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Sam Mendes: why I love Paris, Texas

Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes discusses Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and explains how it inspired his own American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002). Mendes also talks about adapting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the theatre and teases details on the next James Bond film.

Sam Mendes was speaking at a screening of Paris, Texas shown courtesy of BFI Screen Epiphanies in partnership with American Express®.

Transcript

Sam Mendes

I saw it for the first time at the Cambridge Arts Theatre when I was a student. It was my first year at Cambridge. And I watched it and I was so knocked out by it, so mesmerised by it, that I want back the following night and watched it again. I don't think even to this day I've ever actually done that on successive nights, you know. On my own, both times actually.

It was a sort of penny-drop moment for me about how it's possible to make a contemporary film that feels like a mythic landscape. It was a door opening into a visual aspect of America that just had simply never occurred to me before. It was a European viewing America as an outsider. It was the work of a great writer, Sam Shepard, and it was the work of a great director. It tied together lots of things that had been interesting me and obsessing me without really knowing it.

All of those threads and strands have been continued, in different ways, in my work either on film or in the theatre. So that was a huge experience for me.

Interviewer

How familiar were you with America beforehand? Because it is a film that as you say symbolises America for a lot of people. I'm wondering was America a country you were familiar with beforehand.

Sam Mendes

No, I'd never been to America at that point. You know, the way WimWenders uses the shifting landscapes of America, I mean, to me it's the mythic west, so it is in touch backwards to the work of people like John Ford, you know, the image of Travis leaving at the end, the Harry Dean Stanton character going back to, well, you don't know where. But going back to wandering again, having delivered his own son back to his son's mother and his ex-partner, is kind of, in some way related to John Wayne leaving at the end of the Searchers.

This was the immensity of America, and sense that people could get lost in that world. And that is for myself, right at the beginning of American Beauty, for example, the image of suburbia, which is sort of Anytown, or the image of the boy and the father in Road to Perdition. They are sort of cut adrift in this mythic American landscape. Those are directly related to that first hit of the fact that you didn't have to make a cowboy movie to be in touch with the mythic west.

But at the same time he also does this extraordinary thing when Travis re-enters society and goes to Houston. I think it's Houston, Texas. He does this amazing thing of they appear to be, he and his son, the only people on the street. Everyone else is trapped behind glass, behind boxes. There's a sort of sense in which humanity has established itself quite apart from the natural world. That feeling of them being trapped behind glass and behind frames is another thing that, frankly, I stole in my work. And in American Beauty there's a series of images of people trapped behind glass. And indeed, Road to Perdition is a good example. Even right up to Sky Fall there is that. I find that is an image that haunts me and continues to reoccur. So in every respect it was incredibly influential.

Interviewer

What is it do you think about European eyes that pick up on America, because one of the things I think that makes Paris, Texas so special is, as you say, it's not a film about America made for American audiences. It's made through Wim Wender's eyes.

Sam Mendes

Yes.

Interviewer

And you say you're someone who seems to have deliberately gone down that road.

Sam Mendes

Well for myself, it made me feel confident that I could do it. I mean, it suddenly occurred to me that many of the great movies about America had been made by Europeans, you know, from Ang Lee's The Ice Storm way back to Milos Forman making One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest back to Billy Wilder and The Apartment. These are all European or non-American visions of America. And there is something wonderfully special about your first responses to a foreign country. But it's also a country that you know through other filmmaking images. So you're sort of responding and regenerating images that you've assimilated through movies, too. So you're in dialogue with other films, and I've always loved that.

And for me my first hit of American suburbia was not the suburbs themselves but David Lynch's Blue Velvet, which by the way also featured the great Dean Stockwell, who plays Harry Dean Stanton's brother in this movie. And in fact one of the things I love about this movie is it doesn't use a conventional leading man. And its European-ness is expressed in a variety of ways. One of those is its absolute confidence in silence and its lack of need to talk the whole time, and an essential character who, for the first half hour of the movie, as I remember it doesn't speak at all. In fact you think he's mute, and everybody else thinks he's mute as well. But he also does these interesting things. He casts a doctor early on who is a German actor. And of course it's Natasha Kinsky who is a non-American.

So all those things bring to it a kind of otherness, at the same time as making the familiar, strange, you know. The familiar landscape of America suddenly new minted. Suddenly as if it's been discovered for the first time by an alien who's fallen from the sky. And when I released American Beauty I did a European Press Tour and Wim Wenders was one of the people I was lucky enough to meet. He said, "You know, I admire your movie." And I said, "Oh, thank you very much." And he said, "It's a great economy of means," he said. But you know - and I remember exactly what he said, because that's really one of the great strengths, one of the extraordinary things both of this and Wings of Desire and all his best work. Is the courage to hold single shots and to hold silences.

