the print version here.
Mendes talks to In Focus about – among
other things – actors, Oscars, Kubrick and
the myth of three-act structure.
does the man who’s won it all do for an encore?
Mendes had to face that (admittedly privileged) dark
night of the soul a few short years ago, after
snagging a Best Director Oscar for his work on 1999’s “American
Beauty.” Although he’d earned a young-upstart
reputation in the legitimate theater – directing
his first Royal Shakespeare Company play at age 25,
followed by such well-received hits as a revival
of “Cabaret” – “American
Beauty” marked Mendes’ first foray behind
a movie camera.
“I’d lived through a whole lot of Academy Awards,
and then the penny dropped,” he says, laughing. “It’s
weird. You think you’re going to celebrate – but
in actual fact, all you’re worrying about is
not falling over and not bursting into tears and
remembering everyone’s name.”
Mendes was in a position to get some expert advice. “I bumped into Matt Damon like a week
before the Oscars, and he said, ‘You’re
gonna win,’” Mendes recalls. “And
I said, ‘No no no.’ And he said, ‘Look,
come on – you are gonna win. So prepare yourself.’ And
I said, ‘What do you mean? What was it like
when you won?’ And he said, ‘Well, it
didn’t sink in for 18 months.’ And I’m
really glad that he said that – because it
was true of me, as well.”
ultimately decided against a James Cameron-length
hiatus – instead directing Tom Hanks and Paul
Newman against type (as a hit man and Irish crime
lord, respectively) in the 1930s gangster epic “Road
to Perdition.” Although the film’s based
on a blood-soaked “graphic novel” (i.e.,
a comic book with better binding) written by pulp
novelist Max Allan Collins, Mendes brought a more
measured approach to David Self’s script, collaborating
once again with legendary cinematographer Conrad
Hall. The resulting film – a bleak, moody,
thoughtfully paced revenge tale – is considered
a dark horse in this year’s Oscar race.
cracked his “sophomore jinx,” Mendes
is entering the new year in a reflective mood. In
Focus caught up with him during a recent stop in
Los Angeles – where he held forth on Oscar
night, “Road to Perdition,” how he directs
actors, and his love for a little musical called “South
Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.”
o o o
that moment where you win the Best Director Oscar
you’re stepping up to the podium and you’re
speaking to the world — what was that moment
like? [Pause] This is my “Entertainment Tonight” question.
exactly…. It’s weird, actually — I’m
staying in the same hotel room I was staying in the
night that I won it; I get blasts of memory when
I come back in here. I spent that whole period clinging
to some sense of reality by my fingertips. And that
moment, all I could think of, to be honest with you,
was, “Am I going to remember everybody?”
that makes perfect sense. There’s a
long history of grand-mal meltdowns during Oscar
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
long is it after you win that the honeymoon’s
over, as it were — until you feel like your
old self again?
took me about six months to come down. It’s
the iconography of it that’s difficult to deal
with. You can de-mystify it — say, “Look,
it’s just an award — and it just happened
to be that the people voting that year liked your
movie better than the other four, and it’s
not a big deal.” But it’s the history of
it that freaks you out, obviously. And I suppose
it froze me for about six months in terms of, “What
am I going to do next? Do I just take a huge break
and take a long time before my second movie? Do I
dive straight in? Do I go back to the theater for
in the end, what I decided is that I needed to
work, and get back in the environment that I was
used to. And so I did a play back in my theater.
And that helped hugely — because it just
immediately gives you something to focus
on that you know and
love; it’s very normalizing.
I was doing that play, I’d been reading
everything that was being sent to me. “Road
to Perdition” turned up. And the moment
you have a project to focus on, your nerves kind
away, and you stop second-guessing yourself.
The moment you’re engaged in a movie, you
have to take it day-by-day — from “Who’s
going to be in it?” to “Who’s
going to shoot it?” to “Who’s
going to design it?” to “Who’s
going to edit it?” And every day brings
20 to 30 more decisions all the way through the
odd to say, but you go into a tunnel, and that’s
part of the enjoyment, in a way — part
of the deep satisfaction of making a film is
that that tunnel
utterly cuts out all other focus, and it’s
completely involving and completely obsessive.
