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Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Tanya Moodie and Sam Mendes – Reflecting on Empire of Light

Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Tanya Moodie and Sam Mendes

Reflecting on Empire of Light

by Jay S. Jacobs

The flickering lights. The moving pictures. The classic stories. The grand surroundings. The stars, the music, the action, and the heartache. The love and the loss. All with a large, buttered popcorn, some candy and a Coke. You could pass the hours, or even the days away.

Growing up in the cinema was a right of passage for generations. While the grand movie houses have sadly mostly faded away – replaced by sterile, smaller but perhaps more comfortable multiplexes and the rise of home theaters. However, there is truly nothing like seeing a film on a truly big screen.

Writer director Sam Mendes’ latest film is a celebration of cinemas and the people who worked there. Taking place in the early 1980s, it shows an eccentric work family who care for one of these old grand movie palaces, a place called The Empire on the seaside of England.

Soon before the premiere of Empire of Light, stars Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Tanya Moodie and Toby Jones and writer/director Mendes held a virtual press conference to discuss the film, which we attended. Not surprisingly, they talked about many of their favorite films and cinemas. Here is some of what they had to say.

On favorite old movie theaters from their past that inspired them:

Sam Mendes: My first and favorite cinemas were in Oxford. In fact, Toby probably went to them as well, because we grew up in the same place. There was a place called the Penultimate Picture Palace.

Toby Jones: Well, I do remember those cinemas very well. Are they still there? Well, not one. But I lived in Paris for a couple of years while I was training, and the cinema culture there, where you can see a movie from virtually any era in any genre pretty much any day of the week. I saw more movies in a two-year stretch than I'd ever seen before.

Tanya Moodie: Well, where I grew up, there was this sort of predominance of the multiplexes. But there was one, I would say, an arthouse type of cinema. I can't remember the name of it. But I was in my teens, and it used to be basically populated by teens that would go to see things like the Rocky Horror Picture Show and do all the singing and all the dancing and everything. I think it was the nature of all of these teenagers coming together in the dark and doing their things.

Olivia Colman: I remember, I grew up north of Norwich. We'd travel into Norwich to go and see films. There was the ODEON. And I think the Prince of Wales Cinema.

Tanya Moodie: I just remember passing fags back and forth because you could smoke in cinemas back then.

Olivia Colman: Oh, yeah.

Tanya Moodie: It was always this thing of like, that was the place where you got up to all sorts of kissing, smoking, singing. Chucking things about. You just felt this sense of freedom in the dark. Also seeing these stories on a big screen.

Micheal Ward: I grew up around Romford area. That's where we used to go a lot of time to go watch some movies. I remember that we used to go to the Vue Cinema a lot. Then they opened this new one called the Premier Cinema where the tickets were like four pounds. Obviously when you're in school, "Four-pound cinema. Four-pound cinema." So you always used to go there. That's a place that I just watched a lot of films and a lot of my friends saw. Yeah, that is special for me.

Sam Mendes: There was another one called Not the Moulin Rouge. They were rerun houses and repertory cinemas. Impossibly amazing places that showed the movie once and moved on. They had staff of people who literally spent the entire day carrying in cannisters [laughs] of film, projecting it, and taking it out again. I love those places. They were amazing.

Olivia Colman: Also, there was the Arts Cinema. As I got older, became a teen, I discovered the Arts Cinema, and it was a game changer. I felt very cool that I was going to see some arty films. I discovered a whole new genre of filmmaking that I didn't know existed before. That was a big event. Traveling into the city for an hour to go and see a film. Very exciting.

Toby Jones: They were all uniformly well-organized with great information you could pick up. Also impossibly cool clientele that you could associate yourself with.

Sam Mendes: I do have a lot of regret that the next generation won't have the same degree of nostalgia. Not just for the places, but also for the things that we see in the movie; the projection booths and the concession stand. Having said that, there are some amazing cinemas still alive, and I think we should celebrate those and keep those alive rather than worry about the past too much.

On their favorite, formative films:

Olivia Colman: I watched Breaking the Waves in an art cinema in Bristol when I was a drama student. That was when I went, "Ah, oh, that work." It was so breathtaking. I never want to watch it again. It was too upsetting for Emily Watson to me. Blew my mind. That's when I went, "I want to work like she works."

Sam Mendes: I guess there's sort of two different parts of me. The nine-year-old was Live and Let Die at the ODEON in Camden Town. I remember that vividly. All the black magic and all the voodoo, which retrospectively, perhaps doesn't hold up quite so well. [laughs] But at the time, was thrilling and dangerous and weird and sexy.

