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'Skyfall' Director Mendes and Actresses Marlohe and Harris Talk Updating Bond, from Adele to Bardem

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
November 15, 2012 8:00 AM
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Daniel Craig as James Bond in "Skyfall"
AT: You were angry at some of the people who weren’t giving you jobs in France?

BM: Honestly, no, because if they would have given me auditions, probably I would have been able to just think about doing things myself and with my manager or agent, I probably would have just waited in France, and my dream since the beginning was to have my break in France [in order to then] be able to work in English in the movie like that, so it was fantastic, actually.

AT: Naomie, when you did all that acting training, did you think that you you'd end up playing Miss Moneypenny?

Naomie Harris:  No, obviously it’s a very different kind of Moneypenny. And I didn’t really realize what I was kind of signing up to, because Sam said to me that there was a lot of action involved, he said, ‘You know, you’ve done action movies before’ – which I have, but I’ve never done anything on this kind of scale. It was two months before we even started filming all the stunts near the train, going out for five days a week for two hours a day, being on the gun range three days a week, stunt driving, combat training, even for the shaving scene they sent me to a barber for three weeks to learn how to shave, so I’ve never done that kind of preparation for anything before.

AT: Had you shot a gun before this movie?

NH: Yeah, I did shoot guns. I did a movie called “Miami Vice,” in which I in fact fire machine guns, but again not on this kind of scale.

AT: So what was most challenging or physically demanding thing – that opening sequence is pretty scary looking for us?

NH: I think all of it, to be honest, because it was so new to me, and I really, after doing this movie, have so much respect now for people who do action movies, because I had no idea how much is involved, how much work. For instance, Daniel will work a fifteen hour day, and then he’ll go train for two hours afterwards, because that’s how much stamina you need to do these kind of movies. It’s like you’ve got to do regular acting on top of remembering really precise things like how to handle a gun, which really has the potential to kill people, even though you’re firing blanks. You’re dealing with a train, that’s going at fifty miles an hour, you’re dealing with scenery falling all around you – you have to really know what you’re doing.

AT:  I got a kick out of the idea that you were able to be extremely competent, but not as competent as James Bond. So talk about the dynamics between you and Bond in that kind of competitive way.

NH: Yeah, the idea is that Eve is this field agent, she’s got to be capable, and she’s very ambitious, and basically she’s having the time of her life because Bond is the ultimate field agent and she never really knew that she was going to be able to go on a mission with him, and prove herself alongside him. So she’s basically showing off in the beginning, until things kind of get out of hand, and then she realizes that she isn’t quite as capable as she had thought. 

AT: Sam, these are not the old Bond girls, these are modern, real women. Talk about how you changed that in the script phase.

SM: For me it’s important that every character, and every character in the movie, has a journey, to talk in the most general sense. And I think there was a period in Bond movies, particularly where girls were asked to come on and be the same thing in every scene and then either die or get to the end of the movie, and that was basically it. Including falling in love with Bond, that was their one job. So I was very conscious, I knew that Naomie had a sense of journey because she was going to become Moneypenny, so she would have to choose to leave her job as a field agent, at least for the time being. It was more difficult, with Berenice’s character, with Severine, to keep her, to allow the audienc to see her change throughout the course of what is quite a short section of the movie. And that we ended up spending a long time writing that one scene between Severine and Bond at the bar, in which he basically unlocks her, and one of the things that I most like about what Berenice does, is the journey she takes us on in that scene, from someone who’s utterly in control and completely confident, to someone who is struck down with astonishment, desire and is revealed to be utterly terrified. And that’s really only a two-minute scene, and I think like all screenwriting, it’s about economy, and it’s about finding a way to move things forward, to develop the character and story with every line. And if it’s not, then take it out.

AT: How did you know that she was going to be able to deliver that?

