AWAY WE GO's Sam Mendes, Part 2. This time, he chats with Capone! This time, it's personal!!!
Published at: June 2, 2009, 11:31 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. Okay, so I know those of you reading this probably also read Mr. Beaks' fantastic talk with AWAY WE GO director Sam Mendes. Thankfully (and this was in no way designed to happen this way), except for an almost identical first question, my questions for Mendes were completely different than Beaks' line of inquiry. So consider this the final part of a two-part Q&A with the man.
Director Sam Mendes has seen a very interesting pattern since he made the transition from acclaimed theater director to filmmaker. Every three years he puts out a new movie, and critics and moviegoers alike fight about whether they're any good or not. While this may sound like the same battle that goes on week after week every week fo the year about just about every movie, the level of divisiveness that generates over a Mendes film seem extraordinary. What's interesting is that his two best works (arguable, of course) have come from original screenplays.
His first feature was the Oscar-winning AMERICAN BEAUTY (from the script by Alan Ball), a film that took the ideal suburban lifestyle myth and vengefully dissected it as if it had been dropped in a pool filled with piranhas. After that came a film close to my heart, a gangster film set in Al Capone-era Chicago called ROAD TO PERDITION. Some might argue that Tom Hanks was miscast in this film, but I'd make the argument that the performances by Paul Newman and a largely unknown Daniel Craig more than make up for Hanks' unconvincing tough guy persona. I barely remember having an opinion on JARHEAD, based on Anthony Swofford's Desert Storm-set book, so I'm guessing that means I didn't like it much.
Last year's REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (based on Richard Yates' book) was a close call for me. I was madly enthusiastic about the performances by the two leads (including Mendes' wife, Kate Winslet), as well as Michael Shannon, but a lot of the film felt overcooked and uneven. One film every three years since 1999. But now Mendes has done something remarkable and the results are the flawless AWAY WE GO, the small, relatively inexpensive, lighter in tone (but still with some devastating passages) work that Mendes squeezed in while finalizing preproduction work on two much grander projects: MIDDLEMARCH (based on the novel by George Eliot and adapted by Andrew Davies, whose previous adaptations include the recent BRIDESHEAD REVISITED feaure, Masterpiece Theatre's "Bleak House," and work on both BRIDGET JONES films) and comic book transfer to film of PREACHER.
(For those of you wondering about the lack of PREACHER info in either Beaks' or my interviews, that's because Mendes has made it kind of clear in pretty much every interview in the last couple of months--including this one--that he doesn't have any details to give. He's waiting on the script before he make any choices on the look or feel of the film. So that's that.)
Mendes deliberately kept AWAY WE GO under the radar after the crushing amount of press that was thrust upon REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. He wanted to try a film that had limited to no expectations heaped upon it, and the result is his most relaxed and personal movie, from an original screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. AWAY WE GO is funny, touching, and features all three major players (Mendes and stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) working outside of their comfort zone in nearly every way. In person, Mendes is an absolutely lovely conversationalist. I don't think I looked at my notes once during our talk. But more importantly, when he was introduced to me by the publicist (who did not refer to me by my pen name), Mendes looked at my inquisitively and asked, "Are you Capone?" It's not an ego thing at all (okay, maybe a tiny bit), but when someone asks me that question, it means they know what we're about and who our readers are, so they're not afraid to get a little geeky and detailed-oriented about their current and previous works. Anyway, I had a great talk with Mendes, and I hope you enjoy it as well.
Capone: You mentioned Al Capone. One of the first interviews I ever did for the site was with [writer] Max Allan Collins for ROAD TO PERDITION, and we talked about how…at that point, I don’t think he knew for sure whether the scenes that you had shot with Anthony LaPaglia as Capone were making it into the final film or not. He knew that they were in his novelization, but he didn’t know if they were going to make it into the film. So, I eagerly awaited the DVD to see if those scenes popped up there.
Sam Mendes: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The weird thing about ROAD TO PERDITION is there are now in circulation…I say ‘in circulation’, but I mean, out there, if you look for them, three different cuts of the movie.
