Sam Mendes talks fortune, filmmaking and the fate of the industry at Peterhouse College

Megan Harding 3 February 2018

Sam Mendes isn’t a fan of the word luck; he thinks it’s an ‘odd concept.’ And with a career spanning almost four decades in the stage and film industry (including winning the Academy Award for Best Director for his very first feature film, 1999’s American Beauty), it’s easy to see why. Success of this breadth and scale doesn’t just come from being in the right place at the right time – though Mendes doesn’t deny that sometimes, this certainly helped. 

One such occasion occurred on the first job he held after graduating from Peterhouse College, where the Heywood Society held the event on Friday 2nd February, on the same stage where Mendes’ directorial career started. After gaining a First in English he became a temp at the Chichester Theatre, a position gained by writing letters to ‘every theatre in the country.’ Fast forward a few years and he was directing a West End production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, starring Judi Dench at the age of 24. ‘It was the most remarkable year of my life,’ Mendes says. ‘It took me a while to recover from it.’

From an outsider’s perspective, it was quite plain sailing for the director after this meteoric early success. But for Mendes, it didn’t always feel like an upward trajectory. ‘I felt guilty, and embarrassed. I knew in my gut that I didn’t really know what I was doing.’ But as an alumnus of the Cambridge theatre scene, Mendes had already had more than enough experience of faking confidence, laughing that ‘being a director is about calling yourself a director, and then trying to persuade everyone else that that’s the case.’ It was while at Cambridge that the first inkling of his ‘directorial voice’ came to him during a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Tom Hollander, which he directed shortly after he left. However, it wasn’t until he bought the Donmar Warehouse in the early 1990s that he truly found his ‘aesthetic’ as a director – a venue at which he directed numerous classic works including Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. ‘It’s a space where you can be both epic and intimate.’

Perhaps it’s the unique nature of the Warehouse that shaped Mendes’ aesthetic so much into something ‘simple, formal, balanced, and actor-led.’ Even the musicals he directed, including Cabaret and Oliver!, were characterised by an unusual feeling of ‘rawness,’ in which ‘processed voices’ were replaced by untrained singers, and the uncomfortable restrictions of automated scenery were abandoned in favour of a show whose rhythm was ‘dictated by the performer, not the design.’

It’s clear, then, that this pared-back approach to directing was already a distinguishing feature of Mendes’ work long before he first stepped onto a film set, and is probably one that helped him transition so fluidly, and in his own words, ‘easily’, from stage to screen. ‘I was very determined to make a movie,’ Mendes muses, citing seminal films such as 1984's Paris, Texas as ‘touchstones’ that shaped the way he looked at the medium. ‘It was contemporary, but it felt mythic,’ he says of the movie, an eerily similar statement to the way one might describe American Beauty. ‘As a director, you either think in sequential images, or you don’t,’ he says of the craft. ‘I could see the film that I wanted to make.’

This lucid attitude to filmmaking is something that places Mendes among the greats of modern cinema: Tarantino, Fincher, Lynch, Ang Lee – all of which he cites as major inspirations. But he’s not always as distinctive in tone or genre as some, admitting himself, ‘You’re either somebody who has an imprint… or you can’t tell it’s them at all.’ But this is an asset in what he describes as a ‘solitary’ and ‘lonely’ profession, allowing him to sign onto blockbuster franchises (Skyfall, Spectre) after a versatile career of sporadic yet expertly elegant filmmaking – American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road. ‘It’s like a mosaic, like a puzzle,’ the director says of the editing process. Compartmentalising the filmmaking journey seems to help keep him sane even on big budget projects like Bond, with his mantra, ‘You can only point the camera at one thing at a time.’ It’s a much more humble approach than we would probably receive from the likes of Tarantino or Scorsese, but perhaps this is what makes Mendes such a perceptive and humane storyteller, able to find the roots of truth and pure poetic honesty in even the most extreme circumstances or unexpected genres. 

Ultimately, it seems, this perceptive attitude traces back to Mendes’ unwavering loyalty to the stage. ‘I am a person of the British theatre,’ he says with finality. ‘I did not grow up with movies in my blood the same way I did theatre, which is perhaps why I still feel like an interloper on a movie set.’ When asked about the theatre – his productions of Othello (National Theatre) or The Tempest (RSC), for example – he is animated and relaxed, something which feels especially poignant as he sits on the very stage where he first directed. But if he feels like an intruder elsewhere in the business, he certainly doesn’t show it, if his recent filmography is anything to go by. And for any aspiring filmmakers in the room (of which we discover during the Q and A, there are many), Mendes’ continued sense of trepidation at being put in charge of a cast and crew should act as reassurance that even the greatest suffer from flickers of doubt. And if Mendes can still do it despite this, then so can we.