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Linguist Geoff Nunberg

Linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the words –hero— and –legend.


Other segments from the episode on August 1, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 1, 2002: Interview with Max Allan Collins; Interview with Sam Mendes; Commentary on language.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Max Allan Collins discusses his graphic novel "Road
to Perdition" and its transformation into a film

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

A little later, we'll meet Sam Mendes, the director of the new film "Road to
Perdition." First we talk with Max Allan Collins, who wrote the graphic novel
"Road to Perdition" which the movie is based on. "Road to Perdition" is set
during the Depression and is the story of two fathers who are each protecting
a son. One father, played in the movie by Paul Newman, is the head of the
Irish mob in Rock Island, Illinois. His son is out of control and gun crazy.
The other father, played by Tom Hanks, works as the head mobster's chief hit
man. The hit man's son witnesses the mobster's son kill someone. The
mobster's son wants to kill the hit man's son so that he can't squeal, so the
hit man has to protect his son by trying to kill the mobster's son. The hit
man seeks the help of the Italian mob in Chicago. When they refuse to
cooperate, he steals their money from the bank. Here's Tom Hanks as the hit
man robbing a bank.

(Soundbite from "Road to Perdition")

Unidentified Man: Well, this is a pleasant surprise. I wasn't expecting
another deposit until the end of the month.

Mr. TOM HANKS (As Michael Sullivan): Actually I'm making a withdrawal.

(Soundbite of gun cocking)

Mr. HANKS: I want dirty money only, everything you're holding for Capone.

Unidentified Man: It's off the books.

Mr. HANKS: Open the safe.

Unidentified Man: You're insane. You know they'll find out who you are.

Mr. HANKS: The name's Sullivan. You want me to spell it?

(Soundbite of safe being opened)

Mr. HANKS: Open the box.

(Soundbite of box being opened)

Unidentified Man: They'll kill you. They're animals.

Mr. HANKS: You don't say.

GROSS: The scene we just heard was taken right out of the graphic novel "Road
to Perdition," written by my guest, Max Allan Collins. A graphic novel is a
book-length story illustrated like a comic books. Collins is a longtime
detective writer whose books include a series of historical mysteries
featuring the fictional detective Nathan Heller. Collins wrote the "Dick
Tracy" comic strip for several years after its creator retired. He told me
the character of the Irish mobster in "Road to Perdition" is based on a real

Mr. MAX ALLAN COLLINS (Author, "Road to Perdition"): I took the story of this
Irish crime godfather in Rock Island, Illinois, in the 1920s, guy named John
Looney, and I guess that's my comic book background, that name Looney. It was
irresistible to me. And he had a looney son named Connor who was a homicidal
maniac. So you sort of had this wonderful--you know, you've got--it's like
the good Caesar and the bad Caesar, you know. The guy coming up is a lunatic
basically, and yet the father, of course, loves him. And this all really
happened in Rock Island, Illinois, in the early part of the 20th century. I
thought it would make a good sort of underpinning of history for this tale.

GROSS: And then you created a fictional character to go along with this
real-life father and son team. The fictional character is the character
played by Tom Hanks in the movie "Road to Perdition." In your novel he's
called the Archangel of Death. Tell us about this character and how you
created him.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, in real life there were a couple of lieutenants of John
Looney, this godfather, who Looney betrayed, and I thought that would be kind
of a good historical hole I could plug a fictional character into. And I had
been thinking a long time about trying to do sort of an American samurai
story. I was, in the early '90s, really caught up in a lot of Asian pop
culture, particularly the movies of John Woo. Now John Woo has since become a
major director here in America, but in the late '80s, early '90s, he was this
cult figure and collectors were just sort of passing around VHS tapes. And he
was doing these sort of wild action scenes, guys sliding down bannisters with
guns in both hands blazing.

And at the same time I was watching Kurosawa and other Japanese and Chinese
directors who were dealing with samurais and various kinds of larger-than-life
swordsmen, and I thought that would be an interesting, you know, concept to
transpose into American pop culture and American history. It occurred to me
that a samurai was somewhat like a gangster, and that the shogun was somewhat
like the godfather, and so that was the thought of taking this character,
Michael O'Sullivan, and having him be sort of the American shogun samurai and
have him be betrayed by his shogun.

GROSS: How did the movie adaptation get made of your graphic novel?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, the graphic novel was published in 1998, and I must say
to, you know, no particular fanfare. The graphic novel as a form is somewhat
of a niche. In fact, comics themselves are, you know, not as mainstream as I
would like them to be in this country. And so really a fairly small audience,
probably about 5,000 people, read that novel when it came out. So to me it
was just sort of another of many projects I was involved in, and I kind of,
you know, went about my business with various things I was working on,
independent films and novels and so on. But my agent saw some real
possibilities in this graphic novel, and he sent it out to a Hollywood agent,
and this agent looked at the material and again really responded well to it.
And he sent it to a guy named Dean Zanuck. Now, of course, that's a very
famous last name, and Dean, the son of Richard Zanuck, who's the son of Darryl
Zanuck, legendary Hollywood moguls.