And that’s the perverse pleasure of making
films — because
you have to lose yourself in it; otherwise, it’s
not going to work.
o o o
II. LOST in
of iconography: Both “American Beauty” and “Road
to Perdition” are deeply fascinated with American
culture. One sort of satirizes the iconography of
suburbia, and the other dives into this sort of classic
Americana. Where does that fascination come from?
one thing, it is unquestionably a fascination bred
in a young boy in England by American movies.
You know, all the great movies I was obsessed with
when I was a kid and when I was at university were
American. When you’re making “American
Beauty,” you can’t be unaware of “The
Graduate”; you can’t be unaware of “Once
Upon a Time in America” when you’re making “Road
coming from a theater tradition, where you’re
used to reviving a play that’s been done many
times before.… If you do “Richard III,” you
can’t be unaware of Olivier’s “Richard
III” or Ian McKellen’s “Richard
III.” It encourages a kind of understanding
of the iconography of the role — or, in this
case, of the movies — and the twisting of
it so it catches the light in a different way.
part of it is also that I’ve been attracted
in those two movies to a kind of big-scale storytelling — to
fables, really. Both of them are kind of fables set
in America. And to tell a story that needs the scale
of myth, you need a country that has a mythic dimension — and
America does. Which is why so many of the great American
movies are mythic in scale — whether they
be Westerns or gangster movies or contemporary
think so many movies set in the contemporary world
may be wonderful films, but they fail to
find a large-scale
visual correlative for the script. I think
something that attracted me to “American Beauty” as
a script — that it was so visually articulate,
and that it was a movie I felt needed to be told
in big pictures rather than small pictures.
Beauty” satirized America
in a way that “Road to Perdition” does
I don’t disagree with that. I think
it’s my nostalgia for the ’30s across
ALL cultures. You know, I spent a long time directing “Cabaret,” which
is set in the same period. I just think it’s
one of the most incredible periods of the past 2,000
years, let alone the last century. And the beauty
of the Midwest is always something that I’ve
found incredibly moving.
be lying if I didn’t say that one
of the things that really attracted me to “Road
to Perdition” was the canvas, and
the opportunity to shoot on those bleak landscapes
under those slate-gray
skies, and to try and re-create a version of Chicago
in the ’30s There’s something incredibly
moving about finding a period where father and
son can kind of be cut adrift and lose themselves.
concept of “losing oneself” is kind
of difficult to pull off in a contemporary film — although,
you know, movies like “Paris, Texas” manage
to achieve it in a sense, where people just disappear.
you think about it, there’s very little
cinema set in the bleak Midwest, in
winter. I can’t
think of any major film.
“Fargo.” But that’s
that’s true; that’s a real snow-bound
landscape — and what a magnificent film. In
terms of the sense of reality — of cinematography
not romanticizing the landscape — “Bonnie
and Clyde” is a good example. And I suppose,
in a romantic way, “Paper Moon,” with
its black-and-white translation of that period. So
there are examples where you really feel the poetry
of the landscape is a character in the movie. That’s
what I wanted to achieve in “Road to Perdition” — where
you get a feeling that the atmosphere of the locations
almost seeps through the skins of the characters.
And one of the reasons that the characters in this
film are so kind of monosyllabic and silent in that
film is because they’re frozen like the landscape.
cut dialogue out of “Road to Perdition” during
I took a lot of dialogue out.
going back to your earlier question: In addition
to the film influences, there are lots of PAINTER
influences on both films. With “American
Beauty,” yes, it was in part Norman Rockwell,
but it was mainly Magritte who was the influence
for the visual style of the film — in terms
of the fantasies and the rose petals and, you know,
the blank surfaces and the simplicity of the compositions.
That’s very Magritte-like, and a lot of
my picture-reference for the movie, and the things
I handed to Conrad [Hall, cinematographer], were
Magritte and some contemporary photography.
for “Road to Perdition,” it
was Hopper. Edward Hopper is equally stark and,
while he’s actually very complex compositionally,
he appears to be simple. So both films
are kind of combinations, in a sense, of American
and European/American art.
o o o
III. ‘ROAD TO PERDITION’: from ‘PULPY’ COMIC
to SERIOUS FILM
I did have a couple of questions about Conrad Hall.
[PAUSE; then, in AWED TONES] Hoo boy, you know?
Well, yeah. Exactly. [Laughs]
him reading the comic book of “Road
to Perdition” is kind of an amusing image.
[Laughs] I don’t think he ever read the comic
book, actually. I think he read the script, and that
was enough violence for him.
we got the script first, the images came to me
from David Self’s script rather than
from the graphic novel. So the dynamism and more
conventional, action-packed, energized drawing
that happens in the comic book was not, for me,
had in my mind. I had in mind something much more
elegiac, and an epic, and not so concerned with
drumming up energy. I felt the heart of it was
pulpy than the graphic novel, and it had these
great ideas buried in it.
that’s how I pitched Conrad the movie. Because
he doesn’t do violent movies on the whole — he
hasn’t done them and he’s very suspicious
of them, as is Paul Newman. And so both of them kind
of needed to have it explained by me what I thought
the movie was about, and why I thought it wasn’t
just a kind of bloodfest — even though there
are so many dead bodies — and how each death,
I felt, was going to be shot. And Conrad knew what
I was going for. He was fully on board.
have a friend who’s a film critic, and he
pointed out to me that pretty much every murder in “Road
to Perdition” involves water in some way.
That’s right, yeah. He’s
a very observant critic. [Laughs]
know, it was a weird thing; sometimes, when you’re
working on a film, it starts speaking back to you.
And I did a lot of research — because I think,
doing period films, you’re desperate for
those nuggets of detail that are not received clichés
through movies. Because all of our shared
knowledge about the ’30s, if you think about
it — with
the exception of a few bits of black-and-white
film of the time — are from movies. So you
have to get beyond that and do your research.
one of our bits of research was into wakes — and
we discovered that they used to keep the dead bodies
on ice to keep them from rotting before the burial.
And the boy’s first image of death is the corpse
at the wake, and it’s accompanied by water.
The movie starts with the sound of water, with the
sound of lapping waves, which came in the cutting — that
wasn’t in the script — and it ends
that way, too, with the boy on the beach.
kind of felt the characters were withstanding — that
the dam was always about to burst, that at the beginning
of the movie there was a sense of unnatural stasis,
of paralysis, where they thought they were living
a normal life, but really they were about to get
wiped away by fate. And if you tamper with life and
death, it will finally come back to get you. It’s
a very fatalistic movie in that respect.
you think about how the movie starts, it starts
on the beach, with the boy looking out
water. If you think about it as a flashback,
in the movie is dead already — it’s
a movie populated entirely by ghosts. That
a lot of the way we treated sound in the
film — that
sense of death lying in wait for everybody,
and everybody somehow knowing it, from Paul
to Tom Hanks’ character — that
finally it’s going to take them, no
matter how hard
o o o
IV. PAUL NEWMAN and the FAINTING WOMAN; TOM HANKS
and the CAREER STRETCH
Newman was quoted in an interview just before
making “Road to Perdition” saying he
was only going to do one more film and then he was
going to retire. And so “Road to Perdition” is
apparently his final performance.
you think that’s true?
don’t think so. I think Paul’s got
a few more performances in him. For a start, he’s
fit as a fiddle — mentally and physically — so
I don’t see why he would stop. And I think
he’s not in the business of working for anything
other than his own pleasure and his own reward — spiritually,
not financially. And so if someone sends him a role
that’s wonderful and that he can’t turn
down, then I’m sure he’ll do it — but
he’ll only do it if it turns him on.
He’s incredible. I mean, he’s still racing
cars; he still has his team, and he still has his
Hole In The Wall camps, and he still has his food,
and he still does all this work for charity, and
he still has his kids and his grandkids…. I
mean, it’s a great American life, in truth — and
only one element of it is his public persona, which
is as an actor.
what’s amazing is that I really felt he
was doing this movie to do something that he
really hadn’t done before. It’s inspiring.
