Sam Mendes, Tom Hanks and Paul Newman

Sam Mendes, Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, director and stars of the acclaimed Road to Perdition, tell Rick Lyman why their gangster film breaks the mould and explain what's wrong with Hollywood

Despite the pressure of following his Oscar-winning debut American Beauty, Sam Mendes' second film has already been tipped for similar success. Road to Perdition, a Chicago gangster movie, is more ambitious than its predecessor and boasts an impressive cast including Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law. It was released this summer in the US where The New York Times described it as 'a truly majestic visual tone poem'. Hanks stars as a hard-bitten Depression-era hitman who goes on the run with his young son, played by Tyler Hoechlin, after his wife and son are murdered; Newman is his avuncular gangland boss, and Law plays the hired killer chasing him across Illinois. Rick Lyman with a movie like Road to Perdition, which comes out of one of the venerable Hollywood genres, the gangster film, how do you approach it to make sure it's fresh?

Sam Mendes Well, I think that you've got to have a story that isn't a conventional gangster story for a start. But in my case I just try to give the lie to some of the received notions about gangsters. You decide early on that you're not going to have the spats and the pinstriped suits and the fedoras and the gum chewing and the toothpick in the side of the mouth and the flipping coins and all of those things.

Tom Hanks Let's face it, the gangster genre has become the stuff of parody. I was trying to think of my cultural references, other than The Godfather, which isn't really fair to say, because it's to the crime world what Citizen Kane is to the newspaper world, and the top references I came up with were an old Carol Burnett sketch with Harvey Korman and that episode on Star Trek where Kirk and Spock go down to the gangster planet. So that you almost have to look at it and say, well, if you take out all the iconographic images of the bootleggers and the cars and the machine guns, can the genre really stand on its own any more?

Lyman The use of language in the film is different from most gangster films. There is none of the wise-guy patter one associates with the genre.

Mendes I felt the story held its meaning in the images and in the silences between the characters. So that leads you toward a more spare kind of dialogue and away from the kind of noirish, fast-talking gangster speak. I think the thing most often said to me by both of these gentlemen was, do we really need to say this? Isn't this already clear? Because you want the audience to lean into the film for the first 30 or 40 minutes, not lean back. You want to lead them with clues. You want a mystery.

Lyman David Self's script adds a lot of details and story lines that were not in Max Alan Collins's graphic novel. Can you think of any examples of scenes that, at one time, had much more dialogue but were trimmed back during the shooting?

Paul Newman The confrontations. There was a lot of duplication of language in the confrontations between the characters, and we worked hard to cut it down to the absolute minimum. Because it has more force that way, it just does.

Hanks An example is the piano duet that Paul and I do together. There are no words spoken, and I don't know how long it lasts, but the scene just speaks volumes about how my character, Michael Sullivan, was raised by John Rooney, Newman's character, and what it means. It's a very eloquent scene. And it's all just us sitting down and toodling around on the keys.

Lyman Violence in the film is also treated in a removed sort of way. Although there is a lot of killing, it almost always happens off screen.

Newman We talked a lot about that. I was very interested in Sam's thinking about how that should be done. His thinking, and I think he's absolutely right, is that the story is more about the impact of the violence on the person who commits it, or witnesses it, than it is about the actual effect of the violence on the person who is hurt or killed.

Mendes It's also about the speed at which violence actually happens. You know, love it as I do, the fistfight in Shane is not the norm. Fights don't really go on and on and on like that. Violence happens in a flash, especially gun violence. It only takes two bullets to kill two people.

More important, in this story, is what the violence does to the person who pulls the trigger, and what it has done to them over the years, how it has gradually corroded them. It has rotted their insides.

Newman I must say, there was something so comforting about getting on a plane to come to Chicago to know that you're going to start shooting a film with people like this. And that it was a film that was always, always going to be a film of consequence. Not that I've actually seen it, but I know it is extraordinary.

Lyman You haven't seen Road to Perdition yet?

Mendes There are some of Paul's films that he has never seen, to this day.

Newman I'll probably see this one, when I'm able to.

Mendes You know, Paul, I've always wanted to ask you to name some of the films of yours that you've never seen. Because I'm telling you, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is pretty good and you might want to take a look at it.

Newman I just, I don't know, I let them go for a while. And then some mysterious mechanism clicks and I find that I'm ready to watch them.

Lyman Like most gangster films, Road to Perdition is a tragedy. Sometimes, the sense of fate is so heavy that it almost seems to be physically weighing down the characters.

Hanks Hey, sounds like a fun ride.

