Sam Mendes started his feature directorial career with American Beauty, an incisive look at suburban malaise that in addition to netting multiple Oscar nominations, earned him a reputation for being a keen if not altogether optimistic observer of human nature. Ten years later he's virtually cemented that pessimistic point of view with films like Jarhead, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road, all chronicles of characters desperately in search of something, if not better, than at least different than what they already have. But while his latest film, Away We Go, uses a couple's road trip as yet another journey of self-discovery, Mendes looks at the central characters' future with one another with optimism and genuine hope, offering a reassuring rejoinder that the director does not in fact believe that all relationships are destined to fail.
Cinematical recently sat down with Mendes to discuss Away We Go, an intimate but broadly appealing comedy about two lovers, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), who embark on a road trip to figure out where they want to raise a family, if not also determine what kind of family they want that to be. In addition to talking about his own feelings – cinematically and otherwise – about the prospect of living happily ever after, Mendes discussed the process of helping his co-stars get comfortable with one another, and ruminated on making a movie for the first time that's unfettered to the expectations of an awards season.
Cinematical: After I saw Away We Go, I joked with somebody that you made this movie to prove that you didn't think all relationships are destined to fail.
Mendes: You're absolutely right! Well, because it's not by chance that Revolutionary Road and Away We Go both have couples who want to escape, and one can't, and fail, and it's a tragedy, and one can, and do, and it's a comedy. The weird thing is that I don't think about, personally, I'm not of the [Richard] Yates school, that we're all doomed and relationships are sh*t and men and women are destined never to be together. The spirit and philosophy of this movie is how I actually think about the world, so it was a huge release, like letting off steam, after Revolutionary Road. It also defined how I worked on the film – looser, more fun and more improvising. And that's what the material requires; we couldn't have had lots of improvising and fun on Revolutionary Road because it wasn't that kind of movie (laughs).
Cinematical: What was most striking to me about the movie was that contrary to what we've come to expect from more conventional comedies about relationships, this story seems to be about reinforcing the central relationship rather than challenging it. How tough as a storyteller was it to define the conflict in the movie as challenging them together rather than challenging them being together?
Mendes: Absolutely. I think that it's a very good question, and I know it's quite complicated to ask it, but it's a different kind of story in that most stories you see about couples, there's a crisis, and it's about will they stay together in the second-act crisis, and in the end will they come through and he runs through the rain or whatever. That's the general staple of romantic comedies, but this movie treats the two as one: to me, Burt and Verona are a unit, and the movie is not about the challenges they face between them but the challenges that a couple faces in the world. So it turns the two of them outwards to face the world, and it shows you what they see and who they meet. Then, it makes you watch them interpret those things that they see and come to a decision about how they should live their lives. And once you make that break, that it's not about turning the two people in to face each other, I felt like that was one of the great assets of the script when I first read it. It was written by a happy couple who were pregnant with their first child, and you can feel that spirit and love in the movie. That's not to say that Burt and Verona are Dave and Kira, because they're not, and they're different in many ways, but the script is suffused with that spirit, and I think that's one of the reasons I found it interesting: it didn't do the conventional things that romantic comedy does.
Cinematical: How easy was it to facilitate the kind of comfort or familiarity that John and Maya needed to share in order to survive the perspectives of these other relationships?
Mendes: I'd like to say it was all down to me, but the truth is it's them. They just need to be unlocked and to feel utterly unselfconscious and relaxed, so my job was to stop them from watching themselves. The luck that I had was that they got on incredibly well, they had the same kind of sense of humor, and they made each other laugh the whole time. And I was moving fast, and that always helps. I haven't done a movie on this rhythm since American Beauty, and it was really great to be back in that kind of [mode], "you know what? We've only got half an hour, and I'm just going to do it in one shot – let's go." That encourages a kind of freedom, a looseness that I thought was very helpful for the movie, and it helped them too. I mean, there were certain moments when I had to guide them, because Maya is used to doing high-definition comedy performances on the edge of caricature, and John is used to being the guy who looks at the camera on The Office and basically says, "are these people insane?" He's sort of ground zero and she's the sort of crazy one on Saturday Night Live, and they're opposite in this movie. In fact, he's the one who is more eccentric, the more out there and the more high energy. She's the person who grounds the whole movie, who's the heart of the film and is the one who sees everything. So I had to do a bit of rebalancing and encourage them because they're both outside of their comfort zone. But once we'd found that in the first week, they just took off.
Cinematical: Having made two movies in a row about characters at this particular age, is there something about that age that seems to be more relevant to audiences now in terms of self-exploration?
Mendes: There is a sort of Generation Y aspect to the film which other people have commented on and drawn my attention to more. I'm in my forties now, so I'm a generation above it, above these guys, but certainly all of the big moments in my life happened in my mid-30s. I was 35 when I met Kate [Winslet]. My friends, my generation all got hitched in their 30s, and in a weird way there is an interesting, direct comparison with Revolutionary Road, because of course they have kids, and part of their issue, part of the reason why they're stuck, is because they got married in their early 20s, which was often the case in the 50s. But now, the mid-30s is traditionally the age of making decisions, of making big decisions about your life, and whether you're 33 or not, I think a lot of people recognize it as that's the moment. What's interesting is that people in their early 20s are also watching the movie and loving it and seeing that they're headed in that direction, too, so it's kind of a pivotal moment. You could say it's a sort of lost generation in way, trying to define themselves. We're talking about an era in which probably the most important person in the country is mixed race, and you've got this mixed-race person [in the movie] who's part of this couple and that's never commented on. Which I always loved about the movie – it's just a fact that oh yeah, Burt and Verona, they've been living together since college. Yeah, they're mixed race, so what's the big deal? Nobody even thinks about it. That all is part of why hopefully it speaks to people now.
