When British filmmaker Sam Mendes won an Oscar for directing his first feature film American Beauty back in 1999, few doubted he would have a thriving career as a director, but even fewer could have expected how long it would take him to make a movie that represented his British roots.
Instead, he went on to make a string of films that explored different sides of American culture, whether it’s the period crime thriller Road to Perdition to American’s involvement in the first Iraq War in Jarhead, the suburban drama of Revolutionary Road or the soul-seeking road comedy that is Away We Go.
Even before making those five very different movies, Mendes had established himself as one of the most respected names in British theater. After spending years playing with his American toys on film, however, he was offered to direct one of England’s most erstwhile franchises with the 23rd James Bond movie, Skyfall, which would represent the character’s 50th Anniversary in film.
The results are a movie that has Daniel Craig’s James Bond reaching his lowest point possible and struggling to get back up as an enemy from M’s past, played by Javier Bardem, sets his sights on destroying MI6.
We had a chance to talk to Mendes a few weeks back, and in the interview that follows, you can learn about some of the decisions that went into Skyfall – we tried to cut out any major spoilers or surprises and there are plenty! He also told us which movie and actor he felt was a precursor to Bond and one that inspired his first (and hopefully not last) Bond movie; the answer may surprise you.
ComingSoon.net: It’s gotta be a relief to have the movie out there and people seeing it and enjoying it. Generally, everyone I’ve talked to has loved the movie.
Sam Mendes: Yeah, no, I’m thrilled, absolutely thrilled. I’m very excited and frankly, it’s so weird because I finished it last Wednesday and on the Friday, I was being reviewed so it was like whoa! (Laughs)
CS: That is fast.
Mendes: I wasn’t doing significant changes on it, but I was still tweaking things – a couple of sound issues we had and one visual effect thing and then it was like, “Alright, it’s done.” I literally had to run down the road and stick it on in the cinema. These days of course it doesn’t come in reels of film. You have to make prints. It’s on a f*cking, you know–
CS: A hard drive, yeah.
Mendes: It’s a hard drive that looks like one of those wine boxes that you get at the store with a little tap on it. It’s so weird.
CS: These days, it’s all about instant gratification so it must be one of those things…
Mendes: Well, the great thing about it was that I didn’t have time to get worried about it, you know what I mean? The other thing that nobody told me, and I didn’t really ask, I suppose, was I assumed that the reviews were going to be embargoed for a few weeks, so it was like (makes barfing noise), they were all like… “Sh*t!” Actually, it was great because it was like someone ripping off a band-aid. (Laughs)
CS: Usually you do these junkets and you won’t really know what people really think.
Mendes: I know, yeah. I know.
CS: Unless you ask them, but most filmmakers don’t want to do that…
Mendes: (Laughs) No, exactly.
CS: We spoke for “Away We Go,” and I’ve always been following your career and I’ve probably been at press conferences for a couple of your other movies. I don’t think I ever got the impression you were a Bond fan, at least to the point where you want to put yourself out there to make one.
Mendes: Well, I was a Bond fan as a kid, and I was a Bond fan again when I saw “Casino Royale” and my friend Daniel was so brilliant and exciting and felt so new and fresh. But I could honestly say–and you probably know this now because it’s out there in the public domain–but I saw him at a party, and he said, “You fancy doing the next Bond?” I’m like, “Yeah.” It literally–and I’m not lying when I say it really hadn’t occurred to me, but I thought in that particular moment–it’s all about timing. It was just the right timing. I was just looking for something to be totally different, you know what I mean? I guess I was sort of frustrated with trying to thread a needle with movies that are very difficult to balance tone. The idea of doing a genre piece was very exciting. Then, it was Daniel, and I don’t know, it just felt like I know him, he’s my friend and Judi’s my friend. I’d take it back to England and I need to do an English movie. Enough with American films. You know, all that stuff. It ticked all the boxes, and I just thought, “Why the hell not, you know?” I knew people would go, “Really? He doesn’t do that.” But that kind of got me going as well. (Laughs) I just thought, “Yeah, f*ck that. I’ll do it and I’ll see whether I can do action and I’ll see whether I can do”–and I need a bit of pressure to get me out of bed in the morning. And I certainly got two years of it on this movie. (laughs)
CS: It’s interesting because you haven’t really done any British movies. It’s kind of strange when you think about it. You don’t even think about it until you mention it.
