A Goldfinger Twin: Bill Desowitz on ‘James Bond Unmasked’

The author of James Bond Unmasked describes the Quentin Tarantino movie, Goldfinger sequel and James Bond Jr. that never were.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

In 2002, Bill Desowitz was assigned a James Bond Anniversary tribute article (the film franchise turned 40 that year.) He landed Sean Connery on the phone from the set of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and after that the other Bonds were a lock. Over the years continuing to interview Daniel Craig, Desowitz realized he had enough material for a book. “James Bond Unmasked” is a complete history of the Bond films with firsthand perspective from the Bonds themselves. I got my phone interview with Desowitz to geek out over all the Bond minutiae he covered in the book, and some speculations on Skyfall. I was going to graciously cut it after a half hour but he continued chatting another 20 minutes. Desowitz will be at the American Cinematheque screenings of James Bond movies on June 8 at the Egyptian Theater (Dr. No/From Russia with Love) and June 17 at the Aero theater (The Living Daylights/Licence to Kill) in Los Angeles if you want to geek out over your own Bond questions with him in person.

 

CraveOnline: So you decided to mostly ignore Never Say Never Again and not even give it its own chapter?

Bill Desowitz: Yes, we discussed it. I was coming to the end of Connery and quite frankly I was in the mood to move on. My publisher is not a big fan of Diamonds Are Forever. I happen to like it because I have good memories about seeing it at the Chinese theater after being in the hospital for a week with blood poisoning and it was my first Bond at the Chinese theater. I said, “I don’t want to stray from the franchise” because then people would start asking, and people have asked, “How come you didn’t do the Casino Royale spoof?” I just don’t want to go all over the place because I haven’t interviewed other people. Connery didn’t really talk about Never Say Never at all. So [my publisher] said, “You know, there are a lot of people that don’t like Diamonds and they prefer Never Say Never.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll address Never Say Never at the end of Diamonds just to acknowledge that he came back in a less hokier fashion, and for some a more redeeming way for him to go out.”

 

What makes us obsess about this whole series as fans?

Number one, it’s the only ongoing series, so that helps. It’s always there. It’s always present, it’s always in our consciousness. It’s the ultimate comfort food in a way. There’s not a whole lot we can rely on and it’s a wonderful bridge I think to all our childhoods. No matter how old we are, what generation we are – our dad’s generation, our grandfather’s generation – it’s a nice bridge to the past and nice continuity to the present. As a character, he’s got the ultimate power of anyone I can think of. He can be an insider and an outsider, a hero and an antihero all at the same time. He has all this power and freedom to live as he pleases. Even the bad guys must be very envious of him because he has what they want. They’re trying to dominate the world and go about it, in the early films, in a very flamboyant way. Now they’re doing it more underneath the radar which is more realistic with the way things are done post Cold War with terrorist activity that’s gone underground and it’s harder to figure out. I think that’s the lasting appeal, this guy with wonderful power and freedom.

 

How different is Bond’s introduction in Dr. No since they couldn’t start with Casino Royale?

It’s interesting, when I found out that they were going to do Thunderball, on the audio commentary Terrence Young said that was his favorite novel and first choice. Then when it didn’t happen he said in retrospect it’s good that it didn’t happen because it would’ve been the wrong way to introduce Bond for a first story. They wouldn’t have had the budget to make it look really good so it would’ve come out really cheesy. Dr. No is a nice introduction to him. He’s just sort of plopped in there and there he is. They don’t go into any background or anything. I went back and reread Casino Royale and technically Casino Royale isn’t an origin story the way the movie is. I think he’s already been at it for a number of years but he does reflect back a little bit, gives a little bit of backstory.

 

Why do Live and Let Die and Man with the Golden Gun go back to 1.85:1 when the films had been 2.35:1 for several entries?

I didn’t look into it but when I noticed it, I imagine it must have been a budgetary reason.

 

Is it odd that the ‘70s brought a lighter Roger Moore when most ‘70s films got darker?

