Skyfall: Human Intelligence in a Digital World

Let’s be upfront about the magnitude of the accomplishment here: Skyfall manages to be a deadly serious film about espionage and the contemporary threats to Western democracy and still incorporate the glamor and sly humor that made James Bond a movie icon. It might be the best Bond film ever and certainly stands up to anyone’s favorite movies from any Bond era over the last 50 years.

If you care about James Bond, you should definitely see Skyfall as soon as it opens to get as unfiltered an experience as possible. It was a real privilege to see this movie with absolutely zero spoilers. There’s nothing in this piece that will give away any major plot points but I wouldn’t trust anyone on Twitter or Facebook to keep their mouth shut, either.

How the team behind the movie delivered the goods is a testament to what can happen when first-rate writing, directing and acting talent make a genre picture but don’t think they’re slumming or aren’t just picking up a paycheck. EON Productions’ Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson brought in screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, Hugo) to revise a script penned by longtime Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Daniel Craig had starred in The Road to Perdition for Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (Jarhead, American Beauty) and convinced everyone that Mendes was the right director to make the 23rd film in the series.

“Uncomfortableness.”

Mendes was able to secure a first-rate cast that brought back Judi Dench as M and added Javier Bardem, Albert Finney, Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris to the cast. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, The Shawshank Redemption) shot the film in collaboration with a well-oiled crew who’ve long collaborated with EON and know how to create the kind of spectacular set pieces that have carried the series over the years.

What sets this one apart is that those set pieces all help advance a coherent plot and support the kind of nuanced performances that we really haven’t been seen before in a Bond movie. No matter whether it’s true that Bond novelist Ian Fleming really was JFK’s favorite writer, even the earliest movies in the series were seen as entertaining versions of pulpy source material. Maybe it’s the passage of 50 years that’s bought the spy character some credibility or perhaps it’s just that entire generations have now grown up watching Bond and took the movies seriously at an impressionable age, but Skyfall feels like a serious movie, a reinvention of the character on par with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies.

MI6 has gone underground.

Since the release of Dr. No in 1963, the Bond film franchise has been under the continuous management of original producer Albert Broccoli and his heirs. Most people in Hollywood thought the series was finished when Sean Connery first quit the role after five movies and George Lazenby didn’t work out as his replacement. The series successfully rebooted with Roger Moore (after Connery made a single return with Diamonds are Forever) but as Moore aged, Bond drifted away from his action/thriller roots and became more of an international tourist who tossed off one-liners before knocking off the villain with a lucky shot in the last reel. No one much cared for Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan’s take on the character was a lot like Moore’s minus most of the wrinkles.

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace did a great job of scrubbing the campy, self-referential tone from the series but both movies seemed like a confused reaction to the post-9/11 paranoia and disorientation that Paul Greengrass had mastered in his Bourne films. Daniel Craig brought back some needed weight to the role but his permascowl took a lot of fun out of the movies.

Q: What’s better than a beautiful woman with a straight razor?

What makes Skyfall so masterful is that it seamlessly takes all the fun elements that have made Bond so popular (pretty girls, great clothes, amazing gadgets, witty banter with the bosses and the villains) and integrates them into a high-stakes drama about the role of human intelligence-gathering in a modern era defined by data mining and drone warfare.

Anyone who enjoyed Jarhead won’t be surprised that Mendes has a knack for action movies and his willingness to collaborate with the Bond team and use their expertise to support his vision of a 21-century Bond yielded some spectacular sequences that actually make sense. The opening motorcycle chase through Istanbul really shows up the flaws in the climactic motorcycle scene in The Bourne Legacy.

Director Sam Mendes and Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli stand alongside Daniel Craig.

At a Skyfall press conference in New York, Mendes talked about the philosophy behind the action:

The challenge of any action sequence is that it has to be shot in very, very small pieces or at least the way I was wanting to do it in order to tell the story clearly. Because, to me, the enemy of action sequences is a kind of “shoot it with 7 cameras and cut it together so it feels like it’s go energy but it doesn’t quite make sense….The most difficult challenge of it is to try to tell the story with every shot so it’s not just generic action.

