I love Twitter. It’s a great way to find out about what’s going on, and I certainly wouldn’t have found out about the South Shields Lecture that day without it. Sponsored by the Port of Tyne, the Lecture has been an annual event for the past eight years, and has welcomed the likes of Sting, David Walliams, Alan Bennett, Sir Patrick Stewart amongst others to Harton Technology College in South Shields, Newcastle. The lecture was established by David Miliband when he was MP for the town.
This year, he managed to convince award winning Hollywood director Sam Mendes to come and talk about his illustrious career. I love film so I knew I had to try and be there. Luckily a ticket found its way to me in the post a few days later, and I was over the moon! He has directed some of my favourite films (American Beauty, for which he won an Oscar in 1999, and Revolutionary Road, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio). More recently he has created a new legion of fans as a result of directing the last two instalments of Bond – Skyfall and Spectre.
I was a little late getting to the lecture theatre and ran past some heavies in cars with blacked out windows (David and Sam’s drivers, I presume). I slunk in towards the back, the lecture hall packed with about six hundred excited film fans, students, and friends of the College. It came to light that David and Sam had been to primary school together (it can’t have been that difficult to persuade him to come to the North East then)!
The former MP started to ask the director about his theatre career (he directed Dame Judi Dench in Chekhov at the age of 24; he maintains she is the finest actor he’s ever worked with). He’s started directing plays at Cambridge, and was also a top class cricketer (apparently he learned a lot of his directing skills as captain of the cricket team). Starting out with ideas of a career in journalism, Sam ended up doing work experience in the theatre (which he nearly missed as he’s lost the offer letter down the back of a radiator), where he realised that he was passionate about telling stories. Interestingly he doesn’t see himself as a director, more of a storyteller.
In the theatre he learned by his mistakes, began to understand the rhythm of storytelling and learned the difference between the silence of fascination and boredom. He worked out that he’s done 14,000 hours of rehearsals during his time in the theatre (proving Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that you need 10,000 hours of practising a skill to master it). It amazed me that he didn’t find the transition into filmmaking all that difficult! So how did he get the script for American Beauty? After success on Broadway with Cabaret, producers started to knock on his door, and the script ended up on his desk. Steven Spielberg ended up in a meeting with producers, told him that he believed in him and the rest is history.
We watched a couple of clips from American Beauty – the plastic bag scene which has stuck with me ever since, which then goes straight into the dinner table scene where Kevin Spacey loses it and throws the asparagus against the wall. Apparently Spacey likes to talk on his mobile until the second before he does the scene (showoff)! He filmed the plastic bag dancing at sunrise to get the right light, which took a while to get it exactly how he’s envisioned it.
Who are his biggest influences? Billy Wilder – director of The Apartment seemed to be the main inspiration. He mentioned Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver as major influences.
We then watched the final scene of Road to Perdition, which starred Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. The scene was filmed in the pouring rain, and Paul Newman ended up wearing a plastic rubbish bag underneath his suit (five times more rain is used in shooting to get the required effect). It was clear that working with Newman was a true career highlight! The scene is a classic example of how the score is just as important as the script. The scene didn’t seem right to him, so instead of scoring the scene fully, it ends in silence, giving the climax much more weight.
Finally, the conversation turned to Bond. How did that come about? At a play with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, Craig asked him if he fancied directing the next Bond film. Even though he didn’t really have the authority to hire him, he met with the producers and the deal was done. His major motivation behind taking the job? To be the coolest dad in the school (mission accomplished)!
We watched the opening scene of Spectre, the Day of the Dead parade set in Mexico, which involves 3,000 extras and four helicopters. At one point he was watching nine monitors, two iPads with action from other units abroad and had two mobile phones on the go. “I liken my job to being a military leader.” He filmed it in one continuous shot lasting four minutes, and it remains one of his proudest moments as a director. We also watched the scene in Skyfall where Bond and M go to the imposing mansion where Bond grew up. Sam reminded us that with Skyfall, there was no original material, no input from Fleming; they had to start from scratch. Who’s his favourite Bond? Sean Connery (because of his vulnerability). Favourite Bond film? Live and Let Die (he pays homage to it at the beginning of Spectre).
After a rollercoaster ride with Bond over the last few years, Mendes is taking a break, and can’t wait to catch up on watching films he’s missed. He doesn’t particularly like to watch his own work. His storytelling is based on making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. He’s an avid student of human behaviour. He’d like to make a sci-fi film (he’s recently admired Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian). He’d love to make a great comedy. Whatever he decides, I’m sure I will be buying a ticket.