Dean Zanuck responded very positively to this material, and he sent it to his
dad, Richard, who happened to be, I think, in Morocco on some other picture,
and he called his dad and said, `This is being FedExed to you.' His father
said, as a lot of people have lately, `What's a graphic novel?' And Dean
said, `Well, don't worry about it, just take a look at it.' And Richard
Zanuck read it, responded very favorably to it. He FedExed it back to
Hollywood to Steven Spielberg, and Spielberg loved it, apparently said,
`Great, I don't even have to storyboard it.' And then Steven Spielberg sent
it to Tom Hanks. Hanks responded very well to it. Anyway, all of this
happened in about five days, which is pretty remarkable in terms of Hollywood.
So this fairly obscure graphic novel suddenly, in a matter of less than a
week, climbs to the top of the Hollywood food chain. Meanwhile, I'm back in
Iowa just sort of tending the crops, so to speak.

GROSS: Well, I'm sure that the release of the film "Road to Perdition" has
caused you to think a lot about the differences between novels, graphic novels
and movies. So let's talk a little bit about the way you tell the story in
the graphic novel "Road to Perdition." You know, in some ways it's very
stripped down, because there's just a few lines of dialogue per page which
several illustrations per page. But it's still a very rich story. Do you
have a different style of storytelling in a graphic novel than you do in an
actual novel?

Mr. COLLINS: I've always viewed myself as a storyteller, and I think one of
the problems that a lot of novelists have in terms of trying to take their
work into film, let's say, is that they don't have a grasp of the difference
between these mediums. Probably the fact that I have worked in comics as many
years as I have, which is sort of a medium, if you think about it, that is
perched in between comics and, you know, sort of straight prose novels. That
may give me a little bit better avenue into either of these forms, because in
terms of comics, you obviously are dealing with visuals, and if you were to
look at one of my scripts for any comic book or for a graphic novel like "Road
to Perdition," you would see that 80 percent of what I write really is
directions to the artist, telling the artist what to draw. And, you know, a
very small percentage of what I write will be the actual copy, the actual
dialogue or captions or narrations. So I have to think visually. I have to
actually, at least in a preliminary sense, design the page. And that gets me
thinking in pictures and telling the story in pictures, and this has been very
helpful to me as I've moved into writing screenplays and doing independent

'Cause there's very basic differences here. If you take the film and the
novel, for example, a film really is the exterior of a story. I mean, you're
sitting, as a viewer, watching the story play out. But when you read a novel,
you're inside the story. It's the interior of the story. And you tend to
experience novels through usually one character at a time inside that
character's perceptions, you know. So you, as a storyteller, if you really
don't understand, you know, these differences in point of view, you're gonna
go down the wrong road.

GROSS: Max Allan Collins is my guest. He's a mystery writer, and he did the
graphic novel "Road to Perdition" on which the new movie is based.

The filmmakers made several plot changes and character changes in the
adaptation from your graphic novel. How did you feel about the differences in
story in the movie vs. your book?

Mr. COLLINS: The screenwriter, David Self, I think did a terrific job.
Again, perhaps because I'm in a modest way a filmmaker myself, having done
three independent films and written quite a few screenplays, I don't have that
protective sort of tunnel vision view of my own work when it comes to adapting
it. I know that you have to look at a source work and reorganize it and
rethink it and sometimes even reinvent it. I think one of the smartest things
that Self did was take all of these hit men that I had pursuing the father and
son and every now and then they would have a kind of confrontation or shootout
or whatever. They rolled all of these hit men characters up into this one
character, played by Jude Law, the reporter, who's basically the only
character in the movie that I didn't create. But I might have created him.
He's very much the kind of character that appears in my stories. I felt very
comfortable with that.

I felt extremely comfortable with the decision to emphasize the father and son
relationship between Paul Newman's character and Tom Hank's character. That
was in the graphic novel. It was sort of understood and implied that there
was a father-and-son relationship and that Looney preferred O'Sullivan to his
own sort of incompetent son. But they did it in such a dramatic and cinematic
fashion, that, if anything, they improved on me, and I'm always willing to be
improved upon.

GROSS: Now the truly bizarre thing about your position is that you wrote the
graphic novel "Road to Perdition." The movie "Road to Perdition" was adapted
from your graphic novel. Then you wrote the novelization of the movie.

Mr. COLLINS: I know.

