Why the Pandemic Spurred Sam Mendes to Face His Mother’s Mental Illness in ‘Empire of Light’

This story about Sam Mendes and “Empire of Light” first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Sam Mendes’ follow-up to his epic World War I film “1917” is a gentler film set in a rundown movie palace on the southern coast of England in 1981, as middle-aged Hilary (Olivia Colman) struggles with mental illness and finds unexpected romance with Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man whose world is being shaken by the rise of the anti-immigrant, racist National Front.

It feels as if a lot of the movies that have been released this year came directly from directors’ experiences of isolation during the pandemic, of sitting at home thinking, “What do I really want to do now?”
Yeah. I can’t speak to the other guys, but I felt compelled to make this. I had started writing something completely different, larger and more visually ambitious. And then this thing just came to me, I think partly because I spent so much time with my young kids.

As always with children, when you spend long times with them, you reflect on your own parents and your life when you were their age. And I felt the heroism of my mother struggling to bring me up on her own as a single mother laboring under the darkness of mental illness. It was something I felt had been sitting there waiting to be written about for a long time. So it was not a strategic choice to make this movie. (Laughs) It was a compulsion.

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What does it take to get to the point where you can make a film about something this personal and I’m sure in some ways, this painful?
I guess it takes a little bit of courage. I was used to revealing myself in the cracks of other people’s words, and obviously many of the movies I’ve made are very personal, but they don’t come directly from me. I guess age and being through this process before has given me the courage to make something warts-and-all. It’s sort of like rummaging around in the attic of your brain, and these strange things that were locked away in boxes are suddenly interesting to you.

There is no character in “Empire of Light” that represents you.
I made the decision to take myself out of the story as a character. I didn’t want to make the story directly autobiographical. Margo Jefferson has a great line: “How do you reveal yourself without asking for love or pity?” I didn’t want to ask for love or pity. I think if you put a kid in the movie, you immediately feel sorry for them. And by inference, you think, “Oh, poor Sam.” I was less interested in that and more interested in studying (the Hilary character).

For me, there were two struggles in the movie. There’s an internal struggle, which is Hilary’s struggle with mental illness. And there’s an external struggle, which is Stephen’s struggle with racism and with the politics and social upheaval of the period. I wanted to tell those two stories in parallel. And then there’s a moment when one breaks in on the other, which is when the riot happens and you can’t keep the outside struggle at bay. And the cinema became the magnet that drew everything together. I was aware that I was taking on quite a lot in that package — mental illness on the one hand and racism on the other, and the possibility that movies and music and literature can heal you if you are broken, or if you’re an outsider, if you’re an outcast.

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Were movies and music healing for your mother in the way that they are for Hilary?
No, I don’t think I can argue that they were. I don’t think they especially helped her. But they were healing for me at the time as a kid. I’m a romantic about these things, probably, but I believe that they can help to heal you, and that we sometimes forget that.

Toward the end of the film, Hilary goes to the projectionist played by Toby Jones and says, “Show me a film.” While he’s picking out the movie, I was thinking, “This had better be a good choice.” And then he puts on Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” which was perfect. It’s kind of sublime to watch Olivia Colman watch Peter Sellers.
(Laughs) Thank you for saying that. I totally agree. I needed to find a movie that I felt spoke to Hilary. And for me, “Being There” is about how you can be broken or you can be an incomplete person and still somehow survive in the world and change other people’s lives and have significance. I needed to find a film that I loved, but more importantly, that I felt she would love, or would speak to her.

But it’s difficult, isn’t it? You just think, “Oh, Christ, what better way to end your movie than to confront the audience with a masterpiece of someone else? (Laughs) Maybe I want something that’s not quite so obviously a brilliant film.”  But it made sense that she would be moved by it, and it seemed the obvious choice in the end.

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

Claire Foy Wrap magazine cover
Claire Foy Wrap magazine cover