crews, because obviously you couldn’t shoot live ammo on the day. It’s shockingly loud and shockingly accurate over a long distance – and large caliber bullets. I had no idea you could have snipers in World War I shooting from like a thousand yards.
“That whole opening sequence walking through the trenches… they dug like two miles of trenches, it was insane. On a normal film you’d probably dig a couple of hundred yards and just redress it, turn the camera around and run them back through it.
“This was an enormous undertaking; I walked through with my assistant before the camera went through one day just to have the experience and just thought, ‘wow.’ You felt like you were there, because the extras were all in uniforms with their guns. It was intensely moving, because you think this was life for these young guys – eight feet down in a ditch, pretty much waiting for certain death when they go over the top, or get blown up or gassed.
“The other thing was not to be too explicit with the carnage and brutality, and just try and stay more in the moment, which I thought was very effective. I found audiences coming out of it saying they’ve never felt so tense for so long, and a lot of that comes from the believability of the situation and the quality of the two young actors, which was so good.
“To everybody’s credit, we all had one purpose on this, and that was to get the best possible film we could, and we had to get it right. And I’m pleased to say we did in the end. But you never know – it’s kind of a terrifying experience.”