Sam Mendes: ‘It’s not about the British are great, the Germans are bad’
The director of first World War movie 1917 on portraying the conflict in a contemporary light
Sam Mendes (centre) on the set of 1917.
If you know two things about Sam Mendes’s 1917, you will know that it takes place during the first World War and that it is apparently composed of one continuous shot.
Lengthy sequences are spliced together to give the sense the camera runs continuously in real time. Or maybe you don’t know that. Maybe this is – as the Americans would have it – very much an “inside baseball” discussion.
“We previewed the film in New Jersey,” Mendes says. “And I said: ‘Don’t tell them about how we shot it.’ We then asked if they noticed anything unusual about how it was shot. Less than half noticed.”
But those us who are aware will surely be looking for the scenes that allow one sequence to blend seamlessly into the next. Look, George MacKay, who plays a soldier trusted with delivering a message through no man’s land, is descending into a darkened space. That’s one. Right?
You can’t get a PhD in directing. The challenge is to not stop, not stand still. The challenge is to keep moving
“Maybe, but I think you’re in a minority,” he says. “You watch films professionally. Most people won’t think that. It has a very odd effect on your unconscious, but I don’t want it in the conscious. But for those who are nerdy it is there to be seen. I can bet you won’t guess the stitches. Maybe one or two. They are not where you think they are.”
It is tempting to discuss the technical challenges for all of our allotted time – and we’ll come back to it – but there’s plenty more to get to in Sam’s career. He’s packed a lot into 54 years.
Born in Reading, from a Jewish and Trinidadian background, he drifted into directing theatre while at Cambridge. Somehow or other, after work at the Chichester Festival Theatre and the RSC, he found himself director of the Donmar Warehouse, a famously influential smallish space in the West End, when still five years short of his 30th birthday.
A production of Cabaret won four Olivier awards and, after transferring to Broadway, two Tonys. A few years after that, at the first time of asking, he grabbed an Oscar for American Beauty. And we haven’t even got to the 21st century yet.
Was there a plan here? Did he intend to become a “man of the theatre” when he went up to Cambridge?
“No, I didn’t at all. I thought I would be a journalist. But when I realised how hard that was . . . ,’he says.
I make a comic snorting noise.
“Ha ha! No, the seeds maybe had been sown, but I loved it the moment I started doing it. I had to learn on the job. Peter Brook says you can’t train to be a director; the only way to become one is to call yourself one and then persuade everyone else that is the case. You can’t get a PhD in directing. The challenge is to not stop, not stand still. The challenge is to keep moving.”
So take us back to his arrival at the Donmar. It was 1990 and London was waking from Thatcherian torpor and moving towards the (shudder) Cool Britannia re-arrangement. For good or ill, Sam Mendes, who later formed a power couple with Kate Winslet, became part of that thrusting young England.
Does he look back now and think the young whippersnapper didn’t know what he was doing?
I felt an obligation to honour my grandfather. It’s important to remember they were fighting for a free and unified Europe. Good to be reminded of that now
“Yes and no,” he says. “The ignorance of youth does mean that you are blind to the ways you might fail. But also you do some things better straight out of the gate. You are not worrying too much about failure. I look back and am amazed at the chutzpah of the young me. In the theatre you can go from show to show and get caught up in a false energy.”
Following successful productions of Oliver! and Uncle Vanya, he moved into cinema during one of the great false dawns for American film. 1999 was the year of Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense and The Insider.
But it was American Beauty, Mendes’s debut film, that won best picture at the Oscars. Earlier this year, as pundits considered 20th anniversaries, there was some grumbling about that suburban drama. The word “overrated” was flung around quite a bit. Posterity can be a cruel judge.
“Film happened at a good time because it offered a whole other world to understand,” he says. “But then I had to learn backwards there too. I had early surface success and then had to carry on learning in the public eye. It is strange looking back.”
A ripe opportunity
I wonder what winning the Oscar did for him. He has had something of an up-and-down time of it. Road to Perdition, his epic gangster drama starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, deserved greater critical and commercial success.
