An Interview with Sam Mendes
I met Sam Mendes, the director of the films American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and many, many plays, one evening at his Manhattan meatpacking-district office. Below us, the sidewalks were full of people heading to the nearby bars for post-work drinks; Mendes, meanwhile, was drinklessly entering Phase 2 of his workday. Phase 1 was spent at BAM, where he’s directing a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. During Phase 2, he talked to numerous press representatives about the (then) upcoming release of Revolutionary Road. Phase 3 involved the editing of his next feature film. Presumably sleep occurred at some point.
Regardless, this schedule seems to suit Mendes, an animated and indefatigable conversationalist who offhandedly ate pita chips while we chatted. His office was packed with books; he professed to harbor some path-not-taken envy of academics and said quite wistfully of a film colleague, “He called me from his office at Columbia—how cool is that?” When referring to his pristine copy of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, he was able, within seconds, to locate exact passages without the aid of sticky notes or marginalia.
I. “PARIS BECOMES A METAPHOR: IT’S A CHANCE TO START AGAIN, FIND ANOTHER LIFE, A NEW BEGINNING.”
HEIDI JULAVITS: Obviously, you’ve adapted a number of books into films, but I’m wondering if you felt a different sort of pressure when adapting Revolutionary Road since it has such a cult following. Richard Ford has written of the novel, “To invoke it enacts a sort of cultural literary secret handshake among its devotees.” Also, I’m curious when you first encountered Revolutionary Road, and which devotee pushed it on you. I was given the book by my now-husband.
SAM MENDES: Your now-husband gave it to you as a date novel, like an aphrodisiac-type thing?
HJ: I think he was trying to tell me something along the lines of “This is how I envision our lives together.” Then he gave me a bunch of Thomas Bernhard books.
SM: It was my wife [Kate Winslet] who first gave Revolutionary Road to me and said, “Read this.”
HJ: See? And you didn’t run away from her screaming. But I’d never heard of Revolutionary Road until, I don’t know, I was thirty years old. Part of the shock of encountering such an astonishing book was the inexplicable fact that it had taken me so long to encounter it.
SM: I was taken aback that, after a university education, and studying American literature for an entire year, where I read Updike and Cheever, I had somehow not read Revolutionary Road. I felt shamed that I was unaware of it. Because my wife gave me the book, I read it thinking of her playing April, even though my initial instinct was to be suspicious of it as a film. I thought, I can’t make another movie about suburbia.
HJ: You felt that there was a quota for non-American-born filmmakers and you’d be exceeding it.
SM: [Laughs] But then the more I read the book I realized it’s not a novel about suburbia, it’s a novel about men and women. I suppose the book is three things: it’s a portrait of a community, it’s a portrait of an era, it’s a portrait of a marriage. I thought the marriage part of it was the most fascinating, and I realized I couldn’t do justice to all of them. I had to center on one. It seemed to me just to be about that very specific moment when you realize that you’re not living the life you wanted and how that is a universal…
HJ: We all are not living our dreams?
SM: Well, 90 percent of humanity is not quite living exactly the way they wanted, and maybe they wake up one morning and think, in the words of David Byrne, “How did I get here?”
HJ: Let’s talk about the aptly tortured road that the book took in order to become a movie. It’s been forty-seven years since the novel was published. I don’t know if you’ve read the [Richard] Yates biography….
SM: Of course, by Blake Bailey.
HJ: According to Bailey, Sam Goldwyn Jr., was interested in making the film when the book was first published, in 1961. Shockingly, this didn’t pan out. Yates, when writing to someone about the film falling through, remarked, “Cooler heads in his organization decided that the movie-going public ‘is not ready for a story of such unrelieved tragedy, or so relentless a probing of the sources of pain.’”
SM: Oh, wow. That’s a great quote.
HJ: I was wondering… is the movie-going public ready now? Certainly it couldn’t have been any easier in 2000-whatever to convince studio heads to make a film that ends with a woman giving herself an abortion and killing herself.
SM: I had to make the decision fairly early that this movie couldn’t cost very much money, because the more money you spend, the less control you can exert over the final product. I would have had to change the book’s nature, and that story is, as Yates said, one of almost unrelieved tragedy. Everyone involved did the film for not very much money, everyone cut their rates and bent over backward to make it happen. We made many compromises, for example shooting it all on location rather than shooting some of it onstage.
HJ: Where was the location?
SM: Darien, Connecticut. The Wheeler house is part of a particular community that was built in the ’70s along the lines of ’50s suburbia.
HJ: Already the ’50s nostalgia had kicked in, just twenty years later.
