Admired for his give-and-take with actors, Mendes, 43, is playful in conversation, with a lively wit, his elastic features framed by gray-flecked hair and a grizzled beard. Dressed on this warm fall day in jeans and a black sweater, he sits in his cozy, book-lined office in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, decorated with posters honoring his heroes: Wilder, Hitchcock and Dylan. Revolutionary Road is his second outing to the American suburbs, terrain well charted in American Beauty. But to his mind, the film isn’t so much a tale of suburban malaise (“the life-in-the-suburbs-is-s--- genre,” he calls it) as it is about “the minutiae of men and women in marriage—and how easy it is in marriage to compromise your ideals.” He was interested in that pivotal point “when you have to throw in your towel and say, ‘This is actually my life,’” he says. “What happens when you think you’ve done it wrong?”
Mendes and Winslet read the screenplay simultaneously, but while Winslet wanted to do it, Mendes didn’t see the story’s full potential until tackling the novel. He’d never made a love story, he says, or a film that was “so character driven,” noting that the movie is propelled by close-ups rather than the visual flourishes for which he’s known. (Think of American Beauty’s cascading rose petals.) “It’s the least showy film I’ve made.”
But neither Winslet and DiCaprio’s marquee value nor the Oscar buzz surrounding Winslet’s performance makes Revolutionary Road, which opens on December 26, a sure bet. It’s certainly not a feel-good movie. “This is not Titanic 2,” says Mendes, who is also currently producing Shrek The Musical on Broadway. “It’s not a giant romance with special effects. It’s a tough movie.”
In fact, Yates’s bleak outlook, so alien to Mendes’s own, led the director to jump at the chance to make his first comedy. Tentatively titled Farlanders, it is due out this year and was written by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. “Revolutionary Road is unflinching, but I’m more of a flincher,” says Mendes, pointing to Farlanders’s buoyant, joyful tone, which “is much closer to how I feel about the world.”
A departure from previous works such as Road to Perdition (2002), about a hit man and his son, and Jarhead (2005), about soldiers in the Gulf War, the script had already done a few rounds with other directors by the time Mendes got hold of it. “We didn’t know Sam as a comedy director,” says Eggers, “and we assumed it had to be sent to a guy like him by gold-plated courier.” But Mendes made the film pretty much as Eggers and Vida had written it.