Director Sam Mendes Talks SKYFALL, How to Craft a Bond Film, the Franchise’s Similarity to DOCTOR WHO, and More

     May 1, 2012


While director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Away We Go) has done a lot of press conferences for his upcoming James Bond movie, Skyfall, I’m pretty sure what you’re about to read is the first interview with any substance.  Usually, various press conferences for the film (including the one he did Sunday afternoon in Istanbul, Turkey) are about the city they’re filming in and what is it like to work with Daniel Craig or Naomie Harris.

However, on Sunday afternoon, shortly after the press conference, I participated in a small roundtable interview with Mendes where he actually went into detail about the movie.  He talked about how the script benefited from the production being pushed back, how they landed Javier Bardem and what type of villain he’s going to play, how Skyfall will show more of Bond and M’s relationship/backstory, how he loves what The Dark Knight and Bourne have done in terms of main characters, how audiences have embraced movies that go darker and more personal, the challenge of filming action scenes, and finding new ways to tell a Bond story.  Hit the jump to listen or read the interview.

As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get this interview: you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below.  Skyfall opens October 26 in the UK and November 9 in the US.

Questionsam-mendes-skyfall:  I’m just going to jump in: you’ve touched on it before, one of the things about this project is that it was, basically, delayed because of MGM’s financial stuff and whatever reason. Could you talk about how things changed from when you first got involved, how the delay helped the film and what storylines and stuff got adjusted?

Sam Mendes: Well, it’s funny because normally, of course, I’m able to be open about what the movie is and what the storyline is and I can tell you once I’ve seen it specifically what changed and so I have an interesting answer that I’m not able to use [laughs] because I don’t want to give away any story. But, it’s fair to say that there’s no screenplay that wouldn’t be improved by having a year more to work on it. There’s always trying to find ways, different interesting ways of telling a story. Particularly with a Bond movie where you have so many things that are necessary within the brief: you have to have different locations, you have to have action sequences, you have to have girls, you have to have Bond, you have to have M, you have to have MI6. You have this list of things that you’re given, so now, write a story around it and by the way, you can’t use the following cities because the last 25 years of Bond [films] have used them, you can’t use the following action sequences because they’ve done that. The baddies have represented the following things so, you know.

There are times when you think, “Jesus Christ, is there any story left here? What are we going to do?” And then, within that structure, that basic structure, you begin to understand how much freedom you have, particularly if you have an actor like Daniel [Craig] who can take the central character who you can push into areas perhaps he hasn’t been in before.  One of the things I was very…I think it’s fair to say that without the extra time we wouldn’t have written such a good baddie and I don’t think we would have gotten Javier [Bardem] to play him, for example.  One of the things I thought when I watched them, rewatched them, was it’s been a while since there was, even with Daniel, there’s been a while since there was a classic…what I would call a classic Bond villain.  I’m not saying these guys weren’t great.  I thought Mads [Mikkelsen] was particularly good in Casino Royale.  But I wanted somebody perhaps a bit more flamboyant, perhaps a bit more frightening, and so I felt like we needed a great actor to achieve that.

james-bond-skyfall-movie-image-daniel-craig-01So that’s something that came with a bit of time, able to really work on that role so it had something different, special about it.  And then it changed again, of course, when Javier said, “Well, I’m interested. Let’s start talking,” and we talked about the role and it began to develop from there and some of his ideas, I had time to factor in.  It wasn’t like, “Here’s the script. You’ve got to say ‘yes.’ We’ve got two weeks before we start.” It was like, “Well, we’re probably going to be doing this, but we’ve got time to discuss how it might be,” so again it gave us time to receive his ideas, let them percolate a little bit, get them into the script and then, at a certain point, he trusted that it was something he could make his own, so he ended up doing it.  That’s a good example of how it actually changes the literal reality of the movie; you’ve got time to listen and respond.

I have a geek question, as a Bond geek.

Mendes: That’s why I did this movie so I could answer geek questions. [laughs] I don’t get geek questions.  I’m excited.  This is my first ever geek question! [laughs]

Going back to [Ian] Fleming and to make Bond more human, there was one film with George Lazenby, which was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so is there going to be a connection with that movie?  What do you think about that movie?

skyfall-movie-image-daniel-craigMendes: It’s one of those…it’s commonly considered a neglected classic, and I think it is.  I think it’s one of the two best Fleming novels; it’s a great novel. I think it’s where you see him, as a character, pushed to the edge because he does fall in love and he loses her and Tracy, the character Diana Rigg plays, is a great character, a feisty woman, his equal in a way, which is a little bit what they did with Vesper in Casino Royale.  I love that book.  I think that Lazenby was dealt a pretty cruel hand because he was following [Sean] Connery who they just did a home run the first time they got to bat.  Connery was a great piece of casting; he was iconic in the role.  And then they asked him to do strange things which I thought spoke a little bit of their insecurity, for example, right at the beginning, he turns to camera and says to camera, “That wouldn’t happen with the other guy.” You know?