That goes across the board for all the other action sequences. It’s a very meticulous, painstaking and time-consuming process. The way I approached it was to be very, very meticulous in my prep. I prevised pretty much the whole first sequence of the movie and the whole of the last sequence with the house and a good deal of the tube train chase. For those of you who don’t know what previs is: it’s basically moving storyboards. It’s a sort of computer-generated image of the person and you work with a particular animator to do it and it takes a long time, almost as long as it takes to shoot.

Bond hunts an assassin in Shanghai.

The most visually inventive sequence in Skyfall is Bond’s confrontation with the assassin Patrice in a Shangahi office tower. After some incredible establishing shots that show the Chinese city in a way we’ve never seen it before, the action moves inside for a showdown that’s reminiscent of Batman’s last high-rise confrontation with the Joker in The Dark Knight but with the added complication of a funhouse mirror element that conjures Orson Welles’ famous end scene in The Lady From Shanghai. Mendes talked about shooting the scene.

I’m particularly proud of the Shanghai sequence. Every sequence had different rules. The one rule we had across the board was that we didn’t want to shoot it in a hand-held, throw everything at it way. I wanted the film to be made in a classical style. So the camera only moved when it needed to move. It moved stealthily. The frame was always pretty tight. We put a lot of stock on proper shot composition rather than just shooting with long lenses. We were careful and it took a lot of time as a consequence. I think it’s much easier when you’ve got the pressure of a big movie to shoot to put up as many cameras as possible and just do it all in the editing room. I think there were times when the studio thought, “Why are you only shooting one cameras or two cameras?” But you can control the way a movie looks much more precisely. It just means you have to make more editorial decisions while you’re shooting rather than in the cutting room.

For the Shanghai sequence, we made a scale model of the building and then built all the neon signs that surround it. I went in there with a lipstick cam to see how all the reflections with all the panes of glass would react. It took us a long time. Every neon sign and all the jellyfish were painstakingly designed by our graphics department and we tried them in different positions. So, again, it was all about prep, really.

Mendes really embraced the idea that he had a large crew at his disposal. Rather than challenge a team that had a lot of experience giving Bond films a consistent look and structure, he relied on their expertise and freed himself to concentrate on the performances.

I think that it’s fair to say that most of the movie is made in prep. I think that that the script, the casting, your choice of locations, your choice of crew and the designs of the set. If you’ve got those on the whole right, if you’re happy with those, then you’re 90% there towards making a good movie. You just have to pray for good luck and no one gets injured .

So there’s an enormous amount and the longer you get, the better off the movie is. On the other hand, the pressure is never off. Every time you think you’ve sorted something, a location falls out or you’re not able to shoot where you want or the weather changes or whatever it is. There’s constant changes.

Unless you’ve prepped, you can’t think on your feet. It gives you a kind of relaxation. To me, storyboards and previs are not to be followed slavishly. They are the thing that when you’re in Day 110 and it’s 5 in the morning and your brain is just a mush and you don’t have any and the First AD comes up and says, “What’s the first shot?” you’re able to refer to something and go, “Oh yes! When I was still a reasonable human being, I had these good ideas” and you sort of get back in touch with it. It’s just there as a safety net, really, when you’re in production. Then there’s a whole other slew of crazy decisions that get made afterwards.

A: One who knows how to handle a gun.

You might remember that this movie was delayed by MGM’s financial troubles in 2010. The studio eventually declared bankruptcy and Skyfall finally started production at the end of the year. Mendes thinks that delay was a stroke of good fortune.

