Empire of Light – A moving drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times

For writer-director, Sam Mendes Empire of Light was born out of the pandemic. “Lockdown was a period of intense self-examination and reflection for all of us. And for me, it meant starting to confront these memories that I’d been wrestling with since childhood. That was the spur to write – to explore those memories and to see if I could unlock anything interesting.”

If moviegoers see echoes of the current moment in Mendes’ period piece from the 1980s, that’s no coincidence. “In the middle of lockdown, there was a racial reckoning in the world. We were left alone to contemplate how our own racial politics had been formed, and whether we had fallen down in our attempts to make sure the world was evolving. When I wrote the movie there was also another common obsession: we were all worried whether the cinema was going to die, along with live performances.  So, all of those things have gone into this movie, and in that regard, it’s quite raw,” he says.

“For most people, their most formative period is their teenage years. For me, that was the late ’70s and early ’80s: the music, the movies, and the pop culture of that period generally formed who I was,” says Academy Award winner Sam Mendes (1917, Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, American Beauty).

“It was a period of great political upheaval in the U.K., with a great deal of very incendiary racial politics – but at the same time, an amazing period for music and for culture generally – very creative, very politicized, very energized.”

“Movies deal in mythic landscapes,” says Mendes. “You’re always looking for a point where the past becomes somehow bigger in scale, greater in theme, and more fabled than the present. Looking back now, this period in England seemed to me one where the intersection of racial politics and music and movies was particularly special and unusual.”

Mendes has created two characters, Hilary and Stephen, played by Academy Award winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Lost Daughter) and rising star Micheal Ward (“Top Boy”, Lovers Rock), and has woven them into a story exploring some of the ties that bring us together – the music, the movies, and the makeshift families that get us through. At the center of Empire Of Light is their relationship – though they seem different in every conceivable way, they find a rite of passage that brings them both some degree of happiness and strength.”

Set in and around a faded old cinema in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, Empire of Light follows Hilary (Olivia Colman) a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen (Micheal Ward), a new employee who longs to escape this provincial town in which he faces daily adversity. Both Hilary and Stephen find a sense of belonging through their unlikely and tender relationship and come to experience the healing power of music, cinema, and community.

From Page To Screen

One of the first people Mendes shared the Empire Of Light screenplay with was producer Pippa Harris, who he worked with on 1917 and Revolutionary Road, and with whom he founded Neal Street Production twenty years ago.

Harris found the story and context very moving. “This is the first screenplay Sam has written completely from scratch on his own, with no input from another writer. The writing, particularly the delineation of the characters, was extraordinary. This story of a lost soul who finds a strange family within the cinema – I found it truly moving.” Having personally dealt with mental illness within his own family, Mendes based the character on his own formative memories.

“Hilary is a middle-aged woman who lives alone on the coast and has worked in the cinema for a few years,” Mendes explains. “She has a complicated past and some demons of her own but, in the way that ad hoc families can support each other, she has been embraced by this eccentric bunch that work in the cinema. She’s struggling to find a meaningful relationship in her life, when Stephen, who is open-hearted and gentle but still very young, also comes to work there.”

Mendes says that the part of Hilary was written for Colman. As he started writing the screenplay during the pandemic, he says, he was watching “The Crown.” “And there was Olivia being brilliant, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s who should play Hilary.’ I didn’t particularly know Olivia – but I started writing it with her very much in mind.”

Colin Firth and Olivia Colman in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

For Colman, the idea that Mendes was writing a part for her was “quite surreal,” she says. “I had been a drama student going to the Donmar, knowing all about Sam and American Beauty. But I didn’t know Sam at all when my agent called and said Sam Mendes wants to do a Zoom. Ohhhhhhhhhhkay.”

Though Colman may have been nervous or intimidated, she needn’t have been. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but he really is so gentle and so kind,” she says. On set, she saw that reflected in the way he directs. “He’ll hold people’s hands. He knows how to speak to every single person in a way that is understanding to them. He’ll become the character – he’ll talk to me like Hilary might, or move like she might.”

Mendes comments, “Olivia is very available and open, and yet also somehow mysterious. For me, that’s what makes her so extraordinary, along with her amazing skill.”

Micheal Ward in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Micheal Ward says that when he first read the script – even before he was cast in the role – Mendes asked for his input on the character. “It was good for Sam to do that,” he says. “He didn’t need to – I’m a new actor, I haven’t been doing this long. But he valued my opinion – it was exciting to know that he was willing to collaborate on the character. Sam lived through that period, but he recognizes he’s not a Black man, and so while he would have seen the tension around him, he wouldn’t know what that walk was like himself.”

