Tales from the revolution

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: Reteaming Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio helped bring difficult material to the screen in "Revolutionary Road."

When BBC Films hired Justin Haythe to adapt the novel "Revolutionary Road" about four years ago, the screenwriter was pretty confident that the movie would get made.

"I don't think I fully grasped how slim the chances were at the time," Haythe says.

Yet there were reasons for pessimism. After all, filmmakers had been trying to adapt Richard Yates' piercing exploration of a suburban marriage in decline since it appeared on bookshelves in 1961. Director John Frankenheimer pursued the project before turning his attention to 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," and "Godfather" producer Albert Ruddy, director William Friedkin and actor Patrick O'Neal each made his own unsuccessful attempt to get it off the ground.

"In retrospect, I realize that on some level it was a completely hopeless idea to try and get this made," Haythe says. "You have a brutal literary masterpiece in period. It could only happen with stars of a certain caliber and with a director of that same caliber and with a producer like Scott Rudin."

All of those elements eventually would come together to make "Road" one of the season's major awards contenders, especially now that it has earned five Golden Globe nominations. But first the project needed a key advocate. That person was star Kate Winslet.

"We're both represented at CAA, and I got word that she was becoming attached," Haythe says. "This was a passion project for her. She beat the drum. When you have someone like Kate advocating for a project like this and saying that she wants to do it, it's suddenly much more of a real possibility than when it's just a script."

Still, making the film a reality required a strong co-star and a director who could handle the nuanced interactions between the leads.

Haythe previously worked with Winslet's husband, director Sam Mendes, on another project that never came to fruition, but the two had remained in contact.

"Because Kate had already read it and said that she was keen, I read it with her in mind," says Mendes, who also serves as a producer of the film. "And so I never really talked about doing it with anyone else. And then the idea of Leo (DiCaprio) came pretty quickly after that, and it was really the idea of directing those two in these two parts that was the most exciting aspect of the project."

The prospect of reteaming the stars of "Titanic," the most successful film of all time, quickly led to a green light from DreamWorks and Paramount Vantage. Fellow "Titanic" co-star Kathy Bates next joined the cast, but Mendes had to look outside his immediate circle of friends and family to find the right actor to play Bates' character's son, a gifted mathematician who has undergone electroshock therapy.

Michael Shannon already had designs on the part.

"My girlfriend gave me the book as the first present she ever gave me," Shannon says. "I read it, and I said, 'Honey, what a great book. I don't know if it's a book you want to give your boyfriend, but I sure am glad I read it.' " When Shannon heard there were plans to turn the novel into a film, he immediately called his manager, made an audition tape and landed the role.

"We did a little bit of research into electroshock therapy, a little bit of research into the conditions of mental institutions and what they wore and how they had to cut their hair and that sort of thing," Mendes says. "But beyond that, it was an instinctive performance by Michael that just displays his massive gift as an actor."

With the cast in place, the shoot began in Darien, Conn., and New York. Selecting the location for Frank and April Wheeler's idyllic residence was a challenge. The house had to be period correct, adequately spacious for filming and have fairly big windows to allow for the use of outside light sources. Mendes also insisted that the house have stairs, which feature prominently in the film.

Producers looked at properties in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, though eventually the tax incentives in Connecticut made it the clear choice.

For the film's New York sequences, the production was able to avoid using a soundstage by shooting in locations like Grand Central Station that have not changed much in 50 years. They used clever angles, parked period vehicles in front of contemporary architectural elements, removed air-conditioning units and filled the windows with period-specific advertisements.

Production designer Kristi Zea studied photographs from the 1950s -- ranging from advertisements in Ladies' Home Journal and McCall's to a book of images by artist Saul Leiter -- but she was careful not to hit audiences over the head with the period aspects of the film. "We weren't interested in anything that was too stylistically faddish," she says. "And we were looking for colors that would be almost monochromatic and very neutral so that the characters themselves would pop out."

To that end, Zea used a palette of greys, charcoals, dark blues and browns in the New York scenes in order to suggest that Frank's world of office drudgery was nearly colorless.

In contrast, the suburban sequences were imbued with more vibrant colors, including greens, mustard yellows and light chestnuts.

Yet despite the period flair, Mendes did everything he could to center the film on the performances. The process began with a full month of rehearsals.

"For me, the job of the director before you start shooting is to fill up the gas tank of the actors as much as possible with information about characters, about their relationships and everything that's happened before the movie begins," he says. "And sometimes you go into details about how something's staged and how you envisage lighting it and shooting it, all of those things, so that they're prepared. But you try not to get them to do it full out until the cameras are rolling, which is slightly different from onstage because you encourage the people to perform really quickly onstage."

During the shoot, Mendes would take detailed written notes on the actors' performances, asking them to modify small physical and emotional details in subsequent takes.

"More than one actor said to me in conversation that it was some of the best performance direction they've ever had," Haythe says. "Sam's not even remotely intimidated by that many moving parts and that many pages of dialogue. That's home for him."

Haythe was present during nearly every rehearsal and shooting day to help refine the script, though he says he felt so intrusive during the film's more emotionally harrowing scenes that he would lower his eyes as the actors exited the set.

"The two scenes that went through the most work are probably the two most important scenes in the film, one of which is the scene in which April gets Frank to go to Paris, and the other one is the scene in which he convinces her that it was a childish idea after all," he says. "And those are the pivotal scenes in the sense that the first one puts everything in motion and is the film's reason for being, and the second one has to come as both a surprise and an inevitable conclusion."

The actors also had the rare advantage of shooting the film almost entirely in chronological order. Meanwhile, to create an even freer and more natural working environment, blocking during the film's unhinged marital brawls was kept to a minimum, with cinematographer Roger Deakins often shooting hand-held.

"I didn't want the cinematography or the production design to stand in front of the actors," Mendes says. "Everything serves them and serves the story, and it's as simple as that. It really is a very austere film."