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Plumbing the Depths of "Revolutionary Road": Sam Mendes on Yates, Kate, and the Pressures of Awards

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire December 22, 2008 at 8:40AM

"The book is such a kind of cult classic," "Revolutionary Road" director Sam Mendes said of his new film's source material, Richard Yates' 1961 novel. "It was terrifying. The most common comment from friends of mine who had read the book was, 'don't fuck it up.' That was basically all they said, 'don't fuck it up.' And the biggest compliment I get now is, 'thank fuck you didn't fuck it up.' That's all I get! Thank god I didn't fuck it up." Audiences will get a chance to decide for themselves as the Golden Globe nominated "Road" opens in limited release this Friday.
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"The book is such a kind of cult classic," "Revolutionary Road" director Sam Mendes said of his new film's source material, Richard Yates' 1961 novel. "It was terrifying. The most common comment from friends of mine who had read the book was, 'don't fuck it up.' That was basically all they said, 'don't fuck it up.' And the biggest compliment I get now is, 'thank fuck you didn't fuck it up.' That's all I get! Thank god I didn't fuck it up." Audiences will get a chance to decide for themselves as the Golden Globe nominated "Road" opens in limited release this Friday.

"I didn't know the book," Mendes admitted when he sat down for an interview with indieWIRE. "It was Kate, my wife, who gave me the book and said, 'I really want to play this part.' I read the screenplay and read the book in quick succession. And I liked the screenplay, but I didn't fully understand what the characters were doing until I read the book. I just loved the book. I'm not the first person, and I won't be the last, to say that it's a classic."

Richard Yates died in 1992 and was unable to view Mendes' and screenwriter Justin Haythe's interpretation of his work. However, his daughters have been vocal in their approval, affectionately introducing screenings. "The weird thing about the Yates' daughters is that they didn't hold the rights to the book because he sold the rights," Mendes said. "So they had no power over it. They were reduced to hopeful spectators. They came to set one time, and, you know, they didn't say, 'don't fuck it up.' But that's clearly what they were thinking. As you would. But subsequently, they've been wonderful cheerleaders for the movie because they obviously loved it and are proud of it and feel like their father is getting some of the praise that he deserved during his lifetime... It's as close to getting a thumbs up from the man himself as you can get. And that matters a lot to us."

Both Yates' book and Mendes' film detail the deterioration of the relationship between Frank and April Wheeler (played in the film by Leonardo diCaprio and Mendes' wife, Kate Winslet), a married couple living amidst the restraint of 1950s suburban culture. Mendes believes the book stands up even better today than when it was published. "Retrospectively, it seems to be the beginning of a sort of genre of suburban literature that went into John Updike, Tobias Wolff, Rick Moody with 'The Ice Storm' and Tom Perrotta who wrote 'Little Children. Yates is the granddaddy of all of that. Looking back, he sort of began that whole movement."

For Mendes, it was the two central characters that specifically drew him to the project. "I just loved Frank and April," he explained. "Even though it's set in the fifties it seemed to me to be really a movie about a couple, about a relationship. And I've never made a movie that intimate before. I wanted to try."

Since his Academy Award-winning directorial debut with 1999's "American Beauty," Mendes has put his efforts (at least cinematically, he's also directed much theater, which is where he initially started working) into two rather large-scale projects, 2002's gangster film "Road To Perdition" and 2005's Gulf War drama "Jarhead." "Since I started making films, I've been in love with the sort of bells and whistles of moviemaking," he said. "The things that I can't do when I'm working on a play. So for me, after 'American Beauty' and having some of the control that I was handed by having made a very successful film... I wanted to experiment. I wanted to experience what it felt like to make a big gangster movie, to make a war movie."

Reflecting upon that work, Mendes believes that "Revolutionary Road" is the "most honest and the most austere film" he's ever made. And the least interested in style. "For me, my job here was to help the actors mine the depths of the characters to find new things in themselves. And it was the only movie I'd ever made that pivots entirely on close-ups. I'd never been a big fan of close-ups before. I never thought I needed them. But here I felt like I needed them to trace the story across the actors' faces the whole time."

