Diamonds are Forever. Sean is back

After having switched actors to play the part of James Bond for the previous entry in the series, the producers were concerned that the series was falling out of favour with audiences, and wanted to reignite the spark at the box office. They wanted to go back to the formula that had been so successful for movies like Goldfinger and Thunderball. The problem was finding someone to fill in the shoes of Sean Connery.

Back to basics

Having gone with an unknown, and inexperienced actor like they had for the previous movie, hadn’t really worked out for the producers. It didn’t help the grounded, realistic, and somewhat gritty approach that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had taken. In order to be more faithful to the source material and present a more adult movie, Peter Hunt had kind of walked away from everything that had made the Bond movies so successful; the outlandish plots, larger-than-life, and highly charismatic villains, and the gadgets that got Bond out of any kind of sticky situation over, and over again. The public wasn’t ready for that yet. Martin Campbell would successfully pull it off years later, but the mindset, and the era, were completely different back then. And even though the movie did make money, the producers wanted to go with a safer formula; one that would put them on the number one spot of the box office once again. And for that, they hired the director and writer who had given them the massive success of Goldfinger; Guy Hamilton and Richard Maibaum. Hamilton accepted, because he felt he’d been away from the character and its world long enough that he could bring something new to the table. Richard Maibaum started working right away on a first draft that would be loosely taking elements and characters from Fleming’s book, but coming up with an entirely new villain for the piece. He decided to re-use Goldfinger as a starting point, and so came up with a twin brother for the main villain in that movie who would be Bond’s new archenemy. But there was one missing element that they had to get, in order for it to work out the way it used to; Sean Connery. The heads at United Artists were adamant that they wanted Connery back in the role, whatever the cost. The casting people had been over a few names already, to replace Sean in case he said no. Of all of them, the chosen one was American actor John Gavin. He was a TV and stage actor, who’d had a supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), alongside Janet Leigh. He had the good looks and the presence, and the producers were even willing to give hime an American persona, which would’ve gone against everything Fleming wrote about the character. He was actually already under contract by the time the producers managed to lure Sean back with an offer he couldn’t refuse. In addition to paying him the record-breaking sum of $1.2 million, which was unheard of at the time, UA also agreed to sign him up for a three movie deal in projects that would interest him. In the end, he would only manage to do one of these three movies. Another condition Connery had was to take a look at the script, the first draft of which, he didn’t like very much. Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to hire another screenwriter to re-write Maibaum’s script. They wanted an American writer, but someone who was adept at writing in the English idiom as to not sound too jarring when compared to previous movies. Tom Mankiewicz, the son of legendary Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, of Cleopatra (1963), and All About Eve (1950) fame. The result was the seal of approval by Connery after having read Mankiewicz’s first 40-page draft. Mankiewicz was a very young screenwriter who injected a lot of wit and dynamism into the script. After having secured a director, screenwriter, and an experienced leading man who could carry the movie through; it was time to seek out the rest of the crew and cast that would accompany Bond in his next cinematic adventure.

Old friends and new ones

Most of the all guard came back. Trusted people like Production Designer Ken Adam, Director of Photography Ted Moore, and Composer John Barry, were all on board from the very beginning. These were all people whom Hamilton had worked with in Goldfinger, and whom he trusted implicitly. For the newly rewritten script, Cubby Broccoli had come up with an idea that pretty much outlined the entire plot of Mankiewicz’s script. Broccoli had had a dream in which he was being called out by a familiar voice; that of his long-time friend Howard Hughes, and when Broccoli turned around to face him, there was a complete stranger there. The eccentric Texan millionaire was already a recluse at that time, and Broccoli wanted the story to play around with the idea that a Howard Hughes-type, completely made up for the movie, but clearly based around Hughes real-life persona, had been kidnapped, and secreted away atop his own private building; pretty much like Hughes was at the time, for his personal fortune, and unlimited resources to be used for nefarious purposes by a third party posing as him. The person who replaced him was none other than Ernst Stavros Bloefeld. This would make the fourth appearance of the character in the series, played by as many actors. After having being played by Anthony Dawson and voiced by Eric Pohlman in Thunderball, and by Donald Pleasance and Telly Savallas in You Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service respectively; another familiar face would come into the part; that of known British stage actor Charles Gray. Gray had already played the part of British Secret Service Japanese liason Henderson in You Only Live Twice. His take on the character couldn’t have been more different than that from the previous actors. His Bloefeld, as Mankiewicz so aptly describes him, was a much fussy one, but equally cruel. Mankiewicz had also some very interesting ideas when it came to casting the villain’s henchmen. He thought it would be an amusing idea to have a gay couple of assassins doing Bloefeld’s biding; Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. For the roles, the director went outside the usual channels. Putter Smith was a bass player who’d played alongside Thelonious Monk. It was indeed while he was performing in one of Monk’s shows that he was spotted by Guy Hamilton. Putter had no previous acting experience, and would never act again after. His perfomance as the quirky, but deadly Mr Kidd is quite good, and amusing; considering the lack of experience. For the role of Mr Wint, Hamilton chose American actor Bruce Glover, father to Crispin Glover, of Back to the Future fame. Both actors complement each other brilliantly on-screen, and have some of the most amusing scenes and lines of dialogue in the movie. As the bulk of the movie would be shot in location in Las Vegas, the producers ended up recruiting a lot of actors and artists who either lived, or worked there. That’s why people like stand-up comedian Leonard Barr, and country-western singer Jimmy Dean were cast in prominent roles. The first one as Shady Tree, a full-time stand-up comedian, part-time crook for hire, and Jimmy Dean as “reclusive” millionaire Willard White. American actor Norman Burton was also the fourth actor to be cast in the role of CIA agent Felix Leiter. On the recommendation of screenwriter Mankiewicz, both Jill St. John and Lana Wood were chosen to play the role of this entry’s Bond girls. The first one as Jewel smuggler, Tiffany Case, and Lana Wood as Casino working girl Plenty O’Toole, continuing with a long tradition of funny names given to Bond girls. This time around, though, this fact wouldn’t be exclusive to female characters. Making full use of his penchant for black humour; Mankiewicz gave the name of Morton Slumber to the owner of the funeral parlour where Bond escapes one of the most impossibly tricky snake-pit situations in which the character had found himself in thus far; being locked inside a coffin, and almost burned alive in the parlour’s cremating oven!!. This little character role would be played by American actor David Bauer, in a rather amusing exchange with Bond. The rest of the cast were all pretty much returning members like Bernard Lee as Bond, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewellyn as Q.

