Sam Mendes believes his secret to directing the actors in “American Beauty” was a relatively simple one: Don’t treat them the same way.
“The only language that works is the language you develop between yourself and your actors,” Mendes said during a seminar held Saturday morning at the Directors Guild of America headquarters in Los Angeles featuring the five DGA nominees for outstanding directorial achievement in feature film. “You’ve got to treat everyone completely differently.”
Mendes, who went on to win the DGA award Saturday night, said the dark comedy needed particularly distinctive performances from his cast to portray ordinary suburban residents beset with inner turmoil. He noted that two of the performers — Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham and Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts — were asked to deliver characters who were essentially enigmas.
“Your job,” he told the audience, composed largely of fellow DGA members, “is to bring them to the same point at the same time.”
The quintet of directors — the four others were Frank Darabont (“The Green Mile”), Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), Michael Mann (“The Insider”) and M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) — stressed the importance of subtleties in their work during the four-hour event, often noting how seemingly minor decisions make enormous differences in how the film plays.
For example, Mann noted that the awkward placement of the chair in a hotel room during the first meeting between the characters played by Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in “The Insider” was critical in terms of giving Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand a sense of losing his “patrician authority.” Mann pointed out that adding a mere three decibels in sound to his film was crucial to keeping the audience from becoming disinterested in the pic, which consists largely of conversations.
“So a tiny input will have a major impact,” Mann concluded.
Shyamalan said his challenge was to play against the expectations of the horror movie genre and concentrate on character development by using scenes with extensive dialogue late in the movie. “Audiences will take more of that later in the film when they’re invested in the characters,” he added.
Jonze said a particularly tough task was mixing comedy and drama in his decidedly offbeat project. “There are a lot of tone things that were involved,” he noted. “We were walking a fine line of not trying too hard.”
The panel, moderated by director Jeremy Kagan, reached consensus on dislikes — exhaustion and preview screenings — and on the joy of getting the movie to the point of editing. “I love being in the editing room, because that’s where you’re really making your movie,” Darabont said. “You’re recapturing the creative spark of what inspired you in the first place.”
For Mendes, the editing of “Beauty” involved a major shortening of screenwriter Alan Ball’s ending, which involved excising Jane Burnham and Ricky Fitts going to jail after being framed for Lester Burnham’s murder. The additional scenes played like something out of “NYPD Blue,” the director said, and diminished the impact of Lester’s death.
“It just did not seem to be a part of the canvas of the movie,” Mendes added.
Other changes included having Lester decide against sleeping with Mena Suvari’s character and making the sexual orientation of Chris Cooper’s character less obvious. Mendes also credited cinematographer Conrad Hall, also nominated for an Oscar, with creating crucial subtleties in lighting to propel the story.
“The subliminal part of the movie is that it’s always moving toward death,” he noted.