Interview with Journey’s End director Saul Dibb
"The film needed really really really brilliant nuanced, convincing performances"
The movie Journey’s End opened widely across the U.S. in April. Journey’s End tells the story of Captain Stanhope and his British regiment during World War I. The regiment of about 120 soldiers goes back to a front line with knowledge of an enormous upcoming attack and the knowledge that they will likely be on the front to face it. The film portrays how these men wait as time tick by until the attack and the ways in which each of these individuals deals with their fear. The World War I Centennial Commission had a chance to interview director Saul Dibb on our weekly WW1 Centennial News podcast a few weeks ago about his vision for the film. Interview by Theo Mayer, edited by WW1CC Intern Betsy Sheppard.
Theo: Saul, Journey’s End is a really intimate film that is about a really intimate subject. It’s about men, mortality and fear. Can you give us a quick overview of the story?
Saul:Well you’ve given a very good introduction there. It’s essentially about a regiment of soldiers, so around 120 men, who are going back to a front line in the knowledge that there is going to be an enormous attack coming and they are very likely to be there when it comes. So, it’s about how they wait as the days go by and the minutes tick by and how each of them deals with their fear, like you said. At the center of it is Stanhope, who’s a very seasoned captain even though he’s only in his early twenties, who’s changed irrevocably in the three years that his been at the front. And then, into his officers’ dugout steps a young man of 19 who hero-worshiped him when he was in school and has tracked him down, so in the middle of all the pressure that they’re under anyway, suddenly there’s a young man who remembers him how he was and that puts a massive added amount of tension onto Stanhope’s soldiers.
Theo: Well quite literally, from a historical standpoint, this is taking place during the Spring Offensive, right in that same time frame isn’t it?
Saul: It is yeah, and the big thing that’s hanging over all of it is just before that the Americans had joined the war but weren’t able to mobilize their troops until a year later. So from what I understand of it, and obviously your listeners may know much much more about it but, the Germans felt like this was the last big push before reinforcements arrived, so they planned an enormous barrage of bombs and mustard gas and things that were going to come on march the 21st. And you know the British were aware of it and so the word went out, to use a euphemistic phrase, to lightly defend these trenches. They thought “well what we’re gonna do is sacrifice this line and the men that go with it.” So the regiment is a microcosm of all the regiments that were there during the spring offensive and the Spring Offensive is a microcosm of the war itself, you know, so I think you’re absolutely right. Each part stands for a part that's much bigger than itself but they all say the same thing.
Theo: Journey’s End was originally a stage play, and a matter of fact a really good stage play, with a story that takes place in the relatively small confines of a trench system. How did that affect your approach?
Saul: I got the script after Simon Reade had worked on the adaptation so I had not read the play or seen the play before then and I had made a conscious decision to never to do that. I thought, “it’s not going to be helpful to me as a filmmaker to be thinking about how it was staged at the play” and what we had which was really brilliant and incredibly helpful was that the Sheriff had gone on after the play to novelize it so we had a novel and he had naturally opened it out so I guess that was the starting point really to think well we don't need to be limited by limitations of the play. What that’s given us is a brilliant set up, a brilliant set of characters, and brilliant tension and all the dynamics, but visually we have more freedom.
Theo: Well not only the script, but the art direction and cinematography performances are just all amazing so as a director what was your biggest challenge in bringing it all together?
Saul: Well I think there were two challenges, or two main goals. One was trying to make a virtue of what might have been perceived as weakness which is the fact that it’s all in one location, to use this one location and try to make it as tense and cinematic as possible. It’s really just about performance, you know, it’s all about getting to know and to really take care about a group of people as they wait for their potential impending death so the film needed really really really billant nuanced, convincing performances and it lives or dies in a sense on the strength of those performances and very luckily for us we had this brilliant group of actors who were able to give that.
Theo: Well, Saul, you’ve made several period films and authenticity starts to become a real key element, how do you go about getting it right for this one?
Saul: Yeah, well, authenticity is the key, for me, starting point really, and before I made speech films, I made documentaries. If you make documentaries you’re just really aware of smelling around, you know? And in a lot of films, and i think it’s true for lots of other films, that most of the time I feel like I’m watching a film and I just don’t buy it, and the ones that I watch where I feel like they really really meticulous created it, it feels true to that world are the ones that work for me.
Theo: Did you put lice on your actors?
Saul: No, but we did make them act in freezing cold temperatures in real trenches with real mud, their feet were frozen, their boots were covered in muck, it was a deeply deeply uncomfortable experience making the film, you know and everyone relished it because they thought well you know we’re only experiencing a fraction of the hell that those people experienced when they went through it for real. And we did have real rats in there, real cold, real mud, real trenches– it was just really important that everything about it felt authentic, because I think that it helps the actors give better performances too.
Theo: Well it looks like a brilliant film, thank you for joining us today and giving us an insight into it.
Saul: Thank you, it’s a pleasure.