Sam Mendes talks about "Away We Go"
June 7th, 2009
Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes recently sat down to talk about his new movie "Away We Go."
Q: Can you talk about the on screen chemistry between Maya and John?
Mendes: It was terrible. (Laughs) It seems to me to be kind of everything in the movie that they were a real couple with a secret language and a world of their own, because the conventions of the more traditional romantic comedy is that the movie is about the relationship between the two of them. They fall in love, and there’s a crisis and then they get back together again, he runs through the rain to save her or whatever. This movie is about the two of them as a unit, looking out at the world. It avoided the clichés of the usual romantic comedies, and it became something different. They had to be one. We had to establish very early on that they were in love, they were going to stay in love and that wasn’t the point of the film. The point of the film was where were they going to be, how do they define themselves as a couple, what is their home, how they were going to be parents and all of these things that got thrown out.
John is playing the more out-there character, but in his day job on “The Office,” he’s the guy who looks at the camera and goes “Aren’t these people crazy?” And Maya, on “Saturday Night Live,” was doing these high-definition comic creations, and on this movie, she needed to be the anchor for the film and for him, so I had to switch them around and give them the confidence they could play those roles, because neither of them had done that before, and certainly not carried a movie in the same way.
And I was very lucky in that I’ve never had a studio say “Cast who you want,” so I did.
Q: Why did you want them?
Mendes: I loved them both, for all those reasons I just said. I worked with John on “Jarhead” before he did “The Office.” He did four lines, and I thought he was pretty great. I’ve watched him go up and was thinking he might be at the stage where he might be able to play a lead, so when I read this movie, I thought of him straight away. And Maya, she’s just a delight. She’s such an interesting person and so not what you expect with a comedienne. There’s no visible insecurity, there’s no shtick, no manic to her being. She’s just a person, and if she just bring that extraordinary warmth with her, she could get this part.
Q: You were in post-production on “Revolutionary Road” while you were shooting this. How did the emotional intensity of “Road” affected the lightness of this film?
Mendes: It was everything, really. The reason this film is light, it’s because “Road” was so dark. It’s really the flip side of the same coin, and I was able to release the tension and pressure of that into something much more overtly enjoyable. Which is not say “Road” is something I’m not incredibly proud of, because I am. It was threading a needle every day, the pressure of working on a piece of material that is a cult novel and people are passionate about. Here, we were inventing our own story and our own world, and that shadow wasn’t falling around us, which made it that much easier.
Someone pointed this out to me, and I wish I could claim it as my own, that in the case of all my movies, there is a central character, or in the case of this movie, characters, who are unhappy in their lives and are searching for a way out. And that’s true, and so there are things that cross all five movies that I’ve made. I find human beings are endlessly fascinating, to state a cliché, and I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult in a high-concept world to get people to let you make them. They ask, “What’s it about?” And you say “It’s about people. About a couple wanting to find a place to give birth to their child.” Then they ask “Well, what happens?” “Well, they go and meet some people and they find it.” And that’s the story, and if you try and deliver this as a logline for a movie, it’s elusive. And thank God places like Focus exist.
Q: What attracted you to this script?
Mendes: When you get a script, the first question I ask myself is “Do you feel you are the best person to do this?” Because, if you’re not, someone else should do it. I feel like I have a good eye for telling these stories. When I tackled this, I knew how to do this.
Q: How hard was this to edit? There’s so much dialogue and so much happening, maybe some good stuff got lost along the way?
Mendes: I don’t think so. It wasn’t difficult to cut. “Revolutionary Road” was a pig to cut. I cut 25 minutes of really wonderful scenes out of that movie because it was just too long. This was not too long, and the scenes that got lost were scenes that fell away naturally. There are a number of scenes that are cut in half because the rhythm of it was too long. Plus, with a road movie, you can’t rearrange the order of the scenes, which is a blessing. In “Revolutionary Road,” you could have flashbacks and go on forever. Or if you shot a lot of footage, like I did on “Jarhead” and “Road to Perdition,” you could be in the editing room for months and months. On this one, I showed it to Dave and Vendela (the co-writers of the screenplay) after five weeks and it’s been shortened and tightened and compressed, but basically it’s spirit is completely intact.
Q: Where was the location of the final house?
Mendes: It’s in north Florida, but I don’t remember the name of the town at the moment, forgive me for that. We were there for precisely two days. And that’s where you want a genius of a production designer, and Jess Gonchor is fabulous. I asked him to find me a house that fits all the criteria, and it was way better than I imagined, because what I imagined wasn’t looking out over water like that. It was just on a street. So it really helped with the magic of the place, and it was exactly as we found it. Completely derelict.
Q: Were you disappointed in the reaction to “Revolutionary Road” or do you ever care about these things?
Mendes: Oh, I care a lot about the reaction. I’d be crazy for me to say I didn’t care. I care about the reaction of the audiences.
Was I disappointed? No. I didn’t entirely enjoy the process of releasing, because of the pressure that goes on to movies like that in awards season is disproportionate to the experience of making the film. Once you get out of that, once the dust settles, my memories of it are almost unbroken good memories. I had a great time doing it and releasing it, and I’m incredibly proud of it. And it lead to making this movie as well. I also had my play at the time and this movie, so I wasn’t sitting around obsessing about it, which was very helpful. Not sitting around, reading every review and every response and every blog entry, so I think that was healthy.
Q: Since “American Beauty,” you’ve made a movie every three years, and now we have your second film in less than seven months. It was previously announced you were going to make “Middlemarch.” What was it about this script that made you put the other one aside?
Mendes: “Middlemarch” was announced, but it was one of those IMDb things. It was reported in Variety that I’m going to develop the script, which means I’d like to do it one day if there’s a good script. I thought that was happening was that I had become a bit routine. Play, film, play, film... and that the films will prepared, and I thought forget all that, I’m just going to do it and see how it turns out and operate on instinct. Sometimes, that’s good for me when one thing runs into another, so I don’t overthink it. It was a conscious decision to break that rhythm a bit, because it was a small movie. I thought I’d do it as if it was a play. Plus I have my theatre commitments coming up, so I thought I better do it now because I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it next year. Also, our kids our now at school, so I have my days free.
Q: What else do you have coming up, to correct the IMDb?
Mendes: I’m doing a play, and then I don’t know. I hope I’ll do a movie next year, but whether it’ll be one of the ones listed or another one, I don’t know. They’re all in development and I haven’t had time, because I have two movies and two plays in quick succession, I’m only now coming up for air, so I’ll try to work it out over the summer.