Sam Mendes faced two big challenges when he set about making a new James Bond movie. The first was to re-energize a franchise that had just been rebooted two films ago. Though 2006's "Casino Royale" -- Daniel Craig's first as Bond -- generated plenty of goodwill, much of it was squandered by the lackluster "Quantum of Solace." It was fun seeing Bond get gritty in "Royale," but after "Solace" there was a general consensus that a little bit of fun might be nice.
The second challenge Sam Mendes faced was overcoming the fact that he's Sam Mendes, Oscar-winner.
Mendes won Best Director for his first feature film, "American Beauty." And although he's directed films with action -- "Road to Perdition" and "Jarhead" qualify, though both are a little more nuanced than, say, "The Expendables 2" -- "Sam Mendes" is not the most obvious answer to the the question, "Who should direct the next James Bond movie?" Fortunately, he knows that. I met a rather jovial Mendes in his Manhattan hotel room to discuss his ambitions for "Skyfall," his strategy for bringing humor back to the franchise and his rationale for almost but not quite inviting Sean Connery to take a role in the new film.
I have to admit, when I first heard your name attached to this movie ...
You went, "Oh, noooo!"
Not at all, but I did think, Really?
Of course. Yeah.
You're not the first name I thought of.
No, everyone thought the same thing. But, that's why I wanted to do it. That was the reason that I just thought, You know what? It's time for a challenge and to see whether I can do something that's outside of my comfort zone. And, also, I was dying to do something that was a genre movie. I wasn't like walking a tightrope between different genres or trying to, you know, do something that was a balancing act of different tones.
Right. "Skyfall" is a lot different than "Away We Go."
Oh, yeah, that's true. But, you know, that's how I've always been, career-wise. But I also feel like I was getting pigeonholed and in danger of repeating myself.
Well, now, people come in -- like your good self just said ... I don't take offense to it, but, "You do heavy, dramatic films." And it's like, "OK, I didn't really." My first movie I made, "American Beauty," was a comedy. The last film I made was a comedy. But, the perception is serious.
Well, I didn't mean it that way. I just didn't picture you doing a more straightforward action film.
You see, to me, Bond isn't straightforward.
And it's not pure action, you know? It's roots are in thriller. And I always felt -- even now -- that the roots of Bond movies, rather than the novels, is not Fleming but Hitchcock. It was "North by Northwest." That, to me, is the first true Bond movie. And Cary Grant is the antecedent of Bond. And that is the ideal, almost, of a thriller. And it also has great action sequences in it and great romance. You can see the echoes of that movie throughout the '60s movies. You know, Connery, when he started, was an echo of Cary Grant. Cary Grant was the real thing. He was the sexiest and the most suave -- the best actor.
I was going to ask you which of the previous Bond movies did you most try to capture a tone from, but is the answer "North by Northwest"?
No, I think that would be like trying to get the tone of "Citizen Kane." Of course I want to! But I'm not sure I can.
You should just say that every time: "Citizen Kane."
[Laughs] We'd all like to get "North by Northwest." It doesn't get any better than that. But, no, I wanted it to have its own distinctive tone. I wanted to have a combination of the things that you expect from a Bond movie, but I wanted it to carry more weight. I wanted to go further back into his past. I wanted to learn more about him. And I wanted to reintroduce the great, kind of flamboyant villain again.
Do you think that was missing from the first two Daniel Craig Bond movies?
A bit ... in comparison with "Dr. No" or "Goldfinger." With Rosa Klebb, these were great actors -- with Robert Shaw in "From Russia with Love" -- these guys, they somehow have more to them. And, on top of that, I wanted to reintroduce the MI6 world that had been eradicated in "Casino Royale." I wanted to bring back Q, I wanted to deal with M. I wanted get a sense of place in London of what the point of MI6 was -- and, therefore, what the point of Bond was. And, therefore, the point of Bond movies.
People loved "Casino Royale," but didn't care as much for "Quantum of Solace"...
But with "Casino Royale," the message was, "Forget what you knew about James Bond before now." "Skyfall" seems to be saying, "Now, remember all of the stuff that came before."
