Daniel Craig is back,and so is Sam Mendes, in Bond thriller set in Europe and Mexico
by Ethan Alter
As promised by the closing credits of Skyfall, James Bond will return in the latest 007 blockbuster from Sony Pictures, Spectre, which launches its not-so-clandestine mission to dominate the American box office on November 6. But Skyfall’s director, Sam Mendes, wasn’t supposed to be coming back along with the current Bond, Daniel Craig. The filmmaker took himself out of the running to direct Bond’s next adventure during the press tour for Skyfall, a massive production that swallowed up two years of his life and left him utterly exhausted.
“I needed time away,” Mendes tells Film Journal International on the phone from his native England. “It’s a full-on experience making a Bond movie, and the thing to remember is that directors stay on until the very end. Everyone else has used the time during post-production to have a rest or start thinking about the next movie. So when you, as the director, finally finish the film two days before the first press screening and then the producers come at you a week later, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this great idea for the next movie!’ you want to punch them all.”
Photos: NAOMIE HARRIS (AS MONEYPENNY), RALPH FIENNES (AS M) AND MONICA BELLUCCI AS LUCIA SCIARRA. BELOW, LÉA SEYDOUX.
Fortunately, Mendes avoided severing his relationships with the Bond creative team—currently headed up by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson—by reactively throwing haymakers. Instead, he stepped away and took the long hiatus his mind and body required. In the interim, Skyfall went on to become the highest grossing James Bond feature in the franchise’s now 24-film history, grossing $300 million in the U.S. alone and an additional $800 million abroad. The reviews were also among the best that a Bond movie had ever received, a welcome change from the critical drubbing that the previous installment, Quantum of Solace, endured four years earlier.
Skyfall’s massive success provided Broccoli and Wilson with enough incentive to wait until Mendes was ready to seriously consider suiting up to helm another globetrotting spy spectacle. And they proved genuinely patient, even pushing back their preferred production schedule to accommodate his. “Initially, they wanted me to have the next film ready for the summer of 2015,” the director reveals, adding that he rejected that idea outright as being “too soon.”
But as his personally enforced hiatus from Bond continued—during which time the stage-trained director returned to the theatrical world, mounting such shows as a musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a production of King Lear starring Simon Russell Beale—Mendes found himself wondering and even worrying about what was next for Bond. “I started feeling possessive of the characters,” he admits, pointing not only to 007, but also the new incarnations of classic franchise personalities that reappeared in Skyfall, like Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw) and the next M (Ralph Fiennes, assuming the one-letter name previously assigned to Judi Dench). “I sort of supervised their births, and I wanted to watch them take their first steps.”
Like any proud parent, Mendes soon found himself jotting down a list of hopes, ideas and, most importantly, plot points, for his cinematic children. Armed with those germs of a narrative, he signaled to the producers that he was finally ready to return to the fold. “I felt like I had a story to tell, and story and character is the only way I can ever get into a movie. I’d found my own way in on my own time and Barbara and Michael allowed me that time.”
As Mendes explains it, the story told in Spectre is a logical extension of Skyfall’s dominant theme: the notion of a secret agent who works in the shadows, only to run headlong into his very real mortality. It’s an idea that’s beautifully established in Skyfall’s opening shot: a still frame of a figure striding down a dark hallway, his face only coming into focus when he pauses in a small pool of light. The figure, of course, is Bond, and by the end of the complete pre-credits sequence, he’s paid the price for leaving the safety of the shadows by plunging to his apparent death. “Skyfall is about facing up to aging and mortality, and what you leave behind,” Mendes explains. “Bond is a figure who leaves no trace—no family, no children, no wife, no sign he was ever there. And is that worth it?”
Mendes promises that the opening sequence of Spectre, which unfolds in Mexico City during the annual Day of the Dead festival, will similarly set up the central thematic core that the rest of the film revolves around. “Th is scene is much more first-person and subjective [than that one in Skyfall]. Instead of traveling over a large distance, it’s right in the middle of Mexico City, and it’s about placing the audience in the middle of the most heady, exotic and slightly scary atmosphere. And within that, there’s a lot of intense danger and action. There’s a saying in Mexico: ‘The dead are alive.’ That’s one of the central themes of this movie, the idea that people you thought were dead in your life perhaps aren’t and that old grudges and enmities might be reborn.”
It’s no secret who might be holding a grudge against Bond; after all, the name of 007’s next adversary doubles as the film’s title: Spectre, a multinational criminal conglomerate that operates in the same shadows that cloak top MI6 agents. The trailers for Spectre strongly imply that this organization has been in Bond’s life for years without his knowledge, manipulating events from behind the scenes. But as even casual Bond fans know, the character’s history with Spectre (which stands for Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) extends further back than Craig’s tenure. The organization is mentioned for the first time in the very first Bond movie, Dr. No, when Sean Connery’s inaugural 007 squared off against Spectre-backed scientist Julius No (Joseph Wiseman).