Living the American dream

Being set as it was, mainly in the city of Las Vegas, the crew moved early on to the Nevada State, and the city of Los Angeles to shoot everything in, and around the eternal gambling city. The entire crew moved into the Riviera Hotel, and filmed most of the scenes in Las Vegas thanks to the collaboration of long-time friend of Cubby Broccoli; Howard Hughes. It was thanks to him that the crew was able to close down downtown Vegas for the car chase between Bond’s Red Mustang and Las Vegas Police. The scene was a combination of in location and back lot shooting. Universal Studios was the place chosen by the producers to do most of the on- set filming while on the US. It was a three-night shoot in downtown Las Vegas, where the amount of ligts illuminating the Strip was a blessing,on the one hand, as the DP didn’t have to set up any artificial lighting; and on the other hand, the constant mass of crowds was something of a hindrance. This car chase finished with Bond squeezing the Red Mustang through a narrow alley by leaning it on the right side. Unfortunately, due to a mistake of the stuntman doing the flip, the car came out the other side leaning on the left side. By the time the editors realized this, they were already back in England, and couldn’t go back to the States to repeat the stunt. They came up with the solution of doing a flipover,midway through the alley in the Studio in Pinewood, with Jill St. John and Connery riding a mocap of the Mustang mounted on a gimble. The footage was hastily integrated into the footage shot in location, and the end result, though not physically possible; was an agreeable compromise. The Hilton Hotel doubled for Willard Whites’ The White House, whose top part was replaced with a matte painting by the amazing matte artist Albert Whitlock, who’d made a name for himself working for Alfred Hitchcock in movies like The Birds (1963). Other locations were an industrial plant, out in the Nevada desert, which doubled for Willard White’s Space Lab, around which the Moon buggy chase was staged. This would prove to be one of the most difficult action set pieces as the flimsy structure of the moon exploration vehicle coupled with the rough and rocky terrain of the Nevada desert, would force the filmmakers to constantly re-stage and reset these scenes, until they came up with the idea of fitting the lunar vehicle with a sturdier and wider set of tires to keep the vehicle from constantly tipping over. The three-wheeled buggies with which the stuntmen were chasing it, didn’t fare any better. A lack of control, and speeding would cause more than one close call. Other important set pieces in the movie were Bond climbing onto an elevator to access White’s Penthouse, and using a python gun to climb the rest of the way hanging onto a ledge hundreds of metres over the blinking lights of the city. This last part of the climb was recreated on a set in Pinewood, put together by Production Designer Ken Adam, and with a matte painting of the city in the background to give it realism. Another striking looking set was the privately owned hilltop mansion, that was basically built around the mountain, and which served as Willard White’s reclusive site, guarded by Bambi and Thumper. The idea of having two gymnasts be White’s custodians was entirely Guy Hamilton’s. He didn’t want to have another Odd Job-type character play the heavy once again, and thought it would be interesting to turn the idea of having a strong male play the heavy on its head, and change it for two graceful, agile but, at the same time, lethal henchwomen; who give Bond a run for his money. For the scene of the diamonds exchange, the crew had to go on location to a real Casino/Circus that had been running for a few years already. The owner of the place, which was called Circus Circus; allowed the crew to use the location on the condition that he could do a cameo in the movie. One final filming location off the coast of San Diego was an unused oil rig that doubled as Bloefeld’s base of operations. It was a very dangerous location to film around, especially during the finale, in which a serious amount of explosive charges had to be set up to go off on cue with the helicopter attacks. The cast and crew had to travel to and from the oil rig either by boat or helicopter each day, which proved to be something of a nerve-wracking affair for the likes of Tom Mankiewicz. The interiors of the oil rig were recreated on set in Pinewood Studios, as were most of the interiors like Tiffany Case’s apartment in Holland, Bond and Tiffany’s Las Vegas hotel suite, the interior of Bloefeld’s mini submarine; a replica of which was built by the prop department, and used for exterior shots, the complete interior of the small and narrow, glass elevator in which Bond fights Jewel smuggler Peter Franz, was also recreated in Pinewood, and the crown jewel of them all; Willard White’s Penthouse suite. The set was a sprawling, futuristic and elegant design which is among the best ever designed by Adam.

Critical and Financial reception

As expected, the movie was a success. Overtime, though, people have regarded it as one of the silliest, which is understandable to a certain extent; but so are most of the Bond movies, and one of the worst; which is confounding. And I’ll explain why in a second.

Personal thoughts

I hadn’t seen this movie for a long time before I did it for the purposes of this review, and I must say; I had a ton of fun. It’s outlandish, witty, with very funny and very well executed action set pieces, (the the moon buggy chase, the car chase through downtown Las Vegas), memorable characters and scenes ( the scenes in the tacky Las Vegas-style funeral parlour had me in stitches, they were so funny), very well written, and quotable dialogue and one-liners, and Connery seems to be having the time of his life. Maybe because he knew that, for once, he had one over the producers and was getting the money and conditions he wanted to play the role. Plus, this was the last time he would be officially playing the role under the EON/UA banner. He was well into the role by the time he did From Russia with Love, but he seems at his wittiest and most comfortable here. If there is one thing that really stands out above all of the above mentioned, is the script and the dialogue. Mankiewicz was given the freedom to take the basic idea of the novel, and let his imagination fly. Things like having a couple of homosexual henchmen was something that would be frowned upon in this day and age, and for the life of me; I don’t have the slightest idea how they got away with it back then. It was an outrageous concept for the time. And to come up with the idea of calling the owner of a funeral parlour Morton Slumber. Who doesn’t find that funny? It’s not all laughs and giggles, though. Connery toughens up when he needs to. The pre-credit sequence in which he beats the hell out of a bunch of people to get to Bloefeld, how he disposes of him later on, the elevator fight between him, and the Jewel smuggler in a cramped space of broken glass and metal. How well choreographed, executed and shot it is. The use of John Barry’s soundtrack during that scene; which amps up the tension and action in the scene. Somethings that reminds you of a scene out of a Alfred Hitchcock movie. The quips between Bond and Tiffany during their first meeting; the sexual innuendo implicit in Bond’s words. Again, not something you would find in today’s cinematic and social landscape.

