Gradesaver has a full study guide on the film American Beauty. One section deals with Sam Mendes’ influence on the film. Here’s an extract:
The original script for American Beauty was markedly different from the finished product (the shooting script). The script that Alan Ball, the screenwriter, sent to Sam Mendes, the director, began with Jane and Ricky being put on trial for the murder of Lester Burnham. In the original script, Angela testifies against Jane in court, and Colonel Fitts brings in the tape he finds of Jane offering Ricky three thousand dollars to kill her father. The viewers learn that the tape was a joke immediately after Ricky turns off the camera – but one second too late for the defense. Also, the extended shot over the town with Lester’s voice-over in the background that begins the shooting script originally included Lester in his pajamas, flying Superman-like over the town and landing in his own bed. Mendes filmed the script almost as written, but afterwards he and editor Tariq Anwar made substantial changes, to the surprise of most of the cast and crew. Mendes cut the trial out entirely, and also eliminated the “Lester-flying” fantasy. He preserved Ricky and Jane’s impact on the film by increasing their on-camera time throughout the movie.
Mendes’ cuts had a tremendous affect on the themes and impact of the story. The question of guilt and the manipulation of evidence played a large role in the original film, but by editing out the trial Mendes shifted the focus from Lester Burnham’s death to Lester Burnham’s life. In hindsight, it seems possible that the original script would have produced a more unbalanced, less poignant film than the final product. Of course the universally exceptional work turned in by the actors was an important component in the film’s success, but Mendes’ cuts also had a significant influence on how these roles were perceived. In shifting the ultimate meaning of the film, Mendes essentially turned all of the roles into “character parts” rather than mainstream leading roles.
Read the rest here.