Then on top of that you've got the greatest, I would say, one of the two or three greatest film scores in movie history, which is the Ry Cooder score. If you recollect it long after the event you think it's just a single slide guitar, but it's much more than that. It's a complex set of layered tones and brilliant guitar playing. Very spare, very haunting, incredibly memorable. So it seems to me just a brilliant combination of so many cool things.

Interviewer

Sure, you mentioned just now actually that you reacquainted yourself with the sound track quite recently.

Sam Mendes

I did.

Interviewer

How revelatory is the soundtrack?

Sam Mendes

I listen to it a lot. I have to confess I'm a big Ry Cooder fan. But one of the things, I thought, "God I haven't seen the movie for a while and I'm talking about it tonight, so I'd better get in touch with it". And I couldn't find my DVD of it. I do have a very well re-mastered DVD, which I can't find with all sorts of interesting extras on it, one of which is Wim Wenders himself talking about how a lot of the dialogue between the father and the son in the car, as they travel to Houston, was improvised because the script ran out, basically. Here was me thinking it was this incredibly perfect, you know, imagining what it would be if a Sam Shepard script like that could land on my desk, you know. And in fact it was only half a script. They made a lot of it up themselves.

But anyway, the last track on the sound track album is the first occurrence, that I can remember pre-Reservoir Dogs, of an enormous scene being put on the album as well as a bit of music. It's the final scene between Travis, Harry Dean Stanton's character and his wife where he meets her in this very strange strip club, where the women are divorced from the clients by a pane of glass. Which, again is another example of someone being trapped behind glass. He can see her, but she can't see him. And it's brilliantly shot and brilliantly acted. And that, the opening line of that monologue, you know, there were these people, these two people, where he says that. It's completely embedded in my consciousness as the beginning of an incredible piece of writing. Which led me, academically, such as I was at the time, to go and study the American drama paper, which was Shepard and Mamet. Which, in turn led me into my work at the Donmar producing the work of Shepard and Mamet, producing Matthew Warchus's great production of True West with Mark Rylance. Which then went on to be reproduced with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Riley on Broadway. Four for Love, Mamet's Glengarry, The Cryptogram, etc, etc.

So there were these Boston marriages, and the whole foundation in a way of the American drama that came to the Donmar, came out of my first contact with great American dramatic writing through Shepard and this movie. So it led, in many ways, to an enormous amount of theatre work, as well.

Interviewer

It's interesting, because actually your most recent project, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on stage, on the face of it there wouldn't be… you couldn't wish for two projects which were more diametrically opposed. But I think there may be threads and I think you may have given me a segue to one there.

Sam Mendes

Well I think that it's fanciful to link them in a way, but to me if I look back at the person that watched Paris, Texas. You know, there's an English thread to the things that fascinated me. You know what I mean? I remember, as a student, going and trying to buy the rights to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to do it on the Edinburgh Fringe as a kid's show. Then again when I started out as a director at Chichester.

So it does go right back to the things that I loved and I sort of was drawn to when I was very, very young, much younger. But I think that they are two totally different strands. I mean, I think the two things can co-exist in a way that film and theatre can co-exist, and that's one extreme of theatre, which is the big show, the big musical, you know. It's almost a thing in itself, you know. The most complicated thing to do, in many ways, is a large show, more complicated than a movie. But I can't say that they're linked thematically.

Interviewer

Did you consult, the film version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 version with Gene Wilder? I'm wondering, did you take anything from that, an inspiration from that?

Sam Mendes

Well, I remember it very clearly. I tried not to watch it actually when I was doing the show because I thought I'd end up getting haunted by certain moments you then can't get out of your head. In fact the last one I'd seen had been the Johnny Depp, Tim Burton version, so it was confused in my head somewhat.

Since then I've actually watched it again, and was reminded how much of the first movie is delightful, actually, I think. Quite different, and they are three totally different renditions of the story. But I like it a lot.

Interviewer

What were the specific challenges of doing this production? Because I saw it on Saturday and it's quite a production. It's intense.

Sam Mendes

It's very, very big scale, you know. It's a huge scale. There's an enormous amount of, and I think the big difference between… One of the reasons why musicals are in some ways the most difficult thing to try and achieve is the number of primary creative voices that you have to deal with, and you're on a par with.

Movies are pure hierarchy in a way with the director at the top, and I don't think many people would challenge that. I think shows, on the other hand, you are basically on the same level as the choreographer, the lyricist, the book writer, the composer, probably the set designer, and occasionally the producer. If all of you are not in tune then it can get very rocky. I think the biggest challenge for Charlie was trying to unify the vision.

