Revolutionary Road: Sam Mendes' New Suburban Critique

Known for his astute outsider's eye to contemporary American life in such films as the 1999 Oscar-winning “American Beauty” and “The Road to Perdition,” Sam Mendes again shows penchant for elucidating strong characterization through detail and intimate performance in  “Revolutionary Road,” another biting satire of suburbanism as a way of life. 


Mendes had not read Richard Yates' noted book (of the same title), and only learned of it when his wife, Kate Winslet, was sent Jason Haythe's screenplay.  “As soon as Kate read it,” he recalls, “she suggested that I direct it.  It became one of those things grew and grew in momentum the more we talked about it.”  Mendes elaborates: “When I read the book, I realized what an incredible film it could make, that it could be an exciting modern story. There's so much wisdom and insight in it, and it feels wonderful to finally bring it to a wider audience.”


In 1961, Yates' emotionally charged novel shook the literary world. The acclaimed novelist is now ranked with F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver, all writers whose work has illuminated the inner core of modern American life.  Yates has been compared to Fitzgerald as a chronicler of his age, doing for the yearning, ambition and chaos of the “Age of Anxiety” what the former had done for “the Jazz Age.”  The story's characters, young lovers with grand dreams, Frank and April Wheeler, became indelibly real to readers, sparking debate about the nature of marriage and the roles of men and women in society.


The novel's title and setting on Revolutionary Road was no accident, referring, as Yates noted, to the “betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit, and suggesting that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the 50s.” One of the century's most influential works, the novel captured a profound moment in America, as the middle-class began new lives in the post WWII era, settling into family existence, focused on prosperity and security and rife with complacency and conformity.  Yet while evoking its period, the novel simultaneously hit upon a more timeless and compelling dilemma: the battle between the exhilarating passion of ideals and the compromises of human relationships.

It's been an unusually long journey from page to screen for Yates' masterwork.  Since its publication, various filmmakers, including John Frankenheimer, wished to adapt the book but no viable script could be found.  Having sold the rights for $15,500 to producer Albert Ruddy, who in turn sold them to Patrick O'Neal, Yates tried unsuccessfully to get the rights back so that he could write a script. 


Yates himself never attained the success in his lifetime.  Struggling with alcoholism, depression and difficult relationships, he died broke of emphysema, in 1992. However, recently Yates' work has been rediscovered due to the efforts of some literary lions, including Richard Ford, Nick Hornby, Joan Didion, David Hare, Stewart O'Nan and Sebastian Faulkes, who began fervent discussions about the book's impact.


For scribe Haythe (who previously co-penned the Robert Redford thriller “The Clearing” with Pieter Jan Brugge), the difficulty lay in presenting the Wheelers on screen in accessible way without romanticizing or satirizing them, allowing them to reveal through words and actions their hopes, fears, and the ways in which they chafe against society's proscriptions of how men and women should act.   Haythe desire was to be as true to the book's tone and dialogue as possible, while acknowledging that film is a different medium:  “In a novel, you have instant access to characters' inner confessionals, whereas in film, there is an art to dramatizing that.” deserved.”


A Brit known for his incisive observation of American life, Mendes decided to bring a contemporary vision to the Wheelers' story, approaching it as an unflinchingly honest portrait of a marriage, marked by both peril and hope.  Mendes was especially drawn to the material as a searing portrait of a marriage in both its tender and tumultuous moments.  He explains: “What I saw in this story was the potential to explore a marriage laid out in detail, the hard edges, the vulnerability, the cruelty, the rage and raw emotionality. Your feelings about Frank and April become as conflicted and mysterious as your feelings about relationships and life in general.”


Mendes saw the characters as mirroring American yearning, at its most destructive yet also at its most sustaining, to which many can connect.  He tinged the tragedy of the love story with a sense of hope.  “I never saw this is as a grim story,” he says.  “It's full of Yates' wit, eccentricity, originality and characters you really like, perhaps in spite of yourself.  It's full of details about human beings, the bad and the wonderful. That was what I wanted to get on screen.”   


For Mendes, the biggest challenge was to evocatively capture the 1950s period, while allowing his portrait to illuminate our own times.  He explains: “Frank lives in a world of New York businessmen in gray flannel suits taking martini lunches and flirting with secretaries.  Yet even though I think the book can be looked at as an exploration of that period, to me, it's not really about the 50s.  It deals with deeper modern concerns.  So while the period was important as the background, I didn't want it to be fetishized.  Mendes hopes that one of the discussions the movie raises, which the book did, is “how the 1950s led us to where we are now.” 


