This weekend, “Skyfall” is unleashed on cinemas nationwide. Almost from the very first sequence you will realize this is a very, very James Bond movie, and although it’s the third in the Daniel Craig series, “Skyfall” almost feels like a hard reboot of the entire franchise, with winking nods to the previous entries and some bold expansion in other areas. The film is also laced with both melancholy and humor, both of which were absent in the hard-driven previous two.
We recently sat down with the fim’s director Sam Mendes, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition,” and spoke with him about the challenges he faced in taking on such a beloved franchise, what he intended to do with the series, and where his significantly reconfigured Bond could go. At one point, when talking about the refreshed look of the movie, achieved in conjunction with genius cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes told us that he was trying desperately to make a James Bond movie that looked really different. “Could you tell?” he asked. Yes, absolutely. And for those wondering about the Bond’s bullseye “spoiler,” Mendes notes: “It’s always at the beginning of the movie. We tried it to put it in the opening.. It just didn’t work.”
But like most other things re-thought and re-tooled for “Skyfall,” it all fits into a picture that audiences are welcoming in a big way. Below, our extensive chat with Sam Mendes. Some spoilers ahead.
Were you always interested in doing a Bond movie?
No, not at all. It all came with Daniel [Craig], really. I was never interested and I don’t think I saw most of the Pierce Brosnan ones. I was not into them at the time and then when Daniel got cast I was interested because he was a friend and I had worked with him. And I thought, “Wow, I thought that I wasn’t interested.” I was on record as saying that I didn’t think he was good casting. Then I saw it and was blown away and was suddenly interested again, as a character, and eager to see the next one. I was slightly disappointed with ‘Quantum’ although I think it’s got a bit of a short shrift, there’s a lot in it that’s interesting. But when I met with Daniel and he asked whether or not I was interested in doing it, I found myself saying yes very quickly. It was just good timing.
Was the back-to-basics stuff always part of it?
Well, there’s lots of back-to-basics stuff in it, but in a new way. I was interested in rediscovering MI-6, rediscovering England, Q, Moneypenny, and that whole world. And also the nods to the great movies of the sixties, the DB5, all that stuff was stuff that I was eager to get back into.
Was there a favorite or one that you wanted to draw from?
No. Where I stole from was the last two Fleming novels – “Man with the Golden Gun” and “You Only Live Twice.” In the movie versions they abandoned a lot of the dark stuff from the books, because the Bond of those later books is very cynical, kind of dark, really interesting. And I thought that was something that we could play around with at the beginning of the movie, after Bond has gone into the depths and lost himself and is woken up by this terrorist attack.
Was Adele always your choice and was that style always the plan?
She was always my choice and yes, it was – write a great ballad. Her only concern was that she said, “Look, I write personal songs, how am I going to write about Bond?” I said, “Make it a personal song.” “Nobody Does It Better” is an incredibly personal song, but they throw “The Spy Who Loved Me” into the middle of it. And she was like, “Oh okay.” I said just write the song you want to write and try to apply it. But she wrote a song that was much more specific to the script, but I would have accepted anything. When you see the movie, it starts with “This is the end…” and he’s going down and the opening sequence, it was always my idea, would be him going down into the water and down into the underworld. And she just got it.
How much involvement did you have in that title sequence?
Well I gave Danny Kleinman the sort of fundamental idea – that it’s all about the house, the cave, the shadows, the arches, everything underground – but then he took it from there. He’s very gifted and he put his own take on it. And it’s pretty amazing.
What was the creative push-and-pull like with the powers that be? The common perception is that it’s tough to get away with stuff in such an established franchise.
That’s not true at all. I can only speak to my own experience, but I said, “Look, these are the things I want to do.” And they said, “Look, it’s your movie. Go do it.” And it really felt like that throughout. I felt not a moment where they were telling me I couldn’t do stuff because they didn’t like it. Occasionally there were discussions about whether or not this was a “Bond thing to do” or not, but their opinions were almost always things I agreed with. I feel like they wanted me to make the best movie I could. It was my Bond movie and I needed to take it in a new and interesting direction. That’s always what I felt. They’re really generous and what makes them such remarkable producers is that they have the ability to make you feel like your vision is the most important thing.
Can you talk about John Logan’s involvement?
Huge. Massive. You know, [regular gatekeeping ‘Bond’ screenwriters] Rob [Wade] and Neal [Purvis] did amazing work and they have a huge knowledge of the Bond movies, they’ve written the last four or something, but John took it to another level. And John’s collaboration was absolutely central to making it the movie it is. If the script hadn’t been good, then the movie wouldn’t have been good. And I think that if the script hadn’t been terrific, then I wouldn’t have gotten Ralph [Fiennes] and Javier [Bardem] and Ben [Whishaw]. I got them because I sent them a great script and they said, “Yes, I want to do this.” Logan has really been a huge part of the movie.
You’ve sort of changed the course of things going forward. Are the surviving cast members going to return?
