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Interview: Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road to Directing James Bond

On paper, Sam Mendes and James Bond might not seem to be the best fit. On the one hand, you have the director of movies like Jarhead and American Beauty, which unearth the dysfunction beneath cultural archetypes. On the other, a franchise with strict expectations not exactly known for its auteurs, and traditionally better suited to more action-oriented guys like Martin Campbell. Yet Skyfall looks on track to be the biggest and best-liked Bond yet, as audiences and critics reward what had once been viewed as an outdated series for taking some creative chances. Whether you have or have not seen it already, we hope our interview with Mendes about all things Bond will leave you stirred, not shaken.

Nerdist: When you direct a Bond movie, do you get to direct the trippy credit sequence as well, or is that outsourced?

Sam Mendes: That’s outsourced, to a man in this case called Danny Kleinman. I gave him a very clear brief, which was I wanted it to be Bond sort of going down into the underworld, in a way; sort of journey through his unconscious. And then he does storyboards, and you give notes on the storyboards, then he does an animated storyboard, and you give notes on those – you know, it goes back and forth – but really, it’s his work, and he’s pretty great.

N: I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say we learn more about Bond’s backstory in this movie than you do probably in any other Bond movie. Was that presented to you as something you were going to do, or was that something you specifically wanted to explore?

SM: Nothing was presented to me in the movie because when I came on there was no script – not even a treatment, really – so it was something that I was interested to explore, and I pushed it with the producers, and they seemed to love the idea, so they went with it. But you know, I didn’t invent it; it was all there in the Fleming. It just had never been addressed in the movies before, only in the books.

N: It feels in a way like the culmination of a trilogy. Was that presented as something for you to think about, or did you just think about it on its own?

SM: I don’t think it’s a trilogy at all. The first two movies are linked, but this is not linked in any way, really. It’s just a stand-alone story. So for me – I know everyone’s obsessed with trilogies these days, but it’s not a trilogy. There’s another movie coming out, and another one after that, so I think they’ll all be their own thing.

N: Although this one basically takes care of all his origins and gets Daniel Craig to where the other Bond was.

SM: Possibly, yes. You could argue that, yeah.

N: A running theme throughout a lot of your work is the subversion of what you see on the outside, like you’ve got a beautiful married couple, but they’re actually miserable; or you’re a Marine going to war, but then the war doesn’t happen. With the Bond movie there is obviously some subversion but there are also some definite expectations of what the movie holds. Was that a tricky balance to do?

SM: I think the balance is everything, isn’t it? It’s trying to find a way of providing the things you expect from a Bond movie, but at the same time making the familiar strange again, and a lot of it is I think trying to find a way to make Bond – to make an audience invest in Bond in some way, when really, for a long time, he was just a given. He was an unchanging character. Certainly in the Roger Moore years he was an unchanging character. And here, you could argue that Bond is the person who changes the most in the story. It’s all about the balance. It’s a peculiar pressure to have, to know that you have to do certain things in a story, when the story hasn’t even been written yet. But at the end of the day I think you have to embrace that, and that’s the particular requirements of a movie like this, and it would be crazy to complain about it. If you don’t want to do action, do something else! (laughs)

N: Was Wrath of Khan an inspiration at all? I kind of got a vibe…

SM: No, it will be appalling to you and the readers of your website, but I’ve never seen it, so I don’t know what you mean.

N: Wow! You’ll be astonished at the parallels if you ever do see it.

SM: Oh really? I’d better watch it then, hadn’t I?

N: So was it an interesting transition to do large-scale action? You’ve never really done action on a scale like this. Was that a challenge?

SM: Big challenge, yeah! And it was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I wanted to test myself against that and experience it, really, and I discovered I had very specific ways I wanted to do it. [Cinematographer] Roger Deakins and I wanted to focus on it in a more classical way and not do it handheld and not multi-camera too often. So it’s done in the classical way. But yeah, that was one of the things that most attracted me to it. And then on top of that, I wanted to create a movie where the action was integral to the story, rather than a stand-alone – I think often in action movies the story stops, the action sequence starts for 10 minutes, and then the story starts again, and I tried as much as possible to create parallel action and not get trapped in a linear chase. So that’s why the things are shaped in that particular way.

N: Does it feel as much to you like a Sam Mendes movie as a Bond movie? Do you feel like you could really put a directorial stamp on it?

