It would be convenient to say that Sam Mendes came out of nowhere to sweep the Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, with his 1999 debut feature American Beauty. But in reality, his reputation as a theatrical wunderkind preceded him. At 27, Mendes was appointed artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London, and immediately raised the theater’s profile through a risky, widely acclaimed resurrection of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway flop Assassins. After winning plaudits for productions of plays like Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and Sondheim’s Company, Mendes conquered Broadway with a Tony-winning revival of Cabaret. Since the triumph of American Beauty, Mendes has directed several features, including 2002’s Road To Perdition, 2005’s Jarhead, and 2008’s Revolutionary Road, the last of which starred his wife, Kate Winslet.
Based on an original screenplay by married authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Mendes’ new comedy-drama Away We Go stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, an expecting couple who hit the road to figure out where they want to raise their baby. Zigzagging across North America, from Phoenix to Madison to Montreal to Colorado, they encounter an ensemble that includes Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Schneider, and Jim Gaffigan. Mendes recently spoke to The A.V. Club about adapting, casting, rehearsing, improvising, and absurd New Age parenting.
The A.V. Club: You generally take a lot of time between movies, but this one came very quickly on the heels of Revolutionary Road. How did that happen?
Sam Mendes: I read the script just after I finished shooting Revolutionary Road, and let’s say I was in the mood to read something uplifting. [Laughs.] It hit me at the right time in terms of my state of mind. But also because I planned my theater company, the Bridge Project in Brooklyn, to start rehearsing in October of last year. I fast-tracked it because I thought otherwise it was never gonna happen. It’s a little bit what used to happen when I ran the Donmar in London, because theater commitments are written in stone, so you have to work your film commitments around them. But really, I just felt the urge…
Revolutionary Road felt like threading a needle every day, and there was something so relentlessly microscopic about the study of the book, the attempted transition of it into screenplay form—it just felt like an inorganic process, as I think is often the case when you’re doing adaptations. Particularly when you’re adapting anything that is a great piece of work, a great piece of art. If you’re adapting a book that nobody gives a shit about, you can sort of chop it up, move stuff around. But when you know that there’s a world out there going, “This is my favorite novel”—literally everyone I went to was like, “That’s my favorite book!”—you think, “Ahhh!” [Laughs.] It’s not like doing a classic play, where if you do a Chekhov, you do the words as written. You can’t do that with a novel; you have to do your version of the words as written. To then go from Revolutionary Road to reading something that flowed and was so at ease with itself, it’s own thing. And also no one was gonna go, “But that’s not how it should be!” [Laughs.]
On some level, with Revolutionary Road, I was always going, “Is that how it should be? That’s not how it is in the book.” And I remembered what it felt like reading American Beauty, where it just feels like this is the writer’s world. When you’re working with a writer like an Alan Ball or a Dave Eggers or a Vendela [Vida], it does make a huge difference, because you’ve got this… both of those, American Beauty and this, kind of gradually reveal their themes. I think this one actually wears its themes much more lightly than American Beauty; it nevertheless has them, but very delicately woven in. It sort of creeps up on you. I love that. The real reason is that it made me laugh. I loved Burt and Verona. I thought they were a great creation. And I use the singular for a reason, because they sort of are treated almost as a unit. It was such a refreshing thing to not be in the romantic-comedy world of boy meets girl, boy falls in love, boy loses girl, boy runs through the rain to rescue girl at the last minute, happy ending. The script didn’t turn them to face each other, it turned them outward.
AVC: They aren’t at each other’s throats, like in Revolutionary Road.
SM: There’s no conflict within the relationship, or not serious conflict, anyway. What I admired also is that, I think the easy way out is to introduce some sort of conflict at the end of the second act, a crisis in which they have a row or whatever, and then they get back together. But it wasn’t interested in that. It’s more road-movie, genre-wise, than it is romantic comedy. So I just liked the mixture of tones, and I thought, “I’m just going to do it like I would do a play. I’m going to work with a whole new set of people and shake myself out of the tunnel I got into on the previous movie.”
AVC: How closely do you tend to collaborate with screenwriters? Is there a point where you have to take their final draft and go on?
