Time Out São Paulo

Sam Mendes: interview

Sam Mendes, the director of the newest 007 film, Skyfall , talks about meeting and dodging the expectations inherent in making a Bond film

So where is the film up to at the moment: are you still in the midst of the edit?

The movie’s locked, but I haven’t completed the film. The picture’s locked, but the music, and the mixing, and all that sort of stuff is still going on.

What stage are you at with it?

I’m at the totally fucked stage of the process! I’m totally fucked! You can put that in. I don’t care anymore!

It’s ‘there’ though isn’t it?

Anthony Minghella had a great phrase: ‘You make a movie five times’. You make it in the writing, in the casting, in the shooting, in the editing, and then in the composing, and that actually you can get the first four right, but at any point you can sink it.

So in a weird way if I feel it’s going well I become even tenser. I feel like there’s still that last process of refinement. You become very obsessive and slightly maddening to everybody around you because you’re just doggedly going on about details. But, you know, hopefully details are all that remains at this point, and not big things.

Did you have a strong idea, looking back, of what you wanted to do?

I think I probably did, yes. When I came on board, which was very early in the process, there was a treatment, and I was very clear straight away that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. And I took one very small element from that, and abandoned everything else.

So you had something to react to?

Yes. And I don’t think I realised how crystallised my own opinions already were until I sat down and said: ‘This is the Bond movie I want to make’. This is the Bond movie I want to see, but it’s also the Bond movie I think that an audience wants to see, and also Fleming might have enjoyed. There are all sorts of other strange masters that lurk over the film, but wouldn't be around in the normal film process. There are big shadows cast across Bond movies by all these other people, particularly Fleming I think.

The idea of ownership is interesting with Bond, because you’re working with a global audience who think they own Bond. They have a genuine interest.

Approaching it, I had no greater knowledge or insight into the character than you or anybody else who has a tradition with Bond. But one of the things you realise very quickly is everybody has an opinion, and that they’re all different. Literally on one day someone said, ‘God, I hope you please put some humour into this,’ and half an hour later – while with friends and acquaintances – someone else said, ‘Oh it’s so much better now they’re not trying to be funny all the time.’ You know: ‘Oh God, please can it not be quite so violent’; or ‘You’ve got to put more explosions in there!’

Whatever opinion someone has, someone comes along half an hour later to state the opposite. And so it’s very clear, very early on, that you can’t possibly please everyone. You’ve got to just make the one that you feel hits the correct balance – it’s a tonal issue as well.

Did you go back and read some of the Fleming novels?

I did – not all of them, but a few. I particularly focused on the ones that 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. That’s where Bond is suffering from a kind of acidic crisis of faith – a slight sense of ‘What’s the point?’ His relationship with M has become thornier than ever. He doesn’t want to do it.

Fleming put a lot of things in those novels that the movies threw out, because at the time they were considered too dark, and it was at the point when the franchise was becoming more of a travelogue, more flamboyant, and more to do with entertainment – abandoning those elements of the Bond novels that were slightly darker and more disturbing. But we live now in an era where those things are deemed not only appropriate, but almost necessary for big franchise movies. If you’ve got a big franchise movie without a dark, fucked-up character in the middle of it then it’s almost not worth doing!

So you can now go back to the character that Fleming created.

Exactly, and I felt that there were beginnings, well more than beginnings of that, in Casino Royale. The torture scene was shocking. And rightly so. It is what Fleming wrote, but I don’t think any other Bond movie had gone that far. And interestingly, it’s not shocking because there’s blood and gore and all that sort of stuff. It’s shocking because it’s intrinsically disturbing.

Did you look anywhere else in cinema for inspiration, other than the Bond movies themselves?

I tried to avoid the world of Bond that had already been created, but there are moments in the movie where I kind of go all out: ‘OK I’m going to go good, old fashioned Bond – there’s going to be a tux, there’s going to be a casino, there’s going to be a girl in the casino.’

How much time goes into the decisionmaking process over the title of a film like this one?

I think it’s very difficult, the title in movies. I remember I made Road to Perdition for Dreamworks and Spielberg, and I didn’t want to call it Road to Perdition because I thought it was a bit of a mouthful. And he said: ‘Listen. At the end of the day, if the movie’s any good, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. I made a movie called Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the studio told me I was fucking insane. But the moment it came out, it was ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind!’’