As noted, one of those actors is Mendes' wife. And he was given the task of directing her through some horrifically emotional scenes. But he didn't find that especially problematic. "It's as challenging as it ever is doing a big emotional film," he said. "Those are tough scenes to shoot with anyone. Actually, I found them easier to shoot with Kate because I know her so well. I didn't find it difficult or awkward, particularly. It's kind of cathartic. Put it this way, you spend twelve hours a day staging an all mighty fight. The last thing you want to do when you get home is fight. You're just relieved and thrilled you're doing it. Or actually quite elated that you've done it together. So it weirdly puts you in high spirits rather than the opposite."

Mendes feels that kind of optimism should be discovered in responses to the film as well. "It's like anything," he said. "It's a sad film. It's a tragedy. If a tragedy works, like 'On The Waterfront' for example... You leave it exhilarated. You don't leave it depressed. You're glad to be alive. You know, it's a cautionary tale. And it was the same thing working on it. You're plumbing the depths but you're aware at all times how lucky you are not to have to go there in your real life."

Not to say Mendes doesn't relate to the Wheelers. "We've all been in those situations," he said. "Maybe not as extreme as April and Frank, but we've all found ourselves in bad relationships. We've all found ourselves trapped in situations we felt were not of our own making. And we've all found ourselves being dragged away from what we felt we really wanted in life. I think if I didn't find some parallel with myself than I would have found it more difficult to make."

If Mendes gets his way, audiences will look for the same parallel. "Like with any good movie, I hope [people] see themselves in it," he said. "And I hope that they're moved by it. All you ever hope for with a film is to move people and to make them think and make them go into the restaurant talking about the film and come out of the restaurant talking about the film. I hope it spurs a lot of debate and discussion. I hope it makes people read the book. And I hope it makes people look at their lives."

"Road"'s release date was quite obviously planned to benefit from an awards season that has already seen it garner four Golden Globe nominations, including a spousal pair for Mendes and Winslet. But Mendes has found ways to cope with the obviously daunting pressures that kind of pre-conceived positioning must place on a filmmaker. "For me, I've learned that the best thing you can be doing when a movie comes out that is awards-eligible is doing something else," said Mendes. "At the moment, I'm rehearsing for a new play and I'm totally immersed in that. And I've made another movie since 'Road.' Obviously I care deeply about the film and I really, passionately want it to succeed, but I've learned if you want something too much it's the worst thing for it. You overload it with hopes and expectations."

Mendes learned this when he made "American Beauty," which came out of nowhere to win Oscars for best picture, director, actor and screenplay. "I had absolutely no clue that I was making a movie that would get anywhere near the Academy Awards, let alone win. So for me, the process is to get back to that level of disengagement. It's better to be disengaged. Don't sit on the internet all day. Don't read the bloggers or the critics. Just let it be. It's gonna be what it is and what it does is what it's gonna do whether you read those things or not. I'm just a passenger. I like to be working on something that's creative and artistically fulfilling. Fun that it is, the awards circuit is neither of those things."

The new film Mendes referred to, and one of his methods of disengagement, is "Away We Go," a road movie starring John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara. It's written by Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, and marks another departure for Mendes.

"It's about a young couple about to give birth to their first child and they don't like where they're living so they embark on a journey across country to decide where they are going to give birth," he said of "Go." "It's a, you know, comedy-drama, dramatic comedy, whatever you want to call it. It's not an out and out, thigh-slapping laugh gag fest, but it's funny. I was just utterly won over by the charm of the script. And I wanted to make something small and life-enhancing and joyful on some level. Because to me, as much as I love and admire Yates, Yates is not how I think about the world. I believe in his vision, but my mood is much closer to the movie that I've just made. It just has a life force in it. A sort of effervescence. I mean I'm an optimist, not a pessimist. I'm not a depressive. But I'm drawn to dark material and I thought it was about time I did something that wasn't so dark."

"Away We Go" will open in theaters next summer. Those interested in a darker side of Mendes can check out "Revolutionary Road" on Friday, December 26th.

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