Spectre and its grey-suited leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, continued to bedevil both Connery and his temporary replacement, George Lazenby, in five additional films: From Russia With Love, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever. When Connery left the franchise for the second—and final, save for one-off Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again—time, Spectre closed up shop as well, the casualty of a protracted rights dispute between original Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and independent producer Kevin McClory. (Short version: McClory collaborated with Bond creator Ian Fleming on the ninth 007 novel, Thunderball, and secured the film rights to the book, which introduced Blofeld and Spectre, after a separate legal battle with the author. He later reached agreement with Broccoli and Saltzman to make Thunderball as the fourth Bond film, but the competing copyright claims eventually proved too much of an interference, leading the movie franchise to omit all reference to the organization and its boss going forward.) The legal stalemate persisted for five decades, finally resulting in an agreement between the current producing team and McClory’s estate in 2013, one year removed from Skyfall’s massive success.
Even had he not been able to use Spectre as the enemy (or the title) of his next Bond film, Mendes says he likely wouldn’t have altered the story he wanted to tell. “I would have pursued the same thematic content, but perhaps in a different form,” he remarks, adding that he remained studiously apart from any of the legal wrangling. “My job is to direct a movie, not a franchise. At the end of the day, I’ll use what I’ve got. Being able to use Spectre wasn’t everything, but it certainly adds a huge amount. I’m very happy that [the rights] were cleared up and [SPECTRE] was available to us when we started the movie.”
What Mendes declines to reveal, however, is whether Blofeld will make his return to the Bond mythos along with the criminal enterprise he masterminded. The widespread assumption is that Blofeld is back and he’s being played by two-time Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz. That’s an assumption that both the actor and virtually everyone else associated with the film has vociferously denied, and it’s worth noting that Spectre’s credits identify Waltz’s character as being “Franz Oberhauser,” not “Ernst Blofeld.” On the other hand, no attempt is being made to mask the fact that, whatever his name, Waltz is most definitely playing Bond’s nemesis, and poses an even greater threat to 007 than his previous opponent, Skyfall’s Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). “Silva was Bond’s negative image; that was where we were going with the character and Javier ran with it,” Mendes explains. “This character similarly has a history with Bond in the way Silva did, but Christoph is a very different actor and has taken the role in a very different direction.”
Mendes is well aware that the Blofeld rumors will continue to persist right up until the film’s release, helped along in part by script leaks and internal studio conversations that were made public by last year’s notorious Sony hack. Among the details that have been widely reported online are the repeated references to “Blofeld” that appear in notes on Spectre’s screenplay. But the director says that those comments reference a much earlier draft of the script, which bears little resemblance to the finished film. “When I studied the information that was online, there were all sorts of things that had been long abandoned. I think what amused me was the idea that any of this would be a news story. [Disagreements] happen with every big movie. On both Skyfall and American Beauty, I received questions [from the studio] saying, ‘Is the ending going to be satisfying?’”
Besides, by now Mendes is accustomed to intense scrutiny that comes with overseeing a high-profile franchise like Bond. “You have to embrace the fact that these movies are created and driven by fans; they’re a dialogue with that audience. They’re going to review the title, the casting, the choice of director, the trailer, the poster and the song. The movie is the final piece of that relationship. So of course they’re going to say that Blofeld is in it! That’s the fun of it, and if you fight it, you might as well not be doing it. When I don’t want that anymore, I’ll go make a movie that nobody’s heard of and I’ll have privacy from the audience until I show it.”
That response begs the question: Is Mendes weary of the very public spectacle that making a Bond movie has become? Or will he be tempted back for a third film (after an extended break, naturally)? “I don’t want to say anything definitive at this stage,” he hedges. “I’ve done this before: I’ve said ‘No,’ and then I’ve said ‘Yes.’” His final answer will most likely depend on Craig, whose own future with the franchise is unclear. Previous reports have suggested that the actor is contractually obligated to make one more Bond film after Spectre, but Craig has been very vocal in the press about wanting to leave the character behind. “I know from my experience, it’s [a decision] that comes to you after you’ve finished and he really hasn’t finished,” Mendes says. Should Craig decide to renew his license to kill one more time, it’s hard to imagine that Mendes wouldn’t be directing his final mission. “He’s a friend and Spectre brought us much closer. That relationship is really what got both of us through the movie.”
[Source: Film Journal International, November 2015. P.1, 4, 8-11. Copyright © 2015 by Prometheus Global Media LLC. All rights reserved. filmjournal.com/subscribe | Photos: JONATHAN OILEY © MGM, DANJAQ & COLUMBIA PICTURES | SPECTRE © 2015 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., Danjaq. LLC. and Columbla Pictures Industries. Inc. "Spectre", "007" and related James Bond trademarks © 1962-2015 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation. "Spectre", "007" and related James Bond trademarks are trademarks of Danjaq, LLC. All rights reserved.]