Sam Mendes, who won the Best Director Oscar for 1999’s American Beauty, is the first to acknowledge that a megabudget action thriller like Skyfall (starring Daniel Craig, pictured, as James Bond) might seem far outside the wheelhouse of an auteur like himself known for lauded but comparatively small-scale dramas.
The credit for Mendes’ move to the Bond game goes to 007 himself — Craig first worked with Mendes on the 2002 film Road to Perdition. After rebooting the Bond franchise in 2006’s Casino Royale and 2008’s Quantum of Solace, Craig successfully pitched the director to franchise producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson back in 2009.
Despite Craig’s endorsement — and the producers’ support of Mendes — production of Skyfall faced an unexpected delay due to the 2010 bankruptcy of MGM (the longtime Bond studio was later restructured). When shooting finally began last November, both cast and crew remained on permanent lockdown about the hush-hush plot.
What we do know: A computer drive identifying all of MI6’s undercover operatives goes missing.
Bond returns to the agency after his presumed death in the field, and his loyalty to his boss M (Judi Dench) is severely tested. ”She is a central part of the plot, and MI6 is a central part of the plot,” teases Mendes.
There are rumors — ?unsubstantiated so far — that M will die and be replaced by a government agent played by another Bond newcomer, Ralph Fiennes.
In confirmed castings, Ben Whishaw joins the ranks as agency tech guru Q (as EW exclusively showed last month).
Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) plays an ambitious field agent. Says Mendes, ”She’s exactly the right mixture of sexy and dynamic — there’s a lot of action she has to do.”
Beyond MI6, Javier Bardem plays villain, Silva. He ”knows a bit about M and MI6” and ”is involved in a revenge [plot],” says Wilson.
Rounding out the roster is Bérénice Marlohe as Severine. Mendes classifies Marlohe — seen here exclusively for EW — as ”very unself-conscious. Remarkably unself-conscious. She has a kind of sensuality and danger that is quite out of fashion. You sort of remember why you fell in love with European actresses, you know what I mean? It’s very un-English. Very un-American. It’s the sort of thing that the Bond franchise has traded in over the years.”
Luring Oscar-caliber actors like Dench, Bardem, Fiennes, and Albert Finney (who plays a mysterious character ”from Bond’s past,” according to Broccoli) was surprisingly easy, admits Mendes. ”I’ve spent my life directing actor-led projects,” he says. ”But even with American Beauty, there was always someone who said, ‘Eh…’ But when I did Skyfall, every single actor I went to said yes.” Once the actors got to set, recalls Mendes, ”There was a lot of excitement. Daniel was excited because Javier was there. Javier was excited to be there with Judi. Judi was excited because Javier was there.”
Mendes hoped Bardem — seen above in an EW exclusive — could counteract ”a certain colorlessness [that had crept into the Bond films]. Or rather a brutality, a sort of straight-ahead violence. Although we didn’t want to have an ‘I’ve got a nuclear device that’s going to blow up the world, Mr. Bond’-type villain, we wanted somebody who had a little bit more flamboyance and complexity.”
As for Bond, ”I was very clear about what I felt he hadn’t yet done,” says Mendes. ”[Daniel and I] thought exactly the same about where the character could be taken.”
Indeed, Bond’s journey wasn’t just internal. The six-month shoot traveled through the U.K., Turkey, and China. Admits Mendes, ”I’ve often thought, ‘God, if somebody had said to me how it would pan out, I’d have been amazed.’ Even three or four years ago, it would have surprised me.”
Still, Mendes feels his experience fits into a growing sensibility about action films that has developed in the last decade. ”When I was first working with Daniel Craig, there was no Dark Knight, there was no Bourne, there was no Lord of the Rings. There was a dichotomy between large commercial filmmakers and people who made more personal films,” he notes. ”And that wall seems to have been broken down in a way that allowed me to feel like I wasn’t going to have to compromise.”
Mendes is currently at work editing Skyfall. ”There’s usually only two or three people wandering around the room, drinking tea,” he says. ”And with this, there’s a whole floor of visual-effects editors, there’s trailers editors, there’s the music editor, there’s two sound editors, there’s my composer….” Then again, ”I mean, if you’re not willing to work with people looking over your shoulder, don’t do a Bond movie. [Laughs] Because the level of interest is, uh, high.”
Skyfall hits theaters Nov. 9.