Mendes: I know. No, it’s funny, but the weird thing is that the first two or three were very deliberate. I wanted to do a movie out of London, and “American Beauty” came along as a script and even though it was a world that was not something that I knew like the back of my hand, I felt very at home in it. Then, because we moved here and the kids were at school, and I didn’t want to leave the kids, so I just thought, “Well, I better carry on making movies here,” because you’ve got young kids, you don’t want to leave them. So, the last two, possibly three movies I made, it was sort of circumstantial in a way that it wasn’t really a conscious decision. It was just like, “Well, if I made this movie I can get to see the kids at night, you know?” And then, going back to England, the kids are a little older, it just was the right time.
CS: Michael and Barbara obviously made a bunch of these movies. They have a pretty good structure.
Mendes: A few. (Laughs)
CS: They have a pretty good sense of how to make these movies. It’s really interesting that you brought back Alexander (Witt, second unit director) and Stuart (Baird, editor) from “Casino Royale,” but they also brought along Thomas Newman and Roger Deakins, both whom are new to Bond.
Mendes: Yeah, well what I tried to do was I had to define the people that I really needed to make it feel like my film and there were two key figures in that. Roger Deakins, who I obviously worked with twice before, and Dennis Gassner, who was the production designer, who designed “Road to Perdition” and “Jarhead.” Luckily, Dennis had done the last (Bond) movie, so they knew him, so that was taken care of, then Tom Newman to compose. I felt like I needed those three. Actually, my sound mixer as well, but that’s a separate thing, but then I also needed to challenge myself with new people. I needed the best second unit director. I thought the work that Alex did on “Casino Royale” was really spectacular along with Martin (Campbell, director). I mean, the second unit director fulfills the demands of the director, but they have a style of their own. Everyone loved him. He’s very mellow. He’s very easy-going. He’s very easy to work with, but very focused. Then, these great other people like Chris Corbould, head of special FX, Gary Powell (the stunt coordinator). You know, all these people who were new to me and I needed a bit of the tradition of Bond in there. Then, I needed a great editor. I needed a great editor who could edit action sequences. I felt very confident I could put together the dramatic stuff myself, but I needed someone who had that kind of skill, and Stuart is an exceptional editor. I mean, he’s got a bit of magic about him. It’s really, really good.
CS: As a director on a Bond movie, how much leeway did you have as far as what to bring in? You brought in a number of new characters to the mythos, but you also make quite a few nods to previous movies. How much of that are you bringing in? How much of that comes from out of collaboration?
Mendes: Early on, I wanted to bring back Q. I wanted to bring back Moneypenny. I wanted to have a great mischievous villain in the center in the old tradition closer to “Goldfinger” and Rosa Klebb and the great, slightly theatrical performances of the Sean Connery years. I had all those things that I felt like – and I had to check with Barbara and Michael, “Look, this is what I want to do.” “Yeah, yeah, we’re absolutely cool with that.” Then, I took it from there.
CS: I gotta say that the introduction of Silva may be one of the best introductions for a Bond villain ever. It’s really daring and you don’t really see people doing things like that.
Mendes: Yes, of course.
CS: Where it’s one take, kind of walking towards the camera.
Mendes: Well, I loved that. In the script originally, Bond was knocked out and he woke up and Silva was sitting in front of him telling him the story. I had a different take on it. I had an image of him coming down on the elevator and walking towards camera in one take. I said to Javier, “This is what I want to do.” He’s like, “Great. Scary, but great.”
CS: He said you didn’t do any other versions either. You decided on that, and that was it.
Mendes: No, that was it, yeah. That was what I was going to do and that’s how it ended up. We were tied to it. It’s that thing of knowing that sometimes you don’t want coverage and you don’t need additional shots, just the sheer daring of it seems to match the spirit of the character.
CS: I went to Pinewood when you were blowing up the subway system and I saw some of the sets up close and Dennis did an amazing job. We walked around the island and were roaming around and they were like, “This is where Bond meets Silva” and that was it. We really didn’t know much more than that.
Mendes: Right. It looks great in the movie, doesn’t it?
CS: It looks amazing.
Mendes: It was shot in March and the sun was out for four days. It was weird. It pissed rain for like five weeks up to it and five weeks after it, but that week, it was sunny. They’re walking into that place and you could believe it’s this sort of subtropical… we were lucky there.
CS: I liked it because the Bond villains always had these weird hideouts and it brings that back.
Mendes: Yeah, weird little lair, yeah. I wanted that, exactly. They’re generally an island or they’re underwater.
CS: How close did you work with Javier to develop the character? How much of that was in the script?
