A Q&A with Sam Mendes

Notes from a Q&A with Sam Mendes held on 14th February, 2013 at the Corpus Room in Cambridge, UK

There is no real logic to these notes but they are rather just my attempt to capture what I could. It goes without saying, nothing here should be used as direct quote from Mendes.

– I was a student at Peterhouse, Cambridge, not living in college, and in 1987 a friend of mine mentioned that he wanted to direct a play he had seen called ‘Gotcha!’. I told him that he was too shy to direct. and that I should do it instead, so I did. That was the first of 3 plays that I directed in quick succession and it was after that experience that I was left with a burning desire for more. But there was no Damascus moment.
– One of the great benefits of being at Cambridge is that you have the money and the resources to experiment because it does not matter if people come.
– There was this moment when I felt that I could do this. Most of my career since that time has been an attempt to find out why I felt that way, why I felt that it was my calling?
– The worst show I have *ever* directed was a production of ‘The Changling’. I still wake up with a cold sweat to dreams of the mad man dancing to the music of the Pogues.
– It took me some time to find my voice – it is more difficult to find your voice as a director because you need other people to find it. Sometimes there are particular people who can help you find it and who are able to best represent it.
– Working at the Marlowe was a turning point. We did a production of Cyrano de Bergerac. Something happened during that production, I found an eclectic freedom.
– During my final I wrote by hand to almost every theatre in the country looking for an Assistant Director position and the only one which responded was a small summer festival in Chichester. They asked me to write back in May and I promptly lost the letter. While revising for my finals, one of my books slipped down the back of the radiator and in an effort to dig it out I found this letter. By that time it was May and so I wrote to them again and they asked me to come down. It was one of the few moments in my life where I felt that maybe this is my destiny.
– In Chichester I was in charge of this small side stage where we produced Chekhov, Friel, Ibsen; we did a good production of Minerva, and I met Tony Stoves(?). Although I struggled down there with the theatre, it was through this that I was able to land a position directing ‘The Cherry Orchard’ in London, at the age of 24, with Judi Dench. I cringe to remember, on my first day, getting up and telling the cast about Chekov and what this play meant. Judi often reminds of this and remarks that, ‘you certainly had chutzpah’.
– Shortly afterward I began working with the RSC on a production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ with Ranulph Fiennes and Richard Eyre. This was one of those important moments where I began to find my voice and part of the reason I was able to do so was because of the excellent people I was able to work with.
– Opening night is like giving birth to a blind baby and watching it walk to toward the edge of a cliff.
– Donmar Theatre was a closed building. I contacted the owner and said I would like to run it as a theatre; he had not even considered this and although I was still quite young somehow I persuaded him and he agreed. Corra Newling came on board and we still had to get the money together but we made it work. Early on we produced Assassin. It was a good play and something I have been very proud of. Our production of the ‘The Blue Room’ with Nicole Kidman was also an important piece.
– This was another of those experiences where I was able to find who I was as a director. On reflection it seems to me that working consistently in that space allowed me to explore the limits of my talents and enabled to find those things at which I excelled.
– I realized during this period that liking a play it is not a good enough reason to produce it. You need to feel that you have a secret about it that no one else can tell in quite the same way as you. You need to have something to say about the play.
– After doing a version of Cabaret in New York I was offered American Beauty. It was nothing that I knew about, I had never received any training in film and yet it was something that I felt like I knew how to do.
– Experiment: “by indirections find directions out.” (Hamlet)
– Skyfall. This is a film about England. It is about finding a new England but nevertheless feeling like it is the same.

Q – Did you need to change the way you direct in order to work with Hollywood actors?
A – No, I was the same. Certainly there are differences in dealing with Movie stars than with stage-actors but my consistency is probably in part due to my arrogance. That sense that I knew how to do it has always been with me and perhaps was strongest during American Beauty. I remember I was shooting the table scene from American Beauty and Spielberg was on set. We did the shot and it was great. I said ‘Cut! Next scene.’ And Spielberg asked me if I was going to take coverage. No, I replied, it was great. In films since then I would have shot coverage. It has taken me 10 years to get back to that level of confidence. I was able to start doing that again with Skyfall.

Q – Was the transition to film a struggle?
A – Not if you see things as a series of scenes. Some theatre directors struggle to move to film because they cannot imagine getting away from the fourth wall. The Producers is a strange example of this because it is shot almost entirely like the stage show.
– Every actor is different and they need something different from you.
– The great stage actors can be both inside and outside their character at the same time. They can imagine how they are seen while they are performing it.
– I remember meeting Paul Newman, who is one of the greatest actors I have ever met. We sat in his apartment, he made me lunch, and we talked through the entire script. After quite a few hours he asked me: “Are you good at holding actors hands?” I said ‘Yes’. ‘Great, lets make this film’. It was one of the greatest moments on my life. This was a great actor who knew that he was still vulnerable and would need my help.

Q – How have you found directing old work?
A – You have to love working in the tradition. You have to know and love the productions that have gone before even while feeling that you have something to offer as well.

Q – Did you start shooting American Beauty and then change it after a few days.
A – Yes. It was at the end of day 2 when the first days filming was brought in I knew that it had gone wrong and that we needed to do it again. I spoke to the production company and they agreed. That was a bold thing to do as a director on his first film and on the first day of filming. It is usually a time of great excitement and optimism but it just did not reflect the vision I had for the film.

The world is full of people who have made an interesting short film but it is a quite different matter to be able to tell a story on screen.


2 thoughts on “A Q&A with Sam Mendes

  1. Fascinating. I didn’t realize he did so much stage work before doing films, or that American Beauty was his first film. That’s slightly unbelievable.

  2. MCQ, I was the same. I assumed that he had just exploded onto the scene with that film but that he had been working in the industry for quite some time. It was an excellent event.

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