Sam Mendes interview: Skyfall, stunts & cinematography

We spoke to director Sam Mendes about the pressures and pleasures of making the 50th anniversary Bond movie, Skyfall…

If director Sam Mendes felt any pressure about taking on the Bond franchise in time for his fifth decade in cinemas, it doesn’t show in the finished product. Perhaps the most critically lauded Bond movie in years, the positive word on Skyfall will surely add to its already assured success when it lands in UK cinemas this Friday.

Although Mendes’ grounding in theatre and dramatic cinema might have made him a somewhat leftfield choice for an action franchise about a secret agent, his understanding of story and character give a much-needed edge to the usual Bond staples of high-wire stunts and big explosions. So as Skyfall prepares for its cinema debut, it was our pleasure to sit with Mendes to talk, in a roundtable interview, about the film’s making, Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, and keeping this most venerable of action heroes grounded in current events…

Please note: there are very mild spoilers in this interview. Nothing that’ll spoil the film, but Sam Mendes does discuss one or two sequences within it.

How much ownership, do you feel you have over this film?

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I feel the same sense of ownership over any film I’ve made. It’s no different, really. In the sense that you don’t have complete ownership because you’ve been making it with hundreds or thousands, or in this case, tens of thousands of other people. But what’s amazing about the Bond franchise, with Barbara [Broccoli] and Michael [G Wilson], is that they encourage you to make your film. They could so easily just roll their eyes and say, “We did that in Bond 19” or “We did that the other day.”

It just doesn’t happen. Very occasionally they’ll say, “We’re not sure Bond would do that”, particularly at the script stage. But when you’re making it, they keep you away from the political conversations at the studio. For me, it feels like a very personal film.

In the early days, were you apprehensive about taking on such a big project?

Yeah, but that’s the excitement of it. I think the key for me was to not think about the end result, and not think about other people’s opinions of Bond. Because everyone has an opinion, as they should do. You’ll meet one person who’ll say, “I’m so pleased you got rid of the gadgets,” and the next person will go, “Please bring the gadgets back.”

They’re both intelligent people, and that happens all the time. You learn very quickly to make the movie you want to make, and pray it works.

Shooting in Scotland, did that bring with it any problems?

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No problems at all. Just a complete delight to be in Glencoe. It’s such a spectacular, beautiful place. It looked amazing with the low clouds. It was just a joy – I wish we’d been there longer, actually. 

Some of the reviews so far have hailed this as the best Bond film ever. How do you feel about that?

It’s really difficult. [Laughs] I think it’s fantastic, but I also think it’s high praise indeed, because there’ve been some pretty amazing movies. I feel a sense of relief, most of all, for them and for me. It’s great, but what I’m most pleased about is that you guys haven’t managed to give away the twist. What I was most scared about was that people would talk about the end and I wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on it. That doesn’t seem to have happened so far. 

Once it comes out people might say, “Oh my God, this is what happens. You’ve got to go and see it!” But that’s word of mouth. 

Did Jarhead prepare you in any way for this?

Not really. Nothing can compare you for a Bond movie. It’s on a different scale from any movie out there. I think, in the old days, Bond was on a different scale to every movie, but now there are maybe eight or nine good ones a year. But that’s only eight or nine people in my job every year. And when you get there, you do feel a responsibility, particularly to the people who’ve known and loved Bond for decades, and people who’ve worked on them all their lives.

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Gary Powell, the head of stunts, his dad was doing it. When I scored the movie at Abbey Road, I was introduced to Derek. Derek’s a trumpeter, he played trumpet on Dr No in 1962, and on every Bond movie since. It’s like, that’s Bond. They are Bond. I’m an interloper. And it’s incredibly moving. When this guy picks up a trumpet, in an 80-piece orchestra, you hear that trumpet [hums the signature Bond theme]. He’s playing that for years, and you have to be moved by that.

It’s so English, and we don’t do many things that are just us, you know? There we are, Abbey Road; iconic studio, iconic movie character. That’s when you feel a responsibility, and nothing can prepare you for that. Also, I’m a Brit, and I came back to England to make an English movie, and it’s about as English as you can get. To see that amount of knowledge and skill and craft in this country, when you see it en masse like that is quite overwhelming.

Jarhead was great, because it was me and Roger [Deakins, cinematographer] together for the first time. We worked handheld, and there was a bit of action, some bangs and explosions. A lot of that was new to me, having a jet or blowing up a tank or whatever. I wasn’t awed by loud bangs. My first few loud bangs were on Jarhead.

It’s just trying to put loud bangs to good use and make them part of the story. There’s a lot of fetishising of action – louder, faster bigger – but the truth is, you can be as big as you want, but if it doesn’t mean anything in the story, you’re going to forget it three seconds later.