You can obsess about it, and I think if you do, you do get into a kind of generic titling. You can use the word ‘Die’ in a title, but you can’t use the word ‘Death’ – ‘Die’ is active, ‘Death’ is final. You sit around debating, and you end up thinking: ‘You know what, there’s a title in the movie’. It’s just the name of something. And when you see the movie it makes sense.

In the same way that the 2012 Olympic logo, previously criticised, has now become a symbol of a golden era for London.

I totally agree – I thought exactly the same thing when I saw the logo: ‘That's a dog’s breakfast’. But now, having been there and lived through it as everyone has this summer, it has a resonance. But it’s because of the event. So yes, that’ll come down to whether the movie stands or falls.

Did you wish you had been involved in the 007 section of the Olympic opening ceremony?

No, that was Danny’s [Boyle] conception. And even I – I knew enough about it, but I didn’t know the full extent of it. No, that was definitely a Danny moment. It worked brilliantly, and it was also completely tonally appropriate to Bond.

You seemed to do a lot of London location shooting as well.

Yes, we did do that. London definitely plays a central part in the movie. I was definitely influenced by 1960s English movies – Get Carter, The Italian Job ... There’s a The Third Man influence in there too. It’s a dark, shadowy London that we create, one that you probably feel you know, but it looks at it from slightly different angles, and goes places in London that you haven’t probably been before. But it’s tied into the story.

What sort of places did you were you feature in London?

We shot in the obvious places, but also in parts of London I never knew existed, right under your feet. That to me is an extraordinary world that’s so close and yet so inaccessible. One of the great, golden days of the movie for me was closing down Whitehall on a Sunday, and getting in there while the road was entirely closed, and the sun was coming up on a Sunday morning, five-thirty in the morning, and it was just amazing, it was magical. And there was Downing Street – just one policeman, and nobody else there.

The sense of history and place, and my own sense of pride in it being the city that I grew up in, and that I live in, all that sort of stuff, was re-ignited by the movie in many ways. And then it was confirmed by the Olympics, also because there was Bond, right at the beginning of it and I felt that somehow… It’s not a comfortable feeling for any of us, as Britons, to feel pride in our country. Our default position is to be cynical. With the Olympics, it took a couple of days to break down the wall, but then we all just went for it!

It does feel as if a corner has been turned, in terms of being able to feel pride without it feeling like it’s something of the Right, or something that’s conservative.

Absolutely. I totally agree.

How would you describe the process of working with Daniel Craig?

It was pretty feisty, I think. He puts a hundred per cent 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 very odd because I’ve never directed an actor in a role which in a sense he knows almost better than I do. You usually start off on a level pegging. But here it’s like, ‘Well he’s played Bond already, so I’m the newcomer.’

But he was very clear about the things he wanted to achieve in the movie, that he felt he hadn’t managed to do, particularly in the last one, and he was like, ‘Look, can we get into this area over here and that over there?’ And those early conversations before I sat down with the writers and started working on the script were crucial, because it meant that I knew the areas he was willing to go, and I could steer it in that direction.

You’ve said that you wanted to cast Javier Bardem in order to create something that you haven’t seen in a Bond movie for a long time. What were you looking for from him?

I think a kind of flamboyance – the kind of character who knows or understands the flamboyance of his own gestures. And [who can] also steer his character into areas, in terms of his relationship with Bond and M, that I don’t think has been done in any other Bond movie.

Bardem’s sporting another fantastic hairdo.

Yeah, I can’t say I can quite compete with the Coen Brothers. It’s not quite as eccentric, but it’s not far off! He loves disappearing into somebody, from top to bottom. There’s a reason why he looks the way he does in the movie, but you have to see it to find out.

Would you do a Bond film again?

I’ve certainly enjoyed it enough to do it again. I think that the choice of whether to do it again is in the hands of the audience. I feel like if the movie is something that people love, and they want to see another one from the same people, then that would mean a lot to me, because I would feel like, ‘Well, actually there’s other people who really want to see it.’

The other thing is, I feel like I put everything I wanted to do with a Bond movie into this Bond movie, and I would have to feel the same thing all over again with another one. So it would take a lot of thought to try and make it as special to me as this one has been. I’m knackered, but I have loved it.

And now you are heading off to direct Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on stage. Good luck with that, and good luck with Skyfall too.

Yes, well I hope you enjoy it. And we’ll see what the future holds for it. You feel like it’s a child. These things are children. You sort of send them off into the world, and sometimes you just feel their legs wobbling before they even get out the door. But I feel it’s got relatively strong legs.


By Dave Calhoun
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