All of the cast do a marvellous job. Even Charles Gray does a surprisingly good turn as Bloefeld. He comes off as breezy, not so stiff; but definitely menacing. Jill St. John does what is probably the best performance out of a Bond girl since Honor Blackman in Goldfinger. It does help that she’s given wonderful dialogue to work with. Actually, the movie is peppered with little great performances, and moments from all of the actors. Bruce Glover and Putter Smith do a superb job as Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. They have such good chemistry on-screen, and theirs are the funniest moments in the movie. Everything they say, or do, has a double meaning. The movie is not without its goofy moments, of course. The moon buggy chase and the Mustang spinning through an arrow alley on its side come to mind, but I find those moments of levity and humour necessary to lighten up the movie’s mood. It’s the total opposite of what Peter Hunt did on the previous movie, but then again, Guy Hamilton was someone who was always in for the tongue in cheek stuff. As for why people seem to have a problem with this one, and they usually rank it amongst the worst in the series, is something beyond me. The movie offers exactly what the movie-going audience expects from a Bond movie. All of the above. Plus, Shirley Bassey is back singing one of the most emblematic and recognizable credit’s songs in the series with John Barry in tow offering a dynamic and melodic soundtrack in his best tradition. For those who’ve never seen it, or haven’t for a long time; don’t mind the bad reviews. You’ll have a lot of fun. Sean’s back.

Thanks for reading

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The Journey continues…

After the massive success of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s intended trilogy based on J.R.R Tolkien’s literary masterpiece, all those involved knew that having set the bar so high, both creatively and artistically, for the first movie; it was up to them to deliver something equal to, if not even better than the first film. The task ahead was daunting, to say the least; even more so when compounded by the fact that the middle chapter of the trilogy had always been, from the outset, the trickiest to adapt.

Upping the ante

Jackson and Co had several facts playing against them. The structure of the book was set out in a way that half the book was devoted to the characters of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and their attempts to rescue the two hobbits, Merry and Pippin, kidnapped by the Orcs of Isengard in the previous book; and the other half was devoted to the characters of Frodo and Sam on their journey to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring, and their various interactions with several new characters. It was decided from the scripting stage that in order to make both story arcs flow dynamically within a cinematic medium; they would intercut back and forth between all three storylines (Merry and Pippin end up being cut off from Aragorn’s group, and go on their own personal journey with Treebeard and the Ents). That way the action and pace would be smoother. One other difficulty was the creation of Gollum, a totally CGI rendered character that was a complete head-scratcher, the creative heads at Weta Digital didn’t have the faintest idea how to tackle. Motion Capture was in its relative infancy back then, and it forced the Animators to come up with solutions, and the creation of a whole new Digital rendering software from scratch. The increase of the scale of the production in the use of Visual Effects and the number of Production units filming in different locations all over New Zealand and more characters in the story, added to the logistical nightmare that this mammoth production was coming to.

Breaking new ground

Of all these concerns, the one that the production team lost more sleep over was the rendering of Gollum as a tangible, believable CGI character. Fortunately for them, one element came into the picture that would be of great help for all those involved. In the early stages, British actor Andy Serkis was hired to merely voice the character of Gollum in Post-production. His approach to the character, however, was that of a hands-on physical presence on set with which the other actors could interact. He literary threw himself into the role, giving the character, not only his unique and identifiable voice, but also giving it a physicality which the Computer Animators could later on use as a model to bring about the nuances of the character in its CGI form. With the help of a skin suit, he would act out his scenes with the actors, giving them a template on which to base their own performances. Such was the success of Andy’s work on set, and the physicality he brought to the character, that Jackson decided to model the final CGI outlook of Gollum on Serkis’ own physique; something that would come in handy, and pay off much later on towards the latter stages of the story. Serkis would later on re-shoot most of his scenes in a green stage in a Motion Capture suit, so that his movements and facial expressions could be added to those of CGI Gollum. The final result was the most believable, interactive and complete CGI character seen on the big screen to date; a major breakthrough in Visual Effects, and one of the biggest selling points of the whole movie.

Return of the Big-atures

Big-atures was an endearing term that had been coined during production by the crew on the first movie, on account of the huge size of the miniatures used in the movie. This time around, however, the use of these, and their increase in size, would double due to the added sets that had to be recreated for the increasing number of locations and action set pieces. The crown jewel among all these was the miniatures used for the creation of Helm’s Deep. The ancient Rohan fortification was recreated on an abandoned quarry outside of Wellington in two different sizes for both the use of close ups and long distance establishing shots. The biggest one was so massive that the crew could crawl their way in to set up the different shooting equipment. This quarry would also be the site on which a full size portion of the wall was recreated, within which the actors could shoot the elaborate fight scenes. But not all sets built for the production were miniature sets. In addition to the use of the Wellington back lot to recreate most of the interiors of places like the Grand Hall of Rohan’s palace, and the interior of Isengard’s tower, the crew went scouting for locations and found a hill, with a 360 ° view of the valley surrounding it in a rural area of New Zealand’s southern hemisphere. There they proceeded to build the entirety of Rohan’s palace on top of the hill and the town’s cabins and other structures at its feet. The place was also notorious for its high winds, so the construction crew had to make sure that the carefully constructed set would not be blown away, and had to nail it down to the rocky surface without causing any lasting damage to the landscape afterwards, as it was imperative that they left everything the way they’d found it. The whole set was a feat of engineering, and although the interior for all these sets were recreated in Weta’s back lot in Wellington, it was until that point; the biggest set that had been constructed for the production. A fairly large miniature set of Isengard had also been constructed in an open area outside the stage in Wellington for filming miniature background plates of the Orc pits and Founderies underneath it. The miniature could also be flooded for the sequence in which the Ents attack Isengard. Although much of this sequence would be achieved with the use of Visual Effects, the crew tried to do as much in camera as they could.

