The celebrated film and stage director Sam Mendes tonight tests the post-Covid viability of a new Broadway with The Lehman Trilogy, the story of the financial family dynasty that crashed along with the global economy in 2008. The show nearly opened, then the pandemic turned the lights out at all Broadway houses, rendering New York City a ghost town. I spoke to Mendes briefly before his big night — you can call it a relaunch since it was in previews, but the big openers so far have been limited to commercial juggernauts with a past bus and truck tourist track record. Mendes was eager to discuss the victory of just getting through the pandemic, and the role that the entity he helped start, the Theatre Artists Fund, played in keeping alive the fragile ecosystem of the London stage. And how that entire effort was kickstarted by Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, who this week found himself on a hot seat, defending Dave Chappelle.
DEADLINE: Tonight’s opening feels like an important in the rebound of Broadway. How you feeling?
MENDES: It’s moving to see it reopening. I was nervous, I have to confess. We were in previews for The Lehman Trilogy on Broadway, we’d just done the fourth preview when everything shut down. In the space of those previews we watched it go from a relatively normal audience to mostly masked audience, with people wearing gloves, empty seats and panicked faces, at the beginning. Coming back to the same theater, the same set; when they went back in after 18 months, there were literally coffee cups sitting backstage and in the dressing rooms that hadn’t been moved; costumes still hanging on the racks, sets still there. It was quite strange and I was trepidatious, but what we found is that audiences are even more vocal and enthusiastic, and people are even more desperate to get back in to see live performances.
I think we are one of the first plays to reopen, that isn’t a long running show. So it’s not one that depends on tourism as much as a local audience of New Yorkers. That’s convenient, because right now no one other than New Yorkers can get in to the country, and the city. It is odd, watching everyone with masks, but on the other hand, they’re more vocal. There’s more laughter, more excitement and you can feel that in the audience. In many ways, it has been incredibly moving and relieving that it has come back, and in many ways, come back stronger. I just hope that continues and the message gets out there that the theater has reopened, and it’s still exciting, and it’s safe.
DEADLINE: Were there creative benefits to the layoff?
MENDES: Yes, and no. There was a danger of it going off the boil. In this case, Ben Power, who adapted it, created a three-hour play from a six-hour two-evening play. There were many areas where we went back and had a look. There was a very brief section we’d cut out, about the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918, which we reinstated. There were sections that seemed less relevant then and seemed more relevant now, in a play that’s all about seeing the shape of the last 150 years of history, running up to the crash of 2008. And see how the little incremental shifts, the blurred moral lines in the sand, the way peoples’ moral barometers have shifted over the years. And incrementally took what was a family business in the 1840s when three brothers arrived from Bavaria and opened a store in Alabama, and turned it into one of the most vast and influential financial organizations in the world. And then became the poster child for the crash in 2008, and triggered so many other damaging episodes thereafter. It’s nice to be able to work on something that’s a little bit elastic. That’s been good. We lost one of the actors, Ben Miles, who had a prior commitment. But I was able to go back and get Adrian Lester, who was one of the first people I offered the role to when we did it at the National Theatre. He has brought a whole other level to it. In the end, I think the show is stronger, but it wasn’t without those moments, at several points where we thought it was going to collapse and never come back. A lot of plays didn’t come back. One I was very much looking forward to seeing; will be ever see Laurie Metcalf in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? People who didn’t see West Side Story before Covid have been deprived the chance. All sorts of plays have not survived the epidemic I feel fortunate we’ve been able, through the brilliance of our producers, to thread that needle and come back. The nice thing is that at the end of that road, there is an audience, and a hunger. New York has been incredible and pumped money back into Broadway because they know as we all do, that it is the beating heart of New York and people flood back into the city to see it. It’s only going to help the city as a whole, when people have their destinies back in their own hands.
DEADLINE: It seems like Broadway is dependent on tourism, and tourism is dependent upon Broadway.
MENDES: There is an element of, if you build it they will come. You had to go through all of this, to find that out. I’m proud to be in the vanguard, to help put the theater back on solid footing. I turned away from other projects the second half of this year because I don’t think I could turn my back on that project that I love, and the theater as a whole. Which requires all hands on deck for it to survive.
DEADLINE: The Lehman Trilogy was a triumph when it launched back home. What have you been doing to keep the West End alive, as it faced the same pandemic difficulties?
MENDES: We want to continue to promote the fund that we put together in the UK, the Theatre Artists Fund, which came at a point of the greatest crisis, before anyone had ever mentioned a vaccine, to try and preserve as a whole the theater in the UK, and beyond. It didn’t get as much coverage as it should have, but it was triggered by a donation from Netflix.
DEADLINE: I didn’t know they were in the stage game.
MENDES: I wrote an article for the Financial Times on how to save the theater and in that case, I was trying to lobby the government for an increased funding package for the theaters so they wouldn’t close. But I also pointed out mischievously in a sense, that there were a lot of people making a lot of money from the pandemic. Not least of which were the streamers, who suddenly had a captive audience at home and were watching way more than ever before and were subscribing in a way they never had before. So I said, anyone out there at Amazon or Netflix who fancies helping out an industry that fills every cast of every U.K.-based Netflix show, most specifically The Crown, I’ll take their calls.