SM: Well, because the network wanted one that fits a three-hour TV slot, so there is a two-hour, 35-minute cut, which has all those deleted scenes in it and is actually scored and properly put together. And then, there’s an hour-and-40-minute cut that fits a two-hour slot. And then, there’s the release cut. And, all of them work. It’s really weird. And, they’re all quite different movies.
Capone: So, wait, the one that fits in the three-hour slot, that’s significantly longer than the theatrical release.
SM: Yeah, it’s like a half an hour longer, with all the deleted scenes in it.
Capone: So, there’s nothing in that version that isn’t on the DVD as an excised…
Capone: Well, then, it’s all there.
SM: You’ve seen it all.
Capone: I know that movie inside and out.
Somebody said after we finished watching AWAY WE GO that this is the first film you’ve made where the marriage is working.
SM: [laughs]That’s true.
Capone: Is that deliberate? Did you think, Man, I’m a gloomy son of a bitch. I need to lighten up.
SM: Well, the weird thing is that I don’t feel myself to be…I mean, I’m an optimist. I’m not somebody who thinks men and women are destined never to be together. I’m not by nature Yatesian, in other works, Richard Yates, who wrote REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. I don’t really, you know, feel that way.
One of the reasons I loved this script when I read it was that…it’s very close to my philosophy of the world, which is ‘life is basically what you make it’. And, it is possible to have a decent relationship.
Capone: Right. It’s funny, I did get the sense that this one feels more personal to me. It feels like the most personal one that you’ve done, the one that might--not knowing you at all--but, the one that would be most closely representing your view.
SM: Well, I’m glad you feel that. That has to be a good sign that you feel that it’s personal, because, you know, I think good filmmaking should be. But, I think that AMERICAN BEAUTY and this are the two most personal, by far, because they’re just the closest to my life at the moment, more than anything else.
The weird thing is AMERICAN BEAUTY, in a way, was looking…even though it’s voiced over by Lester, I feel like the sort of heart of the film are the kids. And, I sort of was very aware that I was siding with the kids in the movie when I made it, you know, that the adults were the nutcases, and the kids were the sane ones.
And, here, I feel like I’m making it, though, as a parent. I’m remembering what it feels like to be pregnant with your first child, as a couple and to be on the verge of your life changing, and for it to be both exciting and terrifying. One of the things I loved about it is that they have a secret language, the two of them. They’re a couple that the writers treat as a unit, and, it’s not by chance that it’s through the eyes of a husband and wife who are pregnant with their first child. So, it has some of that atmosphere.
Capone: Oh, it definitely does. And, you’ve tapped into something…I’m sure there have been hundreds of movies where the couple who are about to have a child are in their 30s, but for some reason, this film feels like that’s one of the things it is about. It’s about people who have waited until their in their 30s, because they don’t feel like they have their shit together until then.
SM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Capone: And, that scene where she says, “Are we fuck-ups?” is heartbreaking, because we are not sure if they are or not.
SM: No, we’re not sure. All my friends, and myself included, literally, nearly all of them waited until their mid-30s to actually make the big decisions about their lives. And, if you look at REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, for example, the people who made those decisions are 21, you know?
Capone: Yeah, exactly.
SM:…And, in a weird way, that’s the major difference between the characters…is that they know who they are in this movie. In the other movie, they’ve just discovered, but it’s too late, you know? And, I think that here, there’s a great…There’s a wonderful thing about Generation Y, which is that you don’t make those decisions until your 30s.
But, there’s something else. On the one hand, it’s a good thing, because you do know yourselves better. And here, there’s a solid relationship, they’re clearly deeply in love. They have their own language, they have their own way of living. But, there’s also a flip side to that. As Chris Messina’s character says in Montreal, “I wonder if we’re selfish. I wonder if we wait and wait to have kids, and then we’re surprised when babies aren’t so easy to make anymore. In the meantime,” he says, “There are a minimum of a million 14-year-olds who just got pregnant without even trying.”