SM: No, seriously, it was like a kind of faux-’50s suburbia. The issue for us was that in the ’50s these houses had just been built and now, more than half a century later, they’re all surrounded by masses of trees. So I was lucky to find a young ’50s suburbia.
HJ: So you did a lot of clear-cutting to make your set look more period-realistic?
SM: Yes. Although actually, some of the trees worked to our benefit. Yates describes Route 12 cutting through the countryside at the beginning of the novel and he sets the house right on the border of the woods… the same woods April runs into when she’s trying to escape from Frank toward the end. There’s that deliberate sense of being right on the edge of centuries of nature and yet also within a very sterile and new environment. But to answer the original question, we made the movie within a budget because we didn’t want to have to change anything. We all know what happens at the end.
HJ: That ending seems to be the real sticking point, at least from a film (or financing) perspective. Bailey mentions another film nibble that Yates got from producer Albert Ruddy. Ruddy bought the option to Revolutionary Road and apparently intended to make a film in which it was ambiguous at the end whether April was alive or dead.
SM: To me it wasn’t the ending that was difficult, but the shape of the story. This story starts in such crisis. Anyone who’s directed a Shakespearean tragedy or anything that involves characters spiraling down into chaos and despair can deal with that particular shape of story. But the strange thing about the novel Revolutionary Road is that it starts with despair. The story has a pyramid shape: starts bad and goes up in the middle when they decide to go to Paris, and then it goes back down again, but deeper and much darker than before. That’s a very unusual dramatic structure for a movie.
HJ: Yates seems to use that pyramid shape a lot—hopeless to hope to worse than hopeless. Like in The Easter Parade. I think the first line of that novel is “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life.”
SM: His default position is to go dark. What’s interesting is the sort of clear puzzlement Yates felt as to why his first novel—even though it wasn’t commercially successful—was treated with greater respect than his other books. What I love about Revolutionary Road is that all the characters are longing for something, and it’s only just out of reach. They just don’t quite know what it is. April is the only one who can articulate it. And for her, Paris becomes a metaphor: it’s a chance to start again, find another life, a new beginning. I think that sense of the possibility of escape is present in Revolutionary Road, and elsewhere in his works it’s… just not there. Maybe that’s why Revolutionary Road finds a place in people’s hearts, where his other works are marginally less beloved.
HJ: There’s progressively less hope for sure, which I guess in some ways kind of mirrors—
SM: —his own life. My favorite story about Yates is in the prologue to the Bailey biography. Yates is at the end of his life, riddled with cancer and hooked up to an oxygen machine, but he was still smoking. He would smoke with his right hand and take a deep suck off the oxygen machine with his left. Someone said to him, You know, Dick, it’s kind of dangerous doing that, ’cause you’re bringing the flame near the oxygen and you could blow yourself up. He takes a deep suck and says, “Media hype.” Such a great line. He was like, fuck that, if I go up in flames I don’t give a shit—it’s a great story, retrospectively, but at the time I guess it was miserable….
HJ: Too bad he’s not around to see this film. It might have made him a little less miserable.
SM: We had a special screening of the movie and it was presented by Sharon Yates and Monica Yates, his daughters. They’d already seen the movie and loved it. There were a lot of writers and directors at this screening, people like Tony Kushner, Michael Cunningham, Robert Benton, and Mike Nichols, and Sharon said, “I think this is a wonderful thing for Dad.” And the room erupted. There’s this sense that maybe he is finally getting his due. And now maybe more people will read the book. If only for that, it’s worth doing the movie. That sense of somehow bringing something to light which you just know people are going to be moved by. It’s a nice feeling…. I’ve never had that before.
II. “A FLASHBACK IS THE ULTIMATE ACT OF WRITER PLAYING GOD.”
HJ: Let’s talk about the opening scene in the movie. In the novel, the first scene is the play, followed by the car ride home and the big fight. In the movie, you preface those two scenes with a scene of Frank and Capillarity meeting at a party in Manhattan.
SM: The problem was that the row needed a context. If you have some understanding that they were happy, the beginning of the movie becomes this: they were happy, now they’re unhappy: here’s our story. One day he goes to work and begins an affair with a secretary. On that same day, April has a strange and unexpected visitation from a neighbor who reminds her who she and Frank once were. April has an epiphany that they have to leave the suburbs and escape to a new life, and at the end of that one day they meet and their lives change. They decide to go to Paris. For a glorious month they’re going, but then he begins to realize he’s made a mistake. He realizes he doesn’t want what she wants, and they start being pulled apart by circumstance and by design. She reaches out for him and he reaches out for her but the current is pulling them in opposite directions. The more they reach for each other the farther they’re pulled apart. Suddenly they’re falling over a waterfall. That feeling of being pulled downstream was something I really wanted. April reaches out to Frank and she reaches out to Sheep, but no one can help her. The noise of the waterfall becomes louder and louder. No one hears her.