Yes, it is. It’s very interesting irony. Looking at Diamonds Are Forever again, obviously Connery came back and paved the way for a lighter Bond anyway so it was not a total shocking handoff. But with Roger Moore, there was no other way to go. I think it would’ve been stiff and obviously when they experimented with him in the first couple of movies and tried to make him tougher, he was uncomfortable, it didn’t come off as comfortable. When Lewis Gilbert came on, he was able to play right to his strengths. It seemed to go to an extreme with Moonraker and then pulled back very nicely with For Your Eyes Only. That’s probably my favorite Moore although I do like Live and Let Die a lot.

 

Were audiences in the ‘70s not averse to a humorous franchise while all the Taxi Drivers and Godfathers were coming out in cinemas?

It seemed to be a nice change of pace. In the beginning, I guess it was around the time of Man with the Golden Gun and Spy Who Loved Me, I started to get a little tired of Bond and the humorous approach because I was getting so into those ‘70s films. I kind of lapsed a little as a fan. I still saw them but didn’t enjoy them as much and I missed the early Connery films. The funny thing is, when Dalton came in I wasn’t quite comfortable going for a more realistic Bond. I’m not sure how much I wanted to be into Bond anymore. It wasn’t until interviewing him and looking at the two movies again that I appreciated what he did, and how that dynamic paved the way for Daniel Craig.

 

When I interviewed Lee Tamahori for Die Another Day, he wanted to make it where James Bond was a name MI6 gave their agents and each one was really a different person. I love the meta idea of that but I corrected him, he didn’t know that Roger Moore visited Tracy’s grave and there’d been continuity established.

The way he described it to me at the junket was he wanted to find a way of creating continuity. His idea was what if you had Sean Connery introduced as this mysterious retired figure and tells him he was the original, and they’re basically using the name since him. I had asked [producer] Michael Wilson about that and also about when I asked Connery, “What do you think about the idea of being a villain?” Wilson especially thought that would be too confusing to bring him back as a villain. Even if they could come to some financial agreement, that would be too confusing and I gather he didn’t like the idea of Tamahori’s suggestion. Then I heard they were toying on Quantum of Solace with digitally inserting all of the other Bonds at a table in a restaurant as a funny cameo, because I guess they can do that now. That didn’t go far either.

 

They would have been their young Bond characters?

We didn’t go into it whether it would’ve been young or it would’ve been them today. I started thinking what kind of rights issues do you get into doing that? You’d have to get their permission I would think. Unless as you say you’re inserting shots of them from the previous films.

 

It becomes sort of fan fiction. Haven’t they specified that it is the same character, by alluding to the wife? They’ve confirmed these aren’t different people when they change the actor.

It’s always been a strange floating timeline. That was the other thing when I got into Casino Royale, someone had pointed out to me a couple of years ago when I just started the book. I referred to it as a prequel and he said, “No, it’s technically not a prequel because technically a prequel happens in the past. This happens in the present.” Then I started thinking what does that mean for Casino Royale and started reading up on this retcon idea that they got from comic books where they’re constantly reintroducing characters and stories and playing with them. It just becomes rampant revisionism.

 

And it’s still Judi Dench as M, so what does that mean?

Yes, that’s confusing. That’s a contradiction because when we met her in Goldeneye, obviously she was taking over from the previous male counterpart who succeeded Bernard Lee. They made this big deal about her being a woman and that she was going to run things differently. Even when she goes into the cabinet for a drink, she says, “I happen to prefer bourbon.” Then we’re starting all over again and it’s her and they’ve redefined her. It’s an awkward thing but I think it works. From what I’ve read, this is going to be the culmination, in Skyfall, of their relationship.

 

What could a third Timothy Dalton movie have been?