SM: It feels to me weirdly as personal as anything I’ve done. I was worried that that wouldn’t be the case when I started, and I was worried that it would be a committee driven movie, and I wanted to establish that wouldn’t be the case straight out. But when you’ve got producers as strong, and yet as trusting, as Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson , it’s much easier to make the movie. They keep the studio at bay, and they said from the beginning that we don’t want a Bond movie, we want your Bond movie. And if I hadn’t felt that, I wouldn’t have done it. But looking at it now, it feels no less personal than anything else I’ve done.

N: What was it about Bond that used to appeal to you the most, and has that changed now that you’ve taken this on?

SM: It’s changed completely, yeah, because I was a 12 year old, 11 year old, when I saw Bond and it was the mystery of the adult world, and adult sex and glamorous locations, and great chases. I think those things are now provided by many other movies, as well as Bond, so I think it forces you to ask what’s the definition of Bond that isn’t all those things. To me what’s interesting about it is the complexity of him as a character and his enduring popularity, and why that should be. And in this movie there is a discussion about what’s the point of Bond, really, and what’s the point of the secret intelligence service, and what’s the point of MI6, and shouldn’t we all grow up and move on, you know? And Bond and M mount a counterargument, and by the end I think that probably you know which side I’m on.

N: One of the factors in (at least) modern Bond movies is there’s always product placement. Was that something that was tough to deal with, or was it natural?

SM: No, actually, there was a lot of fuss made about it beforehand, by the press, but I found it not important at all, because what happens is Barbara and Mike come to you early on and say “We have a relationship with six companies. Are any of these a problem for you? Do you think you can you find a way to use these?” And I’d say “Well, those two – no.” You can say “No, I can’t use those in this movie.” Because there’s nowhere they could be. There’s no scenes involving those things. And they’d say “Fine.” And they’d go back to those companies and say “We can’t use you in this picture.” But the other four were things that were going to have to happen anyway. Bond is going to have to have drinks, and it will be that drink. He’s going to have to wear a watch; it might as well be that watch. It didn’t matter to me, and I didn’t compromise the movie in any way in order to get them in, so it wasn’t an issue.

N: It’s funny, people make a huge deal about, “He’s going to drink Heineken instead of a martini,” but then when you see it you go “Well, he drinks Heineken when he’s kind of depressed.”

SM: Yeah, and he drinks a martini when he’s not. But you know, that’s because they didn’t listen to what we were saying. They wanted a story, and we said “It’s not a big deal, he drinks all sorts of alcohol in the books.” Everything from beer to martinis to whiskey to everything! He drinks heavily – people did in those days – but that’s all they had to go on, and they needed to write a story about it, but it really isn’t a story.

N: Was there a conscious effort to go back to the books a bit more than, say, Roger Moore would have done?

SM:  The spirit of the books, yes. Not really the details of the books. Particularly the last trilogy of the books, which are very much Bond at his darkest, and most confused, and most conflicted. We borrowed a lot of details from those books.

N: OK, this one might be a minor spoiler, but I don’t think it’s one of the key ones. When Javier Bardem takes out his teeth, I want to know how you did that shot – what happened there?

SM: Well, I don’t think I want to give away the trade secrets there. Suffice it to say, some of it is real and some of it is visual effect. But quite a lot of it is real, so along with everything in the movie, I tried as much as possible to get everything in-camera, and to get as much as possible, you know, for real, and then only ever supplement it, enlarge it, and tweak it in visual effects. And the same is the case with that.

N: As much as I really like the new Q, I feel kind of sad that John Cleese only got to do it once. Was there every any talk of having him?

SM: (laughs) No, there wasn’t, but you’re right – it’s weird, one always forgets that he played it. But no, there was no talk of that.

N: Ralph Fiennes – I was amazed he was in this, because I hadn’t heard. Was there a conscious effort to cast him based on, shall we say, previous actors who have been in the series?

SM: No, it was very much – I don’t really want to talk about what happens to his character, so for me it was really important that we had a few surprises in store for his character.

N: Another thing that has been a sort of tempest in a teapot is when Bond suggests he may have seduced a man in the past.

SM:  Right. Well, in the scene, if you see it, if you take it out of context you don’t understand, but when you watch it in the scene, Silva (Javier Bardem’s character) is really fucking with him. I wouldn’t say he definitely wants to fuck him. I think you have to see the movie. What I love about it is they’re playing a power game, the two of them, and you never know whether he’s being real or not. And I certainly won’t tell you what I think!

