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Now that Skyfall is a massive global hit and widely regarded as one of the best Bond movies of all time, it alls eels to make perfect sense that it was directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes, who brought in collaborators like cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Thomas Newman to make the film so spectacular. But it's worth remembering that, when Mendes was first hired for the job at the end of 2009, nobody could make any sense of it. How was the director of Away We Go going to handle a Bond film? Why did he even want to try?
It turns out, the answer is pretty simple: He's English. Mendes, who had been primarily living in America for 8 years, returned to his home country to make the bulk of Skyfall and says he's proud to be participating in what's felt like a British renaissance ever since this summer's Olympics. And like any good Englishman, he grew up loving the familiar tropes of Bond, and fought hard to return them in Daniel Craig's third outing as the character-- puns included. As he told me in our interview, "there's more to him than just a unibrow and a lot of running around and sweating and grunting. Bond is an interesting and complex character, and one of the reasons he's survived is that he's got a sense of humor and playfulness."
That playfulness extends to a lot of areas of Skyfall, from Javier Bardem's villain with a sexual edge to the late-in-the-game appearance of a familiar character at MI6 headquarters. When I spoke to Mendes a few weeks ago we got into some of those spoilery reveals from the end of the film, and they are clearly marked at the end of this interview. So read ahead for more insight into how Mendes made Bond funnier, what he learned from The Dark Knight, whether the villain this time actually does want to sleep with Bond, and how he got away with making some big decisions about the movie's finale.
Near the end of this movie there's a scene where M has a speech, quoting Tennyson, that's like the mission statement for Bond: "Here is why this guy matters." There have been two other relatively modern Bond movies, so why did he need this statement of purpose this time around?
He doesn't need it. What I wanted to do was try to find the movie to rediscover the whole world of MI6 and London, because I felt like those two things had been sidelined in the first two Daniel Craig movies, in the removal of Q and the removal of Moneypenny, and M being a more nebulous authority figure and not really rooted in a place. Part of it was my own interest in why the Secret Service still exists. By inference, why Bond exists. And by extension, why the Bond movies still exist, why are we still watching these things and making them. It seemed to me an interesting way to have a sly commentary on the point of Bond. There's al title bit of fun in there, a little bit of mischief.
And it's not just about Bond, it's about the English. And I think if you are English, when she says "we are not that strength that in old days moved heaven and earth, that which we are we are"-- that is very resonant, I think, for an English audience. And to flip some of that, of course, is Javier's character saying of course, you used to be great, but you're not great anymore. And even in the 50 years since Bond began you have diminished as a world power. Why are you still going? Why do you still bother? Both sides of this statement are expressed in the movie. I don't think the movie stints on having negative opinions expressed about Bond either. You're too old, it's a young man's game, go and retire, leave it to the youngsters. In a way I had fun with expressing both sides of it, and that's just one.
You talk about the mischief of this. The first two movies moved really hard to making him dark and modern. Did you feel like you needed to right the wheel and drive it more back to the center of what Bond has been, with the quips and the humor?
I don't see it as bringing it back to the center. It's just what my taste is, and what Daniel's taste is. I think there's more to him than just a unibrow and a lot of running around and sweating and grunting. Bond is an interesting and complex character, and one of the reasons he's survived is that he's got a sense of humor and playfulness. And what the movies themselves did was remove pastiche, they took it away. The sense that he was winking at the audience a bit, that was taken away, and that made a big difference I think to the whole franchise. Now I think you're able to see a different aspect of Daniel as Bond, but it's not like he's doing a Roger Moore impersonation. And it's not like he's doing it out of context. I like to think the humor in the movie is situational, it's earned. We just tried to be alert to that when there were possible options for it.
You've talked about Nolan's Batman films as being an influence on you as you were getting used to directing action. And that seems to tie into the character of Silva, who function in the story similarly to the way the Joker did in The Dark Knight, where his goal is to create chaos and his motivations can be unclear at times. Did that character serve as an inspiration for you there?
