When the government of the United Kingdom needs something impossible done, they call James Bond. Since 1962, we have watched 007 prevent madmen from flooding the Earth, knocking over rockets, starting a world war via the news media, and shooting people on an elaborate funhouse island. With his array of gadgets and unflappable charm, MI6’s best secret agent knows how to work his way out of any difficult situation, making the world safe for British Imperialism and unfettered capitalism.
But, of course, Bond is a figure of fantasy, not a real person, and real people rarely overcome such unlikely odds. At least, that was the case for director Sam Mendes, who faced a difficult situation while shooting the follow-up to the critically-praised Skyfall.
Talking to The Hollywood Reporter about the 10th anniversary of Skyfall, Mendes explained that his first Bond movie had the public opinion stacked against it, in part because of the poorly-received predecessor Quantum of Solace and because of MGM Studios’ financial troubles.
“People forget these things very quickly, but MGM went bankrupt and the thought among the town at that time was: ‘Oh, it’s all over. They can’t afford it, that’s the end of Bond,’” Mendes recalled. That bankruptcy forced production to shut down, which allowed Mendes and writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with John Logan, to continue tinkering with the script. When production picked up again, Mendes and his collaborators were able to craft a unique story that revitalized the franchise while staying true to its roots.
Clearly, the studio had similar hopes for Spectre, which not only brought back Mendes to direct but also revived Bond’s archnemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the titular evil organization. While Blofeld regularly menaced Bond during his first few movies, where he was portrayed by Donald Pleasence in You Only Live Twice, Telly Savalas in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Charles Gray in Diamonds Are Forever, copyright issues prevented the character from appearing in more films. In fact, before Spectre, Blofeld’s final appearance (not counting Max Von Sydow’s performance in the non-Eon produced Never Say Never Again) was an ignoble death at the start of For Your Eyes Only.
Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice for Mendes and his team. Despite a formidable performance by Christoph Waltz as the classic villain, Spectre‘s problems far outweighed its better qualities. A convoluted plot that tried to cash in on the interconnected storytelling trend popularized by Marvel and formulaic twists all but secured a tepid response from critics (although it still made $880.7 million globally, the second-highest-grossing Bond film of all time after Skyfall.)
Looking back at that divisive film’s production, Mendes has a clear idea of what went wrong with Spectre when comparing it to his experience working on Skyfall.
“These movies are very difficult to write. Those 10 months of downtime [on Skyfall], that’s when the script really turned around, because we had the time to go down blind alleys and try things like the [Bond/Silva team-up]. And that time was not afforded to me when we made Spectre. And you can see the difference in the script,” Mendes said. “[With Spectre], I felt there was some pressure. Certainly Barbara and Michael exerted some pressure on me and Daniel to make the next one, so that makes a big difference. People saying: ‘We want you to do it,’ and passionately wooing me to do it, was a big thing.”
Indeed, much has already been written about the speed at which Spectre was put together, from the announcement of Mendes’ return after much negotiating in late 2013 to developing and writing the script in the lead up to the Dec. 2014 production start date. The film took seven months to shoot, including globe-trotting scenes in London, Mexico City, and Rome, with a Nov. 2015 release date looming. That left Mendes and his team hardly any time to tinker with the finer details of the movie.
Since the film’s release, Spectre has been partially redeemed by its follow-up, Craig’s final turn in No Time to Die. More importantly, No Time to Die wiped the slate clean for the next Bond, which diminishes the impact — good or bad — of Spectre. Whatever the next Bond entry will be, here’s hoping producers learn their lesson from Mendes’ experience. They need to give directors time to do what they do best so Bond can continue doing the impossible.