If it had been Goldeneye? Originally they were going to The Property of a Lady and then they made it into Goldeneye. I can only imagine it would have been even better than Licence to Kill because they would have given him some dramatic meat. Part of my problem with Goldeneye, and I don’t get into much criticism in the book because I didn’t want to get off on that track, but I would like to have met Alec (Sean Bean) either longer in the movie or in a previous movie to really care and feel that sense of betrayal even more. I can only imagine that it would have been dramatically interesting to deal with, because you still have to deal with Bond in post Cold War. It might not have been quite as dramatic if they hadn’t had to wait all those years. Still you’re dealing with the end of the Cold War and the transition. Do you know anything about the script they were developing?

 

No.

I don’t know either.

 

Was Dalton ever really up for Goldeneye?

He told me it was mutual, other people have told me no, they decided they were not going to make that movie with him when they had the new regime. They basically gave them a list of [potential] Bonds and Pierce was on the list and that’s what they gravitated towards.

 

What did you know about Tarantino’s Casino Royale idea?

Not a thing. Only that he wanted Pierce and he wanted to do it as a period piece, like an Ipcress File. Nobody seemed to take it seriously at Eon [Productions]. On Die Another Day, I didn’t put two and two together, because I had asked Michael Wilson, “When are you going to do Casino Royale?” When I first met Pierce Brosnan on The World Is Not Enough in ’99 they had just acquired Casino Royale and I’d asked him about it. He didn’t even know about it, it was so new. Then they made Die Another Day and I thought, “What’s going on here?” I still don’t quite understand why they skipped. Maybe it was because of the anniversary [in 2002], maybe they weren’t sure what to do with it. I asked Wilson about it at the Die Another Day junket about Casino Royale and he says, “I don't know, we’re still trying to figure out what to do with it and I’m not even sure Pierce would be the right Bond.” I didn’t quite understand what that meant at the time and I’m certainly glad I didn’t bring it up with Pierce because it would have made for an uncomfortable interview because he had his sights on doing it and obviously they were already thinking of the idea of going younger.

 

I’d heard Wilson said he thought they could only use the name Casino Royale and not really do the book, and that idea infuriated Brosnan.

I can understand them not knowing in ’99 but a year or two later just sitting on it, I would’ve wanted to jump on it immediately.

 

I was surprised to read in your book that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service could have been made instead of You Only Live Twice and it was only because of the time of year in Switzerland that they missed the window. Would Connery have been good in that story?

Yes, he would have been great. It would’ve been different. That came out of Charles Helfenstein’s book The Making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I highly recommend picking it up because it’s pretty in depth. He spent 10 years researching because it’s his favorite. That’s how we met. Apparently they were thinking about it as early as doing it after Goldfinger.

 

Would that have been the note to end Connery on though?

In a perfect world, yes. It would have been devastating, don’t you think?

 

It’s devastating now.

It was devastating then. It was weird when he left. It was weird going to see a movie without him but it was such a different movie, it was such a fresh movie that I was totally enthralled by it. The fact that Lazenby was a nobody in a way helped me as a viewer because I had no baggage of associating an actor with another persona in other movies. After 15 minutes or so, or even after that opening with “This never happened to the other fellow” I was able to accept him. But it would have been a wonderfully dramatic moment.

 

If they’d worked it out with Lazenby would Diamonds Are Forever have been a more tonally faithful follow-up to On Her Majesty’s?

I have no idea what they would have done. They were toying with the idea with Diamonds of having a Goldfinger twin who was out for revenge. Whoa, where does that come from?

 

Is there fun to be had in the silliest ones like Moonraker, A View to a Kill and The World Is Not Enough?

I find something to enjoy in every single one. I got a kick out of in View to a Kill that he’s a father figure really to [Tanya Roberts.] I love the fact that he sits outside in the living room on the chair holding a shotgun, being a protector and making a quiche for her. I find it very interesting that they end it with them in the shower, not in bed. Like they were thinking how are we going to take these two together?

 

Well, it’s an interesting distinction. They are still together, just not lying down.

It just seemed more playful than sexual.

 

How close did James Brolin and Sam Neill get when they were auditioning in the ‘80s?

