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British theatre and film director Sam Mendes has just received the Stockholm Visionary Award 2022, and we spoke to him in the Swedish city about everything surrounding his film career. An Academy Award-winner for his directorial debut American Beauty (1999), Mendes thereafter entered the starry galaxy of movie-making in Hollywood directing a-listers like Paul Newman and Tom Hanks (Road To Perdition), Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road) – to whom he was married between 2003-2010 – entrusted with directing two of the latest Bond sagas, Skyfall and Spectre, and more recently blockbusters Jarhead and 1917. He has never wanted to cast himself in a genre or style. His movies are interested in human beings on a journey and even in the James Bond films, he explores dysfunctional families, biological or otherwise. Now he presents his film Empire of Light (2022), starring Olivia Colman who plays a cinema manager with bipolar disorder in an English coastal village in the turbulent early 80s.

Congratulations on the Stockholm Film Festival Visionary Award!
Thank you very much indeed, I'm delighted.
What does it mean to you to win this award?
Well, I'm delighted to be here, I've always wanted to go, I look for excuses to come to Stockholm. And this is a very nice excuse to have. And so it's a place that I've been to before. I love it here. It has a great, honourable and extraordinary tradition of filmmakers. I know, it's probably boring for all of you to hear about how filmmakers are still influenced by Ingmar Bergman, but it's true. And for me, personally, the image of somebody who could work freely in theatre and film together was always a beacon. As a young theatre maker before I even started making films, to show that storytellers could cross that barrier. Bergman was always the greatest. It's an extraordinary film festival and I shall definitely be coming here again.
The festival will premiere your new feature film Empire of Light. How did the idea for this film come about?
It started out when I was a child. I'm an only child and I grew up alone with my mother because my parents got divorced. And my mother suffered from mental illness, she was bipolar, in those days called schizophrenic. And, in a way, that's what forged me as a person. The fact that I grew up watching her, for every slight change of mood, to see whether I would be staying with her or going to live with my father, whether I'd be staying at school or leaving school at that age. The one person you love and you depend on, suddenly becoming someone else is a very frightening thing. And so you become very self-contained, and a caretaker really, at a very young age, which was what happened to me. That fed, obviously, directly into my life and work. I then set off on a career in which I create worlds and control them. You don't have to be a Freudian therapist to understand that, I lost control of my life very young. So, for me, trying to solve that riddle, trying to go back and understand better, trying to throw a light on mental illness which remains the thing that we stigmatise and don't understand... that was always something that I knew I was going to do.
To what extent does the film represent your own experience?
The thing is, I had to try and find a way to do it. I didn't want it to be directly autobiographical. I didn't want to have a child there who was me. Because Margo Jefferson, the American writer, has a great line: how do you reveal yourself without looking for love or pity? And I felt like if I put a child in this story, what you're saying is love, pity this child, which is me. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in understanding and throwing light on that in a world of a person who struggles heroically, against being pulled down into the darkness the whole time. So I had to find a form for this film, which was not autobiographical, directly.
And then I was also searching for a way to tell a story about my teenage years, which were 1980-1982, the Thatcher years, great racial upheaval, unrest, and political unrest, but great music and great movies. And what I did at that time was to escape from my life, and I escaped into film, movies, music. And once I found a way to put them together, I decided to try and write this. And I tried to write it, knowing that I'd never written a script on my own – you know, I co-wrote 1917, and, of course, made lots of contributions to movies as you do as a director. But, for me, this felt very personal, I felt like I sort of had to do it. Sometimes you feel compelled to do a film from some other force. But it also felt like the right time to do it. Because some of the racial landscape now feels similar to then – much of what happened during the lockdown. And the pandemic gave place to talk about mental illnesses, a there was a lot of stress – people were exposed. And still, there is no understanding. And I felt like I wanted to dramatise mental illness, not to explain it, you know, it's a show, don't tell Phil (laughs).
How do you think the film will resonate with people?
I think you'll find that there's a big difference in the way you view the movie if you have some experience of mental illness, either you, your family, your mum, your dad, your kids, your brother – whatever, friends... and if you don't. I've found that people come up very, very powerfully upset and effective. There's something about Hillary, Olivia Colman's character, that chimes with somebody they know. So that, for me, has been very rewarding. There are some movies you do, there was an old Hollywood saying, one for them, one for me. And there are some movies, you feel like, well, I hope people love this. But this was partly for me to excavate a story that I felt had been sitting in me for a long time.
I would like to talk about the family dynamics in your movies, especially, you know, even in your James Bond films, which are essential to the story, like the figure of the father in Road to Perdition. How does this theme show in the new movie?
If you ask me what links all the films with family dynamics, dysfunctional families would be it. I think there aren't many functional family units (laughs). And even ad hoc families, like, for example, Bond and M is a sort of mother-son relationship in a way and I liked that I exploited that in Skyfall. Yeah, the dysfunctional family in Road to Perdition, in Revolutionary Road, the sense that Swofford in Jarhead is the product of an unhappy family, American Beauty has two families living next door to each other, both of them different versions of unhappy...