“The relationship between Colin Firth’s (The King’s Speech, A Single Man) Mr. Ellis and Hilary is obviously quite demeaning for her, but one she feels she has to go along with, and again, that’s something that we see replicated around the world still today. So, on one level, you look at Empire of Light and it feels as though it’s a world away, and yet on another level, we still see the themes every day in contemporary life.”

Toby Jones and Micheal Ward in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

The film is a remembrance for more than just Mendes, but also for his friends since childhood – Harris and actor Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who plays the role of Norman, the projectionist. “The first time I remember seeing Sam was, coincidentally, with Toby Jones,” continues Harris. “We grew up in Oxfordshire in the 1980s. I was about fourteen, and they were a little bit older, maybe sixteen. We had gone to a rather insalubrious party in a village hall, and across the crowded dance floor I see these two little figures in their rather sharp, natty suits with their little pork pie hats on, and they were dancing, bizarrely, to some of the music that is in this film – I think it was The Specials. I just thought they looked really great, and they were friends of friends, and we all got talking, and the rest is history.”

The songs that populate the film are the soundtrack of Mendes’ life and a key part of the film. “The politics of the period – especially the racial politics, Thatcher’s ‘there’s no such thing as society’, the racism of Enoch Powell and the National Front, the Brixton riots, the Toxteth riots, the high unemployment and extreme divisiveness – all fed into the music and the culture of the period,” says Mendes.

Empire Of Light reunites Mendes with one of his most important collaborators

Director of photography Roger Deakins (1917, Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption), the 15-time Oscar®-nominated and two-time winning cinematographer who now teams with Mendes on their fifth film together.

Deakins describes his process as being very collaborative. “When I read a script, it’s the same as if I’d read a novel,” he says. “I’m not thinking about the cinematography; I’m involved in the story. I don’t want to focus on much until I speak with the director, because it’s the director’s vision, not mine. Sam and I spent a number of days talking through how to approach this film – it could have been all handheld, like a docudrama, which we did discuss. And I don’t know if it was a reaction to 1917, a film where the camera doesn’t stop moving, but I think it struck both of us that what felt right for this film was more stylized, more quiet – much more static to allow people the space in a frame.”

The film was produced on location in Margate, a town on the northern shore of Kent. “I grew up in a seaside town in Southwest England, so this brought a lot back for me,” Deakins notes. “Margate brought a reality to this movie. I think Sam had a slightly different feeling in his mind for the town than some of the other locations we scouted – Brighton and Worthing and Eastbourne… Margate feels more like a Yorkshire seaside town.”

“I was drawn to this particular place because it offered so much opportunity in the scale of the visual landscape,” says Mendes. “It’s where J. M. W. Turner painted most of his famous paintings – he went there because he said that the skies were the finest in Europe. It’s where T. S. Elliot wrote The Waste Land, sitting in a bus shelter just outside of the cinema looking out over the beach and the grey sea that sits beyond. There’s a breadth about the place, which gives it poetry and a cinematic scope.”  

But perhaps the biggest reason Mendes chose Margate was it was there that production designer Mark Tildesley (No Time To Die, Phantom Thread, In the Heart of the Sea, 28 Days Later), found Dreamland: a former cinema and ballroom with an impressive art deco exterior attached to a seaside funfair.

When Mendes saw the location, he rewrote the screenplay to match it. Scenes that had been set in a disused balcony were rewritten to take advantage of Dreamland’s ballroom, and a scene at the funfair’s roller rink was added.

Empire Of Light is a valentine not just to movies, but to movies as exhibited in the cinema. “As Stephen says in the movie, “That little beam of light is escape”, and I believe it’s a human need to escape life, to let our imaginations be released to find another part of ourselves either in books, or music, or theatre, or in this case in the cinema,” Mendes explains. “Empire Of Light was definitely inspired by the concern that people weren’t going to go to these places anymore. We created these temples, to visit these lit dreams, these spells that filmmakers cast. Are they now just going to lie empty?”  Adds Harris, “They’re a beacon and a place that bring people together, that’s what cinema always should do and can do. It’s a place where people go who maybe don’t fit in elsewhere but can find a home and joy in that shared experience of watching a film together.”

Continues Mendes, “This group of people in Empire Of Light find friendship and all come together in this extraordinary building.  At its core, the film deals with the families we create around us that help get us through life – and how people are drawn together to take care of each other, choosing kindness, compassion and empathy. I guess it’s worth remembering in this new world we find ourselves in…”