After a long four-year absence from theaters, Daniel Craig‘s James Bond is finally back. For die-hard fans — and a jittery movie industry — it isn’t a moment too soon, either. Skyfall, the 23rd installment in the spy saga, was not only one of the best-reviewed entries in the 50-year-old franchise’s history, it had the biggest double-0 opening weekend ever, raking in $88.4 million domestically (adding to the $428.6 million it’s already earned overseas). Needless to say, it was also the biggest commercial success ever for director Sam Mendes. We spoke with the art-house auteur (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) about his career-redefining weekend.
I see you’re calling from a phone number that ends in 007. Coincidence?
No, the phone is owned by the Bond production company. All of their numbers end in — surprise, surprise — 007.
Well, congratulations on having the biggest Bond opening ever. I’m guessing you had a pretty good weekend?
We’re absolutely thrilled. I don’t follow the figures slavishly, but the thing that really landed for me is that it’s just overtaken Casino Royale internationally. For me, that’s very meaningful because Casino Royale was the reason I got interested in Bond again
Why do you think Skyfall is connecting with audiences?
That’s really for you to say. But one thing I’m proud of is that when people talk to me about it, they want to talk as much about a six-minute dialogue scene between Javier Bardem and Daniel as they do the action sequences.
So how did you spend the weekend? Drinking martinis and driving around L.A. in a limo checking out the theater lines?
No, I spent the weekend doing Q&A’s with the Academy and the writers’, actors’, and producers’ guilds with Daniel. But there were emails with lots of exclamation marks. We’d just look at each other and smile. It’s rare to promote a film where you’re riding a wave instead of trying to create it.
What was the first Bond film you ever saw, and what was your goal with this one?
My first one was Live and Let Die, so I always had a soft spot for Roger Moore. I must have been 10, and it made a huge impact on me. Making this movie, I was trying to get back in touch with my inner 10-year-old and channel him. I really wanted to reintroduce some of the fun that had gone before with Q, and the whole world of MI6, and bring back some of the humor, which Daniel was also keen to do.
When did you start working on this?
At the end of 2009. And because of the MGM bankruptcy situation, I worked for a year uncredited and unpaid because we didn’t know if the movie was going to ever happen.
Javier Bardem is one of the best 007 villains in ages. What’s the key to a great baddie?
First of all, I wanted to have a great actor play him. I wanted to return to some of the more flamboyant, theatrical Bond villains of the first four or five movies — the Dr. Nos, the Goldfingers, the Rosa Klebbs. I wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to make a big entrance. And Javier makes three!
Longtime Bond fans really dig the little nods to the classic 007 films in Skyfall, like the Aston Martin and the Monty Norman theme. Why was that important to you?
You want to embrace the Bondness of Bond. You don’t take a movie on like this and try to fashion it into something else. That’s the joy of doing a Bond film. You’re playing with people’s lifetime relationship with characters and ideas that have been around since they first started going to the movies. What other franchise can do that?
You’ve introduced some new faces to the franchise who look like they will return. How much thinking goes into setting the table for what comes next?
I took very seriously that the last scene is a springboard into the next movie. One of the things that pleases me the most is people saying at the end that they can’t wait to see the next one. To me, after 50 years of Bond, and after they just sat through a two-and-a-half-hour movie, that is a big achievement.
Will you be directing the next one? I asked you before Skyfall came out and you said, ”Ask me after it opens.” Well…?
Now I’m going to say, ”Ask me in six months.” Honestly, I haven’t drawn a breath. I put everything I ever wanted to put into a Bond movie in this one, and if I felt I could do that again, then of course I would consider it.
So what is next for you?
I’m going back to the theater to direct a new musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London. But before that, I’m having a big nap.
Biggest Bond Openings
$88.4 mil* 2. Quantum of Solace
$72.6 mil 3. Die Another Day
$60.6 mil 4. The World Is Not Enough
$49.3 mil 5. Casino Royale
$46.8 mil *Domestic opening weekends, adjusted for inflation