January 18, 2016

4 Lessons Sam Mendes Can Teach You About Being a Director

Having only 7 credits to his name, director Sam Mendes isn't the most prolific filmmaker out there, but his insight on the craft is integral for young directors to learn.

In this BAFTA Guru interview, Mendes touches on several key things he's learned throughout his career, including collaborating with DPs, growing as an artist, and how to develop your sense of rhythm and timing. Not only that, but he lists the films that most influenced him as a director. Check out the video below.

You and your DP must be hand-in-glove

It's always nice (and also a far-fetched fantasy) when you and every member of your crew see eye to eye, but Mendes says that the most important collaborative on-set relationship you'll have as a director is your DP. This is why you need to be sure that the two of you are on the same page and have the same vision for the project. (By the way, his doesn't mean that you always have to insist your vision upon your DP -- collaborating means being open to their artistic vision, too.)

Trust your early collaborators

Okay, Mendes isn't trying to say that your first crew was/is/always will be your best crew. He's saying that crew members and collaborators are kind of like love relationships: if they're good for you, you've got to hang on to them. (If you can!)

Rhythm and timing

Much of the magic of a film comes from the rhythm and timing of -- pretty much everything: the shots, the delivery of lines, the movement of the camera. But how in the hell do you develop a sense for these things if you don't have them already? After all, world-renowned director Chantal Akerman said her sense of rhythm and timing came from her intuition. Mendes says that he learned a lot from watching Monty Python -- extending that a bit -- great comedic films.

Always try to stretch yourself

If there's one thing director Sam Mendes doesn't like to do it's repeat himself. From the dark comedy of American Beauty to the 24th James Bond film, Spectre, there really isn't a genre Mendes doesn't want to touch. He's stated that he doesn't ever want to do the same movie twice (aside from Spectre and Skyfall, which he argues is just one 5-hour long movie), because taking on different genres is a great way to challenge yourself as a filmmaker.

And now, if you're curious about which films influenced Mendes' career, here's the list:

  1. Paris, Texas
  2. Citizen Kane
  3. Psycho
  4. The Godfather
  5. Peter Sellers (Monty Python)
  6. The Hustler
  7. 400 Blows
  8. La Dolce Vita
  9. Chaplin films (Modern Times, City Lights)
  10. Buster Keaton films (try watching The General and Sherlock Jr.)

Your Comment

14 Comments

watching spectre right now, framing is oddly uncomfortable, for example the unnecesarily tilted angle in the elevator scene at the beginning and humongous air to the top of the actors in medium plane shots and the pursuit in mexico.

January 18, 2016 at 4:59PM, Edited January 18, 4:59PM

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And the train scene when Seydoux and Craig are sitting at the dining table

January 21, 2016 at 6:31AM, Edited January 21, 6:31AM

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Tony Wesh
Filmmaker/Photographer
94

Great director. Spectre was kinda disappointing for me (just a decent movie, expected more), but for sure he is very talented & have a great eye.

January 18, 2016 at 5:48PM, Edited January 18, 5:48PM

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Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
1230

"Having only 7 credits to his name, director Sam Mendes isn't the most prolific filmmaker out there".......are you kidding me. Now you may or may not like his work, BUT ... 5 of the 7 films, won 8 Oscars and were nominated for another 4. Maybe I'm not grasping the use of the word "prolific" ...lol Just saying..

January 18, 2016 at 6:38PM

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Not grasping the meaning of the word "prolific" is precisely what you are doing - it means producing a lot, whether that's in quantity or frequency. It has no bearing on the quality of what's produced, or it's reception. Stephen King is a prolific writer. J.D. Salinger was not a prolific writer. Salinger is still clearly the better writer.

Having said that, directing a movie every two-and-a-half years (on top of various producer duties and theater work) is not really slow enough to be called out as "not the most prolific", especially nowadays.

January 18, 2016 at 8:46PM

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You're talking success that isn;t the same a being prolific. He's very successful no one disagrees. But he's not saturating the market with his presence. And it's a relative statement as well. If you think of the term 'prolific' to mean 'noted' well known because of his work. Yea he's famous because of his success. But relitivley speaking when measured up against his peers of equal success, he hasn't made 'as' many films as some and therefore isn't as prolific.

