Spring 2017

Bonding with Sam Mendes

A celebrated filmmaker right out of the gate, Sam Mendes juggles movies and theater with the virtuosity of a wunderkind, and the experience of a seasoned pro

Photographed by Jason Joyce

Not unlike the feature finalists at the recent DGA Awards, Sam Mendes was a first-time nominee for American Beauty (1999), his maiden voyage as a filmmaker. He was ultimately voted the best by his peers, as well as by the Academy, which also crowned American Beauty best picture of the year.

This rare feat underscored the fact that Mendes was always something of a prodigy. He came to the movies as a shooting star from the firmament of British theater. In 1990, at just 25, he was appointed artistic director of London's Donmar Warehouse. His remarkable knack for reinvigorating classics such as Assassins, Cabaret and Company transformed the Donmar into the most exciting venue in a town not short of theatrical brilliance.

On the big screen, Mendes followed the suburban ennui of American Beauty with prohibition-era gangster drama Road to Perdition (2002), contemporary war movie Jarhead (2005), the adaptation of Richard Yates' classic novel of marital strife Revolutionary Road (2008), and the off-kilter romance Away We Go (2009). His first ever British movie presented the challenge of reinventing James Bond with Skyfall in 2012, followed by Spectre in 2015.

In 2003, he launched his own London-based production company, Neal Street, which has delivered a nifty set of popular and classy TV drama series, from Call the Midwife and Penny Dreadful to the Shakespeare adaptation series The Hollow Crown, along with theater productions, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

As the following interview reveals, the affable and erudite Mendes (a Cambridge graduate) is someone who loves being a director, holds his fellow directors in very high esteem and has strong opinions about the way his beloved profession is heading. As a self-confessed "control freak," he usually avoids print interviews, preferring to speak in his own voice via TV, radio or in writing. But he made an exception for DGA Quarterly, because, as he puts it, "I know I'm talking to fellow directors, and that means a huge amount to me."

Mendes spoke in his office at Neal Street in the heart of London's buzzing Covent Garden district on a break from rehearsals for his latest play, The Ferryman at London's Royal Court Theatre.

From the top, Jarhead, American Beauty and Road to Perdition gave Sam Mendes three distinct canvasses to prove his mettle as a director, and allowed him to work with DP legends Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins. (Photos: (Top to Bottom) Universal; Everett; Photofest)

Q: You're doing The Ferryman now, which is a return to straight stage drama. I think you haven't done that for a while…

A: Well, I did a production of King Lear at the National Theatre three years ago. I've never done a movie without going back to the theater afterwards, but the difference here is that it's a new play, which I haven't done for a while. And it's by a contemporary of mine, Jez Butterworth, for me one of the two or three best playwrights of his and my generation.

Q: So that's a conscious strategy to do one film, one play?

A: I've just naturally seesawed between the two—and sometimes doing a piece of theater feels more like doing a movie. When I did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it felt like working on a large movie with all the technical challenges that entails; and sometimes working on a small movie feels like a play, like when I did Away We Go. So there is an overlap, but they both use totally different parts of my brain, and I think they are totally different skill sets.

Q: Are they even the same job? Should they be called something else?

A: Yes, stage director and screen director are quite different things. Where they are similar, and I find myself feeling quite old-fashioned about this in recent years, is that they do both involve locking a few hundred people in a dark room and showing them something that lasts two to three hours with a beginning, middle and end.

In this new era of long-form narrative in television, it does actually feel quite traditional to want an audience to have a single experience in the dark, and then leave, and have something tangible to discuss and contemplate.

Q: Do you think that something organic has happened that's changed the way audiences actually watch things?

A: It comes down to the fact that it's much more difficult to achieve a perfect shape in 2½ hours, or two hours, than it is to create a structure in which the narrative is asking you to watch more after an hour and repeats that same shape throughout a long series. I think what you see happening in movies, too, is a change to the traditional narrative shape of a story. The goal of Iron Man 3 is to make you want to watch Iron Man 4. The goal of Casablanca or Citizen Kane is to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Q: But isn't it also that what the big franchise movies are selling you is familiarity? The most remarkable films are often the ones where you just don't know what you are watching until the very end.

