How The Pandemic Prompted Sam Mendes To Build His ‘Empire Of Light’ On “Self-Examination And Reflection” — Toronto Studio

Empire of Light, written and directed by Sam Mendes, is a loving tribute to the power of cinema and a poignant story about the healing qualities of genuine human connection. The film follows the budding romance of two employees working at a grandiose but crumbling seaside cinema on the southern coast of England.

The Covid lockdown in early 2020 was the catalyst for Mendes to look inward. “We were worried that during the pandemic we would lose the experience of the cinema,” he said, at Deadline’s Toronto studio. “That we would never have that experience of being in a dark room with strangers and that all live performances would die. We thought, is this it? Are we ever going to be out with our friends again? Or in the world and be able to enjoy art and cinema? For the first time in my adult life, I was left alone with my family and my loved ones.”

Set amongst the backdrop of the racial tensions and political unrest under the Margaret Thatcher regime in 1980s England, Empire of Light tells the story of a budding but complicated relationship between two characters, Hilary and Stephen, as they reckon with the individualized pressures each of them is facing: Hilary is marred by a difficult past that leaves her jaded and nearly immune to excitement, while Stephen’s dreams—though full of passion—are hindered by white supremacy. The film stars Olivia Colman as Hilary and Micheal Ward as Stephen, with a supporting cast that includes Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Tanya Moodie.

It is a story inspired by Mendes’s own past, crafted, he said, “during a time period of self-examination and reflection. The memories that bubbled to the surface were memories from the early 80s to the present. They were memories of growing up with mental illness in the family, and memories of my own formative teenage years, when my own racial politics were formed during a time of great incendiary racial politics that felt not dissimilar to some of the things we’re going through globally [today] as well. All of those things felt both of the time, and current. I hope that when audiences see the movie, that it feels like then but also now.”

Colman said that she loved the script the first time she read it, praising Mendes on the sensitive exploration of Hilary’s nuanced psyche. “When I first read it, I loved her,” Colman said. “I felt for her, and Sam dealt with it so delicately and empathetically with the friendships she made with that funny little group who worked at the cinema, who she maybe didn’t realize were her friends. But by the end of the film, she realizes she’s in the best place. And she gets looked after and is forgiven for the things that she does. I just thought it was a lovely journey for that character and I was honored to be able to play her.”

Ward compared the communal experience of being embraced by the cast and crew to a similar feeling his character felt in the movie. “[The movie] was filmed in a chronological way, so when I came in, everyone had built up their little family, and I felt like I was joining—everyone was so welcoming. The cinema is a place where all kinds of people that have been neglected by society in a certain way can all come together for the love of film. And I think that was evident between all of the characters, so, it was fun to work with everyone and see how everybody embodied their characters, and not just when we were filming scenes but also when we had to be present as ourselves. That was special.”

For more from Mendes, Colman and Ward, as well as Tanya Moodie and DP Roger Deakins, check out the video above.

The Deadline Studio is sponsored by dr Liza + the[fix] and Watford Group. Special thanks to our partner Soluna.

Destiny Jackson contributed to this report.

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