Lyman Audiences used to love tragic stories, as much as they loved comic ones. But in recent years, mainstream Hollywood seems to have largely abandoned tragedy.

Hanks Well, it's sort of like which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the marketing people start seeing that it's too hard to sell a tragedy, because we can't cut a decent trailer from it or the ads aren't going to work and make everyone happy? They believe there's no way they can sell it, so they don't do it.

And so therefore audiences have less opportunity to go and see it. I think every year some movie comes along that is hailed as the Brand New Thing, not unlike American Beauty was and any number of others - movies that are not the big-budget, rollercoaster kind of ride where everyone learns a lesson at the end yet there's still an opening for a sequel. I think you might ask: does the audience have the patience to sit down and become involved in something that is as quiet as our movie is? Will they accept a movie that requires the reflection of a true tragedy? But the truth is, and I think this has been shown over and over again, when it's out there, and it's actually presented to them, they embrace it.

Newman There's also something about this present climate of escalating, constantly escalating everything - the endless appeal to the senses that movies have become.

Lyman Many people have remarked on this tendency in movies over the last decade or more to appeal to the senses more than to the emotions or to the mind, to become almost a physical experience.

Mendes Exactly. They even refer to these movies as a rollercoaster ride.

Newman And each time, you have to bombard the senses with something bigger and larger than what came before, and it has to be more grotesque and more shocking and, boy, it has to end someplace. There is, after all, something finite about that.

Mendes In the end, you can run out of computer-generated effects. There are only so many ways you can show an explosion. But you can never get tired of the human face. The best effect in any good film is the close-up. When you've made it so an audience wants a close-up, really desires it and needs it, and then you give it to them, it can happen with a force greater than any explosion.

And that's what I think Paul is talking about. Am I right?

Newman Yeah. But, God, I hope the terminal escalation of this isn't going to be snuff films, because that's what lies at the end of the pike here. I mean, at some point you're going to run out of ways to top yourself. Fiction won't work any more.

Lyman Tom, as one of the handful of people who can be instrumental in getting a film made, do you feel the weight of that responsibility to make sure that good projects happen?

Hanks I'd say that the responsibility I feel is to know enough when to say no. And that's hard to do sometimes, because you know it's going to be a big movie and it's actually going to get made and it's going to be the Big Thing that everyone is talking about. But I read the script and, for whatever reason, I just don't get it. So I have to be responsible to my own aesthetic reasonings. I have to be able to say to whoever is offering it: thank you very much, I'd like to help, but I just don't understand what's going on in this movie.

Lyman I remember reading an interview with Robert Duvall, back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, where he said he felt fortunate to be working during what he felt was a golden age of screen acting. What do you think of the state of film acting today?

Newman That's a tough question to...

Hanks I think everybody's great!

Newman I think the problem is, nobody's asked to do anything. People aren't challenged. They aren't asked to do better.

Hanks I think there are a lot of movies that purport to be about something, and they're really not. And so you end up where all the acting that is required of you is to roll around on a blue screen for a while.

Like, for instance, I haven't seen every single movie this year, but is it just my imagination or is there a preponderance of movies in which people jump into mid-air and fall a really long time and then don't even get hurt?

I'll tell you what: That translates into an actor going like this for a few minutes in front of a blue screen -

[Hanks raises his arms like a surfer trying to balance himself, his eyes growing wider and wider]

You do that for a few seconds and they go: 'Great, do it again. Okay, fine. How's my hair? How's my make-up? Turn on the wind machine. Go!'

[He sways atop his imaginary surfboard again.]

Lyman So it's not a reflection on the quality of actors, just the material that's being offered?

Mendes I think that the most often used muscle by actors sometimes these days is: 'Okay, how am I going to make this line feel like a human being might actually say it?'

Newman [laughing] That's wonderful.

Hanks Well, you know there is another thing. I might be one of the last generation of actors who really did receive a brand of training and heritage in the theatre. And these younger actors don't have that. By and large, they got their Screen Actors Guild card making a Hot Wheels commercial.

Mendes Even in my lifetime, the résumés of actors have changed, particularly in England. They used to be half-a-page of theatre and then a couple of movies or television shows. Now, you ask a 25-year-old when was the last time they did theatre and they'll say: 'Oh, I did a reading once.' Part of it is this proliferation of television channels around the world. So much easy money. And I don't blame them. They have a right to earn a living, and the theatre can't pay them. But in my experience, actors still want to work. They want to learn. They want to rehearse. They just don't know how to do it. They literally have never done it before.

©The New York Times

Road to Perdition is released on Friday

The GuardianTramp

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