In the four years between Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall, a lot changed – MGM went bankrupt, continuing plot threads were temporarily abandoned, and Daniel Craig’s 007 was given a fresh team in the likes of Ben Whishaw’s Q, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, and Ralph Fiennes not-quite-yet M. With acclaimed indie director Sam Mendes stepping into his first blockbuster, the stage was set for a Bond movie with more than usual on its mind – which would go on to define the Craig era, deliver an all-time-great Oscar-winning theme song, and bank over $1 billion…
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“It’s just an arrival.” As well as being an Oscar-winner, an Olivier-winner, and now the 11th director of James Bond, Sam Mendes is also, it would seem, a master of understatement.
It's February 19, halfway through principal photography on Skyfall – Bond's 23rd official mission, Daniel Craig's third – and Empire finds Mendes in his Pinewood studios office, of which the two most notable features are (appropriately) a poster for Road To Perdition and (randomly) a radio-controlled toy rat, whose zippy moves the director is keen to show off. It's the first time we've spoken since late 2008, when he was promoting Revolutionary Road and editing his last movie, low-key road comedy Away We Go. In one move he has, he wryly notes, gone from doing his "smallest film by far" to his hugest. "Well, you know, variety is the spice of life!" he chuckles.
Given this is his inaugural press interview on a movie that not only sees the Berkshire-born 46-year-old fulfIlling, to some degree, a childhood dream, but also catapults him into the rarified stratosphere of blockbuster-wrangling, Mendes is torn between a desire to enthusiastically detail his vision and keep cards pressed to his chest. ("There will be a time when I will be able to talk more openly and give you more clues," he says apologetically.) Hence his deliberate downplaying of the scene which Empire will witness outside, at the Pinewood Paddock, soon after dusk.
"Bond's mission has taken him to Shanghai first, and in Shanghai he gets a lead that the person he's looking for is in Macau. He has only one very slender lead and it takes him to a casino on a lake. It's a very transitional piece you're seeing tonight. It's just an arrival."
As with any Bond-in-process, plot and character details are for cast and crew's eyes only. But Mendes is voluble about his decision, as an auteur of critical rather than commercial smashes, to step into a big-buck franchise that's twice as old as his own career, on stage and screen. "You're handed a load of people who have made Bond movies before," he says. "If you want to use them. By the way, I was forced to use nobody and there was no-one presented to me – other than Daniel Craig and Judi Dench!"
Mendes brought in his regular director of photography, Roger Deakins, and was happy to reunite with Road To Perdition and Jarhead’s production designer Dennis Gassner, who previously worked on Quantum Of Solace. Casino Royale’s second-unit director, Alexander Witt, returns, while for his stunt and special effects supervisors, Mendes went with Bond veterans Gary Powell and Chris Corboulci, the latter coming straight off The Dark Knight Rises.
"On Away We Go one of my central figures was not the special effects supervisor," the director laughs. "But here he is a pivotal figure. Chris Corbould is the fifth or sixth credited person on the movie and there's a reason for that. When you look at an Inception or a Dark Knight and you see his name, you see the class. I don't just mean working out how an explosion happens, but where it should and the nature of it and..."
Suddenly, as if on cue, a huge BOOM reverberates through the office and startled birds swiftly abandon the foliage outside. "Wow, that was a bit loud. There you are, see? That's Chris! " Mendes grins, then concern briefly shadows his face. He glances at his phone, as if fearing the ominous buzz of ill tidings. "Er, that was a loud bang. I hope nothing bad has blown up. Because there are intentional and unintentional bangs on these movies..."
Another BOOM resounds. Time to move outside. Fortunately, it transpires, the bangs are not unintentional. It's just an arrival.
The sky lights up. Night has fallen on Pinewood, and, after those early tentative test-explosions, the fireworks have quite literally started. Red-gold chrysanthemums cascade through the biting night air above a scene of Far-Eastern opulence, no less impressive for its necessarily prefab nature. The exterior water
tank on the studio's Paddock Lot has been transformed into the grand entrance of Skyfall’s Golden Dragon Casino. It is well named. Guarding the stairway to its main doors, looming out of the glittering waters, are a pair of gigantic Chinese dragon heads, lion-mouths petrified into a permanent roar, eyes popping wildly, crests serrated with curved horns. Each is powerfully illuminated red, yellow, orange. The casino's multi-inclined roofs are studded with twinkling gold lights and an arched bridge forms the gateway to its waterway approach, on which lanterns bob and drift artfully.
Standing aboard a small boat, punted gently through the archway, between the dragons and toward the steps is Daniel Craig as 007: tight lips pensive, blue eyes wary and glistening hard. A Tom Ford tuxedo is pulled taut over Craig's honed frame. Its small lapels and '60s line subtly recall the character's mythic-historical homeland. His hair, once such a source of Bond-not-blonde fan outrage, is cropped short and immaculate. The fireworks pop and crackle behind him, oooooh, aaaahhh, but his attention never wavers, concentrating on the task at hand, on the meeting that awaits him ahead, within.
