DGA Awards preview: Sam Mendes

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Families -- troubled, dark, despondent -- pervade much of Sam Mendes' work. One was at the center of his debut, 1999's "American Beauty"; another appeared in his follow-up, 2002's "The Road to Perdition"; and his new film "Revolutionary Road" returns to the territory.

"Directing is both creating an alternate reality and an alternate family, things that for me, as a young boy growing up an only child in a single-parent family, were absent from my life," he says.

Born in England in 1965 to a university lecturer and a children's book author, Mendes' parents divorced by the time he was five. He first tried his hand at directing when he mounted David Halliwell's comic play "Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs" at the University of Cambridge. "It took me a while to convince myself that I actually knew what I was doing," he recalls.

After achieving success in the theater at the Royal Shakespeare Co. and the Donmar Warehouse, where he worked as artistic director for 10 years, he followed the examples of Kenneth Branagh and Danny Boyle and made the leap into feature films with "American Beauty," which won five Oscars. While there are surface similarities between his feature debut and his latest drama -- both are angst-ridden and set in the doldrums of American suburbia -- Mendes sees a through line in his films that is much more fundamental.

"They all have people in them who are lost and trying to find their life," he says. "That's true of all the movies, 'American Beauty' through to (2005's) 'Jarhead,' even through to the movie I've just made since 'Revolutionary Road,' which is this (screenplay) Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida wrote about a young couple trying to find a place to give birth to their child."

The family at the center of "Revolutionary Road" -- based on Richard Yates' critically acclaimed 1961 novel -- includes Mendes' own wife, Kate Winslet. The five-time Oscar nominee stars as April Wheeler, an aspiring actress who longs to move to Paris but instead finds herself living in 1950s suburban Connecticut with her unfaithful, unhappy husband, Frank, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie reunites the two stars for the first time since 1997's "Titanic" set the record for the highest-grossing movie of all time. Kathy Bates co-stars as the Wheelers' neighbor, and Michael Shannon as her unstable, mathematically gifted son.

"It's a movie about marriage," Mendes says. "It's about what happens to you when you love someone and, for whatever reason, you gradually compromise your ideals. You wake up one day, and you're 30, and you realize that you're not living the life that you want to live, and you decide to try to change it. In that respect, it's a universal story. It's not just a story about the suburbs."

Screenwriter Justin Haythe first brought the project to Mendes' attention, but it wasn't until he read the original novel that he decided to make it his next project.

"I was just blown away by it," Mendes says. "It was difficult in the sense that I've never made a movie that was based on source material that I found so flawless. 'Road to Perdition' is based on a graphic novel, 'Jarhead' on a memoir. They're both rough diamonds, and I could change the story, and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. With this, I was trying to be as good as the source material every day. A movie of 'Revolutionary Road' is no more likely to be better than the novel than a movie of 'War and Peace' is going to be better than 'War and Peace.' It's just not going to happen. So you have to make very deliberate, simple choices about what you want to include and what you don't. And my hope is that I tried to retain the spirit of the book and the spirit of Richard Yates and the feeling of longing that's in the book that I found very powerful."

Mendes insisted on a month-long rehearsal period, during which Haythe was always present. "There was the inevitable discussion of the book," Mendes says. "Everyone's got their passages underlined that they found most interesting. 'Is there a way of getting this line in? Can we find this moment? Could we put these two moments together?' During most rehearsals of a movie, you make adjustments to the script as you go along. But it was an exciting rehearsal period."

In addition to choosing the film's words carefully, Mendes knew that the key to capturing the intimacy and energy of the book was to abandon the striking visuals that characterize much of his earlier work. In "Revolutionary Road," there is nothing akin to "American Beauty's" rose petal fantasy. "I didn't want to fetishize the period," he says. "I felt very strongly that I didn't want the movie to become about the '50s. I made this movie in a very straightforward way, in a very actor-oriented way. In that respect, it's the least showy film I've ever made."

If Mendes avoided drawing attention to period details, he went out of his way to create a feeling of the time. While filming, he wasn't averse to cranking up the volume on the occasional Dean Martin ballad. "I played music on set to set a mood and sometimes just to try out music that I was actually going to use in the movie itself," he says. "Some of the songs made it into the movie. But really, it was just keeping the set as quiet, as private, and as small as possible."

This placed much of the burden on the shoulders of his talented cast. DiCaprio lost 10 pounds during the shoot, and Winslet has said that making the movie "was almost as though we just had a car crash and our car had rolled five times down a hill."

Mendes is more measured in his assessment. "It was a very intense process," he says. "We were shooting on location, so we were in a house, and the house was very small, and everyone was crammed into the house. And it was the summer in Connecticut, and it was very hot, and it was very claustrophobic. I felt that served the story well, although it wasn't always so pleasurable. There are certain scenes toward the end when the relationship starts to fracture which are particularly intense. It was like a pressure cooker."
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