'Skyfall' rising: Oscar winner Sam Mendes guides 007's return to big screen


It's a lazy film-writer perennial to exclaim "Bond is back!" every other time a new James Bond spy thriller is released, and it's usually only right in the technical, literal sense. The 50-year-old film series—born of a New Frontier besotted with science yet still fearful of the science-fictiony Axis powers and atom bomb of World War II—has had to adapt to history while retaining the particular joys of this specific escapist universe. It's a moving target, hard to hit.

And so for director Sam Mendes' Skyfall, one is tempted to say "Bond is back!" in capital letters or with multiple exclamation points—anything to make the point stand out that Eon Productions' 23rd James Bond movie is the best since the 1960s.

Yes, yes, we hear you. Star Roger Moore's 1970s to mid-1980s oeuvre may have been what the era wanted, but so were disco and Mohawk haircuts. Timothy Dalton's 1980s duo didn't click, and as The Times of London film critic Tom Shone perceptively wrote of Pierce Brosnan's 1995-2002 quartet, the star "shares none of [Sean] Connery's virtues but has also been careful to avoid Moore's vices." As for the current Daniel Craig films, Skyfall's reviews have almost uniformly called the new movie better than the well-received Casino Royale (2006) and the less-than-well-received Quantum of Solace (2008).

Why? Credit Mendes for a movie that addresses every elephant in every room of this long-running labyrinth, with insight, wit and an impeccable feel for both tradition and today as Agent 007 and spy chief M (Judi Dench) are forced to confront their pasts in order to understand a cyber-terrorist mastermind (Javier Bardem). If the tea leaves of writing credits can tell us anything, it's worth noting that the script is credited both to the last four films' team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with the addition of three-time Academy Award-nominee John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo).

In Manhattan to promote Skyfall, the affable Mendes, 47, dressed casually in sport coat and slacks, can be forgiven if he seems a trifle nervous. After a lauded stage career, he won the Best Director Oscar for his debut movie, American Beauty (1999), which itself won for Best Picture, and his next film, Road to Perdition (2002), was another critically lauded hit. Yet Revolutionary Road (2008) met with mixed if generally upbeat reception and modest if perhaps profitable box office, and Away We Go (2009) tanked. With Sony and MGM’s Skyfall, it seems not only is Bond back, but he's brought Mendes with him. Or actually, come to think, maybe the other way around.

Film Journal International: The previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace, was successful commercially, grossing $586 million worldwide on a budget of reportedly $200 million. Yet it's perceived as a disappointment, with The Washington Post having called it "an often visually incoherent travelogue of revenge and trumped-up angst" and audiences giving it a poor B- on CinemaScore. What did you do right that they did, well, not so right?

Sam Mendes: I think they were very unlucky on that movie because they got hit by the writers’ strike pretty badly. And having been in a similar situation with Road to Perdition where we were chasing an actors' strike, it puts a kind of weird pressure on everyone. Everyone gets frantic. And they got the script on the day [production] started—midnight, literally—and it didn't work. So what do you do? You're five weeks away from shooting. So they shot a script that wasn't finished, and that's just never, ever going to make a good movie unless you've got plenty of time in post to go back and reshoot for six weeks the stuff that doesn't work. And they didn't have that time either, because they were tied to a release date. So I feel for them in a way.

But at the same time, there were lots of things about it that helped crystallize how I wanted to make this movie. Because a lot of the things they did, particularly in the way that it was shot, I was able to say, "That's not how I'm not going to do it. I'm going to do this instead." So it sometimes helps to define what you're going to do by stating the opposite.

FJI: One common criticism of the previous film was that the editing was such that you couldn't easily follow the action. The shorthand was "Bourne done badly" [referring to the jagged, quick-cut, handheld style of the Jason Bourne movies].

SM: Right. I've said before, and I mean it, that [The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum director Paul] Greengrass is in a league of his own and it's very difficult to imitate. If you shoot handheld, you have to think handheld, and it's a different way of thinking about film. He thinks in that way. He came up through documentary filmmaking, he's incredibly experienced and the great myth about that kind of handheld movie is that you can sort of adopt it as a style for a movie and then change again. And I just think when you do it like Paul does, it's in your blood. But I think it's very easy to do it badly. My camera style is much more classical and much more old-fashioned, in a way. The camera doesn't move unless it has to; if the character's moving, it will move with the character. I want to keep people in frame the whole time.

But also I think they got trapped with Quantum into a number of things that I wanted to avoid. One of them was they got trapped into linear chases as opposed to parallel action, and I wanted to make sure that wherever I was in a chase, wherever there was an action sequence, there was also something going on simultaneously that I could follow. That was the case throughout.

FJI: What is it about the Bond movies that people have an affinity for, 50 years down the road?

SM: If everyone knew that, then every movie would be a hit. I don't know. I've made one Bond movie and I'm just hearing people's reactions now, and it's very exciting and interesting to get people's reactions to it because I can now begin to see it through their eyes and I understand what it means to them as opposed to what it means to me.

FJI: One of the elements, certainly, is exotic locales, and one of the most arresting here is the ghost-like, abandoned Hashima Island, off Nagasaki, Japan, with its crumbling concrete buildings. What did it feel like, stepping onto it, shooting there?
SM: (smiling) That's not the real island; that's based on the island.

FJI: That was a set?
SM: Yeah. Set and computer-generated.

FJI: Wow.
SM: I know. (smiling) Fooled you! We built the street and the courtyard and then we created the rest. The basis for the movie is "Make everything real and then supplement it with visual effects, but don't create anything from scratch." So you felt it was real and in a sense it was real because it's three-dimensional.

FJI: I asked Javier [Bardem, who plays the movie's villain, Raoul Silva] about shooting there, and how since it was off Nagasaki if it were a memorial or whether there were lingering radiation concerns, and he was: "No, no, the radiation was all gone by then!"
SM: Well, he doesn't want to give it away. He doesn't want to give away the tricks of the trade.

FJI: What about some of the proposed locations for the film? You scouted South Africa and India. Why didn't they work out?
SM: India has its own film industry; India doesn't need Bond. I would have loved to have shot it in Mumbai, but they don't need us. And it would have been absolute, flat-out chaos. The center of Mumbai would have ground to a halt. So that would have been a tough one. I was sad when that fell away. But we went to Cape Town, we went to Victoria Falls, we went all over the place [evaluating locations]. It was pretty exciting. It was almost the best part of it for me, the location scouting.

FJI: Peter Morgan, the film's original screenwriter, who left the project when the Skyfall production was in hiatus due to MGM’s financial difficulties, said at the London Film Festival in September 2011 that "the central idea" of his screenplay "is still there but not one similar thing other than that. I think they've still kept the big hook, which I'm not going to tell you!"
SM: Absolutely not. Definitively not. That's a lie. I don't want to make a big story about it, that's just not true. The script was written by Purvis and Wade and John Logan. I read that treatment of Peter's and nothing remains. He wrote the treatment, but they binned it when I arrived. That credit grabbing is not fair on the writers.

FJI: To end on a more upbeat note: Would you say you made the Bond movie that you or I wanted to see when we were 13?
SM: You have to get back in touch with your inner 13-year-old in order to make it, I think. You have to remind yourself what it was like to watch a Bond movie when you were 13.