GROSS: So you have two different versions of "Road to Perdition." You've got
the original version, and then you've got the novel version that's based on
the movie adaptation of your original work. How did you end up writing the
novelization, and how peculiar did that feel?

Mr. COLLINS: It was very peculiar. I think you may know that I'm--one of the
things I've done over the last 10 or 15 years, actually since I lost the "Dick
Tracy" strip, was take on a lot of novelizations for Hollywood studios.
I've--arguably am the top or one of the top movie novel guys. And it's a very
peculiar kind of job you take, because what happens is you have something
like, say, "Saving Private Ryan" where they know it's gonna be a big picture,
it's going to be an important movie, but it's an original screenplay, so
they'd like to have a novel. So I am commissioned by someone like DreamWorks
to develop a novel out of the screenplay. Not out of the movie, because the
movie usually hasn't been shot yet or is being shot while I'm writing the
novel. So it's a little tricky. I will take the screenplay and develop the
novel from that. And I've, you know, had a lot of luck with that. I've done,
like, "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns" and "In the Line of Fire" and "Air
Force One." In fact, book I did recently called "Windtalkers," ironically
from a John Woo movie, has done extremely well.

So I knew because the original story of "Road to Perdition" was a graphic
novel, that there probably would be a novelization done. So I thought, if
someone's going to do it, why shouldn't I do it? I mean, I'd better do it.
So I also felt--and I was wrong about this. I have to tell you, I was
flat-out wrong. But I also felt that when the original graphic novel was
reprinted, it would remain a kind of a niche book. I really didn't think that
mainstream readers would be able to cross that line into comics and read a
sort of serious adult story in comics form. And for that reason I felt there
ought to be a straight novel, a prose novel version out there, and if there
was gonna be one, obviously I wanted to do it myself.

Now where I was wrong is right now the graphic novel is outselling the
novelization, even though I wrote it. We got onto the extended New York Times
Best-Seller List with the graphic novel. It may be the first graphic novel
ever to get on The New York Times list. I'm not sure. But it's a rarity

GROSS: My guest is Max Allan Collins. We'll talk more after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Max Allan Collins. He's a detective writer. He's written
a lot of comic books. He used to do the "Dick Tracy" series. He wrote the
graphic novel "Road to Perdition." That's the novel that the movie is based
on, and then he wrote the novelization of the movie after the movie screenplay
was written.

So, you know, I'm wondering if when you write novelizations of movies like
"Saving Private Ryan" and "Air Force One," "In the Line of Fire," if you ever
take slightly confusing or ambiguous plot line and just kind of like
straighten them out in the novel. You know how sometimes you leave a movie
and you say, `I don't understand. In that scene, like, what really happened?
Why did somebody really do something?'

Mr. COLLINS: You know, that's a lot of what I do in writing novelizations.
Part of it is to create background and back story for characters, but a lot of
what I do is fix them, I plug the plot holes. And I get that a lot from my
readers who say, `Well, now I understand the movie,' and they don't realize
that I just sort of came in after the fact, you know, with my spackle and
mortar and fixed it up.

GROSS: Don't take this the wrong way, but who would want to read a
novelization after seeing the movie? 'Cause the movie is the original work,
it's the kind of definitive story, and the novelization is just kind of based
on the movie.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, there's two answers to that. The glib one is a confused
audience that doesn't understand that the book didn't actually come first.
So, you know, I depend on the ignorance of the readers, which is an awful
thing, but there's a certain amount of that. People just don't understand the
process and they assume the book came first. The better answer, I think, the
answer that makes it valid for me to be doing this, is that the difference
between the mediums gives you an opportunity to see that story in a different
way. As I said earlier, the movie's the exterior version of the story and a
novel is the interior version. So I can give you what the characters are
thinking. I can tell you who they are and where they grew up and what they're
think--you know, I can give it to you in the way only a novelist can.

GROSS: But do you ever feel funny because it's not your original story?
You're rewriting somebody else's story. You're reinventing their characters.
We accept that in a movie more than we accept that in a novel.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, the funny thing about that is that because I haven't seen
the movie and I'm working from a screenplay, a strange proprietary happens to
me and makes me think I did write it. So that when I actually go to see the
movie, say, six months later, I think I'm seeing a movie based on a book I
wrote. I can't--I know I'm not, and it's stupid, but that's the sensation I
have. Also, a couple of times, I've had movies where they've actually taken
stuff from my novelizations and put them into the movies because when the
novelization went to be approved by the director or whatever, they may have
seen how I fixed something, or they may notice some dialogue that's better
than what they have, and in at least one instance they actually reshot a scene
and based it on a scene I wrote in the novelization.

GROSS: Max Allan Collins is my guest. He wrote the graphic novel "Road to
Perdition" on which the movie's based. He's also a detective novelist who's
written many detective novels.

