Here’s a theory: If not for Sam Mendes, Universal never would’ve entrusted an indie greenhorn like Colin Trevorrow to direct “Jurassic World,” nor would George Lucas have dreamed of handing the reins of his “Star Wars” franchise to the likes of Rian Johnson (“Brick”).
While hardly your typical indie director by origin, British-born Mendes, who is receiving the John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Excellence in Directing, was a bold choice to tackle “Skyfall,” the 23rd film in the Eon-produced James Bond franchise — and one of the few to be overseen by a helmer selected on the strength of his dramatic directing chops — resulting in $1.1 billion worldwide box office, the Bond series’ highest-grossing film.
The tendency with such franchise assignments — from Bond to “Star Wars” to the “Jurassic Park” series — has long been to pick journeymen helmers, favoring those lacking an authorial imprimatur who excel at the technical side of things: specifically, experience working with huge crews, while juggling both action and effects — guys like Roger Spottiswoode (who’d edited two Sam Peckinpah pics) and John Glen (promoted from second-unit duty).
Mendes is hardly the first director to be given such an opportunity. (Chris Nolan demonstrated such an aptitude on “Batman Begins,” even if that film’s fight sequences reveal the limits of his action-blocking abilities.) But to borrow a Bond-ism: Nobody does it better.
Beginning in theater, where Mendes developed his skills directing actors (reimagining such classics as “Cabaret” and “The Glass Menagerie”) and a necessary appreciation for the written word (onstage, the “book” serves as both blueprint and bible, and no one dreams of launching a production without a rock-solid script in place first). With such legit experience under his belt, he made the switch to the big screen with 1999’s “American Beauty,” a debut that demonstrated his mastery of both disciplines, pairing an Oscar-recognized cast with a killer screenplay by Alan Ball.
Debuting at the Toronto film festival before going on to win five Academy Awards, “American Beauty” effectively crowned a decade every bit as important to the evolution of Hollywood as the hallowed 1970s — that post-“Easy Riders” stretch in which studios took wild gambles on a new generation of relatively unproven directors. The ’90s showed a similar panic among the majors, as blockbuster formulas stumbled and execs turned to an emerging class of fest-blessed indie darlings to reinvigorate their mainstream fare.
It was thus, following the emergence of such auteurs as Kevin Smith, the Coen brothers and the two Andersons (anything-but-brothers P.T. and Wes), that someone in Mendes’ position found it possible to leverage a suburban midlife-crisis drama such as “American Beauty” into such ambitious projects as Jake Gyllenhaal starrer “Jarhead” and the luxuriantly dark graphic-novel adaptation “Road to Perdition.”
Logistically speaking, those two movies may have hinted at Mendes’ potential to handle something as ambitious as a 007 mega-blockbuster, and yet the helmer next veered the other way, delivering two intimate couple-oriented dramas, “Revolutionary Road” and “Away We Go.” No question “Skyfall” was a leap from “Away We Go,” albeit one Mendes was more than equipped to handle, combining the best-ever Bond script with dramatic opportunities the series had never before afforded either Craig (who got to explore Bond’s emotionally damaged backstory) or onscreen boss Judi Dench, with meaty roles for Javier Bardem and Albert Finney as well. Meanwhile, when it came to action, Mendes knew where to trust his team, leaving on second-unit and action collaborators to elevate the stakes he was establishing on the character side.
“Spectre,” which will be released Nov. 6 in the U.S., should prove an interesting test, considering that last December’s Sony hack coincided with the start of production. When the film’s script leaked, the production was forced to adjust late in the game. But like his nimble onscreen hero, Mendes thinks fast on his feet, and the world will soon see how well he adapted to such a terrorist threat.