Q&A: Sam Mendes on the sexual tension between Bond and Silva in 'Skyfall'
Q: My other favorite scene in the film is a little bit of a homage to 'Silence of the Lambs' where Silva is in a tube-like cell and he confronts M for the first time. You’ve worked with many great actors over your career, but you’ve got Javier Bardem there. You’ve got Daniel Craig there. And you’ve got Javier and Judi Dench going at it and I would just have died to be on that set.
It was a great set to be on but you know the wonderful thing was that Javier had an out-of-body experience when he got to that scene. He got halfway through the second take and he stopped halfway through the scene and he said, 'I’m sorry, I’ve got to stop.' That’s James Bond and that’s M. What am I doing here? He was sitting in there and he obviously had a moment of like a mixture of joy and terror. 'I’m in a James Bond movie!' And occasionally, you know, in the making of the movie you have a moment where you think, 'Hold on a second. Look at what I’m doing. This is bizarre and amazing.' I mean there was a day when we had to shut down Whitehall because Bond’s running up the middle of Whitehall and we had to fill it with cars and buses and all sorts of emergency services. But when we arrived it was 5:30 AM in the morning and the sun was coming up and Whitehall was completely empty because there was no one around it. I walked right down the middle of Whitehall and it’s a little bit like walking through Times Square.
Q: With no one in it.
With no one in it. And you just thought – in the words of Jamie Foxx in 'Jarhead,' 'Who else gets to see shit like this.' Because that was a bit – those are the moments you just think, 'Wow, this is cool.'
Q: And going back to Javier playing Silva. Do you remember anything in particular that you told him or did that you think convinced him to do the role? Because it was reported he wasn't hesitant about being in a James Bond movie, but it was that he was playing a Bond villain.
Yeah, he was. He was hesitant initially because he felt the character wasn’t fully formed and he was right. You know I gave him a lot of images. I said, 'Look, I’m gonna give you a lot of images and I’ll throw stuff out and if you think it’s rubbish then you can ignore it, but he’s Bond’s negative image. He’s his doppelganger.' Bond gone bad and all these things. The same age, same physical size, same weight, same sexuality. You know, just that power. I said, 'But he’s also damaged goods. He’s reconstructed himself on some level.' And you understand that when you see the film. And I had an image of a fallen angel. I said, 'He’s also masterful at manipulating people and extraordinarily skilled at making people feel uncomfortable in very, very subtle and tiny ways all the time.' And I could see his brain going, 'O.K, O.K., O.K.' What he came back with then was a physical appearance that was completely not what I expected. And I thought, to be honest with you, it wasn’t necessarily gonna work. And then we screen tested him and on went the wig and the hat and the eye color and the thing. And he walked on set. First of all, nobody recognized him. The crew didn’t know who it was including Roger Deakins. I think Daniel even walked past him in the corridor and didn’t know who it was. Second, he went on set and I called action on his first screen test. You’re the camera and he did this. [Mendes turns his head from profile directly forward in one turn] He looked into the lens and it was like, 'Holy shit. That’s somebody completely different.' He was just another person. And everything worked. It needed refining. The hair wasn’t quite the right cut. His clothes weren’t right yet, but it was gonna work and you could feel it. And Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson were just like, 'This is gonna be incredible.' Then you just have to harness it. But I honestly thought let him try it out. It will probably not work but you never know what might come of it. But it did work and that’s him.
Q: I was on the set of 'Quantum of Solace' and I know that for these movies that move from location to location you're shooting very fast. Is there time for rehearsal beforehand?
You have to do it before you start shooting.
Q: Were you able to do it for this?
Oh, I had to, yes. For me as much as anything else. I mean I want to hear the line because oftentimes it’s only when they start speaking you think, 'That doesn’t work' or we’re missing something or there’s something not quite feeling right. On the day so much in my job was to help everyone keep their instinct alive in the midst of the siege that is a Bond movie or any big movie. You know it’s just a world of white noise now. The white noise is what we’ve got to do tomorrow. There’s a location fallen through. Or, what everyone expects a Bond movie to be. What the person this morning that you bumped into at the bus stop told you they wanted to see in that Bond movie. The reviews of the trailer and the one sheet that just were released on the web while you’re still shooting. The press that are visiting and lurking around the corner and intrigued and trying to make a story out of something that doesn’t exist yet, right? So, your job as a director is to push that away and say, 'Inside this circle you need to remain creative.' You need to remain in touch with your instinct. You [might] have a big explosion that day and everybody says, 'Wow, it worked. Fantastic.' [And as the director you need] the strength in that moment to step back and go, 'Yeah, but did I like it? Is it what I need for it to be in the movie? Is the camera in the right place? Is the actor in the right place? Is it what I imagined? Does it work within the film that we want to make?' And have the strength when the answer sometimes is no. To go, 'I know everyone’s pleased,' and 200 faces turn towards you, 'But we’re doing it again.' And every single one of these people wants to kill you. And you just do it again. And part of it you do understand very early on as a director, part of your job is to be the person they bitch about and a pal afterwards.
Q: Quick jump back to the scene we talked about before – the first introduction scene of Silva. Bond's in the chair and it becomes a close-up where Javier’s talking to him and he sort of sexually teases him or whatever. Was that something that was in the script? Did you come upon that on day on set?
No, that was planned. That was planned, but I pushed it a little further with them on the day then I think they expected. You know, the way Javier touches him. The way Bond looks straight back at him absolutely unflinching. You know, the amusement in both of them.
Q: Did you tell Daniel, 'Don’t flinch' or did he know not to?
He knew. We talked about it in rehearsals and he knew. As long as you understand that the scene is a power game. It’s not necessarily an overt seduction. It’s, 'If I wanted to I could [expletive] you.' Well does he want to fuck him or is he just fucking with him? This is the question. And you never really know but what you do see and what you do sense is Bond doesn’t flinch at all and just gives it straight back to him. And you could argue in that scene. Wins actually drops him by saying the thing he least expects. I’m not saying what it is but you know. You know, off the record when he says what makes you think it’s my first time. It’s Silva that stands up and recoils, right? Because it’s like – so you know the idea of sex as power – that often happens in a Bond movie is that right, front and center.
Q: One last question. Are you open to directing another Bond film?
I would if I felt I could put as much into it as I put into this movie. And that’s a difficult ask because everything I ever wanted to do in a Bond movie is in this film. So that’s something I’d have to ask myself after I’ve had a bit of a holiday.
"Skyfall" is now playing nationwide and in IMAX.