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23 Things We Learned From the ‘Road to Perdition’ Commentary

We sat down to listen to Sam Mendes’ commentary track for the 2002 drama Road to Perdition. Here’s what we learned.
Road To Perdition
DreamWorks Pictures
By  · Published on November 8th, 2012

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, we learn from Sam Mendes as he discusses his 2002 film, Road to Perdition.

Any way you slice it, we’re all happy Sam Mendes got his crack at a James Bond film. The man has made compelling dramas using different styles and techniques in his storytelling. But it was probably his take on the American gangster movie that shines as his best work of motion picture art. Road to Perdition stands now, 10 years after its release – as if you didn’t feel old enough already – as one the most stellar father/son relationship movies in recent memory, and it’s a damn fine shoot-em-up, too.

So we couldn’t wait for this week, when Skyfall finally sees its release, and the wonderful information we would be gathering from Mendes’ commentary for Road to Perdition. He’s flying solo, which is usually a hit or miss on commentaries, but as with Mendes film career, we’re willing to give him all the benefit of the doubt in the world. He hasn’t let us down yet. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

Road to Perdition (2002)

Commentators: Sam Mendes (director)

1. Mendes begins by saying that, like American Beauty, the opening to Road to Perdition was very difficult to cut, several different versions being considered before they finalized on the one used. It was late in the film’s production before they decided on using the shot of Michael Jr. standing on the beach. Mendes felt it was important to tell the story as a flashback wherein every character is already dead.

2. The theme of death had a hand in shaping the film’s soundtrack, which was composed by Mendes regular Thomas Newman. Mendes speaks on “the way we mixed the sound of the movie, which has a very ghostly, unreal sound and also meshed to some degree with the stylized, very elegiac compositional quality, opera-esque quality that we were going for.”

3. Early scenes of the film were reshot late in production to include more of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character being a nurturing mother to the boys. “I felt, if we were to miss her when she died, we needed to see there was a relationship there, and there was very little time to establish that,” the director says. He also notes some of these scenes got cut and are included on the DVD extras.

4. The first time we see Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan was another scene Mendes cut and recut time and time again to give it the right amount of impact. “I suppose if you look at the movie as a memory piece, this is the boy’s recollection of his father,” he says. Little known fact, but most boys recollect their father as Tom Hanks.

5. Mendes also notes this scene was very important in how it established how we would be viewing the film’s main character. “The boy has no access to his father, and therefore the movie must not grant any access to his father,” he explains. He makes mention that Sullivan is always seen in the first part of the film from a distance or in fragments, only seeing him closeup when Michael Jr. is very close to him.

6. The director notes the sound of water is present throughout the movie, and most deaths in the film – definitely all major deaths – are in or around water. “There’s something about water that is uncontrollable,” Mendes says, noting that like life and death, the characters think they can control it, but they’re wrong.

7. One of the many aspects that intrigued Mendes about directing Road to Perdition was the chance to explore the business side of organized crime in the 1920s. He felt the glamorous side of it had been shown enough in Hollywood and felt the image of a man going to his day job, picking up his briefcase only it was filled with a Tommy gun instead of papers, was a very powerful one. Although a Tommy gun would always make any day job that much more interesting.

8. Tom Hanks and Paul Newman practiced their piano duet all during pre-production, Mendes remembering them playing it over and over again “like two, errant schoolboys given their homework.” He made sure to show their hands in the same shot as their faces to prove to the audience the actors were really playing during the scene.

9. “Both in American Beauty and here, the garage is a strange place where adults do strange things,” says Mendes, vying for a spot in Best in Commentary. Don’t worry, Sam. You’ll get it.

10. The moment between Paul Newman and Daniel Craig’s characters where Newman as the father slams his hand down on the table in anger at his son was an improvisation from the actor during a read-through. Mendes also notes this scene was the longest shooting days during production, and Newman alone was on set for 19 hours.

11. The different colors of the speakeasy are representative of the different circles of hell and how far away from the surface – or entrance – Michael is getting.

Road to Perdition

12. Mendes notes Road to Perdition was a much more difficult shoot than American Beauty, the length of the pre-production and post-production having a strong hand in that difficulty. “One of the reasons for that is I felt I was holding the film in my head much more, because it’s not a film told so much through dialogue but told through image,” he explains.

13. The scene where Newman’s character beats on his son, played by Daniel Craig, came out of rehearsals with Newman wanting to show a moment where the character beats up then embraces his son. That and he also wanted to hug the future James Bond, but who can blame him for that?