So weirdly in my last two movies, for me family has been a binding force. One of the reasons why I made this movie now is that I have four children, and my youngest is 5 and I'm very aware that that's probably going to be it, this is my last, and she's still very young and I'm not young anymore. It makes you reflect on your own childhood and your parents and how they dealt with you when you were that age. That's what drew me to tell this story now.
There are two functional families in Empire of Light, in a way, there aren't in any of my other films. One is the family in the cinema, which is the family that I found. The family you create is the family of oddballs and outcasts who all come together in places like the theatre or the cinema. So there are families, they're just not biological families, and the other families are the Stephens, in the movie Michael Ward's mother, played by Tanya Moody, which is a great relationship between the mother and the son. I find as I get older that I'm less interested in dissing and dismissing the idea of family and more interested in why families do work. And how they're amazing things and how they take unusual forms. The best ones, in fact, don't conform to the norm, they know the idea of the ideal family. In movies like American Beauty, Road to Perdition or Revolutionary Road when they're sitting around the table... That's the lie. The unconventional family is a thing of wonder and will always evolve and so I think maybe that just comes with age, not talking now so much as a child but as a parent.
You started out as a play director. What is directing a film like for you?
Directing is storytelling. That's the answer to that question, really. You tell the story, in different ways. At the same time, you're telling the story in words, you are telling the story in a light, an image, telling the story and composition, you're telling the story of music, editing, and all of those things, those layers have to be in sync, they all have to be perfectly synced together to make a good movie. And that is hard. And you do need all of those people. And you cannot do it without all of them. So I wouldn't be sitting here without Roger Deakins or Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, for example, that's one of the great relationships in my film. I couldn't have made that, I wouldn't have even had the idea of that movie with that. Of course, those things are all important. But you have to be able to work within all of those areas with freedom and understanding and humility, you have to say when you don't know something you have to learn. And I'm still learning and I always have sought with each movie to find a style that suits the film, rather than impose a style upon it.
You won the Academy Award with your very first feature film. That's like winning a Nobel Prize for Literature with your first novel. How did your filmmaking evolve from that point?
It's great pressure when you make your first movie and you won the Academy Award for it. To make more movies within that style, to make it, and in the case of American Beauty, very composed, very still and very quite stylised... My instinct was to make something much grander, then the movie that follows it has nothing composed, everything to handheld cameras in the middle of the desert, not a straight line anywhere... And then you go in there with a great cinematographer, and great actors and invent something. So each movie has had a different challenge and the movie makers that I admired growing up, Billy Wilder, Milosz Foreman and Ang Lee's movies are all different genres. It was a different attempt to try to tell a story using every available tool that suited that particular story, and to me, that's the goal. So even though I talked about Bergman, for example, Bergmanness, it would be a word you could use to describe something that is ‘Bergman-like.’ Or you can say, it's Tarantinoess. I never wanted that. I never wanted to have fans turn up with t-shirts that said “Sam Mendes is great.” (Laughs). There was a part of me that wanted to sit back behind it, and not put myself in the middle of that. It takes great courage to do that, to put yourself in. It's just a different way of viewing a career.
Generally, art goes by movements and cycles and when you made American Beauty in 1999 there was definitely a new array of new film directors who had put their print on Hollywood.
I do know that there was a great generation of directors, my generation, when American Beauty came out. There were movies, great movies by Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Spike Jones, M. Night Shyamalan, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Alexander Payne, blah, blah, blah. And we all started around that time. And everyone there, if you'd ask them, said: well, obviously, the great era of movies is the 70s. And that's what influenced us because we were late 70s, early 80s. That's when we were teenagers, all of those people. And there are many more in that era who were influenced by those films. I remember sitting with Alexander Payne and talking about how he just made Election... Cameron Crowe, Sofia Coppola... there were many good directors and I think that is not going to ever happen again.
How do you see the shift in the film industry, the change of formats where a film director has a season or more to complete the story?
The director as a major cultural figure is becoming gradually diminished because of streaming. And, by the way, I think that there are new and magnificent figures replacing them, like the showrunner. Somebody like Vince Gilligan, for example, who makes Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, to me is every bit as important, if not more influential, than the great filmmakers of the 70s. But they're not working in movies anymore. They're working across massive 10-hour arcs, and they're not directing everything. And some of them are not directing anything but they are controlling the way the film looks and feels. A different kind of storyteller is emerging. So the era of the single film is becoming slightly diminished.
That's why these events, these rituals that we go through like the film festival, the secular ritual, the non-religious ritual, is really important, because it is a reminder of how much can be achieved in 2 hours. That's where I come from. I come from theatre where I had 2 hours, I had a captive audience. And if I didn't hold them for 2 hours, I failed. So I had to sit with audiences day in and day out, working out how to tell a story that helped them shift rhythm, how to shift pace, how to work with actors, how to work with light and how to work in a very narrow time and not to outstay your welcome. And that's how I still think of the story. And even though I produced television, I struggle to think of a 10-hour story, it's an impossibly huge thing. I love the idea that you go in, you're not allowed to talk, or look at anything else, except the image in the dark and you come out changed, hopefully, or at the very least, talking about the film. And if someone comes out and talks about where they're going to have supper, you failed. That's what storytelling is for me. But I think that I'm becoming a minority if I'm honest.
