Justin Cook chats with 1917 producer Pippa Harris…
In hindsight, 1917 seems like a bit of an impossibility. Awards season has come and gone and now that we can look at the Sam Mendes-directed war thriller objectively, separated from its associations with winning the BAFTA or the Golden Globe or being the frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars, it’s not hard to see 1917 for what it truly is: a hugely daunting undertaking, massively complex production and game-changing technical achievement, that through all of that, also happens to be a really good movie.
While Mendes, perhaps rightfully, has been at the center of the credit for the movie’s success, his vision of honoring his grandfather’s incredible sacrifice during World War I through an exhilarating “one-take” experience would be but a pipe dream if not for a team of practical and equally ambitious and talented collaborators. In particular, longtime creative partner and 1917 producer Pippa Harris had the role of making this on-paper “impossibility” a reality.
Co-founder of London-based Neal Street Productions, along with Mendes and Caro Newling, Harris has spent the past decade-and-a-half bringing works of film, TV and theatre to audiences, including Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Call the Midwife, Penny Dreadful and plenty more. 1917 stands among the company’s greatest wins yet, between awards love and a stellar run at the box office, continuing its tradition of tackling what Harris describes as widely appealing, audience-friendly projects that are also carefully, precisely and intimately made.
While speaking to Harris for the home entertainment release of 1917, she talked about the logistical challenges of pulling off George MacKay’s now-famous climactic run through the battlefield, the strong female influence behind the camera and the Oscar-winning director who had high praise for the film.
You have been friends with Sam [Mendes] since childhood and collaborators going back quite some time. How has your relationship evolved from let’s say Jarhead to now?
Well, we’ve obviously worked together very closely. We’ve had a company now for almost 20 years. So, we work across film, TV and theater and so, we have a really good shorthand working relationship in terms of, I kind of know what he’s thinking before he says it. So, that’s very helpful on a film like this where we were, in many cases, breaking new ground in terms of the way we were actually physically making the film. And inevitably, on something like this, there are decisions and choices to be made … because I know him so well, I knew the things that really mattered to him in terms of production and other things that maybe we could do in a different way. It’s a very close working friendship that we’ve had for years and it works well, I think. You’ll have to ask him. [laughs]
So I feel like one of the scenes in 1917 that instantly pops in my head when I think of it, is the storming out of the trench scene, towards the end of the film. And there’s an equal amount of excitement and awe in terms of wondering how exactly that was done when watching the scene. Can you talk about the logistical challenges of making that scene come to life?
Yes. I mean that was obviously one of the toughest scenes to pull off because not only did we have over 500 supporting artists who were obviously playing the other soldiers to rehearse and to get the timings of them all pouring out to the trenches, but we have the live ammunition explosions going off and we obviously had the whole complication of the one-shot to deal with. So, one of the early complexities was that the camera initially is over the trench and then it had to be handed off and moved onto a moving vehicle, which then drives away as George is running towards it. And so we had to have the camera team dressed as extras in order that when they’d handed the camera off, they could then run over the top as though they were soldiers also in the trenches.
And also the explosives. We could only dig so many pits of explosives, which meant that we only have so many goes at setting them off and we all knew that. So we knew that if we messed up a take, then that was potentially one of our chances gone. I think we had eight pits in the end. So we knew we potentially could do eight takes. And actually, I think it was either the first or the second take, but it’s the take that’s in the film, George got knocked over by one of the extras, one of the supporting artists. Yeah. And then he gets back up and then he gets knocked over again. And that wasn’t planned at all. And I remember watching it happen and I’m thinking, “Well that’s obviously ruined that take, not going to be able to use that.” But, of course, when we watched it back, both Sam and I just thought actually that’s fantastic. It looks totally credible because, of course, actually when you think about it, it would be virtually impossible to run down a line like that and not get knocked over by someone because they’re all concentrating on where they’re going. So, it was a mixture of very careful planning and then some fortuitous accidents like that, which created the final scene.
Like you said, it sounds like ss much as you plan, you’re oftentimes at the behest of external conditions. Like the weather or imperfections from extras or locations or whatever it may be. So to what degree did you have to relinquish control in a certain sense and have to embrace the happy accidents?
