Skyfall: Interview with director Sam Mendes


Some have called the 23rd installment of the James Bond franchise, Skyfall, the best Bond movie since the franchise began. Its success may come as a surprise, or not, depending on how you see it.

The director is Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes, best known for his work in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road – both character dramas and far cries from the action genre. Skyfall is clearly a stretch for Mendes, but he has said he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed in any one genre as a filmmaker and that the Bond film was a welcomed challenge.

The film’s release celebrates the 50th anniversary of the franchise, which started with Sean Connery as Bond in Dr. No. The latest film pays homage to classic elements from Connery’s era while also taking an entirely new direction.

Moviegoers get a deeper insight into Bond’s character, played by Daniel Craig, for the first time. A flaxen-haired Javier Bardem is villain Raoul Silva, Bond’s equal in many ways. Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe are the Bond Girls, with Harris as Moneypenny, the character’s first appearance in the Craig-era Bond films. Ben Whishaw takes on Q, another reintroduced characer. Ralph Fiennes is a new addition as Gareth Mallory, and Judi Dench returns as M.

The picture broke box office records when it premiered in the U.K. on Oct. 26 and was released in North America on Nov. 9. The Martlet was one of few Canadian student newspapers that got a chance to talk to Mendes about the film via conference call with other university publications across the U.S. and Canada.

1. In the film, Bond says resurrection is his hobby. How did you resurrect Bond?

You tell a story that hasn’t been told before, and you push the character in directions he hasn’t been pushed before. I have producers who are willing to let me go places they’ve never been before in a Bond movie. The second thing is, you have to have an actor who is capable of taking the character into new areas . . . it’s possible now to be dark and push the envelope a little bit more with bigger movies. When I came on, there wasn’t a script. I spent a bit of time working with the writers pretending like we don’t have to have all the things that Bond movies usually do, like action sequences, the girls and locations, and find out what the story was at the root before we added all those things back in. I suppose that’s how I approached it.

2. You’re more known for character-based dramas, like American Beauty or Revolutionary Road. I’m wondering what drew you to the Bond character, or how did you feel you could portray his character more fully?

What drew me was that it was not a character-based drama. It was a change, it was a challenge and it was difficult. I wanted to get myself out of some habits that I might have gotten myself into before and scare myself a little bit. Then I tried to do the story in a way that my instinct was telling me to make it . . . into something I wanted to see. I felt there were lots of opportunities with pretty interesting characters to take them as far as they could go, particularly Bond and M and their relationship, and also Bond’s past . . . some things that were in the [Ian] Fleming novels but have never been touched on in the movie.

3. You brought together a crew of newcomers to the franchise, such as cinematographer Roger Deakins and veterans like special effects supervisor Chris Corbould. How do you think those combinations of new and old talent have influenced the making of Skyfall?

The director is only ever as good as his collaborators. I was very lucky in that I had a lot of new people who I’d brought on as you said, like Roger Deakins and Thomas Newman, the composer, and a large number of people who had never made a Bond movie before. They brought a kind of fresh energy . . . they didn’t want to observe the rules necessarily of previous Bond movies. At the same time, I used a lot of people who, particularly in certain areas, had had a lot of experience. I think it’s a good combination of people who are trying out something new for the first time and people who have the wisdom and experience of having made Bond movies in the past. I think you need enough new ideas to shake it up, but you need enough craft to be able to deliver the things that people expect to look for in a Bond movie.

4. Everyone seems to have his or her own opinion of what a Bond movie should be. How did you deal with all those opinions, and what kind of Bond film did you set out to make?

One of the big things with the Bond movie is that you’re surrounded by white noise all the time. Everyone has opinions about the kind of Bond they want to see, and you quickly realize everyone’s Bond is different. Some people want to see more gadgets [and] some don’t like gadgets. I had someone say to me the other day, ‘God, I hope you get some humour back into it,’ and literally five minutes later, somebody said to me, ‘Thank God, they’re not trying to be funny anymore.’ The important thing, I discovered, is to push away the white noise and try to ask yourself, what do you want to see when you’re sitting in a dark room and you pay your $15? What would you want to see if it was a Bond movie? I’ve tried to make a combination of what I want as an adult to see [and what my inner 12-year-old wanted to see]. In a way, it’s a combination of old and new, of tradition and of pushing the genre in a different direction. I think that comes mainly from trying to cut out as much as possible other people’s opinions. This is my Bond movie, but there will be others that will come along, and everyone will have a different vision of Bond. I’m very happy that I was able to make a movie that’s personal enough . . . I didn’t feel like I got lost in trying to make everyone else’s film.

5. How did you collaborate with Javier Bardem on his villain character?

We worked with a very good script. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to create anything. Second thing is, without giving a story away, there’s a sense of which this person has reconstructed himself, and there’s a reason why he looks the way he does. I think it’s important that it’s not an actor choice; it’s a character choice. He tried to find what the character would want himself to look like. With Javier, he’s very collaborative and he’s a very sweet, gentle man. He’s very thoughtful, and we had a long time to put together how the character looked. We rehearsed and talked about the language we used.

You have to remember Javier’s not working in his own language here. He’s not only working in English but also working on a very verbal character in English, a character who is extremely good with words. That’s not always been the case with his English language work. In No Country for Old Men [which Bardem won an Oscar for in his role as a serial killer], he speaks barely 10 lines. All of those things we work on day by day, and if you’re lucky, you come up with something that is as interesting as what Javier is doing in this picture.

6. What are the rewards and challenges of working with such a veteran cast?

The rewards are huge, and there are very few challenges. If you’re used to working with actors, you’ll know that these are the best in the world. They do make your life much easier. Their starting point is where a lot of actors would be finishing. That was one of the biggest delights of working on this movie. I’ve never done a movie in which every single person I offered a role to said ‘yes.’ Almost always, there are one or two parts that get turned down by somebody and you have go to second, third, fourth choice. I felt blessed. The only challenge is that both Judi [Dench] and Albert [Finney, who plays Kincade] are in their 70s, and they had to do action scenes [laughs]. But they loved it, and they were game.

7. What makes a Bond girl?

For me, there’s nothing that defines a Bond girl . . . I just wanted to create two interesting multi-dimensional characters who had a few surprises up their sleeve and weren’t the sort of doe-eyed innocent being-pushed-around [types], but had some kind of layers and some depth and some sense that they weren’t at first what they appeared. I hope that’s what we’ve achieved. Certainly there are a few surprises when it comes to Eve’s character. I wanted women to be a little more empowered and a little less, perhaps, powerless.

8. You were quoted in the media saying you aimed to attract a younger audience for this film. Why is that, and what did you do to make that happen for this movie?

I don’t think I ever said I was aiming to attract a younger audience. I’ve always thought the audience of Bond movies was quite young. It’s been a very lovely thing to find people responding to it no matter what their age. I think there’s a lot of talk about marketing departments and studios about whom it appeals to and how. That’s how movies end up being made by committees. I think at the end of the day you just have to hold onto what you think. And so that’s what I did.