Interview: Sam Mendes

The latest Bond director on the challenges of shooting Skyfall

As the shooting of the latest Bond movie drew to a close in September, Dave Calhoun spoke exclusively with Skyfall director Sam Mendes in London about the challenges of taking on one of the most beloved movie franchises of all time.

What stage are you at with the movie?
I’m totally fucked! You can put that in. I’m at the totally fucked stage of the process! I don’t care anymore!

It’s ‘there’, though, isn’t it?
Anthony Minghella had a great phrase: ‘You make a movie five times’. You make it in the writing, in the casting, in the shooting, in the editing, and then in the composing, and that actually you can get the first four right, but at any point you can sink it. So in a weird way if I feel it’s going well I become even tenser. There’s still that last process of refinement.

Did you have a strong idea, looking back, of what you actually wanted to do?
It’s funny you say that, because I think I probably did. Because when I came on board – which was very early in the day – there was a treatment, and I was very clear straight away that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. And I took one very small element from that, and abandoned everything else.

So you had something to react to?
Yes. And I don’t think I realised how crystallised my own opinions already were until I sat down and said: ‘Well, this is the Bond movie I want to make’. That comes from way back to when I first started making movies. I think I was shocked by how many opinions I already had about how I wanted to make them, before even making them. It felt a little bit like that with this. All these things are personalised. This is the Bond movie I want to see, but it’s also the Bond movie I think that an audience wants to see, and also Fleming might have enjoyed.

The idea of ownership is quite interesting with Bond, because you’re working with a global audience who think they own him.
Approaching it I had no greater knowledge or insight into the character than you or anybody else who has a tradition with Bond. But one of the things you realise very quickly is everybody has an opinion, and they’re all different. On one day someone said, ‘God, I hope you please put some humour into this,’ and half an hour later… just friends and acquaintances… someone said, ‘Oh it’s so much better now they’re not trying to be funny all the time.’ Or, ‘Oh God, please can it not be quite so violent’; ‘You’ve got to put more explosions in there!’ I mean, whatever opinion someone has, someone comes along half an hour later to state the opposite.

And people always have opinions about what someone’s going to bring to the Bond franchise. Did you pay attention to that?
I don’t read anything. Because it does genuinely affect the way you… I mean, you have to retain your sort of selective blindness. Ten years ago you weren’t bombarded by opinion the moment you open your eyes. So you have to actively try and keep yourself separate from it. Otherwise you do get distracted, and also, it plants seeds of doubt about certain things that you’ve always felt confident about, so you sort of just have to keep them at bay. Also, I’m not a fool. I can see that people will say, ‘Oh, well can he do a Bond movie? Can he do action?’ I would if I was a member of the public. 

But that’s the kind of challenge I like. It doesn’t freak me out. Listen, you make a big movie, you’re going into the Coliseum, and people are going to give you the thumbs up or the thumbs down. They’re going to boo or they’re going to cheer. And that’s part of the game, and you can’t resist that. It’s part of the fun of it as well. It’s not like… I’m not taking it to Venice, and trying to find a very delicate audience for a very fragile film. Christ knows I’ve been in that situation before, where you’re trying to find a way of not damaging the movie, giving it the perfect roll-out across a small number of screens, letting it grow, letting it develop. 

This is a different way of… and that’s as it should be. There’s a bigger boot on the foot, and it will make a bigger indentation.

How much time goes into deciding the title?
It’s difficult. I remember I made Road to Perdition for Dreamworks and Spielberg, and I didn’t want to call it Road to Perdition because I thought it was a bit of a mouthful. And he said: ‘Listen. If the movie’s any good, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. I made a movie called Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the studio told me I was fucking insane. But the moment it came out, it was ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind!’’ You can obsess about it, but if you do, you can get into a kind of generic titling.

How would you describe the process of working with Daniel Craig?
It was pretty feisty, I think. He puts a hundred per cent of himself into it. He doesn’t leave anything at home. It’s just all there. And he will have opinions about everything, which is as it should be, but it’s very odd because I’ve never directed an actor in a role which in a sense he knows almost better than I do. You start off on a level pegging [usually]. But here it’s like, ‘Well he’s played Bond already, so I’m the newcomer.’ But he was very clear about the things he wanted to achieve in the movie, that he felt he hadn’t managed to, particularly in the last one. And those early conversations before I sat down with the writers and started working on the script were crucial, because it meant that I knew the areas he was willing to go, and I could steer it in that direction.

