Do not read until you've seen SKYFALL.
The best James Bond movies are the ones for which you have to make the fewest excuses. Bond fans accept this. They understand that these are gargantuan entertainments beholden to formula, tradition and myriad commercial considerations. Once the basic template clicked into place with GOLDFINGER, the films stopped setting trends and began following them - aping or, in the case of the Roger Moore movies, cheekily parodying whatever was cool in popular culture. Even CASINO ROYALE, the down-and-dirty 2006 reboot, succumbed to marketing-mandated incongruity by replacing the pivotal Chemin de fer showdown with a high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em tournament (which Bond wins by gambling like a drunk frat boy). But these things happen. You just hope there isn't an invisible car or a snowboarding sequence scored to an atrocious cover of The Beach Boys "California Girls".
This is why SKYFALL is a minor miracle of sorts. Not only is it the best Bond since ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, it's the only one with real thematic texture. After the water-treading disappointment of QUANTUM OF SOLACE, SKYFALL brings the franchise back to zero by forcing Bond to confront his past. The brooding tone may suggest Christopher Nolan's deathly serious reconsideration of Batman, but Daniel Craig's Bond isn't tortured. He's annoyed. He doesn't know where/if he fits in anymore, and this pisses him off. And it's not until he's under siege at his childhood home that he figures it out: he has no nostalgia for the past, but he is deeply invested in the idea of being James Bond. By the end of the film, we're invested, too.
SKYFALL is an exhilarating franchise reset. It's also the first film in the series that feels like it was directed by a full-fledged fan. There was some concern at the outset that Sam Mendes might be too much director for a Bond movie, but only someone who grew up loving the character - smack dab in the middle of the Moore era, no less - could understand how to properly reconfigure the formula for modern audiences. By the end of SKYFALL, it's all in place: we've got a new M, a radically different (and far more capable) Moneypenny, and a recommitted Bond. Now bring on the next one already!
When I chatted with Mendes last week, I was keen to discuss his personal connection to the franchise and how that influenced his interpretation of the character. The film is filled with familiar flourishes (Daniel Kleinman's opening titles are his best work since taking the reins from Maurice Binder) and nifty callbacks to earlier movies (Bond's escape from the Komodo dragon pit is straight out of LIVE AND LET DIE), but Mendes never goes too far with the references. He also pulls off a couple of classic set pieces of his own. The stylistic high point is a nighttime assassination in Shanghai lit only by LED displays, which reminds us that, yes, we're watching a James Bond movie shot by the great Roger Deakins.
Once more for the cheap seats: there are spoilers aplenty in the below interview. You have been warned.
Mr. Beaks: What was your first Bond film?
Sam Mendes: LIVE AND LET DIE. It was 1974 or '75, so I must've been nine. I remember it quite vividly, and I've always had a soft spot for Roger Moore as a consequence. He was my first Bond. I remember all sorts of things: the voodoo stuff was really disturbing, Solitaire was impossibly pretty, and then the boat chase and the sheriff... everything really. It was overwhelming at that time in my life. And I am from that prehistoric era before video and DVD, where if you wanted to see a movie again, you had to go to the cinema while it was still on. Or, in the case of Bond movies, you waited until Christmas; they'd show one every Christmastime. I caught up with all of the Sean Connery movies sitting around the TV with my family.
Beaks: I grew up with Roger Moore as well. It seems that if you didn't grow up with him as your Bond, there's a real aversion to him.
Mendes: He had a light touch. I think that's the thing. And it was a different time. One of the things that is asked a lot of me, as if I would have any particular answer, is "Why has the franchise lasted so long?" Honestly, your guess is as good as mine, but perhaps one of the things is that the variety of people who have played Bond has been enormous. They didn't cast people who were the same as each other. They also cast people who had the courage to do it their own way. After so many versions of the suave Bond, Daniel took a big risk coming back as a much rawer Bond. He's much more emotional, much more vulnerable, and, physically, much more powerful.
Beaks: If CASINO ROYALE could be classified as a reboot, then I would call SKYFALL a reset. After this trilogy of movies, it feels like, at the end of SKYFALL, "Okay, we're back."
Mendes: But the key with CASINO ROYALE is that we couldn't have made SKYFALL without what Martin Campbell did on that movie. It's brilliant. It removed pastiche away from the movies. It took away that self-referential humor. It used to be, "Oh, it's okay to laugh. It's a Bond movie." Suddenly, it wasn't okay to laugh. And in the process, he removed Q, Moneypenny, and that sense that you had with Bond movies that there would always be the same scene played in every movie. "Here's the early scene where Bond is getting up to no good with some girl. And now he's brought in and chastised by M, who also gives him his mission. Then the next scene would traditionally be, 'Pay attention, 007! Here are your gadgets!'" Suddenly, all of that was gone, and that was Martin - and the producers and Daniel - starting from sea level again.