And to have him on the film set alone made
us all feel like kings — just his presence,
You mentioned in an interview once that Newman rode
you pretty hard in the early meetings when you were
wooing him to make the picture.
well, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience
in the slightest. It was pretty clear to me what
the agenda was before I even walked in the room:
I was coming to persuade Paul Newman to do a movie,
and he’s not going to do many more movies.
[Laughs] And I thought, “He has the right to
ask anything he wants” — and he just
wanted to know, “What’s the movie about?
And how are you going to make it? And what’s
it going to look like? And who else is going to be
in it? And what’s this scene about and what’s
that scene about? And could this line be changed
to that?” And, you know, we ranged over every
at the end of those meetings, we already had a
relationship — so rehearsing was a pleasure,
and then shooting felt like the most natural thing
in the world, and it was completely un-tense, because
we’d done so much talking about it beforehand.
But you know, he’s like me — he comes
from the theater and he likes to rehearse; he’s
made to feel more comfortable by rehearsing.
yeah — there were a couple of moments when
I walked in there and thought, “What on
earth am I doing here?! [Laughs] He
possibly want to do this!” But
very good at defusing any sense of his own iconography.
frankly, it’s quite difficult to explain
to Paul Newman why you want to use Paul Newman;
like, “Well, it’s because you’re
a great actor.” What else are you supposed
said a woman actually fainted in Newman’s
presence on your set. They don’t even make star
power like that any more.
know, I know. This woman was in her 60s, and I
she just couldn’t believe it. [Laughs] It literally was her life flashing in front of her
eyes. It was magic, really.
And I guess, in a way, you are now to Tom Hanks
what Anthony Mann was to Jimmy Stewart.
take that as a huge compliment — partly
because the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart movies are
amazing films. But I think that was just
good fortune on my part, because Tom was always going
to do this
kind of little right-turn in his career.
think at some point he was thinking, “All
right — I’m coming into my mid-40s. I’m
going to get craggier as I get older. I want to play
the Jimmy Stewart parts, but I also want to play
the Spencer Tracy parts.” And so I think it
was just my good fortune to be around when he was
thinking that. And he’s his own man, completely.
o o o
V. ONE WAY TO
WORK WITH ACTORS
talking about working on “Perdition,” Jude
Law said, “Good actors don’t create tension.” Do
you try and create a harmonious set?
completely. I think there are two types of directors:
are adversarial directors and there are allies.
And I think that you can choose to be an adversary — you
can choose to be a shouter and a driver of people
on, and a motivator of people by unbalancing them
or disturbing them or pushing them harder than they’ve
ever been pushed before or whatever — and that’s
not my style. I think it’s a valid style,
in a way — but my style is to be an ally.
try to realize that every actor needs to be talked
to in a different way. There are some actors who
don’t want you to talk to them for the first
three takes — they want to just get up on
their feet and do it. Some people don’t want
to talk about what they’re going to do before
they do it at all — so rehearsals
with them are quite practical and you discuss their
but you don’t discuss the scene that
much. But then some actors, like Paul, want to
know everything about
the scene, and even want to get up on their feet
and stage a scene weeks before you shoot it,
so they have it in their head. You know, some actors
like to warm up intensely before a shot or a scene
and not be disturbed, and some people like to joke
about and lark around, and then the cameras roll
and they turn on their focus at that point.
have to be alert to every different way of working,
and you have to try and make that into
set, and you have to make sure that one thing
disturb another — and you have
to get what you need out of each performer. Sometimes
on the first take, and sometimes it’s on
the 30th take.
an actor like Daniel Craig, who plays Paul Newman’s
son in “Road to Perdition,” and
who I think is a wonderful actor.
rusty for the first three or four takes, and
four takes that are generally brilliant, and
then he loses it — by which I mean he
overanalyzes what he’s doing.
I began to learn that when Paul had the scene clearly
in his head, in first two takes,
three, he’d get it. And he’s not a young man
any more — you want to conserve his energy,
maybe for a close-up or another scene later on.
Meyer said that the way he got a good performance
out of William Shatner was to do take after take
after take until Shatner was bored — and then Meyer
got the take he wanted.
that’s what Nicholson has been quoted
as saying about Kubrick on the set of “The
Shining” — the first 10 takes were bad,
the next 60 takes were pretty good, and then the
last 10 takes, he went insane [Laughs] — and
those are the ones Kubrick used! So he filmed until
the man went literally mad. There are all
sorts of ways of getting a level of performance out
Now, you were directing a play at the Royal Shakespeare
Company at age 25. What did you learn about directing
by going through that forge?
make some colossal errors when you’re
young and you’re directing experienced actors.
