On the set of Skyfall

Time Out visits Istanbul to see the latest Bond movie being made

How bazaar... Tom Huddleston travels to the iconic Bond location of Istanbul to see Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig at work filming 'Skyfall'.

Three Turkish cops on motorbikes come roaring through the market, scattering stallholders, shoppers, tourists and livestock. There’s a rattle of gunfire and one of the bikes goes down, sliding to a stop with a screech of steel. But where are the shots coming from? There, ducking behind the open door of a rusty army jeep – could that be the world’s number one secret agent?

Actually, he’s in his trailer. After a busy morning running, jumping and blasting bad guys, Daniel Craig is on his lunchbreak as we’re ushered on to the set of ‘Skyfall’. But even with Her Majesty’s favourite enforcer taking five, there’s still plenty to see in this bustling, gorgeously detailed marketplace, built specifically for the film in the stone courtyard of the New Mosque, close to the shores of the Bosphorus.

Fake stalls are heaped with everything from baklava to cat food, manned by grinning local extras who fan themselves in the sticky April sunshine. The atmosphere on set is every bit as heated, as those stunt-riding, pistol-packing extras take their places for the next shot, overseen by director Sam Mendes and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s taking a break from his regular collaborations with the Coen brothers.

He might not admit it, but Mendes is clearly having the time of his life. Films like ‘American Beauty’ (1999) and ‘Revolutionary Road’ (2008) hauled in the Oscars, but even this most serious of directors must relish the chance to take a crack at an all out action sequence. He’s sweating, intense and a touch frazzled as a call to prayer joins a cacophony of shouting crew, rubbernecking tourists and harried assistants to create an unholy din. But his enthusiasm for the project comes across with every hand gesture, every barked order, every proud, field-marshall-like gaze across this epic, sprawling backdrop.

Istanbul was 007 author Ian Fleming’s favourite city, and its landscape of skyscraping minarets, busy bazaars and bustling bridges arranged around one of the world’s great waterways make it the perfect location for a Bond movie. The producers of ‘From Russia with Love’ recognised that fact back in 1962, the first time the British film industry’s biggest travelling circus rolled into town. In those days, Bond movies were guerrilla operations: the fire engines you see when Sean Connery flees from a burning building are the real thing. The producers forgot to inform the city authorities they were filming.

Forty-nine years to the day since that shoot began, Bond is back, bringing with him an army of crew and extras, truckloads of equipment and a hint of controversy. For example, some of the Turkish journalists attending the first day’s press conference at a swanky hotel seem convinced that the sequences shot in Istanbul will actually be set in Tehran. Craig laughs it off. ‘It’s Istanbul. That’s why we’re here,’ he says. ‘You can’t fake Istanbul.’

The filmmakers are tight-lipped as to exactly where in the story the sequence will fall, though a persistent rumour (since confirmed) claims it’ll form part of the opening action scene. In fact, today’s motorbike chase is set to transform into a fist fight on top of a speeding train, climaxing – gasp! – with Bond’s untimely death. It’s faked, of course, just a pretext for 007 to go undercover and expose a plot hatched by Javier Bardem’s devilishly coiffured villain, Raoul Silva. From here, our hero will head for London, Shanghai and Scotland, hot on Silva’s trail, pausing only to have a typically whirlwind fling with Bérénice Marlohe’s mysterious and deadly femme fatale Sévérine.

Here on the set, the stakes aren’t quite life and death. But there’s still a suggestion of conflict, and an almost adversarial feeling from some local people. During the film’s stint in the nearby Grand Bazaar, a stunt motorcyclist allegedly lost control and smashed into a shop, resulting in a damage complaint by a businessman. Mendes is defensive. ‘It was very minimal,’ he says. ‘Obviously, there are things we created ourselves which have been broken – a window in the Grand Bazaar, for example – but we’ve been very respectful.’

You can understand why some might have misgivings. Respect for other cultures has never been top of Bond’s priority list, and perhaps those journalists still have visions of Roger Moore in a safari suit, indiscriminately blasting foreign types with his Walther PPK. We’re in a new era now, so might ‘Skyfall’ mark a change in attitude? ‘We’ve all seen the UK reduced to the Houses of Parliament, a double-decker bus and a red phone box,’ says Mendes. ‘We want to show the best of Istanbul without falling prey to cliché.’

But no matter who is sitting in the director’s chair, there are certain elements that simply must go in to a Bond film if it is to satisfy the demands of a global audience that, in the UK alone, saw 10 million people go and see 2010’s ‘Quantum of Solace’. No surprise then that Mendes has striven to silence those who question his credentials, promising fans all the trademarks of a Bond movie. And everything I watched in Istanbul – the motorbikes, the pistols, the bad guys and the stunning locations – suggest they’ll get them.

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