A Longing for Excess, Destruction and Death-defying Courage
‘Wait and see’ says Sam Mendes, strokes his greying beard and laughs: an Oscar winner in a Bond director’s chair, the first of his kind and obviously enjoying the ride.
‘Sorry’ says Naomi Harris, the new Bond girl with Jamaican roots and a doe-eyed look. They all act as if they were working for the Secret Service: We could tell you, but we’d have to kill you then.
Meanwhile Alexander Witt appears on the scene, official title second unit director, in truth one of cinema’s leading action-choreographers – for Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Sparrow, and time and again for the films of Ridley Scott. Tanned, working boots, jeans shirt. He’s the man for the handiwork, and his part of the work here he can explain just fine.
People jump, pigeons flutter, oranges and melons fly
In this concrete scene an Audi is chased by Bond in a Landrover, through the alleys of Istanbul, passing the historical Post Office and across the courtyard of Yeni Camii Mosque, right into the vendor stall in front the spice market, where then people jump, oranges and melons fly, cookware rattles and carpets roll away. A short shootout and then there are – coincidentally – two motorbikes and the chase goes on across the neighbourhood and even up atop the 500 year old rooftops of the Grand Bazaar.
At some point in this whole series of events the Audi has to roll on its side and slide with a trace of sparks across the square here. Unfortunately during the last take the stunt car rolled onto its roof and is of no use for the scene any longer. So the next Audi has to be prepared manually to a state to keep the continuity.
How many cars on average does the action-choreographer need, just for such a scene? Witt pauses, calculating. ‘Fifteen Audi, six Landrover.’ he finally utters. He further explains the trend in action-filming is once more going away from the chaotic, ultra-hectic editing style which was en-vogue for a time. ‘In the end the audience wants to see what happens.’
In the final film – that will be titled SKYFALL and hit German cinemas on the 1st of November – the whole sequence will take up a mere seconds nonetheless. A wake has to be created: go right into the teeming city, without care for goods, people and historical architecture. Only – nobody is allowed to treat the real Istanbul in that manner, not even James Bond. The news report from a few days ago, about a motorbike rider accidentally destroying a 300 year old shop – here on set they insist that’s been a canard.
Fact is, half the market, half the square and the entire main entrance of the mosque is a real-life illusion. the vendor stalls, the spice merchants, the African watch peddlers, the headscarf-gammers – all that is there. But all that is recreated, cast, insured. Everybody who has to dodge sideways to save his life is a well-paid stunt expert.
And while pyrotechnists prepare for hours on end these small explosives that simulate bullet impacts the 500 extras and the 250 crew and cast have to: wait. Finally Daniel Craig appears, in tie and slim-fit grey Tom-Ford suit and it’s ‘action’; a five second shootout and the waiting continues. Day of shooting: 103, another thirty to go.
Slowly you come to understand the true nature of the modern blockbuster cinema, once you’ve seen the whole apparatus in the works yourself. For example why everything is always getting so incredibly expensive. But also how that fierce longing for excess, destruction and death-defying courage can be dismantled down to the smallest possible components, to then capture them – safeguarded by a thousand protective measures – in finest slices on film. The adrenaline rush of cinema, converted to an endless waiting game, a kind of 1000 parts jigsaw puzzle. They shoot on this market set for two weeks now – for a result of maybe 30 seconds screen time.
The continuation of the Western Empire
The attendants of the noon prayer, who find the entrance to their mosque closed and themselves redirected by security guards to a side entrance – you hear them mumble sentences in Turkish where only ‘James Bond’ is discernible. As much as modern Turkey is searching for a connection – to Europe as much as to global pop culture – as much as a growing economic self-confidence wants to present itself to the world – for many Turks this James Bond shooting is nothing but the continuation of the outdated Western Imperialism with different methods.
Memories come back of the time – almost to the day 49 years ago – when James Bond was guest in Istanbul for the first time. In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE Sean Connery – even back then explicitly the male sex object – had to serve a sexually starved Russian secretary at their embassy. To get to the KGB’s encryption machine. Istanbul – the favourite city of Bond-creator Ian Fleming – had a major appearance then; even Bond himself gushed about the ‘moonlight over the Bosporus’ – mainly to tease Miss Moneypenny who had to stay at home.
