George Mackay on the hows and whys of Friday film '1917' that’s up for 10 Oscars
Playing Schofield was “hard work, enjoyable work, the best work I’ve ever had": Mackay
- Published 15.01.20, 8:13 PM
- Updated 15.01.20, 8:13 PM
- 7 mins read
It’s early summer 2019 and George MacKay is standing in a trench, staring into the eyes of Colin Firth. They’re making a First World War film on Salisbury Plain, which is standing in for the Western Front. The film is called 1917 and Firth is playing a supporting role, General Erinmore, opposite the 27-year-old MacKay’s protagonist, Lance Corporal Schofield.
They are shooting a scene that will appear in the opening minutes of the film, when Erinmore gives the battle-hardened Schofield (he’s a Somme veteran) the orders for an urgent mission. Schofield is to cross over no man’s land into German-occupied territory, make it through the nearby town of Ecoust-Saint-Mein and beyond to bordering forest, where he is to warn the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment that they’re marching into a trap (the Germans have feigned a retreat and are preparing an ambush). Oh, and he must do it, like, now.
“Even on the day, filming that scene, when I was doing it, just when the mission is handed out, I got this sudden sense of, ‘Oh, I can’t stop this!’ “ MacKay says, trying to pinpoint the essence of the film. Dressed in boots, jeans (turn-ups) and a red knitted top, he sits up and enacts, in our plush central London hotel suite, a mime of somebody, somehow, against his will, being plunged into sheer forward momentum. “It felt like, ‘I’m being told to go, okay, now I’m going? I’m going! I’m really going! We’re going and we can’t stop this!’”
A monstrous injection of adrenaline
It’s the perfect summation of a film that is the epitome of sensory propulsion. Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, who made the Bond films Skyfall and Spectre (and based on the recollections of Mendes’s grandfather Alfred), it is a war movie like no other. Grounded respectfully in the ineffable horrors of the Great War (bomb-blasted bodies, open chest cavities, screaming limbless soldiers), it is also a masterful technical achievement that appears to have been shot in one long and woozy 119-minute take. The film is all kinetic energy, rush, dramatic thrust (even the quieter moments pulse with tension), a project that cinema nerds might recognise as a giddy mash-up of Birdman, Son of Saul and Hardcore Henry.
MacKay, born and brought up in London, has built a muscular career playing vulnerable dreamboats in indie dramas (Sunshine on Leith, Pride, Captain Fantastic, Where Hands Touch). Suddenly starring, centre stage, in a $100-million war blockbuster is a monstrous injection of adrenaline and an immense physical and technical achievement.
Playing Schofield was “hard work, enjoyable work, the best work I’ve ever had. But it was unrelenting,” he says, explaining that the filming took an unprecedented five months of daily rehearsals before shooting could begin. Despite the film’s super-slick seemingly edit-free appearance, it was shot in seven to eight-minute takes (the cinematographer Roger Deakins has claimed that no single shot was longer than eight and a half minutes, although Mendes has suggested that there’s a ten-minuter in there somewhere) that were digitally “stitched together” in postproduction to give the appearance of an uninterrupted flow.
Those eight-minute takes mostly featured MacKay, often with his co-star Dean-Charles Chapman (as Lance Corporal Blake). They were running at full pelt across machinegun-blasted battlefields, or through devastated sniper-filled villages, in a highly choreographed dance with a movie camera trying simultaneously to capture human emotions, narrative information and epic spectacle. Plus they were carrying full regulation army kit (they did actors’ army boot camp to get used to the guns, the ammo, “and to know where everything was in the kit without looking”). They didn’t get a break for lunch. And they did everything again and again and again.
Because there are no edits you don’t stop until it’s perfect. And because they’ve got the budget to do it, the policy is, ‘We won’t go home until we get it, or else we’ll come back the next day and keep doing it until we get itGeorge Mackay
You just keep going and going
“I remember the first two weeks of shooting, where we started filming those long takes, and you’d cover 300m in a take and you’d give it your all,” he says. “And by the time you’d walked back to the starting position you might get a note from Sam, but otherwise it was, ‘Right! Let’s go again! Keep it going!’ It was this kind of conveyor belt thing, where you rehearse in the morning, you don’t really break for lunch and you just continue.
“I remember calling my dad after the first week and saying that the work ethic was really intimidating; because there are no edits you don’t stop until it’s perfect. And because they’ve got the budget to do it, the policy is, ‘We won’t go home until we get it, or else we’ll come back the next day and keep doing it until we get it.’ So you just keep going and going, and you forget about whether you’re doing it right or doing it wrong. You’re just trying to do it. It was emotionally and physically exhausting.”
