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How an Oscar-nominated Canadian production designer passed on Bond for '1917'

Last Updated Feb 5, 2020 at 12:52 pm MDT

Dennis Gassner, from left, Dean-Charles Chapman, Sam Mendes and George MacKay attend the 92nd Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at the Loews Hotel on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Los Angeles. Oscar-nominated "1917" production designer Dennis Gassner was sitting on the side of an Alaska road in his vintage airstream trailer when director Sam Mendes implored him to ditch the next James Bond film. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Danny Moloshok/Invision

TORONTO — Oscar-nominated “1917” production designer Dennis Gassner was sitting on the side of an Alaskan road in his vintage airstream trailer when director Sam Mendes implored him to ditch the next James Bond film.

Gassner was in the midst of a four-month trip from Hollywood to the edge of the Pacific Ocean when the British filmmaker emailed. Mendes, a frequent collaborator, had the script for an epic war film he felt would squash 007’s next big adventure.

Told with the illusion of a single take, and set during the First World War, the movie would hurl viewers into a race against the clock as two soldiers attempted to deliver a message that would stop a doomed attack.

“I opened it up and read the script on my cell phone. When I finished, I took my first breath, and (my wife) Amy said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Gassner recalled.

“I said, ‘I have to do this, this is unbelievable. This is amazing what they’ve done.'”

Not long afterwards, the Vancouver-born artist said he turned down the next Bond flick “No Time to Die,” and joined Mendes on the “ambitious” task of making “1917” a reality. Both the director and Gassner have Oscar nods for their contributions, accounting for two of the 10 nominations the film could win on Sunday.

The 71-year-old is intensely familiar with being an Oscar contender for his production design work.

“1917” is his seventh career nomination, which he shares with set decorator Lee Sandales. Gassner last competed two years ago with his stark vision of future in Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” and won an Oscar in 1992 for the Warren Beatty film “Bugsy.”

But his latest film is something special, he insisted.

“This one is particularly sweet because it was such an uphill climb,” he said.

“Inch-by-inch we clawed our way through the film.”

The film begins in the muddied trenches where the soldiers zig-zag through a maze of blind corners as they cross the German battle lines. The focus later shifts to other key set pieces, including a destroyed canal bridge one of the soldiers must cross, and a nightmarish city of ruins.

Those moments would’ve been a challenge to manufacture in any war film, but for Gassner the “1917” shoot became an intricate puzzle of long takes that were seamlessly blended together to create the illusion of that single shot.

In reality, many of the sets were built in the dreary and damp weather of Glasgow or inside London’s Shepperton Studios.

Shooting only began last April, which left the crew on a tight deadline to wrap the production before awards season.

Luckily for Gassner, he was among a team of key collaborators he already knew well.

He’d worked with Mendes on two Bond films, “Spectre” and “Skyfall,” as well as the Tom Hanks drama “Road to Perdition” and Jake Gyllenhaal war movie “Jarhead.”

Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins offered another boost of comradery as they’d spent time together on several other productions.

“We got to live the experience of what it was like to go through the conflict,” Gassner said.

“You are in the trenches, literally.”

 

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David Friend, The Canadian Press