Pushing the digital boundaries

Given the scale of the production, and the increase in the use of CGI, due to the mounting quantity of action set pieces, the filmmakers came upon a company that had created a software that would multiply the amount of extras seen on-screen. Not only that, but the A.I of said software allowed for each digitally recreated soldier or digital stand-in to have a mind of their own, and being able to perform a series of set action/reaction body movements, and interact not only with other CG recreated counterparts, but with their virtual environment too. The use of stunt doubles for the close-up scenes was still much prevalent, but the use of this software dubbed “Massive”, on account of its ability to produce CGI environments and ”virtual people” on a large scale, proved to be a much needed money-saving tool for the scenes like the battle of Helm’s Deep in which the filmmakers needed to have hundreds upon hundreds of Uruk-Hai and Rohan warriors on-screen. The final result was a seamless blend of Digital and Practical Effects. Another new character that complicated things for the technical crew was Treebeard. The tree-like Wood shepherd was a tricky one to translate from the book. Jackson didn’t want it to come across as goofy-looking, but he also wanted it to be as close to how it was described in the book as possible. After numerous attempts by the Conceptual Designers to come up with a suitable design, they settled upon one design that depicted Treebeard as pretty much a walking, talking tree with some human features etched into its bark. A life size puppet model was constructed onto which the two hobbits, Merry and Pippin could sit and perform their in-camera scenes. It was a cumbersome and uncomfortable task for both actors, as they had to stay on it for hours on end, take after take. Several puppeteers were also needed to operate this massive on-set contraption. To give the whole character more fluidity in its movements, it was decided that his walk would be digitally recreated, as the bouncing and gait of the life-size puppet came off as too unstable and jerky on-screen; something more akin to a stop-motion puppet than anything else. Digital facial replacement was also done to give the character’s face a more life-like quality. Finally, to give it its characteristic booming voice, Jackson asked actor Jonathan Rhys Davies to voice the character in Post-production. To give a wooden-like quality to it, Davies’ voice was tweaked by having the actor recite his lines through wooden tubes and barrels to give it the right feel.

New players come into the story

In addition to those actors and crew members who came back (pretty much all of them); a few new additions were added to the Lord of the Rings family. For the parts of the Rohirrim, two Australian and New Zealander actors were cast; Miranda Otto as Éowyn and Karl Urban as Éomer played the parts of King Théoden’s niece and nephew. American actor Brad Dourif was cast in the role of Wormtongue, the king’s twisted advisor and British actor Bernard Hill for the part of stout and regal king Théoden. For the new Gondorian characters in the piece we got David Wenham as Faramir, Boromir’s brother and son to Denethor, Steward and keeper of the throne of Gondor, who makes a surprising cameo along with Sean Bean’s Boromir in one flashback scene that was added to the DVD Expanded Edition of the movie. Australian actor John Noble makes a lasting first impression as Denethor, paving the way for what we would see a year later in Return of the King. As was the case before with all the other cast members from the previous movie, the newcomers perfectly melded within the ever-growing Lord of the Rings family, creating a lasting friendship bond between all of them after having endured the hardships of such a trying shoot.

In the thick of battle

One of the standout action set pieces of the movie was that of the battle of Helm’s Deep. It was an arduous shoot that went on for several weeks in which the cast and crew worked mostly at night under the incessant downpour of rain produced by huge rain machines hanging from big cranes. In addition to the exhausting shooting in the wee hours of the morning, the cast, and mostly stunt doubles, had to contend with full-on rubber suits for the Uruk-Hai, created by Richard Taylor’s team at Weta Workshop. Temperatures inside the suits were extremely high, which also helped to stave off the freezing temperatures the cast and crew had to endure. The not least important matter of risk to life and limb while the actors and stunt doubles were enacting the fight scenes, was another thing that had to be taken into account. Most nights the cast and stunt doubles would come away with cuts and bruises, to be stitched up and come back again the next morning for another round. Several actors would sustain severe injuries during the shoot; like Viggo Mortensen, who broke one of his toes during a dramatic scene, and Orlando Bloom, who broke a rib when he fell out of his horse, and had to be digitally doubled for the scene in which he jumps onto a horse. Said injuries would prevent both actors from performing the scenes in which they’re chasing after the Uruk-Hai who’ve kidnapped Merry and Pippin, to the best of their abilities. They managed to pull through, though. The second unit would fly them to a remote location, shoot them running across a plain and stop. The arduos and hectic schedule wouldn’t allow for Jackson to be in two places at once, and as he did on the previous movie, he had to supervise the shooting of all the different units all over New Zealand via a satellite monitor feed. It was an all out effort on the part of all those involved, but as it had on the previous movie, the fun didn’t end when the cameras stopped rolling. There was another battle against time to be had in Post-production.

Assembling the jigsaw puzzle

It was known from the very beginning that the middle chapter in the trilogy would present the biggest challenge when it came to editing. The disjointed nature of the story, presenting numerous story threads; each of them necesitating their fair amount of screen time to be properly developed, and the urge to keep the movie’s running time to less than three hours, made it the trickiest one to edit. Jackson had the foresight to predict this, and so he’d hired a different editor for each one of the movies. This time the role fell on Michael Horton. Many of the scenes that Jackson really liked, that better fleshed out the characters, or were a direct call back to events that had happened on the previous movie, had to be lifted. Mostly for pacing reasons. Fortunately, the scenes were rescued for the commissioned DVD Expanded Edition, and re-integrated into the original footage. Most of these scenes were expanded versions of already existing ones, but two of these scenes really come to the forefront. The first one deals with a side plot that has to do with king Théoden’s son that was almost completely disregarded in the Theatrical cut of the movie, and the other one is a flashback scene that takes place in Gondor between Denethor and his two sons Boromir and Faramir, that’s a direct call back to The Followship of the Ring. All the added scenes amount to what I think is a more cohesive whole in which the story, and especially the actors, have more room to breathe. A breath of fresh air, if you pardon the pun, but the best way in my opinion to watch the movie. Jackson’s woes didn’t stop there, though. In addition to supervising editing, he also had to go back and forth between the different Post-production units to make sure that the final product was to his liking, which is pretty much what he had to do on the first movie.