Yeah, the fourth wall.

Mendes: The first time I saw the movie, I was like, “You’ve got to be joking! You can’t do that to the poor man!” But it was too…they were playing almost embarrassment, almost apologized for having a new Bond and I thought that was wrong, and I thought what they got right was Casino Royale. There was a kind of “We don’t need Q, we don’t need Moneypenny. We’ve got this character. We’re going right back to basics. He’s real, he’s in a real situation. Let’s start all over again.”  I thought that was very refreshing.

skyfall-ralph-fiennes-imageThat’s why I mentioned the word in the press conference, “regeneration” rather than “evolving,” because I feel it is like, you know, we have Doctor Who…there’s a geek answer…we have Doctor Who and I was brought up on the idea of Doctor Who, who at the end of his final episode, he dissolves and a new actor pops up and he regenerates and it’s a whole other character: sometimes it’s an old man, sometimes it’s a young man, but he just changes.  I’ve always loved that idea.

I’m interested in the way that M’s backstory is part of this plot, because the movies recently have been leaning toward making her more human and showing more of her personal life and this seems like it’s going to dig into that character more.  Why was this the time to flesh out M’s backstory and make that really contingent on the plot?

Mendes: I’m not sure we really have much backstory.

I just meant it as her past.

Mendes: We’ve gone further into their relationship and without giving too much away, I think something interesting happened. I thought it was a master stroke when they cast Judi [Dench] way back, seven movies ago I think, because the character, who was a fairly distant male figure, became this female figure; there was a maternal aspect to it.  There was much more complexity in the relationship and I think we’ve taken that a little further.

naomie-harris-skyfall-imageIt’s partly, also, that I didn’t just say yes to doing a Bond movie, I said yes to doing a Bond movie with Daniel Craig.  This Bond movie, and Judi Dench.  Judi, to me, is one of the great actors of the English-speaking world and so it’s a question of, well, a little bit like what I was saying with Javier, what can we give her that will take her to another level we’ve never seen her before?  What can we do with her that will surprise or challenge even her? We pushed it further and we pushed other characters further, too.  That’s what we’re trying to do.

You said at the press conference that there was this element of looking at the regret or the conflict about what he does for a living, which is killing people.  Definitely, the stakes have been raised in this series for Bond, with Daniel Craig’s Bond, the emotional stakes have been raised.  Is that where the stakes are going in this?  Is it a personal crisis?  Is that what he wanted the character to be?

Mendes: I think that what’s interesting is you have an actor who is capable of playing the consequences of his actions as well as fulfilling those actions with great elan and cool and that is always more interesting. That’s not to say that what I’m looking at or what I want to look at is a kind of navel-gazing depressive [laughs] because that’s not what Bond will ever be.  He’s a doer, not a thinker.  And I think you have to understand that. I also think he doesn’t walk amongst us.  He’s not Bourne , he doesn’t walk the streets. He’s a lone wolf. You have to keep him separate for most of the movie.  It’s a very particular area he has to exist in.

sam-mendes-skyfall-imageBut, there’s a reason why the most interesting, to my mind, franchises now are The Dark Knight and Bourne because there are characters at the center who are, to some degree, in conflict about what they do and are pushed right to the edge. That is one of the wonderful things about what’s happened to these movies recently is that audiences have embraced movies that go darker and more personal.  Having said that, they all have the thrills and spills you expect, as well.  It’s about a balance.

How did you become an action director? Did you put yourself through an action-directing school?

Mendes: [laughs] I wish.

What surprised you when you started doing it? Were there moments where you went, “Oh, okay?”

Mendes: I mean, I’ve directed bits of action and so I knew enough to know that it’s long and it’s very detailed.  I’ll put it this way, editing action is a good deal more exciting than shooting action.  Shooting action is very, very meticulous, it’s increments, tiny little pieces.  To me, the challenge is to create parallel action so you’re never locked into a linear chase, which I think is something that Chris Nolan, for example, does very, very well.  It’s never just A following B, there’s something else going on simultaneously and you’re following these things and often they overlap.

So I work very hard to try and…and again, that’s something that we were able to do in the script; we didn’t get locked into something that we couldn’t get out of, in a way.  So, the rest of it is just detail, just detail and shot-making and the business of movie-making but on a much more complex and time-consuming way. It just takes time. You have to sort of…I remind myself that I’ve spent three weeks working on a sequence that’s only going to be four minutes long.  It’s crazy.  I’ve made movies that cost less than one car chase. But that’s part of the pleasure of doing it, pushing yourself in new directions.  That’s been the pleasure of this particular journey.

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