For me, all the action’s about not just getting in a linear chase where A is chasing B as fast as you can, but Bond’s chasing Patrice and he’s in a car and he’s on a bike then he’s on the roof of a train with a digger – meanwhile, Eve’s chasing him and Eve’s talking to MI6, and who’s going to get the list? To me, the action sequence is the climax of all of those strands, all working together to one point. That’s what I consider to be an action sequence. It’s not just about the explosions.

Of course those things have to be there, and you have to think, “What’s the coolest thing?” Then you think, “Oh, I know, what if there’s some heavy machinery on the train? What if he got in it? What if he drove it? What if the cars became separated and he used the digger’s claw to…”

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Those things happen like a knock-on effect. You have the idea of the heavy machinery, then you have the idea of getting into it. “He got into a JCB in Casino Royale – can he do it again?” Those are the conversations you have, and that’s how it develops. You have a bunch of people gathered around a table like this – your head of special effects, your head of stunts, and your cinematographer and your designer, and you just work it and work it. 

The Daniel turns up and says, “What if I did this,” or “What if I did that?” So you work it a bit more, and that’s how it goes. If you’re good, you listen to people, and you listen to people who have more knowledge than you do. You use their knowledge to create something that you hope is special. And that’s what it is to make a Bond movie. 

You have the moment where Bond adjusts his cuff. Where did that come from?

That’s Daniel. He didn’t tell me he was going to do that. I loved it, because I was sitting there like this [mimes clapping and cheering] because it’s a great moment. He was jumping off a digger arm. All I was thinking was, “Just land.” You know what I mean? I wasn’t thinking about the cuffs. I was just like, “Just land and don’t fall off the back.” Because, yeah, he’s on a safety wire, but the wire’s narrower than your biro. But he’s just, “It’s fine, it’s fine.”

And he’s jumping off a digger arm, it’s 15 feet up and the train’s moving. It’s making a loud noise, you’re in the carriage with a monitor screen and it’s dusty and hot and all that, and he jumps. And to have the courage to do it – which is Daniel all over, courage slash madness to do it – and to have the canniness to know that, at this point, maybe Sam would like it if I did the [adjusts cuff].

Why did you love it? What’s your reading of it?

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What I loved about it was that I felt there was a little bit – and by the way, we debated it, and we got a take of him not doing it – of the old-style pride and the élan and the chutzpah of Bond. The style of the man. What I like, when Daniel does it – and you can’t print this – is there’s a real “fuck you” about it. And I love that about what Daniel does.

It’s not self-conscious. It’s something fuelled by a bit of anger. So you get both things. You get a real action hero, and you get a man with a sense of style and poise. That’s Bond. You have to find those moments that are quintessential Bond, and it’s not easy to find them. There’s a moment in the Komodo fight, and Daniel again went for a little idea – he points like this, and even when he’s turned upside down, he’s still staring at it. 

Part of the movie’s channelling your 13-year-old self, and that’s who it’s for – it’s not just for you and me, it’s for my 13-year-old son and his mates. And so you’re talking to both sets of audiences, really.

Your kids must think it’s pretty cool that you’re directing James Bond, then.

Yeah, there’s a definite to desire to be the coolest dad in the school. But at the same time, you have to undersell what you do. It’s a fantasy profession in a way. You have to talk about what it’s really like, which is a lot of long hours and early mornings, and how slow it can be. You have to balance it out. But I’m happy to do something they can come and see. Because they can’t see any of my other movies for another 10 years! 

You once said that you couldn’t imagine a blonde Bond, so what changed your mind?

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I don’t think I said that. I certainly said that I didn’t think Daniel was the right casting at the time. I’ve been very honest about that. I could have lied and said it was a brilliant idea. But at the time, my association with Bond was Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. And Daniel, who’s full of that wired energy – he’s tough and vulnerable, and didn’t seem to be what they’d been.

But it took me about 30 seconds of Casino Royale to see that I was completely wrong. And by the way, without Casino Royale and Martin Campbell, I couldn’t have made this movie. It’s he who cast Daniel, and he eradicated pastiche from Bond, in a way, and he made it possible for us to bring a little of it back, if you know what I mean. We could have a bit more fun, because he started it from ground level again. But clearly, I was absolutely wrong, and when I saw Casino Royale, I cared about him for the first time in a different way. For me, that was when my adult self fell in love with Bond again, and the filmmaker part of myself became interested.

How did Roger Deakins’ cinematography alter the action from what was on the page?

It didn’t change it at all. I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to put seven cameras up and shoot with long lenses, and put it together in the cutting room. That’s not how I work, and that’s not how Roger works. We shot the movie primarily on one or two cameras, and we were very conscious of making it in a classical style, like a classic Bond movie.

