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From The Theater To MI6: Sam Mendes On 'Skyfall'

Nov 9, 2012
Originally published on November 9, 2012 12:46 pm

A new James Bond movie opens this week, 50 years after the first film, Dr. No.

The latest installment, Skyfall, finds Daniel Craig once again in 007's perfectly tailored suit. And this time, Bond is battling both the bad guys and his own mortality.

Skyfall is directed by an English theater veteran, albeit a young one. Sam Mendes was a boy wonder of that scene in the late '80s, directing Judi Dench in The Cherry Orchard when he was just 24. He staged a much-acclaimed revival of Cabaret, first in London and then on Broadway. And his first feature film, American Beauty, won him a Best Director Oscar.

It was on his second movie, Road to Perdition, that Mendes met Craig. They'd meet up again just a few years later at a party and start discussing James Bond. The director explains to NPR's Renee Montagne how that conversation would lead him to the world of the MI6 agent — and how he made the experience his own.


Interview Highlights

On how he came to direct the film

"[Daniel Craig and I] both had a couple of drinks, and I asked him ... when he was doing the new Bond movie. And he said, 'I don't know.' And I said, 'And who's going to direct it?' And he said, 'I don't know. Why don't you do it?' And I can honestly say that I hadn't any strategy. I hadn't any particular agenda in asking him. I was just making small talk, literally. But it never occurred to me until he said it. I think Daniel sobered up the next day, realized that he'd offered me the job, and it wasn't really his position to do that. So he called the producers, and two weeks later I met them. And they were very, very collaborative and very open. It was very clear from the beginning what they wanted was not a Bond movie, but my Bond movie. And so I felt very comfortable from that moment on, really."

On taking on the Bond franchise

"Well the main trepidation was that I would not make a movie that was personal to me in some way. And then I had to make a decision of whether to go back and look at all the Bond movies, or to sort of not look at them — to remember the ones that I remembered and forget the others and maybe go back to the books, which I did.

"I chose the latter course, which was to not think about it too much as a Bond movie, but as a movie. And there was something else as well, which was that I wanted to kind of get back in touch with my 12-year-old self, [who] had sat down and watched Live and Let Die with Roger Moore in, whatever it was, the mid-'70s, which was my first Bond experience, and remember some of that excitement."

On first experiencing the Bond mystique

"There's a great — with the significant risk of sounding a bit pretentious — there's a great Camus quote, in which he says something like, I may paraphrase, but, 'A man's work is nothing more or less than the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in the presence of which his heart first opened.'

"It's that you're sort of changed by those — those two or three ... 'great and simple images.' [In] those days, in the prehistoric times before DVD and video and access to these movies at the touch of a button, the previous Bond movies were aired at Christmas, traditionally, on the BBC — and as a consequence ... they were freighted with significance, and they were big events in family life."

On the evolution of James Bond as a character

"We didn't really create Bond as a dark character, you know. It was always there. It's in the Flemings. Really, we've come back to things that were suggested many years ago in the novels. One of the things I love about the creation of Bond by [Ian] Fleming is that there's a sort of cruel wit. And, particularly in the last trilogy of novels, the character is suffering from a kind of ennui, a mixture of boredom, cynicism, self-loathing, loathing of his job. I mean, he's very, very dark.

"In fact, these are all things that were features of Bond right at the beginning. The issue became, as they moved towards the more difficult novels, they started abandoning some of the dark stuff, because they thought it wasn't commercial. And Bond became a much more, I won't say 'jokey,' but a much lighter character and more self-referential.

"So I think this idea that somehow we've created a dark and complex Bond is — I'd love to feel that that was true, but I don't think it is. I think it's always been there. ... You just need to dig a little under the surface."

On the element of fun in the Bond movies

"Part of the fun of doing a Bond movie is being able to play on the audience's prior knowledge of all sorts of things. And not only large-ticket items like, for example, the Aston Martin DB5, which I was very keen to get into the movie because it's something that, as a child, was my way in, and I loved it.

"But also lines, echoes, tiny moments, musical quotes — that's the fun of it. And I think that, you know, there has to be that sense of fun. ... There's a danger that films like this can take themselves too seriously, and it's the humor that tells you that you're watching something that is made in a style — in a high style sometimes, but, you know, [a style] that hovers a foot above reality, that never quite touches down.

"Because in the era where Bond began, you know, there were no such things as franchise films, there were no such things as a series of movies or, indeed, you know, [movies] featuring an antihero. But now you can't move for tripping over them, from Bourne to The Dark Knight. ... And it forces you to define what makes Bond, Bond — as opposed to Bourne or Bruce Wayne or any of these other characters.

"And you come back again and again to a tonal issue, but you can push the character through some, you know, some dark protest of the soul — some something that is ... stripping away layers of him, and we hope to try to achieve that in the movie. But at the same time you have to find the tonal moments when you know you're watching a Bond movie."

On keeping Bond relevant

"You sort of rediscover him in each new story, and I think that in that regard, dealing with an iconic character like this is not so far away from where I originally came from — from theater. You know, you're doing a production of Richard III or The Cherry Orchard, [and] you can't be unaware of the other productions of the play that have existed. But it doesn't stop you somehow rediscovering it and insisting that the audience goes on the journey as if for the first time, each time."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was 50 years ago that the movie "Dr. No" premiered and turned a literary figure, James Bond, into a cultural icon. Today the new Bond movie comes out. "Skyfall" finds Daniel Craig once again in the secret agent's impeccably tailored suit. This time he's battling bad guys and his own mortality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKYFALL")

DANIEL CRAIG: (as James Bond) 007 reporting for duty.

