Ready for some golden filmmaking advice? “I think that it’s fair to say that most of the movie is made in prep. The script, the casting, the choice of locations, your choice of crew and the designs of the set, I think that if you’ve got those on the whole right or you’re happy with those, then you’re 90% there towards making a good movie.” So says Skyfall director Sam Mendes and he certainly knows what he’s talking about – as you too might agree when you see Skyfall.
It’s one thing to continue a franchise, but it’s another to expound upon it. Mendes ticks off the obligatory 007 boxes – slick agent in a suit, hot rides, exhilarating action sequences, Bond girl eye candy, etc. – but he doesn’t stop there. Mendes doesn’t just take the James Bond series and tack on another installment. He breathes new life into the character – new life with the power to excite longtime fans and reel in Bond novices.
While promoting Skyfall at a New York City press conference, Mendes explained, “There was a point around ‘Moonraker’ where it lost some of its thriller roots and went into more of a kind of action adventure, almost travelogue, type feeling.” He added, “It was like, how can we get Bond from Rio to Venice and how can we get Bond from Venice to a cable car because these are the big sequences we have to make work.” However, for Mendes, that all changed in Casino Royale, the director noting that he saw, “a Bond as an actor who was capable of handling a much bigger personal journey.”
And it’s a good thing, too, because in Skyfall, Bond has a particularly profound emotional arc. The film kicks off mid-mission with Bond chasing down an enemy trying to make off with a hard drive full of identities of embedded agents. Things go awry, the man takes off with the drive, and Bond is left physically and emotionally wounded. But the thing is, this time Bond isn’t just sore about the bad guy threatening world domination. Skyfall raises the stakes on a far more personal level, Daniel Craig going as far to say, “It’s about families,” and “going back to his childhood just to sort of destroy it, really.”
It isn’t easy combining what Mendes calls “genre-ness” with “serious content,” but as it turns out, devastating real-life circumstance led to additional prep time and that additional prep time was key to producing an artful and thorough feature. When the MGM bankruptcy situation cropped up, Mendes was distraught. “I really prepped the movie and was ready to go to full scale pre-production and we had to hold everything, if you remember, for something like nine months.” However, rather than wallow in the frustration, Mendes put the time to good use, working with screenwriter John Logan to hone the script. “That was the key to everything for me. From then on, I knew every scene intimately.”
Mendes opted to impart some of that wisdom on his stars by engaging in a franchise first: a full cast read-through. Skyfall’s “Agent Eve,” Naomie Harris, recalled, “The read-through was probably the most intimidating experience of my life because there was Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig, and they were all in a room, and we’d never met each other before and we all had to deliver the goods.” And the pressure would only build for Harris from there, as she was handed the ultimate task: shooting James Bond. She explained, “I thought I’d never live it down. I was really not happy about that bit because I wanted to come across as a really capable field agent, you know?”
For Bérénice Marlohe, who plays Sévérine, her toughest task was catching a glimpse of Mr. Bond sans clothing. She laughed and recalled, “I almost got to see him naked. He was always behind me, trying to kiss me. Hard job!” Turns out, Craig was a sight for sore eyes for Javier Bardem as well – as was Judi Dench. “There was one day – I’m always telling this story, but it’s true – that I was shooting and then I saw Judi and Daniel looking at me and then I forgot the lines because it’s like, Jesus, that’s M and that’s James Bond and I’m in a crystal cell, so they’re looking at me, so I’m the villain in a James Bond movie!” Bardem also remembered this little gem – “That same day, we were shooting the scene with Judi, a very intense scene, and then I hear [sings the Bond theme] and I said, ‘What is that?’ And that was the tone of Judi Dench’s cellphone!”
While Harris, Marlohe and Bardem were concerned with guns, sneak peeks and cell phone rings, Mendes was focused on getting his visuals down to a tee. “To me, the enemy of action sequences is the kind of shoot with seven cameras, cut it together so it feels like it’s got energy, but it doesn’t quite make sense.” An accurate assessment, but by running with that mentality, Mendes had to make many more choices right there on set, leaving him fewer options in the editing room. “The way I approached it was to be very very meticulous in my prep. I previs-ed pretty much the whole of the first sequence of the movie and the whole of the last sequence with the house and a good deal of the tube train chase.”
Another scene that required a great deal of prep was the combat scene atop the Shanghai high-rise, a sequence Mendes is particularly proud of. He explained, “We made a scale model of the building and then built all the neon signs that surround it. I went in there with a lipstick cam to see how the reflections with all the panes of glass would react and it took us a long time.”