Toby Jones: I'm nostalgic about films that I wasn't meant to see at the age I was. That they were aimed at an age slightly older than me. They promised a kind of adult world that I was in a hurry to get into.

Sam Mendes: Then when I was a student, a movie called Paris, Texas. Wim Wenders' movie. That really was the first time I thought, "Maybe I could make movies." It was the first time I sort of was introduced to the notion of to be able to see the contemporary world as a mythic landscape rather than as something domestic and small. So those two things were probably my pivotal experience in cinemas.

Toby Jones: I remember seeing on TV a couple of Joseph Losey films. Particularly The Go-Between, which I found deeply upsetting. But I didn't know why I found it upsetting. I understood everything that was going on, and I understood the plot, but it was something about the atmosphere. To a certain extent, you are the hero. You go with the hero of the story through it. You identify with them. And he is ignorant until the very end.

Olivia Colman: Well, Toby's answer did remind me of sleepovers where we'd all try to get scary films. Still, I am not one for scary film. [laugh] It was my turn for sleepover, about 10 or 11. I said to Mum, "Please, can you get a really scary film?" Because all the other girls have had A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Tanya Moodie: Oh, God. No.

Olivia Colman: I said, "I just wanted to be as cool as them." My mom went into the video shop, and she said, "I've got you A Christmas Carol." What? She said, "Well, it's got ghosts. I thought that would be scary." I was so embarrassed. I pretended that the video shop was closed. That was really, really not cool.

Tanya Moodie: I remember being very emotionally permeable when I was younger and things having a massive impact on me. I don't know if kids nowadays would. Do you know what I mean? Because they have so much access to things that would, for us, would've been quite upsetting when younger. For them, they'd get annulled emotionally. I remember seeing like A Clockwork Orange probably when I was too young as well to see it. And being really, really, like, freaked out by the violence and everything.

Toby Jones: That had a huge impact on me. Even now, I remember going in for one movie and then trying to sneak out and get into [an] X film. Film and cinema seemed to encapsulate that feeling of that somewhere in this building there will be a taboo experience that you can get access to when you're young. In a way, you never lose that sense of them being, the potential of those buildings for that experience.

Tanya Moodie: The Elephant Man as well.

Olivia Colman: Oh, God, yeah.

Tanya Moodie: Feeling desperately sad in the fact by this man who was treated so badly. I think he's given a gift of like a brush. And just like weeping, just being like, "Oh my god, this poor man." And apart from that, Pink Panther films. [laughs]

Olivia Colman: Yeah.

Tanya Moodie: They were always a treat, right?

Sam Mendes: With Peter Sellers. Yeah, totally.

Tanya Moodie: When they came on the telly. It was like…

Sam Mendes: … It was a big deal….

Tanya Moodie: … It was an event at home to watch Pink Panther. We all just absolutely pissing ourselves.

Micheal Ward: For me, a movie that comes to mind is a Jamaican film called Shottas. I feel like the reason why I had a mad connection with this film is because I didn't know what Jamaica was like. I moved to England when I was quite young. So for me, it was like this connection in an intimate way with Jamaica. You can watch music videos and stuff and formulate what it would feel like. But it felt like this movie was like a documentary. It felt very real and authentic. I just used to love it. So yeah, it's something I watched time and time again.

Sam Mendes: What's it called?

Micheal Ward: It's called Shottas. Yeah. It's really good.

Sam Mendes: Shottas.

Micheal Ward: Yes. Shottas. [laugh]

On their comfort films:

Olivia Colman: Oh. Don’t do me first.

Toby Jones: That’s hard, isn’t it?

Olivia Colman: That’s hard.

Sam Mendes: I guess our minds immediately go to the pandemic, weirdly, so the idea of what comforted us during the pandemic is not a movie theater, sadly, because we weren't able to go. But I find that, as a filmmaker, I go back always to the same films to remind me how to make films. [laughs]

Toby Jones: I always feel in debt to all the films I haven't seen. I feel a constant sense of I can't watch that again. I've got to see something new. For some reason, I love films about New York, and I find films about New York very comforting. There's something about the layout of apartments. There's something about watching actors or characters cross streets, wander down streets that I always dreamt that one day I'd have an opportunity to do.

