Winter 2007/2008

Performance Artist

After a successful career on the British stage, Sam Mendes broke into film with American Beauty. But he's still more interested in a great performance than a fancy shot.


Sam Mendes
(Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel)

"Growing up in the '70s and early '80s in England, there weren't many role models," remembers Sam Mendes, sitting in his unassuming Manhattan office in the meatpacking district. "The English directors I worshiped at the time seemed unreachable. Lean, Hitchcock and Ken Loach emerged through somewhat eccentric routes, so there was no obvious way to do it. Becoming a film director just didn't seem possible, but it did seem very possible to become a theater director, and my love was equal between mediums."

Mendes, 42, has just locked picture on his latest film, an adaptation of Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road, which is scheduled to be released in December 2008. He is contemplating upcoming theater projects and his next film. "I'll probably make something small, something funny. I can't sit through any more of these bleak things," he jokes. In fact, when Mendes made his first film, American Beauty, in 1999 he thought he was making a comedy. "It's only become an 'important' movie because the culture of the moment imposed that on it. I wasn't striving for that in all honesty." Whatever his intent, Mendes won an Oscar for best director, as well as a DGA Award, for his work on American Beauty. "Winning the DGA Award was massive—are you kidding?" he says. "It was, in a way, the biggest thing because it's from directors."

Since making American Beauty, Mendes has managed to straddle several worlds, bouncing between theater and film, New York and London—even planning a 2010 production of Don Giovanni in the UK. He directed theater for 10 years before tackling film, during which time he saw a string of his fellow directors at the Royal Shakespeare Company begin film careers, including Roger Michell, Nicholas Hytner and Danny Boyle.

"Suddenly it became a question not of how but what I was going to make. I made one decision, and I've stuck to it since, that I wasn't going to try and film any theater piece that I directed. I was going to treat film as an entirely different entity. I wasn't going to do my film version of a Chekhov play. I admired Bergman and Kazan but I didn't aspire to make the kind of film that theater directors moving into film make. The movies I worshiped at university were things like Paris, Texas, which were pure cinema. To me that's what was thrilling—the lack of words, things that weren't dialogue oriented."

On stage, Mendes says, you might see similarities in the way a director handles a Shakespeare, a Chekhov and a restoration comedy, although nothing really links those plays. And while that may also be true in his film work, he does not really regard himself as an auteur. "I've always been drawn to directors that morph themselves according to the nature of the material. Ang Lee, to me, is a textbook example of a brilliant director who can apply himself very specifically to a martial arts movie, a suburban drama, an 18th-century English classic, or special FX movie. I never found myself to be an auteur in the sense that you could study the work of Kubrick and know who the director was just by watching three minutes of a film. He's not someone who is disappearing into the material, but imposing himself on it. And it seems to me directors are basically divided into those two categories."

Mendes was doing his 1998 stage production of Cabaret in New York when the calls started coming for meetings with the likes of Steven Spielberg (whose company DreamWorks would eventually produce American Beauty). He received a package of five scripts from his agent, all but one with big budgets and impressive attachments. At the bottom of the list with no attachments was: American Beauty, quirky black comedy, spec script. "What I loved about American Beauty when I read it was that it flip-flopped between dense, dialogue-driven scenes and long passages of purely cinematic, image-based storytelling," says Mendes. "The other four projects disappeared without a trace. I've framed that cover letter from my agent because you sometimes do feel like a good piece of material is a needle in a haystack, and it's a reminder to read down to the bottom of the page."

Mendes' transition from stage to screen appears to have been an organic experience, rather than a deliberate or radical departure. "I never aspired to a great deal of technical knowledge about the camera; I'm only interested in the value of the shot, though I was always very specific about lighting choices. So I was incredibly fortunate to have a genius cinematographer working with me on American Beauty, Conrad Hall, but, at the end of the day, you either think in sequential images and have a vision or you don't. You don't sit down and think, 'What should my philosophy of filmmaking be? What should my style be?' It's just there or it isn't there."

Once he started working on American Beauty, he found he was full of opinions he didn't even know he had. "When someone would ask, 'Do you want to shoot it this way?' I'd say, 'No, I want it to be still, I want there to be tension in the frame, I don't want to use handheld cameras apart from these three scenes, I don't like Steadicam.' These are not things I could have told you.

AMERICAN BEAUTIES: Kate Winslet is a restless Connecticut wife in Mendes' upcoming
Revolutionary Road; Kevin Spacey is a disaffected husband infatuated with Mena Suvari
in American Beauty; and Tom Hanks is a gangster and father in The Road to Perdition.
(Photo Credits: Francois Duhamel/DreamWorks)

Three of his four films—American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, and now, Revolutionary Road—have been made in the same very composed, austere, almost old-fashioned way. Jarhead, a grueling look at combat during the first Gulf War, was something else. "I deliberately attempted to shake all that up and shoot on two cameras, improvise. It wasn't by accident I put myself in the desert. There are no frame-lines in the desert, no architecture, nothing that can give you any structure. It's only about people in space and nothing else. I didn't want to storyboard, I didn't want to shot-list. I just wanted to watch the scene in the moment and follow it with the cameras. It was a very exciting exercise for me but I was quite pleased to get back to making Revolutionary Road in a more composed style again."

