When Sam Mendes made American Beauty in 1999, the tagline on the poster urged us to “Look Closer.” The same thing could be said of each of the director’s films. American Beauty was a penetrating examination of American suburban life, with content as serious and fascinating as a Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee adaptation—content we’d long ceased hoped to find at a neighborhood theater. Mendes’ Road to Perdition was a study in layered detail, evoking character, atmosphere and a vanished era through a concentrated yet absolutely fluid style—a directorial tour de force bringing together all the elements of cinema into a unified whole.But it is Mendes’ latest film, the Desert Storm epic Jarhead, which we must look at closest of all; behind its thrills of wartime action it carries a subtextual message that is at once both plain and elusive in its evocation of young soldiers fighting a war for which they can find no specific meaning or goal.Below the Line: How did the story come to you?Sam Mendes: The book got sent to me by Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, the producers. I’d never even heard of it, and I read it before I’d read any script. I thought it was fantastic, and that it could be a movie, though a very unconventional one—it would have to be true to the journey they took in the desert, and that journey was a very haphazard one and it involved a lot of waiting. Therefore it was going to be a movie in large part about waiting. That’s a difficult sell when it comes to a war movie!BTL: In the film, there’s a scene when Jake Gyllenhaal goes off and sees a horse covered in oil. It was a very surreal touch. Did the book have moments like that in it? Or did you add them?Mendes: I added the horse. It is an opportunity for Jake’s character to come to terms with what is happening to the landscape, without anyone else watching. That was from a memoir, one that mentioned the dying wildlife wandering across this oil soaked landscape—cows, horses, reptiles, birds. This war was an enormous natural disaster, and I felt I needed to show that on some level, to bring home the scale of the natural disaster.BTL: When he sees the horse, it calls up the idea of the destruction of nature, but the idea of the Arabic war stallion also comes to mind; there’s something incredibly machismo about the Arabic fighter. It seems like a lot of impressions are going on in Jake at that time.Mendes: In a microcosm, that’s what you’re looking for in the whole movie; to make something that can mean a multitude of things. I think the job of a filmmaker is to ask as many questions as he answers. We’re all so obsessed with defining everything in black and white terms and coming up with answers or messages. I understand the need for that, particularly in a time that is so full of doubt, but nevertheless, there aren’t any such answers.BTL: Chesterton said that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center, and the characters’ predicament in the film reminded me of that.Mendes: I love the fact that they had no sense of why they were there, or what they were doing, or even when the war began, where the enemy was or what their mission was. But of course, all the reasons I loved it are reasons that make it difficult as a filmBTL: For Jarhead you chose Roger Deakins as your cinematographer, having worked with the late Conrad Hall on previous films. But you’ve maintained a few people: in casting, Debra Zane; costume designer Albert Wolsky; and production designer Dennis Gassner. Now this is kind of a catch-all question, but I’m thinking, you’re shooting in the desert, you’re going to be doing some CG add-on stuff—are you the one on top of coordinating all that? You’ve got the art director, production designer, DP, all these people, and they’re working with the visual effects supervisor—where does that begin? With previsualization?Mendes: I’m not a big fan of previs. It’s just like an extreme version of storyboarding and it often gets followed too slavishly. I want to be able to improvise, improvise in staging, with actors and lines, and therefore improvise the camera set-ups. As a consequence we did a lot of modeling, Dennis Gassner and I and the art department. We modeled all the sand landscapes, the camps, the berms, the fighting holes in the giant Kuwaiti berm, the observation tower, everything. Because what you’re basically doing is taking a landscape and sculpting environments out of it. We modeled it so I could look at it in three dimensions. As far as effects were concerned, Pablo Herman, who is frankly a genius, did the effects at ILM, or supervised them.BTL: The effects are perfect.Mendes: I agree, and deeply un-self-serving as effects go. They’re not about the effects, there are no specific effects shots, they’re always there supporting what’s going on in the foreground. Pablo was there every day, and for me he became like the head of a department who was on set all the time. I said I’m not going to storyboard, I’m not going to previs, I’m not going to tell you where or how many oil wells I’m going to want, or how long I want the highway of death to be or any of those things; you’re just going to need to be with me every day and get inside my head, and when we’ve cut it, you’ll need to work very fast and respond to what’s on the screen, and then I’ll be very specific to you. By that time you’ll know the movie back to front and you’ll know the feeling that the scene needs to engender. In other words it’s not just about nine randomly placed oil wells, it’s about how close they are, how dense the smoke is, and how claustrophobic you want the scene to feel, in order to create the drama that’s happening in the foreground. And I think that he got that absolutely. He worked on it in a brilliant way, and also worked on it in a way that was very in tune with what Roger Deakins was doing. I think what Pablo proves is that there’s no truth to that idea that the effects guys sit in a room somewhere in San Francisco with a mouse in their hand, clicking.BTL: Tell me about the digital intermediate work you did with Steve Scott at Efilm.Mendes: The DI allowed us to gradually blow the desert out—over-expose it more and more as the story progresses, to create a sense of isolation and their being further and further away from their homes and cut off from everything they know, and also gradually kind of going insane, until that last Bedouin scene where they meet those guys with camels, and it’s like a white science fiction landscape. That’s deliberate. And of course the white desert turns black with oil, and I wanted that to be a big dynamic shift between the white and the black, and that’s something again that was hugely helped by Steve and Roger and the DI.BTL: The oil wells were columns of fire—the way they were positioned, they took on the sense of being characters. The desert scene was the most visually striking scene I’ve seen in a film in a long time.Mendes: It’s kind of like an existential version of Dante’s Inferno. I’m risking getting very pretentious here, but there are the circles of hell; he goes through Kuwait, the friendly fire, the highway of death and sitting in a circle of dead Iraqi soldiers and then they are sprayed with oil by the oil wells; then there’s the scene with the dead body, where Fowler’s chipping away at the corpse; and then he finds himself alone in the still center of it all, carrying a dead body, at which point Jamie Foxx’s character sits down and justifies it all, saying, “Isn’t this great?” And to me it’s a truly existential moment.BTL: Do you create your own production team, going from film to film?Mendes: I use people who will do the best possible job. Of course it’
s easier to work with Albert and Dennis and [composer] Tom Newman and Debbie Zane, because you have a shared language, but for me the most stimulating and unexpected collaborations in this movie took place with two people I’d never worked with before, Roger Deakins and [editor] Walter Murch, both of whom are absolute masters of their art, and I should be so lucky as to have both of them. That’s the thing—you’ve got to mix up what you know with some new people who can shake you up a bit, and change the way you see things, disagree and take issue with you, and give you something you never thought of before, and both of them did that. Without them, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as fully realized.BTL: So it strikes me you’re not a John Ford sort of guy, who wants the same crew for 50 films.Mendes: No, and it’s the same with actors. I’ve loved working with Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, and Jude Law, and now having Jake and Jamie. There all so different.BTL: If you weren’t a movie director, and you worked on a crew, which position would you want to have?Mendes: I think I’d want to be a cinematographer, but I don’t think I’d be a very good one.BTL: Why not?Mendes: Because I don’t think I’d be patient enough. What Roger was able to do was put himself in the shoes of the central character, and I think I would always want to stand outside looking in. But having the thrill of shooting the camera, that’s what I’d choose. Of course, I might want to be in a nice warm editing room, with a cup of coffee.
Written by Henry Turner