The Spy who Loved Me had been wildly popular with audiences. ”Cubby” Broccoli had been very successful in ushering Bond into a new era, and as now sole producer of the Bond franchise, had achieved more financial success at the Box Office than never before. The filmmakers wanted to ride on that wave of success, and had already planned for For Your Eyes Only to be the next Bond movie. One thing happened, however, that would momentarily derail those plans; Star Wars. George Lucas’s massive Space Opera Box Office hit had everyone in a Sci-fi craze, and Broccoli, being wise to this, wanted to cash in on that craze, and turned his attention to Ian Fleming’s third James Bond novel; Moonraker. The plot in that book, however, of former British War hero, Industrialist, and founder of the Moonraker missile program Hugo Drax, who is secretly developing a missile to destroy London, was a bit on the low key side for Broccoli. Like with the previous entry; he wanted something larger and outlandish, which he knew the public would respond well to. That’s how, with the help of screenwriter Christopher Wood, who this time around would pen the script all by himself; Broccoli turned the original story on its head, keeping only the name of the villain, and turning him into a Space program Industrialist, who has secretly built a Space Station orbiting Earth, from which he plans to launch a series of Space capsules filled with a toxin that will render all life on Earth, but those of the plants and animals, sterile; only for Earth to be re-populated at a later date by a select chosen few, who Drax deem worthy. The concept, as described, is not disimilar to what Gilbert and Co, had done with The Spy who Loved Me; only this time it would be Outer Space instead of the Sea. An outrageous concept that, in time, would ruffle a few feathers between some of the fan base; and one not easily achieved at the time.
A Change of Scenery
Due to a change in tax policies in the UK at the time, Broccoli had to seek out sound stages in other countries, large enough to fit in the next Bond movie. France was the chosen final destination, due in large part, to Ken Adam’s contacts in that country’s industry. Moonraker ended up occupying all three major Studios available, which didn’t make them very popular with the Industry there. During a promotion tour of The Spy who Loved Me in Brazil, ”Cubby” Broccoli had fallen in love with the country, and its culture, and was adamant that scenes from the next Bond movie should be shot there. In anticipation to this, Lewis Gilbert went there with a small crew to film a documentary about the Carnival. The footage could be used later on for the scenes of Bond in Brazil. Another location that Broccoli was taken with were the Iguazú waterfalls, which was another location that he thought would be great for the movie. In between Paris, California, Guatemala, Brazil and Venice, the crew went pretty much all around the world to get the most exotic locations. Now, it was only a matter of making them all fit into a movie for which they didn’t yet have a script for.
As the script started to develop, a number of action set pieces had to be retrofitted into it as these were things that people like Production Manager Michael G. Wilson would come up with in the day. Wilson had been playing for a while with the idea of opening the movie with a pre-credits sequence aerial stunt that would dazzle audiences. The idea was to have Bond thrown from a plane in mid-air, without a parachute, have him chase after the baddie, wrestle the baddie’s parachute off him, put it on himself, and open it up before crash landing. There was such a person in B.J Worth, a professional Sky diver, who could perform the stunt safely. Shooting it, though; was a whole different story. The problem was finding a camera that could carry enough film, with an anamorphic Panavision lense, light enough to be carried by the Cameraman on a helmet. If the camera was too heavy, the G force generated by the freefall could break the stuntman’s neck, when they opened up the parachute. After looking all over for such a camera, Wilson was lucky enough to find one in a shop in Paris. It was an experimental Panavision Anamorphic camera with a plastic lens that had never been used. This was fitted into a titanium-framed built helmet, light enough to film the stunt safely. It took more than 80 jumps to get the stunt in camera, for an opening pre-credits sequence that is barely 3 min long. To have time to prepare and rehearse this, Second Unit Director John Glenn, and a small crew started working on it three months before Principal Photography started. Another standout action sequence was that intended to be filmed around the Iguazú waterfalls. The stunt involved Bond jumping from a Speedboat that was about to fall over the edge of the waterfall, by turning the top half of the Speedboat’s roof into a Hand-glide. The stuntman would then have to fly over the edge of the waterfall, glide over the jungle and safely land on a clearing. Easier said than done. Due to the downdrafts created by the water and wind, and the fact that the stuntman would have to fly over an area which was in the border of three countries that were not in friendly terms with one another, it meant that there was no way of knowing where the pilot of the Hand-glide would actually land. The stunt was safely performed, but the downdraft from the waterfall forced the pilot to go in another direction, which meant that the crew could not film any footage of the stuntman gliding over the falls. The previous part of the stunt, however, proved to be the trickiest. The idea was to film the speedboat going over the edge of the waterfall in location, for real. The crew let go of the boat, but it got stuck on a large rock, right on the edge of the waterfall. Special Effects technician, John Richardson, who would later on gain a more prominent role in the Special Effects Unit for subsequent Bond movies, offered to fly over the site with a helicopter, strap himself to it, have the helicopter lower him over the speedboat, and try and push it over the edge. It would no budge, though and, after several attempts, had to desist. Needless to say that when the crew came back the next morning, the boat had already disappeared.
