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'A Private, Interior Film'
British director Sam Mendes talked to TIME reporter Stephen Short from London six weeks before he and American Beauty earned eight Oscar nominations, including in the Best Director and Best Film categories.

Lorey Sebastian/©1999 Dreamworks LLC
Sam Mendes directs Kevin Spacey on the set of American Beauty.

TIME: Is this film really that good?
I'm completely amazed and delighted. I kept my fingers crossed it would get good critical reaction, but the real surprise is that it's crossed over into the mainstream so comprehensively. I wasn't expecting that.

TIME: And why did it?
I'm not sure. One always felt it was a great script and I'd be proud of the movie, but you can't determine these things. You just never know when movies are going to take off or not. The lucky thing about this was that it didn't cost a lot of money and therefore there wasn't loads of pressure on me. We disappeared when we made it and the studio left us alone. They didn't tamper with the script at all, and as a first-time director in America I feel I've been very fortunate.

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TIME: And as a Brit?
Directing I realize on film is far more personal, you know. Cinema really is a director's medium. This is a very personal film. In terms of being an outsider in America and having a certain type of objectivity to a degree, there were a few times I thought to myself: what on earth am I doing here? I'm a Brit making a movie so firmly set in the States! I had to remind myself of films like Midnight Cowboy or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Chinatown and then felt a little bit better about it, not to mention [remembering] Billy Wilder or any of the Europeans who made the trip.

TIME: Did you make loads of mistakes along the way as it was all new?
Well, not so much mistakes, but the first day or so was not very good and I scrapped the first day and a half of photography and shot it again. But when you get into shooting, you always wish you'd done things quicker, slower. You'll always have a wish list of stuff you'd like to have done better.

TIME: What was in the first bit of shooting you scrapped?
The stuff in the burger joint. It just wasn't good. It was too cartoony, it was inappropriate--it worked, but only for a different movie and not the one I wanted to make. Because I got absolutely everything wrong that first day, you know, and in film, the director is pretty much solely to blame. And in the end, you get what you ask for. If the design is wrong, or costumes or wrong, that's because you've asked for them one day and then the next day you don't like them. It's not nearly as glamorous as theater, and in that respect you only have yourself to blame. But as I got everything wrong at the same time--costume, design and performance--it made it easier in a way, because I could see the film I didn't want to make.

TIME: Is this a very theatrical piece?
Just because I hold a shot for more than five seconds and it's all a deliberate tableau people say it's theater. It's not really. It's a movie and I went out of my way not to do theater with the movie.

TIME: Which scene were you most pleased with? Did any just grow out of the creative process so that now you look back and think, wow?
Yeah, that's a good question. There's two scenes which in the script you could have missed, which are pivotal in the entire movie. The first is the plastic bag, which is only a four-line scene in the script. But when cut with a score and at the speed at which I cut it together, that scene along with the other scene where Jane [Thora Birch] takes her clothes off at the window and Ricky [Wes Bentley] is filming her--those two scenes give a kind of soul to the film and represent a turning point. It turns what is essentially a black comedy into something much more strange and haunting and poetic in the second half of the film. Those are the gears change scenes which gave a kind of depth and resonance which took me completely by surprise.

Lorey Sebastian/©1999 Dreamworks LLC
The Academy nominated Annette Bening for Best Actress.

TIME: The plastic bag I loved. Very artistic, very random.
Thank you.

TIME: Outrageous for being so unexpected.
Yeah, that's the thing. It took me a long time to film the plastic bag and then I had to get the cut of the scene right. But if you find it as beautiful as the character does, then suddenly it becomes a different movie and so did he as a character. Because in many ways I think that Ricky is the soul of the movie.

TIME: In that way it's a very intimate film. I wanted to watch it on my own.
I'm pleased you say that. I really do hope it's a very private experience watching the film. It's not a public statement, it's a very private, interior film and much of what is good comes out of the moments of solitude, where a character is left alone and you as a viewer can share those moments with the character, and very often those scenes are wordless. To define those things is to find meaning where there isn't really any. It's more emotional.

TIME: What are you working on?
Nothing. This is the first time in 10 years I don't know what I'm doing next and I'm rather enjoying it. Soon I'll be climbing the walls no doubt, but right now, it's not clear, I'm just enjoying the freedom. I'm back in my theater, back with people I know, back with my feet on the ground and that's a very pleasant experience.

TIME: But your door must be getting hammered down at this moment?
I'm not getting that physical sensation but I'm certainly getting a lot more mail and that's basically it. But, you know, thank God I don't live in Los Angeles. I think if you're there the whole time it just gets out of proportion and you lose touch completely with reality. But now I'm back home, living in London, running my theater. I just want to enjoy all that. In that respect my life hasn't really changed at all. In two months' time it'll all be quiet and everything will be right again.

(American Beauty opens in Hong Kong March 2.)

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