SM: She had it already, in truth. The scene wasn’t written to quite as sophisticated a level, bu it feeds back into the script. There’s a dialogue between the two of them. So much of the job of directing Bond movies is to push the white noise of everything else going on, there’s a lot going on, not just on set, but off set. Opinions, you know the trailer’s out there already, and one-sheets, and songs being released, and everyone from the dorm to the person who drives you in in the morning having an opinion and a relationship with Bond. So to get that out, and allow the actors to play, and be creative, is very, very difficult. It’s difficult on any movie, but it’s particularly difficult on this.

So, for example, Javier, who came on the scene with this all written – I tried as much as possible to shoot in sequence, and to shoot continuity, it’s always impossible but, for example, it was very important to me that the scene in the chapel at the end, which is Judi’s last scene and Javier’s last scene, was shot at the end of the shoot, because I wanted them to bring the weight of everything they’d done into that one scene. And it’s fair to say that between when Javier starting performing in front of the cameras, and that last scene, we wrote that scene in the chapel completely. Most of what he says in that scene are lines pitched by him during shooting. And the entire idea of putting the gun to both their heads came from Javier, and that he wasn’t going to the chapel, he was going to the graveyard, which is why he’s caught by Bond, so we separated the scene. So all these things happened organically when I saw what Javier was doing with the part. And when I saw what Berenice was capable of doing with the part, even from the beginning, I sent that back to John Logan and we changed and re-wrote the scene. To have all that freedom within the structure – never changes the story, we’ve got all the big pieces in—but allowing freedom seems to be very important, and that way there is a genuine collaboration, that you need people who are completely in tune with their roles to do that, and I thought I had that with this movie.

AT: You also had a long time to work on the script, because of all the delays, and you didn’t know how much time you were going to have, but what were you able to do during that period to make a big difference in terms of the level of the screenwriting?

SM: Well, yes, for those who don’t know, MGM went into bankruptcy when we were in preproduction, so it meant that we had nine months where we didn’t know what we were doing. It was a very frustrating time, but in retrospect it was when we made the movie good because we had time work on the script. That was pivotal, because you need time – certainly with a franchise movie – so it gave us an opportunity to go down all sorts of blind alleys and come back again, and discover – because, you know, we were pushing the envelope in the movie. This is a movie where you’ve got the first truly homoerotic relationship with Bond, you’ve got the death of M, you’ve got to establish a new M, you’ve got a new Moneypenny, you mustn’t see that coming, you’ve got a new Q, so he’ll be younger than Bond, you effectively kill Bond, going back to somebody else, you’re asking [Bond] to be a semi-alcoholic, popping pills at the beginning.

AT: Drinking Heineken?

SM: Drinking Heineken! I love the fuss they make about that: ‘This guy drinks everything except battery acid!’ So yeah, all those things. And we were having to push all those things and [the break] gave us time to test them out. And in the end, it helped everyone with their stories – you know, Eve and Severine as much as anyone – we just had the time for it.

AT: How did you get Adele to do the song?

SM: Adele came in – that was our number one choice, and she said ‘Yeah, I’ll come in.’ She came in, just normal as ever, with her producer. And she said ‘I’m worried that I can’t write – my songs are personal, I write from the heart, that’s how I work. I like the idea of a Bond song, but how do you write a Bond song?’ And I said, ‘Just write a personal song. Nobody does it better. Just think in those terms.’ And she said, ‘Okay, well tell me the story of the movie.’ And I told her the story, and she took the script home and she said, ‘Let me think about it.’ And that weekend she said, ‘I read the script in the bath, I couldn’t put it down. I think I’ll have a go at it. Give me a bit.’ And two months later we were on set, and she said ‘Here it is!’ and it was a file in my email. And I listened to it while I was driving all the way in from the countryside for two hours, I listened to it over and over again for like two hours. It just seemed right. And I got there and gave it to Barbara and to Daniel, who both shed a tear, because it’s the first good Bond song. And the rest of it was just like laying down a personal track, but she had voice problems, so she re-recorded the vocal because she was suffering – you know, she’d had to cancel gigs because of her voice. And she came in to listen to the orchestral tracking later, and she cried. Which was really touching, watching a nine-piece orchestra record alongside her vocal track.

