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MENDES, SAM: American Beauty

In American Beauty, a brilliant debut feature from Sam Mendes, every character is morally dubious on some level - they all make mistakes, and there is no goodie and no baddie, he says; on his Sydney visit, Mendes had coffee with ANDREW L. URBAN (who also had an almond bickie).

He frankly admits his mistakes, readily acknowledges the script supervisor made him look good (quietly reminding him to get a covering shot to ensure he has continuity of shots for the scene), and is grateful to his storyboard artist for getting inside his head, and veteran (but still enthusiastic) cameraman Conrad L. Hall for helping him realise the film. "They're unsung heroes on film sets who dig you out of holes…" says Sam Mendes - an affable, intelligent and easygoing youngish Englishman, who is also honest enough to avoid false modesty; he is satisfied that he made a stirring debut as a movie director with American Beauty.(Mendes was voted Best Director for American Beauty in the Golden Globes on January 23, 2000, and the film won Best Film - Drama, as well as Best Script for Alan Ball.)

"not an obvious or predictable choice"

The film, backed by Hollywood's biggest name, Stephen Spielberg (it is a Dreamworks film), and set in the heart of America, is not an obvious or predictable choice for an Englishman to cut his cinematic teeth on.

Mendes was born in Redding, "one of the more boring towns … not a great place to be born. I wish I'd been born in a more glamorous place, but I grew up in London and moved to Oxford when I was about 12. My mum was a publisher. Then back to London in my 20s . . .so I feel I'm a Londoner." In London, his fame is writ large in the West End, with several hits productions, including one of Cabaret, which attracted much interest - even in movie circles. His view of America was informed by visits to Broadway, where he directed shows, and short trips elsewhere.

And his view of the place is not instinctively antagonistic, as one might perhaps imagine.

"I love America, I like being there, the culture of movies. There are problems as there are in any society but I'm not anti-American. I love NY particularly; LA is an acquired taste which I haven't quite acquired (laughs)."

"a visual language"

But the film is not really about America as a society. It is about one aspect, perhaps one particlaur group of people, and it is expressed through the script and the visual language of cinema.

"There are many views of it: there is a visual language, about isolating characters in space and finding the epic within the domestic, trying to create a fable-like story out of something that was about two houses sitting next to each other in suburbia…a story that was moving beyond a simple satire into something poetic, haunting and emotionally resonant in a different way. But it's not a movie about America and this is a misapprehension about it.

"It deals in many of the zeitgeist issues, yes - it touches on issues like ownership of handguns, on old men and young women, on what's happening in the garage next to you without you ever really knowing, homosexuality, the military and all sorts of things floating around, the video camera and youth expressing themselves through the recording of life rather than the living of life…

"Yet they are all intrinsic parts of the narrative, which is the skillful thing about the script. But the film doesn't have a point of view about America. It's a very compassionate film. And it expresses a great deal about people struggling to make sense of their lives in a late 20th century western culture."

"the search to reach out and touch"

American Beauty is not a lecture on American society, in other words, nor did Mendes want to make such a film. He views cinema as a story destination: "People go to the movies because it's a great story, because you don't know what's going to happen next and because you associate with the characters in it. And in this, there is this everyman figure in the centre of it, an anti hero, and you're not quite sure where you stand in relation to him - morally. Because every character is morally dubious on some level - they all make mistakes, and there is no goodie and no baddie…I love the fact that you feel compassion for even the worst character (on the surface), the Colonel. . .you feel his pain in his loneliness. The whole movie is effused with loneliness and longing. To me it's about the search to reach out and touch - a journey towards redemption, towards understanding that his life is infinitely more interesting than he thinks it is."

For a first time director in the bowels of Hollywood, working with what must have seemed to everyone concerned, a risky arthouse project, Mendes had a pretty easy time of it - at least creatively speaking. And the changes he made to the film were all made in editing - and on his own volition.

"I was very lucky: all the battles I fought with the studio were to do with money and time, and nothing to do with the artistic choices we were making. The changes that were made were to do with the framing of the story - there was a framing device which started in the courtroom, and other elements, such as Lester's dreaming that he flew. Very surreal. The big change was in the ending, which was brutal and much more cynical, about the media blaming who they will blame and something very small becoming very large, like kids clubbing together to kill one of their parents. It seemed to me it occupied a different territory - like an episode of NYPD Blue…suddenly you were in police cells and courtrooms, and not the canvas on which the rest of the movie sat.

"it became much more emotional"

"And more importantly, the movie seemed to end when he died. The rest of it, I want it to leave more enigmatic…like I didn't want to tell what happened to the Colonel next. I wanted, when he dies, his spirit to take wing, and I wanted us to re-experience the moment of his death through various people's eyes. But I also wanted to hear what he was saying about his memories.

"It's now a more forgiving, almost uplifting film, at the end. The tone shifted. But something else happened in the cutting room: it became much more emotional than the movie I thought I was making. A scene like Jane talking her clothes off in the window and [the boy next door] is filming her, on paper in the script is three lines long. But in the cutting room, I found myself pulling it and extending it and creating something very dreamlike, very emotional - more so than when I was shooting it."

Moving from theatre to film was either perfectly easy or terrifying for him, we suggest, but in fact it was "a strange mixture of both; I find pressure really makes my brain work. I like it, but sometimes that's frightening and the first couple of days I really blew. I just didn't…I just got it wrong. It would have been okay…but it felt wrong, and cartoonish, and very theatrical, both in its look and the playing of the actors. I luckily blew it all at the same time so I could go back and start again. It was so obviously wrong that what I wanted existed almost in reference to that. And you could say from then on (laughs) that's not what we want…it was useful as a template. But if I'd only got it slightly wrong on the first day I may not have spotted it. . . and the studio agreed with me."

"That's what it's like making a movie.."

Inevitably, Mendes soaked up information about lenses and camera movement, lighting and coverage. "I learnt an astonishing number of things - and especially about myself: to me this a much more personal piece of work than anything I've done on stage. It has to be - and it's like an alien that lives inside you, a la Ridley Scott's Alien (laughs) that pops out and you're left bleeding on the floor and the alien's run away (laughs). That's what it's like making a movie…it lives inside you and you are absolutely it. If you make a mistake and forget to join this piece to that piece, you've fucked the movie. So it's like a trance, you become very obsessive - and boring. And a kind of tyrant."

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Sam Mendes






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