American Beauty

American Beauty Mendes' influence on American Beauty

The original script for American Beauty was markedly different from the finished product (the shooting script). The script that Alan Ball, the screenwriter, sent to Sam Mendes, the director, began with Jane and Ricky being put on trial for the murder of Lester Burnham. In the original script, Angela testifies against Jane in court, and Colonel Fitts brings in the tape he finds of Jane offering Ricky three thousand dollars to kill her father. The viewers learn that the tape was a joke immediately after Ricky turns off the camera - but one second too late for the defense. Also, the extended shot over the town with Lester's voice-over in the background that begins the shooting script originally included Lester in his pajamas, flying Superman-like over the town and landing in his own bed. Mendes filmed the script almost as written, but afterwards he and editor Tariq Anwar made substantial changes, to the surprise of most of the cast and crew. Mendes cut the trial out entirely, and also eliminated the "Lester-flying" fantasy. He preserved Ricky and Jane's impact on the film by increasing their on-camera time throughout the movie.

Mendes' cuts had a tremendous affect on the themes and impact of the story. The question of guilt and the manipulation of evidence played a large role in the original film, but by editing out the trial Mendes shifted the focus from Lester Burnham's death to Lester Burnham's life. In hindsight, it seems possible that the original script would have produced a more unbalanced, less poignant film than the final product. Of course the universally exceptional work turned in by the actors was an important component in the film's success, but Mendes' cuts also had a significant influence on how these roles were perceived. In shifting the ultimate meaning of the film, Mendes essentially turned all of the roles into "character parts" rather than mainstream leading roles.

It seems likely that Mendes' background as a theatre director strongly influenced his approach to American Beauty. Mendes was used to directing stories that focused on character development and questions of perspective rather than a rapidly-moving plot. Furthermore, his work on the stage may have made him more comfortable with the less realistic aspects of American Beauty (such as Lester's fantasy sequences). Another aspect of Mendes' background that may have influenced his choices for the film is the fact that he is a British - rather than an American - director. Generally speaking, character-driven films are more widely accepted in Britain than they are in the United States. While American blockbusters are unquestionably popular in the U.K., British directors seem to have more freedom to explore characters who are not particularly admirable, important, or even likeable. In transforming American Beauty from a whodunit thriller into a deeply cerebral exploration of the human condition, Mendes went against the stereotypes that were thought to appeal to American audiences.