One of your series is about the detective Nate Heller, and this is a kind of
historical detective. Most of the stories are set in the '30s and '40s. Or
is it '20s and '30s?

Mr. COLLINS: It's mostly the '30s and '40s. The new one, "Chicago
Confidential," is set in 1950 and is the first one that will take us, I hope,
into the '50s and later the '60s.

GROSS: And this series combines real-life and fictional characters, so Al
Capone, Bugsy Siegel are in it, the St. Valentine's Day massacre, Amelia
Earhart, the Lindbergh kidnapping. Why combine historical and fictional
elements in this series?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, what happened was I had wanted to write a private eye
series since I was a kid. I loved Dashiell Hammitt, Raymond Chandler and
Mickey Spillane. And yet I didn't think the private eye worked very well in
contemporary times. I thought he worked best, you know, in a fedora and a
trench coat, and in that period where he was created by those writers. And it
occurred to me one day that the private eye had been around long enough to
exist in an historical context, so that I sort of realized that Sam Spade and
Al Capone were contemporaries. So I could actually put a Sam Spade kind
of character into a story with, not an Al Capone type, but actually Al Capone.
And then the next step was to think, well, if I'm gonna do that, why not do
real crimes? You know, the private eye's gotta solve a mystery. Let him
solve, you know, who killed Huey Long or let him find out what happened at the
Roswell incident. So the series became the story of this sort of traditional
Philip Marlowe detective and, at the same time, solving the great unsolved
mysteries of the 20th century.

GROSS: So this is why you had to do a whole lot of research?

Mr. COLLINS: Basically what I do is I take something like the Lindbergh
kidnapping or the Black Dahlia murder. I research it as if I were going to
write the definitive non-fiction work on that case, and then I write a mystery
story instead.

GROSS: What is it about detective fiction and the whole crime genre that you
respond to as a reader or a viewer?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, I really love the poetry of the language of somebody like
Raymond Chandler. It may sound absurd to say so, but Mickey Spillane attracts
me the same way. His work is like a fever dream on paper. The very low-key,
clipped, understated style of Hammitt. I guess it's really the literary--it's
crazy to say this--but the literary aspect of it has attracted me. You add
that into the idea that these writers are dealing with life-and-death subjects
and I do like melodrama. I do like larger than life. There's something
operatic about James M. Cain, for example, or Jim Thompson(ph), and I find
that extremely appealing.

GROSS: Max Allan Collins wrote the graphic novel "Road to Perdition." I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, Sam Mendes, director of the films "Road to Perdition" and
"American Beauty." And linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how we've come to
overuse the word `legend' in describing important people.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Sam Mendes discusses his career as a director

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Sam Mendes, directed the new film "Road to Perdition." He won an
Oscar for directing his first film, "American Beauty." Mendes is British.
American audiences were introduced to him when he directed the Broadway
revival of "Cabaret," starring Alan Cummings. Mendes still works in theater.
He founded London's Donmar Warehouse Theater and is currently rehearsing their
productions of "Twelfth Night" and "Uncle Vanya." Let's start with a scene
from "Road to Perdition." Paul Newman plays an Irish mob chief. Tom Hanks
play his hit man. Hanks' son, Michael, has witnessed a mob murder, and Hanks
is worried about him. Here's Hanks and Newman.

(Soundbite of "Road to Perdition")

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: How is Michael? Is he OK?

Mr. TOM HANKS: I've spoken to him. He understands.

Mr. NEWMAN: That's tough, seeing that for the first time. Well, you turned
out. You can't protect them forever. If it wasn't this, it'd be something
else. Natural law, sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers.

GROSS: Director Sam Mendes recorded an interview with us from his London
office. I asked how he persuaded Paul Newman to be in the film.

Mr. SAM MENDES (Director, "Road to Perdition"): I was very aware that he is
Paul Newman, he has nothing to prove anymore. Everyone knows him to be a
great actor, an iconic figure, you know, a national treasure in many ways
because of what he's done outside of his acting work, let alone his set of
performances, you know? And, you know, I spent most of my time working out
who was going to do the part when Paul said no, to be honest with you, because
I thought, `He's never going to say yes to this. You know, it's a supporting
role and, you know, the last three movies he's done, "Twilight," "Nobody's
Fool," these are movies he's still playing the lead, you know? Why is he
going to want to get out of bed to play a supporting part?' But he loved, as
he put it, `the personnel involved.'