A: Yes, I felt that with Moonlight—I was thinking, "I don't know what this movie is reaching for until the end, when I thought of course, that makes total sense."

Q: And La La Land.

A: And Manchester by the Sea—they all give the audience a sense of being pulled into the unknown.

I had this conversation with the great Anthony Minghella, who is sorely missed now, about The English Patient. I sat for 2¾ hours in a cinema, watching what is a very difficult movie to make feel coherent, but from the second it began, the audience smelt purpose, they sensed that somebody wanted to tell them a story, and for whatever reason, they wanted to be told that story, even though they didn't know entirely where it was heading, what timescale it was working on, how they would interrelate those different timescales. But they were happy to be on the ride. That's the work of a great filmmaker.

I felt that with Barry Jenkins on Moonlight, I felt like I'm going somewhere, I know I'm in good hands, and that's an instinctive feeling an audience has right at the beginning, and of course it's what you crave more than anything.

But I don't agree with that thing about familiarity. This is where coming from the theater gives you a slightly different perspective. When I watched the great Hamlets of my life, I didn't find that knowing the story of Hamlet prevented me from being absolutely astounded by what had happened with a play that I felt was familiar that felt utterly new and completely surprising.

"The great teachers are the great directors. If you're willing to watch and study, you can find out so much."

Q: A distant observer might say your films have been largely American—the first British film was really the first Bond movie—whereas the plays seem to be closer to your own cultural roots.

A: If you're asking me how are they personal in a way that's different from the plays, I would say that each one reflects where I was in my life at that time. You have to look outside the cultural landscape of the period and the story and look at what the core of the story is. The loneliness and paralysis of Road to Perdition was me at that time, the sense of not knowing quite where to go, being a little lost, not knowing quite where to turn. Going to war and discovering war wasn't quite what you thought it was, going into the world that you thought you knew from the outside, but once you got into the middle of it, you found you didn't understand at all, that was Jarhead.

Revolutionary Road is an unflinching look at a marriage. Away We Go is a romanticized look at a marriage. Skyfall is about someone coming back to England to find that everything has changed and yet on some level everything remains the same, and that the old ways are better than the new ways, in his opinion. This was about me coming back to England after eight years. So all of them were a loose reflection of myself.

Q: After starting out in theater, how big was the transition into film, in terms of your technical skills? What were the biggest challenges?

A: The biggest challenge was rhythm. I was used to working in the very controllable environment of the theater, and suddenly in film you're lucky if you get two minutes of useable material in a day.

It took me a long time to not be frustrated by that rhythm. I think the director's brain—whether you can see things in sequential images, whether you can edit in your head—that's either there or not. Some stage directors possess that and can step quite easily into that world and some don't.

Then beyond that, it's about learning by osmosis, by asking questions and by watching. You have to be able to conjure the shape of a film and hold it in your head, even if it changes—and I mean literally the physical shape.

Sometimes with a bigger film like Bond you have to hold the shape for two years in your head—for long, long periods when you are spending days, sometimes weeks, on literally seconds of screen time, and trying to work out what you need and what is useful and what is useless and what you can do without. Those are the things that are most difficult: It's keeping your arms around the whole thing.

Q: Who taught you most about the process?

A: Well, to me, the great teachers are the great directors. If you're willing to watch and really study, you can find out so much. And so my masters are everyone's masters, the great directors, from Ozu to Welles to Truffaut to Coppola to Ang Lee, from Steven Soderbergh to David Fincher; these are the people who even now are teaching me.

I watched Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo again the other night and I marveled at the poise and the balance and the precision and the absolute confidence of the storytelling. It's not a movie I would have made myself, not a subject matter I'm particularly drawn to, but you need to recognize class when you see it. Paul Thomas Anderson—I could watch some of the camera moves in There Will Be Blood over and over again; it's poetry, he's a master.