AT: Berenice, what was the most challenging aspect of working with Daniel Craig and that intense scene that you had to do? How did you prepare for it?

BM: My preparation for it was actually one of the most fascinating processes because I tried to never stop connecting with every aspect of the imagination that could drive me to that scene. So yeah, I was trying every day to create her history, to connect to what moves me deeply as a human being, and to stay open with it at every moment, to be there, or to meet me. And it took  what, two days? 

SM: You had worked the theatrical scenes, or the meaty scenes, just a day. But I pushed her very, very hard. It was pretty intense. It was good, though. My favorite day is when – because Berenice has a very cool exterior -- but she had obviously thought about [her scene] a huge amount and was coming and going and trembling with intensity. And I think my favorite bit of the whole shoot with Berenice was when she lost her temper with herself. Which you never have before or since. And shouted in a few French curse words.

AT: You also had to do a nude shower scene with James Bond. How did you feel about that?

BM: I have a strong feeling about art, and you have to sacrifice yourself… [laughter]

AT: And Naomie, you had to have a flirtatious relationship with Bond, how did you work that out with Daniel

NH: We didn’t really spend any time kind of really rehearsing or – it was more spontaneous, really. And it was more about the environment that Sam created for us, which was very much a very playful environment, because Sam has a great sense of humor and he loves to tell a lot of jokes. He loves to keep the atmosphere on set very light, and Daniel actually is the same. So he is really funny, and I think the chemistry just comes out of the playfulness.

AT: So you were able to take the central character of Bond and change him a little bit, what was the line of what you could get away with and what you couldn’t?

SM: That’s a very good question, actually. There is definitely a line. You feel it if you cross it, the things Bond can’t do as a character. You know he has to operate fundamentally on his own, that’s the main thing. So at one point [we had him] team together with Silva, in this very early version of the script. Doesn’t work, you can’t make Bond Butch and Sundance. Also there has to be a flirtation with women apart from M, so the only person who can really unlock him is M. And that’s why we went down that road to such a degree. For example, the scene by the roadside where he’s back in Scotland, we went over that scene for weeks, months. How can we tell the audience that he’s back in his childhood home? And all he says in that scene is “Mm.” We actually wrote him more lines and had to take them out, it just didn’t feel right. Bond cannot explain, nor does he ever want to. He can’t put himself into analysis.

But the way I chose to try and find -- to give the audience access to him -- was there are a lot of scenes in which he’s on his own. Very brief scenes. And those are key scenes. Scenes early on when you feel his weakness, his own vulnerability, his own sense of mortality, his injuries, all those things. So those were pivotal little scenes, and those were a combination of whether it’s him missing the target on the shooting range, or treating his injuries, there were a number of those that I think are key. But a lot of it is in the Fleming, it just was avoided by the movies of those novels at the time. Because at the time, the idea that there would be a big commercial movie that has a truly dark anti-hero was not a popular idea with studios. We now live in an era where it’s almost de rigeur to have a dark anti-heroes at the head of your big franchise movie, like Bond and Batman and Iron Man. They’re all complex and interesting characters. The very fact that we’re allowed to make a movie like this by the studio is a good thing, because we didn’t have to argue for it. And it’s all there in the Fleming.

At the beginning, he tries twice to assassinate M. All the stuff about his parents is from Fleming, his lonely childhood, all that stuff. The fact that he’s drinking too much, and he’s becoming that way, and in “The Man With the Golden Gun” he’s becoming an alcoholic. All that stuff is there, it was just never put in the movies. So for me, the novels are the source of all the great ideas.

AT: Are you thinking about any more ideas for you to tap in another Bond film?

SM: Ask me in six months.

Audience member: Can you talk about stunts, anything that was totally new?

