EXCLUSIVE: Sam Mendes interview
Director Sam Mendes made his directorial debut back in 1999 with American Beauty, which garnered him the Academy Award for best director. He continued his assault on Hollywood in 2002 with his noir-crime film Road to Perdition. Before film-making Mendes was a highly respected and critically acclaimed theatre director working for the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Donmar Warehouse to name but a few. He returns on January 13th with his latest film, the anti-war movie Jarhead, starring Jake Gyllenaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx.
LOVEFiLM: What was the attraction of doing a big-budget war movie?
Sam Mendes: I liked the fact that it didn’t have a conventional narrative structure. In a way, although it’s a big budget, it’s much closer in spirit to a kind of art-house movie. I think we’re all slaves to narrative and conventional structure. The truth of the matter is that American Beauty broke all those rules and so does this. It does have a three act structure: preparation, waiting and action. But the three of them are very distinct and sealed off from each other. I loved that. And I also loved the fact that that might frustrate the audience in the same way that it frustrated the men in the war.
You’re actually trying to frustrate the audience?
No [laughs]. It is leavened by comedy all the time. That’s important because these men have to have ways of dealing with fear which are not screaming and running away. It’s somehow hunkering down and learning about themselves as they wait.
So it’s a human story as well as a war movie?
Yeah, I felt that actually the biggest part of the journey for Swoff (Jake Gyllenaal) [although] he may not realise it, is that he goes kind of insane as he waits in the desert. He descends into the abyss and then he pulls himself out again. By the time the war starts he’s a decent human being. The big change takes place in the middle act, where people are saying that nothing happens. But there is something happing, which is his growth as a person.
Jarhead has had a mixed reception from the critics, did you expect that?
All the people that I’ve talked to have said ‘of course, it was inevitable. What are you worrying about?’ You learn a lot from people's reactions back to you about the movie. It happened a lot with American Beauty. People came up to me and talk about it like it was a totally different film. Some people would tell me all the things they found funny about it. Others would say, ‘well that character’s me and after seeing it I changed my life’. I can feel that happening here. People are talking about the humour in the film, or the politics or lack of politics in the film. Or the history of the film. It’s kind of mind-bending.
Isn’t there an inevitable danger that it might be seen to glamorise war?
Perhaps. However hard you try to make your anti-war movie there will always be a group of young men who find what is pro-war about it. Whether they see movies or not people will turn up at the enlistment office tomorrow. Why? Who fucking knows? But it seems to be a basic human need. People are already quoting stuff from the trailer – ‘I love this fuckin’ job!’, all that sort of stuff. You think, oh shit [laughs]. But what do you do? It’s impossible to deny the pull of warfare for young men, so it’s impossible to deny that they’ll find some of it in this movie.
What are you planning to do next?
I’m probably going to do a play in New York in the Spring, but movie-wise I feel this pull towards England and Europe. I’ve always followed my instincts and my instincts are leading me there. I’ve done three movies now which are “American” in a sense and I’d like to do something different. And I’d really like to work with the actors I’ve worked with at The Donmar Warehouse.