"1917" marks the 15th movie for which cinematographer Roger Deakins has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Business Insider spoke to Deakins about how the weather was a major challenge in pulling off the movie's unique continuous single shot visual.
Roger Deakins has dazzled moviegoers for decades with visuals that have gone on to become the most memorable in modern film history.
The frigid vistas in "Fargo," the dreamy Western plains in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the gritty underground world of drug cartels in "Sicario," and the washed out future in "Blade Runner 2049" (which finally earned him his first-ever Oscar), all came from Deakins.
It's hard to imagine he could do anything that would top this legendary body of work.
But he has with "1917."
Marking Deakins' latest collaboration with Sam Mendes (the two worked together on "Jarhead," "Revolutionary Road," and "Skyfall"), the story follows two British soldiers during World War I who have to travel behind enemy lines to deliver a message that will stop 1,600 of their allies from walking into a trap. And in telling that story, Deakins makes it feel like the entire movie is done in one continuous shot.
The hugely ambitious idea paid off. The movie, currently in theaters, has found critical acclaim, box-office glory, and award-season praise as it won three Golden Globes (including best director for Mendes and best drama) followed by 10 Oscar nominations.
Among them was Deakins for best cinematography, the 15th time he's been nominated.
If you were looking for a sure bet this Oscars, it's that Deakins will take home his second Oscar when the awards are handed out on February 9. But don't count on the man himself to get too excited.
The 70-year-old Englishman has been the frontrunner too many times before, only to leave empty-handed, to listen to any Oscars handicapping. In fact, he's so modest it's hard to get many details out of him on how he actually pulled off the ambitious shooting technique that has become the biggest draw of the movie.
"We had a lot of prep and we could just work through all the problems," he said in a laid-back tone to Business Insider hours after the Oscar nominations were announced on Monday.
But finally he let out something that did scare him. It was something that even a legend like himself, who has come across seemingly every scenario behind the camera, could not control: the weather.
"That was a bit tricky," he said, with just the hint of dry English humor.
Most of "1917," which takes place over two days, is shot over grey skies. The gloom adds to the despair of the story's war-torn surroundings. But Deakins said it was also a choice he kept pushing for early on in preproduction.
"Just practically we had to shoot in cloud," he said, looking back. "Either you shoot it in real time, at the right time of day, which you never do unless you have months and months of time. Or you shoot in cloud and time it to look that way."
Knowing most of the filming would be done at Shepperton Studios in Scotland, the movie's production office looked up what the weather was in the area the year before at the time they were going to shoot. Deakins was disappointed in the answer: "Apparently it was gorgeous."
But the movie moved forward, which included Deakins and his team rehearsing the shots constantly with the small, light-weight cameras made especially for the movie from Arri Alexa.
Everyone was ready when the first day of shooting came in April of last year, but there was one problem.
"There wasn't a cloud in the sky," Deakins said. "It certainly made me anxious."
While producers were on the phone explaining to the studio, Universal, and financiers why they couldn't begin production because the weather was too nice, Mendes, Deakins, and the rest of the actors and crew were back to rehearsing in the trenches made for the movie.
Thankfully, the second day was a cloudy one and production was able to get back on track as they also made up the previous day's shooting. Deakins said that's how it was for most of production. If clouds weren't in the forecast, everyone waited around until the day came when there was — and then everyone doubled their efforts to stay on schedule.
"We would literally stand around for hours waiting for a cloud to come by," Deakins said. "I had five different weather apps on my iPhone. Every radar I could get. You look at them and try to find the one that will tell you what you want."
Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures
Then the day came when he wanted some sun. At the end of the movie, for a shot where the movie's lead, Schofield (George MacKay), is sitting by a tree, Deakins said he wanted the shot to show some rays of sunlight in the sky.
"There was this little cloud coming over the sun so before we shot that section we called everyone over and said, 'Let's shoot it, we might get lucky,' and sure enough when it got to the end of the take the sun came out," he said.
"That was the first take," Deakins continued, with a certain pride he didn't show earlier in our conversation. "We shot it another fifteen or twenty times, but Sam liked that first one. And it was the only one where the sun came out. We never got that again."
Looking back on the experience, Deakins said he would be up for shooting a movie again like this — though he wonders if anyone would want to.
"I don't think many directors would want to tell the story in that way," he said. "But it doesn't scare me off at all. It would be quite fascinating to do it on something else."
It's good to see that even a legend has dreams for what the future could hold.
"1917" is currently playing in theaters.
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