Financial and critical success

The movie was a huge success, making even more money than the first one; which was surprising given that sequels don’t usually outperform the original at the box office. It garnered a worldwide total of $936,689,735. Critical reception was also very good, leading it to be nominated for several Golden Globe and Oscar Awards, winning two for Best Sound Editing, and another one for its groundbreaking Visual Effects.

Final thoughts

The Two Towers is an amazing fantasy movie. To me it’s difficult to talk about which one I consider best, for I see each one of them as part of an amazing whole. They’re so tightly edited together, and have such a flow together as to consider them inseperable. To be viewed back to back. Right from the get go, Jackson had the difficult task of topping what him and his crew had done in the previous movie, but I think he passes the test with flying colors. The movie grabs you by the scruff of the neck from the very beginning and never, ever lets go. The opening sequence of Gandalf fighting the Balrog while they’re plunging to the depths of the Mines of Moria is breathtaking. The perfect clincher. By the nature of the second book, this installment is more action-driven than the first one, but that doesn’t mean that it leaves its characters by the wayside, and forgets completely about them. Quite the opposite. We start to see the toll that carrying the Ring is starting to have on Frodo. We witness Sam’s transformation into what is pretty much a moral and emotional anchor for Frodo.We also have a clearer view of Aragorn’s purpose in the story. The bond between him, Legolas and Gimli is stronger than ever, especially between the last two. Gandalf’s presence here serves more as a narrator and someone to move the story along by moving the characters in place like pieces on a chessboard, than anything else. Merry and Pippin are left with no much else to do, that’s true; but it’s great to see the chemistry between Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd. All the rest of the new cast members perform their roles beautifully; especial mention to Brad Dourif’s Wormtongue and Bernard Hill’s Théoden. Miranda Otto perfectly embodies the fragile, but at the same time, strong willed and corageous Éowyn. Karl Urban’s Éomer has little presence in the story, but what he does, he does very well. All the returning cast members fall back into their roles. It does help their performances that all three movies were shot back to back. But if there’s one actor and character that stands out for the rest is Gollum. Andy Serkis seems to have crawled right out of the pages of J.R.R Tolkien’s book. He’s the perfect Sméagol/Gollum. The voice, the physicality; all beautifully rendered in CGI form by the magicians at Weta Digital. With every passing movie, they were getting better and better at their craft to become one of the top Visual Effects houses in the world; their work ranging from the virtual environments of the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s CGI fest, Avatar (2009), to the Motion Capture marvel that is Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Steven Spielberg (2011).

The action set pieces, like the battle of Helm’s Deep and the Flooding of Isengard look like they’ve been taken directly from the book. Brilliantly planned, choreographed, shot and edited. Thematically is an even darker movie than the first one; which was to be expected. Andrew Lesnie is, once again on point reflecting this aspect of the story in the colour palette chosen for the movie. Even Howard Shore’s score has a more somber tone to it. Not much else to say about it. The Two Towers is a towering achievement, but only the second piece of a magnificent puzzle that is the cinematic adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

To be continued, and thanks for reading.

L.A Confidential. Welcome to Los Angeles.

October 31st, 1997 saw the release of L.A Confidential; Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s highly complex and convoluted noir novel about a group of very different police officers in 1950’s Los Angeles, embroiled in a notorious mass murder case. The film was the result of years of prep work by both filmmaker Curtis Hanson, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who separately had tried for years to bring the proyect to the big screen. What came out was one of the best noir films the genre had seen since Chinatown (1975), Roman Polanski. Getting there, though, was a rocky road, to say the least.

An unwanted genre

One of the main problems both Hanson and Helgeland faced was convincing any major Studio to invest the necessary capital to produce a movie that was of a genre most producers thought was long dead. On top of that, the movie was a multi-character period piece with a convoluted story that was very tricky to bring to the big screen.

Hanson and Helgeland had already met when, each of them separately were trying to shop the idea around to different Studios, and while they thought it a terrific idea to adapt Ellroy’s novel, they also knew that it would be a daunting task to try and condense Ellroy’s book into any kind of manageable cinematic form. They immediately started working together on the script, until they came up with a first draft that they both were proud of to show to both any potential Studio, and to Ellroy himself, whom they both admired. Surprisingly enough, Ellroy liked the changes they’d made to the book, and that kind of emboldened them to try and sell the idea to Warner Bros. Hanson even had the idea of meeting the producers, actors and crew he wanted to work with in the movie in the Formosa Cafe in LA, a mytical place that would play an important role in the movie he wanted to shoot. Hanson had gathered a nice array of pictures and memorabilia from 1950s Los Angeles, which he used to convey the type of movie, look and story he wanted to tell. It was this sort of improvised pitch, plus his enthusiasm for the proyect, that finally sold the idea to the powers that be at Warner Bros. Another sticky point of the story was that in order for it to be believable and being as it was, a multi-character plot, and not wanting to draw the attention of the audience to any one character, the parts would have to be played by unknown actors. Hanson had done multiple casting sessions, and had come up with three very unlikely actors to play each of them; Russell Crowe as Officer Bud White, Guy Pearce as Lieutenant Ed Exley, and Kevin Spacey as Detective Jack Vincennes. Although Spacey had achieved relative fame with his character roles in movies like Seven (David Fincher),1995, and The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer), 1995; the other two were Australian actors who had little experience, in the case of Crowe; to no experience at all in the US market. The heads of Warner feared that casting unknown actors would make it a tough sell for the box office. Fortunately, Hanson didn’t buckle under the Studio’s pressure and convinced the Studio to stick with his choices. Not all actors were unknowns, however. Hanson knew from the start that he’d have to have some familiar faces in the movie in order to make it more appealing to audiences, but without sacrificing the believability of the story in the process. For this very reason he cast a number of actors who were sufficiently known to the big public like Kim Basinger as First Class Call Girl and Veronika Lake impersonator Lynn Brackett, and Danny de Vito as sleazy tabloid reporter Syd Hudgens. It actually took Basinger some convincing on the part of Hanson to take on the role of Lynn Brackett, as the role would take her away from her family life for a long time. A Best Supporting actress Oscar win for the role in next year’s Oscar ceremony would be quite a hefty price for a part she didn’t want to accept in the first place. For the rest of the main cast, Hanson went with TV actor James Cromwell to play the part of Captain Dudley Smith, and to actor David Strathairn for the role of suave and sophisticated Hollywood entrepreneur, Pierce Patchett.