SM: The stunts are, I mean for me, it was all a brave new world to have stunts, have special effects, have visual effects, second unit.  I’m particularly astonished by their invention.  You don’t go into it and say “Do another stunt. Action.” You sit in a room and you say, “Well, what’s the story of the action sequence? How can we, within the realms of possibility, how can we unlock the possibilities of this train, or the rooftops of the grand bazar, or whatever?” And I had this idea that these sequences are like a series of Russian dolls, it’s one thing, and then it’s something else, and something else, it’s a chase, and then it’s a shootout, and then it’s bikes, and then the bikes on the roof, and then he’s on the train, and in the digger.  So it develops like this.

But what for me I loved about the whole world of stunts [is] the ideas. 'What if you did this or did that? And it’s not just what you do with your body, it’s – I think it was [stunt performer] Gary [Arthurs] who said “Why doesn’t he get into the digger?” And once someone says that, “Well, what if he tries the digger?,” well hang on, so one thing leads to another, and you’re never quite sure who has the idea, but for me, what I loved about it was that it was another source of great ideas. And these are guys – Gary’s dad was doing stunts for Bond movies forty years ago. It’s literally his life, and the knowledge and the invention of the ideas that come out of something like that are amazing. It’s like a whole other world.

AT: And adjusting the cufflinks?

SM: That was Daniel Craig. He did it without telling me as well, which I just love.

Audience member:  What was it like working with Roger Deakins?

SM: Well, I worked twice with him before. I had to persuade him very hard to do this movie, and he was worried that it might be a different kind of experience, which it was. To be a cinematographer on a movie like this you have to head a huge department, and you’re in charge of not one, not two, but often three or four second-third-fourth unit crews shooting simultaneously, and then various other people who have to go off and shoot close-ups of peoples’ hands and stuff like that, so it really is a totally different kind of thing. To maintain the intense perfectionism that he has across all of that was an act of will, apart from anything else. He’s a great cinematographer. We were lucky to have him. I’m astonished that we’re still speaking after the endlessness of this film, but I’m beyond grateful that he was part of it.

AT: How did you shoot that stunning high rise sequence in Shanghai with all the the visual reflections?

SM: Well, the first thing we did is we went to Shanghai and looked at it, and that’s what I got. [It] was very alienating and modernist, and the landscape and the reflections of people trapped behind glass and the people in the streets. And so it was a response to that. But of course we couldn’t shoot what we wanted then, because it involved hanging someone out the window, sixty, seventy stories up. So we built it, four stories of building at Pinewood, we built the building opposite, the city was a huge jazz light, it was a photograph, which we then animated with visual effects afterwards. But before we did that we built the entire building in miniature. The LED screens all are photographed in compartments, and they’re all designed to run in sequence so that we didn’t get into trouble with continuity. And we built it in a tiny room in Pinewood, in miniature, literally LED screens, and the glass panels, and we shot it on a lipstick camera with little figures. To see how to react to the reflections. But I wanted to get a “Lady from Shanghai” effect with the multiple reflections of people, and to be confusing and slightly dream-like, so you’re not sure at any given point how close they are to each other and what’s really going on. And when we shot it, as Berenice will you tell you, for a week she was just in the building opposite, with a bunch of strange Asian people… But that’s what we did. And I had this idea that the fight would be sort of in one take and, as stunts will tell you, it’s more difficult to do something in one take than in multiple.

Audience member: Because the action sequences are at such a large scale, was there ever a hint of fear in the back of your mind that you wouldn’t  get the shot, because sometimes you only get one time with large explosions?

