In 1997, Alan Ball resolved to move into the film industry after several frustrating years writing for the television sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill. He joined the United Talent Agency (UTA), where his representative, Andrew Cannava, suggested he write a spec script to "reintroduce [himself] to the town as a screenwriter". Ball pitched three ideas to Cannava: two conventional romantic comedies and American Beauty,[nb 6] which he had originally conceived as a play in the early 1990s. Despite the story's lack of an easily marketable concept, Cannava selected American Beauty because he felt it was the one Ball had the most passion for. While developing the script, Ball created another television sitcom, Oh, Grow Up. He channeled his anger and frustration at having to accede to network demands on that show—and during his tenures on Grace Under Fire and Cybill—into writing American Beauty.
Ball did not expect to sell the script, believing it would act as more of a calling card, but American Beauty drew interest from several production bodies. Cannava passed the script to several producers, including Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, who took it to DreamWorks. With the help of executives Glenn Williamson and Bob Cooper, and Steven Spielberg in his capacity as studio partner, Ball was convinced to develop the project at DreamWorks; he received assurances from the studio—known at the time for its more conventional fare—that it would not "iron the [edges] out".[nb 7] In an unusual move, DreamWorks decided not to option the script; instead, in April 1998, the studio bought it outright for $250,000, outbidding Fox Searchlight Pictures, October Films, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Lakeshore Entertainment. DreamWorks planned to make the film for $6–8 million.
Jinks and Cohen involved Ball throughout the film's development, including casting and director selection. The producers met with about twenty interested directors, several of whom were considered "A-list" at the time. Ball was not keen on the more well-known directors because he believed their involvement would increase the budget and lead DreamWorks to become "nervous about the content". Nevertheless, the studio offered the film to Mike Nichols and Robert Zemeckis; neither accepted. In the same year, Mendes (then a theater director) revived the musical Cabaret in New York with fellow director Rob Marshall. Beth Swofford of the Creative Artists Agency arranged meetings for Mendes with studio figures in Los Angeles to see if film direction was a possibility.[nb 8] Mendes came across American Beauty in a pile of eight scripts at Swofford's house, and knew immediately that it was the one he wanted to make; early in his career, he had been inspired by how the film Paris, Texas (1984) presented contemporary America as a mythic landscape and he saw the same theme in American Beauty, as well as parallels with his own childhood. Mendes later met with Spielberg; impressed by Mendes' productions of Oliver! and Cabaret, Spielberg encouraged him to consider American Beauty.
Mendes found that he still had to convince DreamWorks' production executives to let him direct. He had already discussed the film with Jinks and Cohen, and felt they supported him. Ball was also keen; having seen Cabaret, he was impressed with Mendes' "keen visual sense" and thought he did not make obvious choices. Ball felt that Mendes liked to look under the story's surface, a talent he felt would be a good fit with the themes of American Beauty. Mendes' background also reassured him, because of the prominent role the playwright usually has in a theater production. Over two meetings—the first with Cooper, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, the second with Cooper alone—Mendes pitched himself to the studio. The studio soon approached Mendes with a deal to direct for the minimum salary allowed under Directors Guild of America rules—$150,000. Mendes accepted, and later recalled that after taxes and his agent's commission, he only earned $38,000. In June 1998, DreamWorks confirmed that it had contracted Mendes to direct the film.
"I think I was writing about [...] how it's becoming harder and harder to live an authentic life when we live in a world that seems to focus on appearance. [...] For all the differences between now and the [1950s], in a lot of ways this is just as oppressively conformist a time. [...] You see so many people who strive to live the unauthentic life and then they get there and they wonder why they're not happy. [...] I didn't realize it when I sat down to write [American Beauty], but these ideas are important to me."—Alan Ball, 2000
Ball was partly inspired by two encounters he had in the early 1990s. In about 1991–92, Ball saw a plastic bag blowing in the wind outside the World Trade Center. He watched the bag for ten minutes, saying later that it provoked an "unexpected emotional response". In 1992, Ball became preoccupied with the media circus around the Amy Fisher trial. Discovering a comic book telling of the scandal, he was struck by how quickly it had become commercialized. He said he "felt like there was a real story underneath [that was] more fascinating and way more tragic" than the story presented to the public, and attempted to turn the idea into a play. Ball produced around 40 pages, but stopped when he realized it would work better as a film. He felt that because of the visual themes, and because each character's story was.. "intensely personal", it could not be done on a stage. All the main characters appeared in this version, but Carolyn did not feature strongly; Jim and Jim instead had much larger roles.
Ball based Lester's story on aspects of his own life. Lester's re-examination of his life parallels feelings Ball had in his mid-30s; like Lester, Ball put aside his passions to work in jobs he hated for people he did not respect. Scenes in Ricky's household reflect Ball's own childhood experiences. Ball suspected his father was homosexual and used the idea to create Col. Fitts, a man who "gave up his chance to be himself". Ball said the script's mix of comedy and drama was not intentional, but that it came unconsciously from his own outlook on life. He said the juxtaposition produced a starker contrast, giving each trait more impact than if they appeared alone.
In the script that was sent to prospective actors and directors, Lester and Angela had sex; by the time of shooting, Ball had rewritten the scene to the final version. Ball initially rebuffed counsel from others that he change the script, feeling they were being puritanical; the final impetus to alter the scene came from DreamWorks' then-president Walter Parkes. He convinced Ball by indicating that in Greek mythology, the hero "has a moment of epiphany before [...] tragedy occurs". Ball later said his anger when writing the first draft had blinded him to the idea that Lester needed to refuse sex with Angela to complete his emotional journey—to achieve redemption. Jinks and Cohen asked Ball not to alter the scene straight away, as they felt it would be inappropriate to make changes to the script before a director had been hired. Early drafts also included a flashback to Col. Fitts service in the Marines, a sequence that unequivocally established his homosexual leanings. In love with another Marine, Col. Fitts sees the man die and comes to believe that he is being punished for the "sin" of being gay. Ball removed the sequence because it did not fit the structure of the rest of the film—Col. Fitts was the only character to have a flashback—and because it removed the element of surprise from Col. Fitts' later pass at Lester. Ball said he had to write it for his own benefit to know what happened to Col. Fitts, even though all that remained in later drafts was subtext.
Ball remained involved throughout production; he had signed a television show development deal, so had to get permission from his producers to take a year off to be close to American Beauty. Ball was on-set for rewrites and to help interpret his script for all but two days of filming. His original bookend scenes—in which Ricky and Jane are prosecuted for Lester's murder after being framed by Col. Fitts—were excised in post-production; the writer later felt the scenes were unnecessary, saying they were a reflection of his "anger and cynicism" at the time of writing (see "Editing"). Ball and Mendes revised the script twice before it was sent to the actors, and twice more before the first read-through.
The shooting script features a scene in Angela's car in which Ricky and Jane talk about death and beauty; the scene differed from earlier versions, which set it as a "big scene on a freeway" in which the three witness a car crash and see a dead body. The change was a practical decision, as the production was behind schedule and they needed to cut costs. The schedule called for two days to be spent filming the crash, but only half a day was available. Ball agreed, but only if the scene could retain a line of Ricky's where he reflects on having once seen a dead homeless woman: "When you see something like that, it's like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you're careful, you can look right back." Jane asks: "And what do you see?" Ricky: "Beauty." Ball said, "They wanted to cut that scene. They said it's not important. I said, 'You're out of your fucking mind. It's one of the most important scenes in the movie!' [...] If any one line is the heart and soul of this movie, that is the line." Another scene was rewritten to accommodate the loss of the freeway sequence; set in a schoolyard, it presents a "turning point" for Jane in that she chooses to walk home with Ricky instead of going with Angela. By the end of filming, the script had been through ten drafts.
Mendes had Spacey and Bening in mind for the leads from the beginning, but DreamWorks executives were unenthusiastic. The studio suggested several alternatives, including Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner or John Travolta to play Lester, and Helen Hunt or Holly Hunter to play Carolyn. Mendes did not want a big star "weighing the film down"; he felt Spacey was the right choice based on his performances in the 1995 films The Usual Suspects and Seven, and 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross. Spacey was surprised; he said, "I usually play characters who are very quick, very manipulative and smart. [...] I usually wade in dark, sort of treacherous waters. This is a man living one step at a time, playing by his instincts. This is actually much closer to me, to what I am, than those other parts." Mendes offered Bening the role of Carolyn without the studio's consent; although executives were upset at Mendes, by September 1998, DreamWorks had entered negotiations with Spacey and Bening.
