There is a precedent, of course, but it is pretty unusual for a theatre director to go to Hollywood and make a debut movie that is talked of as a surefire Oscar winner. Dizzying stuff. But, for all the doors American Beauty may open for him, Sam Mendes says his real business is back home in Britain.
Sam Mendes – like American Beauty, the film he has directed – is not what he seems. The echoes between the soul of the film and the man himself are the reason why the film is already being spoken of as a classic. Because, for his screen debut, Mendes – renowned for precise and cool theatrical productions – has made a highly emotional movie. His response to the first draft of the script was, he says, “instinctive”. It was also, as it turned out, another example of his canny ability to make precisely the right choice.
Mendes is the man who reinvented the musical Cabaret, making it a massive hit in London – at the Donmar Warehouse, where he is artistic director – and on Broadway, by rescuing it from designer decadence into contemporary, sparkling musical terror; the man who has already, in little more than a decade, created two landmark Shakespeare productions, with his Tempest and Othello; who, before he was 24, had already achieved two popular classic hits in the West End (London Assurance, with Paul Eddington, and The Cherry Orchard, with Judi Dench); and who also notched up – hallmark of all bright young directors in the 90s – a pension-earning Cameron Mackintosh musical, in his case Oliver!
Serious people who have already caught American Beauty in the US, or at the gala screening that closed last year’s London Film Festival, will tell you that it is a triumph and, in all likelihood, an Oscar winner. And they’re right. The normally restrained Washington Post frothed, “One of the year’s finest pictures… hilarious, painful and achingly tender.” The blousy LA Times: “A hell of a picture.” The New York Times simply called it “a triumph”.
Which, in a way, is odd, because the film cuts at the heart of modern America, of which the media is so much a reflection, stripping away the pretence of well-being layer by layer, all the way through black comedy to poignancy. Kevin Spacey, co-star with Annette Bening, says, “People ask, ‘How does a thing like Columbine, Colorado happen?’ I think this movie answers that question.” And, somehow, that’s nothing like as far-fetched as it might be from another actor about another film. What Spacey means about the Columbine school massacre is that, when the soul becomes a shopping mall, when to live is to own things, it is hardly surprising if kids turn to murder. American Beauty manages to be both hilarious and dark about that crisis in spirit.
Through the dissolution of a suburban marriage – by way of boredom, lovelessness and the fact that, when the wife’s pruning shears match her gardening gloves, it is no accident – the film suggests there is beauty next to you, that you can reach out and touch it, that people are not what they seem and that everyone’s life is infinitely more interesting than they think it is. I should add that the most beautiful sequence in the film is several minutes of a plastic bag blowing in the breeze. And yet the movie is seductive and intelligent, clear-eyed and unsentimental, and tells many stories – of the couple, of their next-door neighbours, of the two children of the two families who find in each other a soulmate, of real estate, of suburbia, of sexual identity, of teen beauty and of murder – confidently cutting from one to another within a deceptively simple framework that defies easy categorisation. Whodunnit? Love Story? Comedy? Teen Angst? Live Action Cartoon? Surreal Fantasy? Or just, The American Condition at the Turn of the Century?
Spacey and Bening are the Burnhams. He is a wilfully disillusioned adman, pathetic and admirable in equal part, who whacks off in the shower (the day goes downhill from then on), blackmails his boss when he is sacked and embarrassingly drools over his daughter’s best friend. She, on the other hand, is an estate agent and a gloss-painted worshipper at the altar of material achievement.
Mid seduction: “Lester, you’re going to spill beer on the couch.”
“So what? It’s just a couch.”
“This is a four-thousand-dollar sofa upholstered in Italian silk. This is not ‘just a couch’.” Collapse of not only this seduction, but of the prospect of any more, ever.
At the heart of the film are the two children, Ricky and Jane, played by Wes Bentley and Thora Birch. The former is certainly a teenage dope dealer and apparently a voyeur, a weirdo who films everything including the girl next door, a dead bird and the signature plastic bag. “Sometimes,” he says, “there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it… and my heart is going to cave in.”
As Mendes says, “Ricky is the film’s conscience, its soul. At first, you think he is a voyeur, but you realise that Ricky is using his camera to reach out and touch people, not just to record… it’s his way of reaching out.” When talking to Mendes, you do feel that Ricky and he might have much in common.