HJ: Your classic train-wreck narrative. That we, the voyeuristic readers/audience, can’t stop ourselves from watching.
SM: But don’t you think that April’s a truly heroic character? They all want something they don’t have and she’s the only one who admits it. She’s the only one who says, “This is not my life. I can’t live like this.” And so she takes control over the only thing she has control over, which is her body. It’s shocking.
HJ: Yates apparently saw the whole book as an exploration of abortion in many forms. Ultimately literally about an abortion, but he wanted the whole book to be a justification or a means to get to that ending scene. He saw it as a very cathartic moment.
SM: Absolutely, it’s a genuine catharsis.
HJ: Also I think there’s something so artistically and emotionally compelling in terms of the empathy he evokes in readers, and which you also manage to evoke in audiences, which is a very tricky thing to pull off—meaning, he and you are presenting these very, very flawed people, but you’re not asking us to judge them or write them off as losers, unworthy of our attention. April and Frank are hideous and cruel to each other and yet we Stillwell crippling amount of sadness for them. This is going to get into some technical page-to-screen kind of things, but I’m wondering how you approached the POV challenge the novel presents. Yates was criticized in some of his reviews for the POV being allover the place, but I actually think that POV-switching strategy is one of the keys to the novel’s success.
SM: To me the most amazing POV switch is when the novel switches to April.
HJ: Interesting. Why?
SM: Because Yates affords Frank flashbacks throughout the novel—all of which, by the way, we shot. He affords him flashbacks, he affords him a very, very powerful and extremely detailed point of view, particularly of April. But he doesn’t give April any flashbacks or any inner thoughts until the very end of the novel.
HJ: What happened to all the Frank flashbacks you shot? None of them made the final cut.
SM: In the movie they didn’t work. Flashbacks are different in a movie, because no matter how good they are there’s always this jarring disconnect. In a novel, a flashback and the person having a flashback are one, but in a movie you leave the person completely and go somewhere totally different: another period, another set, another group of actors. We shot a script that was much, much longer, that cleaved much closer to the book in terms of narrative structure and flashbacks and its almost obsessive anatomizing of the details of the day-to-day banality of life in the suburbs. But the spirit of the book was absent; the center was not in the right place. It was only when we removed all those scenes that we felt like we found the film. We threw the sandbags overboard, and the balloon finally rose.
HJ: What other significant changes did you make?
SM: Another big change I made is in the way Paris is first presented. The way Yates presents the suggestion of Paris is really… Oh, wait. [Mendes gets up to retrieve his copy of the novel.] I’ll show you something that’ll make you laugh. This is the original cover of the book. They did this for me as a joke. [Mendes displays his early edition copy of Revolutionary Road—the cover shows a sepia-toned photo of a man’s head and a woman’s head—and a piece of poster board with a mock original cover, this time picturing the heads of the film’s stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.]
SM: Isn’t that hilarious?
HJ: At least it’s not a picture of you and Kate.
SM: God, what an awful thought. [Opens book] Here it is. This is a huge difference. Here is how Yates presents Paris. Frank and April have made love, he thinks they’re going to fall asleep, and she says,
“Darling? You’re not going to sleep, are you? Because I do have so much to say and we’re letting the brandy go to waste and I haven’t even had a chance to tell you about my plan.” After a minute he found it easy to stay awake, if only for the pleasure of sitting with her under the double cloak of a blanket, sipping brandy in the moonlight and hearing the rise and fall of her voice. Playacting or not, her voice in moods of love had always been a pretty sound. At last, with some reluctance, he began to pay attention to what she was saying. Her plan, the idea born of her sorrow and her missing him all day and her loving him, was an elaborate new program for going to Europe “for good” in the fall.
With that phrase—“her plan… was an elaborate new program for going to Europe ‘for good’”—I think we sense that Frank finds the idea faintly ridiculous. It’s already reported in the past tense. Yates never sets it up in a way that you buy that Frank believes in it. The one big decision we made is that, just for that brief time in the middle of the film, the audience has to believe that Frank wants to go. Maybe just to make her happy, maybe because he feels guilty, maybe all of those things put together; he may just think, Fuck it. I don’t care. I hate my job. What the hell, and then the reality dawns a month later. But for that month he does want to go. A movie audience has to believe the characters are going to get out of there.