SM: More than a hint of fear, yes. I lived in fear every day that it would all go horribly wrong and I think that something I wasn’t used to was the tension of people’s safety as well. Because there have been some terrible injuries in the past, and thank God we got through it without anything. But for me the most difficult thing is when you do a big stunt, and the explosion goes great and everyone’s excited and it’s taken five hours to set up, to take a step back, while everyone’s celebrating, and say “Yeah, it worked. But do I like it? Is it what I wanted when I first conceived it? Is the story being told? Is the actor being reflected back?” And if the answer to any of those questions is no, turning around to 200 people and saying, “We’re doing it again,” and knowing that those people will look at you like they want to kill you, and just getting on and doing it. And sometimes as a director you have to be the person  – we learned this in the theatre – that everyone bitches about in the pub afterwards, and you have to have the strength to be that person sometimes. And so there were moments when I think, no I know, that they all wanted to kill me, because they told me.

Audience member:  I liked picking up references from other films, and I wondered if it would be fair to say that there’s something of every Bond film in there?

AT: Mostly from “To Russia with Love,” right?

SM:  Yes, there’s definitely “To Russia with Love.” There’s definitely something from the first four or five. And a bit from “Live and Let Die,” too.  Jumping on the back of the komodo dragon is Bond jumping across the crocodiles in “Live and Let Die.” Obviously the Aston Martin DB5 is my entire childhood. And when you’re in England, the sort of noise that people make when the DB5 is revealed is sort of an orgy of nostalgia and squirming in their seat, it’s just great. So yes, there are lots of references back. And I suppose the biggest of all is right at the end, which is an entire recreation of the original M and Moneypenny office with the hat-stand and the desk. We used the original floorplans from “Dr. No” in 1962, and the padded door, and everything. And working on that really gave me chills, actually.  

Audience member: How was Sam's process of working with the actors?

NH: It was really unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before in many ways, because it was much more collaborative. It was much more open. And Sam, one of the first things he did, was met with me and John Logan and sat down and said “Is there any lines that you don’t like or you’d like to change? Is there anything about your character’s development you want to discuss or change?” I’ve never had that with any other director, because it’s much “This is your part, make the most of it and do your job.” And here was somebody giving me the opportunity to really [give] input, and really be involved in that process. And then that continues even on set as well, it was still very much a collaborative thing, and that makes you feel much more free, much more liberated. You feel like you have a voice which, sometimes when you’re playing a small role, you don’t feel like that, and that gives you the strength and the confidence to play more and really explore. So it was very different for me.

BM: Sometimes you get people where there is like a connection, or a human connection, or an artistic connection, without the words. I mean, I remember when I dance with Daniel], I was like “Okay, I will be a dragon and a hunter and a mix of Christopher Walken or something like that.” Which director would understand that or allow you to explore? I felt so at home and at ease because he [Sam Mendes] has such a beautiful nature.

SM: Well, that went right the way through, you see the dragon on the back of her dress, the length of her nails, and even the shape of jewelry, it was fed into Jany [Temime], our brilliant costume designer was able to use that. And even the way she exhales the smoke from her cigarette. So those things do go in and if they’re good thoughts then they come out right on the other side.

Audience member: Was it hard for you to back away from all the gadgetry that Bond was known for?

SM: No, it wasn’t, actually. Because I just thought “Okay, what gadgets can I imagine that aren’t available in the Apple store?” And I came up with: weapons. That was basically it. Because you can get anything, anything’s available to you. I mean, everything you could have dreamt of in 1962 is available to you. You can’t even replicate it now, it’s insane. So the only one we came up with that I would like on my iPhone is an app that changes the color of the traffic lights.

Audience member: How were you able to make the transition to stage to screen, and along with it you won an Oscar?