Empire nips inside a dark gazebo where a huge, high-def plasma-screen monitor displays the view through Deakins' lens. With Craig up-lit, dead centre and bisecting the digitally captured composition, gliding over water and heralded by a spectacular light show which occasionally casts him into threatening silhouette, it's possibly – no, definitely – the best-looking, most painterly few seconds of Bond that Empire has ever scene.
"Bond is back from the dead," says casino-creator Dennis Gassner somewhat cryptically, lending the whole scene an oddly Stygian air (we don't see the boatman; could he be Charon?). Or perhaps it's appropriate. It's not just an arrival. After almost four years, 007 has been pulled back from the brink. James Bond has returned.
Ian Fleming’s sociopathic gentleman agent has been hauled out of active service before. Legal disputes left Timothy Dalton to eventually resign the role while the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War thawed and MI6 relocated to a building made of LEGO, before 007 eventually reappeared in the form of Pierce Brosnan. But never has a single actor been de-tuxed so long between missions – at least, not without other fellas employed during the interim. The bankruptcy of MGM threw the freshly rebooted franchise on ice just as it was gaining momentum. But Craig held firm, distracting himself with cowboys, aliens and tattooed hacker-Goths, none of which gave him the box-office result that Casino Royale and the inferior Quantum Of Solace had. Unsurprisingly, he's glad to be back.
One of the reasons I'm doing this is because I think, like a lot of people, Casino Royale woke me up again to the possibilities of Bond – Sam Mendes
"I was very sanguine about the whole thing," says Craig of the hiatus two months after his casino entrance, out of the Tom Ford and into far more casual blue jeans and grey V-neck. "There was nothing I could do about the situation. I could have made a phone call and gone pleeeease, but that's not really my style. So I was just thinking, 'It'll work itself out, and if it's not to be, it's not to be.' Although the longer things went on, the more desperate I became to make another one, and thankfully we just carried on regardless. The script came together, it gave us the chance to prepare ourselves in a way that we hadn't had on the other movies. And Sam got involved."
Mendes’ participation is largely down to Craig. The two had been friends since working on Mendes' gangster piece Road To Perdition, and bumped into each other at a party in 2009 when Craig was starring in A Steady Rain on Broadway with Hugh Jackman. While they talked, Craig had a flash of inspiration. "What about doing the next Bond movie?" he suggested. "Oh, I'm not sure..." was Mendes' instant response. But during the cab journey home, he couldn't shake the notion. By the time he was through his front door, he was convinced. "It was pleasing that it came from Daniel to begin with," says Mendes. "One of the reasons I'm doing this is because I think, like a lot of people, Casino Royale woke me up again to the possibilities of Bond. It seemed for the fIrst time to be a real person in a real situation. It felt anchored again."
No offence to the anchor himself, but Daniel Craig is not the only reason to laud 007’s delayed big-screen return, now timed rather nicely with the 50th Anniversary of Dr. No. As well as the dream team of department heads (also including the Potter series' costume designer Jany Temime), Skyfall features, as producer Michael G. Wilson boasts, "the greatest cast we've ever had". There's (Oscar-winner) Dame Judi, of course, back for the seventh time as M. But there are also (Oscar-nominated) Albert Finney – his work on Bourne evidently not held against him – and (Oscar- nominated) Ralph Fiennes, the latter playing British government man Mallory. The excellent Naomie Harris is action Bond Girl Eve to French/Cambodian Bérénice Marlohe's bombshell Sévérine. Ben Whishaw is the new, youthful Q (although Mendes can't discuss that just yet; "I'm trying to cling on to the last vestiges of mystery, if it's at all possible to do in this industry!" he laughs). And, as The Villain, the mysterious but encouragingly metallic-named Silva, there is (Oscar-winner) Javier Bardem, previously so very chilling as No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh.
"The material is great and the story is very powerful and complex," says Bardem, who, decked in civvies, is giving little away about this latest bad guy's look. "Sam gave me his vision of Silva and I was like, ‘Hmmm, that's very interesting, this is gonna be fun.' As I say, there is meat to chew.”
Silva's big plot remains as yet undisclosed – "You cannot talk about anything!" cries Bardem – but Wilson will disclose that Skyfall "is about Bond defending MI6, the country and the realm." (Rumours of this being Dench's final appearance as M, and all that entails, remain resolutely unconfirmed.) Dennis Gassner, who must have taken lessons in being enticingly oblique from his (and Deakins') regular collaborators, the Coen brothers, tells us that, "This whole film is about illusion." And Empire, from its own observations during our various sorties on set between February and April, can make an educated guess that Silva's MO has something to do with computers and the control of information.
