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LONDON - On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, about 30 international journalists and 15 or so other visitors to the set of "Skyfall" sat on the famed 007 sound stages at Pinewood Studios in London in front of a large monitor. We were about to see a massive "event" happen during a live scene being filmed for Sam Mendes' new James Bond flick. Our earplugs were in place and we were ready to be wowed.
And we waited.
And we waited.
In fact, we all waited for a good 90 minutes. Quietly, like a congregation in a cathedral paining for something exciting to happen. Would it be worth it in the long run?
"Skyfall" will be the third time Daniel Craig has portrayed Ian Flemming's master spy and from all accounts, this may be his emotional journey to date. Bond has his most intriguing adversary in years in Silvia, a mysterious figure played by none other than Academy Award winner Javier Bardem and there are wild rumors that M (the incomparable Judi Dench) may not survive the ordeal. Mendes, who is best known for helming "American Beauty" and "The Road to Perdition," also recruited notables Ralph Fiennes (as agent Mallory), Ben Winshaw (the new Q), the legendary Albert Finney (as who is unclear) and "28 Days Later's" Naomie Harris (one of two new Bond girls) making the ensemble one of the most impressive ever for a Bond flick.
Since production began last November, "Skyfall" has shot in Shanghai, Scotland and enjoyed 14 paparazzi-filled days in London proper (which led to questionable images of Bardem in a blonde wig circulating the web). The annual global tour for James Bond will wrap up in Turkey next month where a massive train sequence is being prepped and second unit director Alexander Witt ("Casino Royale") is already shooting. The 23rd installment in the 007 franchise will wrap at the end of May, but there's still a lot more work to be done.
The famed 007 stage at Pinewood Studios has been used for countless films including the "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Superman," "The Da Vinci Code," "Aliens" and the upcoming "Prometheus," but nothing is more special than seeing a Bond film shoot on the stage that was built specifically for 1977's "The Spy Who Loved Me" (until it burned down in 1984 and then again in 2006). On this day, Bond and Silva are shooting a key sequence in an underground tunnel that's meant to connect to London's tube system.
Fashioned to look like centuries-old brick walls, the abandoned station is eight inches under water (it's deep underground mind you) and has been gorgeously lit by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins ("No Country For Old Men," "The Shawshank Redemption"). Mendes, Craig and Bardem are all at work filming different aspects of a long sequence and we hear gunfire go off as we walk through the gigantic soundstage. The company will spend five days total on these stages before some major practical effects knock things up.
As Craig told us later, "I’m chasing after Silva and we’re going subterranean London basically, which is fairly obvious I think if you looked where we were. And just I nearly get him. Nearly."
Except something dramatic happens which lets Silva escape (but more on that later).
So far, "Skyfall" has fashioned the 007 stage as an Mi6 underground hideout and a Shanghai office building. That specific set seemed simple (lots of glass walls), but the art department worked with Deakins so that the glass constantly moved and created a bit of a confusing environment for a character Bond stalks in the scene.
The current configuration on the stage includes the subterranean station and a one-story rail line featuring two London Underground carriages (subway cars for us Yanks). The carriages are also connected to a steel beam apparatus above them to control when and where they move. The tracks head in one direction and one direction only - straight into the heart of the underground station. But, of course, that's tomorrow. Today, there is an explosion Bond and Silva need to experience before their party is "crashed."
Helping enlighten us on the complex apparatus is Chris Corbould, the veteran Oscar-winning special effects supervisor whose long list of impressive credits includes "The Dark Knight," "Inception," "X-Men: First Class" and 12 previous Bond films.
"Many a sleepless night over this one," Corbould jokes. "We have an explosion to do in about two hours which is the start of the sequence and then tomorrow we get into this little baby here which I'm excited about."
Corbould confirms that both actors will be in the tunnel when the train crashes into it, but they'll never be in danger. He notes, "Everything in its path has been prepared. Everything on its way even to the ground. It's a false floor. False parts of the ceiling, false walls. They've all been specially prepared so wherever this goes it's sitting on soft materials. It's a big roller coaster ride."
