the uncut Web-only interview 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
it like to win the Best Director Oscar and step
up to that podium?
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.
spent that whole period clinging to some sense
of reality by my fingertips. 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.” But it’s
the history of it that freaks you out. 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?
Do I dive straight in?” In the end, I did a
play back in my theatre. And that helped hugely – because
it just immediately gives you something to focus
on, and it’s very normalizing.
I was doing that play, “Road to Perdition” turned
up. And the moment you have a project to focus on,
your nerves kind of fade away, and you stop second-guessing
yourself. The moment you’re engaged in a movie,
every day brings 20 to 30 more decisions, all the
way through the process. You go into a tunnel, in
a way – and that tunnel utterly cuts out all
other focus. And that’s the perverse pleasure
of making films – because you have to lose
yourself in it; otherwise, it’s not going to
o o o
II. LOST in
Both “American Beauty” and “Road
to Perdition” are deeply fascinated with American
culture. Where does that fascination come from?
It’s 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
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 films.
Now, “American Beauty” satirized America
in a way that “Road to Perdition” does
Yeah. 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.
I’d 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. The
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
Yes, 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 is because
they’re frozen like the landscape.
cut dialogue out of “Road to Perdition” during
Yeah, I took a lot of dialogue out.
o o o
III. ‘ROAD TO PERDITION’: from ‘PULPY’ COMIC
to SERIOUS FILM
your cinematographer, the legendary Conrad Hall,
reading the original “Road to Perdition” comic
book 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’s very suspicious of violent movies on the
whole – as is Paul Newman. And so both of them
kind of needed to have it explained by me that I
thought the movie 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
film-critic friend of mine pointed out that pretty
murder in “Road to Perdition” involves
water in some way.
That’s right, yeah. He’s a very observant
know, sometimes, when you’re working on
a film, it starts speaking back to you. 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. And 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.
you think about how the movie starts, it starts
on the beach, with the boy looking out on the
water. If you think about [the film] as a flashback,
character in the movie is dead already – it’s
a movie populated entirely by ghosts. That informed
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 Newman’s character
to Tom Hanks’ character – that finally
it’s going to take them, no matter how hard they try.
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 paralysis, where
they thought they were living a normal life, but
really they were about to get wiped away by fate. “Road
to Perdition” is a very fatalistic movie in
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?
I 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. So if someone sends him a role that’s
wonderful, then I’m sure he’ll do it – but
only 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 – and
only one element of it is his public persona, which
is as an actor. To have him on the film set alone made us all feel like kings – just his presence,
mentioned that Newman rode you pretty hard in the
early meetings when you were wooing him
to make the picture.
Yeah, 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, you know, we ranged
over every topic.
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, because we’d done so much talking
about it beforehand. But you know, he’s like
me – he comes from the theater and 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 can’t possibly want to do this!” But he’s 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; it’s like, “Well,
it’s because you’re a great actor.” What
else are you supposed to say?
You’ve said a woman actually fainted in Newman’s
presence on your set. They don’t even make
star power like that any more.
I know, I know. This woman was in her 60s, and I
think she just couldn’t believe it. [Laughs] It was magic, really.
And I guess, in a way, you are now to Tom Hanks
what Anthony Mann was to Jimmy Stewart.
[Laughs] I 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. I 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. He’s
his own man, completely.
o o o
V. ONE WAY TO
WORK WITH ACTORS
talking about “Perdition,” Jude
Law said, “Good actors don’t create tension.” Do
you try and create a harmonious set?
Oh, completely. I think there are two types of directors:
There 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. Some people don’t want to talk
about what they’re going to do at all – so
rehearsals with them are quite practical and you
discuss their characters’ backgrounds, 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.
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 then the cameras roll
and they turn on their focus.
You have to be alert to every different way of
working – and you have to get what you need out of each performer.
Sometimes that’s 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. But Danny’s rusty
for the first three or four takes, and then hits
four takes that are generally brilliant, and then
he loses it – by which I mean he overanalyzes
what he’s doing. And I began to learn that
when Paul had the scene clearly in his head, in the
first two takes, maybe 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.
Jack 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
There are all sorts of ways of getting a level
of performance out of somebody.
Now, you were directing a play at the Royal Shakespeare
Company at age 25. What did you learn about directing
by surviving that?
Weirdly, the RSC show wasn’t intimidating to
me, because it was people of my generation – it
was Ralph Fiennes 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]
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
I was going to do it.
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. And in
the end, it is about storytelling. It’s not
just about working with actors – it’s
about the rhythm of the whole thing. You can’t
help but learn when you work with great plays. You
know, people waffle on about this “Hollywood
three-act structure” – but I’ve
done three-act plays and I’ve done five-act
plays and I’ve done 20-act plays. [Laughs]
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.
o o o
(and ‘SOUTH PARK’)
you’ve directed several Stephen Sondheim
stage musicals. Any chance you’ll be bringing
Sondheim to the big screen?
It has been talked about. I 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 – “Singing
in the Rain” or whatever – have not been
stage adaptations. 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. And I hope
Don’t forget about “South Park: Bigger,
Longer and Uncut.” [Laughs]
Which 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 [Stone]
and Trey [Parker]. 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.
No. 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 for me. 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.
I 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 our “Cabaret” is
completely a stage production.
o o o
VII. LESTER BURNHAM and DVD GOODIES
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 – he
is what people make of him, you know? Was he just
a spoiled child or was he this magnificent modern
antihero? I think 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 reason the movie works. Part of you’s
supporting him and loving him and part of you’s
thinking he’s an absolute idiot. I 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 that’s 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 all.
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
the best drama doesn’t offer those easy solutions.
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]