Q: So that's where you learn, the other stuff is technical, but that's not the important stuff.

A: Of course, I've learned masses from [American Beauty and Road to Perdition DP] Conrad Hall, from [Skyfall DP] Roger Deakins, and on my last movie from [Spectre editor] Lee Smith. I've learned from people like Chris Corbould, the head of special effects on the Bond movies, and [composer] Tom Newman. But they are collaborators, and that's different, because you're learning from each other, and if you are any good, you keep pushing each other.

But in terms of really having your eyes open to the possibilities of cinema, you have to watch the great directors, and I suppose that's what makes me sad when I feel like there are less and less examples of that. There are so many images being put in front of you, so many stories being told, so much visual eye candy, that it's difficult to find those extraordinary beacons that you can mentally refer to.

Q: When you're making a film, are you sometimes conscious of doing something that someone else has already done—for example, with Jarhead and Kubrick?

A: Oh, of course, super aware. Being in a Marine barracks with a drill sergeant, I could not have been unaware of Full Metal Jacket. Even now I look at it and think, not a bad attempt, but it's no Full Metal Jacket.

But you don't often find yourself in an absolutely identical set—because, guess what, those barracks all look the same. The only way me and Roger [Deakins] could work out how to do it differently was handheld, but we were doing the whole movie handheld so it didn't have the same level of precision and control.

Q: Do you sometimes feel the weight of influence as a burden you've got to try and get away from?

A: I think I did when I started. But I was lucky enough to be in the room when Alan Ball dropped that screenplay, American Beauty, and it had a very articulate visual language written into the very fabric of the story, and at one point I thought he had stolen it from someone else, it just seemed to be completely original. Of course when I walked up to the front garden of the Burnham house on the first day of shooting, the house that Kevin Spacey's character and Annette Bening's character occupied, with the white picket fence and the roses, I remember thinking, "Oh gosh, Blue Velvet. Can I do this?" But then I thought, "Well, picket fences and red roses existed before Blue Velvet, and they will exist after this movie as well," and if you are going to be influenced, you might as well be influenced by a masterpiece.

Then I watched the way that got regenerated and regurgitated in turn by the more popular culture, for example, how American Beauty influenced Desperate Housewives. Influence is everything, you are looking forward and looking back—you watch La La Land and you get more pleasure out of it because you remember Singin' in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You don't get less enjoyment, you get more.

(Top) Mendes works with Maggie Gyllenhaal while filming the offbeat, bittersweet comedy Away We Go; (Bottom) Mendes and Kate Winslet confer during the making of Revolutionary Road, based on the acclaimed novel by Richard Yates. (Photos: Photofest)

Q: Which is the most important relationship to you in making a movie?

A: Cinematographer, undoubtedly. Because my way into most stories is visual. If I have a private piece of advice I always give myself, it's never sacrifice the visual to the personal, and never sacrifice the personal to the visual—trying to find the balance between the visual poetry you can achieve, given the story you are telling, and at the same time never letting that overwhelm the beating heart of the story.

But I find it very difficult to go for the beating heart of the story if I don't know what the visual palette is. To me, one of the great attractions of a new piece of work is the visual opportunities it offers me, right at the beginning. My way in is images that come to me as I read for the first time, which often never leave me. Those are the things that I hold on to, which guide me through, and which I depend on.

Q: Can you remember now, as you look back at your films, what the key image was that came to you when you first read each of them?

A: Absolutely. It's not a key image, just a lot of images. A dozen, two dozen images.

Q: Have they tended typically to survive to the final movies, or is it a kind of scaffolding that disappears?