January 19, 2016 at 5:30AM

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John Stockton
Film maker, Editor, Photographer.
134

Nothing he can teach me, I'm afraid. When I saw Spectre, it was basically an elongated Lady Loves Milk Tray ad, done very badly.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DWt39zk00I

Just in the beginning of the film:-

1) Bond is in a room, fully dressed up in a skeleton costume. The camera pans to beautiful lady on bed, then back to Bond again, who is now miraculously changed into the classic iconic Bond in a suit. I think Mendes expected a big cheer from the audience at that point, but some of were just thinking, "How the f*** did Bond get changed so quick ?"

2) Bond then says to beautiful lady on the bed something like "Back in a minute". She is never seen again. In terms of basic storytelling, just a bad idea. Presumably she was just sitting on the bed for the whole film ?

3) Bond then runs over the rooftops with a massive unconcealed gun and fires at a building, causing enormous damage to a load of VFX polygons.

4) This all leads to a mid air fight in a helicopter where we are supposed to be on the edge of our seats at the fate of the VFX generated crowd on the ground below.

As the film progresses, Bond exits another room, now leaving Monica Bellucci sitting on the bed in her suspenders. This was my cue to do exactly the same thing and exit the cinema, so we both left Monica Bellucci sitting on the bed in her suspenders. I'm not quite sure how the rest panned out. Maybe it got better, but Mendes had already broken all the rules about engaging the audience by that time. Oh well.

January 18, 2016 at 6:59PM, Edited January 18, 7:03PM

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Saied M.
829

And you sir have made how many blockbusters?.. I.m no big fan of the director but there are just something you don't say as a film maker... you come off a know it all... thats the quickest way to not get called on a set... well at least not my set...

January 19, 2016 at 4:03AM

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Wentworth Kelly
Director of Photography/Editor/Colorist/Composer
1433

Fair point. I was trying tongue-in-cheek as a viewer - sorry if it didn't read that way. Best.

January 19, 2016 at 4:25AM

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Saied M.
829

Again the "where is your blockbuster/vaccine/world record" question. Saied expressed his personal opinion like people do on a discussion page and I think he made a few good points. And coming back to your "blockbuster" question: I doubt he wants to show up to someone's set who declares himself "Director of Photography/Editor/Colorist/Composer"...I surely wouldn't...

January 20, 2016 at 4:03AM

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I Apologize to Saied for Misinterpreting what he said... im a grown man i can apologize for what i said. Its Mariano Von Trani (dont want to come off as a douche but i might) You see the thing is some people get off criticizing work of film makers and say what they want without first acknowledging whats good about the project so that's why i said what i said. I smell the gnarly sarcasmby the way. However, i live in a small country where i have to be self sufficient, ah mean i don't need to explain myself to you but i dont want to be rude so before my alter ego kick in then i'd have to seriously ask you if you are for real or better yet.. are you an idiot?

January 27, 2016 at 4:04AM

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Wentworth Kelly
Director of Photography/Editor/Colorist/Composer
1433

You're just stupid. That's all. First three scenes were designed in an old Bond's fashion. When you watch Spectre you see a lot of old Bond's style, not the one typical for Casino Royale or Skyfall. It seems like he wanted to pay a tribute to old Bonds, but sadly imo it wasn't a good idea & Spectre is mediocre. You can't rate director by one failed movie. Why don't u look at Skyfall & American Beauty instead?

January 19, 2016 at 12:27PM, Edited January 19, 12:27PM

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Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
1230

The Lady Loves Milk Tray ad was closer to Bond's old style than Spectre was. Also, in terms of Bond's old style, consider carefully Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love - a nasty ice cold blond killer who was a fearsome bad guy. Fast forward and we now have Daniel Craig pretty much playing that same role, but with a straight face as the good guy. I like Craig, but that's still quite an irony.

You seem to think in terms of a film-making caste system who are forever paying respect to those "above them" perhaps for not considering yourself "worthy" enough. Maybe that's it - maybe you're not worthy, though I suspect if I hand you $50 million for the next Bond, you won't blow it. Respect is one thing, but it has to be balanced against perspective, and I guess perspective varies from time to time.

January 19, 2016 at 4:18PM, Edited January 19, 5:01PM

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Saied M.
829

He's pretty decent director, but Spectre sucked. Casino Royale is still my favorite.

January 19, 2016 at 8:06AM, Edited January 19, 8:06AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
955