Also it's a very complicated book, because it disobeys all the rules; there is no baddie, you know. Willie is both goodie and baddie. You sort of know who's going to win. It's called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and he's going to win the competition before it starts. And then once you've met them all it becomes clear that even if you don't know the story they are getting knocked off one by one. You know what's coming.

Yet audiences are sort of drawn to it, love it, and seem to be kind of hypnotised by it. It's a story, even though it's almost like a haiku. It's very, very simple and yet endlessly relevant, you know. There's also a social message in it, too. So I think all of those things, trying to balance all of them, and it's also ongoing, you know, because in musicals often the second and third production is its best version. So the first production in some ways is almost a dry run, you know, you're trying to see how you can improve it, change it and develop it.

Interviewer

So even at this stage of your career, after so much experience and acclaim, do you see this as a learning experience that you will then take back behind the camera, so you will maybe transfer what you've learned on the stage and take it back to the cinema?

Sam Mendes

I think you learn things but you don't really know what they are. I think you're trying to understand, at what point you need to go small again, and at what point you want to embrace scale. I think after doing another Bond movie I should be longing to do a two-hander, you know, the very, very small theatre.

You just have to go back to basics and at a certain point there's no question that working on Sky Fall and Charlie at the same time, as I was for three or four years, one fed the other, you know. And they are two great iconic characters and writers, you know, Fleming and Dahl. Both of them quite strange, both of them in a sense became more famous after they were dead, more lauded now than they were when they were alive. Considered populist and perhaps a little… not entirely to be taken seriously. Yet now they seem to be two of the greater writers of the 20th century from this country. Both with odd relationships with the country itself, created these two great iconic characters, you know, Willy Wonka and James Bond. So there was lots of back and forth there, I felt. And they did in fact come into contact, of course. Dahl wrote the screenplay for Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and they knew each other. So they sort of were drawn to each other as well. So it's interesting that there are parallels.

Interviewer

How easy is it for actors to swap between the two roles? I'm just interested in media.

Sam Mendes

I think if they could, it's the same thing. You know, one feeds off the other. It's very good also, I mean, I went to see Daniel Craig in Betrayal and I was reminded what a fantastic actor he is outside of James Bond. It inspires you to think of other things, other ways to use him that allow him to express that. Ralf Fiennes is another great example, you know. He's constantly flipping between stage and film, and now directing as well. I think that one feeds the other. I think it's just a pleasure to be able to do both.

Interviewer

I asked because I mean, Harry Dean Stanton here, I think for people who haven't seen the film you know, you're about to see one of the great cinematic acting performances. But it seems such a product of the screen. And I wonder if you could take someone like Harry Dean Stanton and make a stage performer out of it?

Sam Mendes

You just don't know until people step on a stage. I mean, that's the truth. They have to do it. And I couldn't tell you from watching Harry Dean Stanton on the screen whether he would make a stage actor. It's certainly an incredible cinematic performance. But it's totally nonverbal and in that regard it seems almost pure cinema and very untheatrical.

Interviewer

You mentioned Bond, and as you brought it up I feel entitled to then ask a follow up question. Can you just tell us a little bit about where you're at with that now?

Sam Mendes

The next one, well, it's being written and that's all I can tell you. Otherwise the old "I'll have to kill you" and there are a lot of people to kill in this room, and I don't think I could do that. It's ongoing, and it's, you know, for me it's so much of it about script, because that's the building of the boat. Once the boat goes on the current it's gone, and if there's a hole in the boat... so you have to make sure that there are no holes in the boat, and that's what we're doing at the moment.

Interviewer

We're going to have to... well not have to, I mean, it'll be a privilege to hand over to Paris, Texas. I just wonder for the people here who haven't seen the film before, I imagine there's people who have and people who haven't. What's the one thing that you would tell those people to look out for in this film, the one thing that you kind of take from Paris, Texas?

Sam Mendes

Oh, there's so much more than just one thing, really. The ability to make, you see the contemporary world - well, I suppose it's now 25 years old, isn't it? But the contemporary world, such as it is, with new eyes, and to understand the vastness of the world we live in and the extraordinary individual stories. The fact that there's never anything, no two human faces or human stories are the same. There will always, always be stories as long as at the centre of them are human beings, confounding and impossible, and difficult.

Also to distrust the conventional means of storytelling, you know it's possible to tell a story in which the central character doesn't speak the first half of the movie. And the wife that he's reunited with never even sees him. If you can pull that off you can pull off anything. So it's a hymn to the greatness of Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard and Ry Cooder and the actors. And it's film I wish I had made.

Interviewer

And I do maintain that it's got a lot in common with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Sam Mendes thank you very much.

Sam Mendes

Thank you very much.

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