On set with James Bond in Istanbul

Time Out gets behind the scenes of the latest 007 film in Turkey

It just wouldn't be Bond without the globetrotting and Skyfall's much buzzed-about opening sequence takes place in Istambul. Time Out goes on location to find out more.

For anyone who’s never visited Istanbul, imagine Middle Earth meets the Middle East: an epic landscape of skyscraping minarets, bulging onion domes, sprawling bazaars, teeming stone streets, bustling bridges and towers upon towers upon towers. This was author Ian Fleming’s favourite city, making it the perfect backdrop for a Bond movie: indeed, the producers of From Russia With Love recognised that fact back in 1962, the first time the British film industry’s biggest travelling circus rolled into town.

Forty-nine years to the day since that shoot began, Bond is back, bringing with him thousands of crew and extras, truckloads of equipment and just a whiff of controversy. For example, many of the Turkish journalists attending the first day’s press conference seem convinced that the sequences shot in Istanbul will actually be set in Tehran. It’s a suggestion that star Daniel Craig laughs off. ‘You can’t fake Istanbul,’ he says. ‘It’s Istanbul. That’s why we’re here.’

He’s got a point. It’s impossible to imagine this city doubling for anywhere else. And although the packed marketplace outside the New Mosque (built in 1597, which is still considered new around these parts) may be a filmic construct, its stallholders paid extras, it still feels like nowhere else on earth. Though the motorbike sliding on its side, scattering panicked shoppers, does slightly give the game away.

Having spent the morning running, jumping and shooting bad guys, Daniel Craig has retired to his trailer by the time we’re ushered onto the set. But there’s still plenty to see: Turkish cops on roaring motorcycles, gorgeously detailed market stalls selling everything from baklava to cat food, a slightly frazzled-looking Sam Mendes, busily setting up the next shot with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The heat is intense, the noise of the Muezzin and clanging bells blending with the voices of hungry extras and harried assistant directors to create an unholy, dizzying din.

There’s no escaping the fact that this is a modern city: for every medieval tower there’s a TV aerial, for every string of prayer beads a mobile phone. And for his part, Mendes seems eager to present an honest portrait of this ancient metropolis. ‘We’ve all seen the UK reduced to the Houses of Parliament, a double decker bus and a red phone,’ he says. ‘We want to show the best of Istanbul without falling prey to cliché.’

But at the press conference, there’s an almost adversarial feeling between some Turkish journalists and the filmmakers. During their stint in the Grand Bazaar, a stunt motorcyclist allegedly lost control, resulting in a complaint by a local businessman. Mendes is bullishly defensive. ‘The damage was very minimal,’ he says. ‘Obviously, there are things we created ourselves which have been broken, a window in the Grand Bazaar for example. But we’ve been very respectful.’

Indeed, respect seems to be a watchword for this new, modern Bond: the days of Roger Moore in a safari suit tussling with faceless foreign johnnies have been swept away. It’s hard to believe that Mendes really can ‘capture the city’ in a relatively short sequence in Skyfall – it’d surely take a lifetime to get a full grasp on this extraordinary place – but we’d say he’s made an explosive, ambitious start.

Tom Huddleston.

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