Cinematical: Is this the first movie that you've released in summer?
Mendes: American Beauty was released at the end of August, and Jarhead was released in October or something, but at the height of summer? Yes, and it's very pleasurable being nothing to do with awards season whatsoever, just getting out of the whole thing, the sort of absurd expectations that are placed on a movie when it comes out any time after September the first. It's very nice to be released from that part of the discussions and just talk about the movie, and also, the movie will also stand or fall, people will either go or won't go, but it needs word of mouth. It's never going to get by on star power because we haven't got big, A-list movie stars, so the only way a movie like this is going to work is if people fall in love with it and tell their friends.
Cinematical: Do you have a favorite or quintessential summer movie experience, either as a filmmaker or just a moviegoer?
Mendes: My only real recollection of it is the summer American Beauty came out, a couple of months before, The Sixth Sense came out. That was one of the great summer movies, because I remember it was the only time that a movie went up in its second week, and it was on the same number of screens! It was just like, holy sh*t, that's a good movie. And it was really reassuring to know that could happen, that the way that you're programmed where these movies explode for a week or two and then disappear. That movies like that can survive and hold out during the course of an entire summer, that's sort of inspiring. And it deserved to – it's a great movie, a classic, and it's really great when you feel audiences speaking back like that: it did great in its first week, but it did better in the second week.
Cinematical: Is there a movie this summer that you're particularly excited to see?
Mendes: I'm really interested and excited to see Star Trek because it looks so cool. I think [J.J. Abrams] is a really good filmmaker. I'm really eager to see Where the Wild Things Are, although I think that's coming out in the fall. Let me think – what else is coming up? Well, Up I will be going to see because my children will drag me there. It's an incredible thing now that you just put Pixar on a movie, and you just know that even if it's an identical marketing campaign and it simply had a different studio name at the top, it would take half the amount of money. It says Pixar, and it's like, well, okay, I'm going, obviously have to see what they're doing next, and that's unbelievable in this climate to have that kind of recognition and that sense of security with people, and they are just an amazing bunch. I don't know how they do it, but it's an unbroken string of fabulous movies, and as a parent I thank them, because there's a limit to how many Pokemon movies you can see (laughs).
Cinematical: We talked earlier about what you were interested in exploring with this movie. When you take on new projects, is there a specific method to determining what will be your next project?
Mendes: No, it's totally unexpected. Every time I've ever said I want to do this kind of movie next, I do the opposite. I've learned to not predict, or make any kind of promises, because every time I say I'll do an English movie, I do an Iraq movie, and every time I say I'll do a big movie, I do a small movie. I think that one thing that I would say, though, one of the things I loved about this movie was that it was an original screenplay, the first I've done since American Beauty, and I would definitely love to do more where I have the primary creative source, the writer, in the room with me.
Cinematical: At this point, has your status as an "awards season darling," for lack of a better description, made it easier to make non-genre material? Or is something like Preacher, your upcoming comic adaptation, easier to make or get made?
Mendes: I would say it's difficult to make a movie, whatever it is now. Because it's a different set of difficulties; if you make a $100 million summer movie, if you think it's a slam dunk, as soon as you think that, someone will come along and hit you over the head very hard. But it's a commercial pressure, it's different. What I learned when I made Road to Perdition, which cost close to $100 million to make, just because you've got a lot of money and Tom Hanks and Paul Newman doesn't mean that the pressure's off. It's actually worse when you're shooting, because every day is three times the expense of a movie like this, and if you go behind a day that's a huge amount of money. The upside's big but the downside's big too, because if that movie only takes $20 million, then you've lost a lot of money, and you do spend more time talking about that very thing, money, which is not something you want to spend time talking about. And then making a movie like this, a drama, there are very few dramas in the year that survive these days and make their costs back, so I'd say there's not such thing as an easy call.
Cinematical: As a filmmaker do you look at your work and see constant themes, even in retrospect?
Mendes: Yeah, yeah, it's funny, and it's a good question, and I don't sit down and think, "I know – I'm going to make a movie about people who are a little lost and are searching for the answer." But that's what I seem to be doing, so make of that what you will. But you know, if you think about it, Kevin Spacey, or Jake [Gyllenhaal] in Jarhead, or the couples in both Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, they're all people who in some way put themselves on a journey to find how to live a better life, or one close to what they want. In that sense, Preacher is not that different.
Cinematical: Do you feel like subjecting these characters and yourself to this process, you arrive at any greater insights about these ideas?
Mendes: I think one thing you realize as you get older is that life gets less clear, not more clear (laughs). Nothing is ever as clear as it is when you're 18. No, but it's sure as hell fun to take the journey.