December 25, 2008 / 1:35 PM / 11 years ago

Just a Minute With: Sam Mendes on "Revolutionary Road"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Sam Mendes was already a top theater director when, at age 34, he burst onto Hollywood’s scene with his film directorial debut, “American Beauty,” a dark tale of dysfunction in a suburban family.

The movie earned five Oscars for 1999, including best picture and best director for Mendes. Since then, Mendes has directed two other dramas that look at dark sides of human nature, “The Road to Perdition” and “Jarhead.”

His new movie, “Revolutionary Road,” debuted in major U.S. cities on Christmas Day and will expand around the United States in coming weeks. But already the movie, which is based on Richard Yates’ acclaimed novel about a frustrated suburban couple living in the 1950s, has earned widespread acclaim.

“Revolutionary Road” stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (Mendes’ wife) as the couple, Frank and April Wheeler, and Mendes took to talk to Reuters about his new movie.

Q: Yates novel has been read for decades, but it is set in the 1950s. What is it about the story that makes it timeless?

A: It deals with this idea, that I think a lot of people — friends of mine, contemporaries and even me myself at certain points have felt — which is that you somehow find yourself living a life you hadn’t quite expected and certainly one that you didn’t really want to live. You find yourself compromising the ideals and the dreams you had when you were younger.

Q: As audience members, it is difficult to look at Frank and April’s marriage and not compare it to our own. Do you see any of your marriage in the lives of Frank and April?

A: I don’t know about my own marriage. It is a cautionary tale. So if I said, ‘I saw a lot of my own marriage in it,’ I think it would be slightly worrying. (laughs)

But I do feel like I see myself and many of my friends, my male friends, in Frank. I think Yates achieves this iconic couple partly because he does write men and women so well and they seem so different. He understands the guilt-tripping and the vulnerability and the manipulation of men on some level. And he also understands the mystery and the unknowability of women, certainly through men’s eyes.

Q: We all have dreams and so much of “Revolutionary Road” deals with unfulfilled dreams. Have you had any dreams of your own that were perhaps unfulfilled at this point?

A: All sporting dreams, along with pretty much every other boy who ever lived. My career as a director really happened in my early 20s (and) it was always a surprise that I did as well as I did in the theater. Frankly until I was at least 30, I would have been a professional sportsman. If given half a chance, I’d say ‘yes’ to it now.

Q: What sport did you want to play as a kid?

A: Cricket. I’m a big cricket fan.

Q: What about your wife, Kate, surprised you when you began working with her on set?

A: Her relentless attention to detail. She’s very, very dogged and she wants to make very, very precise decisions before she starts. And then, when she does a couple of takes and she’s got what she wanted to get on film, then she’s very, very free and basically will go any direction you push her.

But the big thing for me was just how much fun she was. She’s very warm with the crew, a very good company leader, and I found myself actually a bit in awe of that sometimes.

I was just relieved that it was better than I had hoped, and that we didn’t have any major rows. Put it this way, if you spend 14 hours-a-day staging enormous rows and fights between a married couple on a movie set, the last thing you’re going to do when you go home with your wife is to have a row. (laughs)

Q: So you had some concerns, then, wondering if your husband and wife relationship might get in the way of your professional relationship as director and actress?

A: I wanted it to be — we had been married I think four years, five years, before we even worked together — and I wanted it to be special for her. I wanted it to be a special experience. My concern was that she would find me less exciting than other directors she worked with. I think her concern was that I would find her less exciting than other actors.

It’s all fundamental insecurity, nothing unexpected. But when I know that she has worked with Peter Jackson, Ang Lee, Jim Cameron etc., etc., etc., then I’m going to think, ‘Christ, I hope I’m up there with the great directors that she’s worked with.’ And she was thinking the same about me. So it was more to do with hoping that the experience would be a good one.

Q: So much has been made of “Titanic” stars Kate and Leo back together. You have said that because they knew each, they could be more free with raw emotions. Why is that important?

A: They have a very similar work ethic and can make each other laugh. You have to believe they’ve been together seven or eight years, and as it happens, they’ve known each other for the same period of life the characters have been married.

When you are in a very brutal, honest relationship like the one in the movie, to have the ability to suddenly spring surprises on the other actor and have them not be offended — suddenly start screaming or doing something quite violent and know that the actor will just go with you — that led to some really exciting things, and I think the evidence is on screen.

Q: You’ve also said you don’t see this as a dark tale or grim story, and that seems surprising given its subject.

A: Dark is true. The wrong word I feel is depressing. For me tragedy, which is what this is a great romantic tragedy, is not depressing. “Romeo and Juliet” or “On the Waterfront” or “Streetcar” (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) these are not depressing movies. When you see something done well it is uplifting.

I feel like sad and serious is good, in this case. It doesn’t necessarily mean depressing or grim. I think those are by definition negative words. This, in its own way, is uplifting but for different reasons than a comedy.

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