ALL you had to be was aged 18-35, the advert said, while those who could grow moustaches would be prioritised.

Advertisement

There were few other details except the promise it was for a “massive feature film” and the production was landing soon in Salisbury.

But few of the 2,000 who responded to the call-out on Facebook in early 2019 could have imagined the project they were applying to be a part of – the blockbuster 1917 film – would a year on be hailed worldwide, winning multiple awards.

And as of Sunday, the film – which scooped seven British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) last weekend – may even land a few Oscars; indeed it heads into this weekend’s Los Angeles ceremony as favourite to win the coveted best picture statuette.

1917 film
The film scooped seven British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTAs)

However, the 550 lucky to be chosen as extras – including me – were soon under no illusion as to the expectations the producers held.

Any whisper of the project on social media during filming would result in being ejected, and there were strictly no camera phones allowed on set, we were all warned.

But it was not like the extras could reveal much of the story anyway; many of the crew on set knew the basic plotline but the full version of the final script was barely known to most.

The scale of the project became clear when all of the 550 extras – many of whom were Bournemouth students or serving or former squaddies – were called to a preliminary set boot camp to check they were physically able to fulfil what was being asked of them.

While in reality they were gentle fitness sessions, they exposed the extras for the first time to the set on Salisbury Plain – including a trench a few hundred yards long that had been filled with chalk pieces, weaponry and the hundreds of costumes painstakingly prepared to the last detail.

Having had their costumes fitted, the extras were taught what turned out to be a crucial skill – how to wrap their own “puttees” around their ankles – and given pictures of soldiers from the war on whom to model their look and research.

Jon Waller had to grow a moustache

There were also historians on hand who gave lectures to educate the extras on the unit they were depicting – the second battalion of the Royal Devonshire regiment – and the realities of First World War combat.

Former Marine commandos observed each extra with his gun, handpicking the best to fire live ammunition, while the rest were shown how to attack as a unit in formation.

By the time the production got to Netheravon in May, much of the film had been shot and extras came with gossip concerning seasoned actors involved: Andrew Scott fluffing his few lines and the possibility of being in a scene with Mark Strong or Benedict Cumberbatch.

Back then there were already whispers the film was going to be a contender at the Oscars – no surprise given some of the talent involved; director Sir Sam Mendes took home the Best Director Oscar for American Beauty while cinematographer Roger Deakins is arguably the greatest living exponent of his craft, having worked on the most of the Coen brothers films and Blade Runner 2049.

As rumours flew it emerged the script, co-authored by Sir Sam, was based on a fable he was told by his uncle, Alfred Mendes, a messenger for the British on the Western Front.

The basic premise sees two soldiers – played by rising stars George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman – tasked with delivering a message to the Western Front in France during the First World War to call off an attack and save the slaughter of 1,500 men.

One of the big selling points of the movie is the ‘one shot’ set-up; so-called because from start to finish the action follows the two men – seemingly in one cut – delivering the message as their mission progresses.

But that brought unique problems to the £100m budget production; the 1917 film was set in late autumn so the scenes had to be shot with the right amount of contrast and light – not so easy to achieve considering the balmy hot weather in May and June last year.

It meant there were endless rehearsals of scenes, and the actors, crew and at times the production came to a standstill as those involved sat around waiting for the weather to turn.

But it was also hugely exciting when the time came to film a scene in a limited window – and meant the pressure was on to get it right.

1917 film
George McKay’s character had to fight his way through the tranches to deliver a message

The production had anticipated delays; while the three scenes would fill around eight minutes of screen time it had assigned up to three weeks to film them.

The main concern was capturing the huge set piece scene at the climax, which involved lead actor McKay running hundreds of yards along the trench line as all of the hundreds of extras popped out and burst past him going ‘over the top’.

The other two scenes saw hundreds of soldiers being sung to as they sat in a nearby wooded area, and then walking into the trenches – McKay’s character fighting his way through them in his bid to deliver the message.

From the outset the days were long; the call time for extras to arrive to get into costume was often 5am and there were few times that filming finished before 5pm.

It was five days a week and some extras got so much into the spirit they decided to live as soldiers and camp out at the site.

Morning starts were always surreal; changing into what was a heavy and cumbersome costume and then on to hair and make-up to spruce up the moustache before queueing so the effects team could literally cover each of us extras head to toe in mud and chalk.

The set was a 10-minute bus ride away and upon arrival everyone had to collect a rifle from an armoury truck before a lengthy march to the trench for filming – a walk which took an age for those tasked with carrying a heavy Lewis gun.

The scenes were shot in sequential order, meaning the first few days were relatively gentle as we predominantly sat in the wooded area listening to a recording or being sung to by the real actor.

The atmosphere was largely relaxed but that swiftly changed whenever Sir Sam stepped on set to talk with the main actors, and it transformed the first time the cameras began rolling – a hush descending over proceedings before the countdown and the shout of “Action”!

What many extras found strange was playing men who faced multiple dangers – the Germans, illness or the cold and mental torture – whereas our main worry was getting sunburn.

George McKay running along the trench line while filming 1917

There was also the added concern of ensuring the costume was in prime order; the historians and make-up assistants were constantly on set surveying each extra and were absolute sticklers.

So intent were they on getting things accurate, in one scene a historian pointed out an extra in shot was not wearing hobnail boots – causing him to be moved and a mini-tantrum about not being on camera, which was swiftly calmed down.

When charging out of the trenches the extras were taught to emerge the way the soldiers would have – even though that wouldn’t be seen on camera, and thousands of cigarettes from the time period were passed out to extras, many of whom insisted on a fresh one each new take.

To aid their waiting some brought books and even a chess set, while one amused himself by donning his gas mask and running around; earning a rebuke from the crew. Others who fell asleep had their guns quietly confiscated by the commandos, earning them a forfeit.

By far the highlight of the experience was the set-piece scene, it took many days to rehearse before being shot over two separate days.

The hundreds of extras had to charge out of the trench at stages while McKay ran across their path chasing a camera attached to a moving truck – each extra being instructed to “try if they could” to run between camera and actor without hitting either.

And when the cameras started rolling there was the added complication of live explosive charges on the field and stunt men brought in to perform flips and jumps as they went off.

For that scene in particular there was a lot of waiting around, meaning whenever the cry of “three, two, one, action”, went up, the energy was absolutely electric.

McKay had been told to keep running no matter what happened and during the several times he was clattered into, he got up and carried on – including in the take used in the film.

It was an unbelievable experience standing in the trench and hearing the cries of men as they headed over the top.

After the shot was complete a loudspeaker crackled and Sir Sam’s voice, triumphant and excitable, paid tribute to the extras for satisfying his vision for the film.

“Men of Wiltshire and beyond, I can’t thank you enough,” he said, as the crew whooped and McKay ran around high-fiving extras and punching the air with delight.

There will be similar celebrations should 1917 win Oscars this weekend and the plaudits are well deserved: for the dazzling technical and artistic achievement, and the effort and detail the production went to ensure it did justice to the millions who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Advertisement