And, I think there is a real sense of ‘Are we haunted by possibility?’. There are so many possible lives, particularly in this country, and you’re confronted by reality TV shows about other people’s lives all the time, photos of other people’s lives all the time--You could have this life! Or this life! You could be famous in three weeks, you’d go on “American Idol.” You know what I mean? It could all change, literally, in the twinkling of an eye. And, that can kill you. Possibility can kill you.
And here, there’s a streak of bohemianism in the movie, which I think comes straight from [writers] Dave [Eggers] and Vendela [Vida], which I think is wonderful, which is, You can pick up, take control of your life, and make it whatever you want. All you need is the other person that you’re with and your family. It could just be them or your unborn child. I don’t know, I just really admired that, and I feel that’s true. I mean, [my wife and I] picked up our lives and moved to another country. We don’t live in the country that we were born in. So, I understand the urge.
Capone: Do you feel like this is a uniquely American story? Not just the relationship between them, but the road trip aspect…
SM: Right, right. I think that the story is universal in the sense that I think that you’ll find these…you’ll encounter these kinds of parents all over the world. These kinds of stories I don’t think are specific to America. But, I think the landscape of it is always specific to America and, I think, what makes it, what gives it scale as a film--and, one of the reasons why I find myself making these contemporary stories in America--is that you have a mythic landscape.
I spent nine months in the city making a story in a mythic landscape, you know, which has scale and grandeur. And, it’s no different…even if it’s a totally different movie, it’s no different here. There’s a beauty and a melancholy in the landscapes that they pass through that sort of actually, really nicely, I think, are…I hope, are articulated by the music in the movie, by the songs, which run counterpoint to the action.
Capone: Great songs, by the way.
SM: Well, thank you. And, I agree, and I’m pleased you said so, because I think it’s really another character in the movie. So, I think that the sort of visual part of the movie could only have been made here, because, think about it: you’ve got deserts, you’ve got snow-capped mountains, you’ve got glass cities, you’ve got university towns, you’ve got funky downtowns. You know what I mean?
Capone: Palm trees.
SM: Exactly. You’ve got the zoo and weird, like,…You know what I mean? It’s, like…the variety of landscapes, I mean, it’s unbelievable--subtropical and arctic. And, that is why this country is so fantastic to tell stories in--and about.
Capone: Yeah. You mentioned that this and AMERICAN BEAUTY are the two films that you think are your most personal. And, they’re also the two, I think, where you very successfully attempt to blend very funny things with some very serious issues. Do you think in that span you’ve gotten better at balancing those two elements?
SM: I don’t know. I find it really difficult to compare themes. I can’t compare which one is more successful in my terms. All I can tell you is I really enjoy watching this film, and normally, at this stage of the game, I’d rather slit my wrists than sit through it again. So, that probably tells you something. [laughs]
Capone: It does! Some people will say that this is your lightest work. But, the truth is, there are a lot of dark little pockets in there.
SM: Right. [laughs heartily]
Capone:…that they’re certainly not emphasizing in the promotion of the film, but they are there.
SM: I think it sort of creeps up on you the broader meaning of the film, and the fact that there is a shift in tone at a certain point in the film, which…One doesn’t want to sort of ruin it for people, but that’s what I mean, when they get to Montreal, there’s a shift in tone, which, I think, is one of the things I admire most about the screenplay…is that it crept up on me and revealed its themes very, very subtly, almost right at the end.
It’s, like, hold on a minute, I’ve just seen a sort of panoply of different styles of parenting and what it means to be a parent, what constitutes home, you know, how you find your own home, and how often, when you’re about to be a parent or become a parent, you’re drawn back to your own childhood and those places. You find yourself drawn back to what was your original home when you grew up and all of those things. And, what it means to have a responsibility to each other when you have a child and to your partner, you know, and how that changes your relationship. And, all these things seem to be worn so lightly.
