Skyfall director Sam Mendes on James Bond

We speak to director as Bond celebrates 50th anniversary

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The word ‘phenomenon’ feels inadequate to describe James Bond. Played by six actors in 23 official films over five decades, stats suggest that only a bespectacled kid wizard has banked more at the box office. But in terms of iconography, Harry doesn’t come close: only 007 would be invited to appear alongside Queen Elizabeth at the London Olympics opening ceremony. While Her Majesty celebrated her 60th year on throne earlier this year, the Bond movie franchise turned 50 this month: Dr No premiered on October 5 1962, the same date as The Beatles’ debut single, ‘Love Me Do’ (talk about a good year for Britain).

Following 2008’s lukewarm Quantum of Solace, stakes are unprecedentedly high for Daniel Craig’s third turn as Bond, so in typical British style the task was given to Sam Mendes, a director best known for theatre works and heartbreaking dramas such as American Beauty. On the eve of Skyfall’s UAE release, from midnight on Thursday October 25, Dave Calhoun sat down with the 47-year-old British director.

It’s been a particularly long process, making this one, hasn’t it?
Well, it was going, and then it wasn’t, and then it was going again. We’d already shifted into third gear and suddenly there was uncertainty from the studio: stick the brakes on and put it in neutral for nine months. But the weird thing was that during that time, even though officially I wasn’t really allowed to be working on it – because we couldn’t acknowledge that it was going to happen – unofficially I could be quietly working on the script. So it meant we had time on the screenplay that we would otherwise not have had, and that put us in a very good state from the very beginning. If it’s not on the page it rarely makes it onto the screen, and that’s really helped us.

View Time Out's review of Skyfall

There’s a lot of pressure – you’re working with a global audience who think they own Bond.
Approaching [the film], I had no greater knowledge or insight into the character than you or anybody else who has a tradition with Bond. You realise very quickly that everybody has an opinion, and they’re all different. Literally, one day someone said, ‘Please put some humour into this,’ and half an hour later someone said, ‘Oh, it’s so much better now they’re not trying to be funny all the time.’ Whatever opinion someone has, someone else comes along half an hour later to state the opposite. So it’s very clear, very early on, that you can’t possibly please everyone.

People always have opinions about what someone’s going to bring to the Bond franchise. Did you pay attention to what people were saying about you?
I don’t read anything, because it does genuinely affect you. You have to retain a selective blindness, otherwise you get distracted and it plants seeds of doubt about certain things that you’ve always felt confident about, so you just have to keep them at bay. Also, I’m not a fool. I can see that people will go, ‘Well, can he do a Bond movie? Can he do action? Is he a bit serious, a bit this, a bit that?’ That’s what I’d say if I was a member of the public. But that’s the kind of challenge I like. It doesn’t freak me out. And if people like it they like it, if they don’t, they don’t. Everyone’s going to have their own opinion – you can’t stop that.

How was working with Daniel Craig?
It was pretty feisty. He puts 100 percent 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 odd because I’ve never directed an actor in a role that, in a sense, he knows almost better than I do. You [usually] start off on a level pegging. But here he’s played Bond already, so I’m the newcomer. I could feel him as an actor wanting to go to places, and I felt I knew how to take him there, but it had to be bedded down in the story.

Did you go back and read some of the Fleming novels?
I did – I read a lot. I particularly focused on the ones 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. Fleming put a lot of things in those novels that the movies threw out because they were, at the time, considered too dark. But we now live in an era where these things are deemed not only appropriate, but almost necessary for big franchise movies. If you have a big franchise movie without a dark, messed-up character in the middle, it’s almost not worth doing.

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

And you’re now off to direct Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on stage, which is set to open at the London Palladium in June 2013…
I am, yes. Another English icon ruined by me! Good luck with starting that, and good luck with Skyfall.Yes, well I hope you enjoy it when you see it. And we’ll see what the future holds for it. You feel like it’s a child. [Films] are like children. You send them into the world, and sometimes you just see their legs wobbling before they even get out the door. But I feel Skyfall has relatively strong legs.

Meet the Bond girls

The ladies in 007’s life are perhaps one of the most talked-about features of any Bond movie, but Skyfall’s two female leads might take issue with the ‘Bond girls’ moniker. Tom Huddleston finds out why…

Naomie Harris, 36
The British actress will be familiar to audiences from the likes of 28 Days Later and Pirates of the Caribbean. In Skyfall she pays Eve, an MI6 agent who assists 007 on his mission.

Is the term ‘Bond girl’ appropriate in this day and age?
I wouldn’t say that ‘Bond girl’ is a demeaning phrase, but I feel like Eve is a different sort of character. She’s not there to wear slinky frocks – she’s a capable woman out in the field.

How much training did you do for this role?
I’ve been training for eight months, three times a week. It’s about stamina. If you’re doing 11 takes, you need that. We did kickboxing, stunt fighting, learning to drive at high speed and doing 360˚ turns, plus a lot of weapons training with rifles, Walther PPKs… It’s the most intense amount of training I’ve ever had to do.

Are you a fan of the modern Bond?
I really see Daniel Craig as Bond. Casino Royale was the first Bond movie that really connected with me, and that was because of his performance, because there was more reality to his Bond, he was more human. The idea of a Bond who gets hurt, who feels things, who gets connected to a woman, that’s something I hadn’t seen before.

Bérénice Marlohe, 33
This French-Asian actress appeared extensively on French TV before being offered the role of Sévérine, Skyfall’s femme fatale.

How do you feel about the label ‘Bond girl’? Can it be something of a curse?
It’s an honour to be cursed as a Bond girl! It’s incredibly exciting. But I see Sévérine as a unique character in a unique movie, rather than a Bond girl. It’s a very abstract label. All those women with bathing suits!

So how would you describe Sévérine?
Glamorous and enigmatic. The enigmatic part is important for me because I really don’t want her to be obvious. You can’t put her in a box, like you could with many of the Bond girls – she’s a good girl, she’s a bad girl, she’s complex.

What do you think of Daniel Craig as Bond?
All the usual male models, they’re very boring. They don’t have charisma. What’s important is personality and what you have to say. Daniel has such a beautiful humanity, a very nice personality, a great sense of humour. This is what makes someone attractive.

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