A: Sometimes you have this great master shot in your mind and it gets you into the scene, but the scene itself actually exists in closeups, or it's the other way around. So I would say it's 50/50, a lot of your first images do survive. When you have those ideas early and you pursue them relentlessly— whether they be the rose petal fantasies of American Beauty or the rainy streets and chiaroscuro of Road to Perdition or the blank handheld nothingness of Jarhead with never the same horizon line or the neon reflections of an office block at night in Shanghai, in Skyfall—when you have that idea early and you lock in, if you can get everyone going with you, it's the most exhilarating feeling to see it realized.

Some of the great authors of the 20th century authored in pictures. Scorsese or Spielberg would be two of those. You turn the sound down on some of their movies and it almost doesn't diminish any enjoyment.

Q: How detailed are your preparations?

A: When you read a script, unless you've got an actor attached to it, the first thing that comes into your head is what you see. Occasionally an actor will pop up, you'll read a part and you think, "Oh that's such and such." Then if you're lucky, you can't get them out of your mind, and if you're really lucky, they agree to do the movie. That's happened to me a few times actually, Kevin Spacey being one, and Annette Bening, and most recently, Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes. You think, "That's Javier," and then you watch it become him.

I rehearse pretty religiously with the actors, for a week or two if I can. Generally, it's when things are really hotting up, which is the two weeks just before you start shooting, and you're being pulled in all directions.

But really I have to look at the scene at least once before we get on the floor with it, if not more. I prep on the whole very, very heavily, and quite methodically. I've gotten over the feeling that I had for a while of being embarrassed at how pedestrian I am when it actually comes to making the film.

Q: Is that because you like to do 20 takes?

A: No, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I've done more than 20 takes of anything. But I'm not a two-take merchant either. I'm no Soderbergh.

Q: Is that slowness about getting the performances or the look?

A: The performances, almost always the performances. The other thing I will do, I won't think twice if I set off on a scene, and [after] an hour or two, I think this is wrong, [then] stopping, sending the crew away, re-rehearsing, reblocking and starting again…

Q: Do you have a particular way of working with your director's team?

A: I have a very brilliant and loyal script supervisor, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, who also was an associate producer on the last Bond movie and is a brilliant mind and knows my taste and we're very in sync. I will work with her and my cinematographer and talk about the scene, then I will bring the actors in and rehearse the scene with her, [with] the cinematographer and the 1st AD watching, and it takes as long as it takes.

Then I'll call everyone in and I will explain, having discussed it with my DP, how we are going to shoot the scene. So it's a rather tedious, methodical beginning to every day, so everyone knows what the goal of the day is.

As much as possible I'll describe why I'm shooting the scene that way, so that people understand not just the technical needs of the scene, but what lies behind the technical needs—a way of just giving people on set a feeling of what I'm trying to achieve, so that the camera operator, the actor, the gaffer, the grip, everyone is working on the same scene at the same moment.

There's a great danger in film that you only describe the component parts and not why you're seeking to put the component parts together in that particular way. I want the scene to be very intimate; I want it to be very exposed; I want to start wide, and I'm going to do a minimum amount of coverage; I'm going to see this scene through the perspective of the central character; I'm going to start this scene out the window, and I'm going to see it in silhouette. It just helps with the understanding.

It's easier on a small film: You have a small crew, everyone gets it, you can whisper it, and everyone can hear.

But when you've got 200 people waiting for you, there are the inevitable questions: At what point do you want the gun to go off? At what point does the window smash? How many takes do you think you are going to do? So that's the way I like to do it, and within that structure, then there's a surprising amount of freedom to experiment, to improvise.

The thing that can often weigh you down as a director is second-guessing yourself, shooting too much coverage.

It's that voice inside you when you've watched people rehearse a stunt for two days, and a giant explosion, and it goes without a hitch, by which I mean, nobody gets hurt, the explosion looks good, you've been shooting it on seven cameras, but that voice inside your head says, "There's a killer shot here and we've missed it, because I didn't put a camera down there." So you turn to the crew and say, "We've got to do it again," even though you know it means they won't see their kids for another 24 hours.