I don’t think very close at all. The interesting one, do you know about John Gavin?

 

No, I’d even heard Burt Reynolds was approached once though.

Guy Hamilton wanted Burt Reynolds for Diamonds Are Forever. Cubby looked at him and said, “He’s too short, he’s American and he looks like a stuntman.” Which is funny because that’s one of the things they used to say about Connery when he was being considered. Some people thought he was just some big beefcake, including Ian Fleming I guess.

 

So then John Gavin?

John Gavin was actually signed to be James Bond, pay or play deal. I don't know if he auditioned because there’s no photographic evidence. We’ve never seen an audition of him but he was signed and then they decided to go after Connery one last time and offer him a ton of money and he said yes, they had to pay Gavin off.

 

That would’ve been for Diamonds also?

Yup. And obviously they went against the rules, no American. I don't know how Gavin would’ve fit into a more humorous Diamonds and I gather this was before Tom Mankiewicz was brought in because they brought Tom Mankiewicz in to add some humor because I think I read Connery wasn’t really thrilled with the first script he saw for Diamonds and then they came back and he was much happier with the more humorous approach that Mankiewicz brought.

 

Well, I’m sure we could talk about Bond all day.

I can’t wait to see Skyfall and then delve into that. Then we’ll do a revision next year. It’s my intention to cover Daniel Craig in Skyfall and continue revising with each new movie. We’ll see when we get a new actor how it goes.

 

Wasn’t there a story that they were looking to sign Craig for five more films to make it eight?

Michael Wilson said it would be nice if they could break Roger Moore’s record. Skyfall completes his obligation and then they’re on a one film option. They could do it the way they did Moore where they just negotiated film by film. Moore was film by film after I think three. Connery was the only one signed for the long term deal.

 

Is Craig more inclined to sign up since his other big films haven’t done so well?

No, it would not be smart of him. I think for him it’s all going to depend on who the director is that they can get and how good the script is because that’s the way it was for Casino Royale and that seems to be what’s important to him.

 

Do you think Skyfall will be good?

I think it’s going to be fun and I think [Sam] Mendes is potentially a good choice. But it’s a strange thing. You sort of demystify him for the first time with Casino Royale, then how do you continue along that path while at the same time trying to bring back the mystique again. That’s an interesting tug of war between the Ian Fleming influence and not necessarily the Connery influence per se but the early classic trappings of the franchise. Certainly not Connery. He’s the antithesis of Connery. To me know there’s two pillars of Bond. Connery is the effortless, suave Bond and Craig is the conflicted, grittier Bond.

 

Is he in danger of losing all the fun of Bond by going down that path?

Well, that’s the other thing. Once again it’s a personal story. You made the origin story personal and that’s to be expected, and you broke his heart and he had to deal with that baggage. Now he’s moving on but now you’re making it M’s story and bringing in her personal history a little bit and I understand we’re going to have a little bit of Bond’s personal history. It’s hard for him to be objective and have any fun when it’s so personal. Maybe in the next one it can just be a mission and he can have a certain distance and objectivity and it’ll allow his character to just develop and he can be a man of action and he’ll have more maturity and he’ll be able to handle situations with a little bit more polish and finesse, which I expect we’ll see more here too. He’s not going to be a bull in a china shop.

 

It seems like they’ve been doing the personal angles since all the Brosnan ones, like that’s all they do now.