Jarhead, a deliberately sedate study of the first Iraq War, proved a little too oblique to appeal to a wider audience. It looked a little as if his film career was drifting into the mud before it had got into third gear.
“Winning the Oscar gave me more control. I have final cut – which is more than most directors get,” he says. “It also lumbered me with a lot of expectation. And I felt my first movie, though I am very proud of it, was maybe a little overpraised. And then maybe a few after that were underpraised. The culture will decide whether something is successful in retrospect.”
At any rate, all that muttering was rendered moot when, to some surprise, he became the first Oscar-winning director to helm a James Bond film.
Skyfall could hardly have gone better for him. Racking up over $1 billion worldwide, it became the highest-grossing film ever for Sony, the second highest-grosser of 2012 and the highest grossing of all time in the UK.
Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, the series veteran producers, must have been delighted that they talked him into it.
“I just wanted a big challenge and I wanted to come back to this country,” he says. “I had made all my movies in America. Talking to Barbara and Michael, I thought there was somewhere I could take this. It was ripe. I wondered if I could reintroduce Q and Moneypenny.
“Maybe M will die? And they were all fine with that. Once we had the story to tell it became exciting. I didn’t need much persuading.”
Sam did the decent thing and came back for a second 007 adventure. Quantum of Solace was less well received by the critics, but it still made buckets of money. I assume Michael and Barbara flung themselves at his feet and begged for a third.
“No, not really,” he says. “It was understood that that was going to be it. It wasn’t an issue. It was a question asked more by the press. I felt like it was time to do something different. Different time, different genre. And here we are.”
Here we are, indeed.
‘A contemporary film’
A lot of life has passed since that first Oscar win. Winslet and he divorced in 2011. He spent some time as the romantic partner of Rebecca Hall before marrying musician Alison Balsom in 2017.
Now he is right back in the awards season conversation. Much tweaking was done to 1917 before it eventually arrived before critics in late November. The reviews proved largely ecstatic and the film is odds-on for a best picture nomination. Many more people are going to ask him why he went for that pseudo-one-shot technique.
“I felt like it was the closest connection you could get to characters in real time,” he says. “It was the real time aspect of it. If it hadn’t stuck to the rules of the ticking-clock thriller then it might have been more difficult. But I wanted you to feel it as the characters felt it. But I don’t believe we shot it in a way that draws attention to itself.”
The film was inspired by stories his late grandfather told him of his own time in the trenches. Closely researched historical detail is woven in with careering action that makes canny use of Roger Deakins’s mobile camera.
Old pals such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Colin Firth offer strong cameos in the corner of the frame. Few other British films on this theme have found roles for so many people of colour.
“I was very conscious of putting people of colour in the background throughout because those are the cultures that are making the films,” he says, “And you can be a slave to historical reality. At the end of the day, it’s a contemporary film.”
For all the talk of not being beholden to history, I can see 1917 being used as a teaching tool in years to come. There is a lot of gritty, bloody truth here.
“Yes, I think that may be a byproduct of it, but it’s not an ‘eat your peas because they’re good for you’ experience,” he says. “But, yes, I feel an obligation to acknowledge the generation that served in that war. My grandfather was one who was lucky enough to survive. His friends fell next to him.
“I felt an obligation to honour him. It’s important to remember they were fighting for a free and unified Europe. Good to be reminded of that now. Ha ha ha!”
Older and wearier
It all comes back to Brexit.
There are few more international industries than cinema. Actors and directors flit back and forth across borders. So do costume designers, key grips and sound designers.
“I do worry, but no more than anyone else,” he says. “I see that the free movement of people working in film and theatre is under threat. But that’s just one of many things I am concerned about.
“I haven’t made the film as an anti-Brexit stance. On the other hand, it’s not so long ago we were at war in Europe. The danger is that these wars are co-opted for jingoistic reasons – to argue there was a time when we were all on our own and did fine thank you very much.”
He sounds older and wearier as he works through the argument.
“These two soldiers in the film could be Germans. It’s not about the British are great, the Germans are bad. When he meets a German the lad is as young and frightened as he is. It’s about the experience of war rather than a political statement.”
This conversation will go on and on and on.
1917 is released on January 10th