I’m working with great writers. It was there on the page. And, when it’s there on the page, you know, generally speaking, unless you’ve got a bunch of losers acting for you, it’s going to be there on the screen as well. And, I had so much the opposite of a bunch of losers in this movie for a cast. They were so good, that I frankly, I sort of thank my lucky stars every day.
Capone: Yeah. You mentioned before about how you and your wife uprooted yourselves and moved. Did you find that when you were telling a story about sort of finding a home--I mean, that’s what they’re doing--you were injecting your own experience into that, or was Dave and Vendela’s script pretty much give you everything you needed?
SM: It’s impossible, if you’re directing a movie, not to inject your own experience. I mean, my own experience is injected into every day I show up, you know, in the sense that you bring your insight and gather Maya’s [Rudolph] and John’s [Krasinski] into what it is to be in a relationship and to be a parent and to be looking, to be searching for…
I mean, I think if there’s one reason people say…You say it’s my lightest film. I think it is. I think it’s certainly the most joyful, purely joyful and hopeful film, even though it has its moments of darkness. I think that all of the films that I’ve done are linked by one thing, which is that they all feature characters or a character at the center who isn’t content with how they’re living and wants to find a better way to live. And, I think that, you know, all of them are basically--and this is in the broadest sense--concerned with the sort of one question that haunts all of us all the time, which is, How do we live? And, that’s definitely front and center in this movie.
Capone: I was going to say about Maya…I just heard recently that she’s pregnant again.
SM: Yeah, it’s all a marketing tool.[laughs]
Capone: Right, I know. And she’s got [an AWAY WE GO logo] tattooed on her belly. I think she’s an absolutely stunning woman to begin with. I think she’s more stunning pregnant. How did you think to cast her in this, because she’s certainly never done anything like this before.
SM: No. To be quite honest with you, I wasn’t sure if she was the right idea until I met her. I was a little bit…I sort of raised an eyebrow when someone said Maya. “Well, I’ll meet her.” And, I was just blown away. I mean, she’s, she’s…Anyone can see who sees this movie…She’s, in my opinion, the real deal. I mean, she’s about to start her second career as a leading actress now in addition to being a comedienne. But, it took about 10 seconds of her reading the first lines of the script for me to think, have that old moment that we all wait for of, like, Well, that’s it, that’s who should play her.
Then, it was a question of getting her and John together and seeing if they got on. And, the truth is they got on like a house on fire. They share the same sense of humor. They were just in synch from the beginning, and they really helped each other through it, you know. Maya would root John, and John would perk Maya up, very much like the two characters in the movie. And so, that energy was really…and so then, it was about trying to capture that lightning in a bottle as much as possible and trying to get what was behind the camera, off camera the whole time, in front of the camera. And, I think they did it on a lot of occasions. And, I can’t say enough about how impressed I was with her. She’s just a…
Capone: And, it’s doubly hard for her, because you said before: Every one of your movies has a character who’s not content where they are. That’s her, and she’s really the heart of the film. She’s the one who takes the biggest journey…
SM: I agree, I agree.
Capone:…So, I was marveling at her abilities, because it’s like discovering someone that you’ve known for years in a completely different venue.
SM: Yeah. And, I think that the tradition sometimes has been that you get… Bill Murray is one of the exceptions, the sort of "SNL" alumnus who starts off as a broad comedian and graduates to the point where you take him seriously as a leading actor and a tragic actor, too. She’s taken that leap in one role. I mean, she’s not going for the broad comedy here. She’s jumped all that stuff, and she’s just immediately revealed that she has serious acting chops, I mean, out of nowhere. And, I think that’s unusual, because I think that normally you get them in a couple of big, high-concept comedies, and, then gradually, they sort of ease their way into being serious. And, here she’s just done it. I mean, in a way, she made it very easy, which, of course, it isn’t.
Capone: And John even…the visual transformation. I swear, I thought he was wearing a false nose.
SM: Really? [laughs]
Capone:…because the glasses make his nose look twice as big.