We had a stroke of luck on this movie, ultimately, which was, at the time, one of the most frustrating things, which was the temporary bankruptcy of MGM, which, for me at the time, was a bit of a nightmare because I had really prepped the movie and I was ready to go into full-scale preproduction. We had to halt everything if you remember for something like nine months. But in that time, we worked on the script and, in particular John Logan’s work is exception on the script and that was the key to everything for me. From then on, I knew every scene intimately and we kept working. I did two weeks of rehearsals which I think was a relatively new thing for the Bond franchise. We had a read-through of the script and Barbara said to me, “That’s the first read-through we’ve ever had on a Bond movie!”

The new Q knows his way around a computer network, plays Scrabble. 

Skyfall’s script acknowledges the reality of modern cyber warfare and uses a new Quartermaster (played by Ben Whishaw) to stand in contrast to Bond’s more traditional spy craft.

Michael G. Wilson:

There is a cyber war going on out there and if you know about the United States blowing up a Russian pipeline about 15 years ago, if you know about recently the Stuxnet situation where the Iranian centrifuges were sent out of control, this is all part of what’s going on but the public’s not too aware of it. It’s a real war. So we thought this is a great opportunity to bring this up and show this. Nothing we showed there is beyond the present capability of any of these military hackers to achieve.

Daniel Craig:

It’s an interesting point because the fact of it is that people talk about gadgets all the time but if you look at the original gadgets, what was sexy about it was that Bond took it out of a box, stuck it on the door and pressed a red button and the light came on. That’s kind of sexy.

But to have Bond on a computer at a screen is boring. I think technology on the whole is boring but what I love about this is we brought Ben in who is Q and is a computer whiz and we have this clash of the two worlds and there’s the potential there to make a really great team so Bond doesn’t have to be dealing with technology. We very deliberately have kept the gadgets simple and we use them. We don’t put them in extraneously. They’re used in the movie and they’re actually very important plot points. We should use them when we need them but not have them for the sake of it.

Success as an agent always depends on how your suit looks while you’re firing your weapon.

In the NYC press conferences, Daniel Craig appeared alongside producers Broccoli and Wilson. The three interacted more like a production team than a pair of impresarios presenting their star. There’s a strong sense that Craig has fully embraced the role and wants to make Bond movies that are as good (or better) than the films he might make in the (allegedly) more serious career he’s giving up to devote time to the franchise.

The rule we applied was that I started rehearsing those scenes well before we started shooting and the fight sequences are worked out very carefully so that they’re choreographed. I’m not a fighter. I pretend to be one. It’s sort of bullshit boxing. We try and make it look good. We talk camera angles and we talk about how best to take advantage of the situation. With the stuff at the beginning on the train, you also have to deal with the fact that the train is going from side to side and you try to stay on your feet most of the time. But it’s just very carefully worked out and Roger knows where to put the camera and Alexander Witt who did the second unit knows where to put the camera. We have constant dialog about it. We watch, we look, we say “this fist looks good going into this face.” It’s a lot of work and a lot of skilled people.

Nobody told me that we couldn’t make an action film with a good story and we always go back to Fleming when we discuss and, if you look at the novels, he’s so conflicted. Fleming tries to kill him off. He gets really pissed at him. And he’s a killer. He kills for a living. It’s really kind of a dark place he goes to.

What I so proud about this movie is that the writing is so good and the lightness of touch that we wanted so much is back. You need good writing for that. Hopefully we’ve combined that with a very emotional story. They employed me. They knew what kind of actor I was. It’s their fault. Blame them.

Javier Bardem manages what seems like an impossible trick as Silva: he brings an over-the-top, scenery-chewing verve to his performance as the villain while at the same time conveying the real physical and emotional damage that created his character’s hatred of MI6. Bardem talked about getting a handle on the role:

Sam gave me this great note which is “uncomfortableness.” We want to create somebody who creates uncomfortable situations rather than being somebody scary or threatening, somebody who creates a scenario of insecurity.

Despite all his rage, Silva’s just a rat in his cage.

Bardem came to Skyfall as a real fan of the Bond series. He took the material seriously and yet still had a few moments on set where he realized just what he’d signed up for.

