INT: Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes has once again succeeded in creating an emotional masterpiece with JARHEAD, a war film based on the book of the same name. JARHEAD is indeed a war film with a style unlike Mendes previous works (AMERICAN BEAUTY and ROAD TO PERDITION). The film, like the book, revolves around Anthony Swofford, who is not only a true person, but also the author of the book. Anthony Swofford has joined the marines, and the film follows his experience in the field during Desert Storm.
Sam Mendes discussed the different style he came up with for JARHEAD and much more at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. He seemed subdued, obviously exhausted because post-production was completed literally the day before. He was still humble and nice enough to give us many exciting details about shooting and the film in general, and you check it out here
What separates this film from other war movies is that its actually about a lack of action, or lack of combat; so did you find that a challenge going into or was it something that excited you about the project?
I find it one of the things that attracted me was the whole idea of training a huge group of men to go to war, and then seeing what happens when you take away the war. What happens in that period of waiting is the center of the film. They turned on themselves, on each other. They create their own wars, whether its a scorpion fight or playing football with gas masks on, all of those crazy things that go on in the movie, but its really the details in the story and Tonys book that really grabbed me, because they seem so unusual. That world had never been available to me.
All the war literature and movies I knew were about combat, and here was a story about what happens when there is no combat and you were trained to kill. That was my way in. If anything, the original script had more waiting. I shot more scenes that I took out in the middle of the film (spying into the majors headquarters with the scope of their sniper rifle, watching MTV with a scope); I mean I had some pretty cool stuff, but at the end of the day you can only make an audience wait so long before something has to happen. But even when it does happen, it doesnt happen in the expected way. These guys were observers of huge events but they never were actual participants on some level. It was all these things that made me want to do the film in the first place.
This movie was shot during the time of the current war. How conscience were you of that conflict and how concerned are you by whatever political parallels and analogies will be drawn between that early conflict and the war that was currently progressing?
I was completely aware of it all the time when we were shooting it. I would step out of my hotel room and there would be a copy of USA Today or whatever and there were photographs on the cover, pretty much one a week, which looked exactly like scenes we were shooting in the movie. It was impossible to ignore, and I was fully aware of it before the movie and at the time of shooting. Im not concerned at all about people drawing parallels, because to me its all a part of the same debate. You have many films out this year, and soon to be released that are in some way engaged in political discussion.
This is not a political film, but whats important is that theres a debate and peoples understanding of whats going on in the Middle East has increased on some level. These are human beings out there and this is a way of trying to tell a story about a group of men, all of whom are very individual and exactly the same way as the hundreds of thousands of men that are out there right now. All I hope is that understanding is increased. A mistake would be to say there is a message, or to say its good for you. A movie is only good for you if it moves you, or entertains you. Its not good for you because it has a message to deliver. If I felt I had the answer, Id be writing it in a newspaper somewhere.
This is a layered film. Its non-judgmental. It shows every aspect of the life of being a marine. Whenever it shows someones point of view, for example Swoffs, which is that hes sitting there in those burning oil fields, and its his vision of hell, it counterpoints that by having Jamie Foxxs character sit down and say, Who else gets to see shit like this? and reasoning why he wants to be there rather than anywhere else. To me, it tries to balance out every view point. Its a dangerous game to play, because at the end of the day you have to come down on one side or another, but thats up to the audience rather than me, I think.
Can you tell us about what it was like collaborating with cinematographer Roger Deakins?
I threw out everything that I used on American Beauty and Road to Perdition. I didnt storyboard; I didnt work in the same composed way. I didnt enter every scene knowing how I was going to shoot it. I worked a long time in pre-production designing the environments and being as accurate as possible. I talked with Roger about making the film in an organic way. I was afraid that previously, like with Road to Perdition, I was so concerned with style that I didnt quite allow the actors the freedom to express themselves properly. I thought I had a choice I could either take the style I used with American Beauty and Road to Perdition and impose it on every piece of material that I have, and that would be my style, or I could be a director who adjusts his style for the needs of the material.
I deliberately chose a script that didnt allow me to do anything that Id done before. So here I was working with a new cinematographer, a wonderful cinematographer, using a handheld camera. I wont go into too many technical details, but a lot of it is very blown, very de-saturated. I wanted to get the sense that as the characters were longer and longer in the desert that they became more divorced from reality, and so the desert is progressively shot more and more stylized. So the very last time you see desert before the oil fire, when the characters meet the Bedouins, its so overexposed that you cant see the horizon line.
Roger (Deakins) is also the most incredible operator. With a handheld camera you are in the hands of the operator and Roger is incredibly sensitive to the actors performances. Although hes made many composed films, this was a chance to return to his roots and just get out there with a camera on his shoulder and respond to the scenes. Often times I threw him out into the middle of a scene without telling him what was going to happen. It wasnt a dry exercise; it was really organic, and very fluid.
This is your first film without Conrad Hall as your director of photography. What impact did he have on your working process and how was it working without him at first?
I missed him hugely as a friend. He was a wonderful human being and he was an artist in a sense that you couldnt not be affected by his personality. He was a person that I loved and everyone that he worked with loved, so I missed him sitting next to me. Conrad was a very meticulous lighting cameraman, and Roger was less concerned with that, and I wanted to be less concerned with that, so it loosened up that process a great deal. It was also one of the reasons why I chose to work in such a different way, because I didnt have Conrad, and I didnt want to try and repeat what Id done with him before. I wanted to do something totally different.
Was there no role for R. Lee Ermey?
(laughs) I got a package two days before shooting and out of it was a card that said best of luck signed by R. Lee Ermey. And in the box was a R. Lee Ermey doll, and you press a button and says things like If you do that soldier I will rip off your head and shit down your neck, and things like that.
You didnt want to use someone that iconic?
Well hes not a young man anymore. And he delivers one of the most famous military performances of all time. Him and Duvall in Apocalypse Now, Id say, and only a handful of others, you know I didnt want to use anyone iconic, I thought that was probably a mistake.
If you had to choose next month between theatre and film, which would it be?
Im glad I dont have to make a choice. But if I did, I would choose film. As you can see with this film, Im still experimenting with directing, and theres a lot of things I want to try out, but that I havent had the chance to do. But I still feel more at home in theatre, and the thing I miss the most, when Im not filming something, is being in the rehearsal room of a play surrounded by great actors.
What was it like working with Jake and was there anything that surprised you about his performance?
It was a pleasure to work with him, and there were a lot of surprises. One of the things I was worried about with Jake is that hes sensitive, and puppy-eyed, floppy-haired, and this character was a tough marine who, though accessible, was angry, frustrated, difficult, dark, doubting, and I had never seen Jake do that before. Then he called me and said hed literally do anything to play this part. It makes a huge difference to a director to know that the actor is willing to go the distance and that they want this part more than anything in the world.
So what happened was, he pushed himself to the limit, and occasionally tipped over the limit. There was a kind of group insanity that descended upon everyone in the desert. All you have there is your mental and spiritual being and it really separates the men from the boys. Jake pushed himself to the limit to the point where I think he forgot he was acting. When he threatens Fergus with the gun, he lost his mind, and its on camera. And on that day he actually knocked his front tooth out with the gun barrel because he was so out of control. He went off camera and then walked right back on and carried on. Something changed with Jake during the course of shooting, and I think we have it captured on film. A lot of his performance surprised me and I was really happy with what he came up with.
JARHEAD opens wide on Friday, November 4th
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