Spacey loosely based Lester's early "schlubby" deportment on Walter Matthau. During the film, Lester's physique improves from flabby to toned; Spacey worked out during filming to improve his body, but because Mendes shot the scenes out of chronological order, Spacey varied postures to portray the stages. Before filming, Mendes and Spacey analyzed Jack Lemmon's performance in The Apartment (1960), because Mendes wanted Spacey to emulate "the way [Lemmon] moved, the way he looked, the way he was in that office and the way he was an ordinary man and yet a special man". Spacey's voiceover is a throwback to Sunset Boulevard (1950), which is also narrated in retrospect by a dead character. Mendes felt it evoked Lester's—and the film's—loneliness. Bening recalled women from her youth to inform her performance: "I used to babysit constantly. You'd go to church and see how people present themselves on the outside, and then be inside their house and see the difference." Bening and a hair stylist collaborated to create a "PTA president coif" hairstyle, and Mendes and production designer Naomi Shohan researched mail order catalogs to better establish Carolyn's environment of a "spotless suburban manor". To help Bening get into Carolyn's mindset, Mendes gave her music that he believed Carolyn would like. He lent Bening the Bobby Darin version of the song "Don't Rain on My Parade", which she enjoyed and persuaded the director to include it for a scene in which Carolyn sings in her car.
For the roles of Jane, Ricky and Angela, DreamWorks gave Mendes carte blanche. By November 1998, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari had been cast in the parts—in Birch's case, despite the fact she was underage for her nude scene. As Birch was 16 at the time she made the film, and thus classified as a minor in the United States, her parents had to approve her brief topless scene in the movie. They and child labor representatives were on the set for the shooting of the scene. Bentley overcame competition from top actors under the age of 25 to be cast. The 2009 documentary My Big Break followed Bentley, and several other young actors, before and after he landed the part. To prepare, Mendes provided Bentley with a video camera, telling the actor to film what Ricky would. Peter Gallagher and Alison Janney were cast (as Buddy Kane and Barbara Fitts) after filming began in December 1998. Mendes gave Janney a book of paintings by Edvard Munch. He told her, "Your character is in there somewhere." Mendes cut much of Barbara's dialogue, including conversations between her and Colonel Fitts, as he felt that what needed to be said about the pair—their humanity and vulnerability—was conveyed successfully through their shared moments of silence. Chris Cooper plays Colonel Fitts, Scott Bakula plays Jim Olmeyer, and Sam Robards plays Jim Berkley. Jim and Jim were deliberately depicted as the most normal, happy—and boring—couple in the film. Ball's inspiration for the characters came from a thought he had after seeing a "bland, boring, heterosexual couple" who wore matching clothes: "I can't wait for the time when a gay couple can be just as boring." Ball also included aspects of a gay couple he knew who had the same forename.
Mendes insisted on two weeks of cast rehearsals, although the sessions were not as formal as he was used to in the theater, and the actors could not be present at every one. Several improvisations and suggestions by the actors were incorporated into the script. An early scene showing the Burnhams leaving home for work was inserted later on to show the low point that Carolyn and Lester's relationship had reached. Spacey and Bening worked to create a sense of the love that Lester and Carolyn once had for one another; for example, the scene in which Lester almost seduces Carolyn after the pair argue over Lester's buying a car was originally "strictly contentious".
