Sir Sam Mendes said actress Olivia Colman was embarrassed to perform sex scenes in her upcoming film Empire of Light alongside her younger co-star, but wanted to see the characters’ “physical lust”.
The James Bond director’s new film Sir Sam is set in an old cinema in an English seaside town in the early 1980s and explores relationships and romance.
This is the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s first foray into writing screenplays on his own, and he was inspired by growing up in the company of a person suffering from mental illness as a child.
Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday show with Laura Kuenssberg, Sir Sam said: “The stigma that is still attached to mental illness is still a cloak of darkness thrown over it.
“If you’re coming out of the hospital and you’ve just recovered from cancer, I immediately say ‘how are you? If you’re coming out of a mental institution, I don’t talk about it, I probably don’t ask you a question.
“So there’s still a weird stigma attached to it.
“My main goal with the film was to try to dramatize the effects and what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and manic depression, rather than to explain it.”
Academy Award-winning actress Colman, 48, best known for The Crown and The Favourite, stars in this romantic film alongside 25-year-old Jamaican actor Micheal Ward.
Sir Sam said of working with Colman: “She was very embarrassed about acting out sex scenes, as is often the case. You see people in their most severe, most emotionally vulnerable situations.
“It’s like anything else, you’re trying to push yourself a little further into places you’re normally not allowed to go, you’re going behind the curtain, and I wanted to see their physical lust.”
During an interview, Sir Sam, who won the 1999 Academy Award for Best Director for American Beauty, said the great era of going to the movies was “dying”.
“I look back at my movies and I think American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Away We Go, would all go to streaming right now and that makes me sad,” he said.
“I think these mid-budget movies aren’t shot in theaters anymore, you look at the multiplexes and people say ‘there are six screens’ and then you go to those six screens and say ‘screen one Avatar, screen two Avatar, screen three Avatar’ – that’s there is no six-screen cinema; it’s just six screens showing the same movie.
“This is a different understanding of why these buildings were built in the first place.
“It means filmmakers have to accept and embrace the ambition of the big screen and do things that need to be seen on the big screen, or they accept that they will be watched by millions of people streaming, which is fine.
“But the 20th century, the great era of film, the great form of entertainment – going to the cinema – is dying.”
Sir Sam also described the possibility of gender-neutral awards at the Oscars as “inevitable” and that he has “total sympathy” for the idea.
It comes after The Crown star Emma Corrin, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them, said she hopes award shows will choose gender-neutral categories in the future.
Sir Sam said: “I have total sympathy for it and I think it may be inevitable in the end because I think it is happening and I think it’s perfectly reasonable.
“For me people forget about awards, I think that’s what happens all the time when they use that as a lead for the industry, but the truth is awards are a TV show.
“Awards are there to promote films. If this movie wins an award, I’m more likely to go see it, and that’s what you’re doing there. This isn’t about you, it’s not about the arts or crafts of the industry in particular. It’s about selling movies.
“I’m not downplaying their importance, but I’m saying they were there to promote movies and the craft and art of filmmaking. They’re a storefront, but not the thing itself.”
Sir Sam also called on the prime minister to “fix last year’s mistakes” and restore funding to arts institutions, calling the erosion of the arts across the country over the last decade a “scandal”.
His comments follow news that the 2023-2026 Arts Council England program will see some institutions face cuts to annual funding, including a reduction in funding at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, of which Sir Sam was founder and artistic director.