SM: It depends who the screenwriter is, it really does. There have been screenwriters who I’m sure would gladly kill me, because I’ve been very fast and loose with their work, because I felt like it wasn’t up to my high standards. I would push and pull it on set, and make changes all the time. But then when you’re working with an original screenplay, my theater instincts kick in, and I suddenly become very keeper-of-the-words. I also respect Dave and Vendela so hugely that I didn’t find it difficult to say to them what I don’t think I’ve ever said to any screenwriter, which is, “I won’t ask you to write something that you don’t want to. If you’re happy with it, that’s how it’s gonna be.” I felt like a) that was the screenplay I’d signed off on, and b) that was the way to get them to do their best work. I was never going to try to trick them into working on something they didn’t want to write. So with these guys, I worked a lot in pre-production and rehearsals, but then they went away while I shot. And having said all of those things, we then improvised a huge amount, and a lot of that made it into the film. Again, I said to them, “If you don’t like it, I’ll cut it out.” But they liked it. And I sensed they would, but I didn’t know, they might turn around and say “Why did you do that to our beautiful scene?” They were like, “Oh, that’s much better.” The other thing is, these guys write so much, and they’re very honest with each other. They’re used to giving notes to other writers at McSweeney’s and getting them back again, so they’re very quick to say, “Oh, that’s much better.” They’re not precious about their work, though there are things they care about, and they’re willing to say, “I think you’re wrong.” But when they see something better, they’re very quick to acknowledge that, which is very helpful.
AVC: What was the casting process like? What sort of qualities were you looking for to fill the primary two roles, and how did you settle on the actors?
SM: John [Krasinski] came into my head when I was reading it. It just was one of those things, a little bit like Annette Bening in American Beauty, where I was reading it and they were saying the lines. I think he came to mind because the description of the role is his physical type—tall, gangly, dorky. He’s actually like that in real life more than he is his character in The Office, who’s more the everyman character. He’s quite puppyish and Tigger-like in real life. I’d worked with him on Jarhead before he did The Office. He had like five lines in it. And I thought he was incredibly inventive and funny, and really strikingly talented. I know I sound like some Hollywood mogul, but I was thinking, “He’s gonna go far.” [Laughs.] But I suddenly thought, “Something’s going to happen with this guy.” And I’m often wrong, but I was right in that case. I then told him, “Under no circumstances should you do the U.S. TV remake of The Office. It’s a terrible idea. In the UK, it was a masterpiece. It’ll be a failure.” So I totally got it wrong, I’m pleased to say. [Laughs.]
Anyway, so he came in and that was that. You have to sort of second-guess yourself and say, “Am I missing somebody? Should it be John?” But he came in and read, and I just thought, “That’s it, my first instinct was right.”
Maya was Dave and Vendela’s idea. And I said, “Well, she just does SNL. She’s a sketch comedienne and she’s fabulous, and I love her, but she’s out there. But I’ll meet her.” She was interested in the part, and if she wanted to come in and read, she could. And she came in and started reading and literally 10 seconds in, it was like, “Well, that’s it.” And you can sort of see why. When she’s at sea-level, she’s just an actress, a real leading actress. She has all the skills. She’s incredibly wise and soulful. She roots the whole film. I think it’s a spectacular performance, because it’s all subtlety, and she doesn’t have any of the jokes. Of course her timing with what she has is immaculate, but utterly effortless, and she never lands on anything too hard. Her reactions are hilarious. She’s called upon to react to a number of extremely eccentric characters at various points, and she does it with such truth. She never strays from that. She knows who Verona is, and she plays her brilliantly. So that was how that came about, and then I put them together. And then I had to age John a little bit, ’cause he’s a little younger. It’s weird, he needed a bit more weight to play opposite Maya. She’s had a baby, she’s a little older, a little more experienced. And you can feel it, you know? She knows what it’s like to be on the precipice of this new life that you go through when you’re about to have a child.
AVC: The film visits a lot of places, and strikes a range of tones throughout. What did you have to do directorially to create a cohesive whole?
SM: Well, that’s assuming you think it’s a cohesive whole. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s not a rhetorical question.
