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
"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."