Spectre: Sam Mendes on the difficulties of the opening scene

Exclusive: Sam Mendes talks us through the opening helicopter sequence in Spectre, in some detail…

Now playing in UK cinemas is Spectre, the eagerly-awaited 24th James Bond film. It stars Daniel Craig and is directed once again by Sam Mendes. And we had a chance to sit down with Mendes to chat about the film.

We decided to avoid the questions about if he’s doing another Bond film, if it’s all the same with your good selves. And instead, we asked him to take us through, in detail, the difficulties of one sequence in his new film. We’re thrilled he obliged.

One spoiler note: the scene we’re going to discuss all takes place before Sam Smith starts singing…

I figure we’ve got ten minutes here, so if it’s okay with you, I want to do something that’s not clickbait-y.

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We’re movie nerds, and we’re movie nerds on the other side of the fence. So I wonder: could you take us through something that’s insanely difficult? To go into one very difficult moment of making a Bond film? Because most of us read articles and interviews that put across how hard these things are to do, but I wonder if you could go into detail about one example?

You’ve got, for instance, a non-spoilery boardroom near the start?

Do you know what, that’s more like rehearsing a play. That scene is much more about knowing how to stage a big scene, knowing how to light it so you create shadows. Knowing how to stage it. You’ve got to get the room the right size. The table the right size. Give yourself room to move the cameras. That’s not that difficult, technically anyway.

But I would say the helicopter fight at the beginning, though. So, how would you imagine we shot that?

You’ve said before that it’s Bond, so it has to be real. But also, I always remember Robert Zemeckis talking after Back To The Future Part II, saying he doesn’t want the audience thinking about how things are done during the film itself.

But ultimately, one of us is a major Oscar-winning international film director, and it isn’t me! So I figure I’ll let you tell us!

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[Laughs] Good answer!

Okay, so, the first thing you’ve got [is] a real helicopter flying over the square. So you’ve got a stunt pilot and two stuntman who have to be on rigs.

What you have to do there is you have to choreograph the fight. So a large section is outside the body of the helicopter as well as inside. Then you can knit in the real actors inside the helicopter, and the stuntman. But obviously, you’ve can’t put Daniel Craig, or Alessandro Cremona, who played Sciarra, in a flying helicopter. It’s too dangerous.

You have to create rigs back at Pinewood.

But the helicopter is spinning, then it’s barrel-rolling, then corkscrewing, then it’s looping the loop. That needs three different hydraulic rigs, because you have to make a static helicopter move in three different ways.

So immediately, that’s four different sections. You’ve got the live helicopter, which has to be shot by another helicopter. You have two helicopters flying in the square, one shooting and one that’s spinning, with stuntmen in it. Then you’re cutting in and out to a series of different rigs, all back in Pinewood.

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The real helicopter is shot with nine different cameras from all around the square, as well as the camera off the other helicopter. Then you’ve got people underneath. You have stuntmen underneath, that have to be added in post.

What you’re doing is knitting together sections you’ve shot seven months apart, with different people on different rigs, so it looks absolutely effortless and completely coherent. And it’s tricky! [Laughs]

So was there a hidden gotcha in there? Presumably a lot of a Bond film is about preparation, preparation, preparation.


But when you come to do it, what happens if you’re back at one of the rigs at Pinewood, and something is slightly off? Is there a little thing that’s off, and you end up with unexpected problems to solve?

You have to follow the dance of the helicopter that you shot for real.

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And yes, there were two or three moments where the rigs were wrong. One specific rig we had to rebuild from scratch, which added two weeks, which meant we had to shoot something else, which meant we had to advance something else in the schedule, which we weren’t ready to shoot, which then took longer. All of those things.

When you’ve got two helicopters flying together, one shooting and one doing the stunt work, how close can they get in the air?

Closer than you might think would be sensible! But they do, and they’re amazing! It’s a dance, it’s an amazing thing to watch.

In a way, the show-off pilot, which is on-camera, is the most flamboyant. But the most difficult job of piloting is the camera helicopter. He has to sense where the stunt pilot is going to fly, and fly very, very close to him. He’s actually responding to another helicopter.

The first helicopter can fly almost where he wants. He’s got moves, this is where you spin, up, around, behind the cathedral, hit the barrel roll, you go back round the cathedral and then down. I remember the journey clearly in my head. Then you go back up, vertically, you loop the loop, you go backwards, you go straight back down.

But then you have to work out the interior actions to match the exterior.

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How far back, then, does the process of this start? And when you’ve planned a sequence like that to the nth degree, how much room is left for instinct?

You can’t change the course of their journey, while it’s happening. That’s very dangerous. You have to stick to your plan. But you can change the plan after they’ve come down on the ground. You can say let’s do something different here, it doesn’t look so good. That happens all the time. What I would say though is that it starts months and months before. In this case it started with Alex Witt, second unit director, showing me a stunt video of a Red Bull pilot, doing stunts at an airshow in a helicopter. I’ve never seen anything like that. That’s what gave me the whole idea for it in the first place. I then got the writers to write it in, and we developed it from there. We worked it out bit by bit by little bit, every stage of the journey.

Another thing we had to throw in: right at the last minute, Chuck, who’s the stunt pilot – the Red Bull pilot from the video, we got him to come in and fly our helicopter – then said to us that Mexico City is 7,500 feet above sea level. We can’t do half the stunts in thin air. Then we had to change, and we had to do the barrel rolls at a lower altitude, and we had to CG the city in afterwards. That only came late in the day.

One last thing, if you want to go into this level of detail….

Yes please!

The first day we did it, the engine broke. And there’s only one of those Red Bull helicopters in Mexico. So we didn’t have a helicopter. We had to call up the Red Bull team, and the helicopter mechanics had to fly in overnight. They fixed it by 8am, just in time to do the stunts, to have Daniel jump into the helicopter and take off.

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It was hairy, almost every stage. But it’s one of the sections I’m proudest of in the movie.

When’s the bit where you knew you’d got it?

Oh, about five days ago! [Laughs]

Really? That tight?

No, I knew we had it probably about a month into the cut, where you really see there’s a shape to it. Then you’ve got to work out at what point you want to bring the score in, what sound do you want in it. Do you want to use the surrounds? When do you want to shift perspective from inside to outside? Do you want to gradually put the helicopter under stress, the sound of it rattling? One of the great things about helicopters – and the scary thing – is they’re dangerous because there are so many moving parts.

You have something in a helicopter that you don’t have in a plane, which is it can roll through 360 degrees. If you’re in a plane, you’re traveling forward. But a helicopter can be pushed backwards and still stay up. When you’re caught in storm in a helicopter, as I have been, you know it. It’s much, much more frightening than being in a plane. So I was seeking to induce an audience with that feeling of absolute freefall and nausea that you get in an out of control helicopter.

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Well done!


Sam Mendes, thank you very much.

Spectre is out in UK cinemas now.