I realized that. They made it personal but the problem with the Pierce movies I noticed is they’d have these wonderful setups, dramatic setups in the first half. They’d set up a personal problem for him to deal with and then in the second half they wouldn’t deal with it any more to a great extent, except maybe Goldeneye. Well, they deal with it in The World is Not Enough but there’s so much action that they introduce that it’s hard to deal with it dramatically. Until Casino Royale they didn’t quite know how to mix the personal with the action, to find that balance. It got lost in a lot of action and then you’d wrap it up. With Moore it was easier because he didn’t have a character that was invested like Connery, someone invested emotionally. He was just there to navigate that obstacle course and use his resourcefulness and wit and whatever gadgetry he needed to beat the villain, and use the girl to get to the villain and come out on top. With Pierce he had certain personal problems to deal with. Now obviously with Daniel Craig too. He did with Licence to Kill but Dalton is the first to admit that they didn’t give him layers to play with in that, that it was just revenge. He had to do right by Felix and his bride, and he had to go rogue but he was just embroiled in the mystery and there wasn’t time to develop other things. There wasn’t really much wit at all in that film.

 

Except there’s a bar fight with a shark on the wall.

Yes, that was very funny.

 

Now that he’s on Skyfall Craig’s come out against Quantum of Solace. Do you think he really felt that all along, or it’s just convenient to bash the last movie now?

I’ll have to ask him about that, whether it was just because it wasn’t critically acclaimed, all of a sudden he was [going back on it.] Because I read a quote from Marc Forster where the only thing he said was, “I wish we could have developed the second half more.” He was still pretty proud of the movie. Speaking of Quantum, did you ever hear Paul Haggis’s initial idea that they rejected?

 

I don't know, which one was it?

That Vesper was pregnant and had a baby and they were going to make it Bond finds out about his kid, the orphan issue and Paul Haggis wanted to make that part of the plot. They just said, “No way are we going to get into that kind of emotional baggage in a movie, about whether you should be a father or not or whether he should abandon the child.” They just didn’t want to go there at all. Isn’t that wild?

 

When would she have had the baby without knowing it?

Maybe it wasn’t his baby. I don't know. I heard something about visiting a grave. I don't know whether maybe she had a previous child and he just felt responsible that she had had an orphan. It just seems strange. Then of course there’s the deleted scene from the end of Quantum of Solace. What are they going to do with that? Maybe since they’re not dealing with QUANTUM which to me is kind of strange, why they didn’t want to pick up that thread. Kind of like Goldfinger I guess. They just ignored SPECTRE for one movie. They took a break. I don't know, you set up this organization that’s so powerful, how can almost anything happen that they’re not tied to, unless it’s a plot that’s totally embedded in the past somewhere. We’ll see. And then also the thing with Blofeld. I don’t see, if he’s not happening, why they just didn’t deny it and have us move on instead of teasing us by not saying anything.

 

I didn’t hear there was a rumor of Blofeld.

[Screenwriter] John Logan was asked at a public forum by a questioner, “You once said that there is no James Bond without Blofeld. Do you agree?” And he said, “Yes, I agree” and left it at that. That’s how this rumor started that they may be toying with bringing Blofeld back. And he’s had ample opportunity to clarify and say, “No, what I mean is James Bond needs a nemesis and it would be great to get to have a nemesis again someday, whether it’s Blofeld or whoever.” Or, “What I meant was Bond’s only as good as his villain.”

 

Are they allowed to use Blofeld? I thought that was a whole thing with For Your Eyes Only, the ambiguous bald villain.

Yes, they are. When they got into the lawsuit with [Kevin] McClory, see McClory pushed it too far because Sony wanted to have a rival Bond franchise and they said, “Okay, we understand you can only remake Thunderball, but what if we take it further? What if we see if we can have rights to Bond too.” That’s when MGM sued them and they said, “No, you cannot have a rival Bond franchise.” Part of that settlement was they got Casino Royale and all of that, so I gather Eon has rights to everything. I have to start asking some people in the Bond community that I know what are the legal [factors]. Is it true, do they have the rights to Blofeld, do they not because of McClory? Did they reach an agreement legally in that case that gave them the rights to everything or not? When they did For Your Eyes Only, McClory threatened to sue them when they let it be known that they were going to use Blofeld. That’s why they made him a generic Blofeld. In The Spy Who Loved Me they were going to bring back Blofeld and McClory said, “You do, I’ll sue you.” And they said, “Okay, we’re not going to bring back Blofeld.”