Principal photography lasted about 50 days from December 14, 1998, to February 1999. American Beauty was filmed on soundstages at the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, California, and at Hancock Park and Brentwood in Los Angeles. The aerial shots at the beginning and end of the film were captured in Sacramento, California, and many of the school scenes were shot at South High School in Torrance, California; several extras in the gym crowd were South High students. The film is set in an upper middle class neighborhood in an unidentified American town. Production designer Naomi Shohan likened the locale to Evanston, Illinois, but said, "it's not about a place, it's about an archetype. [...] The milieu was pretty much Anywhere, USA—upwardly mobile suburbia." The intent was for the setting to reflect the characters, who are also archetypes. Shohan said, "All of them are very strained, and their lives are constructs." The Burnhams' household was designed as the reverse of the Fitts'—the former a pristine ideal, but graceless and lacking in "inner balance", leading to Carolyn's desire to at least give it the appearance of a "perfect all-American household"; the Fitts' home is depicted in "exaggerated darkness [and] symmetry".
The production selected two adjacent properties on the Warner backlot's "Blondie Street" for the Burnhams' and Fitts' homes.[nb 9] The crew rebuilt the houses to incorporate false rooms that established lines of sight—between Ricky and Jane's bedroom windows, and between Ricky's bedroom and Lester's garage. The garage windows were designed specifically to obtain the crucial shot toward the end of the film in which Col. Fitts—watching from Ricky's bedroom—mistakenly assumes that Lester is paying Ricky for sex. Mendes made sure to establish the line of sight early on in the film to make the audience feel a sense of familiarity with the shot. The house interiors were filmed on the backlot, on location, and on soundstages when overhead shots were needed. The inside of the Burnhams' home was shot at a house close to Interstate 405 and Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles; the inside of the Fitts' home was shot in the city's Hancock Park neighborhood. Ricky's bedroom was designed to be cell-like to suggest his "monkish" personality, while at the same time blending with the high-tech equipment to reflect his voyeuristic side. The production deliberately minimized the use of red, as it was an important thematic signature elsewhere. The Burnhams' home uses cool blues, while the Fitts' is kept in a "depressed military palette".
Mendes' dominating visual style was deliberate and composed, with a minimalist design that provided "a sparse, almost surreal feeling—a bright, crisp, hard edged, near Magritte-like take on American suburbia"; Mendes constantly directed his set dressers to empty the frame. He made Lester's fantasy scenes "more fluid and graceful", and Mendes made minimal use of steadicams, feeling that stable shots generated more tension. For example, when Mendes used a slow push in to the Burnhams' dinner table, he held the shot because his training as a theater director taught him the importance of putting distance between the characters. He wanted to keep the tension in the scene, so he only cut away when Jane left the table.[nb 10] Mendes did use a hand-held camera for the scene in which Col. Fitts beats Ricky. Mendes said the camera provided the scene with a "kinetic [...] off balance energy". He also went hand-held for the excerpts of Ricky's camcorder footage. It took Mendes a long time to get the quality of Ricky's footage to the level he wanted. For the plastic bag footage, Mendes used wind machines to move the bag in the air. The scene took four takes; two by the second unit did not satisfy Mendes, so he shot the scene himself. He felt his first take lacked grace, but for the last attempt he changed the location to the front of a brick wall and added leaves on the ground. Mendes was satisfied by the way the wall gave definition to the outline of the bag.
Mendes avoided using close-ups, as he believed the technique was overused; he also cited Spielberg's advice that he should imagine an audience silhouetted at the bottom of the camera monitor, to keep in mind that he was shooting for display on a 40-foot (10 m) screen. Spielberg—who visited the set a few times—also advised Mendes not to worry about costs if he had a "great idea" toward the end of a long working day. Mendes said, "That happened three or four times, and they are all in the movie." Despite Spielberg's support, DreamWorks and Mendes fought constantly over the schedule and budget—although the studio interfered little with the film's content. Spacey, Bening and Hall worked for significantly less than their usual rates. American Beauty cost DreamWorks $15 million to produce, slightly above their projected sum. Mendes was so dissatisfied with his first three days' filming that he obtained permission from DreamWorks to reshoot the scenes. He said, "I started with a wrong scene, actually, a comedy scene.[nb 11] And the actors played it way too big: [...] it was badly shot, my fault, badly composed, my fault, bad costumes, my fault [...]; and everybody was doing what I was asking. It was all my fault." Aware that he was a novice, Mendes drew on the experience of Hall: "I made a very conscious decision early on, if I didn't understand something technically, to say, without embarrassment, 'I don't understand what you're talking about, please explain it.'"