The pieces start to fall into place

With a pretty good script and a solid, if mostly unknown ensemble of actors; Hanson started looking for the best people to bring his script and vision to the big screen. Costume Designer Ruth Myers, Production Designer Jeannine Oppewall, Editor Peter Honess, and Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, were each given the directive by Hanson to bring out the 1950s period and feel, without making it too obvious and showy, and to give it a grounded and everyday look that would not distract the audience from both the characters and story unfolding on-screen. Needless to say, all of them brought their A game to the project, and made each of the elements they contributed to feel like a part of the story in a seamless way. All of this rounded off by a brilliant score by master Composer Jerry Goldsmith.

Critical and Financial success.

Time made both Hanson and Helgeland right and the movie was heaped with critical and financial praise. It garnered 9 Oscar nominations that year, but being as it was Titanic’s Award-sweeping year, they only took home two Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. I’m gonna say right upfront that I’m a big fan of James Cameron’s masterful epic Titanic (1997), but even I can’t deny the fact that, objectively L.A Confidential is a far stronger movie, both storytelling and performance-wise. In all fairness, and this is coming from someone who was rooting for Cameron to win for Best Movie and Director, Hanson should’ve walked away with at least those two accolades.

Personal thoughts

L.A Confidential is a storytelling masterpiece, the likes of which we don’t get very often. It is also a brilliant example of Noir executed to perfection. All the pieces fall perfectly into place. It’s not very often that all actors in a movie are cast to perfection, each giving nuanced and believable performances, without out-staging one another, which is exactly what Hanson wanted to achieve. It’s also one of the best book adaptations ever put to the screen. Both Director and Screenwriter take the best elements from Ellroy’s book, and mash them together without betraying the core spirit of Ellroy’s literary masterpiece. It’s a very complex book to faithfully adapt to the screen, but both Hanson and Helgeland managed to pull it off. There’s of course changes to the book’s narrative and many characters and subplots that are sacrificed, but these are sacrifices that had to be made to trim the story down to cinematic size. Some of these changes are actually very welcome departures from the book, and help to make it more digestible to the audience, and even throw in a surprise or two. When said changes are met with approval by the book’s author, all the more reason to be satisfied. What’s important is that the morally ambiguous nature of many of the characters, and the feel and glamour of the period from the book; are true to the source material. It also helped to launch the careers of three great actors into the mainstream and gave us one of the best movies of the 90s in particular, and of cinema history overall.

This is what happens when the best of the best comes together to make movies. A Masterpiece.

Thanks for reading.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. First change of guard

After having played the role five times in the space of six years, Sean Connery had decided to stop playing James Bond, and to move on to something else. The producers were faced with the difficult task of finding an actor who could perfectly embody the characteristics of a character that Connery had pretty much made his own. It was also a chance to finally adapt Ian Fleming’s book; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of the most popular and daring in the series as Bond would finally make the decision to settle in a relationship and get married. All of this, in addition to giving Peter Hunt his first directorial gig, after successfully been editing and working second unit for all the previous entries, would combine to bring to the big screen the most unusual of 007 movies to date.

Inception

Finding a new actor to play the role came down to fate more than anything else. When George Lazenby, a young Australian publicity model learned that the producers were looking for a replacement for Connery, he immediately went down to London, went to the same tailor who’d made the suits for Sean Connery, got one of his unused ones, got a haircut in the same barbershop Connery went to, and barged into Albert Broccoli’s office and introduced himself as James Bond. That pushy, self assured attitude; along with a screentest in which Lazenby had to fight a Russian stuntman, made him come out on top of the list. First time director Hunt also took a liking to the model/actor and the ”go ahead” was given for the movie to start pre-production. For the role of Teresa, Bond’s love interest and wife to-be, actress Diana Rigg was chosen. She’d been a regular at the Avengers TV show alongside Patrick McNee, after taking over from Honor Blackman, who’d played the role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964), Terrence Young. For the role of Bloefeld this time around, they went for a well known TV and Big Screen American actor, Telly Savallas. He was to take over the role of Ernst Stavro Bloefeld from actor Donald Pleasance, who’d played him in You Only Live Twice. For the part of Tracy’s father, Marc Ange Draco; Hunt settled on a well known Italian actor, Gabrielle Ferzetti after he saw some footage of one of the actor’s previous movies. As for the part of Bloefeld’s assistant and henchwoman Irma Bunt, German Actress Ilse Steppat was chosen. Another important bit of casting was that of the so called Bloefeld’sAngels of Death; 12 beautiful actresses from all over the world who were to portray the roles of all the ”patients”, suffering from a wide variety of allergies and phobias, who under the pretext of being cured, they are injected with a virus and brainwashed into delivering said virus into the world, rendering all living organisms sterile. As for the rest of the cast, the usual players like Bernard Lee as M, Desmond Llewellyn as Q, and Lois Maxwell reprising her role, once again as Miss Moneypenny came back. One bit of casting that would end up having an overall influence in the final outlook of the movie was the casting of British actor George Baker, who plays the role of the British College of Arms professor, Sir Hillary Bray, whose identity Bond has to assume in order to get the necessary cover up to get close to Bloefeld, as he wishes that his Royal ancestry be officially confirmed by said College. Baker was considered by Fleming to play the role of 007 in the early days before Broccoli and Saltzman came on board, but ultimately rejected it on the basis of not feeling sufficiently qualified to fill the role. His contribution to OHMSS was important in that he would end up dubbing Lazenby for those scenes in which Bond had to imitate the professor. Even though Lazenby worked extremely hard at it, he was never able to convincingly do it on his own. The script was penned once again by Richard Maibaum, after a short hiatus in which Roahl Dahl took over screenwriting duties for You Only Live Twice (1967), Lewis Gilbert. British novelist and TV scriptwriter, Simon Raven also contributed with some extra dialogue. For the role of Cinematographer, Hunt turned to a trusted ally with whom he’d previously worked in Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang (1968), Ken Hughes; Michael Reed. Other trusted recurring members of the crew came back, as was the case with Special Effects Supervisor John Stears, Production Designer Syd Cain and Set Decorator Peter Lamont.

