When Sam Mendes set out to write his latest film, he decided to draw on something he knows best: his own upbringing in 1980s England. “My escape was the cinema,” the director said about his childhood during a recent THR Presents panel, powered by Vision Media and held at EnergaCamerimage. He set Empire of Light amid the backdrop of a movie theater in an unnamed British seaside town. In the film, Olivia Colman plays a theater employee — partially inspired by Mendes’ mother, the novelist Valerie Helene Mendes — who struggles with mental health but starts to come out of her shell when she forges a connection with a young coworker (Micheal Ward).
Empire of Light marks Mendes’ first solo screenplay after co-writing 1917, and the director added nods to some formative films from his era, including Chariots of Fire, which has its regional gala premiere at the titular Empire movie theater, owned by Donald Ellis (Colin Firth). Chariots of Fire was not one of Mendes’ favorite films growing up, but it felt important when screenwriter writer Colin Welland quoted Paul Revere in his 1982 Oscar speech, “The British are coming.”
“I’m not sure it’s aged that well … but it was a big moment in British film. It felt just perfect for Mr. Ellis. who has big ideas about himself and his cinema, that he would feel that was the equivalent of really arriving. Having a Chariots of Fire premiere,” Mendes said. “It’s not a movie I would say that was one of my favorites at the time.”
While Chariots of Fire was not among Mendes’ favorites, Being There certainly was.
“I felt it spoke not only to the movie, but to Hilary’s character. It’s a movie about, amongst many other things, how it’s possible to be broken … and yet still move around the world and affect people. That’s what I felt she would be moved by it.”
For Mendes, working as a filmmaker and theater director was a way to cobble together families, and that’s something reflected by the two characters at the center of Empire of Light.
“Art, movies, music, literature, that is in many ways your escape,” said Mendes. “The cinema in the movie is also an ad-hoc family for both of those people.”
This edition of THR Presents is sponsored by Searchlight Pictures.