We certainly have to do that in terms of the weather because however much we could pray to the weather gods, there’s nothing you can do about it if you wake up in the morning and it’s pouring with rain. We could always deal with a little bit of rain, but when it was torrential, we knew we just weren’t going to be able to shoot. We got into this strange rhythm where when the weather was against us, either by being far too sunny or far too rainy, we would rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. And then when the weather was right, we needed it to be overcast really, in order to shoot, we would go for it. And so, it meant that we would get behind ourselves and then we’d get ahead of ourselves because once we could shoot, we’d rehearsed so much material that we were able to shoot very fast. So then we would get two days ahead of ourselves, and it was a sort of strange rhythm. I think once we all realized that was going to continue through the whole shoot, we all relaxed into it and everyone got used to the idea that if we got a couple of days behind, it wasn’t the end of the world because we’d be able to catch up again. So it was a strange process but actually a really exhilarating one.
Of course, Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are more unknown actors. And then in the movie you pair them with really cinematic heavyweight Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Colin Firth. What was it like gathering the cast for the movie?
It was great, actually. Several of them, we worked with before. Benedict, Sam and I worked with a number of times and Andrew Scott and Mark Strong. And I think because they all like working with Sam and they have such confidence in him that they were happy to come on board on the basis of reading the script and knowing that they would only be filming for a couple of days. Because they’re all such skilled actors, they were able to drop in to the production, which had been a very tight-knit unit — we’d all been together for months — and nailed those roles within a couple of days. Or in some cases just in a couple of hours because all of them were only in one scene so they were able to come in and do that which requires a huge degree of skill, actually, to be able to immerse yourself so quickly in a project. It was really joyful to work with them and they were all fantastic, all those people who came in.
I understand that Neal Street productions [have] a 50/50 gender balance. Can you talk about the importance of that commitment on 1917 and having the film be a true collaboration of men and women, with women in key roles in every single department?
Certainly on 1917, it was very important for all of us. For Sam, as well as myself, that we had Jayne-Ann [Tenggren] alongside myself as one of the producers, Krysty [Wilson-Cairns], who came on board as the writer, was a woman. And also, key heads of department, the costume designer, hair and makeup, casting, visual effects producer, Rachael [Tate], who was in the sound department — all these key collaborators were women. The reality of the First World War is, it was by and large a war fought by men, and we weren’t going to be able to change the onscreen gender balance, but we could do all we could to make the offscreen crewing as diverse as possible. And we certainly did that.
I’ve always been intrigued by what an eclectic body of work you and Sam have, in terms of Away We Go, Revolutionary Road. Even producing Penny Dreadful and now Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. So how do you go about choosing what projects to do next?
Well, we’re a very small company. We only have 10 permanent staff members and there are four of us: Sam, myself, Caro Newling, who runs the theater slate, and Nick Brown. And between us, one of us needs to feel passionately about something before we’ll take it into development. So we have a very small development slate, although I think the projects, as you say, they’re quite different in terms of the genres and in terms of the approach. I think there is, I would say, a link between them in that they are all in different ways high-end commercial ideas. So from our TV like Penny Dreadful, and I make Call the Midwife, which goes out to the UK, it’s the highest-rated UK drama and has been for 10 years and rates very highly on PBS. We like making film and TV and theater that appeals to a broad audience. We’re not really interested in making niche things for ourselves. We want people to go out into the cinemas or to switch on their TVs and watch things in their millions. That’s why we do it, really. But equally, we pride ourselves on paying attention to detail in terms of the production design, in terms of the cinematography, in terms of the costumes. Everything is really the highest production quality. So … that sounds a bit smug, doesn’t it?
Definitely not! Perfectly, perfectly fair. So what is it like to not just release the film and instantly get a universal acclaim and do big numbers at the box office, but then also do the award circuit and win the Golden Globes and win the BAFTAs and see it so beloved by its own community? And then the second part to that question, was there anyone who praised the film that had a particularly nice thing to say about it or that you have respect for, that ended up having really nice praise for it?
I mean, in terms of the roller coaster of the award season, what was odd and … I mean, it was very exhilarating, but it was quite strange was that we literally only just finished the film. I think we delivered it two days before the HFPA screening. So we came straight out of post-production, straight into promoting the film and then straight into the award season, and it was all happening simultaneously. So the film was going on release at the same time as we were doing Q&As and going to the Golden Globes and everything. So that was really exhilarating and extraordinary actually. Extraordinary few months.
I mean, people have been so nice about the film, it’s been lovely, across the board from the critics to other people we’ve met. And obviously, on the awards circuit, you meet people. I mean, Bong Joon-ho was incredibly nice about the film and talked to me about how his kids are roughly the same ages as the boys, and he found that incredibly moving. That was one thing that I found really touching. Just across the board, the level of enthusiasm and I think the connection that people felt — even people who hadn’t really known anything about the First World War found it a very, very moving experience, which I think is fantastic.
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment’s edge-of-your-seat war epic 1917 is now available in the United States on digital, 4K, Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD. For more information on the film’s home video release, click here.