“I only attend festivals that give me prizes, actually I only accept the heavy ones!” This is how Sam Mendes humorously commented on receiving the golden Dala horse the night of the 9th of November at the Skandia cinema. He won the prestigious Stockholm Visionary Award 2022 for his extraordinary work – from the shocking war dramas (Jarhead and 1917) to reflective dramas like the most recent The Empire of Light. He described the last movie as his love letter to the cinema.
Written by Monika Lipanovich and Karen Lundquist
Empire of Light is a critically acclaimed drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times. Set in and around a faded old cinema in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, it follows Hilary (Olivia Colman), a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen (Michael Ward), a new employee who longs to escape the provincial town. The two find a sense of belonging through their unlikely and tender relationship. Empire of Light also reunites Mendes with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, who lensed two of the director’s films: 1917 and Skyfall.
On this occasion it would be a pity not to mention Revolutionary Road, his movie from 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. A portrait of a young American couple struggling with their personal problems and different points of view as to the right direction they should take. Portrayed with brutal and heartbreaking clarity, the couple represents the lavish desolation of American suburbia.
It would be hard to find a director with more flexibility in his vision. He doesn’t repeat himself, he creates deep characters with a fresh eye every time. As he stated at The Face2Face that followed the award ceremony – the film is always the boss, no matter what genre. His debut American Beauty was awarded five Academy Awards, including Best Director.
In addition to his Oscar, Mendes has been nominated for three additional Academy Awards and has won multiple BAFTA Awards, Golden Globes, Tonys and Olivier Awards.
Earlier that day, before the ceremony where he picked up the Stockholm Visionary Award, Sam Mendes attended a press conference where he spoke more in depth about his life, his career and his vision as a film director and here are a few of his most interesting quotes.
“I am an only child, I grew up alone with my mother. My parents got divorced and my mother suffered from mental illness, she was bipolar. In a way that’s what forged me as a person, that fact that I grew up watching another person, every slight change of mood, to see whether I would be staying with her or going to live with my father, whether I’d be staying in school or leaving. At that age, when the one person that you know and you love and you depend on, suddenly becomes someone else, is a very frightening thing. So you become very self-contained and a caretaker at a very young age, which is what happened to me. That fades directly into my life and work, I then set off on a career in which I create worlds and control worlds. I lost control of my life at a very young age, so for me, trying to solve that riddle, trying to go back and understand better, trying to throw a light on mental illness, which is still a thing that we stigmatise, don’t understand, that was always something that I knew I was going to do.”
“There was a lot of pressure, you make your first movie and you win an Academy Award for it, to make more movies within that style and in the case of American Beauty, very composed, very still, so my instinct was to make something even grander. So the next movie that followed, had nothing composed, two handheld cameras, in the middle of the dessert, not a straight line anywhere and to go there with a great cinematographer and great actors and invent something. Each movie has had a different challenge and the movie makers that I admired growing up, the Billy Wilders, the Ang Lees… every movie was a different genre, a different attempt to try to tell a story using every tool that suited that particular story and to me that’s the goal. I spoke about Bergman, when you say something is Bergmanesque, you know what it means, or it’s Tarantinoesque. I didn’t want that, I never wanted to have fans turn up with T-shirts saying – Sam Mendes is great!. Because there was a part of me that wanted to sit behind it and not put myself in the middle of it.”
Empire Of Light has been described as a love letter to cinema, in the film, this being a palace of light where people go and are told stories in the movies, Mendes says.
I love the idea of you going, you are not allowed to talk or look at anything else, except the image in the dark and you come out changed, hopefully, or at the very least, talking about the film. And if someone comes out and talks about what they’re going to have for supper, you failed. And that for me is story-telling, but I think that I’m becoming one of a minority.
His vision of the future.
There are lots of things that I’d like to still do. I’d like to make a science fiction movie, I’d like to make fantasy for my kids, I’d like to create a world, I’d like to make a thriller, perhaps a western. But at the end of the day, the thing that makes me want to make a film, whatever the genre, is the people in it, the human story. What will always attract me is human beings on a journey that captures me. Even if you look at movies I’ve made and they’re all different genres and kinds of style, I hope the thing that unifies them is that there are people in them that you care about, and there is a human story that grabs you, even in a Bond movie. And that was my criteria when I made Skyfall, I want to make Bond vulnerable briefly and that’s hard when you know the character can’t die, until the last movie of course when they killed him, if they would have told me I could have killed him, I would have done that (Says Mendes as he laughs loudly). So I’d continue to be making stories as long as they’re about humans and not the spectacle.