Unfortunately, Corbould and his team only have one shot at making it work.
"There will be a fair bit of damage to the train when we stop it," Corbould says. "The stopping is all part of the destruction part of the scene. I wouldn't say [the situation is] horrible, but it's one of those scenes where you have one go at it and it all goes great which I'm sure it will. It would be nice to have more than one go at it." (Laughs.)
A longtime collaborator of Christopher Nolan, Corbould is equally impressed by his current boss, Mendes.
"Sam Mendes is great. He obviously comes from a more theatrical, character-based background which works really well from my point of view," Corbould says. "He's taken it from an out and out sheer action [picture] to an action thriller with characters. For me that's really important. The storyline and characters need to be involved with the action. There are lots of films out there if you just want to see wall to wall action go and see 'em. But what Sam has done with this? He's come from an unorthodox manner. I traditionally know how to do the big special effects, but he's taken how we are doing them as very different. And to me that's made it very interesting."
Corbould adds, "It's great seeing his twist on it. The script and storyline are probably one of the best I've ever come across on a Bond film. I was very excited about it."
In another corner of the 007 stage is a replica of London's Temple Underground station (although Charing Cross doubled for Temple during the in-city shoot). It features a tube tunnel that runs almost the full length of the stage. Inside the tunnel is half a tube car which was used for a scene where Silva escapes as the tube doors close and the train takes off. Bond (Craig or Craig's stunt double) then jumps on the top of the train. We didn't see the sequence that day, but follow up shots were being prepped as we walked by.
On another stage, workers were furiously racing to finish a gigantic Shanghai casino set. With filming scheduled to begin in just four days and a lot of work still needing to be done, art director Mark Holmes was admittedly nervous about making the date. Broccoli and Mendes will likely cut the art department some slack since this giant set was never part of the schedule. Originally, the casino scene was supposed to be shot on a pre-existing soundstage in China. When the filmmakers got to Shanghai they discovered it wasn't structurally fit to use which meant the "location" had to be re-created back at Pinewood. First, the exterior of the casino was built on top of the lot's outside water tank. This was necessary because the scene requires Bond to arrive at the establishment by boat. Once Bond gets inside he crossed over the interior of the casino is two stories with a large central open space for gambling and stairs twirling up to the second floor. It wasn't ready on the day we checked out the set, but the second floor will have a bar where Bond is expected to have a tete-a-tete with Sévérine (new Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe). The entire set up was fantastic and would be a perfect nightclub in any city. Unfortunately, like 99% of most movie sets it won't remain standing much longer.
Secrecy is a way of life on a Bond film, but there was one set our handlers were particularly closed lipped about. Built right next to the 007 stage, we were told the outdoor street of dark grey buildings and a dirt road was an "abandoned Japanese city on an island off Japan." Before our visit, we were told it was dressed with trams,bikes and lots of props. Oh, and it's where Bond meets Silva for the first time. But that was all we were told. Most interesting was a gigantic statue in the middle of a square that had been toppled to the ground. Strangely, the statue was designed in a Soviet era style, not something you'd expect to see in Japan. Curious.
Producer Barbara Broccoli has walked by our very patient group twice. She's obviously aware of how long everyone has been waiting for the stunt to begin, but you can't rush an explosion. Especially when your global superstar is in the shot.
A member of the physical effects team comes by to suggest we put in ear plugs if we haven't already. The detonation is going to happen over the tunnel set - less than 200 feet from where we are sitting - and it's going to be loud.
For the first time since we sat in front of the monitors, Craig appears on screen. With a gun in his hand he rehearses the scene. Bond and Silva exchange a few words which we can't make out (Bardem is off screen). Craig then reacts as though he's heard something. He then falls to the side as though he's trying to escape something. And then they do it again. And one more time.
Finally, it's time for the one-take shot. Bond and Sylvia have their chat. And then…
And a gigantic hole explodes behind Craig's head in the roof of the tunnel station. It's effective and impressive. Tomorrow? The crew just has to guide 10 tons worth of tube carriages into that hole.
Just another day on the set of a James Bond flick.
"Skyfall" opens nationwide on Nov. 9
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