(Top) Mendes melded blockbuster action with a brooding character study of James Bond in Skyfall with Daniel Craig; (Bottom) Directing the colorful Day of the Dead sequence in Mexico that kicked off his next 007 iteration, Spectre. (Photos: (TOP) Photofest; (BOTTOM) Shutterstock)

Q: But better that you recognize it at the time than too late?

A: You have to be the bad guy sometimes. You learn very quickly, as a director in theater or anywhere, that part of your job is to be the person they bitch about in the pub at the end of the day, and there's nothing you can do to avoid that. If you try to be everyone's friend, you're going to be no one's friend by the end.

Q: Do you find that with experience you're better at recognizing those moments?

A: You get better at not giving yourself a hard time when you need something and it takes the time it takes—and also, and this is crucial for any young directors, being honest about what you need upfront. Even if there's a risk of somebody saying no—rather than not asking for what you want in case they say no. That's a big difference. A lot of directors think, because of pressure of time and money, "Really what I want is this, but I'm so worried they are going to say no, I'm going to shoot in 18 days even though I really know I need 27. And then I'm just going to maybe go over and hope they don't notice."

We've all done that, and that actually is not a good idea. You're much better off trying to fight for the time you need. Of course, it's easy for me to say, but whenever I've agreed to a timescale that doesn't make sense, it's never worked.

Q: Was setting up your own production company in any way an attempt to protect yourself from those kind of pressures?

A: No, I've never thought I've needed to protect myself. I've loved pretty much every studio, every company I've worked for. I've had very few pitched battles. We've had some honest disagreements and some occasional raised voices, but I've never gone to war with a studio.

I feel like a lot of that came from running a theater, watching the way directors behaved, and watching often how much better what they were doing was made by having to justify its cost and having to cut it down a little bit, and make it make sense financially, and ask themselves before they start what are absolute bare essentials of what they need, and what they would go to their grave fighting for.

Suffice to say the good ones know how to cut, and the bad ones don't—and it's an editorial instinctive understanding of what is necessary, and what is only desired, and what could be a luxury and what is an essential. Oftentimes those crunch meetings lead to better decisions. If you get everything you want, it's often the worst solution.

Q: How has being a member of the DGA been beneficial to your career and helped you to make a living?

A: For me, the DGA is a group of people who I almost without exception admire, and it's very difficult to say that about many people. The union itself is magnificently direct, and it does make you feel like you are supported and protected in a way that is so specific and intuitive towards what the director's job is.

There is a fellowship among directors and a great mutual respect, and it's something that I really relish.

I'm a big one for sending fan letters to other directors. It means a lot to me when other directors send me them. So to be able to email Bennett Miller about Foxcatcher, or Spike Jonze or Fincher or Spielberg and just say, "I loved it," is a great pleasure to me. I remember the same thing with Iñárritu when he made Birdman. I came out of the theater and felt like, "Damn, what a great idea, why didn't I have that idea?" Which is a lovely feeling to have, and you want to be able to say that to him. It's a great pleasure to have the ability to get someone's email address so that you can say that.

Q: So what's next, after The Ferryman?

A: I'm developing a few films. My focus has been coming home, regrouping, having a bit of time off, decompressing after Bond, which was an exhausting experience but very exhilarating, And doing a new play, which is in itself quite demanding in terms of its scale and the number of people in it.

In the meantime, I've loved being a bystander this year, I've loved being the president of the jury at Venice, I loved seeing the premiere of La La Land, seeing Nocturnal Animals and Arrival and Jackie and all those movies that came out of Venice.

I wanted to spend a year watching movies, and reminding myself of the different ways that one can tell stories, just to have time to expand my horizons.

You get very blinkered, very tunnel vision, when you're making a movie and you stop watching other people's movies. Or when you do, you see only reflections of your own inadequacy. So it's nice to be able to watch them without any feelings of comparison to your own work, and just to be able to celebrate the work of others.

That's huge fun to be around creative people and to occasionally just hitch a ride.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

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