Bond films always exploit their locations
From the guided tour through Hagia Sophia to the Grand Bazaar, from the belly-dance show in the gypsy camp to the underground boat trip through Yerebatan cistern – even back then Bond didn’t leave out a sight. Even the fraternisation with a local pasha who’s surrounded by lush playmates worked perfectly fine. ‘Don’t you think that was an awfully ‘oriental’ film?’ asks a young female Turkish journalist now.
The question goes to director Sam Mendes, who doesn’t immediately realise that ‘orientalism’ is amongst Turkish intellectuals the worst possible insult. He looks baffled first, then he explains that he’s a Bond fan since the early days of his youth and calls FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (‘…sorry ’bout that.’) one of his favourite films. ‘To tell the truth’ he muses ‘Bond films always exploit their locations. But they celebrate them, too. In SKYFALL we want to show the historic beauty of Istanbul, but also modern age, both without falling back on cliché. We depict Istanbul of 2012, not a fantasy from the past. ‘ That’s good enough for the questioner, for the time being.
But you can get Mendes – a man matured in the tradition of the Royal Shakespeare Company, but in cinema renown for his studies from America’s suburban hell – sweating with more than one kind of question. Why Bond? What does he want to bring to the 23rd Bond film that’s new and surprising? And didn’t he have – after his 1999 Academy Award for AMERICAN BEAUTY – a career in art house cinema? ‘Ha!’ Mendes exclaims ‘Note the past tense!’
Then he explains – probably for the thousandth time – how he doesn’t accept the divide between high and pop culture any more, how today it’s possible to use serious story telling in a Bond film, too. ‘Daniel Craig opened this possibility’ he says. ‘Suddenly there is a real man again, in a real situation.’
Although little is known of the plot – beyond that the executive staff of the Secret Service is confronted with a hit team – there are nonetheless a few facts that seem to support Mendes’ ambitions. The Spaniard Javier Bardem for example – not on duty at the Istanbul set – will play Bond’s main adversary. Whoever has seen one of Bardem’s villain roles, his Academy Award-winning performance in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by the Coen brothers for example, can attest to how serious he takes this kind of role.
Further on, Ralph Fiennes – also not an acting lightweight – is going to play an intelligence service coordinator and within filmblog circles the rumours do not stop about how Dame Judi Dench as M, head of the Secret Service, will not see the end of SKYFALL. ‘Her past will catch up with her’ is the official hedged turn of phrase.
Meanwhile the set in Istanbul has moved. Shining marble, a sky of precious indigo, dancing silver across the waves of the Bosporus. Backwards to the right lies the city, its mosques looming above the mist. Across the waters there’s Anatolia. The Ciragan Palace stems from the end of the Osman Empire; here lived the last of the sultans, some deprived of power and sanity or simply under house arrest. Then everything was bought by the Kempinski Group. Here there’s no shooting taking place, here are only questions answered.
Bond’s not on a budget any more
There is for example the fear of fans Bond could – in times of major worldwide economic crisis – have to be forced to turn the dollar before spending it. The palatial setting helps enormously here. ‘Take a look around’ says a grinning Barbara Broccoli – daughter of legendary producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli – who together with her half brother leads the franchise since the nineties as a British family business.
In fact Bond has his crisis already left behind, back in 2010. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, the financing studio in the US, had to restructure and go into administration. SKYFALL was delayed indefinitely. Braking news rushed around the globe, announcing – prematurely – the end of the legendary film series; Sam Mendes left the production officially – but secretly held contact with Daniel Craig. ‘We were always sure it would go on.’ Craig says today. ‘It may even have been a blessing.’
Daniel Craig has learnt to be Bond
The 44 year old actor seems serious and completely focused when he talks about his work as Bond – someone who by now identifies completely with the venture. Dedication surrounds him like a dense aura – which leads to strong reactions with the females in the closer vicinity, but which he seems to ignore at will. ‘We suddenly had the time to go back to the sources in Ian Fleming, to work really intensively on the script’ he says. ‘That gave me new confidence in the part.’
He needed two films to learn to be James Bond, he says. ‘It was a voyage, but now I’ve arrived. At a good destination.’ Together with the statement he’s going to stick with the role as long as audience and producers want to see him in it, this sounds like a man who has made his peace with a role that nobody who took it could ever shed entirely afterwards. But this interpretation makes him uneasy. ‘Stop, I have to take that back. I’ve arrived nowhere, I’m still learning every day. If you feel too safe in this business you’ve already lost.’
The original German text of the article can be found here