And over a course of three meetings in his apartment, you know, we just talked
about it. We talked about every aspect of the character, every aspect of the
scene. We talked about very, very detailed things. Every line was analyzed
and scrutinized and questioned. And by the time we'd reached the end of that
third meeting, we had a relationship, and he felt he was able to trust me, and
obviously I felt that he trusted me and, therefore, you know, I felt thrilled
and relaxed when he turned up for the first day of rehearsals and obviously
when he agreed to do the movie. And then when he turned up the first day of
rehearsals, the relationship already existed, and so--but I think one of the
great arts, one of the great talents of people like Tom Hanks and Paul Newman
is to sort of diffuse any sense that they are stars. They simply want to work,
and they want to discuss what they're doing and they want to have someone who
they trust to tell them whether what they're doing is working or not, and
whether what they want to convey is being conveyed.

And so you become, very quickly, a partner rather than somebody who's there to
either instruct them or to just sort of say yes and no the whole time. You
become a collaborator. And I suppose the two of them, you know, who'd never
met before until the first day of rehearsals and never worked together, found
kindred spirits in each other, and I thought that was really--I was honored
to be the person to bring them together, you know, and I feel that they work
brilliantly together in the movie.

GROSS: In casting Tom Hanks, did you intentionally go after someone who
usually plays more heroic, or at least likable characters--you know, kind of
more wholesome, likable characters--to cast him for the role of the gangster
killer in the movie?

Mr. MENDES: I simply go after the best actor, you know? I mean, I felt this
way with Kevin Spacey in "American Beauty." I just went to the person that I
first thought of when I read the script. And I didn't go for a conventional
heroic figure, someone who's done this part before, but then I never thought
that's what the role was. This man is getting a little long in the tooth to
be doing what he's doing. He has a family. He regrets, in many ways, the
life he leads, but he never talks about it. He carries that weight of guilt
around with him all the time. He's a very inarticulate man; he's a very
private man. And I think all of those things made me think of Tom. I didn't
think, `Oh, I'm going to do something very interesting.' I knew, of course,
he hadn't been asked to do parts like before, but I also, like anyone who's
watched his career over the last 10 years, remember performances which are
very dark that he's done--sections of "Private Ryan," many parts--the rage and
anger you see in him in "Philadelphia," the fury that is in "Punchline," all
of those things.

You know, I've seen it and, you know, they say there's one thing better than
having a great actor and that's having a great actor who's hungry to do
something he's never done before. And I was very taken with the Los Angles
Times review of Kenneth Turan, which paralleled his career choice at this
point to Jimmy Stewart's when he started doing movies like "Winchester '73,"
you know, and taking a risk.

And I think ultimately, also, I responded to the fact that in his gut I could
feel that he knew he could do it. I didn't have to persuade him. He knew deep
down that he understood the man, and I think that this--you know, there's no
substitute for that kind of confidence.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Mendes. He directed the
new movie "Road to Perdition," and he directed "American Beauty."

I want to play a scene from "American Beauty," and this is a scene from early
in the movie where Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, as a husband and a wife,
are sitting around the dining room table, and their teen-ager daughter is at
the table with them. "Bali Ha'i" is playing in the background. This is a
very dysfunctional family. Kevin Spacey is very unhappy. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of "American Beauty")

THORA BIRCH: Mom, do we always have to listen to this elevator music?

Ms. ANNETTE BENING: No. No, we don't. And as soon as you prepare a
nutritious yet savory meal that I'm about to eat, you can listen to whatever
you like.

Mr. KEVIN SPACEY: So, Janey, how was school?

BIRCH: It was OK.

Mr. SPACEY: Just OK?

BIRCH: No, Dad, it was spectacular.

Mr. SPACEY: Well, you want to know how things went in my job today? They've
hired this efficiency expert, this really friendly guy named Brad. How
perfect is that? And he's basically there to make it seem like they're
justified in firing somebody because they couldn't just come right out and say
that, could they? No, no, that would just be too honest, and so they've asked
us--you couldn't possibly care less, could you?

BIRCH: Well, what do you expect? You can't all of a sudden be my best friend
just because you had a bad day. I mean, hello. You've barely even spoken to
me for months.

GROSS: Sam Mendes, I think it was really an act of genius to get Kevin Spacey
in that role. And, you know, Kevin Spacey is an actor with so much screen
presence. I think it's really interesting to cast someone with that amount of
screen presence in the role of someone who's very alienated, very repressed,
someone who see themselves as being nearly invisible.

Mr. MENDES: Yes. I mean, it's the same principle as casting Tom Hanks for
different reasons here, which is that, you know, you're asking a great actor
to do something he's never done before, and you're working and rehearsing with
him very hard to try and achieve that. And you're working on it every day.
But in a strange way there are parallels between the two. Both Tom Hanks and
Kevin Spacey, for the first half of both of those movies, are working against
their natural screen instincts, their natural screen presence. They're
fighting the relationship they already have with the audience, and they're
asking you to forget the Kevin Spacey that you know, forget the Tom Hanks you
know and belive in this man, this different man, this morally ambivalent
central figure who certainly, the beginning of both movies, for different
reasons, are very distant from the audience, one of them because he's frankly
a sad and lost figure; and that's Kevin, and one because he's cut himself off
from everybody because he's terrified of his children and his wife finding out
too much about what he does.

