Mon 10.13.2014

Rules for Directors from Sam Mendes

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Live Read is back! The new season kicks off Thursday with Sam Mendes’s beloved film American Beauty, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last month. (Reitman already has announced that the cast of his upcoming film Men, Women & Children, Adam Sandler will play Lester Burham, Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning role, and Rosemarie DeWitt will take on the role of Carolyn originated by Annette Bening). Mendes was already an acclaimed stage director in his native England when he made American Beauty, his feature film debut in 1999, and he picked up both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe that year for best director. In honor of the film’s decade-and-a-half milestone and its upcoming Live Read, we’ve gathered some words of filmmaking wisdom from the mind behind American Beauty.

Earlier this year, the Roundabout Theatre Company honored Mendes at its spring gala, where he gave a speech enumerating his “25 rules for directors.” The whole list, which can be found here, is definitely worth a read, but here are a few of our favorites from that talk, as well as some other kernels he’s dispensed over the years:

Always choose good collaborators.
“It seems so obvious, but the best collaborators are the ones who disagree with you. It means they’re passionate, they have opinions, and they’ll only ever say yes if they mean it.”

Find a personal way in.
“If you are doing a play or a film, you have to have a secret way in if you are directing it. Sometimes it’s big things. American Beauty, for me, was about my adolescence. Road to Perdition was about my childhood. Skyfall was about middle age and mortality. Sometimes it’s small things. Maybe it’s just a simple idea. What if we do the whole thing in the nightclub, for example. But it’s not enough just to admire a script; you have to have a way in that is yours and yours alone.”

Don’t fear looking foolish.
“You are never too old to learn something new, as I was reminded when I learned to ski with my 10-year-old son. He, of course, did it in about 10 minutes, and I spent four days slaloming up and down, looking like a complete tit. But don’t be scared of feeling like a complete tit. It’s an essential part of the learning process.”

Blockbusters can be thoughtful.
“We’re now in an industry where movies are very small or very big and there’s almost nothing in the middle,” Mendes told Indiewire, when he made Skyfall in 2012.” And it would be a tragedy if all the serious movies were very small and all the popcorn movies were very big and have nothing to say. And what Christopher Nolan proved was that you can make a huge movie that is thrilling and entertaining and has a lot to say about the world we live in, even if, in the case with The Dark Knight, it’s not even set in our world.”

Don’t let reviews get in your head.
When it comes to public opinion, Mendes told Time Out London: “I don’t read anything. Because it affects the way you do things. You have to retain a selective blindness. Ten years ago, you weren’t bombarded by opinion from the moment you open your eyes. You have to keep separate from it.”

Know what each of your actors needs.
In interviews with The Guardian, Mendes said in 2000, soon after American Beauty came out: “I love actors; I have great respect for them. I will go out and find what they need. My language to each of them has to suit their brain… Each actor is different. And on a film set you have to be next to them all, touching them on the shoulder saying, ‘I’m with you. I know exactly how you’re working. Now try this or that…’”

Directing depends upon a story’s rhythm.
A good story should breathe in and out, Mendes explained.

If you have the chance, please work with Dame Judi Dench.
Last but not least.

Mary Sollosi / Film Independent Blogger