So, now, on this movie, it's possible to start reintroducing some of those things, but in a totally different way. We can reintroduce Q, but he's completely different and not what you expect - and he's not what Bond expects. I loved the idea that Bond would die in this movie and come back to find that everything has changed: him and MI6. M is not giving the orders anymore, Q is a young man, MI6 looks and feels totally different, and Bond is the dinosaur - and even he himself wonders if he should be doing it. That sense of self-doubt, cracking the character open a little bit to get the audience having a stake in him again, rather than Bond as a given or an unchanging figure in these movies. Actually, Bond is the story. Bond changes more than anyone in the movie, and that was something I was interested to try out.
Beaks: Prior to seeing the movie, we heard that we'd be getting a bit of backstory relating to Bond's childhood. Initially, I wondered, "Do I really want to know that?" And what I love about this movie is that Bond has zero nostalgia for his past. I love that he doesn't mind if the house gets blown up, but the Aston Martin? That's a problem.
Mendes: It's funny. What makes me sad is that, as you just said, "We heard before seeing it..." One of the wonderful things in England is that they didn't know what was coming. I love that about this movie. With a Bond movie, it's really difficult to hold off that sense of what's coming, and I would encourage anyone who's reading this on Ain't It Cool News to not read the spoilers. Don't know where Bond goes. Don't know what happens at the end. Because at the end of the day, it really does destroy your enjoyment of movies. I think that's happened more and more. On this, I was reading hundreds of reviews of the trailer before I'd finished shooting. The sense in which the marketplace chews up and spits out information at great speed, and almost robs itself of the delight of seeing a movie without any foreknowledge, deliberately destroys its own enjoyment, is bizarre to me.
Beaks: I agree. And we are responsible for a good deal of that destruction.
Mendes: But people get drawn to it! I know myself, I've felt, "I shouldn't read this!" And then I do, and I say, "Oh, I wish I hadn't read it!" (Laughs) The point is, if you've got chocolate in the refrigerator, you're going to fucking eat it. It doesn't matter if it says "Spoiler Alert!" You're going to read the damn thing! That's just the way it goes.
Beaks: Another interesting thing about this film is that you brought in one of the top cinematographers in the world, Roger Deakins, to shoot it. Not to diminish the careers of all the others who've worked on these movies, but the last time a world-class DP shot a Bond movie was Freddie Young on YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. That was only a few years after he shot LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Bond movies tend to have a uniform look, but Roger - and you in concert with him - definitely did his thing. How did you two arrive at the look of this film, and what were the challenges of shooting digitally?
Mendes: I think with Roger, because we had done JARHEAD and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD together, and they were both such different movies, we sort of have a shorthand now. Without that, this would've been impossible to do. Roger doesn't say a lot, but he preps an enormous amount. We talked a lot in prep, and on the day we didn't talk very much because we knew how we wanted it to look. We talked about not just general ideas, but building the entire office block in Shanghai in miniature with all the graphics of the LED displays planned out and timed, and all the glass partitions constructed in miniature, and then shoot it on a lipstick camera to see how the reflections interact with the people two months before we get to those scenes. Every set was prelit, everything was predetermined. We had very strict color palettes for each section of the movie. Deep midnight blues, deep greens and blacks for Shanghai, rich reds and golds and deep orange colors for the casino, in the sense that Bond almost goes back in time in Macau. There's almost a sense of the old Bond returning. And then the muted palette of Scotland, the bleak beauty of that landscape, and the hellish last sequence where the house is burning, and there's this sense that it's the underworld somehow. It's like his past burning, as you say.
With Roger, what he's not wild about is surprises. And the truth is on a Bond movie, you can't have surprises because everything has to be so planned on a movie of this scale, so you better know what you're doing before you start. It's not an organic process. I think he's done amazing work. I think so much of the job of a director of a movie of this scale is to push the white noise away while you're on set, and to try to make the process as simple as direct as possible: you, the cinematographer, the actor and "Go." You try to keep them from hearing everything else: what the studio is worried about, what the person you bumped into in the morning was telling you about what he wants to see from a Bond movie, the fifty press that are visiting on set that day and are looking at you from a distance, or the trailer that's just been cut, or the one-sheet that's just been put in front of your face, or the negotiations to do with the song, or a location that's just fallen through... you have to keep it all away. And a part of me was protecting Roger from that so he could be creative.
Beaks: When it comes to Bond movies, everyone has their preferences, and, speaking of LIVE AND LET DIE, you've certainly worked some of your preferences in. The opening credits sequence definitely has the flavor of Maurice Binder's '70s work.
Mendes: Danny Kleinman did it, and I gave him a very clear brief, which is that Bond falls into the water and effectively goes into the underworld. It was almost like Alice going down the rabbit hole; he passes by the story of the movie in a sense. It's a journey into Bond's unconscious. You give someone like Danny an idea that big, and he'll run with it. You do storyboards, then you adjust the storyboards, then you get an animated version of it, then you adjust that, and then he does the final version - because, obviously, you have to shoot elements of Daniel and Javier throughout. That was a pleasure. And he's doing a sequence to a great song, which also helps - and the song was written early enough for him to do the two things in tandem, as opposed to just guess.
