Back in 1999 Sam Mendes marked his directional debut with the release of American Beauty, the hit drama which detailed the mid-life crisis of an advertising executive played by Kevin Spacey.
Spacey, cast alongside the likes of Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher and more, tells the story of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged magazine executive who despises his job who desperately seeking renewed vigour and excitement in his life.
American Beauty, exploring themes of sexuality, self-liberation, loneliness and a devastating accurate depiction of life in the suburbs of America, was given major financial backing by the fledgling DreamWorks studio who set their sights on substantial success at the Academy Awards—a commitment which reaped its rewards.
At the 72nd Academy Awards American Beauty reigned supreme despite its slight underdog status. Victory for Spacey who was named Best Actor was quickly followed by triumph in ‘Best Screenplay’, ‘Best Cinematography’, ‘Best Director’ for Mendes and, of course, the project was crowned with victory in the coveted ‘Best Picture’ category.
Upon reading the script, Mendes himself describe the film as “a mystery story, a kaleidoscopic journey through American suburbia, a series of love stories. It was about imprisonment, loneliness, beauty. It was funny; it was angry, sad.”
While Conrad Hall was the eventual cinematographer of the film, Mendes didn’t initially consider him for the role and believed he would be “too old and too experienced” to want the job. Instead, Fred Elmes was approached by the Mendes suffered a setback when Elmes abruptly rejected the opportunity to work on the film because he disliked the script. With a little help from Tom Cruise, who recommended Mendes to Hall, the cinematographer signed on and the rest was history.
Building a strong professional and personal relationship, Mendes and Hall meticulously detailed the storyboards that would eventually provide the building blocks for the project. “Conrad is a great man. He embraced my storyboard and made it happen,” Mendes once said in an interview with. the Guardian.
Such was the importance of the partnership and willing to transfer Mendes’ visualisation from paper to film, the duo sat down for a one-hour self analytical film which detailed their approach in the creation of American Beauty.
In the film, Mendes describes in detail how the pre-created storyboards allowed him to appropriately visualise each scene prior to filming, focusing on the most astute details: “The way the light hits the corner of the room, and the way it’s just striking across Lester, it pulls him away from the wall,” he says of one particular scene. “And the way in which Conrad makes him float in the middle of the space… also he made something very crucial, he cut his feet off at the bottom of the frame,” he said in conversation Hall. “And that something you did instinctively because you knew what I was going for.”
Below, watch the clip and see detailed drawings.