Sam Mendes on "1917," inspired by his grandfather's wartime exploits

George MacKay and Sam Mendes talk "1917"

The World War I movie "1917," which is being called an instant Oscar front-runner, tells the story of two young British soldiers on a dangerous mission through enemy lines to save hundreds of lives.

Oscar-winner Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") directed, produced and co-wrote the film, which stars George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield, who with a compatriot embarks on the life-or-death journey.

"1917" has earned three Golden Globe nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, and Best Director.

On "CBS This Morning" Monday, Mendes said the film was inspired by stories of his war-hero grandfather, who'd enlisted as a 17-year-old and was, among other things, a message carrier. "That was one of the things he was asked to do, because he was very small, 5-and-a-half feet. And the mist hung at six feet in no-man's land in the winter, [so] they sent him with messages so he couldn't be seen above the top of the mist by the enemy."

"He never talked about his experiences in the war, even to his own children," said Mendes. "He never spoke about it until his 70s. He happened to speak about it with his grandchildren."

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"1917" director Sam Mendes and actor George MacKay. CBS News

"When he told you, you thought, 'There's a story here?' Is that what happened?" asked co-host Gayle King.

"Yeah, as an 11-year-old, 'I'm going to make a movie about this one day!'" Mendes laughed. "But it was his story. It wasn't mine to tell, in a way. It was only later, after making movies and beginning to have the courage to write my own, that I thought that was the story that I wanted to tell."

The film was staged and edited to appear as if the events of the story were filmed in real time, covering the movie's two-hour running time. 

Gayle King said, "I'm not necessarily a fan of war movies, but this to me was more of a human story — the struggle of these two inexperienced soldiers who were trying to deliver this really life-and-death message in real time."

"I completely agree," said MacKay. "I think war is unequivocally the context for it. It's like an arena in which humans are stretched to the absolute limits, physically, emotionally."

Given the film's continuous flow and the complex set-ups, Mendes had the sets designed to fit the natural pacing of his actors as the camera followed along.

"I wanted the audience to experience those two hours exactly as the characters do," he said. "I wanted them to feel every second passing, take every step of the journey with the characters, and feel the physical difficulty of the journey. The challenge was then, we had to make everything join up. It's one long set. And of course, when the set is landscaped, farmhouses, towns at night, canals, trenches, water, you have to measure everything. We didn't build a trench until we knew exactly the scene we were trying to build it for. We built over a mile of trenches. And we even had to measure the river that he gets into."

MacKay wanted to perform his own stunts, for two reasons: "One, I just want to be involved as much as possible; and two, when the camera doesn't cut, there's not too much chance to swap someone else in!"

How did he know he could do it?  "You don't, you just do it!" he replied.

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A battle scene from the Sam Mendes-directed World War I epic "1917." Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Universal Pictures

Co-host Anthony Mason said, "There's one dramatic scene where you're running through a field and the bombs are going off. I was struck by the fact that that's not CGI. You had, what, 500 extras?"

"We did, yeah," said Mendes.

"They are all real explosions and they're real human beings," said MacKay. "It's all real. I take a tumble there as well, that was by mistake. That's the thing, within these long sequences, you want to have the kind of unexpected moments to keep the whole thing alive," MacKay said.

Asked what it meant for him to star in the film, MacKay, whose previous credits include "Captain Fantastic" and "Ophelia," said: "Well, it's an honor, one, to work with Sam and to remember all those that fought. Also … remembering what's most important to you, you know, when you go through a journey that properly stretches you, it's then what you come back to."

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Filming "1917." Universal Pictures

When asked what his grandfather might think of the film, Mendes said, "He was a storyteller by trade; he was a novelist. I think he would be proud a member of his family ended up telling stories, too. But I also think he might have struggled to watch it. As a man who couldn't talk about it for 60 years, there would have been — we have a name for it now, PTSD. But I think putting him back in the middle of it, he might have struggled with it."

The film, which opens on Christmas Day, has already been talked up as an Oscar contender. When asked about that buzz, MacKay said the film "was made to be seen in the cinema. If one can see it in the cinema, that's the best thing that can come from buzz around the film." 

To watch a trailer for "1917" click on the video player below:

1917 - Official Trailer [HD] by Universal Pictures on YouTube
  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.