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Sam Mendes interview: An Englishman abroad

SAM Mendes is talking about being an outsider looking in. The Oscar- winning film and stage director is at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where his latest film, Away We Go, has had the red-carpet treatment at the opening gala. An English-born director who has made his mark in Hollywood with a clutch of films delivered across a decade, often forensically and unsparingly deconstructing the American dream, he acknowledges that to some he remains an interloper.

"They don't like me for that," he chuckles, sitting in the Caledonian Hotel, looking out on a city which he first got to know as an undergraduate Fringe theatre director.

He is attending the international premiere without his wife, Kate Winslet, who had her red-carpet moment this year when she won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in The Reader. The actress, he said, was back at home in Gloucestershire, "looking after the kids".

Earlier, at a press conference, Mendes, 44, had declared that, ten years on from the extraordinary, Oscar-raking success of his film debut, American Beauty, he still felt like an outsider, although within an established tradition. "The majority of my favourite filmmakers were Europeans who went to America – Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Milos Forman, John Schlesinger. To me, many of their best movies, Midnight Cowboy, The Ice Storm or Psycho, are pieces of Americana fuelled by a vision that is not homegrown, with a detached, slightly cynical view of that amazing country."

Talking to me later, he recalls seeing Wim Wenders' haunting Paris Texas while at university: "Again made by a European, and with that quizzical view of the outsider."

But not everyone appreciates that stance, and not everyone is wild about the breezily titled Away We Go, a whimsical comedy road movie about a slightly shambolic but fiercely committed couple touring North America to find the ideal location in which to bring up their imminently due first child.

Talking of outsiders, I mention a somewhat curmudgeonly review of the new film in the New York Times, which described Mendes as "a literary tourist from Britain who has missed the point every time he has crossed the ocean". The director raises his eyebrows: "Wow, is that what he said? I don't read reviews. I learned in the theatre from a very young age not to talk back to critics. When I was just 24, I had two plays in the West End and I had a target printed on my forehead. Then I won an Academy Award for my first movie and the target got bigger – and it's still there.

"It's not going to stop me from making the movies I want to make, although I'm sure there are some people who would just like me to go away, particularly from making films about America."

Mendes collected two Oscars, for Best Director and Best Picture (the film won three others, not to mention eight nominations, a record for a first film by a non-American director), for American Beauty, his zany yet disquieting portrayal of domestic meltdown, with Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham and Annette Bening as his brittle wife cranking up their mid-life crises as their disaffected daughter looks on.

Road to Perdition followed, a brooding yet ultimately moving 1930s gangster movie, starring Tom Hanks, that also took on board fraught parent-child relationships, while the long, straight highways of 1930s plains America gave way to the interminable desert and blazing oilwells of the first Iraq war with Jarhead.

Last year it was back to suburban strife in Revolutionary Road, in which Mendes directed his wife, along with Leonardo DiCaprio, in Richard Yates's story of a couple's relationship crumbling under the weight of 1950s conformity. Away We Go, then, is something of a departure. Instead of families or individuals trying to extricate themselves from emotionally fragmenting or physically dangerous circumstances, here is a couple – affectionate, shabby and feckless – striving to root themselves for the sake of their unborn child.

Featuring two American TV comedy stars, John Krasinski, of the US version of The Office, and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live), the film does make quite a change from his earlier heavyweights, he agrees. And while he tends not to actively seek out scripts with any particular style or tone – "because the more you look, the more elusive they seem to get" – he concedes that, after the marital anguish of Revolutionary Road, he was ready for something not quite so angst-ridden. He has described making the film as "detoxing".

"I'm drawn to dark material, but I'm not a pessimistic person. Even though I'm very proud of Revolutionary Road, I'm not a Yatesian by nature (referring to the author of the original book]. I'm not someone who believes men and women are destined to forever be apart and everything will eventually dissolve."

Making the present film was also something of a downsizing exercise, he says. The cheapest and shortest film he has made in terms of budget and shooting days, it cost $17 million – just $2m more than did American Beauty a decade ago. It was also, he says, a pioneering "green" film-making initiative. "We downscaled the generators, used hybrid cars and ate from biodegradable material."

The film was the screenwriting debut of husband-and-wife novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, who were expecting their first child at the time – "So it had some of that spirit and excitement and newness you feel when you're about to become a parent." A family man himself, Mendes has a five-year-old son with Winslet, as well as a stepdaughter from her previous marriage. The weekend before coming to Edinburgh, he had taken his son, Joe, to his first Twenty20 cricket match. While family commitments prevent him from wielding willow as often as he used to, Mendes remains an ardent cricket enthusiast, not to mention an Arsenal fan "for better or for worse".