I mean, I think I was always responding to people’s
rhythms and personalities; it’s as important
as dictating your terms. I learned storytelling by
doing theater — by telling many stories over
the course of two-and-a-half hours to an audience
without recourse to close-up and without recourse
to the moving camera.
in the end, it is about storytelling.
not just about working with actors — it’s
about the rhythm of the whole thing. And you can’t
help but learn when you work with great plays:
You learn about the rhythm of storytelling and
about dialogue and you learn about character and
you learn about structure.
know, people waffle on about this Hollywood three-act
structure; I’ve done three-act plays and
done five-act plays. I’ve done twenty act
plays. [Laughs] You learn about a variety of
of telling a story, so I don’t subscribe
to that structure thing — although “Road
to Perdition” is easier to break into that
structure than “American Beauty,” which
I think defies all those rules.
Now, on your first Royal Shakespeare Company play,
were there any really intimidating, seasoned vets
in the play?
weirdly, the RSC show wasn't intimidating
to me, because it was people of my generation — it
was Ralph Fiennes and Simon Russell Beale and people
like that. But before that, I directed Judi
Dench and Michael Gough and Ronald Pickup in “The
Cherry Orchard,” and yes, it was very intimidating. [Laughs] You
know, when you’re that young,
you have a kind of blind confidence. If you know
how you can fail, you’re probably not going
to get out of bed in the morning; but because you
don’t know that kind of failure, you
get up and you do it with all the confidence of youth.
there were some old hands who must have raised an
eyebrow if I got up on the first day of rehearsals
and told them how I was going to do it.
I’m imagining being fixed with Judi Dench’s
although her laser stare is something that is absolutely
there as an actress — but as
a person, she’s the softest, most
I’ve never seen her do that in life. She just
doesn’t operate like that. It’s amazing
how much darkness she can harness onscreen.
o o o
(and ‘SOUTH PARK’)
Now, you love your Stephen Sondheim.
do. He’s an idol.
chance you’ll be bringing Sondheim to
the big screen? I’ve always thought there was
a good movie to be made of his musical “Sweeney
totally agree with you, and it has been talked
mean, God knows it’s not easy, and
it may take a long, long time, but I’d love
to do a movie musical.
think some of the great movie musicals have not been
stage adaptations; I think they’ve been
written for the screen. If you think about the
great ones — “Singing in the Rain” or
whatever — they’re not from the stage,
and sometimes there is a great difficulty in transferring
a very successful stage musical onto the screen.
It’ll be interesting to see how “Chicago” goes,
because if people have come round to musicals again
with “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago,” then
the door will opened for a few more of them, possibly,
on the big screen. And I hope that’s true.
Don’t forget about “South Park: Bigger,
Longer and Uncut.” [Laughs]
I’m sure you know is the greatest movie
musical of the past 20 years. [Laughs] I
mean, Mark Shaiman’s songwriting genius in
that is just….
I mean, it’s a great movie. And it’s
quite sophisticated, as well; not only does it have
its own voice — which is, God knows, these
days very difficult — but it does have its
own voice largely because of the literal voices
of Matt and Trey. I mean, that pastiche of “Les
Miz” is one of the great pastiches ever written
in the musical theater — and anyone who has
any mixed feelings about that show is going to be
rolling in the aisles. [Laughs]
I’m guessing, from your earlier answer,
that you’re not planning on taking
your stage versions of “Cabaret” or “Gypsy” or “The
Blue Room” to the big screen.
I think you have to feel that there’s
something left to get out of it that you didn’t
get out of it as a stage piece. A great stage piece
is great because it’s meant for the
stage. And also, once I’ve explored a story
once, to do it again has always been a struggle
I’d rather do something new, you know?
That’s impressive, because I think there’s
a feeling today in entertainment circles that it
isn’t “real” unless it’s
been televised or filmed.
do think that’s true — and there’s
been a lot of pressure to televise “Cabaret.” I
mean, “Cabaret”’s an odd case in
point, because I think if there hadn’t been
one of the great movies made of “Cabaret,” then
I would probably consider putting it on television
just for posterity. But I think you’ve got
to be realistic and say that Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” is
one of the greatest movie musicals ever made — some
people would say the greatest — and
completely a stage production. And so I think we’re
not going to do that.
Fosse’s career one you’ve
studied? He was one of the last guys to truly straddle
and screen as a director.
I’ve studied Fosse partly because I believe
he’s such a brilliant filmmaker. I mean, I
really do. In terms of raw filmmaking talent, I think
he’s incredible — I think he had it all.
Well, I think what he didn’t always have was
the right material. But in terms of the way he uses
the camera and the way in which he cuts — often
the case with choreographers, of course because their
sense of rhythm and musicality of linking image with
music is so refined. And he came to it late in his
career, when he was a great choreographer already — much
the way Jerome Robbins did when he did “West
o o o
VII. LESTER BURNHAM and DVD GOODIES
friend of mine wanted me to ask: What’s
your take on Kevin Spacey’s “American
Beauty” character? Some critics dismiss
Lester Burnham as being just another mid-life
crisis-having twit; do you see him as having
a certain nobility?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t see my opinion
as being more valid than anyone else’s opinion — I
think once the movie’s out there, he is what
people make of him, you know?
of the reasons I love the character, from
the moment I read the script, was that the dividing
between this man — was he just a spoiled
child or was he this magnificent modern antihero?
the movie remains ambivalent about that right through
to the end — and the see-saw between the
plus and the minus of the character is part of
the movie works. Part of you’s supporting
him and loving him and part of you’s thinking
an absolute idiot. And that’s the joy of
mean, sometimes I've watched the movie
and thought, “He’s a contemporary Everyman
hero,” and sometimes I’ve thought, “Oh,
grow up!” [Laughs] But that’s
why the character is interesting, and I think
what people sometimes forget — they think, “Oh,
we’re meant to love him from the beginning
to the end,” and we’re not. Not at
it’s the same with Tom Hanks’ character
in “Road to Perdition.” One of
the things I’m attracted to is these
morally ambivalent central characters who are
capable of good and bad,
and the story is told in shades of gray. I
think one becomes obsessed with, “Well,
am I supposed to like this guy or
not like him?” And I think
the best drama doesn’t offer those easy
you could take one actor from the British or American
stage and get that person in front of a
movie camera — someone who isn’t in front
of movie cameras now — who would that actor
longest relationship with an English stage actor
an actor named Simon Russell Beale, who played
Hamlet when it came to BAM, the Brooklyn Academy,
and who played Hamlet for the National Theatre maybe
three years ago. And he’s in my productions
of “Uncle Vanya” and “Twelfth Night,” which
are coming to BAM in January, February and March
of this year. And he’s one of the greatest
actors, if not THE greatest actor, of his generation.
But he’s not conventionally “handsome.” And
so it’s a little bit like an actor like Peter
Stormare, who was in “Fargo”; he was
Bergman’s leading actor for 10 years — played
Hamlet for Bergman — but because he doesn’t
look like a movie star, it’s only in the last
five or six years that he’s having a movie
feel very strongly that, one day — the way
Ian McKellen has developed into a movie star here,
or Anthony Hopkins, or Ian Holm — Simon will
be someone who will surprise people and have a movie
career in the second half of his life.
sort of goodies can we expect on the “Road
to Perdition” DVD?
[Laughs] “Goodies.” There’s
going to be scratch-and-sniff cards. [Laughs] We’ve
got, I think, about 25 minutes’ worth of deleted
scenes. We’ve got the commentary, we’ve
got the making-of documentary. I mean, it’s
not a deluxe, David Fincher-style, two-DVD, do-your-laundry
type special package, but it’s got lots of
interesting things that were taken out of the film.
Some of Conrad’s best work is actually in the
deleted scenes, so I think you’re going to
see some interesting stuff. And if you’re really
in the mood for self-punishment, you can listen to
me droning on about it in the background. [Laughs]