The casting for the actor who would play the villain was pretty straightforward. As the movie this time around was a Co-production, it was decided early on for a French actor to be cast as the main villain; Hugo Drax. The actor chosen was Michael Lonsdale. Lonsdale, like Curt Jürgens before him, could speak perfect English. This would save the editors the trouble of having to dubb the actor’s voices later on in Post-production, like they’ve had to do in the past with actors like Ursula Andress, Gert Fröbe and Adolfo Celi. Along with him was cast French actress Corinne Cléry as Corinne Dufour, a helicopter pilot for Drax Industries who pays a high price for helping Bond in his investigation, in one of the most bizarrely terrifying sequences in the movie. The next bit of casting was due to a chance meeting between Director Lewis Gilbert and American actress Lois Chiles on a plane. As fate would have it, they happened to be assigned seats next to each other, and being as he was, still involved in the casting process for Moonraker, Gilbert was looking for an American actress who could be Bond’s equal on-screen, as CIA agent, Holly Goodhead; very much in the same way they had done with Barbara Bach’s character on The Spy who Loved Me. Chiles was somewhat hesitant to take on the role, as she had just finished shooting a movie, and was ready to go back home with her family. Hearing Gilbert talk about the movie, and her role in it, convinced her that this was too much of a coincidence and opportunity to pass up, and accepted. Other important roles fell on Emily Bolton, who plays Manuela, Bond’s liason in Brazil, Geoffrey Keen and Walter Gotel who reprise their roles as Sir Frederick Gray and General Gogol, respectively, from the previous movie. For the roles of henchmen, two actors were chosen. Both familiar faces in the James Bond camp. The first one was Toshirō Shuga, Michael G. Wilson’s Aikido instructor, who plays the part of Chang, Drax’s bodyguard and Assistant. The other was an actor who returned by popular demand; American actor Richard Kiel as Jaws. The rest of the usual suspects, like Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewellyn and Bernard Lee returned to reprise their roles as Miss Moneypenny, Q, and M, respectively. Sadly, this would be the last time Bernard Lee played the role of M. He’d die some time after, when he was getting ready to participate in the next movie.
Problems with the Union
One of the problems the British crew faced when they came to work in France was the Head of the Union representing the French crew, which was hired as a requisite for being granted permission to use the French sound stages. Ken Adam, and the rest of the crew soon found out that the French had a totally different way of working, and the Head of the Union was adamant in that they would not be made to work on weekends. This was a huge problem, as the Production team was dealing with an ever-encroaching release date, and they would not be able to deliver the movie in time, if they didn’t work seven days a week. It was thanks mainly to Ken Adam’s magnificent designs that the French crew ended up working overtime to get the job done in time. Most of the biggest sets from the movie were done in those French sound stages, like Drax’s control room and Amazonian base of operations inside a Mayan temple, the Venice laboratory where the toxin is manufactured, the Centrifuge Chamber where Bond has a nasty encounter with excessive G Force, but the crew also took advantage of some locations in Venice, like a Glass Museum, for which all the exhibits were removed and replaced by breakaway glass props, transported all the way from the UK, for the scene in which Bond faces-off against Chang, the Venetian channels for the Gondola chase, a real cable car in Brazil, for the nail-biting sequence in which Bond is fighting off Jaws while hanging on for dear life, and as I said before, they also took advantage of the outstandingly beautiful natural landscape in and around the Iguazú waterfalls, which double as the jungle in which Drax’s secret Space Launch Station is situated, even though the Mayan temple location was filmed separately in Guatemala.
Back in Pinewood
Even though the crew ended up using all the biggest French sound stages in their entirety, there were still some parts of the Production for which they still had to go back to Pinewood Studios to shoot; these were most of the miniature and Special Effects scenes. An entire sound stage was devoted to recreating the interior of Drax’s Space Station, especially rigged with hundreds of wires to simulate the Cero G scenes in which hundreds of actors and extras float around the Station when artificial gravity is turned off. It was also appropriate, as the set had to be destroyed later on during the Space battle between the US astronauts and Drax’s forces. In was also in Pinewood where Derek Meddings shot the Outer Space sequences with all the Space Shuttles, the Space Station, and the background plates for some of the live action used in the Space battle, as well as the scenes of the Space Station blowing up.