SM: [laughs even harder]
Capone:…And, I thought, What a great choice! I was convinced the whole movie that it was a prosthetic.
SM: That’s brilliant. How funny.
Capone: And in combination with the beard, it's such a great look. He doesn’t even look as tall, because I know he’s really tall, and he doesn’t even look as tall next to her. I loved what he was doing. The scenes where he’s trying to start a fight with her are some of my favorites. And he’s been in some films, but nothing where he’s been able to kind take hold of a character like this.
SM: No, absolutely. I mean, the weird thing is about John is that I worked with him on JARHEAD, and he did four lines. He was there for two days, and he was absolutely a standout. He was, like, that…I sound like some old Hollywood mogul, “That kid’s going to go far,” but I thought, Keep an eye on him, he’s going places, because he’s so inventive. But, the impression I had of him was not at all Jim from “The Office.” The impression I had of him then was ‘slightly dark, very inventive, quite edgy’, and every take was completely different. He wasn’t content with anything, he was trying stuff out.
And so, I was surprised when he, in a way, landed…and, by the way, I can reveal here, I was the person who said, “Don’t under any circumstances do the U.S. TV series ‘The Office’. It’s going to be a huge flop.” So, I’m glad I was proved wrong. But, he’s not…I was kind of surprised that he ended up playing the ‘every man’ role, in a way, in “The Office,” ’cause, you know, Rainn Wilson and Steve Carell have the big [roles], you know what I mean, and he was the Martin Freeman character, as it were.
And here, he’s asked to do what I think is actually much closer to him and his energy, which is, he’s a character. And, I think he’s not a conventional leading man. I don’t think he’s Jimmy Stewart. I don’t even think he’s Tom Hanks. I think he’s much more elastic than that.
Capone: He’s trapped in the body of a leading man, though.
SM: Right, yeah. So, in a way, what I was doing was trying to take some of the edges off, some of the clean-cut edges off. It’s still got a sharp one. He turns up, and he’s got a short back and sides and no beard. I’m, like, Whoa, whoa, what the fuck happened? He just doesn’t look like Burt to me. It’s funny also what happens when you put people in glasses and a beard. Their eyes pop. His eyes become very expressive and comic, and I think he took some risks in this movie. And, I think it’s going to pay off for him, I hope.
Capone: A lot of times, if I’ve seen a film already and I'm seeing it again, I’m watching with an audience, I wait to hear the tears start. And it’s the sort of wonderful, unofficial wedding vows on the trampoline. That’s the one that’s going to kill everybody. That’s just going to send all the men and the women right over the edge.
SM: It gets me. I mean, when she says, “You promise…”
Capone: You almost don’t realize it’s happening until you’re half way through the scene.
SM: It’s just good writing, it’s just good writing. I mean, honestly, I’ll take no credit whatsoever. And, weirdly, that wasn’t in the original screenplay. They changed the ending, way, way, way before anyone was on, way before the actors were on, but they rewrote the ending. And, when that scene turned up, I’m, like, Jesus Christ…
Capone: Was it set on a trampoline when it was written?
SM: Yeah, oh yeah. That’s one of the best parts.
Capone: I don’t know why I love that.
SM: Because it’s weirdly memorable and strange and just right for the scene. And, yeah, so when she says, “You promise that…”--she’s talking about their unborn daughter--“…when she talks, you’ll listen, and then really listen, especially when she’s scared.” And, I just thought [mimics sobbing]…like a little softie.[laughs]
Capone: This film seemed to come out of nowhere. I mean, you just had a film out a few months ago, and I realize that sometimes films sit around for the right moment to come out, but I don’t remember reading that much about it.
SM: That was all deliberate.
Capone: Do you like working at this pace and this style as opposed to having each film be some huge event?
SM: Yes, yes. I mean, I think that I needed to try and find a way of making something that was a little bit more under the radar. I mean, when it comes out, hopefully, it’s on the radar. You want it to be as much on the radar as possible. So, I’m doing something I haven’t done since AMERICAN BEAUTY, which is going out right now, which is going into cities and talking about it, because I really…(a) I believe in it and I love it, but (b) it seems to me that’s the right way around. You want as little publicity at all while you’re making it, and you want to get as much as you can when it comes out.