Dark and rather cuddly, with good looks that betray his distant Portuguese ancestry, Mendes is a lot younger-looking than his 34 years. His voice is standard public-school posh, with no concessions to Royal Court street-smart: no aitches dropped, no donkey jackets worn. He is exceptionally polite, softly spoken, not given to excess or exaggeration; only occasionally does he raise his voice. He is warm, yet always gives an impression of self-control, so you could kid yourself that he is unemotional. And there is a certain watchfulness about him, which you might assume in a director, but they’re not all like that. The overwhelming impression is that Mendes is very self-contained.
When I arrive at the offices of the Donmar Warehouse, he sits for 10 minutes or so at his desk in the open-plan office, completely absorbed in his correspondence, while we, the admin staff and I, gossip like hens in a coop not 10ft away. The actor Simon Russell Beale, one of Mendes’s closest collaborators, having played Iago and Ariel for him, recounts one of the rehearsals for the Tempest at the RSC some years ago. “He stopped the rehearsal because he knew the ending just wasn’t working. And then he sat for 45 minutes in the stalls, completely on his own, just thinking. For 45 minutes. You could see his brain working. We were all chatting on the stage. And then he came up with the solution.”
Mendes was born in 1965, an only child. His parents, Peter and Valerie, were a university lecturer and a children’s story writer. He went to Magdalen College School in Oxford, then to Cambridge, where he graduated with a first. Despite having staged what he describes as “several terrible productions” at university, he speedily got a job at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and within no time at all was running the nascent Minerva Studio for its first season.
Then, when he was barely out of shorts, he took over from a senior director who dropped out of a production of London Assurance and graduated to the West End. He had the two hits there by 1989 and was becoming known as something of a wunderkind . He joined the RSC, and in 1992 started to run the Donmar, which he has programmed with an eclectic mix, from Stoppard and Sondheim to Shakespeare. He has encouraged new writing with the Four Corners season (plays drawn from the four countries of the British Isles) and launched into West End successes such as The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice, Company and The Glass Menagerie.
The work that Mendes has produced is not grand and conceptual, but draws its impact from his ability to match actor and text. Critics always praise him for finding the sense within plays, rather than looking for spurious relevance or loading them with contemporary devices. What makes him stand out is his clarity of purpose. Russell Beale says of Mendes’s first show at the RSC, Troilus & Cressida, “Sam analysed the pitfalls of young directors needing to show off and completely avoided them. What he did was just very clear and very simple.” “You’re creating an alternative universe,” is the way the director himself puts it, “so you’re simply telling a story.”
Apart from his directing, there is an entrepreneurial side to his work. He has been credited with turning the Donmar Warehouse into “the sexiest theatre in London”, perhaps because he attracts top-rate performers for bottom-rate money. They come to the Donmar for kudos or to reinvent their careers. The success of David Hare’s The Blue Room, for example, transformed Mrs Tom Cruise into Nicole Kidman. And, like his contemporary Stephen Daldry, former artistic director of the Royal Court, Mendes’ charm and ability to network are considerable. On the other hand, he has no appetite for public campaigning: “I’ll always help the theatre world achieve greater strength, but I don’t want to be a spokesperson for the arts.”
He had a longish relationship with the madly talented Jane Horrocks, and was subsequently linked with Calista Flockhart and Rachel Weisz. The casting of Nicole Kidman in an artistically disappointing but publicity heat-seeking production of Hare’s play made him noticed further afield than the London theatre world and gave him an aura of glamour. Next thing, he was being asked by Steven Spielberg to make the film everybody is tipping to win this year’s Oscar for best picture. All very a,b,c. All very silver-spoon-in-the-mouth. But hardly predictable, even for a middle-class, privileged boy, who plays cricket in Harold Pinter’s cricket team, The Gaieties.
What fascinates about Mendes is his preter- natural confidence. How can you direct Judi Dench at 23? How can you deal with Spielberg on your first film? How do you make such clear choices in life and in art?
He stumbles in his answer. “I am very resistant… there are so many things going through… I don’t think there is one thing in particular. You’re forced to come up with key moments that kind of spur you on and then you begin to believe them yourself. Directing is such a strange thing to do with your life.” There is the sense behind everything he says that his own palpable solitariness, within his charming and clubbable exterior, is not up for examination. Yet he seems to have put it on screen in American Beauty. “There’s no doubt that I found myself drawn to the script because I felt very personal about it. Directing is a very solitary job, in the sense that you never meet other directors. One of the things about running this building is that I get to see other directors work, so I am always learning.”