I thought the performance by Heath Ledger was one of the great performances of the 21st century. It's indelible. If you've seen it, you can't forget it. But I think it's a much darker, darker film. I think what The Dark Knight proved, and why it was an important movie, and certainly important for a movie like this-- we're working in an environment now, making films, where your movies are either very small or very big, and there's nothing in-between. So while you're working in the independent sector financing is difficult, if you make it for $15 million or $20 million you might be able to make it-- and I can do that. Or you have a $180 million, $200 million range, or more. And there's this divide, and there's nothing in the middle.
What Dark Knight proved is that you can make a serious movie on the upper end of the spectrum, without shortchanging the audience -- the thrills, the excitement. Somehow I felt that was a movie about the world I was living in, even though it was set in Gotham City, and that was a brilliant stroke by Chris Nolan and the writers of that movie. So that was a game-changer for me, looking at it as an audience member. So that was in my mind, but tonally those movies are so dark, and this is a Bond movie, and Bond movies need to have a sense of humor. That felt like I wanted to find a way to make it exist in the real world, at the same time as maybe being able to take it a little more seriously.
In the scene where we first meet Silva, when he starts putting this sexual power over Bond-- the entire audience kind of sits up and pays attention. And some people are arguing he's a gay villain, but I think he's just pulling out all the stops to throw Bond off his game. I really want to know if you have a take on it.
My take is that you have to see what you feel when you see it. But he's playing a lot of games, and whether or not it's for real, you never know. I think you're absolutely on the money. You're not sure-- is he fucking with him, does he want to fuck him? It could be both, it could be neither. That's part of the pleasure of it, I think.
Do you feel like you know or that Javier knows?
Do I think he knows? Yes. But I'm not going to say which one.
It's my understanding that you brought Bond back to England partly because of budget reasons, but it's also a more intimate story. How did you know that he and M both needed a more personal story this time?
I didn't know, it's just that was a story that was interesting to me, to reinstate MI6 at the center. London was not so much a financial choice as it was an emotional choice. I made a movie about a guy going away, coming back and finding that the country of his birth has changed and trying to find his place in it. And that's exactly what I was going through in some way. I went away, I was in America for 8 years and then I came back. I think that was incidental, but these things happen for a reason. If you're going well as a filmmaker, even on a big film, you subconsciously steer it toward things that concern you at the time. Like any art it becomes what your obsessions are. When we were writing it that's what I was thinking about. That's what fascinated me about Bond, and that seemed to be an option given how little time we had spent in London in the last two films.
As an American it's been fascinating to witness what feels like this British revival, with the Olympics and everything, all of this national pride. Do you feel like Skyfall is part of this?
Yeah, I tried to find a way that the movie could define Englishness as something other than cliche. I felt that, even though I had made the movie by then, I felt that Danny's opening ceremony was profoundly English, and parts of it only accessible to people who were English, And I loved that, because I felt it was the England I grew up in. I felt it helped me rediscover my country again. I think that's part of what I was going through with the movie too, what it is to be English. It dangerously flirts with corniness, but on the other hand it's true-- we are not who we once were, but still there are certain traits that we have as a nation that we should be proud of.
There are a couple of things you do in this that you can only do once-- you kill M, for example. I can see why you'd go in and say it's your one shot. Do you have to go to Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson and check, like, "Hey, can do I this?"
Yeah, yeah-- God I couldn't just kill people willy nilly.
Do they have a list of things you can and can't do?
No, they're very open to it. But big ones like that I had to ask. I talked to them, and clearly, Judi can't go on forever, she's 77--
So that was your call, not her call?
She was very pleased that this story was going to be about her, and sad that it was going to be her last one. She understood, absolutely, but it was tough having to tell her.
And then Ralph Fiennes, did he just seem right to take over?
Yeah, we wrote it for Ralph. We wrote it for Ralph, wrote it for Javier, and wrote it for Ben Whishaw.
Did you have to take your time to talk him into it?
Ralph got it. His concern was "Christ, they're going to be so angry at me for being the new Judi." I said, listen, they're not going to blame you for it. But he loved what Daniel does, and he's talking about a whole series of films, so for him it's a no-brainer if you want to be part of the franchise.