HJ: That explains a lot. Yates’s Frank can be an arrogant buffoon, yet Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank, even when he’s being cruel or idiotic, remains endearing. I was trying to figure out if it was just me, reacting as I always do to DiCaprio; I can’t help but like him even when he’s acting unlikable. But Frank’s deceit, which is endemic to the book, and which really informs your perception of him in the book, isn’t in the movie.
SM: Exactly. In the book you think Frank will do anything to get around or get away from April. He’s terrified of her on a profound level. Yates’s fear of women is very clear, his fear and wonderment and idolatry, all mixed together. He doesn’t fully know who April is, and yet he writes her with such beauty and accuracy and dignity and grace, but still she remains a mystery throughout. Even when he finally lets you into her head and says, This is what she’s thinking, what she’s thinking is very elusive. She’s remembering a moment with her father, and you’re meant to draw from that memory that this person is the product of a distant father and an unloving childhood. I read some criticism of the period in the book—
HJ: They were pretty down on his flashbacks.
SM: They were described as prescriptive backstories, which is a good way to describe them, because when I put them in the movie they did exactly that. They said, You have to forgive these people. They had bad upbringings and a father who was disappointed and a mother who wasn’t present. You’ve got to cut these guys a bit of slack here. And I don’t think you should; I think they’re magnificent people, but at the same time they’re massively flawed. You should take responsibility for your flaws and take responsibility for your actions and decisions and you can’t just say, “My mom fucked me up.” It’s the easiest get-out in any situation.
HJ: Which could be seen as a larger problem, culturally speaking. Flashbacks—or people’s pasts in general— aren’t being used as a way to develop a character, they’re being used as a way to explain character, which is a very different thing.
SM: Absolutely. You’re absolutely right. There’s a huge difference between the two. There’s a story about… unfortunately I can’t use his name… an apocryphal story involving a famous millionaire who had a rather large and difficult personality. I went to a party and asked, “Who is that very strange woman in the corner?” and my friend said, “That’s his mother; we call her ‘the explanation.’”
HJ: Yates took a different, and (despite the prescriptive first sentence) really un-prescriptive tack in The Easter Parade. They’re completely unreflective, the Grimes sisters, but the reader follows them through their entire lives, so in this really cool way the reader gets to be the keeper of their memories, and the reader gets to choose for herself what has made these characters who they are.
SM: A flashback is the ultimate act of writer playing God.
III. “WRITING A LETTER IS ALMOST A CLICHÉ OF SUICIDE.”
HJ: It’s interesting to compare the experience of reading about the abortion to the experience of seeing it. One of Richard Yates’s editors once said of his writing, “You shoot to kill, don’t you?” But in a strange way, reading the scene was easier than watching it. Obviously you didn’t want any ambiguity about what April’s doing, but did you struggle with how graphically to portray her act?
SM: To me the very methodical trans-life ritual of preparing for performing the abortion is the climax of the film. I wanted to be quite austere and I didn’t want to put any spin on it or direct in a high style. I always saw the abortion very clearly in my head, as a series of little murders and little actions from one room to the next. A phone call, the rearrangement of things on her dressing table, the carrying of the tub of water up the stairs, the closing the door, the laying the towels out, the sense of her, like an animal, going into her little place to perform a terrible act and then coming out again into the day, into the light, and walking to the window and staring out from her prison into the world—
HJ: Out that hugely symbolic picture window.
SM: And feeling for a moment that she’d done it, and she was all right. Hearing the wind in the leaves, then feeling something, and looking down and realizing that she’s bleeding. Another big difference from the book is that we omit the letter that April writes to Frank. Writing a letter is almost a cliché of suicide. If you write a letter, you basically know you’re gonna die.
HJ: You don’t think she was committing suicide?
SM: I think she knows there’s a danger of her dying, but she doesn’t know she’s going to die until the moment she sees the blood on the floor.
HJ: I have a friend who claimed that after she read Revolutionary Road she got a divorce. Is it your hope that people get divorced after seeing this movie? Would that be proof that your version of the story was as devastating as Yates’s?
SM: I very much hope they go home and realize how lucky they are.
HJ: It must have been a surreal experience to work with your actual wife on this film.
SM: It was very intense. You live out a phantom version of your life. A projection. When you watch any tragedy, King Lear, let’s say, you project. It was no different. You step out of the theater after King Lear and you’re on dry land. It’s a wonderful feeling. And that’s what it felt like for both of us coming home after a day’s shooting this movie. And I suppose that’s also what you want as an audience. You want to smell the danger of another life, a life that went wrong. It’s fascinating, when you see April and Frank fight you can’t take your eyes off them, it’s like watching a car crash. To me one of the great strokes of genius in the book—and one of the great scenes in literature—is the breakfast scene toward the end….
