Listening to Sam Mendes, he sounds like a sailor who can see the horizon fast approaching and couldn’t be happier to reach dry land. When we speak, it’s just over a month before the new Bond movie, ‘Spectre’ opens in cinemas, and as the 50-year-old British director puts it, there’s ‘no way back now’. He says it’s been a ‘gruelling’ experience to follow ‘Skyfall’ with a movie that involved even more globetrotting, as well as filming action scenes that required shutting down the centre of Mexico City for two weeks and flying helicopters over London’s River Thames at night. Yet, finally, ‘Spectre’ is pretty much finished: ‘The picture is locked, the score is almost entirely recorded and we’re about to go into a final sound mix which will take about three weeks.’ All that’s left now is for Mendes to unleash the movie on the world and see how audiences react to the ‘very big ideas’ he’s been fighting hard to keep secret for the best part of two years. Are they about to do something incredible and kill off Bond? Reveal that Q is his father? Kickstart a love affair between Bond and M? We’ll just have to wait and see…
Daniel Craig told us that he was ‘begging’ you to direct another Bond movie after ‘Skyfall’. Is that true?
‘There was a small threat of physical violence and there were offers of free tickets to see Arsenal play Liverpool. [Mendes is an Arsenal fan; Craig supports Liverpool.] Seriously, it was very flattering and it made a big difference. Making “Spectre” has been more gruelling than making “Skyfall”. But it was also more enjoyable. A large part of that has to do with the fact I felt very in sync with Daniel. I had a real ally.’
Presumably there was persuasion from other quarters too…
‘Yes, there was. But in truth I wasn’t persuaded to do the movie. There were other issues. I wasn’t available to start on the movie immediately, and that’s what they wanted. There was also talk of doing two movies back to back. And I said: I literally can’t do that. Physically, I’ll die. Not to mention Daniel. So that was also in the air. I also had some very big ideas for the story that I wanted them to be behind. That’s hard to talk about until you’ve seen the movie.’
How big are those ideas?
‘Well, it would be the equivalent in “Skyfall” of asking: “Do you mind if I kill off M?” Once I felt like we had a great central story for Bond, I was in. It took a while and it takes headspace. These things aren’t easy when 23 movies have been made around the same character!’
So, this big idea in ‘Spectre’ that we can’t discuss. It was your idea?
‘Yes, it was an idea I pitched strongly very early on, yes. And they were enthusiastic, but it took some working out. Actually, there were two ideas, and I felt like they moved everything forward. My fear was that after “Skyfall”, where we introduced the idea of characters ageing, Bond ageing, and even a character dying, that somehow we couldn’t just go back and do a nice action-adventure movie. “Skyfall” changed the map.’
But surely you have to be careful not to back Bond into storytelling corners that he can’t get out of next time round?
‘Yes, but you could argue that it’s amazing how much Bond will withstand. Bond regenerates, just like Doctor Who regenerates. It will regenerate if there’s an audience for him and there’s enough imagination set to work on his stories. It’s become one of the great mythologies of modern times. It belongs to everyone, and you have to believe that, however far you push it, it will never die. Someone else will have a go and their take will be completely different. All you want is to have something to say. It’s not just about having a good time.’
‘There was talk of shooting two movies back to back. I said: I can’t do that. I’ll die’
You said making ‘Spectre’ was more gruelling than ‘Skyfall’. Why?
‘Just many, many more locations. Last time, we shot a little bit in China, but otherwise it was Turkey and England. Here, we were shooting in Mexico City, Northern Sahara, Tangiers, various parts of the Alps and Rome, as well as London. In a way, “Skyfall” was an anomaly: it was very strange to have a Bond movie, so much of which was set in England. “Skyfall” was smaller than the standard Bond model, a little more streamlined. There’s more globetrotting here, and so every two months there was a different crew, different rules, different climate, different timescale. That can be wonderful: it can give you new energy. But it’s also pretty wearying.’
How do you deal with all the rumours around the making of a Bond movie?
‘It sounds peculiar, but you have to embrace it. These movies are a dialogue with their audience. It’s not a dialogue that just takes place in the two and half hours you’re watching the movie. The dialogue begins two, three years earlier and it evolves over that period. They will review and comment on everything from the choice of title, car, cast, actor, poster image, first trailer, second trailer and everything else. That’s an important part of making the film. You have to acknowledge it’s a two-way process. On the other hand, you have to seal yourself off from too many opinions as it does affect what you’re doing. For example it’s quite odd to be cutting a trailer for a movie that is only a third finished.’
You must have known that the title ‘Spectre’ would raise rumours that Blofeld was back as the villain…
‘Yes, yes of course… And you know, the movie will reveal all in that regard. It’s nice to be only a few weeks away from people being able to find out. You don’t have to be playing cat and mouse the whole time. But you want to present some mysteries that are going to be solved by seeing the movie. When you’re making a detective story: who wants to go in knowing who the murderer is? I’m not being coy, I just don’t want to ruin people’s enjoyment of the movie.’
Are you confident that some very strong mysteries have been preserved?
‘Yes, we’ve managed to get this far, so yes. Before “Skyfall” opened we were terrified that the death of M was going to be revealed before the movie opened. It actually was in a tabloid months before. But there were so many wrong rumours that nobody picked up on that one as they thought it was just another rumour. That’s one good thing about being in a multi-rumour movie!’
What were the toughest action scenes to pull off this time?
‘I think the opening in Mexico City is pretty full on. And London is pretty full on. Try staging a sequence on the River Thames at night when it’s an unlit river. It’s very difficult. We lit it up like a Christmas tree. There were 28 generators along the banks. But that ignores a massive night-time car chase in Rome. And a huge Alpine sequence. Both of which challenge anything in the last movie for technical difficulty.’
And what about Daniel Craig’s Bond this time round? What’s new? He’s not an actor ever to tread water.
‘No, he is the opposite of treading water! He has no neutral gear. He’s found a great balance in this movie, that’s all I’ll say. He fully inhabits the role now. In all respects. There is a wisdom and vulnerability as well as the credibility of someone who can kill a man. The darkness is present but there’s also romance in this film. He spent most of the last movie playing catch-up. Here, he’s the main driver of the story and much more pro-active. He’s given much more to do.’
Can you imagine him or you doing another Bond movie?
‘Well, you know, never say never – and I hear the groans, it’s a terrible cliché. I think for Daniel, only he can answer. For me, I think it’s been an incredible five years doing both movies and it’s probably time for something else. And for someone else to make their own part of the Bond myth. It’s someone else’s job to come in with a new colour and energy and do it their way. I’ll be in the front row to see that.’
‘Spectre’ opens in UK cinemas on Monday October 26.