Adam Dawtrey: London Eye

From the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater to the Donmar Warehouse and soon again at the Old Vic, Sam Mendes has always been the golden boy of the U.K. legit scene.

But as he prepares to shoot his fourth U.S. movie this summer, his relationship with British cinema remains far more ambiguous.

This Oxford-raised, Cambridge-educated cricket lover, who’s married to arguably the finest English actress of her generation, Kate Winslet, has yet to direct a film in Blighty.

In fact, it’s hard to think of another British A-lister whose cinematic preoccupations have been so exclusively American — starting with his Oscar-winning debut “American Beauty,” through gangster pic “The Road to Perdition” and war drama “Jarhead” to his upcoming version of the Richard Yates novel “Revolutionary Road” about the marital meltdown of a Connecticut couple.

But that’s about to change. His London-based Neal Street Prods., which recently renewed its first-look deal with DreamWorks, is working with Andrew Davies, the doyen of Brit lit, on the first ever bigscreen version of George Eliot’s monumental 19th century novel “Middlemarch,” for Mendes to direct in 2008.

“Sam’s first film was for an American studio, so he started off in a slightly different place than other British directors. But he’s as determined to tell stories about England as he is about America,” says Pippa Harris, who heads the shingle’s film arm.

Mendes describes the “strange schizophrenia” of his stage and screen career to date as purely “circumstantial.”

“I’ve just made the projects that happened to fall in my way,” he says. “My films so far have been about exploring these extraordinary other worlds, but now I’m moving into a phase when I’m coming home and able to direct work that’s closer to me.”

He includes “Revolutionary Road” in that, despite its American setting. “It’s about a marriage, and I’m in a marriage, and the actress I’m married to is in the film, so it doesn’t feel like playing away from home.” The DreamWorks pic, which reunites Winslet with Leonardo DiCaprio, was developed by BBC Films, making it his first U.K-generated project.

Harris, a former BBC exec and childhood friend of Mendes, played in a big role in making that happen.

“For me, a lot of the past two or three years has been about empowering Pippa on the film side and Caro Newling in our theater division to produce their own things,” Mendes comments. “The authority Pippa has generated is really helpful to me. Even though ‘Revolutionary Road’ is my film, it wouldn’t have got to this point without her.”

Under Harris, Neal Street is hitting its stride with a wide range of British and international projects, some for Mendes to direct and some not.

Harris made her feature producing debut last year with Tom Vaughan‘s romantic comedy “Starter for Ten.” Now she’s in post with “Stuart: A Life Backwards,” a gritty BBC/HBO telepic about a drug addict.

Mendes himself is producing “Things We Lost in the Fire,” the English-language debut of Danish helmer Susanne Bier, for DreamWorks; and exec producing two projects originally intended for him to direct — Marc Forster‘s Afghan drama “The Kite Runner,” and Tim Burton‘s musical “Sweeney Todd.”

“Sam has always been a producer,” Harris says. “At the Donmar, he produced more than he directed. He loves to work with other directors in theater and in film, and for a director to be able to step back and recognize someone else’s vision and enable that is quite unusual.”

They are also developing a movie based on the BBC cop drama “Conviction” for Focus Features, which Mendes may direct; and a bigscreen version of Bill Nicholson‘s BBC telepic “Life Story” about the discovery of DNA, which he won’t.

Jeffrey Hatcher is writing “American Prometheus” about nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer, another Mendes helming project for D’Works, while Irish director John Crowley is attached to WWII spy story “Garbo.” Mendes has even got a Shakespeare TV project up his sleeve, and you can’t get more English than that.

“That’s a more illustrative spread than the movies I have made before,” Mendes explains. “We don’t feel like we want to major in American films, and I hope that within a year that will be more clear.”

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