Sam Mendes may not be the first name that pops into your head when you think of contemporary cinema masters, however, his nuanced filmmaking and versatile talent can be seen throughout his breadth of work. Despite being a relative newcomer to filmmaking, he never ceases to surprise audiences or settle for banalities. Rather, he jumps from genre to genre, reinvigorating and influencing modern cinema with his film’s sophisticated characters, stories, themes and images. Here we take a look at what brought Sam Mendes into cinema from the theater, and why he is the perfect director for the upcoming Bond film Spectre.
"You've got to work. You've got to want an audience to sit forward in their chairs sometimes, rather than sit back and be bombarded with images."
Early life and getting into film
Born in 1965, Sam Mendes is descended from a family of writers and publishers, having grown up surrounded by literature in his hometown of Reading, UK. His grandfather was a popular Trinidadian novelist, while his father was a literature professor and his mother a fiction author and publisher – the medium seemingly runs in his blood. His childhood was spent playing cricket, reading and watching movies, and he went on to study English at the University of Cambridge, dabbling in theater productions throughout his time there.
After graduating, he took an entry-level job at a local theater in West Sussex County, and luck brought him his first break at 25 when he was asked to fill in as director for a comedy production. After the success of this show, more directing jobs came in, and his career took off, eventually being hired at the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company as well as the Royal National Theater.
He is known in the theater world for having a relaxed persona, always contemplating before making directions and decisions, and consistently building wonderful rapport with everyone involved in the production. This attitude is certainly one of the assets that led him to the top.
"I am not a masterclass director. 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...'"
Regarding film, Mendes always had a deep affinity for cinema, yet never had the opportunity to make films. In this sense, his career differs from many contemporaries who lived and breathed cinema from an early age. Mendes’ first foray into film in 1999, after a decade in theater, came about after Steven Spielberg and two American Beauty producers saw Cabaret – a theater production in a New York City nightclub, directed by Mendes. They were immediately taken by his natural artistry, ease with actors and comfort behind the scenes. After Mendes storyboarded the complete film and pitched it himself to DreamWorks, they offered him the chance to direct his first feature.
Visual and thematic trademarks
“I think movies are a director's medium in the end. Theater is the actor's medium. Theater is fast and enjoyable, and truly rewarding. I believe in great live performance.”
Mendes’ attachment first and foremost to the actor and to the stage comes across in each of the characters portrayed in his films. His innate theatricality is brought out in their on-screen emotions. He often requires several weeks of rehearsals before the production, helping to create a sense of family within the ensemble and pushing the actors to develop a certain depth and attachment to their characters. Often his films are also shot in-sequence, which is quite rare these days, allowing the actors to fully immerse themselves in the story as it unfolds.
His visual style is simplistic and aesthetically pleasing, owing to his longstanding collaborations with veteran cinematographers Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins, while the music of Thomas Newman complements this dreamy, suspenseful elegance. His films are rooted in reality, yet sometimes punctuated with fantastical dream sequences (such as the rose petal visuals in American Beauty). Thematically, most of his films revolve around the normalcy of family life, the pressures of conformity, and one’s changing values of contentment.
“The movies that influenced me were movies that told their stories through pictures more than words."
Even though each of Mendes’ films could be considered a different genre, he has still developed a visual and thematic personality, influenced by a long list of directors, such as Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Woody Allen, François Truffaut, Wim Wenders, Mike Nichols, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.
“I don't want to be known for one thing. I don't want to have an adjective based around my name. 'Lynchian', I know what that is, I know what 'Kubrickian' is, and I know what 'Bergmanesque' means. But there isn't going to be, and I don't want there to be, a 'Mendesian'.”
This 1999 film features Kevin Spacey as a suburban father in the midst of a midlife crisis, touching upon themes of redemption, conformity, sexual repression and the underlying essence of beauty (symbolized by the simplicity of a plastic bag dancing in the air). “It took me a long time to film the plastic bag, and then I had to get the cut of the scene right. But if you find it as beautiful as the character does, then suddenly it becomes a different movie, and so did he as a character.”
