Q&A: Sam Mendes on the sexual tension between Bond and Silva in 'Skyfall'
Q: Where did the idea come from to focus it on the relationship between M and Bond?
There’s oedipal overtones, right? We play on that and we have fun with it. It’s mischievous and when Silva, Javier’s character, says 'Mommy was very bad' and 'Mother’s cooling' and all this. He plays on it. It’s mischievous. I wouldn’t want people to think its some dark Freudian sonnet. Because it isn’t really. I think the really interesting thing is that M is the only person who really gets close to what Bond is thinking. But even in this movie the audience knows more about Bond than M does. The audience sees Bond alone a lot and M doesn’t see that. And M is still trying to guess at his state of mind. How ready is he? And even he, himself, is wondering whether he’s doing the right thing in coming back and he has to stand there while people tell him he’s too old, his knees have gone, he’s gonna give up, it’s a young man’s game. I mean, no Bond has ever been put through as much criticism about his age. And James just stands there and somehow it becomes part of the journey of the character to confront his own mortality, confront his own age. And there is underneath it all a meditation on aging and loss but that’s under the surface, And really the surface of it is a revenge story. It’s a revenge story about Silva finding the person who damaged him. And what I loved about that is that it was a personal vendetta. It wasn’t a, 'I’ve got a nuclear bomb in my briefcase, Mr. Bond. I’m going to blow up the World.' Which is the 'let’s hitch a ride on whatever the latest global threat is.' He uses signs of terrorism, but he only uses it to get to her specifically. He doesn’t really care who he kills. He just wants to humiliate her and he wants to expose her and he wants to get his M back. It’s a very personal story in a way and that’s the hook which I like.
Q: What’s interesting is he sort of wins.
Succeeds. I wouldn’t say he wins, he succeeds. Yes, well on one level – he does die but every Bond villain does. But, yes, we can’t talk about it too much because I don’t want to give it away and I think that even two or three days after it opens I still think a lot of people…I’ve been the person whose read spoilers and regretted it. If I think there’s chocolate in the fridge you’re gonna eat the chocolate. If you don’t put chocolate in the fridge – you know what I mean? Sure because at 10 o’clock at night you can’t be bothered to go to the store so you’re not going to eat chocolate, you’re gonna have an apple instead. These are the things – the spoilers. I don’t really want to know but I’ll read it anyway. “Why did I read that.” I’ve really ruined the fucking movie. I’m gonna have to watch the screen. I’m not gonna pay 15 pounds, dollars, whatever it is to go and see it. So, there’s a bit of that.
Q: Yeah, I understand.
So, I sort of don’t want to talk about it openly, but clearly there are big events that happen right at the end of this picture – the last five minutes. And the whole picture’s building to those moments and they have to be justified. They can’t be shock tactics. All of those things that happen in the last five minutes are started within ten minutes of the movie opening and everything follows from there. So, the story’s established and foreshadowed quite early on. The aging of M. The changing of the guard at MI6. The introduction of an agent who is alongside Bond who’s a girl. All of these things develop in interesting ways.
Q: And one of the things that I loved about the movie is two specific scenes. In one in particular, you take a big chance. The first time we meet Silva it’s this continuous long shot. One of my colleagues talked to Javier and he’s like, 'I’m nervous for every role.' To then say to him, 'O.K., so you’re playing a Bond villain and you’re not quite sure whether you’re comfortable with it, but we’re gonna do this scene where you have to time it all the way to get to the end.' How many times did you rehearse that and where did your idea for that scene come from?
Well, the first thing to say is the first scene is something that complex I would never start with. I'd start with something else. That wasn’t the first thing.
Q: Sure, but that's when the audience sees him for the first time.
It’s very important that he’s fully established the character for himself and then he goes to do it. So, I scheduled it halfway through his run so he was already loose and relaxed. Secondly, in Logan’s final draft and even right up to production Bond was knocked out on the boat and woke up and Silva was already sitting there. And I was working on the script and I just thought, 'I can’t. He needs an entrance. What would be a good entrance? He needs to be in the computer room.' That was where the scene was set. 'What if there’s an elevator?' Then I thought actually the elevator should lead to the walk and then if it's one walk we should do it in one take. I just wanted to do it. I just thought the movie is structured to that point. His entrance into the movie was exactly halfway through. They talk about him and talk about him. He exists in other forms in sort of cyber form - you see his graphics. You know, there’s this person and then when you get him I just wanted to do it. I wanted that bizarre tension, 'Is that? Could that be? What does he look like?' And always craning, leaning on the edge of your seat to see. You know, Polanski does a brilliant thing in 'Rosemary's Baby' when he sort of cuts off Mia Farrow. When Mia Farrow’s is listening John Cassavetes is in the other room, but you can’t see his face and the audience is trying to look around the corner and say, 'What the [expletive]? What’s he doing?' That weird tension. It needs you to be very, very strong about it very early on. I said to him straightaway, 'I’m not gonna cover this. We’re gonna do it in one.' He was like, 'OK.' And then we did it a few times. Not a crazy amount.
Q: Also for whoever Roger Deakins has as the camera's focus puller- it’s not easy.
No, but we constructed that entire set so that it was the correct length for the length of the speech. If you’d seen me two months before we shot the scene I was walking around an empty stage with the script in my hand trying to time the speed of the walk and the speech. And we built the set as long as the speech was.
Q: That’s awesome.
And you can only do that when you rehearse the speech. You know what he’s gonna do so we constructed it for that one moment. And he was ready to go by the time we did it because he knew that’s what I was gonna do. If I’d said to him on the day, 'By the way, you’re gonna do it in one.' He would have been, 'Ah, you’ve got to be joking.'
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