But he’s only 34, and he has already achieved an enormous amount. How does he do it? Not just by watching others. “There is nothing in my upbringing that explains why I do what I do.” And then he says later, “A great deal of it is buried in my youth. I was very bad academically at school. I didn’t concentrate. I scraped through my O-levels and just got into sixth form, and then decided that, ‘Hang on, I’d better take control of my own life.’
I don’t like talking about this much, because I feel responsible to my parents. I find it unfair to them.” It is a matter of record that his parents divorced when he was five. But he elaborates and says, “My life was turned upside down on many occasions, to the point where, if I didn’t take control of my life, I would have just taken a lot of drugs or something.” And then he says, “the periods of calm and the periods of turmoil with each of my parents were the single most determining thing of my childhood. I took control of my life when I was 16 and kind of said, ‘Stuff that. I am not going to depend on anyone else again.’ Nothing can compete with the fear that everything stable in your life is out of control. Nothing’s frightening after that. Not even Cameron Mackintosh!”
So he spent his childhood being a skilled cricketer, watching movies and reading, sheltering from the uncertainty. He says he was “a troubled fantasist who told stories to himself”. But, in the midst of it all, he seems to have developed one skill, alongside his confidence and the decision to take control of his life. He is remarkably relaxed one-to-one. “I mainly spent my life,” he explains, “with one other person, my mother.” And this has lead to a great ability with actors. “I love actors; I have great respect for them.” He has unlimited willingness to communicate with them precisely in a way that they understand. “I will go out and find what they need. My language to each of them has to suit their brain.”
Russell Beale tells a story: “He stayed with me in Stratford during the technical run of Troilus & Cressida, and I saw him one night with his notebook. He had just scrawled things like ‘shit’ or ‘crap’ or ‘wrong’ quickly during the run-through. But then he spent hours at night sitting up translating each point differently into something each actor could understand.”
Mendes knows this about himself. “I am not a masterclass director,” he says. “I am not a teacher. I am a coach. I don’t have a methodology. Each actor is different. And on a film set you have to be next to them all, touching them on the shoulder saying, ‘I’m with you. I know exactly how you’re working. Now try this or that…'”
He illustrates: “Kevin Spacey likes to joke and piss about and do impersonations right up to the moment of action, on his mobile phone to his agent or whatever. The more relaxed, the more jovial he is, the more he’s not thinking about what he does. When you say, ‘Action’, he’s like a laser beam. His relaxation leads to spontaneity. So to Kevin you’re saying, ‘Give me a Walter Matthau impersonation.'” Annette Bening, on the other hand, “is on her Walkman half-an-hour before the cameras roll, cutting off the set, focused down, listening to music that the character would listen to”. His conclusion on his own method is simple: “All I know is that I operate by going out to each of them and trying to learn the territory in which they operate.”
The script for American Beauty really came to him thanks to two productions: Oliver! and Cabaret. Spielberg had seen Oliver! in London and says now that “it was a visual candy-store, and I sort of banked his name in my mind”. In 1998, Mendes’s production of Cabaret opened in a converted nightclub in New York, and the producers of American Beauty, Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, saw it, as did Spielberg, whose company Dreamworks had just bought Alan Ball’s script, then titled American Rose, from them.
There were other directors’ names in the frame, but Spielberg approached Mendes, asking him to lunch. “I stuffed my face while he sipped a mud-coloured health shake,” says Mendes. He read Ball’s screenplay and was immediately taken. “It was incredibly multi-layered, but it made me laugh. Then I read it again, and it was full of sadness and loneliness, about imprisonment and escape. Then there was this theme of beauty running through it, and it was so many different things and I just didn’t know how Alan [Ball] had done it. And that really fascinated me.”
He storyboarded the whole film during the run of Blue Room at the Donmar. He had very clear ideas about what it should look like. When you hear him say, “I enter things visually before I enter them emotionally”, it explains much of his work in the theatre, its completeness and unity of style and text. At times, the look of American Beauty has the remorselessly logical illogicality of a Magritte.