Mendes worked with his wife Kate Winslet (for the first time on a movie) and Leonardo DiCaprio on Revolutionary Road. The tone is closer to American Beauty in its depiction of a discontented suburban couple in the '50s. "I think I'm much more patient with material than I was and am less interested in instant effect now," he says. "It's the least showy film I've made, the least self-advertising. I think it's a young director's prerogative to say, 'Look at me! Look what I can do,' and I think that's a good thing, but it becomes less interesting as you get older. In this film I'm more interested in what the actors are doing than in shot-making and stylistic choices. It's more about emotional choices and things that come out of the material, rather than things I imposed upon it."

Perhaps the most pronounced difference between his theater work and film for Mendes is the way in which he collaborates with his actors. "Theater is repetition, engaging an actor's outside eye so they can be aware of what they're doing as they're doing it, and basically repeat it. Film is entirely opposite—you want to disable an actor's outside eye, you want a lack of self-awareness. They only have to do it well once. For me, working with someone like Kevin Spacey, who has done a lot of theater, on American Beauty was about trying to stop him from studying himself—he's very self-aware and I wanted to help him get rid of that."

Mendes likes to rehearse a lot, but he altered his method for film. "For me, the big key was to understand that rehearsals are different. In film they're to fill up the actors' heads with ideas, possibilities and get a certain number of questions answered. But I don't let them actually achieve the moment until the day we shoot because I find that if people do it well in rehearsal, they spend a lot of time on the day of shooting trying to remember what they did, instead of experiencing it for the first time.

Once he moves on to shooting, Mendes prefers to work from the script but allows for a certain amount of improvisation if it's a means to an end. "If I feel like somebody's stuck in a scene I'll sometimes say, 'Put down the camera, everybody go have a cup of coffee, we're just going to improvise for a bit.' That happened maybe four or five times on Revolutionary Road. I'd say to Kate and Leo, 'We're a bit stuck here, a bit choked. Let's just throw it around a bit.' When you're in a domestic situation, in a house, as we were in this film, you get very rigid because you can't move very easily—there's a chair in the way or whatever. So people get locked into things and can't break with them and loosen up. In that circumstance I would just clear the set and say, 'Let's do it in another room, see what we discover and then bring it back on to the set.' Doing that can unlock something because you do get stuck in set patterns.

"At the end of the day," he continues, "film acting is about Can you get it up at 5:30 in the morning? You have a love scene to do and that's it. You've got short-term goals in film. Kazan, probably the best director of actors ever, made the point that it's possible, though not desirable, to trick an actor into a performance on film. Once the camera catches it, it's indelible and that one thing you tricked them into doing can be greater than anything you could have planned or imagined, and that's the magic of film. You just can't do that on stage."

Sam Mendes Directing Jarhead
DESERT RATS: Mendes departed from his composed style in directing Jake
Gyllenhaal (left) and Peter Sarasgaard in the Persian Gulf drama Jarhead.
(Photo Credit: Universal Pictures)

Mendes discovered that spending a whole day trying to solve a problem to which you have no solution is another thing you can do on stage that you can't get away with on film. "When you're making a film, if you say, 'I don't know,' the crew says, 'We're going home because if you don't fucking know, what are we all doing here?' You have to have an answer. You might be wrong or uncertain, but you have to have an answer as a starting point and you can always change your mind. That's a big difference. You can keep the spirit of experiment alive in film, you just have to be relaxed enough to not be looking at your watch, which is quite tough."

Mendes admits film directing can be a lonely job. "My wife has worked with 20 directors, so she knows how 20 directors work, but I only know how I work because I don't get to watch other directors." When he was artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London's West End, he was able to share knowledge and mistakes with other directors. "Listening to other directors coming into that environment, the way they wanted to cast or design their shows, forces you to acknowledge, accept and understand a different way of doing things, and that was very important to my development as a director."

He credits the DGA for playing a similar role in his development as a film director. "One of the things I love about the DGA is that the company of other directors has always been enriching for me. I felt the generosity of people like Mike Nichols and contemporaries—Cameron Crowe, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Steven Soderbergh—these people have been very generous with their knowledge, friendship and mutual support. Being a director is a little like being an alcoholic; you think you're the only one suffering this terrible set of pressures, then you go to your AA meeting and everyone stands up and it's, Oh my God! You're a director as well! It seems to be the point of the DGA; it's almost like the AA of directors."

Director Profile

Stories profiling feature film directors about

their life, work and approach to making movies.

More from this issue