Sam Mendes interview

Dave Calhoun speaks to the director of 'Skyfall' about the latest film in the Bond franchise

When ‘Skyfall’ opens in cinemas, it will be the end of a four-year journey for 47-year-old director Sam Mendes. It was in October 2008, after the release of ‘Quantum of Solace’, that Daniel Craig suggested to his producers that Mendes was the man for the job. He was a surprising and daring choice – his CV is not exactly action-packed.

Mendes began his career as London theatre’s boy wonder, appointed artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse when he was just 25. He won a clutch of Oscars for his first film, ‘American Beauty’, but marital bust-ups are as explosive as it tends to get in his movies. And yet, if Bond films were going to continue to pay attention to character and emotion in the way that 2006’s ‘Casino Royale’ had begun, he was a smart pick.

Mendes accepted the gig. But no sooner had he got down to working with the writers than the studio, MGM, faced bankruptcy: the film known as ‘Bond 23’ was mothballed. It wasn’t until last January that the 007 machine was officially back up and running and Mendes was confirmed as director. Shooting began last November and continued in London, Shanghai and Istanbul until this May.

I meet Mendes on the top floor of an editing house on Lexington Street in Soho in September, his office for the past several months. How he is bearing up? ‘I’m totally fucked! Put that in. I’m at the totally fucked stage! I don’t care anymore!’

Mendes is laughing, and settles into a more serious gear. He says he’s already shown a version of the film to a test audience and came away thinking, ‘Okay, it’s not a disaster.’ He laughs again, and jokes that I may well disagree, as we begin talking about ‘Skyfall’ for the next 40 minutes.

Looking back, did you have a good idea from the start of what kind of Bond movie you wanted to make?

‘It’s funny you say that, because yes, I did. When I came on board – which was very early in the day – there was already a treatment [a story outline]. And I was very clear straight away that was not what I wanted to do. I took one small element from that treatment, and abandoned everything else.’

So you had something to react against?

‘Yes. And I don’t think I realised how crystallised my opinions were until I sat down and said: “This is the Bond movie I want to make.’ When I first started making movies, I was shocked by how many opinions I had about how to make them. It felt like that with this. This is the Bond movie I want to see. But it’s also the Bond I think an audience wants to see, and also that Ian Fleming himself might have enjoyed.

‘I am surprised at the degree to which it feels like my film. I’m not claiming ownership of the whole thing. It takes the work of hundreds of other people, literally. Thousands, even. But I don’t feel like I had to change myself to make it.’

Talking of ownership, everyone has an opinion about what makes a good Bond movie. How do you deal with that?

‘Everybody has an opinion, and they’re all different. Literally, on one day someone said to me, “God, I hope you put some humour into this.” Then, half-an-hour later someone said, “Oh, it’s so much better now they’re not trying to be funny.” These are friends and acquaintances. Then others say, “Oh, please can it not be so violent,” or, “You’ve got to put more explosions in there!”’

Do you pay attention to what people say about you and what you’ll bring to Bond?

‘I don’t read anything. Because it affects the way you do things. You have to retain a selective blindness. Ten years ago, you weren’t bombarded by opinion from the moment you open your eyes. You have to keep separate from it.

‘Also, I’m not a fool. I can see that people will go, “Oh, well, can he do a Bond movie? Can he do action? Isn’t he a bit serious?” I would, too, if I was a member of the public. But that’s the kind of challenge I like. It doesn’t freak me out. And if people like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t.

‘Listen, you make a big movie, you’re going into the Coliseum, and people are going to give you the thumbs up or the thumbs down. And that’s part of the game. It’s part of the fun as well.’

You spent eight months shooting this film. How would you describe your relationship with Daniel Craig?

‘It was pretty feisty. He puts a hundred percent of himself into it. He doesn’t leave anything at home. And he has opinions about everything, which is as it should be. But it’s very odd because I’ve never directed an actor in a role which, in a sense, he knows better than I do. Here it’s like, “Well, he’s played Bond already, so I’m the newcomer.”’

How much freedom did you have to take ‘Skyfall’ where you wanted?

‘You know what the givens are: three action sequences, girls and glamorous locations. So it’s like being handed the furniture to a house and being told, “Right, now find a house that fits the furniture.” And, if you’re not careful, you make a fucking ugly house. To torture the metaphor, I decided to put all my furniture in storage for six months, and build the house that I wanted to see, and then I tried to work the two together.

‘So, for me the job was: find a story for Bond, and then find a way to marry that with the necessities of the franchise, which is a different thing. One of the great things when you read the Ian Fleming novels is that Bond has a personal journey in all the good ones, the early ones. That’s why “Casino Royale” was so fantastic: he has this journey and it was because it was based on one of the best Fleming novels.’

Did you go back and read the Ian Fleming novels?

‘I did, I read a lot. Fleming put a lot of things in those novels that the movies threw out, because they were considered too dark. But now we live in an era where these things are not only appropriate, but almost necessary for big franchise movies. If you’ve got a big franchise movie without a dark, fucked-up character in the middle, it’s not worth doing!’

What did you find most tough about the filming?

‘To me, the most difficult things were all to do with the patience and detail required to shoot action, to do it properly. If you want to follow characters through the story and action sequences, then you’ve got to work in painstaking detail, and it’s very time consuming. Also, I wanted this to be a special effects movie, not a visual effects movie. If something blows up, it really blows up.’

On such a big movie, do you have to fight to find space to work with Daniel Craig and other actors?

‘You do. I mean, Daniel walked on set on the first day, on the stage at Pinewood, looked around, and went, “This doesn’t feel like a Bond movie.” It was much smaller. It was a more compact crew. It wasn’t sprawling. We only went big when we needed to go big, but the rest of the time, I kept it small, compressed. I worked very, very hard to keep it on a human scale, for the actors.’

Would you direct another Bond movie?

‘I’ve enjoyed it enough to do it again. I think the choice is in the audience’s hands. If people love the movie and they want to see another one from the same people who brought you “Skyfall”, then that would mean a lot to me. I would feel like, “Well, actually there are people who really want to see it.”

‘But I feel like I’ve put everything I want to do with a Bond movie into this Bond movie. I would have to feel the same again to do another one. So, it would take a lot of thought to try and make it as special to me as this. I’m knackered, but I’ve loved it.’

‘Skyfall’ opens on Oct 26.

Skyfall review

  • Skyfall

    Rating: 4/5

    'Skyfall' is a highly distinctive Bond movie with some stunning visual touches. Also, it mostly manages to convince us that there's something at stake by giving a hint of Bond’s emotional life beyond this story.