“You have to imagine yourself surrounded by your heroes. I’m in The Shrine, and there’s David Lynch and Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg – and right, I’m going to win the Academy Award for my first movie. And Altman, Scorsese, Lynch have never won an Academy Award. You know it’s ridiculous. How do you justify that? How do you make that OK?
“I decided very early on to treat it like a kind of bank loan, that I would pay back over time, and I would eventually justify having won to myself and to my peers.”
Fifteen years on, the Englishman has probably completed his installments. “American Beauty” deserved its plaudits, in any case. But since then he’s shown both remarkable range and consistent quality, his eight titles including a gangster film (“Road to Perdition”), war film (“Jarhead”), a comedy (“Away We Go”) and a second American domestic drama, “Revolutionary Road,” which powerfully reunited Mendes’ then wife Kate Winslet with her “Titanic” co-star Leonardo DiCaprio.
And then, of course, there are the two Bond films, the critically acclaimed and record-breaking “Skyfall” in 2012 ($1 billion-plus in global box office and the most successful ever commercial film in the UK) and this year’s “Spectre,” which could still pip that record.
Like a number of contemporary British directors, Mendes came from the theatre, with an illustrious career that included leading London’s Donmar Warehouse. Unlike some of his theatre peers, Mendes has always demonstrated a real feel for the language of cinema, accompanied by a canny choice of collaborators, which have included the cinematographers Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins, and composer Thomas Newman.
This week Mendes discussed his film career with the British Council’s director of film Briony Hanson, as the latest subject of BAFTA’s “Life in Pictures” series, following the likes of David Fincher, Tim Burton and Ang Lee.
“A preposterous dream”:
“There were moments when I was at university when I absolutely knew I wanted to direct movies, but I didn’t want to admit it because it seemed like a preposterous dream, and the journey into it was a very circuitous one. And then of course theatre became my home, and for 15 years that’s what I did. Then gradually I came back to the possibility of doing movies, mainly because at that time there were fellow theatre directors who had made that step. The Ken Branaghs and Nick Hytners and Roger Michells and Danny Boyles, those people showed that it was possible.
On completely reshooting the first two days of “American Beauty”:
“I was very fortunate in a way, because everything about it was crap. The costumes were a little broad, performances were over the top, the framing was very stiff, I hadn’t directed the background properly, it wasn’t well lit, I’d chosen the wrong location. So when the studio asked me ‘How do you think it’s going?’ I said, ‘Can you let me do it again please?’ If it had have been slightly wrong I probably wouldn’t have had the courage.”
On directing Kevin Spacey:
“We would often do 12, 13, 14 takes, which for me is quite a lot. He’s all about being the smartest guy in the room. It’s very crisp what he does, it’s very deliberate, it’s a great attack, but sometimes it’s just too fully formed. And I needed to shake it up a bit. I needed it to feel like he was just in the moment.
“So, for example, that scene at the dinner table, a lot of that was improvised in rehearsal, and then Alan Ball the screenwriter scripted it. When he says, ‘I didn’t lose my job, it’s not like, “Whoops, where did my job go?”‘ that’s an improvisation from Kevin.”
“For me, coming from the theatre, unless it goes in front of an audience it doesn’t feel like it exists. I remember when I first made ‘American Beauty’ being told, ‘Look, this is such an unusual film, you don’t have to preview it, because an audience might not know what it is,’ which I thought was a very dismissive way of talking of an audience. But nevertheless, they were worried that it was going to score badly in a preview and it would knock the film and knock me. And I said, ‘Actually, I want to, because I need to hear whether they laugh, I need to know whether there are boring bits.'”
“Road to Perdition”:
“It seemed to me to have the grandeur of a Greek tragedy. I thought the story had one great idea, which is that the Tom Hanks character was forced to kill his own father, or his surrogate father [Paul Newman], in order to save his son. But it was also set in a time when you could be cut adrift in the mythic landscape that was Prohibition-era America.
“We shot it in Chicago in the dead of winter, and it was a very solitary and lonely time for me, coming back from making ‘American Beauty’ and all the acclaim, and feeling very isolated. The sort of the coldness in the movie, the stillness of it, that comes from my mood at the time.”