Ted Sarandos picked up the phone. In a way that was obvious in the Steve Jobs Apple period, there is a great benefit of a company being run by a single individual who makes decisions quickly and clearly. With the pandemic, there was no point saying, let’s wait nine months and see what happens in the next funding year. There was no room for that. We need this tomorrow. I had a half hour call with Ted, he ended up giving half a million, and that kick started the fund. And it’s now at $10.5 million and it has not only helped in practical terms, artists, writers, directors, actors, but designers, choreographers, accent coaches, circus artists, puppeteers, people who run youth and community theaters. It has helped them pay the rent and put food on the table for their children, but it also gave them a sense of value and that they are part of a larger community. They are seen. There is a great danger back home and in the U.S., where this is seen as a luxury profession, that it’s not a serious job. That ignores the fact that all this is a massive economic growth engine that brings billions into the country every year in the form of tourism, audiences and all the concomitant elements that run alongside that. Restaurants, hotels, pubs, all that comes with life being breathed back into the center of every city. All those things.
There was a chilling thing Dominic Cummings said, reportedly, during the height of the pandemic, when people were trying to survive. Ballerinas will have to get to the back of the fucking queue, is what he said. That made me feel despair. Okay, if you think we’re preserving ballerinas for the sake of ballerinas, and we’re just giving money to individuals, then we’re lost. We’re preserving theater and the live performance experience, for the audience. Not for the people who do it. I don’t care if you fund my show, which depends on whether it’s any good or not. I will be okay. But this is being done for an audience that wants it. It’s there for a reason. It was very important that the artists, the people who make the work, also needed saving. The great danger in these situations is, you save the buildings, the administrations, the bar staff, the accounts department. But the people who actually make the work that you pay to see, they don’t have anything. Because they don’t work for specific theaters, they’re all freelancers. I felt very strongly that they were abandoned and talking to people in the U.S. theater, though I don’t have the same grounding or knowledge as I have in the UK theater, I felt the same despair. That this was the bottom of the food chain, considered to be a luxury. And compared to health or education, it is. But the arts are not about keeping people alive, they are about giving them something to live for. Life is difficult enough without depriving people of the things that bring them joy, and some escape. There is a danger it all gets channeled into your television set. That’s something a lot of us have tried to avoid. It was nice to see our old friend 007 filling the cinemas again and Venom doing well and people going back out. It’s important and it’s a big deal.
DEADLINE: Who has this money helped?
MENDES: It’s very simple. It gave out money in the form of thousand pound grants, to anyone who could prove they worked in an accredited theater in the past two years and had earned less than a certain amount in the pandemic. Which was everyone, basically. It was not much more than food bank money. These people were all stacking shelves in the supermarket and serving behind the bar and doing odd jobs. This wasn’t their only source of income but it was a way for us to say, we see you, you’re part of a community and we value you and want you to carry on what you’re doing. I received a letter from a man who ran a youth theater, and he said that on a Monday, he was ready to give it up, and then on Friday he’d gotten his thousand pounds – which is a pittance, let’s face it – and it gave him the strength to carry on. And he’s still going. It was that feeling they weren’t falling off the edge of a cliff and no one was going to notice. It was a way of dispersing as much money as possible in these small grants, to as many people as we could. When you look at the fund, the people who joined Netflix were people like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh, Danny Boyle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sonia Friedman; that’s the community they want to be part of. And they are. They could see these people were giving, in some cases more than I could possibly afford to. Just because they felt a responsibility to the sort of people they were when they were 19 or 20.
The other issue is, we’ve all been working so hard to try and create a properly diverse workforce, in the UK and the US. We were getting somewhere. The danger with this is, the people who drop off, who fall away and give up the profession forever, are the people who don’t have the economic safety net to keep going. The white middle class boys and girls will do fine, they’ve probably got some way of getting through this, coming back and not losing their jobs. Those from poorer backgrounds, are going to suffer. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that diversity is taking a bit hit from this. Particularly in the UK. We’ve tried to acknowledge that and we were conscious not just to give the money to middle class boys in North London who have a good internet connection. But rather to try to spread it across the regions and a properly diverse workforce. Not just racially diverse, but diverse in terms of the jobs they do. Not just those whose names are boldfaced, but the production managers, stage managers, lighting programmers, stage technicians. All that was taken into account and we tried to spread it in a way that makes it feel to the people involved that they’re seen.
DEADLINE: Is this an ongoing effort or plugging a hole during the pandemic?
MENDES: It has revealed a big hole at the center of arts funding, which is, there is no safety net, no funding body representing the artists themselves. They tend to represent organizations, theaters, opera houses and orchestras, but not the actual people themselves. Because the arts are populated by people who are self employed, that means lots of people are ignored and don’t have a voice. Our intention, we hope the emergency funding aspect will run its course. It’ll then be replaced by a foundation we hope will have much more mainstream acknowledgement from the arts funding bodies in the UK and then carry on and support scholarships. Every theater can have resources from this organization, but it will be specifically going toward those who make the work, rather than the organizations themselves.
DEADLINE: The next film you direct will be Empire of Light with Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward, a love story set in the backdrop of an old cinema on the south coast of England in 1980. It’s the first script you wrote solo, after co-writing 1917. That one was inspired by the WWI stories of your grandfather. Is there a personal connection to the subject matter here?
MENDES: I start prepping in November, and shooting in February, to be out at the end of next year or in the autumn of 2022 through Searchlight. It does have strong personal elements but it’s not directly autobiographical. I started writing it in the spirit of speculation, more than certainty, during lockdown. When there was not much else to do but go inwards rather than outwards. I’ve been delighted at the response of people who are in it, who want to make it, who want to shoot it.