Sam Mendes Reflects On His Love Of Theaters And Olivia Colman

Feb 24, 2023

It goes without saying that some of the world’s foremost filmmakers were swept up in personal nostalgia during the stay-at-home period of the pandemic. Kenneth Branagh crafted Best Picture nominee “Belfast,” Steven Spielberg revisited his youth in “The Fablemans” and Alejandro Inarritu had something of an existential crisis with “Bardo.” It appears the world’s English-speaking critics have had enough after the recent response to Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light.”
READ MORE: Olivia Colman is heartbreaking in Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” [Telluride Review]
Set in 1981, “Light” centers on Hillary (Olivia Colman), a lonely middle aged movie theater employee who is keeping her bipolar disorder secret from her colleagues. When she meets Stephen (Michael Ward), sparks fly with an unexpected May-December romance. That is until she stops taking her medicine.
The film was inspired by Mendes’ own mother and her battles with schizophrenia. The film actually received positive reviews from a majority of critics who reviewed it out of the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. In fact one of them, Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair, selected it as one of his top films of the year (full disclosure, this writer also gave it a positive review). And then, as the months progressed, the reaction got bizarrely less positive. Slightly bizarre considering, at a minimum, the moving and breathtaking performance from Colman and excellent work from co-stars Ward and Toby Jones.
In an interview last week, Mendes reflected on his inspiration for “Empire,” his longstanding collaboration with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, his love of working with Colman and much more.
The Playlist: You shot “I917.” It hits theaters. You’ve go through the 2020 award season and then the pandemic hits. Had you already been thinking of what your next film might be before this? Or had you been trying to figure out what was next?
Sam Mendes: I never really know what I’m going to do until I’m through releasing the movie or play or whatever it is that I’m finished. And then I’m ready to try and find the next thing. After “1917,” I did nothing. I was determined to have a year off. I mean a time off anyway with my family. However, I wasn’t prepared for the kind of year off that we had. Which was basically we were all stuck at home. About halfway through that year, I started writing and I got about a third of the way through. And then this thing bubbled up really. And it bubbled up I think for a number of reasons. It was memories that I’ve lived with and wanted to try and find a way to tell for a long time. It was also spurred on by my own kids. And where when you have young kids, you are often reflecting on the way you were parented when you were their age and your own parents. And I just wanted to find a way of addressing, I suppose the defining thing in my life as a child, which was growing up alone with a mother who was struggling with mental illness and her heroism. But I felt that I didn’t want to write something directly autobiographical. Margo Jefferson has this great line: How do you reveal yourself without asking for love or pity? And I didn’t really want to ask for love, but I didn’t want to put a kid in the movie. Everyone would go, “Oh, poor kid.” Poor Sam. Somehow I wanted to remove that and I wanted it just to be about her. And I wanted to place her in a different setting. And there was another story I wanted to tell alongside it, which was a story of that growing up in the early ’80s and that period politically in terms of the Thatcher years and the terrible racial politics, high unemployment, and a lot of social disruption. And I felt it was an internal struggle, which was hers. And an external struggle, which was his. And that they were going to collide. And that was the story that I wanted to tell. I was aware, I was taking on quite a lot, but I felt like I was excited by it and that’s where I got drawn.
Where did the inspiration come from to set it then by the sea and in a beautiful, classic cinema theater?
I spent my life in those buildings. Theaters and cinemas. Particularly theaters. I’ve always loved those places. I think they have a particular magic. And so I suppose I was drawn to the visual possibilities of that. It felt like a great way to pull these two stories together. It’s also something I suppose that we were all thinking about, worrying about [at the time during the pandemic]. I spent hundreds of thousands of hours working in those buildings and on pieces of work that are supposed to be seen in an auditorium by a few hundred strangers in the dark, whether it be movies or theater. And was it over? Is that it? Is it all in the past? We’ve got short memories, but there was a long period of about nine months pre-vaccination where we thought, “Is this it now?” That’s obviously through the prism of my own concerns, but not just that, but sporting events and cafés and restaurants and everything. Was it all gone? I think that’s probably, that might be what’s behind the fact that you see a fair amount of that self-reflection in this year of movies. And that we were left considering that somehow, we didn’t realize how lucky we were to have it until it wasn’t there anymore.
This particular theater though, the Dreamland Cinema in Margate, was it always in the back of your mind? Did you have to rewrite the script at all for it to work?
There was an abandoned ballroom in the script originally, but it was a different building than I had in my mind. It was a building that I’d been to several times when I was a kid and a teenager in Brighton, an Art Deco cinema on the seafront. But it wasn’t as big as this and when we found it, it was totally different and better than I thought. And so yeah, I did rewrite it a little bit. I stayed there for a week in Margate. And walked around and thought, “I can do this story, all of it here.” And so, that’s how it came to be. But it was really the cinema that drew me there, that particular building, that strange vast Art Deco palace staring out to sea. And it was, when we found it, abandoned and it still is. There isn’t an audience there to sustain it. It’s 1,000 seat auditorium and then two other cinemas of 500 seats each and a ballroom. And I mean it’s probably an audience of a couple of hundred people. In the summer, I think it’s different when the English tourists arrive, but it’s hard to sustain those buildings now. Yeah. It was moving to find it.
