One of the great pleasures of doing a Bond movie for Dennis Gassner is that he gets to be 007 before Daniel Craig. On “Quantum of Solace,” his first, the Oscar-winning production designer (“Bugsy”) created a pattern language based on the actor’s blue eyes and craggy face. But on “Skyfall,” he went further in shaping the world of Bond, and channeling the actor, creating a tension between the old and the new, the classical and the modern. Like cinematographer Roger Deakins, Gassner found inspiration in a rich rite of passage story, creating a dense mosaic out of varied locations that fell into place organically.
Take the bridge in Turkey where Bond nearly falls to his death during the powerful pre-credit sequence. It was essential that Gassner find the right one. He had already scoured the world but his search was proving futile. Fortunately, like everyone else on “Skyfall,” he had the luxury of time as a result of the MGM bankruptcy, which pushed back production from 2011 to this year.
“We needed to put Bond somewhere that was totally unique,” Gassner recalls. “I looked at so many bridges in nine countries, trying to find the right one and the right feeling. And I remember getting on this bridge in Turkey and standing in the center by myself and I said, ‘I want Daniel to be here right now.’ I get to be him first and I thought this is where he needs to be to play the scene. And the big question was: Will he do it? It was a pretty impressive place [the Varda Viaduct outside of Adana]. It seemed so iconically perfect [with its stone arch structure] to play a scene where you knew if he went off that bridge something was going to happen. He’s going into another world and he comes up in a place that is his own parallel universe.”
But it worked out perfectly, as did Istanbul, which was a blessing and contained the right softness that suited director Sam Mendes, whom Gassner had worked with previously on “Road to Perdition.” It was all about finding the right place at the right time, guided by a 50-year Bondian collective unconscious.
“The privilege of this one was going back and mining the legacy,” he says. “Bond’s an abstract hero and this is more about who he is. Daniel really, really looked good. Something had changed in him: he’s thinner, he’s stronger; he has a quality to him that difference from the dynamo he played in ‘Casino Royale.’ To me, this is the first film that I really felt he looked like Bond. He could survive dying to resurrect and rebuild himself on this journey.
“I traveled so much. I thought the last film was arduous but this was beyond that. Where can you go that hasn’t been touched in a Bond film? That takes time and energy. But there are cost concerns and politics to deal with (India was too complicated). You balance what’s right for the movie and what you can afford and how it works.”
Great production design, of course, is all about detail, and as they a made new discovery, they folded it in and then mixed it all together like a fine roux. For the Dead City lair of baddie Silva (Javier Bardem) in Macao, Gassner found inspiration in Hashima Island off Japan with its undisturbed concrete buildings. The back story of Silva needing a remote island to repurpose cheap technology into the building of a super computer worked beautifully. “We used [Hashima] to mine lots of visual ideas in building our set,” Gassner continues. “We even pulled the effigy of the leader down in the town square.”
But things didn’t always go according to plan. The modernistic, blue neon-infused look of Shanghai, for instance, wound up being converted into an elaborate set at Pinewood filled with LED screens for the ingenious fight between Bond and Patrice (Ola Rapace) in silhouette. You just couldn’t do it on location, so this way Gassner and Deakins constructed and controlled their own environment.
Likewise, there was no way they could pull everything together in one location for the finale in Scotland, when we literally go back in time to reveal Bond’s heritage at his family home, the Skyfall Lodge. “The set we designed was a fusion of all the things we liked,” Gassner adds. “It was a harsh place against the elements. What does Bond do to fight back? He goes home, back to his deepest instincts, where he’s most comfortable. It’s a privilege for us to see it.”
Bond then buries the past forever and returns to MI6, ready for his next assignment (“With pleasure”). But he’s no longer an orphan: he’s found an extended family. Gassner, too, has found an extended family with Bond. Indeed, he’s been asked by producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli to return a third time next year to begin work on “Bond 24,” with or without Mendes.
“A film is like a great piece of music and I always use Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’ as an example,” Gassner explains. “You start out really strong — bang! You wake up the audience. Then you nurture them and wind up in a quieter place for the finale.
“But not until this family, have I felt as comfortable as I did when starting out at Zoetrope on ‘Apocalypse Now’ with Francis [Ford Coppola] and [production designer] Dean Tavoularis. At the end of every Bond film, you come back full circle with M and the next assignment. And that for me is worth showing up for.”
Gassner will receive The Cinematic Imagery Award from the Art Directors Guild on February 2, along with fellow Bond production designers Ken Adam, Peter Lamont, and Allan Cameron.
“Skyfall” production design videoblog: