Olivia Colman & Sam Mendes Talk Empire of Light, Kitchen Zoom Conversations
Jan 4, 2023
From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes, the personal tale in Empire of Light follows Hilary (Academy Award winner Olivia Colman), a woman who’s trying not to let her difficult past consume her present, even though she’s making some unhealthy choices that push her to the edge. Set in a coastal town in Southern England in the early 1980s, Hilary finds comfort in the Empire Cinema, where she works alongside the newest employee Stephen (Michael Ward), and solace in the power of movies.
During this interview with Collider, Mendes talked about writing the role for Colman, how a Zoom conversation with her helped inspire him to finish the script, how his young daughter led to Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross doing the score, and the nostalgia of a projectionist up in the booth, while Colman talked about being glad that Mendes didn’t decide to go another way with the role, exploring the character dynamics, and fulfilling her dream of being near Colin Firth.
Collider: Sam, what made you decide to write this role for Olivia Colman? Even though you hadn’t worked with her before, and you’d never met, you wrote this role for her. So, did you have a backup plan, if she said no?
OLIVIA COLMAN: Oh, that’s a good question.
SAM MENDES: It is a very good question. No, I didn’t have a back-up. I didn’t, really. I think most writers, or any people who try to make films, will tell you that their laptop is full of unfinished projects. It could have just been an unfinished project. I started it, but I didn’t really know I was going to end up committing to it, 100%. And then, I’d gotten about 20 pages in, and it was during lockdown, and I watched The Crown. There was Olivia, and I thought, “Oh, that’s Hilary. That’s who should play Hilary.” So, I started steering it towards her.
I had a similar thing with a scene where Michael Ward’s character is introduced to the staff, and I thought, “Well, if he’s meeting the whole staff, there better be a projectionist.” I hadn’t really thought about this projectionist, so I thought, “I better put him in this scene.” And then, he kept popping up, and I thought, “Well, it’s Toby Jones.” But I hit a wall about halfway through writing it, and I didn’t really know what to do. It was my wife that said, “Well, if you’re writing it for Olivia, why don’t you ask to talk to her? Maybe it’ll get you going again.” So, I did. I Zoomed her, and she was in her kitchen, slightly flustered.
COLMAN: Well, Sam Mendes was Zooming me in my kitchen.
MENDES: And we didn’t really talk about the movie. I said, “I’m writing this for you,” and she was very delighted, or appeared to be. And it did actually get me going again. I was excited. There was something about her energy, the way she talked about it, and just seeing her face. I got a renewed enthusiasm, and that’s what got me through. So then, she became intrinsically linked to the film. By the end, if she’d said no, I would’ve been devastated because she really was the reason I got going again. I don’t think we really talked about much, really. It was just her face, her demeanor, and her energy. We just gossiped a bit.
COLMAN: We talked about injuries.
MENDES: Did we?
COLMAN: Yeah, my sore knees.
Image via Searchlight Pictures
Olivia, what does it feel like to know that Zoom conversation really helped get the script finished?
COLMAN: Yeah. Listening to that though, what if I’d decided, I don’t know, to be very serious. I bet [Sam] wouldn’t have liked that. Thank God, I didn’t do that.
MENDES: No, you didn’t. But I don’t think you can.
COLMAN: No, I can’t.
MENDES: You’re not really very good at that.
COLMAN: No. It’s really interesting to hear because it could have gone another way, couldn’t it? [He] could have gone, “She’s not right.” That would’ve been an awkward phone call, wouldn’t it?
MENDES: Yeah, it would have. But in answer to your question, I had no backup. I probably would’ve not done it. That’s weird, I know, but it just felt like it was all part of the same thing.
COLMAN: God, really? Jeez.
MENDES: You need these signs. There are three or four people that I was sending it to, and if any one of them had said, “I don’t like this,” or, “I don’t want to do it,” it would’ve rocked my confidence. When you write it, and you direct it, it’s quite different than when you just direct it. You feel much more vulnerable.
Sam, I personally love the music [by] Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but what made you think of them for this project?
MENDES: The real reason was that, during lockdown, my daughter, who’s now five, watched Soul, probably 50 times. At a certain point, they just got me through the whole experience because their score is so good that I was delighted by it. And when I talked to them, there’s a beautiful combination with the two of them. Atticus is English, was brought up around where we shot the movie, and had a really personal reaction to it. And Trent is in California and has a totally different aesthetic. With the two of them, there’s a yin and yang. There’s this beautiful ability with melody. At the same time, there are these strange strung out chords and these constantly moving tones that go underneath. For me, it felt like there were two elements in this movie that were held in counterpoint with each other. It was a joy working on it. Weirdly, they also wrote stuff before I started shooting, and that actually helped me when I came to do the scenes, which is something that had never happened to me before.
Image via Searchlight Pictures
Olivia, your character is at the center of these two very interesting dynamics in this story, with this relationship she has with her boss, played by Colin Firth, and then the relationship she has with this co-worker who she’s technically the boss of, played by Michael Ward. What was it like to find both of those dynamics, and to have this one that’s bringing her down while the other one is uplifting her?
COLMAN: Yeah, that’s exactly it. You could see how, historically, she’d felt noticed by her boss, but that had obviously gone wrong. He says, “You’re so helpful,” and she’s still going along with it, thinking that she’s just getting something from it, but she’s really not. If anything, it’s doing nothing for her, and seeing him with his wife brings it all home.
MENDES: For those who haven’t seen the movie, he says, “You’re so helpful,” in the context of the seduction.
COLMAN: Which is hilariously unsexy.
MENDES: It’s a real turn-off.
COLMAN: And then, there’s this dazzling something else. This light comes on, as Stephen walks into her life, and just looks at her in a different way than Mr. Ellis probably ever has. It was lovely to play those two dynamics, and to have a dream come true to be anywhere near Colin Firth.
MENDES: Yeah, you got Colin Firth and Michael Ward, in the same movie.
COLMAN: I know. It was pretty good.
Image via Searchlight
Sam, did you ever worry that younger generations might not have that same connection to the feeling of nostalgia that comes from the projectionist in the booth? I loved those moment, but were you ever concerned that there’s a generation that might not understand what that’s like?
MENDES: Yeah. You can’t feel aggrieved that people don’t know. It’s a longing for the human element of film. When you went to the movies then, there was someone in there, giving it to you. There was always a feeling that, even if it was just you alone in this giant cinema, there was still someone up there in that booth, showing you the film. And for them, they felt like they were the last link in the chain from the filmmaker. If they were showing you Lawrence of Arabia, they were representing David Lean, right? They weren’t a member of staff. They felt part of the actual film. I miss that.
There’s that moment that Michael Ward, who plays Stephen, says, “You mean, they had to do this every time they showed a movie? They had to change all these reels?” And yeah, they had to check the movie, and then look after it and care for it, tend to it, and carry it back and forth. There’s a part of me that misses it. But at the same time, there’s also a part of me that thinks that was prehistoric. Now, you know you’ve got to have access. You’ve got every movie ever made at your fingertips. That’s incredible. You can reach into your pocket and watch pretty much every movie ever made. There’s something sensational about that, in terms of movies living a longer life. There just has to be a balance between the two.
Empire of Light is now playing in theaters.
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