Empire of Light: Interview with Director Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes knew that he was writing Empire of Light for Olivia Colman even though they’d never met.

Observing her husband’s frustrations with his script, Alison Balsom, a trumpet soloist, suggested he get in touch with Colman, hoping that the actress could excavate him from the rubble of that darned wall.

Eventually, Mendes reached Colman (The Favourite) via her agent. They met on Zoom. “Look, I’m writing something for you,” he recalled.

They had a gossip, then chatted briefly about the project. “I told her it’s a love story of sorts and I talked about how personal it is, and how much it’s drawn from my own life. The upshot of it is that I got a very powerful sense of her.”

Mendes said that Colman reminded him a bit of Judi Dench. When he was 24, he’d directed Dench in a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex.

Then he directed her in two James Bond films, Spectre and Skyfall, where she played M; he had her bumped off in the latter.

”Olivia’s like Judi in that she’s accessible and yet also slightly mysterious,” Mendes said during a rare one-on-one interview to discuss Empire of Light. “She’s very friendly, always delightful to see her, but there’s something held back, too. A little core is very private. She’s not an extravert, not an exhibitionist; she’s very guarded actually. Certainly since the Oscar. I think she had to recalibrate her life as people do when they become that level of famous. It’s frightening; I’ve lived through it too, to a degree, but not as a famous face.”

The conversation with Colman did the trick. “That’s all I needed, I just needed a blast of her really. When I got off the Zoom I knew which way to go with this and so I completed it.”

Empire of Light received its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend.

Deadline Studio Toronto Film Festival
(L-R) Roger Deakins, Sam Mendes, Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Tanya Moodie at Toronto Festival

Set in Margate, a seaside resort on the north coast of Kent in the southeastern part of the UK, in the early 1980s, the film takes place in a sea-front movie theater that’s seen better days.

Mendes is just as interested in what’s showing—Chariots of Fire is on its way, for starters— as he is in the lives of those who toil there; a motley crew that includes fragile Hilary (Colman), the middle-aged deputy manager, and Stephen (Micheal Ward), a handsome 19-year-old Black youth who collects ticket stubs and keeps an eye on the confectionery stand.

Mendes had the art department etch on a wall at the cinema, the Empire of the title, the line “Find Where Light In Darkness Lies,” taken from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. “That’s the thing that links all the different threads of the movie,” Mendes explained.

Love, Race, Cinema

There are three central themes: love, race and cinema. Mendes has used the illusion of film to comment on reality. It’s a scorcher of a film, absolutely one of the year’s best, with a star-making performance by Ward and an unbelievably sublime Colman locating the fragility of a lonely woman searching for, and hoping, that the embrace of her young colleague will allow her safe passage through the tremors and terrors of mental illness.

Mendes said Colman is one of those actors who’ll be talking right up until you say “Action, and there it is.”

”She doesn’t love rehearsing but she wants to know everything you can possibly give her, so you tell her stories, history, memories, thoughts and she soaks it up. It’s like having a Ferrari …she’s like a Ferrari dressed like a Mini, you know what I mean? Then you turn the key in the engine and this engine just roars into life. She’s just got this power,” he told us.

In a New Yorker interview, Mendes discussed the impact of mental illness on his family growing up. ”Look, I’m an only child and I grew up with my mother, and my mother suffered from mental issues. So a lot of these things in the film are from a deep personal place,” he noted.

He stressed, however, that Colman’s Hilary is not his mother. ”My mother never worked in a cinema … but her story and certain scenes from her life are scenes that I lived through,” he told us.

Several years ago, he’d written more “directly autobiographical screenplay” but it was solitary, he said. “I wanted layers, I wanted there to be a sense of hope. I wanted there to be a sense of somebody pulling through both of our heroes, well, what Stephen says at the end: getting back up.” Mental illness is “tough, it’s hard for people.”

One of the most powerful parts of the illness, he told us, “is that people don’t talk about it.”

Several people who’ve seen the film have told him that there’s a Hilary in their own lives. “A mother, a husband, a father …” he said. “Many of them would say, ’We never knew what it was; it was unspoken or it was brushed under the carpet.’ No one’s allowed to talk about the stigma attached to it.”

With regards to the race issues, it was as if this writer had been hurled back four decades to a time when National Front marches would erupt into bloody violence or when racist boot boys used to go hunting for Black and Brown people to attack.

Some of the young actors cast in Empire of Light as thugs who give Ward’s Stephen a kicking that lands him in hospital were aghast that they had to beat him up. Mendes confirmed that one of the thug actors broke down and couldn’t continue with the scene. “Those lads who played the skinheads are the sweetest, nicest blokes … gentle souls,” said Mendes.

He was talking to a group as he prepared to shoot a scene where a few of the yobs chant racist abuse at Stephen and one of them asked if the policemen included in the scene would be intervening. “I said, ‘I hate to tell you, mate but in those days, maybe even these days, there’s no guarantee that the police weren’t just as racist as you [the actors playing the thugs],” Mendes said. “Just because they’ve got a uniform on it doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything.”

In the middle of conceiving the film, “there was a racial earthquake in the world that rocked us all because it felt like nothing had changed in 50 years. It was like, ’We’re still here.’ Even now I struggle to talk about it with any kind of clarity because our generation had watched it happen. We watched the L.A. riots happen, watched people being dragged out of cars and beaten, watched the Toxteth [Liverpool] riots. You’re like, ‘We’re still in this place, this is where we are,” said a dismayed Mendes.

It did force him “to go back in some way and ask whether things were any better and if not, why not? I think we’ve all answered that question personally. Black Lives Matter is an extraordinary product of that.”

There’s a scene in Empire of Light where Stephen’s confronted by a belligerent cinemagoer who questions why he’s being served by a Black man. ”It’s subtle, it’s tenacious,” said Mendes, “but it’s racial abuse.”

The vile patron is dismissed with ‘Oh, he’s always a d*ckhead’ kind of comment by Hilary, but Stephen is angered by her blinkered vision because she’s unaware that it’s racial abuse.

”There’s only one answer to behaviour like that,” Mendes insisted. ” ‘Excuse me, sir, please can you leave!’ That’s the only way because unless you do that, all you’re doing is being complicit in the act of racism.”

Mendes said he had a Black friend in his youth. “I remember walking down the road with him one day and he said, ’Did you see what those people were doing and saying to me?’ And I hadn’t at all, and he looked at me and said, ’You’re never going to see it.’ And that’s true. Your only duty is to open your eyes and listen to other people… you can’t feel it, I’m a white man.”

Mendes’ family background, the paternal side of his family is descended from white Creole Trinidadians.

”Me? My grandfather was, technically, white Creole, so yeah, but I do identify as white, and I’ve always felt that,” he said. “But, I think as I get older, I’m much more interested in where are my grandfather’s forebears from? My dad was born in Trinidad, my grandfather, my great-grandfather — all from Trinidad. At the same time , when I did The Lehman Trilogy [performed at London’s National Theatre and on Broadway], I spent a lot of time trying to reconnect, or understand, my Jewish roots on my mum’s side, which have also been airbrushed in many ways, I think, by family history, I was never brought up Jewish, but technically I am because my mother is Jewish. I’ve never been given an opportunity to choose whether I wanted to follow those religious value systems and beliefs, or not.”

At age 56, Mendes has made his most personal film with Empire of Light. “It burst out of me,” he declared. However, once it was crewed and cast, he wasn’t alone. “One of the things you realize as you get older as a director, if you’ve got eight people in a cast, fundamentally, you’ve got eight other imaginations in the room with you and it would be a good idea to ask them what they think.”