SM: For me, it’s two different jobs. Theatre and film are very, very different in terms of the part of the brain that you use, and how to tell a story. And you really are more like a sports coach in the most general sense. There’s a sense of humility about a person: film is tiny, tiny pieces, like a director’s meeting where you go in, and you are making a mosaic. Tiny pieces, you put them in a box and then six months later, you’ll be taking them all out and you start putting pictures together. And what emerges is often not what you think you’ve been making. And that’s a totally different process. However, the thing that theatre taught me is to tell stories to people in two hours, and to read and recognize when an audience is bored. And sometimes, it’s not because they say it, but because you feel it in the room. It’s one of the reasons why movies, for me a movie doesn’t exist until I’ve sat with and read it a few times, and watched it. Because then I need to fill in forms, and they don’t even talk necessarily, but you can feel it in a room. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours telling stories, and that is unbelievably useful.  And it’s very difficult to spend thousands of hours doing something when you make a movie, because they’re expensive and they’re difficult. Also, by the time I was in my mid-thirties, I had just exercised that muscle many times. And so much of storytelling for me is about rhythm, like any play or any great film, it has to breathe in and breathe out.

One of the things I’m proudest of with this movie is that people come out and they talk as much about the scene with Silva, when Silva first meets Bond, you know, Javier’s first scene, as they do about the action sequences. We’re talking about a seven-minute scene where two characters barely move, as much as they’re talking about all the explosions and the exciting action. And to me, it proves that if you put it at the right moment in the story, it doesn’t matter. You get told constantly that it’s an action movie, people are not going to sit still for a long dialogue scene. That’s not true. As long as the acting is great and the tension is unbroken, and you’re ready for it. It has to come at the right moment. And when things can happen, that’s something that you learn in the theatre pretty well. So I think that on the one hand theatre taught me nothing and yet taught me everything.

Audience member: How did you come up with Ben Whishaw for Q?

SM: It was an idea that came out of a script meeting with Barbara and Michael that Q should not be an old man, he should be younger. The story, you remember, is about Bond disappearing and coming back to find everything changed. He dies at the beginning, and comes back, and what he finds is M16 is a different place, Q’s a young man, M’s not giving the orders anymore, everything is changed. And he is the dinosaur, he’s the prehistoric one. He’s the past. And it seemed to me that there was a wonderful opportunity with Q to demonstrate the theme of the movie, which is the old and the new. Which is Bond. And I thought that Logan’s writing in that scene in the National Gallery is a mini-classic. I think that’s the most brilliant piece of screenwriting. It’s a two page scene, introduces a new character, and you see immediately – it’s very witty – but you see immediately the mutual respect that exists between the two men. And yet suspicion, as well. And Ben [Whishaw] was the person that just came into our head, me and John said, “It’s Ben Whishaw, isn’t it?” And we [said] yes. And that was it. And we called up Ben, as we did with Javier and Berenice, and we said “We wrote this part for you, would you want to do it?” And they all [said] yes.

Audience member: I’m just curious to know, were [Daniel Craig and the bad guy] riding on bikes on the roof of the bazaar?

SM: She [Naomie Harris] was there more often than I was. I’m serious. She was shooting for about a month and a half without us, really. And I would say probably those were the most difficult weeks of the movie for [her]. Because, I think the most pivotal thing when you’re doing action is – well, all the tiny pieces – but also she’s driving day in and day out in that gray Land Rover, and she has one line a week. And her line was “VW Beetles.”  That was her one line for the week! But anyway, she did it very well. But it’s true though, as an actor all you’ve got to hold on to is what you’re saying, what you’re looking at, basically in those sequences. And when you’re looking every possible moment at the train and “Look at Bond! Now he’s fallen! Now he’s standing up again! Now he’s in the digger!” But she’s just staring at a guy with a camera. Jake Gyllenhaal has a very funny story about doing that in “The Day After Tomorrow,” and he’s running through the woods in the middle of the night and all the cameras were shooting and all shouting “Look behind you! Look behind you!” And finally he said, “Why are you telling me to look behind me?” And they said, “Because you’re being pursued by wolves." He said, "I wish they'd told me that!"

Audience member:  Do you have a replacement for the car?

SM: A replacement for the car? The car is dead. I know, it’s terrible. One of the things that makes me laugh most in the movie is the look on Bond’s face [when the Aston Martin blows up], he’s in considerably more pain than in any other moment in the film. Kill M, kill the girl, but don’t kill the car.

'Skyfall'

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