14. Going back to showing the business side of the criminal underworld, Mendes made sure to depict Al Capone’s building in Chicago as a very standard business operation. He has Stanley Tucci play Frank Nitti, Capone’s business head, as a very focused foot soldier with a simple but strong-minded office. That office – an actual found office, not a built set – was designed to look like that of DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg. Mendes also wanted to capture the feel of someone trapped in the building and forced to work for Capone. A deleted scene on the DVD shows Anthony LaPaglia as Capone in one cut scene, and it’s a recommended watch.

15. The photographs hanging on Jude Law’s character’s walls, pictures of deceased bodies taken at crime scenes, were actual photographs taken by a Chicago police photographer. Mendes points out that in some cases, the photographer had moved the bodies to make the photographs more appealing. The director and Law used this man, unnamed here, as inspiration for the character.

16. Mendes notes the diner location was bought on the Internet for $20,000. “It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet,” the director notes. The location was an hour outside of Chicago and was refurbished by the film’s production designer crew. “The effect of it is truly opera-esque,” he says. “An image of bleak beauty was something we were trying to achieve, this sense of isolation, floating in the middle of nowhere.” Kind of like American Beauty, no?

17. The bead of sweat running down Hanks’ face during his first encounter scene with Jude Law’s character in the diner was real sweat from the actor. Tom Hanks is that good. He can sweat on command.

18. Mendes spends a lot of time on the commentary reflecting on the father/son relationship building at the center of the film. He notes the difficulty to articulate himself he and Hanks strove to put into Michael Sullivan and the strangeness he feels towards the older son. The director notes much of the downtime in Road to Perdition’s gangster story strives to build this strangeness and the characters overcoming it.

19. The scene where Michael confronts Rooney at the church originally also featured two bodyguards on either side of the aged gangster. Michael initially had a line of dialogue he said to these men. Mendes decided to make the scene only about the two, central characters, used a much closer shot that only featured Hank and Newman, and CGed Hank’s mouth to make it appear closed instead of delivering the dialogue to the bodyguards.

20. The moment where Michael puts his Tommy gun together to take on Rooney was at one point the sequence that started the film. Mendes also notes this sequence and the moment where Sullivan leaves his sleeping son a goodbye letter were originally reversed, the letter-giving scene coming before he puts his gun together. It was Hanks’ idea to switch these scenes to how they are now. The man can edit, too, ladies and gentlemen. Tom Hanks is the perfect person.

21. Mendes reflects on a quote from Alfred Hitchcock, “Shoot your murder scenes like love scene and your love scenes like murders.” The Road to Perdition director brings this up over Road to Perdition’s best sequence, where Rooney and his men are killed in the rainy street, no sound but Thomas Newman’s score heard. “Although it’s the biggest blood bath of the film, it’s a love scene between father and son,” Mendes says, although we’re pretty sure that’s not the “love” Hitchcock was referring to.

22. In the graphic novel and original screenplay, Rooney’s death takes place in a boxing ring in front of thousands of people. Mendes wanted to capture this same sense of voyeurism while making it more dreamlike, putting the viewers in a position where they can’t do anything to stop the murder. He also notes this moment is the most Road to Perdition delves into being an American Western.

23. Mendes direction to Jude Law when he is shot and killed was to have him die “like the Wicked Witch of the West,” almost slinking away from existence. Law’s dead drop to the floor was good enough for the director.

Best in Commentary

“I always got the feeling with Tom that he was relishing or allowing the darkness and the real rage and anger that he’s capable of allowing out, but, at the same time, he understood the character’s inarticulacy and his inability to express himself, and hate it, though he does, he’s good at killing.”

“It’s an amazing place. Chicago is built out of granite rising up out of the plains like an Oz.” -Mendes talking about Chicago, not exactly insightful, but I like the way he describes Chicago.

“One of the things that appealed to me early on was the fact that, in many ways, it’s about two fathers, Rooney and Sullivan, who are forced into protecting their least favorite son.”

Final Thoughts

As expected, the Sam Mendes commentary on Road to Perdition is intelligent and packed with bits of information and insight, but as with any commentary featuring the director flying solo, there’s so much more that could have been gleamed here. Too often, Mendes falls back to the play-by-play form of commentary, just describing the actions that are going on on the screen and giving a minimum amount of analysis on how it plays into the film’s story and themes.

Mendes certainly has a clear view on what his film says and the power in the father/son relationships at the center of it. Small details about working with the actors is interesting, but the commentary could have benefited tremendously from more of it. The director does note on several occasions deleted scene, often pointing out that they are available for viewing on this very DVD/Blu-Ray. However, this commentary could have been an experience as interesting as it is insightful just by having a second commentator for the director to bounce off of. Hell, Tom Hanks can do everything else. Why isn’t he on the track with Mendes?

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