Mendes: It was kind of there but then we developed it and developed it and developed it. I talked with Javier. He said, “I’m interested.” He said, “I like everything about the script, but I’m not sure about the character yet. Where do you want to take it?” I described where I wanted to take it. He said, “I love that.” We wrote that into the script. He then said yes. Then he started developing it. We were also developing it together, screen tests. He said, “I want to try blonde.” I was like, “I don’t think that’s going to work.” He came on. “I think that might work. Let’s try and work on the look a little bit.” That’s when we worked on his eyes, reconstructing his face because of what happened to him all those years ago, then we had the idea of the teeth. Then, it gradually percolated. It just grew in that lovely way that it does when you’ve got a really good writer and a really good actor and you’ve got people with the right ideas. The way he played the last scene with Judi is, I think amazing. He does stuff in that scene that shouldn’t make logical sense, it made absolute sense when you come at it at that point in the character’s story. It’s so odd and disconcerting and it’s just wonderful, and that’s him. Those were his ideas. He brought that all himself. I can’t lay claim to any of that. All I do is just make sure and manage it and make sure that it’s staged in the right way so that the very difficult last scene in the chapel.
CS: One thing I like about the movie is that it’s a mix of the traditional and unconventional, which is very hard to do and very hard to pull off.
Mendes: Why, thank you.
CS: You wrapped up 50 years while also setting things up so that in theory, the Sean Connery movie “Dr. No” could happen right after this one.
Mendes: I know, I loved that. That’s exactly right, but that’s true, and in a way, that is really just my respect and love for those early movies. The other thing is, for me, the first true Bond movie is not a Bond movie. The first Bond movie, really, the antecedent is “North by Northwest,” the great Bond director that wasn’t is Hitchcock, because Cary Grant in that movie, you know, there’s great romance, there’s great action, there’s great thrills in that film. He is the quintessence of cool. He is the man everyone wants to be. He’s got the suit. He’s urbane. He’s in a certain age. He’s mysterious, he’s dashing. He’s dynamic. That’s truly the beginning of Bond, for me, on film. I thought about that movie as much as I thought about any other Bond movie. Also, it’s a masterpiece and when you’re thinking about making a thriller it seems to me the best, most perfect rendition of that. If you think about movies up to that point, that kind of action-adventure, changing locations, traveling across country, meeting the glamorous, mysterious woman espionage thing really didn’t exist until that movie. It’s a particular kind of combination of things.
CS: I was wondering if Muse pitched a theme song for the movie, because there’s a song on their new record which sounds like it could have been a Bond theme song.
Mendes: Really? That would’ve been cool, no, no. It was always Adele.
CS: When we spoke for “Away We Go,” you already had a lot of things you were developing, which you obviously put on the backburners to do this. Is there anything you want to go back to?
Mendes: At the moment, I literally don’t know what I’m going to do next. It’s been a huge adventure, it’s been really exciting, and it’s given me lots of ideas and it opens new doors, new ways of making films. I felt I’ve learned a lot and I need to kind of compute what the experience has really been and have time to kind of settle what it is yet. So, I don’t know, since you asked.
CS: You probably get to go through the end of the year and just not worry about it until January I guess if you didn’t want to.
Mendes: Ah, I may go longer than that. (Laughs)
CS: But those other things you’ve been developing, are you still interested in doing them?
Mendes: Yeah, I mean, one of the things I liked. I still produce things and to me, that’s a lovely way of keeping your hand in and being involved in projects without having to commit to the sheer agony of having to direct. (laughs)
CS: Do you think you’ll go back to theater?
Mendes: Yeah, no, I want to do a play, exactly.
CS: A play is a good palette cleanser after a Bond movie.
Mendes: Yeah, or maybe the Bond movie was a palette cleanser for the theater.
CS: Well, if people go see your next play and wonder where all the action came from…
Mendes: (Laughs) Exactly yeah, swinging on stage and fighting.
CS: Do you think you’d do another Bond movie ever or not right away?
Mendes: I couldn’t answer that. One of the things is that I put everything I wanted to do in a Bond movie into this movie. If I felt I could do that again, maybe I’d do another one, but that’s a big ask because I’ve got a hell of a lot, you know what I mean?
CS: I miss the days of the ’60s when they had the same director on three Bond movies.
Mendes: I know. I know.
CS: It doesn’t happen anymore now.
Mendes: It does. Look at Chris Nolan, look at Peter Jackson.
CS: Right, but not on a Bond movie.
Mendes: Oh yeah, no.
Skyfall is now playing internationally but will open in North America on Friday, November 9–it opens one day early in IMAX theaters. While you’re waiting, you can watch interviews with Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem and look for our final video interview with the “Ladies of ‘Skyfall’” next week. Also, we spoke with Mendes about one of the movie’s biggest spoilers but we won’t run that until everyone in the States has had a chance to see the movie.