What Happens Next: Sam Mendes on Skyfall

The Oscar-winning director on the origin of the new Q, the whereabouts of Felix Leiter and setting the stage for Bond 24.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Los Angeles might be Sam Mendes’ last stop on the Skyfall tour. He’s been going around the world for the latest James Bond film which he directed, and we got to sit in on his L.A. press conference, only two days before the film opens here. He kept the spoilers light, though if you’re really sensitive you might not even want to know about some of the scenes he’s talking about, but we think you will.

I ask if there was ever a discussion of including Felix Leiter in the story, suggesting the CIA might have an opinion about the film’s terrorist plot.

Sam Mendes: That’s the kind of conversation we had actually. “Does the CIA have any opinion?” Yeah, we did our best to include everybody and we did actually talk about trying to get him in but we just couldn’t find a way into this particular story, but I think he’s very much still around as a character.

If Skyfall works it’s because of Casino Royale.

This is really worth saying that we couldn’t have made this movie without Casino Royale. What they did and what Martin Campbell did so brilliantly in that film was bring everything back down to sea level and take away pastiche and the assumption that there were going to be those [signature] moments. Now we’re able to reintroduce them with a sense of fun and mischief. He’s earned it by telling those stories again up to this point. Now I think an audience is delighted when they reappear hopefully. There was an interview with Michael [G. Wilson on a DVD] and he said, “The old adage if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is a recipe for disaster.” I thought he was going to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is true.” The truth is he’s right but it takes a hell of a courageous person or two people to know that actually what you’ve got to do is keep changing it and not making it the same. I think that has been ultimately the reason it’s regenerated so brilliantly is taking the risk on somebody like Daniel, taking the risk to take away everything in order to rebuild it and that’s why it endures, because it’s not the same. Every Bond is different and every generation needs a different Bond and it’s been able to move with the times. Now it’s hopefully set up, we’d like to think, for another 50 years and to a whole other generation of people. So let’s see how they do.

The secret of the awesome Shanghai silhouette sequence.

It was inspired by Shanghai and our three visits to Shanghai but we built that set on the 007 stage in Pinewood. In order to get it right, we had to build the entire set in miniature two months before which we did, including all the LED screens which were designed by the graphics department and every pane of glass. And we shot it with a lipstick camera and watched the way the reflections behaved and planned it that way. As much as one can do, you prep so that when the actors walk onto the stage at Pinewood, you’re able to say, “This is how it’s going to be, this is where you’re going to move, this is your journey.” Then you can say, “I don’t want to do that. I want to go over there.” And also you watch people one by one walking into panes of glass, including me. It was a brilliant set but that comes down to Dennis Gassner as well, the production designer. So you could say that it was heavily inspired by Shanghai but in order to get it exactly as we wanted it, we had to build it.

How Skyfall got its Q back (ha!).

Everything has to be workshopped as an idea. Would you consider having Q back? Yes. For a while he was an older man and then the idea came up he could be a younger man. Oh, that’s interesting, let’s run with that and let’s see where we get to. It’s the same with everything. It just becomes something we all discuss amongst ourselves. One of the people who was in a way the most important is not sitting here, was John Logan who came in and was very clear sighted, was very quick to get all our ideas and get them on paper, because until they’re on paper, they’re meaningless. It’s just a bunch of people sitting in a pub talking about the James Bond movie you’d want to see. It needed that clarity of vision and it really did help gel all of those things.

Sam Mendes sings Roger Deakins’ praises.

He contributes what a great cinematographer contributes, which is an unbelievable eye, an extraordinary skill in lighting, an immense amount of work in prep, huge care and dedication from day minus-100 all the way through to the last day of timing which is only a couple of weeks ago. He’s a very shy man and he expresses himself through his work. You put Roger with a camera to his eye and point him in the direction of something interesting and he’s a very happy man. He’d be shooting now if we hadn’t stopped. He would be. He’d be still going. He’s one of the greats so for me, it’s a privilege to have him on the movie and to give him sequences and every section of the film feels so distinct from the other, feels so alive, it kind of regenerates in front of your eyes really, the film.

Sam Mendes was feeling complacent, so he figured why not step it up with a Bond movie.

I wanted to have a huge challenge and there was no question, they don’t come much bigger than Bond in terms of scale and expectation. I wanted to wake myself up, try something completely new. I also wanted to come back to England to make a movie. I’d never made a move in England bizarrely, despite the fact that I’m English. And I wanted to work with Daniel and Judi Dench again who I hadn’t worked with for a while. So all of those things, it just felt like the right thing at the right time. It was a great piece of timing but what I didn’t know is I was going to have two producers who were going to encourage me in a way to make something that was as personal for me as all the other things I’ve done. My only concern going in was, was I going to make a movie by committee? They have an amazing way of guiding you without seeming to guide you, which is the art of a great producer.

The role of the villain Silva was written for Javier Bardem, and then he made it magic.

I don’t think anyone imagined he would take it into the particular area that he took it. How he looks, how he moves, everything is a truly original creation but built on top of a very, very solid and excellent script by Rob [Wade] and Neal [Purvis] and John Logan. But he brought his own particular brilliance to it as well and the [first scene between him and Craig] was my favorite experience in the movie was just watching the two of them. Because there was an enormous amount of mutual respect but there’s also a huge amount of mischief and fun in the scene and I think you feel it on screen too. It gives me great pleasure that at the end of a movie, people want to talk as much about that scene as they do about any of the action scenes and ultimately it’s a six-minute dialogue sequence in which two people barely move. It proves that movies like this don’t all have to be rushing around and explosions, that you can have a balance of the two things as long as you have actors who are capable of doing it and I was lucky enough to have two of them.

Sam Mendes didn’t mean to set up John Logan’s next Bond script, but it just happened.

I think it’s one of those things that just sort of organically emerged. For me one of the things that I’m most delighted by when people see it is they come out saying, “I can’t wait to see what happens next” and that’s saying a lot for a 50-year-old franchise when you’ve just sat through two hours and 20 minutes of movie to say, “I want to see what’s going to happen next with this set of characters.” So obviously it’s turned into, in a way, a new beginning. That can only be a good thing, but I don’t think we sat around trying to work it out. It just emerged organically like that as we worked on it.

Sam Mendes gets real for a moment.

For me, the great line in the movie is when he meets Q for the first time and he says, “So why do you need me?” Q says, “Every so often a trigger has to be pulled” and Bond says, “Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pajamas.” For me, that basically encapsulates the film. There is a serious point about the need for people who actually have human contact with other people and that it cannot and will not, refuse to communicate only by computer and that the end of the world is drones. That’s the end of the world, some kid in Vegas operating a drone while simultaneously doing a video game and taking people out of the field. There is a strong argument for the need for people to understand when or when not to pull the trigger. That’s a serious point, but then you made that within a movie that has all sorts of entertainment in it. The two things can be combined and that’s what’s possible to do now I think.