And it's interesting--I mean, I found myself holding back the moment that, as
it were, Kevin Spacey became Kevin Spacey and Tom Hanks became Tom Hanks. You
know, the movie had to humanize Tom Hanks, and in a sense allow Kevin to the
ironic, sharp-tongued, witty, bravura performer that he is. And so there are

GROSS: Now I read in an article that Alan Ball, the screenwriter, read the
screenplay out loud to you before you shot it, and I imagine before you cast
it as well.

Mr. MENDES: Oh, yes.

GROSS: When I interviewed Alan Ball, I thought that his voiced sounded very
similar to Kevin Spacey's voice.

Mr. MENDES: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if that connected to you and if it perhaps even
helped you imagine Kevin Spacey in that role early on.

Mr. MENDES: Well, I'd already cast Kevin at that stage.


Mr. MENDES: But Alan, the droll, laconic, slightly--the droll, laconic nature
of Alan and the sense in which he's an observer in his own life on some level,
I think that was very helpful. But just to know Alan as a friend and to
understand his sense of humor and to understand his humanity, that alone,
that's a big key, you know, and so I wanted to know Alan, because Alan wrote
this amazing script and, you know, I was fortunate enough to be given it. So
that was the main thing.

But if you got Alan to, for example, do Angela from the movie, like you know,
Mena Suvari's character, you'd find that he was a pretty good Angela as well,
not to mention all the other characters. He's just--you know, he acted in his
youth and frankly, you know, he has--he understood the spirit of those people.
But I often get writers to read the own work, because they hear the voices in
their heads, particularly with an original screenplay or an original play.
You know, there's nobody better.

GROSS: My guest is Sam Mendes, director of the new film "Road to Perdition"
and the Oscar-winning film "American Beauty." We'll talk more after our
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Sam Mendes is my guest. He directed the new film "Road to Perdition."
He also directed "American Beauty."

"American Beauty" was your first movie. You've spent most of your career, I
mean, all of your career, including now, directing theater. Actors really
have to make an adjustment from the stage to screen. You're talking in a much
bigger way. You're projecting more when you're in a theater, and things can
be much smaller, more naturalistic on screen. What are some of the
differences for you as a director directing speech on stage and speech for

Mr. MENDES: Well, in theater, rehearsals are everything. I mean, you know,
you rehearse for weeks, and by the time you leave the rehearsal room you've
basically done the production, you know? I mean, obviously you've going to
have to add the set and the lighting and what have you, but ultimately, where
people are standing, how they're relating to each other, how they're talking
to each other, their reading of their roles, whatever you want to call it,
those are already decided.

Rehearsals in film are not about that at all. I don't, on the whole, get
actors on their feet in rehearsals for movies. I stay around the table. It's
about filling up the actors' gas tank with information, back story, things
that make them excited to do the scene, in a way. And part of that is because
you don't want an actor fully exploring a scene and kind of exploding into it
weeks and weeks before you're actually shooting it. Because sometimes it's
going to be three months from the rehearsals to the actual doing of the scene.
Because what you don't want on the day is an actor trying to remember what he
or she did with the scene. What you want is someone who's completely in the
moment and feels utterly confident and there are no barriers to her or he
being as imaginative or as creative as possible.

I mean, I stress here that directors feed off the energy of their actors, as I
have fed off the energy of cinematographers and editors and composers. I
mean, you do. You know, you're feeding off other people's creativity in
addition to your own, and sometimes theirs is far greater. And it's often the
case in rehearsals that someone comes up with an idea that's infinitely better
than yours and, you know, you have to, like a magpie, learn to snatch that and
say, `Ooh, that's much better. Let's run with that idea. Now let's explore
that,' you know? And it's more often the case that that happens in rehearsals
in both movies and plays.

GROSS: Once you're shooting a film scene, do you think of that scene as
almost being like directing a play?

Mr. MENDES: No, because what you're doing with a play is you are trying to
create a performance that stands the test of time, that can be re-created, so
you're encouraging an actor to use their outside eye, to analyze and recollect
what they're doing, use their sense of memory to repeat themselves loosely. I
mean, they can change every night, but basically repeat themselves for weeks.
With a movie, you can trick someone into giving you a performance. You can
throw a glass--not that I would do this, but you can throw a glass of water in
their face before the camera rolls if you want to get them to look shocked,
you know? There are any number of ways to do it. You can trick performances
into being, but also you're asking people to lose their outside eye, to lose
their self-consciousness, to forget what they're doing, to not think too hard
about it, to act totally on instinct. So it's not like directing a scene on
stage at all.