JUDI DENCH: (as M) Where the hell have you been?

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Enjoying death.

MONTAGNE: "Skyfall" is directed by a veteran of British theater, albeit a young one. Sam Mendes was a boy wonder of that scene in the late '80s, directing Judi Dench in "The Cherry Orchard" when he was just 24. His first film won him a Best Director Oscar for "American Beauty," and it was on his second movie, "Road to Perdition," that Sam Mendes met Daniel Craig.

They'd meet up again, just a few years later at a party, and start discussing James Bond.

SAM MENDES: We'd both had a couple of drinks, and I asked Daniel, you know, when he was doing the new Bond movie. And he said, I don't know. And I said, and who's going to direct it? And he said, I don't know. Why don't you do it? And I can honestly say that I hadn't any particular agenda in asking him. I was just making small talk, literally.

But it never occurred to me until he said it. I think Daniel sobered up the next day, realized that he'd offered me the job, and it wasn't really his position to do that. So he called the producers, and two weeks later I met them. And they were very open. It was very clear from the beginning what they wanted was not a Bond movie, but my Bond movie.

MONTAGNE: I wonder, though, given the weight of this character, this franchise, what trepidations did you have?

MENDES: Well, the main trepidation was that I would not be able to make a movie that was personal to me in some way. And then I had to make a decision of whether to go back and look at all the Bond movies, or to, sort of, not look at them - to remember the ones that I remembered and forget the others and maybe go back to the books, which I did.

And I chose the latter course, which was to not think about it too much, as a Bond movie, but as a movie. And there was something else as well, which was I wanted to kind of get back in touch with my 12-year-old self, that had sat down and watched "Live and Let Die" with Roger Moore in, whenever it was, the mid-'70s, which was my first Bond experience, and remember some of that excitement.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, I gather one other connection that you had with Daniel Craig was that you both had the same first Bond movie experience.

MENDES: Mm-hmm. Yes. It was a very big moment in both our lives, I think. I mean, there's a great - with the significant risk of sounding a bit pretentious - there's a great Camus quote, in which he says something like, I may paraphrase, but: A man's work is nothing more or less than the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in the presence of which his heart first opened.

You know, I think that's true - a lot of people - is that you're sort of changed by those two or three, what Camus calls, great and simple images. And of course, those days, prehistoric times before DVD and video and access to these movies at the touch of a button, the previous Bond movies were aired at Christmas, traditionally, on the BBC. And they were freighted with significance, and they were big events in family life. And I still have memories of that.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about your Bond and play a scene from the movie. James Bond is being put through several tests - physical and mental - to see if he's still fit for the job. A psychiatrist gives Bond a word and asks him to respond with the first word that comes to mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKYFALL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Country.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) England.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Gun.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Shot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Agent.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Provocateur.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Murder.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Employment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Skyfall. Skyfall.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Done.

MONTAGNE: Well, not giving anything away there. That of course, "Skyfall" is the title of the movie and we won't give anything away on that. But I think what this scene suggests is how much darker James Bond is as portrayed by Daniel Craig. How do you see the evolution of this character?

MENDES: Well, we didn't really create Bond as a dark character. One of the things I love about the creation of Bond by Fleming is that there's a sort of cruel wit. And particularly in the last trilogy of novels, the character is suffering from a kind of mixture of boredom, cynicism, self-loathing. I mean, he's very, very dark.

The issue became, as they moved towards I think the more difficult novels, they started abandoning some of the dark stuff, because they thought it wasn't commercial. And Bond became a much lighter character. So I think this idea that somehow we've created a dark and complex Bond is - I'd love to feel that that was true, but I don't think it is. I think it's always been there. You just need to dig a little under the surface.

MONTAGNE: Well, in the midst of all of this there's also a bit of fun with some icons of the Bond movies. You even bring back the famous Bond sports car, the Aston Martin DB5. It has its ejector seat. It functions as a kind of time machine, but sort of delightful.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: I mean - yeah.

MENDES: Yeah. That's a very good way of looking at it. It does. Yes. I mean, part of the fun of doing a Bond movie is being able to play on the audience's prior knowledge of all sorts of things. And not only large-ticket items like, for example, the Aston Martin DB5, which I was very keen to get into the movie because it's something that, as a child, was my way in, and I loved it.

You know, and I had the model of it and all that sort of stuff.

MONTAGNE: You had the little car?

MENDES: I did. I had the Dinky Toy version, I believe it was called. Anyway, but not just those things but also lines, echoes, musical quotes. That's the fun of it.

MONTAGNE: The child today might be much more likely to covet a superhero, action figure than, say, when you were a boy and you had the little Bond car with the ejector seat. How does James Bond stay relevant with younger audiences who won't have a nostalgia, or a connection to the history of the character?

MENDES: I think that it's important that you make him somebody that you don't assume the audience already knows. In that regard, dealing with an iconic character like this, is not so far away where I originally came from, from theater. You know, when you're doing a production of "Richard III" or "The Cherry Orchard" you can't be unaware of other productions of the play that have existed.

But it doesn't stop you rediscovering it and insisting that the audience goes on the journey, as if for the first time each time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BOND THEME")

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much.

MENDES: A great pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Sam Mendes, who directed the new Bond film, "Skyfall." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.