Sam Mendes | The Talks
Sam Mendes
Photo by Steve Schofield

Sam Mendes: “No one is owed anything”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: Samuel Alexander Mendes
DOB: 1 August 1965
Place of birth: Reading, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Film director, stage director

Sam Mendes' new film 1917 hits cinemas in Germany on 16 January 2020.

Mr. Mendes, how do you know when you’re ready to start working on a new film?

It’s like a kind of boiling kettle, you know: you don’t want to make your tea until the kettle’s boiled and it’s the same thing, you don’t want to make your movie until you’re boiling with something you need to say. And theater, for instance, has always given me the opportunity to wait for that moment. It’s the same with film actually — film has given me an opportunity to wait until I’m ready to do a play. One fuels the other. Even the decision to write and make 1917, weirdly, came out of doing the Bond movies.

How so?

Because two things happened, one is that I got used to being in the writers’ room and working on a script from nothing. I’d never done that before, I’d always inherited a script or been sent a script. By nature, I’m not a writer, I’m not a solo flyer — if you put me in a room on my own, I get bored, I look out the window, I like being with other people, that’s what gives me the inspiration to work. But suddenly I was creating something from the beginning and that was exciting! I began to think, “Maybe I could write my own.” And then, the other thing that happened was on Spectre where I did an eight-minute continuous shot, which was fantastic.

“It’s instinctive. Sometimes you plan it, try it out, rehearse it and it wouldn’t feel right, you’d have to change it. And you keep at it until you find the perfect marriage.”

The cinematographer Wally Pfister says camera work is an essential part of good storytelling; that the right shot can make or break an iconic film scene.

When I thought of the story that I wanted to tell for 1917, which I knew from my grandfather, I thought how much more immediate it would seem if you were locked together with these characters, unable to get out, unable to escape, watching every second tick down. So deciding to shoot in a continuous shot was firstly an emotional choice that I felt was going to connect the audience to the characters, and then after that it became a technical puzzle. I needed the camera to be sometimes subjective and very intimate and other times objective; sometimes I wanted to see what they see, and not their reactions, and other times I wanted to see their reactions and not see what they’re reacting to. Roger Deakins and I storyboarded a lot six months before we started shooting.

How do you know when you’ve created the right scene?

It’s instinctive. Sometimes you plan it, try it out, rehearse it and it wouldn’t feel right, you’d have to change it. And you keep at it until you find the perfect marriage of the scene with the style and content and form elements. It’s what you’re looking for, when they just fall like a jigsaw piece, they just fit together and you feel that’s right. But you have no proof that it’s right! You only have your own instinct and that comes from experience.

Do you also draw from instinct when directing actors?

I’m very selfish with actors, I just want them to be as good as they can possibly be for me, I’m not interested in developing them as human beings, that’s up to them. (Laughs) I’m joking of course — but I’m not a coach, I’m a director, and I need to understand how to get what I need from the actors for my particular story. Some actors need soft, gentle handling, and sometimes you need to challenge them, and say, “That’s not good enough or that’s not right, that’s not what I need.” And to remind them they’re part of a story. Every actor needs something different.

Is that also true of directors?

We’re all obsessives! We become absurdly obsessed with things and out of proportion with what really matters. If you make a movie, you need to know where you’re heading, and every scene has to be moving in that direction. If you don’t know exactly where you’re heading, you’re flying blind and that’s not a comfortable place to be sitting when you’re piloting a jumbo jet. “Ah, we’ve taken off, which city are we going to? I don’t know yet, I’ll see when I’m up there.” (Laughs) That’s what it feels like, though! For example, for Spectre, I got hooked on a story idea, but then I couldn’t quite get the story idea to work. So we went into production without a finished script — and I don’t think anyone’s ever had a good experience making a movie without a finished script. I defy them to enjoy it! You’re trying to write the third act of the movie while you’re shooting! I had something, but not everything.

“You can’t imagine that just because you’ve done it, the world owes you a favor. You have to fight for it.”

You once said, “The director as a concept, as a cultural phenomenon, is dying. The figures who are going to emerge will come out of long-form television.”

There is obviously this debate between cinema and television. But I think there’s not much to complain about at the moment because in terms of the consumer, there is so much choice. For instance, I’ve got the new Scorsese movie on my television set waiting for me to see it! I can go to the cinema, and the cinemas we’ve constructed are comfortable, you can get decent food, they’ve got amazing sound systems, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, 7.1 and IMAX… The challenge is to make a movie that needs to be seen on the big screen. Don’t imagine that just because I made a story that lasts two hours, I get to put it on in a cinema. I made movies in the past that if I made them now, I would make them for Netflix. Can I justify Revolutionary Road being on every screen around the world except that there are movie stars in it? Probably not.

Where will that leave mid-budget films?

I just made two franchise movies, I believe in populist entertainment. I liked Guardians of the Galaxy, I liked Black Panther. There’s no such thing as right or wrong, there’s only interesting, and less interesting. And I get pissed off when people start making crusades: you just have got to make a really interesting movie and everyone will want to see it. And it’s hard! But no one is owed anything, you know, you can’t imagine that just because you’ve done it, the world owes you a favor. You have to fight for it — that’s why I’m here, I want people to come and see my movie, because I believe in it. I think it’s a great time to be a narrative filmmaker or of any sort.