N: I think it’s clear in this movie, and in the Craig movies in general, that Bond is sort of using seduction as a means to an end. I think a lot of people grew up with Bond and they thought he was just this romantic guy, charms the ladies and they just go for his charm. It’s kind of clearer in this that he’s using it for a purpose. Is that something that you wanted to clarify?

SM:  I think that’s what Daniel brings with him. There’s a sort of toughness there, but also a vulnerability, and I think what I love about – you know, you can say that, but on the other hand, no Bond has ever, to my mind, fallen in love as convincingly as Daniel did in Casino Royale. So you could say it’s the area in between, that there are those that he’s using, and there are those that he really falls for. I think it’s the area in between that’s maybe less so than the previous movies.

N: How do you choose the specific exotic locales that Bond’s going to go to? I know there’s always an expectation that he’s going to go all over the world. What’s the process like?

SM: You choose the locations that mean something in the context of the story, really. Shanghai is really a place where Bond is still detached and not at his most confident, and somehow we needed to take him to a modernist, slightly alienating landscape because he’s somehow not yet fully himself. So it’s trying to find locations that mean something in the story, rather than just sort of ticking off locations that Bond hasn’t been to in the past.

N: Having done this, are you interested in doing more action movies, or returning to more dramatic ones?

SM: I think for me it’s always been a balance, and I’ve never sought to be solely a commercial filmmaker. I think if commercial success is your only criterion then you’re going to struggle, you know? So my guess would be that I would return to something, perhaps a little less action based, having just done this. But I would certainly love to do something like this again in the future, and something on this scale, because on the whole I’ve loved it. It’s been a wonderful journey.

N: Did you always wanted to direct a Bond film? Was that a fantasy?

SM: No. No! Because I never even had fantasies that I would be a director, let alone a Bond director. And then when I started directing, Bond meant something different to me at that point. I wasn’t so interested. It was when my friend Daniel started playing Bond that I got interested. It’s worth saying at this point that I could never have made this film without Martin Campbell and Casino Royale. Because they did the really difficult job, which was to level the playing field again, to take away pastiche, take away self-referential humor, and make him a more serious character again.

N: There is some good humor in this, though.

SM: Well, I say that – then it’s made it possible for us to reintroduce some of that again; reintroduce Q, reintroduce some of the humor.

N: Who was your favorite Bond before this, and what was your favorite Bond movie?

SM:  My favorite Bond was Sean Connery, though I had a soft spot for Roger Moore, because he’s my first Bond in Live and Let Die. And my favorite Bond movie, to be honest with you, is Casino Royale, which I thought was fantastic.

Have you seen Skyfall yet? If so, what did you think? Sound off below, and let us know what directors you’d like to see take on Britain’s best in subsequent sequels. And if you enjoyed this article, consider signing up for Nerdist News to get more like it first thing every weekday morning.

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  1. Tim says:

    I loved it. It might be my favorite Bond film at this point, but I need to see it again and re-watch CR to really decide.

    The thing that stuck out for me is that it’s a great film period; not just a great Bond film. You can’t really say many of the older Bond films were great movies outright.

  2. Three Toes of Fury says:

    Luke….excellent interview!! Thanks!

    Just saw Skyfall yesterday…its OUTSTANDING. I was concerned that my expectations were too high given the great critical reception, however this movie meets and beats even high expectations. Its incredibly well written and directed, providing more depth, character development, and emotional range/connection than most Bond flicks have done. we nerdists know…the key to most movies lies within the choice of the villain. Javier plays a wonderful new bond villian…he’s actually underused in the flick and comes across with some honest motivation in his backstory, and great quirkiness. As someone who was rased on a love of Bond (ok you old nerdists..who remembers the giddiness of pre-vhs/pre-cable days when Bond was on the sunday night movie on one of the few tv channels avail???), im happy to report that Skyfall is an exceptional entry into the series and one that i look forward to revisiting.

    Peace & I’ll have a diet coke and mento’s martini…shaken, not sti…BAM!!!!

    Fury…Three Toes of Fury.

  3. I saw Skyfall at midnight when it opened and I pretty much lost my shit. It was amazing. Casino Royale was great, yes, but Mendes’s film was brilliant. The story, the characters, the script, the soundtrack, and the absolutely stunning lighting in the scenes set at Skyfall. I pretty much had a lighting-gasm. As for who I’d like to direct new Bond movies: Darren Aronofsky, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Danny Boyle. I think they’s all make incredible Bond films.