[Laughs] Right. Right. It was taking the new, tougher Bond -- the realer Bond, who has much more of an inner world -- and bringing back some of the things that could reconnect me to my inner 13-year-old, that gave a thrill when I was a kid: the DB5, the Bond theme. And doing them in a way that was dramatically justifiable in the story. That's really important. The easiest thing in the world is to pull a stunt like the DB5, but bringing it at the right time in the movie -- you've been through this incredible chase sequence, which, I hope people are on the edge of their seats -- it's just a chance to breath again. And to enjoy the fact that you're in a Bond movie before you come into the third act. So, you can get away with those things as long as they're rhythmic in the right place in the movie.
Same with the little in-jokes: I invented that thing with the martini on the day -- just shaking it. [In "Skyfall," Bond, who famously orders his martinis "shaken, not stirred," watches in silence as a bartender shakes his drink without being told to do so. When it's delivered, he simply says, "Perfect."] Because I've never seen it actually shaken. So it's there, but it's not there. That, for me, was to make the familiar strange.
And I assume you wanted more comedy back in the movie. I don't remember laughing much during the last two and I laughed out loud quite a few times during this one. Especially during the scene with a Komodo dragon. See, you're laughing right now just thinking about it.
[Laughing] Well, that made me laugh and that, by the way, was Daniel. I didn't tell him to do that. He just said, "I think it would be really funny if he was really freaked out. Like, 'What the fuck is that?'"
I'm glad "sad James Bond" seems to be gone.
You know, I had a joke with Daniel. I said, "James Bond has two eyebrows. He doesn't have a unibrow." There can be mischief and playfulness and droll humor throughout. And Daniel was very keen on having some of that back, because he felt that he'd got a little bit humorless.
He likes comedy -- he just did "SNL."
Right! But the danger in "we need to get some laughs back in" is to put jokes in. The laughs have to come from situations -- just like the one you just described. There are some great one-liners, like Q saying, "Were you expecting an exploding pen?" Where you know an audience is going to say, "OK, fine." There's an obvious laugh. Then there are ones that are more circumstantial. And then Javier [Bardem] does some fabulous things.
You brought back a lot of nostalgia. There's a scene in Scotland with Albert Finney. Was there any thought of approaching Sean Connery for that role?
There was a definite discussion about that -- way, way early on. But I think that's problematic. Because, to me, it becomes too ... it would take you out of the movie. Connery is Bond and he's not going to come back as another character. It's like, he's been there. So, it was a very brief flirtation with that thought, but it was never going to happen, because I thought it would distract.
I read that Daniel Craig said that he approached you at a party and asked you to direct?
Did he have the authority to do that?
Whose party was this?
It was Hugh Jackman's -- [Daniel] was doing a play with Hugh Jackman and it was Hugh's birthday party. I had seen the play and I said, "When are you doing the next Bond?" He said, "I don't know." I asked, "Who's directing it?" He said, "I don't know. Do you want to do it?" And I went, "Yeah." And there literally was a feeling in the pit of my stomach. I can honestly tell you that I've never even thought about it -- it just suddenly occurred to me. But, the moment he said it, I thought, You know, I'd really love that. I'd love to do something like that. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt, You know what, it's going to surprise a few people -- maybe even me. But, maybe that's a good thing. And it snowballed from there.
Is there any detriment to winning the Academy Award for Best Picture with your first movie?
Best Picture? No. Best Director? Possibly.
Because, you know, weight of expectations. People still reviewing your first picture when you make your second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth picture. You know what I mean? Like, still reviewing it. I'm like, "Just review what's in front of you" -- those sorts of things. But, mostly, it's positive.
It's just remarkable that it was your first movie. That doesn't happen very often.
That's true. It was a strange and in many ways wonderful and in many ways perplexing time. But, the thing that is funny about it -- and it's very difficult to explain without sounding un-generous and you never want that, but -- if you win the Super Bowl or the World Series, the act and the event are the same thing. The winning of it and the award is the same thing. You just performed on the field, now you get this. You did it. You're the best baseball player this year, this team has won.
The act of making the film and the event of being awarded are two totally different things. Completely unconnected, so there's no actual visceral thrill in it. You're like, "I made this movie a year ago." And now it's like, "Ohhhhh, OK!" You haven't "done it." Other people have done it and given it to you. And you can't prove that you're the best the way that you can when you have four runs to San Diego's three. You won the game! You can't prove anything and it's a very odd experience, because you don't feel like it's been in your control. And then people review the event, the award -- and the fact that the movie has won the award -- as opposed to just looking at the film again. And that's very odd. And it's very particular to this merry-go-round that is the Academy Awards.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.