Barely a month after his ambitious war epic 1917 earned three Oscars and a flush of global attention, Sam Mendes was, like the rest of the world, stuck. The pandemic lockdown led him to “reflect on things that I suppose I hadn’t thought about properly in years,” he says, and he began writing a script inspired by his mother before giving up halfway through. He’d had Olivia Colman in mind while writing, but it took the encouragement of his wife to actually hop on Zoom and meet her. “We just talked about nonsense and our ailments, my sore knees, his sore ankles,” Colman remembers. “And it was very easy, very comfortable. It was a lovely chat. And so I didn’t know what I’d said yes to.”
What she’d said yes to, it turned out, was Empire of Light, a period piece set in the early 1980s about two employees at a once-majestic movie palace on the English coast. Colman’s Hilary Small is based closely on Mendes’s mother, who struggled with mental health issues, but the story is fictional, chronicling an unlikely romance between Hilary and a young coworker (Micheal Ward) as well as the racial tensions of the early Thatcher era. It’s not a “love letter to movies,” which Mendes agrees is an overly broad description that’s been attached to the film. But it is about the emotions that movies can carry, and what happens when you give into a movie and “make that big leap into the dark,” as Mendes puts it.
Mendes and Colman, guests on this week’s Little Gold Men podcast, reunited in New York City to talk about coming together to make Empire of Light, which parts of the film intimidated them, and what Colman took home with her—literally—from the set.
Vanity Fair: So, Sam, you talked about this story and approaching it during pandemic lockdown. And it’s interesting to me that this was right after this huge success of 1917. You’d been busy, you’d been traveling all over the place talking this movie, and then the whole world shuts down. And I wonder if that contrast was what made you especially start thinking about loneliness and quietude when the pandemic started and this story entered your mind.
Sam Mendes: Yeah, I think I had about a year after 1917 where I mean, none of us knew what was happening. We didn’t know it was going to end, and it felt like we were never going to be in the cinema again, and we were never going to be in restaurants again, and so, of course, we all felt their absence, I guess. And so it was a strange and lonely time and a time of reflection, which I think everybody had. And it led me to reflect on things that I suppose I hadn’t thought about properly for years. You mentioned 1917, which was really based on my grandfather’s experiences. It was just another stage closer to the personal for me. So yeah, I think it all came out of that stillness.
Was your mother’s story in mind in that way from the very beginning, or were you thinking more broadly about that period in history and movie theaters and then kind of realized that your mother was integral to the story you wanted to tell?
Mendes: No, it came from wanting to tell the story. I mean, I’m an only child and I grew up alone with my mother, who was a single parent and brought me up while struggling with a mental illness. And so that was always the center of the story for me, was trying to find a way to tell that story. And Hilary, the character Olivia plays, is based loosely on my mum. So that’s the sort of internal struggle of the film, her struggle with mental illness.
The other part of the film was an external struggle really, which was the political struggles that I lived through formed my own political opinions really, in the early ’80s, when I was a teenager, and the racial tensions of those years, and the thatchy years of high unemployment, and all of that stuff. And both of those things, were stories I wanted to tell I, and I just had to try and find a way to pull them together. And the cinema was the way that I ended up doing it, that both these characters work in the cinema. So it happened in sort of that order really.
Olivia, did that early pandemic loneliness kind of hit you too? Was that resonant for you when this script came to you and Sam presented this story?
Olivia Colman: No, I have a very unpopular… I loved being in lockdown. And I say that carefully, because I know that so many people had the most awful time, but I found it was a gift. We’re lucky. I don’t live with any baddies, so we just enjoyed having time together, time with my kids I wouldn’t have got. So yeah, I’m afraid I loved it. I could have done it for another two years quite happily.
So Sam has said that he wrote this part with you in mind. Did he tell you that when he sent you this?