The filmmakers have gone to seek the expertise of the big Effects Houses to begin with, but the amount of money they were demanding to do these was so high that, they ended up resorting to miniatures and high exposure photography opticals. The way to go about this was to shoot all of the elements separately. They would photograph a miniature Space Shuttle coming into the frame, on a black velvet background with painted stars to simulate Space. All the stars on that Shuttle’s trajectory would then have to be blotted out, so they wouldn’t superimpose on the image of the shuttle. They would then wind back the film, shoot another element, and repeat the process all over again. The problem with doing this is that the crew risked over-exposing the film too much, and degrading it. This process ended up being repeated a total of over 80 times, to get all of the elements in camera. It was a very slow, painstaking, and time-consuming technique that, fortunately paid off. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Not only did Meddings have to be ingenious with the Outer Space elements, but also with the scenes in which the Shuttles take off. To simulate the exhaust coming off the back of the Shuttles, he used a hollowed out miniature replica of a Shuttle, filled it up with salt, and use high speed photography to shoot it.
Astounding set pieces
The movie is filled to the brim with outstanding action set pieces, among them; a Gondola chase through the Venetian canals in which Bond’s Gondola transforms into a speedboat capable of navigating at 60mph. It then rises out of the water, and transforms itself into car, driving around St Mark’s Square, through a pack of unbelieving tourists. It took the Special Effects people a few tries to get the stunt right, as they soon found out that when a motor was retrofitted into a Gondola, the sheer burst of speed on the slender boat would make it capsize. It also took Roger Moore five suits, and as many tries for the scene in which the underside of the Gondola inflates, and comes out of the lagoon. Another particularly dangerous stunt was that of Bond, Goodhead, and Jaws fighting on top of a swinging cable car over the dizzying hights of Rio de Janeiro. The stunt was a mixture of processed Studio shots and in location shooting, all achieved with the use of Vistavision lenses for the background plates, resulting in some mesmerizing aerial shots of Rio de Janeiro. The stunt wasn’t almost done. The crew had negotiated with whom they thought were the owners of the cable car to use it for the stunt. Turns out, the crew had been negotiating with the owners’ sons instead. When the man found out what the cable car was going to be used for, he refused to let them film there, for fear that after seeing what happens on the movie, people wouldn’t think it was safe, and he’d end up ruined. Luckily, an agreement was reached and the poor man’s business did not suffer for it. Though it may look like it, the last scene in which the cable car crashes against the building was achieved with an on-set replica constructed to the last detail.
Critical and Financial success.
Moonraker opened to good reviews, and great numbers at the box office, making it the highest grossing James Bond movie until Goldeneye (1995), Martin Campbell, came along. It has admittedly not aged very well within certain fan circles, due in part to its campy humour, and its over-the-top plot.
I hadn’t seen this movie in years, but I always had fond memories of it from the very first time I saw it. I’m not blind to its faults, though. There is a healthy amount of campiness and silly humour that doesn’t do it any favours. Things like the Gondola chase (admittedly very well executed), are taking way too far. That bloody pidgeon double take!!. But the general tone of it, and its outlandish Sci-fi elements, do it for me. Even when the story is basically a copy and paste of The Spy Who Loved Me, in Space.
To me the absolute standout here are Ken Adam’s Set Design, and Derek Meddings elaborate Visual Effects. Whatever qualms you may have with the movie, these two elements are outstanding. That, and the brilliantly executed action set pieces and stunt work. Always a hallmark of the James Bond franchise. Among these are the excellent pre-credits sequence with the sky diving stunt, the centrifuge scene in which Bond escapes by using a dart gun attached to his wrist, and activated by his nerve system, the cable car fight sequence, and the whole of the third act in Space onboard and outside Drax’s Space Station. This latter sequence is a showcase of miniature and optical wizardry. Visual Effects for the Bond movies had gotten increasingly sophisticated since Dr No, and the ones used here are in a league of their own. They may look dated now, but at the time, these were state-of-the-art. As for the rest of the movie, the story, as I said, is somewhat generic and repetitive, the acting is fine (Lois Chiles doing a far better job than Barbara Bach did, giving her character a sassiness in her delivery that was sorely lacking from Bach’s performance), Michael Lonsdale does basically a repeat of what Curt Jürgens did on The Spy who Loved Me. At one point, he even appears to be wearing Donald Pleasance’s outfit for You Only Live Twice, minus the cat. Richard Kiel’s Jaws makes a reappearance, and has a more prominent role this time around. Although I don’t know how I feel about his love story with the petite blond. I think it detracts from the story, and dumbs it down ever further. Roger Moore comes through oozing charm and charisma, as per usual, and we’re once again treated to another wonderful John Barry score; after a short hiatus on the previous movie. It’s undoubtedly one of his best efforts. Sweeping, epic and romantic, all at the same time. The Love Theme, with that wonderfully sung by Shirley Bassey main credits song, ”Moonraker”, with lyrics by Hal David, and the cues that go when the Space Shuttles rendezvous at the Space Station have a majesty to them that only someone like Barry can deliver. Goofy humour aside, a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief is needed to enjoy this one. But, then again, it’s a Bond movie. Fantasy and escapism are to be expected. For what it is, a very entertaining watch.
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