HJ: Yates says that’s his favorite scene.
SM: I love the phrase that he used—“I thought the breakfast scene in Revolutionary Road was pretty good.” No kidding. That scene was a total gift for me as a filmmaker. We shot exactly what he described. One of the things I can say in regard to Yates is his staging in the book, where he tells people to move and when, is unnervingly accurate.
HJ: I re-read the novel right after I saw the film, and I was amazed at how much of the dialogue is verbatim.
SM: He’s a brilliant writer of dialogue, and rhythmically brilliant as well. When you try to simplify lines you’re in peril. Here, listen to this:
“Look,” he said. “Couldn’t we sit in the car and talk about it? Instead of running all over Route Twelve?” “Haven’t I made it clear,” she said, “that I don’t particularly want to talk about it?” “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Jesus, April, I’m trying as hard as I can to be nice about this thing, but I—” “How kind of you,” she said. “How terribly, terribly kind of you.”… “Now, wait a minute!”… “Wait a minute, God damn it!”
Just to try and rewrite this stuff with fewer repetitions. “How terribly kind of you”… No. “How kind of you, how terribly, terribly kind of you” is just a great line. And this: “Now, wait a minute… wait a minute, God damn it!” The stress is on the same word. There’s only one way to say it. He writes the dialogue really, really well. But his staging is also brilliant, when he describes them moving—she moves away, he follows, he stops, she walks back toward the car, he follows. In that scene, and in the breakfast scene, the actors do exactly what Yates described. I’m not being slavish for the sake of being slavish; I’m just doing it because it works. That’s a very unusual thing, almost uncanny.
IV.“I THINK TO MAKE A GOOD TRAGEDY YOU HAVE TO CONSTANTLY THREATEN MELODRAMA.”
HJ: I watched American Beauty again yesterday and was struck by the recurring tropes of American suburbia. The truth-telling crazy person, the picture windows, the tragic and unnecessary death, the real-estate agent. You can’t have a story about suburbia without real-estate agents. But despite the similarities, you approach these movies, tonally, in a very different way. I started to think, What if you had applied the American Beauty treatment to Revolutionary Road? I tried to see April Wheeler crying and then hitting herself in the face and saying, “Stop it, stop it, stop it,” like Carolyn Burnham does. Or April Wheeler sterilizing the abortion equipment and saying to herself, “Stop crying!” Obviously, this doesn’t work. Which makes me wonder, were the differing tonal approaches you took somehow dictated by the periods you were portraying, that is, the mid-’50s versus the late ’90s?
SM: I think American Beauty was a movie of its time, but I didn’t apply a style to it. The style emerged naturally in both cases. I think I’m not the sort of director that applies my style to a piece; I tend to adjust my style to what the material needs to make it sing. I read Revolutionary Road and felt that it was a softer-edged world. It didn’t have that slightly surreal thing that American Beauty had… there’s much more ache, and much more longing in this. This is much more unflinching. American Beauty pulls a few punches and turns itself into a thriller at the end.
HJ: But you can’t deny that there’s a definite ache in American Beauty, too. Still, the achiness is a little more front-and-center in Revolutionary Road. This must also have posed a challenge—how to portray this aching world without sliding into melodrama. I know this was something that bothered Yates, his work’s persistent treading of the tragedy-melodrama boundary.
SM: I think to make a good tragedy you have to constantly threaten melodrama. You could say melodrama is badly written tragedy, and tragedy is well-written melodrama. It’s a very, very thin line. The difference between melodrama and tragedy is in detail and insight. Page after page, Yates makes you squirm with the accuracy of his insight into men and women. He seems to have an unnerving eye.
HJ: Unsparing versus sentimental, or some splicing of the two.
SM: We could try and avoid using words like bleak and depressing to describe Revolutionary Road, but it is depressing. It’s very difficult to try and find words that describe the book. Despairing and gnawing and haunting are the best words, I think.
HJ: And yet being misunderstood for wanting to bring to life a bleak, depressing story is a badge of distinction, don’t you think? There’s a great quote from a book critic who hated Revolutionary Road. He summarized the plot as “Two psychopathic characters in their miserable haste to self-destruction.” I hope you get one of those reviews.
SM: I’m sure we will. It’s too tough a story for those things not to be said. Something along the lines of “Why am I watching these two miserable people?! I want my two hours back.”