Sam Mendes’ incredible new war film 1917 is an exhausting and harrowing watch, and those behind the epic movie kept it as real as possible.
The whole film was made to look like it was shot in one continuous take (impressive with a 119 minute running time) and the lead characters and extras were given legit military training. Even the explosions that painted the sky during the battle scenes were real, with very little room for mistake.
Sam Mendes worked alongside Paul Biddiss to make sure actors had army training. Credit: Paul Biddiss
Paul Biddiss, an ex-paratrooper for the British Army, is a film and TV military adviser who worked ‘on the shoulder’ of Sam Mendes throughout filming.
Paul told LADbible: “The bombs and explosions were all real – no CGI explosions or soldiers. They just didn’t have the bits of metal in that they would that are there to hurt people, but the explosions were real.
“There may have been some of the distance background painted in as well to hide the Salisbury plain landscape, but other than that, all real-time action and explosions.
The makers of 1917 used real explosions. Credit: Paul Biddiss
“The bayonets, despite being made from hard plastic, could have done some damage so all the supporting actors had to be trained on them. The only things that were digitally changed on the explosions was that they would edit grass in to hide the bits of green tarpaulin where the next lot of explosions were covered – for if they needed to do another take.”
The lads were trained on how to get in and out of the trenches. Credit: Paul Biddiss
Paul’s job was to ensure complete accuracy at all times, even showing the lead actors Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay how to hold and fire their weapons.
Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. Credit: Paul Biddiss
Speaking to LADbible, he said: “I started off training the two leads and the main actors. They had military training and were taught how to correctly hold and fire the weapons.
“Although they had blanks in, they were very powerful blanks, which could easily have caused some damage if they were to come into contact with people.
“If someone had a bullet wound in a certain place, I would tell them what that injury would do to the person and how it would affect the way they move.”
All the actors involved were given training on weapons. Credit: Paul Biddiss
As well as looking after leads Chapman and MacKay, Paul was responsible for the selection and training of all 800 extras, who were picked from over 2,000 applications.
Over 2,000 people applied to appear in the blockbuster. Credit: Paul Biddiss
Paul said: “The last trench run took four takes, from memory, to film. The extras had to be taught how to stay out of the way and not look down the camera – there was a camera crew in a very compact space trying to get the whole scene in one shot.”
The trenches were built into the ground in an airbase in Salisbury. Credit: Paul Biddiss
The two leads characters in 1917, Schofield and Blake, had different levels of experience in the army, with this soon becoming apparent during the first part of the film. Blake’s enthusiasm for war comes across naive when shown with Schofield’s clear reluctance to embark on the mission.
Credit: Paul Biddiss
Paul added: “I wanted to train the actors to behave like their characters would. Schofield (George MacKay) had been in the Somme, and I wanted that to show, from how he held his weapon, to closing the pouches where his rounds were kept – they were taught to keep checking their pouches.
“You will note also that Blake kept checking his bayonet was fixed which showed he was nervously checking it, not trusting his kit, where Schofield only checked it was fitted once.
“Blake was green and less experienced, so I wanted this to come across.
Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) was one of the two lead characters. Credit: Paul Biddiss
“There’s a bit just before they go over the top into no man’s land where Schofield closes his pouch – from historical documents we know that would be something that he had learned at the Somme. In the war there were reports of soldiers not closing them so when they got to the battlefield they would have dropped all their rounds, so I wanted to make sure it was accurate.”
Credit: Paul Biddiss
The crew started filming on 1 April 2019, finishing in June. Just three months to film one of the biggest and most technically challenging war films ever made, all testament to how well the extras and actors were trained.
1917 is in cinemas now.