To a packed house at the Werner Herzog Theater at the Telluride Film Festival, Sam Mendes admitted he was a little more nervous than usual for a world premiere of one of his films.
“For me, standing here, I feel more vulnerable than I have ever been. In a way, this almost feels like my first film,” he told the audience before the very first screening of Empire of Light.
Mendes, who recently led 1917revealed that he wrote Empire of Light during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown (this is his first solo writing credit on any of his films) as a way to “deal with the memories and things that happened in my past that haunt me “.
The film is set in the 1980s and centers on a lone woman working in a movie theater (played by Olivia Colman in a stunning performance), who finds herself lovingly entwined with a young man (escape Michael Ward) hired to work with her in the theater. An exploration of mental health issues, racial strife, and love, the beautifully told story also captures a love of cinema that played very well for Telluride’s movie-going audience.
Colman and Ward were unable to make it to the festival (despite appearing live on screen via video before the film played), but Mendes returned to the stage after the screening for a Q&A- answers. The director, who only completed the final cut of the Searchlight film a week ago, reflected on his own upbringing as the only child of a single mother. “I had a lot of mental health issues and my racial politics formed during that time,” he explained.
Mendes said he wrote a screenplay about 12 or 13 years ago that was much more autobiographical about his youth, but he ended up using parts of that screenplay as the bones of it. Directing his own script, and so personal, added a layer of vulnerability he says he never experienced before. “It’s a different experience as a director who is used to using other people’s words and developing them to design something from the start,” he says.
Mendes said the early days of the pandemic, when movie theaters were closed, made him nostalgic for the old days of cinema, when everything was shot on film. With many film and pop culture references dotted throughout the story, and the cinema treated as a place of worship, Empire of Light is sure to touch the hearts of moviegoers — and, presumably, Academy voters, too.