Theatre and film director Sam Mendes' time as an Oxford schoolboy at Magdalen College School demonstrated a talent for cricket, but not for maths. Revisiting the school's packed Arts Festival marquee more than thirty years later, he was asked what he earned for directing the 2012 James Bond blockbuster Skyfall?
'No idea, I wasn't good at maths – remember?' Mendes replied. Google estimates Mendes' current net worth at a cool $30 million. 'I can do addition and subtraction. That's been enough for me' Mendes reassured the audience.
With fellow school friend and award-winning actor Tom Piper, the desinger of the Poppies in the Moat at the Tower of London, sitting in the front row, Mendes remembered them cycling together down the Banbury Road to school, and together directing (Sam) and designing (Tom) the MCS School Review.
Studying History of Art at A level was formative in informing Mendes' visual imagination: 'I began to understand the difference between a scene lit by Caravaggio and one by Goya; between Manet and Monet or the Italian Renaissance. These contrasts and techniques stayed with me'. Later Mendes compiled 'Look Books' for theatre and film projects to effectively convey his vision to designers and cinematographers.
Mendes began the long process of finding a directorial voice at Cambridge University where he graduated with a First in English. Hollander appeared in Mendes' first production for the University's Marlowe Society: Cyrano de Bergerac.
Citing Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, in which Gladwell suggested there was no such thing as genius, only talent and practice over, say 10,000 hours, Mendes wondered if his 15,000 hours of rehearsing in his twenties alone counted towards the chance of being any good?
A stellar career in theatre followed, including directing Dame Judi Dench in Chekov's The Cherry Orchard at the age of 24, after which Mendes joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. He directed Simon Russell Beale many times, and although he repeated productions of plays such as Richard III with different leads – Russell Beale and Kevin Spacey, 'its not something I would choose to do, except to right the wrongs of the first production'. Although his Cabaret proved so successful it was staged first in London and subsequently twice on Broadway, 'the thrill of discovery was absent'.
Mendes' move to film was eased by Steven Spielberg, who took him through Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, giving him a masterclass in cinematic technique. American Beauty (1999) – Mendes' first film won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Director.
When Mendes was offered Skyfall (2012), he recognized in Craig 'an edge of violence and danger in which I believe' and cast him as Fleming's anti-hero James Bond. 'I was walking a tightrope between softening the character and showing him as vulnerable in ways which hadn't been seen before', Mendes said. Spectre (2015) followed to similar commercial success.
Returning to theatre between film projects, Mendes characterised the former as an 'easing in' to build up to the integrated whole, while film was essentially collaborative, but often fragmented, requiring great concentration from actors. Some needed more direction, others less. Kevin Spacey had once interrupted a phone call to film a sequence, and returned to his conversation without a break. 'That casualness was helpful to Kevin in shooting the scene but to me, it was a bit too casual. I had to pick him up on it', Mendes said.
Great performances were both brave and exposing, and Mendes characterised fear as the predominant emotion to be overcome in movie actors. Most days on set were like 'drawing teeth', but occasionally a spontaneous moment occurred which added unscripted magic to a scene – such as Craig shooting his cuffs having dropped to the ground after a life and death helicopter struggle.
'Make films with your friends', Mendes told the audience. 'It's all about doing. One of your group may become a professional actor or crew. The next thing you know, you may be involved in something bigger. Just do it. Build your skill set. That's the important thing.'