Actually the rehearsing of scenes and the filming of scenes, the filming is
the more relaxed in some ways, because you're not trying to fix something that
has to remain. The other thing is you're not trying to balance eight--in a
play like "Uncle Vanya," which I'm directing at the moment, you're balancing
eight performances simultaneously. Everybody has to be alive at the same
time, and everyone has to interact--it's like a jigsaw puzzle--whereas you
only have to concentrate on one person at a time, basically, on film, unless
you're directing an ensemble piece and, you know, you're in wide shot the
whole time. So it's very different.

GROSS: So it sounds like your psychology as a director is really different
when you're working with actors on stage vs. screen.

Mr. MENDES: Yes, although there is something that is a fundamental
similarity which is that every actor has a way of working, and every actor
needs something different from a director. Some people need immediate
guidance and immediate setting of activity, and some people don't want
anything set until they've fully explored the role in their own way.
Similarly on film, some people don't want you to give them notes until the
third or fourth take, so that they just get into the swing of it, they have a
chance to try a couple of things out before you start talking to them. Some
people won't even do a take until you've had a discussion with them exactly
what it is that you want.

For example, Paul Newman wanted to know what I wanted before he did his first
take, whereas Tom Hanks was quite happy and, in fact, would like to just do
two or three just to get into the swing of things, you know, just to loosen
up. And then I would start coming in with, `Well, let's try this. Let's try
that.' You know, so it's different. The psychology is responsive to the
personalities that you have on your set with you, and you're not--I don't have
a methodology, and I think you have a methodology at your peril, because your
job is not to impose, but to draw out, you know? And the moment you start
imposing, you start limiting people.

GROSS: Americans first became aware of you through the Broadway production of
"Cabaret"; you had staged it in London before bringing it to Broadway. Can
you talk a little bit about the process of rethinking the musical?

Mr. MENDES: Yes, I did it first in my theater, the Donmar, in London in a
very, very bare-bones production, very unencumbered by the need for a set.
And as is so often the case when you start with just a piece and actors and no
set and no dominating design, you unlock things in the piece you didn't really
know were there. I had one overall visual concept, and that was that we were
going to set the whole show within the club, and we were going to turn my
theater into a club and put people at tables and chairs; not for any
particularly novelty reasons, but because I felt that the show was about the
way that Germany, that period, Berlin particularly, during the late '20s and
early '30s, gradually began to entrap people, to seduce them and then to turn
on them. And in a way I tried to make the club a metaphor for Germany at the
time. It's a place, the club, that is deeply enticing in which all
sexualities are welcomed, which is very creative, which is very free,
mischievous, embracing of everything, and yet five years later, after the
Weimar Republic had finished and as the Nazis came to power, was the most
literally and metaphorically fascistic environment of the 20th century, even
in history, the most classically oriented, the most brutal, etc., and how
those two things happened.

You know, and here was this club that in the first act was Germany in 1929 and
the second act was Germany 1939. And the place became a country, and so to a
degree when you got to the second act, you want to make the audience feel like
the doors of the club were being locked and what had been this place that
embraced in a hedonistic way every race, color and creed now was somewhere
that was going to destroy you if you were Jewish, gay, black, anything, you

All of these things were in my mind when I had this idea, which was just a
loose idea. But it might not have worked, and it could have been terrible.
And I also wanted--the moment you made that decision, everyone on stage is a
working member of a club. The moment you made that decision, the girls who
are dancing on stage need also to play in the band, because it was a club that
didn't have very much money. It was based loosely on the ...(unintelligible)
clubs of the period and also, you know, allowed for a rougher, less, as it
were, conventional Broadway reading of the show in which Sally Bowles was able
to be a great actress who was pushing herself to be a star, a great singer,
which ultimately she knew she would never become. So we were using people
with unconventional musical theater voices, miking them in unusual ways.
People in the band were not professional musicians. All of those things,
trying to rough it up, really.

Because I think that some of these pieces, "Cabaret" or "Sweeney Todd" or
"Gypsy" or "West Side Story," these are some of the greatest pieces of theater
ever written. You know, the book, the music, the lyrics, the choreography in
some cases, and they should be revived regularly 10, 15 years, just as one
would revive "Death of a Salesman" or "Macbeth" or, you know, "Long Day's
Journey Into Night." These are great pieces of theater, and each generation
needs to see them again and needs to new mint them, you know, in a way, and
that's the tradition of theater, unlike movies, which need to be new, although
increasingly you get that now with movies, that tradition with movies, because
people are just making sequels all the time, and that's the equivalent of
doing another production of an old show, I think.

GROSS: Sam Mendes directed the new film "Road to Perdition" and the
Oscar-winning film "American Beauty."