Beaks: How did you feel when you first heard Adele's song?
Mendes: Relieved. (Laughs) Because I didn't have to give her any notes!
Beaks: It was that simple? She nailed it first time through?
Mendes: She came for a meeting, we chatted, told her the story, and she took the script away. And she said, "Look, I want to write a song. If I don't like it, or you don't like it, it's not going in - and don't worry about that." Her only concern was... she said, "I'm a personal songwriter. I write songs for myself. I don't know how else to do it. And I'm a bit worried that I'm writing a song for somebody else." And I said, "Then make it personal. Just find a way of making it about your own past." I mean, "Nobody Does It Better" is one of the great Bond songs, but it's not really about the movie. She puts one line in, "The spy who loved me," but you could argue it's completely irrelevant to the rest of the song. And Adele went on to write an incredibly specific song about the movie. That amazed me. Lyrically, it's actually very accurate to what the movie's about. That delighted me. It was a complete home run the first time we heard it. It was a little rough with her singing just with the piano, but it was clear that it was going to work. The mood was just right for me.
Beaks: And mood is important with Thomas Newman's score, which is very far removed from John Barry's work. What was your direction to him?
Mendes: The movie dictates the music in a way. You watch the movie, and you begin to work out what kind of mood it requires. Tom and I work a little like Roger and I. We have a preexisting relationship. You have a way of working, and you almost don't ask yourself how it works. He'll compose something, some of it will work, I'll give a note about something, it'll start to have a shape, and you'll think, "Maybe we should try this piece over here." It just happens organically. You don't go in announcing the feeling you want. The most difficult thing in the world in directing is describing music. It's nonverbal. It's a feeling. And what for you is a scary piece of music, might not be for someone else - and vice versa. You have to have a good sixth sense with your composer. And it's just taste. I love his music. Always have. And I felt it in my bones that he had it in him to write a Bond score: to be sweeping when necessary, to be thriller-like when necessary, to have the muscle and power when necessary, and to maybe do what I was trying to do with Roger, which is to break some of the conventions of the genre whilst not reinventing the wheel. To use as much tradition as we could, but to pull out a few shocks.
Beaks: Javier does something that is so distinctive and unforgettable with his character. Where did he start with the character, and did you have to refine it?
Mendes: It was a constant dialogue, but he made the really big leap at the beginning. Once he said yes to it, he said, "I've got a few ideas." He mentioned his eye color, his hair color, his silhouette, and the way his character dressed. To be honest, I said, "I'm not sure that's going to work." But I trust Javier's instinct to go in a particular direction, and you never know where it's going to lead. Often, you test things, and something else comes out of that that's a combination of what you want and what they want. But he walked onto one of the stages at Pinewood for his screen test, and, first of all, nobody recognized him. That was the first thing. I could feel people thinking, "Who's that blonde guy in the corner?" And then he walked on, the cameras rolled, he looked into the lens, and there was a different person. It wasn't him. It was thrilling and scary and weird, and everyone felt it: Roger, Barbara Broccoli... everyone. The studio wasn't sure, and I said, "Well, let him try, and let's have a look." But it's fair to say that all the things he tried basically worked. We made some refinements to it.
But you've got to remember that he is acting in not his own language, and he's playing a very verbal character. All the characters he's played in English films up to this point... I mean, look at NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. He's like an animalistic presence. But this is a very verbal character; he talks a lot throughout the movie. So you've got an actor who needs to communicate in very sophisticated terms. So what he did was he translated everything back into Spanish, he worked on everything in Spanish, practiced it, rehearsed it, then translated it back into English. He had very specific notes about words that weren't quite right, but we made quite small adjustments, probably more than you would with an English-language actor. And then he started having ideas. I think it's fair to say that the scene in the chapel at the end with him an M is almost completely born out of conversations between him and I that took place once we'd started filming. By the time we got to the end, every line in that scene had changed, the entire staging had changed, and it all came from the character that we felt emerging, and the weird relationship between him and M that we felt emerging while we were shooting.
Beaks: I have to follow-up on the Sean Connery story that came out recently, that you considered Sean Connery for the Albert Finney role.
Mendes: That's a misquote. Someone asked me if I ever considered Sean Connery for the Albert Finney role, and I said, "Of course, his name was mentioned, but I immediately said there was no way that was going to work." He's James Bond. That would take you completely out of the movie. I never considered Connery for a cameo. I should just say "No" when I'm asked those questions because someone will just spin it into a story.
Beaks: It's getting traction.
Mendes: Well, it's not a story. "There's an older man. What about Sean Connery?" "Of course not. We can't cast Sean Connery. That would take you completely out of the movie." (Laughs) That was literally the conversation.
SKYFALL is currently in theaters around the world. Go.