Of these long takes, with explosives going off, and you dashing for 300m across Salisbury Plain, how many would it take to get it right? Three, four, five? “Oh no, no,” he says, scowling. “Usually it was above the twenties when we really started to get going. Because it becomes muscle memory. Some takes you might get it early, but on average it was around take 21 when it started to flow.” Mendes has since confirmed that one eight-minute take was shot 56 times.
“There is a huge amount of technicality to it,” MacKay says. “But it was also a really good acting lesson. Because if you nail the technicality to a point where it becomes unconscious then you can play, without sounding too wanky, the truth of the scene.”
He says that, early on, he went to Mendes keen to do buckets of Great War research, but the director was relaxed. “He basically said, ‘Just do whatever stimulates you, but don’t overdo it,’” MacKay says. “But he did give me two books that he said he definitely wanted me to read. One of which was a first-person account of a young man’s time in the war, called With a Machine Gun to Cambrai. And the other was All Quiet on the Western Front, which is beautiful and really short.” He says that Mendes’s other piece of advice was: “You’ve got to treat this job like a marathon. Because you’re going to be doing it for six months, all day, every day. Keep yourself healthy.”
MacKay talks some more about the hardships of the shoot (yes, that was him diving off the wall of a French town into a freezing river — actual location, Darlington) and yet, open and ingenuous, he cringes at the idea that he’s coming across as a pampered beauty queen. “We could go home every night and have a bath,” he says. “Whereas the people we were portraying, the stories we were putting across . . . It was a drop in the ocean compared to what some of those fellas went through.”
MacKay’s connection to the war is on the side of his Australian father, Paul, a production manager, whose grandfather came to Australia from Ireland and fought with the Anzacs. “I don’t know his full story,” MacKay says, sounding sad. We talk about “the kids” today and how they measure up to the Greatest Generation, and would they have fought in similar circumstances and he says: “Absolutely I think they would, because humans adapt to whatever their situation is.”
Playing it from the core
He worries about how we, as a society, don’t seem to be “in tune with our core values because they don’t get tested often”. And no, he doesn’t do social media. And neither is he tempted.
“I’ve never had it, so it’s never been an issue,” he says. “As soon as the idea of doing it has even been entertained, I’ve said, ‘No. I don’t want to.’ “ But, well, with Instagram he could, you know, post pictures to his followers of the meals he’s eating. “Nah. I’d rather just cook one instead.”
MacKay began acting at the age of 11, when a talent scout spotted him at the Harrodian School, a private school in Barnes, southwest London, and cast him as Curly, one of the Lost Boys in PJ Hogan’s big-screen version of Peter Pan.
He continued to act “consistently but sparsely” throughout his school days (as the son of Clive Owen in The Boys are Back, and the brother of Jamie Bell in Defiance), but says that he decided to pursue it as a career only at 19, bypassing drama school and fully embracing that swoony, soft and sensitive persona, best seen opposite Saoirse Ronan in How I Live Now and opposite Anya Taylor-Joy in The Secret of Marrowbone.
I tell him that he seems to have cornered the market in a certain strain of wounded vulnerability and he does not disagree (or maybe he’s being polite). “In all the different characters that I play, they’re all leaves and branches from whatever my core is,” he says. “I don’t know if my core is vulnerable, but my throughline is, oftentimes. And maybe that’s not a good thing, but I can never stretch too far from that.”
He dated Ronan, briefly, after How I Live Now, but prefers not to discuss girlfriends or partners (“Oh, I can’t talk about that,” is his stock response to romantic queries) and will only say that his personal life consists of “cooking, spending time with friends and family, bits and bobs, really”.
Next for MacKay is playing Ned Kelly in the Australian drama True History of the Kelly Gang. Adapted from the novel by Peter Carey and directed by Justin Kurzel (Snowtown), it’s another huge and possibly career-defining role, and a suitably prestigious follow-up to 1917. He talks excitedly about it, about the preparation involved (three months of chopping wood and horse riding) and how he and the other cast members formed a punk band (Kurzel saw the Kelly Gang as archetypal punks) and played their self-penned songs at a Melbourne bar before the shoot (“We walked on set the next day with the swagger of a real punk band!”). The experience, he says, was transformative.
The conversation winds its way back to 1917 and to the other big names in the film. There are cameo roles for Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden as well as Firth. Was MacKay intimidated, not just by carrying a film in which Doctor Strange and Mr Darcy are only minor players, but by acting opposite these heavyweights? “Of course, there’s a respect and awe there,” he begins, cautiously, before smiling, and allowing himself for the first time, the tiniest hint of pride. “But by the same token, going toe to toe with them? There’s a thrill to that. It’s exciting.” Expect, in short, more of the same in future.