SM: [Laughs.] It’s difficult, because I was very aware that, tonally, the first chapters are more comic and broader, and that sort of stuff. But I like the gradual shift in tone that happens over the course of the film. You think you’ve set off on a more obviously funny journey, and it takes you by surprise when it turns more melancholy. For me, I felt like the music played a very important part in that. Musically, this melancholy feeling needed to be somehow sitting in the film earlier than it arrives in the scenes. It needed to say to the audience, “Something else is going on here.” It’s not just about funnies. There are also the landscapes, which are another voice pulling you toward something sadder. Early on, there’s a really crucial scene which I took out in the first cut after I first previewed it, which is the scene where Verona’s talking to her sister on the phone and she’s doing her little medical drawing. I took it out because I thought we needed to get on with it and get to the parents [Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels], because that’s where the story starts. But that scene roots us in her and in their world and their daily life, so we believe in these characters. I thought that was an incredibly helpful scene tonally, because when you get into the Catherine O’Hara world or the Allison Janney world, you sort of know that they’re not caricatures, that Burt and Verona are grounded in the movie. The shift in tone happens around Montreal, and it was just trying to make that shift happen in a gradual way so it wasn’t like falling off a cliff.
AVC: At the same time, it’s still this road movie where they’re encountering new things. You have that strange challenge of having to make it smooth and rough at the same time.
SM: It’s weird, because I wanted the intended lyricism of the music to play over the quite jagged chapter headings, cards that just pop up. And that’s the two combined, it’s exactly what you say, smooth and rough. It’s like saying “Okay, we know it’s an episodic picaresque.” The joy of a road movie is its very simple narrative nature, which is that you know you’re going to go through different places and you’re going to meet new people. At the same time, you have to not make it feel too obvious and too crudely episodic. So trying to do the two things simultaneously, I suppose.
AVC: You’ve said that you wanted to work more loosely here than you had in the past. Did that involve breaking old habits? Can you think of examples from the film where spontaneity paid dividends?
SM: The whole way through. I was intent on letting people breathe in the frame a little bit more. Revolutionary was like trying to hold the viewers in a vice, and the actors, too. It was tense and claustrophobic and extremely rigid in the framing. This is quite classically done in the sense that it’s very simply made, but the playfulness that’s there is because I wasn’t overly strict about how we were staging things.
For example, there’s a scene where Burt and Verona have left Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character behind, and they’re in a hotel room, about to go to Montreal. They have a conversation about French fries and gravy. That scene in the script was totally different. There’s literally nothing of it there. We got there and had that nice/scary moment on set when you realize that the actors know the characters better than the writers do, and the writers are not there anymore. As written, it’s a scene that seemed to make sense a month ago and now makes no sense, because they’re saying things to each other that we would already know. They’re like, “We can’t say these things. We’ve already established all these things in various different moments.” And I said, “Well let’s just write something else,” and we did. And I warned Dave and Vendela that there would be a couple of new scenes when they watched the movie. And they wound up loving that scene. So that sort of thing, to have the freedom to do that… And then, in the two hours we took out of the day, not to add an additional day. Just to say, “We have to do this in three shots now, because that’s all the time we’ve got.” I did a master, two mid-shots, and out. And we did three takes of each. And to put the looseness of the playing ahead of the filmmaking… That’s a good example of it. It’s led by the scene, by the actors, rather than by the process.
I’ve just stumbled on something I think that’s probably quite true. What happened, I think, is it’s very easy when you’re a filmmaker to let the process lead you and not the material, not the actors. So you’ve got to get 17 setups in the day, and you’ve got to shoot this when the sun’s this high, and you’ve got to get out of here by 8:00 because tomorrow we’ve got a new location, and before you know it, you’re making a schedule and not making a movie. And I think that didn’t happen here, which is nice.
AVC: Outside of Krasinski and Rudolph, the rest of the cast have a few scenes apiece before moving on. What kinds of problems did that present, and what did you do to bring the new actors into the fold?
SM: The first thing I did was rehearse with them way upfront, so all of them had a rapport before we got going. Because, you know, Allison Janney had never met Jim Gaffigan, and I hate the idea that they’re supposed to turn up and be representative of a 15-year marriage when they’ve known each other 10 minutes, literally. And it goes to that extent all the way down. Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels had never worked together, either. So it’s just getting a rapport and again, same thing, just keeping it loose so they don’t feel they’re too hidebound. There was a lot of stuff played on the verge of laughter, sometimes in laughter, which of course didn’t make it in the movie. That sort of energy, that excitement of all being there together for the first time. One of the interesting things about road movies is, you get these explosions of energy every week, when someone new comes in. Your stamina is down and then in comes Maggie Gyllenhaal, and everyone’s “Oh my God, that’s brilliant.” And now you’ve got new energy, a new location, new atmosphere. That was a real pleasure with this film. Again, particularly, coming off two films, Revolutionary Road and Jarhead, which shot in one place ’til we all went insane. In one case, a tiny suburban house; in another case, the Mexican desert. Both of which are enough to make you blow your brains out. [Laughs.]
