Q&A: Sam Mendes on the sexual tension between Bond and Silva in 'Skyfall'
BEVERLY HILLS - Sam Mendes probably smiled this much in a long time. It's been almost 13 years since he won an Oscar for directing best picture winner "American Beauty" and the years since haven't always been as celebratory. "Road to Perdition," "Jarhead," "Revolutionary Road" and "Away We Go" all have their fans, but none of Mendes' follow ups reached the critical or moviegoer adoration that "Beauty" did. Who knew a 50-year-old franchise would be his ticket back to the top of the mountain?
Surprising some, making perfect sense to others, Mendes reunited with his "Perdition" star Daniel Craig for the latest installment of the James Bond series, "Skyfall." It was a bumpy pre-production thanks to MGM's bankruptcy, but somehow the financial mess resulted in one of the best 007 films since the Sean Connery era. "Skyfall" has earned rave reviews earning an 81 on Metacritic and a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Moreover, with $90 million in ticket sales since Thursday, "Skyfall" is now the top U.S. opener in Bond history. And, just for good measure, the film has already made a staggering $428 million internationally and will be the no. 2 film all-time in the UK by Tuesday. There is buzz about a potential best picture nomination (probably a reach), a nod in the best supporting actor category for previous Oscar-winner Javier Bardem (not so much a reach) and dreams of a best original song nod for the title track sung and co-written by global superstar Adele (fingers crossed it qualifies). Clearly, some franchises age better than others.
Mendes was only available for 20 minutes last week to discuss his latest endeavor and, honestly, I could have peppered him with questions about "Skyfall" for a good hour. In hindsight, I can't remember the last time a filmmaker was so forthcoming about the behind-the-scenes details of a production. You know there is something special about a movie when you can't stop talking about it.
[Note: For spoilers sake, if you have not seen "Skyfall" yet, Mendes asks that you avoid reading the rest of this article until after you've seen the movie.]
Some of the topics Mendes waxed on include:
*How the MGM bankruptcy allowed him to get the script right and to recruit the cast he wanted.
*His inspiration for Silva's introductory scene and how that affected the film's production design.
*Javier Bardem's process for coming up with Silva's look and demeanor.
*Bradem's reaction to shooting Silva's meeting with M (Judi Dench).
*Details on how and when Mendes pushed the sexual innuendo in the first meeting between Silva and Bond.
Here's hoping you can hear Mendes' enthusiasm in the Q&A below.
Q: Let's get something straight for historical purposes. Just how early were you on board as the film's director?
Well, it was very frustrating at the time because I had effectively come aboard but they hadn’t announced me. And then [MGM went bankrupt in 2010]. I really think there was a long while there where [series producers] Barbara [Broccoli] and Michael [G. Wilson] thought they may not make it for years. It might just be stuck for a long time. And there was a period when I really thought I’m going to have to do something else. I’m going to have to walk away from it. The thing is that I’d already done quite a lot of work on it and I didn’t want to walk away from what I thought was gonna be a good picture and something that I really had a stake in by that time. And I’d also grown to really like Barbara and Michael, and Daniel and. I’d spent a lot of time with Rob [Wade] and Neal [Purvis] working on the screenplay and I had an idea who I wanted to bring on, which was John Logan. So, I had a whole thing going and then it went into bankruptcy and then we were stalled. And in order for me to carry on working on it they had to give me an official title, which I think was consultant or something like that.
Q: Yes, I remember that.
Which is basically 'director-in-waiting.' But it turned out looking back to be the best thing that happened to us because those nine months, or however long it was whenever we were still really – was when the script came into being. And it gave us space without the pressure of production to just work on the script. And I think that’s everything [good that came] after that came from the script. The level of casting I was able to achieve, the crew I could bring on, the sense that I could make it personal film within the body of a franchise film while still adhering to the principles, the fundamental principles of Bond. Shift some of the inner mechanics of the character so that it felt like you had a stake in him for the first time. A different kind of stake, put it that way. So, everything came from that really. And I think by the time we came out with the bankruptcy thing we knew where we were headed. Six months later a script turned up and everyone was just enthusiastic. And from that moment on it really all came together.
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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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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.