Back to basics

For the next entry, and trying to be as faithful as he could to the source material, director Peter Hunt wanted to go back to basics and take a more grounded and realistic approach. This time around Bond would be relying on his wits to overcome the numerous difficulties that he’d be facing. Even though the events in the book take place right before You Only Live Twice, due to scheduling conflicts, the producers and filmmakers were forced to change things around a bit to accommodate the new storyline. This new realistic approach also translated into the numerous daring and nail-biting action set pieces; of which the skiing sequences would take central stage. For these the producers recruited the services of former Olympic Skiing champion, Willy Bogner; a job he’d be asked to reprise in subsequent Bond entries due to his ability to get the most amazing footage while going down a ski slope at 60 mph. That and the help of aerial footage shot by Cameraman John Jordan, who came up with a specialized rig to shoot footage fairly close to the ground while being suspended from a helicopter. Other action sequences included the car chase sequence through a snow bound race track which was achieved using a combination of rear proyection plates and in location, very dangerous stunt driving. Another faithful decision was that of giving editor John Glenn the chance of heading second unit direction for some of the most complex action sequences. Glenn would go on to direct all the Bond movies from Four Your Eyes Only (1981), to Licence to Kill (1989). The movie was fairly low key in its approach to the action, relying mostly on amazing stunt work, the use of miniatures and rear proyection to deliver such incredible action set pieces as the snow avalanche; which was achieved making use of footage from a real avalanche, miniature sets and rear proyection for the close-ups with the principal actors. A model set replica of Bloefeld’s Alpine hideout on top of Pitz Glory was also built to be blown up. The dangerous final confrontation between Bond and Bloefeld chasing each other aboard two Bobsleighs was done mainly using stunt doubles and process stage work for the close-ups. Bloefeld’s mesmerising Alpine clinic was not easy to find, and after numerous failed scoutings to find something that would come close to what Fleming had described in his book; the producers settled on a real location in Mount Schilthorn, Kanton Bern, Switzerland. The chosen location was a secluded, yet-unfinished rotating restaurant atop the mountain with only a cable car as a means of access, and which would also feature one of the most dangerous stunts performed in the movie; Bond trying to escape imprisonment from the cable car engine room climbing atop the cable and slowly making his way to a fast incoming cable car. This stunt was performed a few feet off the ground, but the below freezing conditions and the slippery nature of the ice accumulated on the cable to which the stuntman was strapped, made it one nerve-wracking bit of business for all those involved. In order to get the shooting equipment to the top, the crew had to build a Helipad next to the mountaintop rotating restaurant, and also to shoot all the sequences of Bond arriving at the Alpine clinic disguised as Sir Hillary Bray. Other locations in the movie were Portugal and England where, once again, Pinewood Studios were extensively used to recreate some of the location interiors to have a better control of the ever changing weather conditions.

The Heart of the Story

But what really drives this story, and makes it stand apart from all the other Bond movies is the love story between Tracy Draco and James Bond. This would be the one and only time that Bond would commit himself to a serious relationship and be willing to give up his profession and womanizing ways. Their relationship is the most beautiful and heartfelt in the entire saga, helped in great part by a wonderful performance by Diana Rigg. Lazenby tries to follow suit, but being as inexperienced as he was back then, it is very difficult for him to keep up on an acting level. He does try his best though, and he was given some very nice pointers by Hunt; especially during the last scene of the movie. Going the way Hunt suggested proved to be a more effective way of tackling such an emotionally charged scene. One of the things that better help sell the lyrical nature of their romance is the use of John Barry’s romantic theme composed for the movie, which derives from the song, ”We Have All The Time In The World”, composed by both Barry and Hal David, and wonderfully sang by Louis Armstrong. The song conveys a wonderful sense of melancholy that helps highlight their relationship, and it’s one of the standouts of not only the movie, but of the entire saga as a whole, and probably Barry’s best composition for the series. His dramatically charged tracks for the suspenseful and action packed set pieces are also notable; especially those for the safe-cracking scene (which has Bernard Hermann/Alfred Hitchcock vibes all over it), and the numerous fight and skiing sequences.

Critical and financial success.

Even though the movie was acclaimed for its realistic and grounded take on the character, and it’s very solid script, it didn’t resonate with audiences quite in the same way the previous movies had, due mostly to Lazenby not being universally accepted as the new Bond. Something that it’s not to be laid at the actor’s feet; given how inexperienced he was, it was a wonder that he could pull it off at all. He doesn’t convey the same mix of masculinity and elegance that Connery had mastered, but to be fair; he was given only the one chance. Had he been allowed to come back, things might have turned out differently. All in all, the movie made money, nonetheless. Not to the extent the producers had anticipated, though. Box office gains for subsequent movies after Thunderball had been slightly decreasing anyway. Be it Lazenby’s fault or not; it was decided afterwards that he wouldn’t be counted on to reprise his role, and the race was on to try and get Connery to come back for one more outing.

Personal thoughts

Overtime, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has been given the proper respect it deserves. It’s great script, groundbreaking skiing action set pieces, and a romantic story, puts it up there with some of the best entries in the series. Lazenby does a decent job with the character considering, Diana Rigg is outstanding as Tracy Draco, one of the best actresses to portray a Bond Girl hands down, and the epitome of elegance and beauty to boot. Telly Savallas gives his usual solid performance, but to me; both him and Donald Pleasance before him, are quite underwhelming as Bond villains; due mostly to a lack of sufficient screen time. But what really makes this one stand out from the rest is its gritty, realistic tone. Gone are the gadgets and outlandish world domination plot lines. Lazenby’s Bond is stripped down to the bare minimum. He’s left to fend for himself using his wits and whatever resources he can find at hand to escape from the stickiest spots. His outlook on life changes quite a lot too, once he gets to know and fall in love with Tracy. Lazenby’s exploration of the character, lack of experience notwithstanding, is one of a human being who feels his life could be something quite different. It’s not something unlike what Daniel Craig would do decades later in his first outing as the dashing British spy, Casino Royale (2006). Lazenby doesn’t reach the same levels of grittiness that Craig did, but his Bond has a human component that Connery’s one, with all his wit and dashing looks, was lacking. Lazenby also doesn’t have the same dry wit and humour that made Connery’s Bond so recognizable. There are some great one liners throughout, but they don’t hit the mark quite the same way they did with Connery. Playing the comparison game is a tricky and unfair business, as one actor’s portrayal of a specific character doesn’t have to hit the same marks, or be equal to another actor’s. I think that Lazenby did the best he could, considering the circumstances, and what he had to live up to. OHMSS is a great entry in the series. It’s got a compelling story, a beautiful love story punctuated by a wonderful score by John Barry and song by Louis Armstrong, strong and suspenseful action sequences, and one of the most devastating and heartbreaking endings in the whole series. Don’t be put off by the change of actors. This just so happens to be one of the best entries in the series. And Peter Hunt finally got his wish of directing a Bond movie, and knocked it out of the park the first time around.