Mendes had in mind his key cast early on, envisioning Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, with whom he collaborates on screen for the first time, in the roles of Frank and April, believing they could evoke the tenderness of the couple's love as well as their toxic illusions. 


“Revolutionary Road” is the first teaming of the stars since their successful appearance in the 1997 Oscar-winning blockbuster “Titanic” (still the most popular film ever made)  “Leo and Kate have known each other since they were 20 years old, they know each other's foibles and they can't pretend to be something they're not with each other,” explains Mendes.  “There's a level of comfort and honesty with them, a sense of mutual support and also a kind of testing of each other.  Above and beyond that, they have that quality where two plus two equals five.  When you put the two of them together, another, more powerful thing emerges.”        


Was it awkward to stage explicit sex scenes between his wife and Leo, like the one in which they make love in the kitchen  Says Mendes: “It was helpful that the set was often closed, with only minimal crew, and that I could go round the corner and watch the scene on a monitor screen without the actors seeing me.”


Visually, too, Mendes wanted to evoke Yates' detailed portrait of a conformist 1955 America while focusing the camera on the timeless conflicts of the characters:  “The idea was to authentically recreate a world that feels different, rife with smoke-filled high-rise offices filled with flirty, young secretaries and housewives waiting for their husbands with icy evening cocktails, yet is just one step removed from our own.”  “I didn't want people to ooh and ahh at the world we created,” comments Mendes.  “I wanted to create a window into that period without making a point of it.  The most important thing was to have a very real environment in which Frank and April clearly feel lost. I wanted to emphasize a sense of Frank being very alone in the city and simultaneously of April being lonely in the house. You have that visual counterpoint throughout the film, Frank in the masses of people and April in the suburbs, which helps evoke the central themes of the story.” 


To achieve his vision, Mendes brought in an accomplished artistic team, including cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Kristi Zea and Albert Wolsky as costume designer.   Deakins' strategy was to shoot with a minimal, bare-bones style, without much lighting equipment, in order to allow for deep intimacy between the actors on the set.  Mendes says he was pleased with how Deakins was able to bring so much lyricism to the most cramped circumstances.  “It was sometimes difficult to watch Roger, who is one of the great cinematographers, cramming himself into a miniscule kitchen with a huge camera, but he really captured the claustrophobia of these interior spaces, from the Wheeler house to the Knox building,” says the director. 


In addition to the influence of the moody realist painter Edward Hopper, Mendes drew on the work of photographer Saul Leiter as a touchstone for the style.  With their painterly quality and emphasis on fragmentation and isolation, Leiter's street photos of New York City in the 50s and 60s seemed to echo the Wheelers' story.  As director, he also acknowledges the influence of a documentary made by suburban planners to persuade people to move to the suburbs, which was just brilliant, so we stole a lot of stuff from there, both visual and behavioral.”


Mendes shot primarily in the Connecticut suburbs with which Yates' novel is associated.  A search of the Darien area resulted in two houses, one behind the other, making the perfect stand-ins for the Wheeler and their neighbors, the Campbells.  Both houses featured 50s-style architecture, but were actually built in the 1970s, affording the production a smidgen more square footage.  Still, they were tiny by film standards, which helped set the tone, as Mendes says: “That location helped us in feeling claustrophobic and constricted, and added to this feeling that we couldn't escape.” 


For Mendes, every element of the film, from the photography to the design to the score (by regular collaborator Thomas Newman) and especially the acting, was meant to recreate a sense of the enveloping world of Yates' novel: “It's all these incidental pieces of information that add up to a sense of who Frank and April are and all they are experiencing in their marriage.” 

For Mendes, it was very “exhilarating to finally work with my wife after five years of marriage,” because “I saw a side of her that I did not know: her concentration power and meticulous attention to detail.”  However, he allows for major differences in their styles: “As a person, I tend to cut off at the end of a day and watch a baseball game, or something.  I like not to bring work home, but Kate is the opposite.   She needed and wanted to talk about the movie all the time, and so I had to change the way I was because my goal was to get the best performance I could from her.”  Early reports indicate that Mendes need not worry about Kate or Leo; there's Oscar buzz about the whole picture, including the performances.


See Review of Revolutionary Road