'Skyfall' Interview: Sam Mendes Discusses 'Bond 23' from Istanbul
by Alex Billington
May 7, 2012
"Regeneration, rather than evolve." As part of my on set experience in Istanbul to see the opening action scene of James Bond's Skyfall being filmed in Turkey, I was asked to be part of a roundtable interview with director Sam Mendes. A large group of press the day prior to visiting the set got to briefly ask the director questions about Bond 23, which is currently in the middle of shooting, with roughly 20 days of filming left until they're finished. Sam, who I think was an inspired choice to take on this latest Bond, reveals some interesting details regarding his motivation and where they're taking the story and the characters in Skyfall.
Being able to actually watch Sam on set, and speak with him as part of this Istanbul experience and the press conference, I'm confident he was a nearly perfect choice to direct this, and will be bringing us one kick ass Bond film. Just hearing him talk about his action style and how he shoots, without losing focus on the characters and the story, this all sounds excellent. Plus, the way he talks about Javier Bardem as the bad guy makes me particularly excited to see what they've cooked up. Read on for his full roundtable answers.
Could you talk about how things changed from when you first got involved, how the two-year delay with MGM helped the film, what storylines and things were adjusted?
Sam Mendes: Well, it's funny, because normally I'm able to be open about what the movie is and what the storyline is. I can tell you, once you've seen it, specifically what changed. I have an interesting answer that I'm not able to give you because I don't want to give away the story. But it's fair to say there's no screenplay that wouldn't be improved by having a year or more to work on it. It's always trying to find interesting ways of telling the 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. Here's this list of things that you're given. So, now, write a story about it. Oh, by the way, you can't use the following cities because the last 25 years of Bond has used them. You can't use the following action sequences because we've done that. The baddies have represented the following things, so you have to be…
Within that, there are times when you think, "Jesus Christ. There's no story left here. What are we going to do?" And then, within that structure, that basic structure, you really begin to understand how much freedom you have. Particularly if you have an actor like Daniel [Craig], who can take the central character, who can push into areas where, perhaps, he hasn't been before. And one of the things I was very… I think it is 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. For example, one of the things I thought when I watched them, re-watched them, was its been a while since there was… even with Daniel… it's been a while since there was a classic, what we would call a classic, Bond villain.
I'm not saying these guys were not great. I thought Mads [Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre] 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. That's something that came with a bit of time. We were able to really work on that role and have something different, special about it. Then it changed again because when Javier said, "I'm interested. Let's start talking." We talked about the role and it began to develop from there. Sort of, his ideas had time to factor in before… It wasn't like, "Here's the script. You've got to say yes, we've got two weeks before we start." You know, it's "well we're probably going to be doing this, but we've got time to discuss how it might be."
Again, it gave us time to receive his ideas and let them percolate a little bit, get them into the script. And then, at a certain point, [Javier] trusted that it was something he could make his own, so he ended up doing it. So that's a good example of how it actually changes the literal reality of the movie, when you've got time to listen and respond.
I have a geek question.
Sam: That's why I did this movie, so that I could answer geek questions! I don't get geek questions. I'm excited! This is my first ever geek question!
Going back to Ian Fleming and to make Bond more human, there was one film with George Lazenby, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, that tried to do that. Is there going to be any connection with that movie, or what do you think about it?
Sam: Well, I think 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. And I think it's when 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 kind of feisty woman—his equal in a way, which is a little bit what they do with Vesper in Casino Royale. So I love that book. I think that Lazenby was dealt a pretty cruel hand because he was following Connery, who was… you know, they just hit a homerun the first time that he even got to bat. Connery was a great piece of casting, and 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." I'm like… the first time I saw it I was like, "You've got to be joking! You can't do that to the poor man!" But they were playing almost embarrassment, almost apologizing for having a new Bond. I thought that was wrong. And I thought what they got right with Casino Royale was 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.
So that's why I mentioned the word in the press conference—regeneration, rather than evolve or evolving, because I feel it is like, you know, "we have Dr. Who." There's a geek answer: "We have Dr. Who." I was brought up on the idea of Dr. Who, who at the end of his final episode, he dissolves and then a new actor pops up and he regenerates. It's a whole other character. Sometimes he's an old man, sometime's he's a young man, it just changes. I've always loved that idea.
I'm interested in the way that M's backstory is part of the plot in this one. Why was this the time to flesh out M's backstory and make that a part of the plot?
Sam: I'm not sure we really have much backstory…
Just mention of her past…
Sam: We've gone further into their relationship and… Without giving too much away, I think something interesting happened. I thought it was a masterstroke when they cast Judi [Dench] way back in… seven movies ago, I think, because the character, who was a fairly distant male figure, became this female figure. So there was a maternal aspect to it. And there was much more complexity in the relationship. And I think we've just taken that a little further.
It'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, it had Judi Dench. And Judi, to me, is one of the greatest actors in the English speaking world. And so, it's a question of, well, a little bit like what I was saying with Javier: what could we give her that would take her to another level that we've never seen before? What can we do with her that would surprise us or challenge even her? And so that's… we pushed her further. We pushed other characters further, too. That's what we were trying to do.
You said in the press conference that there was this element of looking at the regret about what he does for a living, which is killing people. The stakes have been raised in this series for Bond, with Daniel Craig's Bond. The emotional stakes have been raised. So is that where the stakes are going in this? Is it a personal crisis? Is that what he wanted the character to be?
Sam: I think that is 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. You know, that's not to say that what I'm looking at is kind of… navel-gazing depressive. [Laughs] Because that's not what Bond will ever be. He's a doer, not a thinker. So you have to understand that. I also think he doesn't walk amongst us. He's not Bourne. He doesn't walk the streets. You have to keep him… he's a lone wolf. You have to keep him separate for most of the movie.
So it's a very particular area he has to exist in. But - there's a reason why the most interesting, to my mind, franchises now are The Dark Knight and Bourne, because there are characters in center who are, to some degree, confident about what they do, and they are pushed right to the edge. And that is one of the wonderful things about that's happened to these movies, recently, is 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 kind of become an action director? Did you put yourself through a kind of action directing school?
Sam: [Laughs] I wish!
What surprised you when you started? What were the moments when you went, "Oh okay…"
Sam: I mean, I've directed bits of action, so I knew enough to know that it's long and it's very detailed. And it's not entirely…
Put it this way—editing action is a good deal more exciting than shooting it. Shooting action is very, very meticulous. It's increments and tiny little pieces. To me, the challenge is to create the 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. Which is - it's never just A following B. There's something else going on simultaneously. And you are following these things, and often they overlap. I work very hard to try… again, that is something that we were able to do in the script, so we didn't get locked into something that we couldn't get out of.
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. You know, it just takes time. You have to sort of… I remind myself that I've spent three weeks working on sequences that are 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 — is that you are pushing yourself in new directions. That's been the pleasure of this particular journey.
A very big thank you to Sam Mendes for his time, and Sony Pictures for arranging. This interview is part of my full on set Istanbul experience, visiting the set of Skyfall in Turkey. We got to observe them shooting the opening action scene and talk with Daniel Craig, producer Barbara Broccoli and director Sam Mendes. It was an amazing opportunity and it seems like the 007 franchise is in very good hands with Sam at the helm.