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg wonders if we're too quick in describing
successful people as legends.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Differences between a hero and a legend

When Ted Williams died a few weeks ago, the press was divided on how to
describe him. Some stories called him a baseball hero, but more called him a
baseball legend. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts about what
that difference says about the way we think about achievements in the media


I was struck by the difference in the words that George Bush Sr. and George
Bush Jr. used in their tributes to Ted Williams. The elder Bush called
Williams a great hero, whereas his son called him a baseball legend. Of
course it's understandable that the two men would think of Williams
differently. Williams was no doubt a personal hero to Bush Sr., himself a
talented ballplayer and wartime Navy pilot. But you wouldn't expect Williams'
name to have had the same resonance for his son, who was still a Texas
schoolboy when Williams was finishing his career.

But there's a generational difference between those two words, too. In the
tributes to Williams, `legend' outnumbered `hero' by better than 5:1. And, in
fact, when the press did call Williams a hero, the stories generally added
something about his service as a Marine pilot, as if his baseball achievements
didn't entirely justify the label.

Of course some of that reflects a post-9/11 self-consciousness about using the
word `hero' at all. But `legend' was nudging `hero' aside well before then.
If you look at the way the press described players like Babe Ruth and Lou
Gehrig between 1980 and 2000, you find that the use of `hero' declined by 50
percent, while the use of `legend' doubled.

That isn't to say that we've entirely left off expecting sports stars to be
heroic. At least we seem to hold Barry Bonds accountable for the sorts of
imperfections of character that we're perfectly willing to overlook in Sean
Penn or Mick Jagger. But modern fans are much too hip and too knowing to put
up with a hero-worshipping panegyric of prewar sports writers like Grantland
Rice. People are much more comfortable with the flip, self-referential banter
that you hear on the talk shows on ESPN and Fox Sports Network, where the
operant slogan seems to be `We are not impressed.'

There's a sign of that shift in the disappearance of those heroic titles that
the press used to bestow on players. I'm not thinking of straightforward
nicknames like Dizzy, Babe or Yogi. There are still plenty of those around.
But the modern media don't go in much for Homeric epithets like the Sultan of
Swat, the Splendid Splinter or the Yankee Clipper. And when they do, the
titles usually have a post-modern edge to them. It's hard to imagine
Grantland Rice immortalizing any of the 1927 Yankees with a label like the
`Big Unit.'

For that matter, Grantland Rice would never have described any player as a
legend, either, if only because back when he was writing, the word could only
refer to a story from popular folklore, not the person who inspired it. That
new meaning of the word originated with the phrase `a legend in his own
time.' But it wasn't until the 1970s that people began to use `legend' all by
itself to refer to someone whose celebrity was especially long-lived. That
shift from `hero' to `legend' is the media's backhand way of celebrating
themselves. The measure of your greatness now is not so much what you did, as
how long people kept talking about you. There can be unsung heroes, after
all, but there are no unsung legends. And, in fact, the modern use of
`legend' stands the traditional meaning of the word on its head.

It's striking that we don't ever use the word to refer to somebody whose fame
is rooted in a genuine oral tradition. We never talk about aeronautical
legend Icarus or transport legend Casey Jones. On the contrary, the people we
describe as legends now are the furthest thing from legendary in the literal
sense of the word. They're people who have been the focus of media attention
throughout their careers, the way Williams was. It's the media's way of
investing their own creations with the power of folklore.

It's true that somebody like Ted Williams would still be talked about, even if
there'd been no newspapers, radio or TV around to document his
accomplishments, if he'd played in the early era of the game or if he'd been
born with the wrong skin color to play major-league ball, like the literally
legendary greats of the Negro Leagues. But the word `legend' has a leveling
effect. It makes no distinction between people whose deeds are inherently
memorable and celebrities who are pure media creations. Nose around in the
press, and you'll run into references to television legend Ed McMahon,
entertainment legend Charo, modeling legend Twiggy and pop legend Leo Sayer.
It seems unfair to use the same label for Ted Williams and Leo Sayer. After
all, the one had 2,654 career hits, and the other only had about two.

But that semantic deflation is inevitable when we make celebrity the measure
of achievement, particularly when celebrity is a commodity that's so easy to
coin. In an age when everybody's famous for 15 minutes, a legend is someone
who has been in the limelight for half an hour. When the Yankees finished
their new spring training facility in Tampa a couple of years ago, they
christened it Legends Field. If they were renaming it now, I'd expect they'd
call it Icon Field or Avatar Alley. In fact, they have my permission to
rename it Heroes Field, just as soon as somebody on their roster hits for
a .400 season.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of
Language and Information, and the author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with pianist Dave McKenna's tribute to
Ted Williams. This is called the "Splendid Splinter."

(Soundbite of piano music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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