There is a moment when the young cheerleader, with whom Lester has decided he is in love, opens her blouse and scores of rose petals cascade out. At another moment, she is submerged in a bath full of them. At these moments, a touch of the surreal hovers a foot above the real. But at other times, the film has the still symmetry of an Edward Hopper. “I wanted a very composed, peaceful visual style to tell a story that was full of emotional tumult,” he says. “And I realised, when I was cutting it, that I had made an even more emotional film than I thought I was making. In fact, the film I read, the film I thought I was making, and the film I actually made, are three different things.”
It was an immaculate script by Ball, a co-executive producer and writer on the sitcom Cybill and co-writer of Grace Under Fire. But it was honed during filming. First, in editing, Mendes managed both to guide the story and to throw the audience a loop. For instance, he added an opening pre-title scene to create the first of several McGuffins, as Hitchcock called red herrings, in which the kids are filmed solemnly and quietly agreeing to kill Jane’s father. The next thing you hear is the original opening, a voiceover from Spacey, as the father, saying, “My name is Lester Burnham… I am 42 years old. In less than a year I will be dead.” A whodunnit?
The second factor, which made a big difference for many of the actors, was that Mendes, with his theatre background, gave them two weeks’ rehearsal. This gave actors, especially the younger ones, time to develop considerable depth and the company a sense of family, which shows in the ensemble of the finished movie. “We sat around a table for much of the time, because I didn’t want them to move. You don’t want them to shoot their wad eight weeks before they’re in front of the camera. But I was trying to fill up their petrol tanks with emotions and tapping into their imaginations.”
The other smart thing Mendes did was to hire one of the great cinematographers, 72-year-old Conrad L Hall, who won an Oscar for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Mendes simply says of him, “Conrad is a great man. He embraced my storyboard and made it happen.” But not immediately. After three days of shooting, Mendes had a crisis: he hated what he had shot. He responded with typical surefootedness.
“Everyone was being too theatrical, telling it to the audience. The thing that was lucky was that I had got everything wrong. I made every wrong artistic choice. If I’d got it just a bit wrong, I might have just tried to adjust a little. But, because it was everything, I said, ‘This is not what I wanted it to be.'” Fortunately, the studio agreed. He asked if he could shoot the scenes all over, and they said yes. “Frankly, they were relieved that I thought it was crap, too!”
Mendes could now be on the brink of a movie career. However, he will not be moving to Hollywood. “Nothing that goes on in Hollywood throws anything that goes on here in the shade.” Mendes loves his Donmar Warehouse. It’s family and home. “I made that film, and went there, because it was an American script. I didn’t go to LA saying, ‘I must make a film.’ It has plot and characters, and is not just another attempt to second-guess the mass audience.” He is working himself up. For the first time, the quietish, genial air starts to slip.
“I have no desire to live in Hollywood. I found there an industry with thousands and thousands of craftspeople who are simply the best in the world at their job and are prepared to drop their rates for a project they really love. But I am telling you, and I have worked there, we should concentrate on what we do well here.” It’s now a well-argued torrent.
“What’s happening here is that newspapers have consistently relegated theatre, ballet, visual arts to the bottom of the page. And always above it is film and rock music. But I’m telling you now, stop obsessing – and this is ironic coming from me – about American film. The Observer film section is 16 pages long, and you have to search through the back pages of the Review to find theatre. And it is advertised as ‘What really goes on in Tinseltown’. Who fucking cares? We have so much richness of talent here. And that’s why I am back here. Because it’s a fucking great place to work.”
For the first time in four years, Mendes has no idea what he is going to do next. There were plans to do Hamlet with Russell Beale, but he had to shelve them because of the film. He was to have directed Sondheim’s new musical, Wise Guys, but it’s not ready yet. Having directed Kidman on stage, he moves in the movie stratosphere now, with an Oscar nomination a racing certainty. He even spent New Year’s Eve on the Cruise/Kidman yacht moored in Sydney harbour. But he will return to Britain to see American Beauty open at the end of this month, and then set about taking the Donmar off in another direction.
He has no game plan for the theatre. He is “a great believer in retrospective policy. Do the play,” he says, “and then say it was your policy. Don’t make any great announcements. We’re very light on our feet at the Donmar. We’re a maverick theatre. Always have been.” And Mendes will certainly be around for the next three years or so to see what his policy was once he’s done it. Even if American Beauty wins the Oscar. Which it should. Shouldn’t it? Mendes shrugs and smiles contentedly
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