I hope so! It’s not my choice. Not only have I set up a world where they have a new Q and a new Moneypenny and a new M, but also a world where all three of those people can go out in the field. Q is “have laptop, will travel,” Moneypenny is an ex-field agent, and M is an ex-army officer, who can use a gun — we’ve seen that. You’ve got a team there that can surround Bond, which is really interesting. And M is now much closer to Bond’s age, he’s much more of a contemporary, Ralph is only 4 or 5 years older than Daniel so he’s no longer a father figure or mother figure. And he’s also capable of being tough and an adversary. I think there are a lot of places to take it now.
Were you directly or indirectly inspired by Christopher Nolan and what he did with ‘Batman’?
Directly inspired, yes. I wasn’t inspired directly in terms of the movie, but in terms of what he’s achieved, specifically what “The Dark Knight,” the second movie, achieved, which is something exceptional. It was a game changer for everybody. We’re now in an industry where movies are very small or very big and there’s almost nothing in the middle. And it would be a tragedy if all the serious movies were very small and all the popcorn movies were very big and have nothing to say. And what Christopher Nolan proved was that you can make a huge movie that is thrilling and entertaining and has a lot to say about the world we live in, even if, in the case with “The Dark Knight,” it’s not even set in our world. If felt like a movie that was about our world post-9/11 and played on our fears and discussed our fears and why they existed and I thought that was incredibly brave and interesting. That did help give me the confidence to take this movie in directions that, without “The Dark Knight,” might not have been possible. Because also, people go, “Wow, that’s pretty dark,” but then you can point to ‘Dark Knight’ and go, “Look at that – that’s a darker movie, and it took in a gazillion dollars!” That’s very helpful. There’s also that thing – it’s clearly possible to make a dark movie that people want to see.
If you don’t return to direct, have they talked about you shepherding things creatively?
No. I think they’re impeccable producers and they don’t need me around. If I was going to direct, I’d just direct.
And at one point you were attached to the graphic novel adaptation of “Preacher.”
Yeah, in the end I passed on that because I couldn’t get it to work. It’s a difficult one to make work. It’s a fantastic series but difficult to film. I love graphic novels, I love that medium, and I always read them with a view of, ‘I wonder if this is a movie.’ But with “Preacher” I just couldn’t get it. I could easily see myself doing another graphic novel, sure.
Can you talk about working with Roger Deakins?
Well, I’d worked with Roger twice before and we know each other quite well. It was just a pleasure. He and I both do a lot of prep work beforehand and in this one we did a lot of prep work. I think it pays off. And I think that’s why it looks like no other Bond movie.
Was there anything you wanted to do and couldn’t?
That’s a good question. Other than shooting in Mumbai, no. I really wanted to shoot in India but the intricacies of that opening sequence [prevented it]. I am thrilled we shot in Istanbul. In the end Istanbul probably gave us more than Mumbai could have done, but I was really keen on going to India. It just didn’t work out. It would have been chaos. We would have shut down the center of the city.
They shut it down with “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” did they not?
No, they didn’t. That was like a tiny second unit crew and they shot everything else someplace else. I didn’t see ‘Mission: Impossible’ because I was making this one and I didn’t want it to interfere.
Can you talk about developing Javier Bardem’s character? He said earlier that you had given him some options of how to play the character – what were the other options?
Just the usual bullshit. I was just trying to persuade him to do the fucking part! It’s like, “Please do the part, you can do it anyway you want!” I was very conscious that I needed a great actor to fill in the blanks. There was a certain amount of invention and it needed someone to ground it in reality. And Javier’s great thing was that he made it a human being, it’s not some construct. He somehow managed to find a beating heart to this person that’s vulnerable and weird and theatrical and funny and camp – all of these things that make him very disturbing.
Where did Javier’s island lair come from?
The island was based on a real island called Mishima, near Nagasaki, which is an island that was built for miners and then abandoned when the mines went dry. And it’s very, very like that. That is a spectacularly weird place and know you can’t go there because of radiation. You have to wear a mask and stuff. But we based it all on that. It does exist and floats in the middle of the sea – it’s very strange.
But yet it has the theatricality of an underground volcano or something.
No, it’s the baddie’s lair! I wanted that moment of “Oh Christ, that’s where he lives.”
Can you talk about working with Thomas Newman?
Thomas has done all my movies with me and I know him very well. I feel very safe with him. I feel like he’s done a brilliant job of taking all the Bond themes and weaving them into something very original, but acknowledging, all the time, the original theme, the John Barry traditions. So that’s how he did it.
Did you have a checklist of things you wanted to get done?
No. Sometimes it is very funny. Unless you were there, on the frontline, putting the movie together, you don’t really know what you want. But if you’re in a room, you find you have very specific ideas. And usually that means you’re the right person to do it, if your ideas are very clear. I didn’t know I had them, really.
The climax is something that we certainly have never seen before. Can you talk about approaching that?
Fucking hell. It was much easier to have it spread out over a much larger area, in truth, because you can keep moving and keep changing the environment. What was difficult was keeping that weird, coffin-like intensity of shooting in that dark house in the kind of half-light. It was incredibly complicated. I wanted that feeling that [Bond] had to depend on his wits.
“Skyfall” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 9th.