He could anticipate rather larger Edinburgh audiences at this, his first Edinburgh Film Festival visit, than during his time as an aspiring theatre director on the Fringe in the 1980s. He recalls one Fringe play, when he was still at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, called Hexen: "It was about witchcraft, and was by Tim Firth, who recently wrote the film and play Calendar Girls. We had a company that did six new plays on the Fringe that year, and we spread our resources a bit too thinly. I remember running from the Chaplaincy Centre (in Bristo Square] through the centre of town, down the hill and back up again to where we had another play. I can't remember where that was… No, it wasn't the Assembly Rooms. I would have cut off my right arm to have had a show at the Assembly Rooms in those days."

Just three years later, however, he was directing Judi Dench – who hailed him as "this brilliant boy" – on stage in The Cherry Orchard, and was running the Donmar Warehouse theatre in the West End by his mid-twenties. He went on to take Broadway by storm with The Blue Room, starring Nicole Kidman, and it was after his stage revival of Cabaret, featuring Alan Cumming, that Hollywood producer Steven Spielberg passed him the script of what would become Mendes's spectacular screen debut. "Basically, he liked the production and asked me if I wanted to make a movie with his company, Dreamworks. And I said, 'Yeah, I've always wanted to make a movie, but I've never been able to find anything I really wanted to do.' And he handed me American Beauty… and the rest is history, I suppose."

Bearing in mind that Revolutionary Road involved him directing his wife (and fellow Reading native), Winslet, do they find that, to avoid domestic strife of their own, they have to declare a moratorium on talking shop? "It's more difficult when you're working together than when you're not working together," he replies. "When you're not working together, it can be really enjoyable because you're hearing what's going on on the set and what her problems might be tomorrow, and that's really interesting, and I do the same with her. Working together, you're both full on. There isn't one who's relaxing and pouring the other a glass of wine and saying, 'Put your feet up and let's have a talk about the day'. You're both knackered.

"Also, the rhythms of acting and directing are totally different. As a director you're on the set at different times, your first conversations of the day are with different people, the cinematographer, the sound guys or whoever. She's talking to actors or make-up… So it's difficult."

He'd love to do another film with her, he says, "but I've discovered that when you try to put a film or play together round an actor and find the material to suit, it doesn't work. It's when you find a script you love and then you cast it to perfection."

His transatlantic theatre venture, The Bridge Project, has just opened at the Old Vic with The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale (having already played them at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), and next year it will return with The Three Sisters and As You Like It.

And the next movie? He smiles: "I think I'll do something quintessentially American, in order to really get up the nose of the New York Times…" He laughs uproariously. "Only joking. I don't know, really, I'm a very bad predictor of what I'm going to do next."

He is attracted by the idea of making a film based on the graphic novel The Preacher, which would be a return to the dark side, and with a vengeance, "but it would need to be transformed into a script, and it's another piece of Americana, so it's something that might wait".

He would like to make a British movie for a change, one of these days, "but I'm not a developer of scripts, or a writer. I'm prey to whatever script happens to cross my path. So I'm waiting…"

MENDES' MILESTONES

Mid-1980s

Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Cambridge student theatre productions

1989

Directs The Cherry Orchard in the West End, winning Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Newcomer

1990

Starts directing with the Royal Shakespeare Company

1992

Becomes artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre at Covent Garden, London

1994

Directs a revival of Oliver! at the London Palladium, which runs for four years

1998

Revives Cabaret, with Alan Cumming as the master of ceremonies, transferring to Broadway and winning four Tony awards. The same year he directs The Blue Room, with Nicole Kidman, which also transfers to Broadway

1999

Makes his film debut with American Beauty, which wins five Oscars

2000

Made a CBE for services to the arts

2002

Directs his second film, Road to Perdition, with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. Also wins further awards for productions of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night

2003

Wins a trio of Laurence Olivier Awards for best director, best revival and a special achievement award for his ten years at the Donmar

2005

Makes Jarhead, about American marines in the first Gulf War, starring Jake Gyllenhaal

2007

Establishes The Bridge Project

2008

Directs Revolutionary Road, starring his wife, Kate Winslet, and Leonardo DiCaprio

2009

Directs Away We Go

 
 
 

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