Mendes encouraged some improvisation; for example, when Lester masturbates in bed beside Carolyn, the director asked Spacey to improvise several euphemisms for the act in each take. Mendes said, "I wanted that not just because it was funny [...] but because I didn't want it to seem rehearsed. I wanted it to seem like he was blurting it out of his mouth without thinking. [Spacey] is so in control—I wanted him to break through." Spacey obliged, eventually coming up with 35 phrases, but Bening could not always keep a straight face, which meant the scene had to be shot ten times. The production used small amounts of computer-generated imagery. Most of the rose petals in Lester's fantasies were added in post-production, although some were real and had the wires holding them digitally removed. When Lester fantasizes about Angela in a rose petal bath, the steam was real, save for in the overhead shot. To position the camera, a hole had to be cut in the ceiling, through which the steam escaped; it was instead added digitally.
American Beauty was edited by Christopher Greenbury and Tariq Anwar; Greenbury began in the position, but had to leave halfway through post-production because of a scheduling conflict with Me, Myself and Irene (2000) (which Chris Cooper also starred in). Mendes and an assistant edited the film for ten days between the appointments. Mendes realized during editing that the film was different from the one he had envisioned. He believed he had been making a "much more whimsical, [...] kaleidoscopic" film than what came together in the edit suite. Instead, Mendes was drawn to the emotion and darkness; he began to use the score and shots he had intended to discard to craft the film along these lines. In total, he cut about 30 minutes from his original edit. The opening included a dream in which Lester imagines himself flying above the town. Mendes spent two days filming Spacey against bluescreen, but removed the sequence as he believed it to be too whimsical—"like a Coen brothers movie"—and therefore inappropriate for the tone he was trying to set. The opening in the final cut reused a scene from the middle of the film where Jane tells Ricky to kill her father. This scene was to be the revelation to the audience that the pair were not responsible for Lester's death, as the way it was scored and acted made it clear that Jane's request was not serious. However, in the portion he used in the opening—and when the full scene plays out later—Mendes used the score and a reaction shot of Ricky to leave a lingering ambiguity as to his guilt. The subsequent shot—an aerial view of the neighborhood—was originally intended as the plate shot for the bluescreen effects in the dream sequence.
Mendes spent more time re-cutting the first ten minutes than the rest of the film taken together. He trialled several versions of the opening; the first edit included bookend scenes in which Jane and Ricky are convicted of Lester's murder, but Mendes excised these in the last week of editing because he felt they made the film lose its mystery, and because they did not fit with the theme of redemption that had emerged during production. Mendes believed the trial drew focus away from the characters and turned the film "into an episode of NYPD Blue". Instead, he wanted the ending to be "a poetic mixture of dream and memory and narrative resolution". When Ball first saw a completed edit, it was a version with truncated versions of these scenes. He felt that they were so short that they "didn't really register". He and Mendes argued, but Ball was more accepting after Mendes cut the sequences completely; Ball felt that without the scenes the film was more optimistic and had evolved into something that "for all its darkness had a really romantic heart".
Conrad Hall was not the first choice for director of photography; Mendes believed he was "too old and too experienced" to want the job, and he had been told that Hall was difficult to work with. Instead, Mendes asked Fred Elmes, who turned the job down because he did not like the script. Hall was recommended to Mendes by Tom Cruise, because of Hall's work on Without Limits (1998), which Cruise had executive produced. Mendes was directing Cruise's then-wife Nicole Kidman in the play The Blue Room during pre-production on American Beauty, and had already storyboarded the whole film. Hall was involved for one month during pre-production; his ideas for lighting the film began with his first reading of the script, and further passes allowed him to refine his approach before meeting Mendes. Hall was initially concerned that audiences would not like the characters; he only felt able to identify with them during cast rehearsals, which gave him fresh ideas on his approach to the visuals.
