Sir Sam Mendes’ latest film about childhood memories which have ‘haunted’ him

Sir Sam Mendes’ latest film about childhood memories which have ‘haunted’ him

Oscar-winning filmmaker Sir Sam Mendes said his forthcoming project Empire Of Light is inspired by childhood memories “growing up with someone who was disintegrating mentally”.

The film, which stars Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward and Colin Firth, had its European premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival and marks Sir Sam’s first foray into solo screenwriting.

Set in an old cinema in an English seaside town in the early 1980s, the film explores human connection and romance.

Bond film director Sir Sam, 57, told the PA news agency that Empire Of Light is “very autobiographical”.

He said: “Even though I don’t feature in the film as a character, it’s really inspired by childhood memories growing up with someone who was disintegrating mentally while trying to bring me up.

“Those memories have haunted me and I’ve been trying to find a way to express them and bring them into a story for a long time.

“At the same time teenage memories also growing up in the early 80s, movies of the early 80s, the music and the politics, and the racial divisiveness of that time.

“And so I wanted to find a way to talk about those things. When I had the idea of the cinema, it drew everything together and obviously it was written at a time when we were worried that cinema was gone forever.

“So it’s lovely to be here and to be celebrating.”

Sir Sam said it was “great” working alongside Oscar-winning actors Colman, who plays Hilary Small, and Firth, who stars as Mr Ellis.

He said: “The starrier the actor generally the more humble the presence on set.

“That was certainly the case with the two of them. Olivia I wrote it for, I never had anyone else in mind. I told her I was writing it for her and I’m glad I did.

“Colin, I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined that Colin would have turned up to play a part like this, but I hoped and he did, so I was lucky.”

The cast also features Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Crystal Clarke and Tanya Moodie.

Sir Sam won best director at the Oscars in 1999 for his first film, American Beauty, and he co-wrote, directed and produced the Oscar-winning 1917 in 2019, which was inspired by his grandfather’s stories of the First World War.

Producer Dame Pippa Harris, who established Neal Street Productions in 2003 alongside Sir Sam and produced 1917, joked that she has “never been able to get away from him”.

She told PA: “We actually grew up together. I think I met him and oddly Toby Jones, the three of us met when I was about 11 and they were about 13 on a disco dance floor.

“It’s great to produce another of his films, that last one was 1917 which was a completely different kind of movie.

“I think people are aware that he grew up in a family where his mother had mental health issues and was sort of disintegrating during his teenage years, in and out of mental hospitals.

“I think for him he has poured those memories into this film, to the extent that I went on to set one day, it was a scene where Hilary gets taken by the police and the set decoration is a replica virtually of what his house had looked like during that period when we were kids, and it was really, really disconcerting to see it.”

Dame Pippa described the two central characters, played by Colman and Ward, as “outliers”.

“They have both faced adversity, Hilary with her mental health issues, Micheal with overt and covert racism in his face, but it’s about how they form a connection, a very special relationship.

“And also it’s about the community around them, within the cinema, supports them both and how they put their lives back together and find by the end of the film, actually, a future that is far, far better for both of them.

“It is very uplifting at the end,” she said.

Britain LFF Empire of Light Red Carpet
Director Sir Sam Mendes and Micheal Ward (Vianney Le Caer/AP/PA)

Ward, who plays Stephen in the film, said of his character: “I feel like the reason why it was important to tell the story is because we haven’t really seen a representation of a guy like this in film or TV, a lot of hope, a lot of promise. And also just willing to just do a lot for to help people.

“When a lot of people would walk away from the situation, Stephen needs and wants to learn and wants to help people so I think that’s very important.”

Empire Of Light is due out in cinemas in the US on December 9 and in the UK on January 13.