On Paul Newman:
“It’s very rare one gets to work with one’s heroes, and it’s even rarer to find that they’re still heroes when you’ve finished working with them. And Paul was one of those people. He was just like God, you know, except probably slightly nicer.”
“I’d often thought what would happen if I had been conscripted, if I had been born in the Second World War, if I’d had to fight. I’m a total physical coward, so I’d probably be absolutely terrible in those circumstances. And here was this book written by a literate person who was, in a sense, sent to war. So it felt to me like the sort of thing that might happen if I had been in those circumstances.”
“It was a really unusual film to make, because I was directing my then-wife in a movie about an unhappy marriage. So join the dots. Although at the time I would have said, ‘Absolutely not autobiographical, in any way.’
“I happen to think she’s completely brilliant by the way, as is Leo. One of the things I admire about Leo’s performance is his ability and willingness to be weak, which I think is one of the most difficult things for leading actors—and particularly Hollywood-movie-star leading actors—to do, to allow themselves to be weak and vulnerable like that. I think it’s a really underrated performance.”
“‘American Beauty’ was perfectly timed. It was the end of the millennium, there was an obsession about older men and younger women in the era of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, it was post-Columbine, everyone was obsessed with what weapons were being made next door. And it was pre-9/11. I think if it had been post-9/11 it would have been seen as a very navel-gazing movie, but at the time it was perfect.
“I felt the same about ‘Skyfall,’ that it came at absolutely the right time. You know, Bond had parachuted into the Olympic stadium with the Queen. But ‘Revolutionary Road’ was absolutely the worst possible time. It was in the middle of an economic crunch, people were really worried about where their next dollar was coming from, and here was a story about two very good-looking people living in a nice house, obsessing about whether they were going to move to Paris or not.”
“Film is a director’s medium. If you want to work in a writer’s medium, go and do a play. If I say to David Hare or Harold Pinter or Stephen Sondheim, ‘Could you cut those last two pages of dialogue?,’ they’ll tell you to fuck off. And you go, ‘Fine, absolutely fine,’ and you put on the play that they’ve written. If I say we’re cutting two pages of dialogue on screen, then we’re cutting two pages of dialogue.”
Switching between film and theatre:
“Every time I make a film I think, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’m going back and doing a play,’ and that’s how I get my feet back on the ground. But for me it’s odd that we’re here talking about my ‘life in pictures,’ because I don’t equate it as a consistent line of movies. That’s not how I work.
“To me ‘American Beauty’ is part of a group of work that includes ‘The Blue Room’ and ‘Cabaret’ on Broadway, which I did immediately before ‘American Beauty,’ and I can see the influence of those productions on the film. ‘Road to Perdition’ was the time that I was doing ‘Uncle Vanya’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Donmar.
“And right up to ‘Spectre.’ The thing I was doing before ‘Spectre’ was ‘King Lear’ at the National, and you can see the influence of ‘Lear’ in the film’s big boardroom scene, where the blinding takes place. So I don’t see it as a line of movies, I see it as an organic body of work.”
On joining the Bond franchise:
“I didn’t become the director of the Bond franchise, I became the director of a Bond movie. There’s a big difference. Who plays Bond next, who used to play Bond, which is the best of the 23 movies – that’s nothing to do with me. I just want to make a great movie.
“When Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson asked me why I wanted to do it, I think I said something like, ‘I want to be the coolest dad in the school,’ which was partly true. I wanted to do a movie that my kids could see, because I’d made all these R-rated movies, with scenes featuring their mother killing herself.”
“Bond has always had one foot in the real and one foot in fantasy. It’s about walking that knife-edge between the two. One step too far to the right and you’re in the Marvel world, one step to the left and you’re in Bourne. Ultimately these movies are about mythology. Bond is one of the great contemporary myths. The reason it’s lasted half a century is that there is a need for mythic storytelling.
“I made movies in America because America still has a mythic landscape, even today. But there is also a mythic English landscape, in terms of its spirit. At the end of ‘Spectre’ there’s a Union Jack fluttering over Whitehall, which is rather ragged and has seen better days, and that feels like England to me. It’s sad, and yet we’re still here.”