Most significantly, Mendes and his writers, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and (Oscar-nominee) John Logan, have decided to snip off the dangling plot threads that had connected Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace. Skyfall is an all-new mission, trotting across China, Scotland, Istanbul and London. But while shadowy organisation Quantum may yet resurface in future Bonds, "This story doesn't involve them," to quote Wilson.
So if Casino Royale was the origin story and Quantum Of Solace was a rampage of revenge, then how best to define Skyfall? Both Craig and Mendes have named From Russia With Love and Live And Let Die as touchstones ("It seemed to tap into a real darkness – it was scary," says Mendes of the latter). There are hints also that this could prove to be the Goldfinger of the reboot era; "I would be very happy with that!" says Mendes, who confirms that the film is "more playful than the last two", while the reappearance of Q promises a higher gadget quotient. The traditional silver Aston Martin DB5 will also reappear, backing up Craig's comment that they're trying to make this one "feel as classic as possible". During our conversations with Mendes, Temime, Gassner, Powell and Corbould, Empire also senses strains of Licence To Kill and You Only Live Twice.
Yet how else can Skyfall be described at this stage? We ask a man now working on his 13th 007 show: special-effects supervisor Chris Corbould. What would he say is this film's unique tone? "Probably arthouse," he decides. "I think people will look at this and think, 'That's a beautiful shot.'" He pauses. "But there's lots of action as well, don't get me wrong!"
Any worries that this Bond could turn out to be more Malick than manic are dispelled when Empire returns to Pinewood just after the Easter break. On the 007 Stage, Mendes and crew have been busy reconstructing the London Underground – specifically Temple station and the arched brick tunnel-ways beneath it – for a major sequence in which Bond pursues Silva (MI6's finest at one point hanging off the back of a Tube train) that climaxes with an explosion as a train smashes through a tunnel ceiling. In a one-take deal, we find Craig levelling his Walther PPK at Bardem, catching the villain halfway up a metal ladder. Suddenly, a chunk of the archway behind him unplugs violently with a sternum-thumping blast, spewing fire and dust. Craig lurches forward, losing his aim and his quarry, while cables splay like entrails from the gaping wound in the masonry behind him, their ends popping and sparking. Like fireworks.
Corbould talks of having done "a massive explosion" and "a big shoot-out sequence in a country home, with incendiaries coming through the windows and a big helicopter 50-cal (gun) strafing through the walls." All, he assures us, "real in-yer-face stuff".
"In-yer-face" doesn't sound like what one would expect of the filmmaker behind American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Away We Go, or even, let's be honest, Road To Perdition or Jarhead. Empire wonders what made a man who has always valued art over commerce risk becoming another cog in a big franchise factory, forever second-guessed by his producers.
"If I felt I was ever going to be a cog, I wouldn't have done it," insists Mendes, who describes himself as the risk. "Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson know they're going to get nothing if they don't take a risk by saying, 'You make the film you wanna make.' There's obviously a risk involved in giving me that amount of input and control, but that's how they've been. I haven't felt remotely second-guessed."
I intend to supply a kind of emotional engagement that maybe you haven't seen before in Bond. You've got to give him an arc, not just a mission – Sam Mendes
Mendes has been an aficionado of the series since his first theatrical Bond experience, Live And Let Die. He need not think of himself as such a risk, proving thoroughly fluent in the rules of this particular game:
"There needs to be a female contingent that interacts with Bond in a way that verges on the racy side. Which is number one.
"Two, he doesn't live entirely in the real world, in the sense that you can't put him on the street. He's not Bourne. Bourne is a footsoldier. You walk into Waterloo station this morning, he's probably there, standing next to you. Bond can't do that. He has to have his own space around him.
"He also can't work in tandem with another man of a similar age. You can't be Butch and Sundance. You can't have a buddy. There's this constant tension where he only has relationships with his senior figures in MI6 – and women.
"It's been interesting working within [those rules], but once you understand them, there's an enormous amount of freedom within them," continues Mendes. "It releases you. And there's an enormous amount of pleasure in making a movie where I don't feel like I'm having to walk a knife-edge between genres or work in shades of grey, which is what I've traditionally done. Thrills and action are what's necessary here, and that's what I intend to supply, as well as a kind of emotional engagement that maybe you haven't seen before in Bond. You've got to give him an arc, not just a mission."
Mendes promises us that Skyfall will see 007 "physically pushing himself". He feels compelled to take the character "to another level where he isn’t just in his comfort zone, where Daniel isn’t just playing things he'd done before, where we felt that we were pushing – I have to say this in a way that's not giving away too much – the personal history of the character."
Does Craig agree? Is Bond out of his comfort zone?
"He's always out of his fucking comfort zone!" the actor laughs. "Hanging off the top of some kind of structure somewhere, I don't know how comfortable that ever is. I know for me how uncomfortable it is... Pushing him I think is the best way to describe it. We're just pushing the characters, physically and emotionally, as far as we can within the context of a Bond movie. That's been the aim."
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Empire.
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