Tanya Moodie: Like Toby, it's about place really. I spent quite a few years living in and out of Sweden. So any Swedish film, I find it brings me comfort, because it brings me back to that time. Anything by Bergman, if I sit down and watch it. Fanny and Alexander, which is probably about 10 hours long, I can sit and watch it. I haven't seen it in ages, because normally if that's the one, if someone says, “Oh, what do you want to watch?” and I go Fanny and Alexander, the room just… [laughs] Everybody goes [groan].

Sam Mendes: They've just rereleased it.

Tanya Moodie: I don't really see it anymore, but it brings me immense comfort to see those films again.

Sam Mendes: Godfather 2 would be the obvious one I must have seen a dozen times and I tend to watch to remind me how to do it. The economy of means, the astonishing performances, the way it shifts back and forth from time, the lighting, everything really. It's just an unbelievable piece. I mean, both Godfather movies were, and I find that comforting. I find being reminded of just sheer excellence comforting.

Micheal Ward: For me, what brings me comfort in film is that watching someone that I really love and really admire, but their earlier work. One that comes to mind for me is Soul Plane, because I really, really love Kevin Hart. That was, I think, his first movie that he was the lead of. And it's just so funny. I find comfort in laughter as well. Just being able to let go and laugh with the characters, for me, that's really, really fun. It's a wild story, but I just love it. You got people like Snoop Dogg in there and stuff like that, who are also people that I love and admire.

Olivia Colman: I like kids’ films. If I'm about for comfort, I could watch Paddington all day, every day.

Tanya Moodie: Mmm, mmm. It’s very good.

Olivia Colman: I need a happy ending. Kid shows, they always break your heart at some point in the film. Toy Story 3, [groan] heartbreaking. But if I was going for comfort, I'm thinking of being at home, not in the cinema. Sorry. [laughs] Duvet, cup of tea, kids’ film.

Toby Jones: Just literally just behavior watching. I find that I’m often not watching the story. I'm literally just watching behavior. I find that absolutely fascinating. I suppose New York is, for a lot of British people, a landscape of dreams anyway. It's what we grow up dreaming that one day we'll have some relationship with. I think that's all tied up with films about New York. So obviously, people like Scorsese and Woody Allen had a profound effect on me.

Micheal Ward: Soul Plane is definitely a comfort. I probably watched that film over 100 times. Where I used to live in London when I was younger, it was just like me, my mom, and my sister in this one room. We had the DVD that we bought, and every time after school, I'd watch it. Like literally every single day, because it was like the only thing we had. I never really had a PlayStation and stuff like that. So I knew all the words and everything. Truly, it's one of my favorite films. [laughs]

Sam Mendes: Actually, I’m going to say one more, which is the one film that gets better every single time I watch it, Withnail and I.

Olivia Colman: Oh, God, actually yes.

Sam Mendes: I can just watch it now quite happily.

Olivia Colman: Yeah.

Micheal Ward: What’s it called?

Olivia Colman: And Some Like it Hot.

Sam Mendes: Withnail.

Olivia Colman: Withnail and I. You’d love that.

Tanya Moodie: I’ve never seen that.

Olivia Colman: That’s amazing.

Tanya Moodie: My gosh.

Olivia Colman: Yeah.

Micheal Ward: Got to see it.

On work families:

Sam Mendes: Growing up I suppose, it was the only real family I knew. I grew up alone with my mom, and a lot of this movie is based around those memories of growing up with somebody as an only child with an only parent who in turn was struggling with mental illness. A lot of what I went through with her is reflected in Hilary's [Colman] journey in the movie.

Olivia Colman: Almost every film or job I do, you have a part-time temporary ad-hoc family. You become very close. You're in each other's pockets, day in, day out. When I was younger, I found it quite hard that that always had to change. But I got better at it. Now the people that you really love, you will stick with. You might not see each other a few years, but you'll come back. I've always loved that. When I first went into acting, [it] felt like I'd found my tribe.

Sam Mendes: If you look at any of the movies I've made, there are no functional families [laughs] in any of them, really. That wasn't deliberate. It was pointed out to me recently that there aren't any normal families. In a way, the healthiest family is the relationship between Stephen [Ward] and Delia [Moody] in this movie. Between Stephen and his mom.

Olivia Colman: People that I understood, got on with, emotionally available people. So that is my experience with an ad-hoc family, I think. Actors and crews.

Sam Mendes: The collection of eccentrics that gathers in the cinema is very much like the collection of eccentrics that gather in the theatres that I worked in. The families I found were all cobbled-together outcasts [laughs] who found somehow a home in those places.

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: December 9, 2022.

Photos © 2022. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.


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