Sam Mendes: "Getting Bond right is a real high"
Sam Mendes has helped steer the James Bond franchise to staggering international box-office. He discussed his directing career at a recent BAFTA event in London.
After a decade focusing on directing theatre in the UK, Mendes made his movie directorial debut with American Beauty in 1999, winning an Oscar for his efforts.
Mendes followed up with the atmospheric imagery and pared-back dialogue of period gangster drama Road to Perdition - “I discovered my passion for the visual language of cinema”, he explains - which also marked his first movie with Daniel Craig, who co-starred alongside Tom Hanks and Paul Newman.
The 2005 Gulf War movie Jarhead (pictured above) became a conscious effort from Mendes to adopt a freer shooting style. Based on the real experiences of former US Marine Anthony Swofford, it was filmed largely with handheld cameras, but Mendes reveals he’s not wildly keen on the finished product.
“I took out a lot of the political content in the edit, and some fantasy sequences,” he recalled. “The result was a film with an uncertain tone. It was like an errant child – not really sure what it was.”
Jarhead partly doubled the deserts of Mexico for the heat of the Persian Gulf. Mendes personally found the environment “purifying” with sun-blasted sand all the way to the horizon, although some members of the production team had an opposite, claustrophobic reaction.
The James Bond juggernaut
The director came to the James Bond franchise through a casual conversation with his friend Daniel Craig at a party, when the actor was appearing on Broadway. Craig had wrapped on Quantum of Solace and suggested Mendes consider helming the next instalment.
“I honestly hadn’t thought about it until that moment,” Mendes said. “But after years making movies in the US, I was looking for a way to get back home.”
Skyfall became the first Bond movie to make a billion dollars internationally and remains the most successful film ever at the UK box office. After initial uncertainty, Mendes agreed to return for the follow-up, Spectre, which has similarly become a global hit.
By any measure, Skyfall was a big change for Mendes as he came to Bond by way of Away We Go, a low-key road movie he made for less than $20m. The film had been an antidote of sorts to the tense marriage drama Revolutionary Road starring Kate Winslet, who was married to Mendes at the time of the shoot.
The fan spotlight
Eagerly embracing the large-scale nature of Bond, the director brought two practices to Skyfall and Spectre that he developed early in his film career.
“I always rehearse with the actors,” he says. “It doesn’t work for every director – Woody Allen famously never rehearses – but it works for me. And I always spend three days in a room with all my heads of department going through the script to tell them what I want from them. Some of the departments might not talk to each other through the rest of the process, so those three days help make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Adapting to the realities of the Bond brand was also an adjustment. Mendes set himself a strict list of rules for how he interacted with the outside world during the shoots for both Skyfall and Spectre. He created a tight bubble where he and his team blocked everything out and focused on the truth of the characters and the story.
“Suddenly you’re in a place where everything is constantly being reviewed by the public,” he says of Skyfall. “They’re reviewing the casting, the poster, the song, the trailer, the second trailer... And these trailers are being cut while you’re still shooting.
“I’m only now, after 18 months, getting myself back into a place where I allow myself to read the papers!” he says of the Spectre shoot.
Despite the challenges of helming such a production juggernaut, Mendes admits he got “a real high” when things came together on the set of Spectre. The film’s pre-credits sequence is a particular highlight of the movie and follows Bond during Mexico City’s Day of the Dead celebrations.
“I took another look at Skyfall when I was thinking about what I wanted to do differently for Spectre,” Mendes explains, referring to the extended Turkey-set car chase and train-top fight of the Skyfall pre-credits sequence. “I found the opening sequence of Skyfall to be pretty relentless, so I wanted to mix up the rhythm a little bit for the next one.”
Spectre’s opening shot unfolds over five or so minutes of screen-time as Bond moves through the streets of Mexico City crowded with two thousand extras, into a hotel and across rooftops to spy on a villain. Although designed to look like a single shot, it’s actually a sequence of four, combining as many separate locations, including a set at Pinewood Studios.
The Mexico sequence extends to an explosion, a collapsing building, a chase on foot back through the crowd of extras, and finally a fight in a helicopter far above the streets of the city.
“We spent about two weeks in Mexico,” Mendes said. “At the same time my second unit director Alexander Witt was finishing a car chase sequence in the Alps, and I’m watching the footage on an iPad – they’re running out of light in Austria and they’ve put the camera in the wrong place. Simultaneously, there are sets being built back at Pinewood, and the helicopter fight is being filmed somewhere else in Mexico City where we don’t have altitude restrictions...”
Mendes is reluctant to take any credit for his impact on the Bond franchise as a whole, keeping his focus levelled squarely on Skyfall and Spectre. “The rest of the franchise has nothing to do with me,” he says simply.
Jarhead photo: Universal Pictures
Bond photos: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions