If there's a single shot Joe Wright is known for, it's a four-minute tracking shot in the middle of his adaptation of Ian McEwan's literary juggernaut "Atonement" that takes place during World War II's evacuation of Dunkirk. It follows lovelorn soldier James McAvoy as he walks along the war-ravaged beach, cranes up to see a cluster of soldiers singing a patriotic hymn, and surveys the damage, before reconnecting with McAvoy. It's one of those shots that you can't help but be dazzled by (even people unaware of filmmaking technicality were blown away by it), a truly indelible moment in a movie filled with them.
All of this makes it such a surprise to know that it wasn't originally supposed to be a single shot. According to McGarvey: "Initially, it wasn't one shot. On the page, it was read as a number of scenes that occurred. We were going to shoot it as such." It was, like "Anna Karenina," a matter of both practicality and artistry that necessitated the single shot. "But then we looked at the location and firstly, we were on a beach. And a beach is only traversable for three hours on the day. So it meant that it was the only day we could shoot, three hours. And once we scouted the location we realized that the afternoon was the best for light because otherwise it was very flat-lit and horrible-looking. So once we established time for the shoot and optimized the time of day when the tide was out, we realized it had to be one shot."
What's also surprising to hear is that McGarvey didn't really want to do it as one continuous shot. "I was wary of it. I really didn't want to do it in one shot. At that point in the film I thought that it would be too totemic, it would overwhelm the subtleties of the rest of the film," McGarvey said. Once again, though, he was swayed by Wright's unrelenting vision for the sequence. "Joe, very wisely, argued, that the swirling nature of the camera would be the perfect expression of Robbie's hallucinatory state." There was other reasoning, too. "He also had this notion that the camera would shift between an objective and subjective point of view, so you could toy with those two modes in the one shot. And we realized that it would be a challenge but the right way to tell that part of the story."
The actual nuts-and-bolts of shooting it, McGarvey admitted, was "terrifying." And even though they made "a scale model of the beach and worked out the trajectory," with Joe Wright individually addressing the thousand extras (most of them from the town where they were shooting), it wasn't smooth sailing. (McGarvey is quick to point out the enormous contribution of Steadicam operator Peter Robertson, who also did the aforementioned overture sequence in "Anna Karenina," "who jumped on and off of milk carts, he was on a rickshaw, he was climbing up stuff.") After a lousy first take, and an okay second take, they finally hit their sweet spot with the third take.
"The light was extraordinary with this amazing cloud that was blocking the sun and there was just an emotion there," McGarvey said. Although there was a fairly sizable stumbling block. "In the middle of the take the microwave link back to the video village gave up so Joe had no idea if he got the shot or not. I knew. But Joe had no way of seeing it. And Joe said to do one more take," McGarvey explained. Then he added: "Talk about a sphincter-tightening moment." Wright made him do another take for safety, although that fourth take was more or less a disaster, underlit and plagued by technical errors. "It was terrifying to wait until the next day until we had the shot. I remember watching it and thinking, 'My that's something.' "
"Anna Karenina" opens in theaters tomorrow. "The Soloist," "Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement," and "Hanna" are all available on home video.