AVC: You mentioned the importance of rehearsal, maybe owing to your theater background. But how do you go about rehearsing actors without the danger of wasting their best takes or keeping spontaneous things from happening?
SM: I never actually get them to do it. It’s sitting around a table, and we just talk. I want them to know who they are. I want to know their instincts about the character—how they think they should dress, what they think their home should look like. A lot of those things get fed into production-design, costume-design decisions. I want to know what’s happened in the moments just before their scene begins, and the moments just after. All sorts of stuff crops up, they have issues with the script, all of those. You want to fill people with as many ideas as possible, but without ever making them do it. Fill the gas tank with as much gas as you can, but never turn the ignition key. Because otherwise what happens is exactly that—they end up doing it well, because they’re all good, and then thinking when they come to shoot it eight weeks later, “What did we do?” They’re trying to remember a performance, as opposed to just giving a performance. So you’re just trying to stimulate. It depends on what the movie is, but I gave people tapes of the music I thought their characters would listen to, or I might play occasionally on set. I didn’t do it on this movie, but I might give them a few pictures or photographs or paintings that I think their character is into. That sort of stuff. It’s really just about firing them up. Maybe you want to talk about how the scene’s going to be designed, how it’s going to be staged, all of those things. It’s all about preparation, and deciding what mutually you don’t want to do, rather than necessarily what you do.
AVC: The film explores different schools of parenting. Did your own opinions of parenting color the way we perceive some of them?
SM: Of course! [Laughs.] You’re thinking specifically of Maggie Gyllenhaal. [Laughs.] I think that’s sort of New Age PC parenting taken to its logical absurd conclusion. Of course I get great pleasure out of poking fun at it, because I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. There was a giant article in USA Today just the other day, “Strollers are killing our children.” You think it’s a joke, but it’s serious. Go online and look up stroller issues with kids or whatever. There’s a whole school of thought that says strollers are damaging our kids.
AVC: When you have kids, it seems like every single decision you make is politicized.
SM: Politicizing of kids starts with pregnancy, of course. You shouldn’t be drinking wine. You can’t be smoking, either. The poor woman is poked and prodded and touched and obsessed over. Which I think is obviously a touchstone in this movie, everyone saying “Oh, you’re enormous!” And everyone saying that she’s two months more pregnant than she is. That’s stuff that clearly Vendela had gone through, and that I think everyone has gone through. And the sort of social-outcast aspect, not being allowed on planes and all that. The moment you have kids, you are prey to judgment, but you also become a judge. You find yourself going, “Can you believe what she did with such-and-such?” at school. I think the harshest parenting portrait in the movie is Allison Janney. People will point out the Maggie Gyllenhaal because it’s the most politicized, but I think Allison’s character is an extreme version of a more common problem of parents who think kids are gonna turn out they way they’re gonna turn out, so it doesn’t really matter what they do, which is just rubbish. And I think that is much more prevalent across America and Europe than the other version, which is this sort of super-careful PC parenting, everyone sleeping in the same bed, treat the child as an adult when he’s 9 months old. [Laughs.]
AVC: Of course, the film is also about this couple learning in advance how to be parents, and what kind of parents they want to be.
SM: Yes, exactly. When I say the themes sort of creep up on you, the movie sort of gradually… It’s about parents, what constitutes home, how you identify, what is the right place for you and all of those things. And how children make you confront your own childhood. Which I think is common. It certainly happened to me. Suddenly you’re remembering your own parents as parents, not to mention the fact that you’re confronted by them as grandparents. So you also have that terrible shock, a mirror image of your own. They suddenly seem to be so helpless in the face of young children. And you think, “How did you ever bring up me?”
AVC: Also the wave of sympathy. “I get it now.”
SM: Exactly, that’s the other thing. “I had no idea what I put you through. I’m so sorry for what I put you through.” [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s next for you?
SM: I’ve got my theater company coming back, the Bridge Project, starts in Brooklyn in October again. Tours the world. It just played Singapore, Auckland, New Zealand, and Madrid, Berlin. They’re going to London next week, that’s where I’m going. And then next year the same thing, except this time we’ll go different places. Then I’ll do a movie I hope next year, but I’m re-energized, rejuvenated by this one. It’s given me a real thirst to do more, which is a good thing.