Focus on the material, really judge it for what it is. Once I realized the ground was a really fertile ground to work with, you just jump there. Everything was like “do your job and don’t think too much about the rest of the things.”

But there was one day that I saw Judi and Daniel looking at me and I forgot the lines. Because it was like, “That’s M and that’s James Bond and I’m in a crystal cell.” So they’re looking at me and I’m the villain in a James Bond movie and I forgot the lines and Sam came to me, “Cut! What happened?” He was laughing because he kind of knew. I said, “Well, man. I’m sorry. I’m a human being and I realized that I’m in a James Bond movie.” He said, “OK. Are you ready now? Let’s keep on moving.

“That same day, we were shooting the scene with Judi, a very intense scene, and then I hear dun-da-dun-dun-dun-da-da-dun-da-dun-dun-dun and I said, “What is that?” and it was the tone of Judi Dench’s cellphone. I said, “Wow. That was pretty brilliant I have to say.” It was like a dream come true. M, her cell, giving the music to the scene.

Ralph Fiennes hasn’t looked this comfortable with a gun since he made Strange Days.

Mendes seems to take Bond a lot more seriously than the guys directing the movies in the 70s and 80s, yet he still remembers the excitement of seeing those films as a kid.

In making a Bond movie, you have to rediscover your 13-year-old self and it was a great delight to me, as somebody who also has kids, to find that part of myself in making a film again. All of my films have been R-rated movies and here I was trying to get in touch with the part of myself that loved the DB5. I had that model, pretty much like every boy of my generation and was thrilled by it again.

Mendes and Craig make plans for the DB5.

And yet Sam Mendes tried to use the tried-and-true tropes of Bond movies to tell a story about the continuing importance of human intelligence in a data-driven world and to make a case for Bond in the 21st century.

It was to me very clear on some level the discussion at the center of the movie was what was the point of a secret service that was created during the Cold War now that the world has changed? And, therefore, what is the point of Bond? And, therefore, what is the point of Bond movies? So there is, at its core, an argument for all three.

When we talk about the old and the new, I’m not just talking about the new being whizzy computer kids and hacking and the old being letters and people writing on pieces of paper making phone calls in that sort of LeCarre mode. I’m talking about old values which is what I think the movie argues for on a trust, friendship, courage. In a way, it’s deeply old-fashioned in its values but I think they never go out of date. That, for me, is what the old is in the movie as embodied by the relationship between Bond and M. That is something that runs right through the picture and reaches its natural conclusion.

On that front, Skyfall is a huge success.

I went back and saw the movie a second time just to make sure I wasn’t overrating it. Skyfall was just as good (or better) even though I knew the big surprises. Flipping around on cable last night, I caught the second half of Die Another Day. Pierce Brosnan still makes a good-to-excellent Bond but the movie played like an episode of Wacky Races in comparison to the new Bond. Skyfall adds a layer of emotional complexity and real sophistication to a formula that’s endured longer than any other in movie history. The next two films have already been announced and there’s no reason to think Bond hasn’t just entered a new golden age.

Tags:

4 Comments

  1. I blog for DavidORussell​.net so great to see others writing on DOR. Thanks.

  2. Rosalee says:

    It has always been my feeling that in the past Bond films depicted a lark when it came to the ***** business
    which REALLY annoyed me.
    Those cheap throw away lines and all the rest.
    I look forward to seeing something of better quality
    despite the many who just NEED to see a film full of gag lines and fluff

  3. Shad says:

    Thanks for the review, I saw the movie two days after opening, late on a Sunday night in a small town and was surprised to find the theater packed! I was very happy to find no one was disappointed. I’ve been a fan all my life and loved the transitions of the bond styles. This new one fits my expectations extremely well. The only thing I miss is the evil secret society. When are they bringing Specter back (hopefully with a different name)?

  4. What’s up, this weekend is good designed for me, as this time i am reading this fantastic informative piece of writing here at my house.