After just his first three days of shooting, Mendes was discontent with the footage, asking the studio to re-shoot everything. Luckily, the studio agreed and the second time around, his confidence picked up and he settled into the routine of making his first film. Mendes chose veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood), who helped craft the images he envisioned. Unbelievably, the film went on to win five Academy Awards and is listed as one of the top 100 films ever made, launching Mendes’ film career.
“I still can’t quite believe it. Although there was something about the fact that it was a first-time writer, a first-time producer, and a first-time director all at the same time.”
Road to Perdition
Inspired from a graphic novel by the same name, this 2002 film, budgeted with 80 million USD, was only Mendes’ second feature film. It follows the relationship of a mobster (Tom Hank) and his son in the 1930s as they plot a murderous vengeance. Mendes portrays rain as a visual metaphor for death, using it as an ever-present symbol. Again with the help of cinematographer Conrad Hall, Mendes uses nonverbal expressions and scenes, as well as visual symbols, to depict relationships and violence. This would also be the first of several collaborations with actor Daniel Craig, our most current (and favorite) Bond lead.
“Atmospherically, the landscape is a violent and magnificent canvas on which is told a mythic story of a father and son in the last period of lawlessness in American history.”
After his first two more stylized and poetic features, Mendes then aimed to create a more authentic and organic film, composed of a tight-knit ensemble cast and improvised scenes. Shot sequentially in the desert for five months, Jarhead (2005) is a biographical drama based off the true story of a Marine sniper, that follows a Gulf War troop (led by Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, and Peter Sarsgaard) during Operation Desert Storm on the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border. As they push deeper into uncertainty, their goals and reasons for leaving home become murkier and they find themselves in unrecognizable territory both at home and in war. The film was not a huge critical success, but once again showed Mendes’ filmmaking versatility.
“Jarhead is equal parts black humor, honesty, rage, lyricism, profanity and the mixture of machismo jarhead culture.”
Based off the classic 1961 Richard Yates novel of the same name, this 2008 film had long been considered for an adaptation, yet never got past early stages until Kate Winslett - then married to Mendes - sent producer Scott Rudin a copy of the script, saying she and Mendes were perfect for the film. Once they had Leonardo DiCaprio signed on as Winslett’s counterpart, the film went into production.
The film centers on the couple’s struggling oppressiveness in everyday suburban life in the US during the 1950s (a theme directly from American Beauty). During the exhausting shoot and lengthy rehearsal process, Mendes was careful not to portray the couple’s loving relationship from Titanic, but rather focus on externalizing their flaws and distancing relationship.
Mendes was signed on to direct the 23rd Bond film almost directly after the release of the previous film in the series, yet because of financial issues it took several years for the production to get rolling. After their work together on Road to Perdition, Daniel Craig was instrumental in initially persuading Mendes to jump on the project. The film took a monumental 128 days to film around the world, with a budget estimated between 150-200 million USD. At first, Mendes was hesitant to take on the project because of its commercial reach and traditional use of action sequences, however he soon realized the potential to rejuvenate the Bond series.
Mendes imbued the film with his signature touches, portraying the modern Bond with a dark complexity, as we see elements of his and M’s (Judi Dench) past. Bringing with him long-time collaborators, composer Thomas Newman and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film retained Mendes’ graceful audacity and inventiveness, becoming the highest-grossing Bond film ever made and the first Bond in three decades to be nominated for an Oscar.
Initially Mendes balked at the idea of directing another franchise Bond film, but the story’s appeal lured him to sign on to the project. This follow-up in the series is being released worldwide on November 6 and we couldn’t be more thrilled to see Daniel Craig’s Bond in another one of Mendes’ productions. Of course, we can’t wait for the action-packed sequences, but we’re confident Spectre will be a ride imbued with Mendes’ own personal touch.
Watch the trailer for Spectre.