At this stage of your career, what do you think is left for you to do?
There are lots of things I'd still like to do. I tend to think in terms of genre, I'd like to make a science fiction movie, I'd like to make something for my kids... a fantasy movie, a thriller – I've never made a thriller; I've done a Bond movie, but it's a different kind of thing. I'd like to make a Western, but at the end of the day, the thing that makes me want to make a film, whatever the genre, is the people in it, the human story. What will always attract me is human beings on a journey of some sort that captures me or reflects things that concern me. Even though you look across the movies I've made they're all different genres and all different kinds of styles. I hope the thing that unifies them is that there are people in there that they care about, and that there are a human story that grabs you, even in a Bond movie. And that was my criteria when I did Skyfall. I want to make Bond vulnerable, briefly, and that's hard when you know the character can't die (laughs). Until the last movie, of course... they fucking killed him (laughs). It's like: well, if you told me I could have killed him (laughs). Joking aside, you're making a movie about a character the audience knows is going to survive. How is that? The wonderful thrill of 1917, starting with two characters, and being able to say, the person you thought was the central character is gone, the feeling of the audience was extraordinary. And so that was partly in response to struggling with a character that had no danger that they were going to disappear. So yeah, I think the answer is there's lots of stories out there, there always will be as long as you're interested in humans and not in the spectacle.
I think it's worth saying, again, the nature of the story that, when I grew up, we were watching movies like Citizen Kane, or Casablanca or whatever, these movies had an ending that you remember; you remember the ending of Casablanca, you remember the ending of Citizen Kane. And that was the goal to achieve a perfect shape. And now, the goal is a beginning, a middle, and then another beginning. Because we want you to see the next movie, and the next movie, the next movie; there is no such thing as an ending, there is no satisfaction, there is only the creation of hunger for the next thing and that changes the nature of the story. And that goes for streaming as well. We don't want to end the story because we might want the second series and we might want to go to seventy episodes. So let's just not end it. Which makes you love things like The Sopranos where just boom! Down comes the guillotine. But it changes the way a lot of people think about the story. If it's successful, you can't kill Lester Burnham at the end of American Beauty. What if you want to make American Beauty 2? Let's keep him alive! (laughs). That's not a good movie. It's tricky to balance that and that's something that I would want to fight for.
Is there anything in the Bond films you directed that you would have done differently?
I wouldn't have started Spectre without a script. I would have liked to have had the third act when I started the process because one of the things about Skyfall we were lucky about was that when we were halfway through pre-production, MGM, the studio, went bankrupt. So we stopped. And technically, we weren't allowed to carry on working, but we did with the script. And we spent an extra 9 months on the script. So when we started shooting Skyfall everything was in place, it was on the page. And everything in that movie is leading to the death of M and the rebirth of Bond. Every scene, every line, like any good movie, you know where you're heading. The definition of that would be 1917 which is literally one movement. No good film can be made if you don't know where it's heading. And the problem with Spectre was that I didn't know. And that was no one's fault, we have a story structure... I didn't have reasons to bore you with but once you get locked into a release, as anyone in Hollywood will tell you, it's tricky.
I love the first half of Spectre, but it starts to falter when it doesn't quite know where it's heading. So that's the one thing I would change. Other than that, I had an amazing experience doing those films it woke me up and unlocked all sorts of things. You do have to be a director with a capital D when you do a Bond movie. You know there are days when you have to grab the bullhorn and instruct four thousand extras and step out. That kind of confidence breeds more confidence. And so the irony is Spectre – which was the movie that I think was the most problematic with the script – without having done that movie, I wouldn't have done 1917 because it was the experience of being the opening of Spectre. That gave me the confidence to make the next film. I know it's a cliché, but you find out these things when you get them wrong, you learn from your mistakes, and it's the ones that didn't work entirely, that teach you the most. So I'm glad I did it. Very glad I did it. And I had a great time doing it because I knew what to expect where Skyfall was like being hit by a train. Do you know that scene with a tube train coming down? That was me, standing in the way of the tube train (laughs). That was what it felt like, in Skyfall. When you've got sort of six units and crazy stuff happening all the time. But it was exhilarating. 
What do you think about them killing Bond?
I was surprised. How are they going to get out of that? I was also relieved that the question is not going to be answered by me (laughs). I can be buying my ticket and my popcorn to see what happens now. In a way, the moment you introduce a character in a long-running franchise who dies on screen, you change everything, because you had to recognise ageing, the existence of time, and the fact that there's a relationship that comes to an end. All of those things that the Bond franchise has never acknowledged before, suddenly, you're acknowledging them. Once you've made that decision, the logical conclusion of that is that Bond dies as well. I was there with Daniel Craig and I could see him looking at Judy Dench in the death scene thinking: This is good, I want to do that. Because we did something which is supposed to be a tricky thing, a balancing act, which was to try and link the movies with something other than just Bond, there was a narrative arc. It was like being in one of those vivid dreams. I cast all these people. It was like a dream for me. I watched it at my local cinema and I loved it.

Words and portrait
Víctor Moreno

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