One of the things you realise when you’re watching action movies, or thinking of doing one, is that the only way you can make a Bourne movie, for example, is to be Paul Greengrass – that’s basically it. Because, when Greengrass does it, it’s just in a different league. If work in handheld with a lot of handheld cameras, you have to think in handheld cameras. Paul’s been doing it all his life, making documentary films and things like that, and it’s in his blood. That’s not in my blood. I like the camera to be still, but that doesn’t mean action sequences can’t be exciting, and I tried to prove it in this movie.

The camera doesn’t move that much. The action is moving, and the camera moves with it. It’s not just moving for the sake of moving. Roger and I think alike about that, and then you’ve got one of the greatest lighting and cameramen in the world. Roger’s in a league of his own in my opinion, and you see it in sequences like the Shanghai sequence, which is lit up with neon.

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We worked very hard – we built models of it, we shot it with lipstick cameras. We put glass around it to get the reflections. But then it takes someone like him to be able to be able to shoot it, so every sequence had something to say. You go from the blue of Shanghai to the warmth of a casino with orange light – again, brilliantly lit, with no camera light at all.

Shooting on digital means that you can shoot with much less camera light, and you can work much faster. What you lose by shooting with one or two cameras, you gain by not having to light so much, and by working with someone who’s obsessed with prep, so by the time you get on a set everything’s pre-lit. So all those things help, and Roger, other than the actors, was my main collaborator. I think his work’s amazing, I really do. But then his work always is, you know?

There are quite a few parallels between Skyfall and the Batman trilogy. Were you influenced by Nolan’s films?

Well, you can’t ignore Chris Nolan’s way of filmmaking, but I don’t see an enormous number of parallels in the story, particularly. For me, the big thing about the Dark Knight – particularly the second one, which was a magnificent film – was the fact of its commercial success. That was the big story. This was an incredibly dark film about post-9/11, living with terrorism, which happened to be set in Gotham City. It felt like a very contemporary film at the time, and it took a gazillion dollars, right?

So when we go to the studio, saying we’ve written Skyfall, and it’s a pretty dark story, but dark doesn’t immediately mean commercially unsuccessful. It makes it possible to tell stories that way. But I would have made the movie the same way had I seen The Dark Knight or not. I didn’t feel directly influenced by The Dark Knight. It’s really just the fact of The Dark Knight that helps to make this more interesting, to be able to bring more layers to the story, and maybe take it into areas that wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago. 

You mentioned the politics and relevance. You mention Helen McCrory’s line about the threats, you’ve got the role of women being stronger than the earlier film, so how much did you chew over the role of politics?

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It’s a very particular job you have with a Bond movie, because all Bond villains touch on the fears of their time. You have the Cold War or nuclear threats or whatever. So of course, you talk about our current fears, and you have cyber terrorism and hacking, but you also can’t give them specific names. You can’t live have real-world religious or terrorist groups.

I was very lucky, because one of the ideas we had first of all, and seemed to work, was Silva’s beef, wasn’t “I’ve got a nuclear device and I’m going to blow up the world”. It was very specific. I thought the smaller, and the more specific that was, the stronger the story would be. You want to soak up as much of the contemporary, hot-button issues, without giving name to them. They should be in the air.

One of the things I was trying to do was ask, “What’s the point of secret intelligence? What’s the point of MI6?” Therefore, what’s the point of Bond, and therefore, what’s the point of Bond movies? There’s an inquiry into the existence of Bond movies – that’s what’s going on! If you really study it, that’s what’s going on: “Well, why are you still here?”

What we had in the movie, as strident as possible, was the reason not to have MI6, to not have Bond, so we could argue for it. Silva himself says, “England, the Empire, MI6 – you’re living in a ruin. It’s over. Finished. What are you doing clinging to this notion of nation?”

And Helen says, the ideas of spies and espionage is outmoded, a joke. But M is able to mount a response to that, as is Bond. But the difference is that M does it verbally and Bond uses action. That’s the big difference.

It’s Bond’s 50th anniversary, and this film has lots of deft little touches to the past. How conscious were you of having things go a bit overboard?

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Thank you for saying “deft little touches”, because that’s what I was hoping you were going to say, not “thundering great nods and winks to the past”! We had to work out a way that felt fully justified to the story, rather than just a stunt. We did that by creating a third act that could have taken place 50 years ago. 

There are little touches throughout. There’s a bottle of whisky he has that’s a 1962 Macallan, it’s 50 years old, which is obviously the date of Dr No. Those are all deliberate, and that’s my own delight in the things you can do in a Bond movie. You can’t do that in any other movie, so why not do it with this? For those who are going to see it, they’ll see it, and for those who aren’t, it won’t take them out of the movie. That’s the delight, having those moments.

Sam Mendes, thank you very much.

Skyfall is out on the 26th October. You can read our review here.

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