Someone with money needs to renovate it and use it for film festivals. Use it for a film festival. It’s stuning.
Trust me, I tried to swear in a friend of mine, the only person I know rich enough to do it as a business. Just to open it again and make that into a restaurant. But it’s just where it is. It’s tricky. But it’s tricky everywhere, isn’t it? I mean I’ve been recording personalized messages for the opening weekend of this movie for cinemas in the US that are struggling, individual specialty cinemas to say, “Please come and see this movie in this cinema.” And because you can feel as though they are hanging on by a thread.
You’ve said that Hillary’s character is inspired by your mother. Were you thinking of Olivia at all when you were writing the role? Or was that something that came to you after you finished the script?
When I started, I just started speculatively. And about 30 pages in, I’ve been watching TV during lockdown and I was watching “The Crown.” And I saw her and I thought, “Oh, that’s suited for Hillary.” And from then on it became her part. And by the end, I would’ve been devastated if she’d said no because I did write it with her in mind. I think she’s miraculous as an actress. I just think she’s transformative. In every scene, she’s slightly changed and changed again. Whatever one thinks about the movie, the performance is astonishing. It is just the sort of detail with which she marks the various changes and the extremities that she goes to is amazing. She has an incredible gift. And I mean she doesn’t make a lot of fuss and she doesn’t talk about it very much. And she doesn’t really want to talk about it. So there’s quite a mystery there. And she won’t really do it until you say, “Action,” then it’s like a blow torch. Judi Dench is the other actor who I know that I’ve worked with a bit that works in that way. You feel like it expresses a side of them that it’s just like they can’t express in it any other way. Like a musician picking up an instrument. It’s like, “Well, this is how I talk. I talk through this instrument.” And it’s the same thing. I talk through my acting. She’s a lovely, warm, relaxed presence on set, but you don’t really get a feeling that there’s this person going through something until she does it. In many ways, it was quite a solitary experience for me because I’d written it myself. And I’m used to having a writer to chat with and compare notes with. But she made it much more collegiate and enjoyable and warm because her presence on set was so delightful. For that, I was grateful as well.
Did she have a lot of questions about the character?
I mean she does have questions but she feels like most of them are answered in the script to a degree. It’s the difference between rehearsing on film or rehearsing on stage. On film, you’re filling the gas tank the whole time. It’s like you’ve got a lot to feed off, but I don’t want you to do anything yet. Just here’s the information you need. I talked about my own experience is my memories. I put up documentaries, all that sort of stuff. But that’s just core research isn’t it? But the good actors sometimes are like squirrels storing nuts for the winter. They take them and stuff them in their cheek. They don’t want to eat them now. They take them away and then they deal with them in private. She was squirreling stuff away. But she didn’t really want to dialogue about it. She just wanted to store up as much information as possible.
Is this your fifth movie with Roger Deakins?
3, 4, 5. Yeah.
What is your working relationship like on set now? Is it all shorthand?
The idea is that by the time you get on set, you almost have nothing to talk about because you know exactly what you are looking for. And then on a good day, you’d say almost nothing because just a look or a nod or a like that [should work]. Roger’s all about the prep. It’s all about finding the film between us in a way. And stylistically I’m talking about in terms of the way we’re shooting it. We’ve talked so much over the years. We know what our tastes are. But every movie has different rules. “Jarhead” was all handheld cameras and there wasn’t a straight line in the movie. “Skyfall” was a vast series of giant set pieces that again, had a coherent style I hope. And then “1917,” obviously it had its own set of rules. One, long unbroken shot. And this felt like we wanted it to be still, tableau. We wanted to set these small characters against the bigger landscape. We wanted to contrast the bleakness of the outside world and the desaturation of a mono winter with this warm interior and this womb-like cinema that was an escape for the character. We don’t want to be scared of color. We talk about color, we talk about composition, we talk about camera movement We do all that way in advance. And sometimes we storyboard. On this occasion, we didn’t. We just talked. And we knew what we were looking for going in. And yeah, it’s funny to say that some of the best days that we’ve ever had together on set end up with just him squeezing me on the shoulder and going, “I like that.” Or me to him. That’s all we said all day. But it’s quite nice to have a relationship that where it’s an intuitive relationship.
Do you know what you’re doing next?
I’m actually doing a play in the spring at the National Theater in London. And that’s the other thing is I tend to do a movie and I go and do a play. And in the space of time I do the play, movies suddenly start calling again. But when you finished a movie, you long for the peace and quiet of just one room. And just the actors and a story. But when you’ve done a play you’re like, “I’m hungry for adventure again.” And then something else starts to call to you. I hope that. I’m lucky to be able to do both and to be able to balance the two but so maybe something. I’m aware that you only have a certain amount of time where you were able to have the physical energy to do really big movies. And I enjoy it when it’s a big challenge. Maybe that will be the next one.
“Empire of Light” is now in limited release

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