But, I’m also very much enjoying the fact that it’s not an award season, it’s not at a festival. Focus has been amazing in the fact that they’re rolling it out slowly. And, they’ve believed in it since the very beginning, and they’ve treated me with incredible respect. I’ve never cast anyone in a movie who I haven’t wanted to be in the movie, but, normally, you have the conversation at the beginning, “Okay, you can make this movie with the following set of actors, and if you can’t get that set of actors, then you can’t make the movie,” and you get it. And, they just said, “Cast whoever you want.” And, I said, “Yeah, but you mean…" And, they said, “No, cast whoever you want.” That’s really saying something.
It’s interesting, but if you look at the Focus movies this year--this movie; TAKING WOODSTOCK, nobody in it, I mean Imelda Staunton may be; and, A SERIOUS MAN, which is a Coen brothers movie, Michael Stuhlbarg playing the lead. I mean, he’s, like…Have you ever heard of Michael Stuhlbarg?
SM: So…He was in a play of mine on Broadway. So, but, you know, it’s very interesting that they’ve just said, “You know what? We believe in the filmmakers. If you want to cast someone in it, we don’t care.” That, in my opinion, is just bloody good producing, because it really…And, weirdly, what it does, is it throws the responsibility back on to you, so you then take it much more seriously, if you go over budget, like, these guys have let me make this movie with people who, frankly, nobody else in town would have allowed me to make it with, so now I’m going to…
Capone: You can’t blame anybody else.
SM: No, and I’m going to take my responsibilities seriously. I have to bring this in on budget, on schedule, and if I get behind, I have to lose a scene or something. And, that’s how I worked on the movie. And, it helped the film: moving at that pace, moving with that freedom really helped the film, the energy of the film, and I think that’s on screen.
Capone: Wow. I really knew very little about it. I’d seen the trailer, and that’s about it. And, I love walking into a film ‘blind’. It doesn’t happen very often.
SM: Yeah, exactly. I mean, we’ve just got so much information now before we get in there. It’s so nice to be surprised by something. In a weird way, I don’t mind that the film on the whole appears from the outside to be a bit more of a comedy, and that the other stuff creeps up on you slowly, because I think that’s the way it should be.
Capone: So, are you going to sneak anything else in between now and PREACHER?
SM: I wish [laughs]. I wish I had more information about (a) PREACHER and (b) about what else I was doing. There isn’t anything to report. As soon as there is, I’ll let you know.
Capone: I remember MIDDLEMARCH was there for a while. What happened with that?
SM: Yeah? No, I’m developing it. I mean, I would like to make an English movie. But, you know, it’s…I don’t know, I just learned not to make predictions, because every time I have in the past, I’ve literally done the opposite. After AMERICAN BEAUTY, I’m saying, “I’m going to make something small,” you know. [laughing] I made ROAD TO PERDITION. What was I thinking of? I mean, this vast movie...
And, I never would have predicted this, but, you know, I was reading through with Stephen Frears the other day, and he said, “Look, as a director, the nicest feeling you have is when you read a screenplay, and Wow, how did they know what was going on inside my head? You know what I mean? How they’ve been able to write in a way that I…that speaks to me directly and makes me feel like I have the confidence to put it on the screen." And, you are, as a working director and not a…that’s why I am not an ascriber to the ‘auteur’ theory, unless you’re a writer/director. If you’re a writer/director, you write your vision, and you direct it. And, that is…But, I’m basically waiting for someone to write. Someone in a room is writing the next thing I’ll do. I have no idea what it is.
Capone: Well, I think a lot of people I know are going to identify with this movie a great deal.
SM: Great, I’m so pleased you liked it, so pleased. It’s great to meet you, the Capone.
Capone: And it's great to meet you, the Sam Mendes. Thank you so much.