Did you read some of the Fleming novels?
I did, I read a lot. I didn’t read them all. But I read a few. I particularly focused on the ones that I thought were the most interesting for what we were trying to achieve for this movie, which was the final trilogy of books, You Only Live Twice, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Octopussy

That’s where Bond is suffering from a kind of acidy… a slight sense of ‘What’s the point?’, a crisis of faith. His relationship with M has become thornier than ever. He doesn’t want to do it. And in fact, in You Only Live Twice… Fleming puts a lot of things in those novels that the movies threw out, because they were at the time considered too dark, and it was just at that point when the franchise was becoming more kind of a travelogue, more flamboyant, and more to do with entertainment, and abandoning those elements of the Bond novels that were slightly darker and more disturbing. 

But we live now in an era where these things are deemed not only appropriate, but almost necessary for big franchise movies. If you’ve got a big franchise movie without a dark, fucked up character in the middle then it’s almost not worth doing!

And no Martini? Reports say Bond will only drink Heineken in this version.
Well, you might be surprised. It’s incorrect that he just drinks Heineken in the movie.

Were there any scenes that were particularly hard to pull off?
To me, the most difficult things were all to do with the patience and detail required to shoot action – to do it properly. I think there’s a strong pressure all the time to stick the second unit on it, with eight cameras on long lenses, and just shoot as many setups as you can, and then put it together in the edit. Because I felt, when one saw the Bourne movies for the first time, that studios would be rubbing their hands together, going: ‘Great, that means we can shoot all action movies hand held at twice the speed now’. 

But the truth is that you have to be called Greengrass to do it! You have to be somebody who understands it’s not just bunging a couple of cameras up. It’s incredibly complex. It’s a different set of issues. And that is not how I make films. I work in a less… potentially haphazard style.

So yes, there is a sequence where Bond is pursuing and then fighting someone on top of a train. And you’re driving, it’s a hundred and ten degrees first up, in Turkey, and you have to drive down a certain stretch of rail. You get one, maybe two takes on two cameras, because that’s all you can fit on, and then you have to stop the train, reverse back up the track – that takes twenty minutes – then do it again. 

Half way down the gun jams or the cable gets in the way or the stunt man trips somebody up, and you have to do it again. And for me that sort of relentless, dogged pursuit of something, when you could feel that people were thinking, ‘Can’t we stick five cameras on the ground and shoot them as they go past?’ But to actually be on the train with it. Because an underlying belief in the Bond movies, and something I wanted to really make sure I adhered to, is a belief that it should be in-camera, it should be a special effects movie, not a visual effects movie – that visual effects should only be used to supplement existing in-camera effects – that if something blows up, it really blows up.

So you’re limiting the visual effects?
I very much believe that an audience can detect the difference now between a world where things are happening for real, and where they’re not. It’s not by accident that the best examples of the larger scale movie-making – whether it be Christopher Nolan or Paul Greengrass or Peter Jackson – are underpinned by the same belief. But it’s more expensive and it’s more time-consuming to do it that way. And so there will always be a pressure – ‘You don’t have to do it, you can do it blue-screen.’ But we’re not a superhero. We don’t fly, we don’t climb up buildings. It has to exist within the realm of the possible, and that’s where it differs.

Would you do it again?
I’ve certainly enjoyed it enough to do it again. I think that the choice of whether to do it again is in the hands of the audience. I feel like if the movie is something that people love, and they want to see another one from the same people who brought you Skyfall, then that would mean a lot to me. And the other thing is, I felt like I put everything I wanted to do with a Bond movie into this Bond movie, and I would have to feel the same thing all over again with another one. So it would take a lot of thought to try and make it as special to me as this one has been. I’m knackered – but I have loved it.

Good luck with that, and with Skyfall.
Yes, well I hope you enjoy it. And we’ll see what the future holds for it. You feel like it’s a child. These things are children. You sort of send them into the world, and sometimes you just feel their legs wobbling before they even get out the door. And I feel it’s got relatively strong legs.

Skyfall is released in Chinese cinemas in late 2012. See Skyfall review.

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