Friday, November 9, 2012

Sam Mendes – Movies Spotlight – November 2012

Sam Mendes, 47, is probably best known as a great dramatic director, making films that typically compete for Oscars come awards season. This month, Mendes’s new film Skyfall marks a completely different direction for the director – an action spy thriller. Having never made an action movie before, Mendes seems like an odd choice to front the new James Bond adventure. However, given his talent with actors and stage background (plus, he is British), I think the choice is inspired, and Skyfall very well could be the best Bond film yet. It stars Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, and Berenice Marlohe. Watch there trailer here.

Early Career:

Mendes studied at Peterhouse within the University of Cambridge. He got his start when he joined the Marlowe Society at Cambridge, directing several stage plays including Cyrano de Bergerac. From there, he went on the Royal Shakespeare Company where he directed Troilus and Cressida, Richard III and The Tempest. Mendes also directed a few West End plays and worked as an assistant director for the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Mendes continued to have success as a stage director. In 1990, he was appointed the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London. His first production was Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in 1992. He then did John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret, which received four Olivier Award nominations (and a couple Tony Award wins). Mendes’s acclaim endured with productions of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass menagerie, Stephen Sondheim’s Company, Alan Bennet’s Habeas Corpus, and his farewell double-feature Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Having succeeded on stage, Mendes looked to next try his luck at film-directing.

Collaborations with Conrad Hall:

For Mendes’s first film, he teamed up with playwright and TV writer Alan Ball, also looking to make the jump to film. The film was American Beauty. Ball was impressed with Mendes’s revival of Cabaret and wanted him to directed, but Mendes had a tough time convincing DreamWorks’ production executives. Finally, the studio came around and offered Mendes the film (but after Robert Zemeckis and Mike Nichols had already turned it down). His work on the film is top notch (winning an Oscar for Best Director), especially his collaborations with composer Thomas Newman (whose score is fantastic) and particularly cinematographer Conrad Hall (who won an Oscar for the film as well). In addition to Mendes’s directing and Hall’s cinematography Oscar, the film won Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Leading Actor for Kevin Spacy. One film in, and Sam Mendes was already on top in Hollywood.

For his next project, Mendes decided to direct the screen adaptation of Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel Road to Perdition. He liked that the story had no moral absolutes and found it to be the most interesting of the prospects he was exploring (which included A Beautiful Mind, which won Best Picture in 2002). Steven Spielberg had brought the film to DreamWorks, but could not direct it himself due to his full slate; however Tom Hanks and writer David Self had joined the project. With Mendes taking over as director and producer, he brought his American Beauty team of composer Thomas Newman and director of photography Conrad Hall with him. While the film did not achieve quite the same level of acclaim for Mendes as American Beauty, it is still a fascinating film (and maybe even an infuriating one, as it is so close to being amazing but not quite there) – built on great performances (including Paul Newman’s last great role), deft directing and brilliant visuals (Hall’s cinematography is among the decade’s best), but with some narrative issues.

One of the great things to come out of Sam Mendes’s first two films was the resurgence of Conrad Hall. He is one of the great cinematographers in film history (winning three Oscars, two working with Mendes, and seven additional nominations). Mendes’s films, especially Road to Perdition, revitalized Hall allowing his work to reach new heights. Sadly, he died six months after Road to Perdition was released.

Mendes took a break from film following the death of Hall to direct the revival of the musical Gypsy in New York.

Continuing to Make Great Films:

Mendes made his return to film in 2005 to direct Jarhead, his most polarizing film (and my least favorite of his work). It is also his first film to not be nominated for (or win) an Oscar.

Next, Mendes was given the script for Revolutionary Road (and the novel by Richard Yates that it is based on) by his (then) wife Kate Winslet. She wanted to play the lead and the film’s producer Scott Rudin wanted Mendes to direct. It went into production immediately after Winslet got her friend Leonardo DiCaprio to star opposite her (marking their first reunion following Titanic). Mendes again brought Thomas Newman onto the project and cinematographer Roger Deakins (both of whom also worked on Jarhead and are working on Skyfall). The film features some of the best performances of 2008 (I would argue that Michael Shannon’s supporting work is second only to Heath Ledger’s the Joker) and powerful melodrama. It is very underrated.

Mendes’s last film of the decade (and last before Skyfall) saw him make a decidedly different film than his typical Hollywood prestige films. Away We Go is a sparse indie dramedy. Mendes also used an unfamiliar principal crew, when in the past he collaborated with the same people over and over. The film was met with mixed reviews and disappointing box office receipts (though, I think that it is fairly charming – even if the characters are somewhat elitist).

Producing Projects:

In addition to producing his own films (Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road), Mendes has also produced a few features: Starter for 10, Things We Lost in the Fire and The Kite Runner, as well as the current British TV miniseries The Hollow Crown.


Mendes is returning to the stage in 2013 with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, set to open at the London Palladium in June. Mendes is also working with his Skyfall screenwriter John Logan again, as they are developing a TV series about an 1800s Vampire Hunter. Mendes is apparently considering returning to direct another Bond film as well.

Career Highlights:

1)      American Beauty (1999) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
2)      Road to Perdition (2002) – director, producer (Blu-ray, DVD)
3)      Revolutionary Road (2008)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
4)      Away We Go (2009) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
*Editor’s picks

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