Showman: New Yorker Profile of Sam Mendes

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Excerpts: ““The director as a concept, as a cultural phenomenon, is dying,” he said. “Coppola of ‘The Godfather,’ Scorsese of ‘Taxi Driver,’ Tarantino of ‘Pulp Fiction’—these figures are not going to emerge in the way they did in the twentieth century. The figures who are going to emerge will come out of long-form television.” He continued, “Now is an unbelievable time to be alive and a storyteller. The amount of original content being made, watched, talked about is unprecedented. You’re in the strongest position if you write. If you’re a writer, you can also be a showrunner. A showrunner is the new director.” Mendes invoked David Simon (“The Wire”), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), and Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”). Then, like a cinematic Moses coming down from the mountain, he reeled off the eye-watering amounts that will be spent annually on original material in the next few years by the streaming companies: Netflix, $10 billion; Amazon, $8 billion; Apple, $4.2 billion. “These streaming companies are going to steamroll the traditional studio system,” he said. (Hollywood, during the same period, will spend about $2 billion.)

In show business, form follows money. The boom of the streaming services has also changed the shape of filmed stories, shifting the old theatrical formula of “two hours’ traffic” into a new guideline of ten to sixty hours. “They want one never-ending movie,” Mendes said. “The model they’re chasing is ‘Game of Thrones.’ ” As a producer, Mendes understands the market forces; as a filmmaker, he resists the attenuated narrative. “I was brought up to believe that a movie should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For me, a narrative is something you tell an audience in an evening. You can put your arms around it. It’s singular.” He added, “Even though my company produces a lot of television, I don’t feel comfortable not knowing if an audience is watching, or whether they’re watching all ten hours or ten minutes at a time.”

“Onstage, control is Mendes’s prowess; offstage, it has been his nemesis. “To me, the biggest learning curve is to let go,” he said. “I was absolutely unwilling to surrender.” Mendes attributes his pattern of attraction and retreat to his childhood. He was, he said, “drawn to vivacious, complex, dynamic women,” among them the actresses Jane Horrocks, Calista Flockhart, Rachel Weisz, and Rebecca Hall. “It wasn’t that I pushed those women away,” he said. “I was attracted to them, then found myself deeply uncomfortable in a relationship where I was really trying to solve them. The best thing you can do in a rehearsal is solve the problem; it’s the most unhealthy thing to do in a relationship. It took me a long time to understand that.”

It took Mendes a long time, as well, to learn that a romantic relationship between an actor and a director is unlikely to be a healthy one, because of the power imbalance between them. There’s also a disjunction between home life and professional connections. “The most stimulating relationship for an actor is often with a director,” he said. “Nothing to do with flirtation. It’s just very intimate, very exciting. As a director, you feel weirdly guilty at not lavishing on your family the energy and focus you’ve given in large part professionally all day. You begin to be dishonest about how much you’re giving, because you know, in a way, that the person will become jealous. You pretend it’s less intense. It becomes a little bit of a masquerade.”

Read the complete profile HERE

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