Hall's approach was to create peaceful compositions that evoked classicism, to contrast with the turbulent on-screen events and allow audiences to take in the action. Hall and Mendes would first discuss the intended mood of a scene, but he was allowed to light the shot in any way he felt necessary. In most cases, Hall first lit the scene's subject by "painting in" the blacks and whites, before adding fill light, which he reflected from beadboard or white card on the ceiling. This approach gave Hall more control over the shadows while keeping the fill light unobtrusive and the dark areas free of spill. Hall shot American Beauty in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio in the Super 35 format, using Kodak Vision 500T 5279 35 mm film stock. He used Super 35 partly because its larger scope allowed him to capture elements such as the corners of the petal-filled pool in its overhead shot, creating a frame around Angela within. He shot the whole film at the same T-stop (T1.9); given his preference for shooting that wide, Hall favored high-speed stocks to allow for more subtle lighting effects. He used Panavision Platinum cameras with the company's Primo series of prime and zoom lenses. Hall employed Kodak Vision 200T 5274 and EXR 5248 stock for scenes with daylight effects. He had difficulty adjusting to Kodak's newly introduced Vision release print stock, which, combined with his contrast-heavy lighting style, created a look with too much contrast. Hall contacted Kodak, who sent him a batch of 5279 that was 5% lower in contrast. Hall used a 1/8 inch Tiffen Black ProMist filter for almost every scene, which he said in retrospect may not have been the best choice, as the optical steps required to blow Super 35 up for its anamorphic release print led to a slight amount of degradation; therefore, the diffusion from the filter was not required. When he saw the film in a theater, Hall felt that the image was slightly unclear and that had he not used the filter, the diffusion from the Super 35–anamorphic conversion would have generated an image closer to what he originally intended.
A shot where Lester and Ricky share a cannabis joint behind a building came from a misunderstanding between Hall and Mendes. Mendes asked Hall to prepare the shot in his absence; Hall assumed the characters would look for privacy, so he placed them in a narrow passage between a truck and the building, intending to light from the top of the truck. When Mendes returned, he explained that the characters did not care if they were seen. He removed the truck and Hall had to rethink the lighting; he lit it from the left, with a large light crossing the actors, and with a soft light behind the camera. Hall felt the consequent wide shot "worked perfectly for the tone of the scene". Hall made sure to keep rain, or the suggestion of it, in every shot near the end of the film. In one shot during Lester's encounter with Angela at the Burnhams' home, Hall created rain effects on the foreground cross lights; in another, he partly lit the pair through French windows to which he had added material to make the rain run slower, intensifying the light (although the strength of the outside light was unrealistic for a night scene, Hall felt it justified because of the strong contrasts it produced). For the close-ups when Lester and Angela move to the couch, Hall tried to keep rain in the frame, lighting through the window onto the ceiling behind Lester. He also used rain boxes to produce rain patterns where he wanted without lighting the entire room.
Thomas Newman's score was recorded in Santa Monica, California. He mainly used percussion instruments to create the mood and rhythm, the inspiration for which was provided by Mendes. Newman "favored pulse, rhythm and color over melody", making for a more minimalist score than he had previously created. He built each cue around "small, endlessly repeating phrases"—often, the only variety through a "thinning of the texture for eight bars". The percussion instruments included tablas, bongos, cymbals, piano, xylophones and marimbas; also featured were guitars, flute, and world music instruments. Newman also used electronic music and on "quirkier" tracks employed more unorthodox methods, such as tapping metal mixing bowls with a finger and using a detuned mandolin. Newman believed the score helped move the film along without disturbing the "moral ambiguity" of the script: "It was a real delicate balancing act in terms of what music worked to preserve [that]."
The soundtrack features songs by Newman, Bobby Darin, The Who, Free, Eels, The Guess Who, Bill Withers, Betty Carter, Peggy Lee, The Folk Implosion, Gomez, and Bob Dylan, as well as two cover versions—The Beatles' "Because" performed by Elliott Smith, and Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down" performed by Annie Lennox. Produced by the film's music supervisor Chris Douridas, an abridged soundtrack album was released on October 5, 1999 and went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album. An album featuring 19 tracks from Newman's score was released on January 11, 2000, and won the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album. Filmmaker considered the score to be one of Newman's best, saying it "[enabled] the film's transcendentalist aspirations". In 2006, the magazine chose the score as one of twenty essential soundtracks it believed spoke to the "complex and innovative relationships between music and screen storytelling".