Thanks for reading.

Terminator 2 : Judgement Day. He’s back.

Ever since The Terminator came out in the Summer of 1984, and became a runaway success, audiences were clamoring for a sequel. Schwarzenegger was one of the main instigators in getting the sequel made, but conflicting schedules of both Cameron and Schwarzenegger, and the rights issues the property was tied up into, had prevented it from becoming a reality. Cameron had some ideas for the script that he’d originally thought up for the first movie but; being limited as he was by a constrained budget, and the necessary technology to realize his ideas not being up to snuff at the time, he’d had to put all those ideas on hold, and go with a simpler approach. His idea of a liquid metal Terminator that could pretty much imitate anything it needed to had been in the original draft, and now seven years on, and after having experimented with an early form of CGI for the Pseudopod/shapeshifting alien creature in his previous Sci-fi feature The Abyss (1989), the time was right for Cameron to go back to the drawing board and develop the concept. Getting the necessary financial backing for the movie was key.

Inception

It was actually Schwarzenegger who was the one who got things moving forward in striking a deal with producer Mario Kassar, who was the head of Carolco Studios. Kassar bought the rights from Hemdale; which was the company that held the rights for the first movie, for $ 10 million dollars, along with Gale Anne Hurd, who owned the other half; giving her an Executive Producer credit. Cameron was to go back to directing it, and Schwarzenegger to star in it. On the course of a phone conversation with actress Linda Hamilton, Cameron convinced her to come back after the actress told him that her character would have to have a harder edge to her, on the brink of lunacy after harboring for many years such psychologically damaging knowledge of what was to eventually become of the Human Race. Cameron agreed, as that was an aspect of Sarah’s character that he very much wanted to explore. With that idea in mind, and also the fact that this time, not only one, but two Terminators would travel back in time, and that the target this time wouldn’t be Sarah, but her son, John Connor; Cameron sat down to write the script. For this he recruited his old friend William Wisher; who’d helped him write some dialogue scenes for the first movie, and being familiarized with the source material, was in an ideal position to help him with the script. Between the time Kassar greenlit the picture until release date, Cameron had roughly 12 months to deliver the picture, as the release date had been scheduled for July 3rd 1991. Cameron and Wisher locked themselves up in an office, and for two months worked tirelessly on the script with little sleep in between, as Cameron wanted to deliver the first draft of the script before flying over to the Cannes film Festival with both Arnold and Kassar to announce that the movie was gonna be made. He finished the script with enough time to print out a copy of it and rush to the airport to meet up with Kassar and Arnold, who were already there waiting for him. Arnold read the script on the flight over, while Cameron took the time to catch some sleep, as he hadn’t sleep for two days straight trying to finish the last pages. Upon reading the script, Arnold’s reaction to how his character was going to be portrayed this time around; as a protective figure to John Connor rather than the unstoppable killing machine that he’d been on the first movie, was mixed. He thought that the audience wouldn’t react favourably to this, and that his character would come off as soft and unconvincing, but fortunately Cameron talked him into it, and ensured him that this was the right approach.

Script in hand, the next step was to cast the right people for the remaining parts; the most difficult being the casting of a suitable young actor who could convincingly play the part of John Connor.

Interesting cast choices and laying out the groundwork.

One very important piece of the puzzle was to cast a young actor to play the role of John Connor. For this, casting director Mali Finn went up and down LA looking for someone young with the right doses of street wise toughness and vulnerability. She ended up going to some Youth centers until she finally stumbled upon Edward Furlong. Furlong didn’t have any acting experience, but Finn convinced him to come in and audition for the part regardless. Due to his blatant lack of acting experience, the first two auditions didn’t go so well, but Finn convinced Cameron to stick with him and give him one more chance. With the help of an acting coach and drawing on some personal troubled family history, he was able to elicit a convincing enough performance to net the role. The next step was to cast the actor who would play the part of the other Terminator, the T-1000. Finn came up with a brilliant, but relatively unknown actor to play the part. Robert Patrick followed Finn’s instructions to the letter in trying to convey a powerful sense of threat for the part. His cat-like mannerisms, and the imposing sense of menace he could convey through his eyes, sold him to Cameron as the perfect choice for the role. He also had to be cast months in advance as Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), had to start working very early on, on the groundbreaking Visual Effects necessary to show off his liquid metal shapeshifting abilities. Other important members of the cast were Joe Morton as Miles Dyson, the Cyberdyne computer engineer, who is working on the chip and Endoskeleton arm left from the Terminator on the previous movie, and Earl Boen, who comes back as Dr Silberman, the smarmy psychiatrist who has Sarah retained in a mental hospital.

Given the mammoth proportions of the shoot, and its complexity, and the groundbreaking Visual Effects that would be needed to recreate the T-1000, a fair amount of planning and conceptual design had to be laid out for the cast, crew and Special and Visual Effects artists to get an idea of what was it that Cameron wanted to bring to the screen. Cameron and a team of Conceptual Artists like John Bruno and Steve Burg, got to drawing numerous designs and storyboards that showed in detail what needed to be done for the countless and difficult action set pieces of the movie.

Movie magic

To bring about his vision on such a tight schedule, Cameron had to enlist the help of numerous Effects houses for each one of them to take care of a particular part of the script that necessitated of some visual or special effect. In addition to ILM; which took care of everything concerning the T-1000 liquid metal effects, Stan Winston Studios were also brought in to take care of everything that had to do with the construction of an Arnold-Endoskeleton puppet, life size Endoskeleton puppetry, special makeup for all the different phases that the T-800 went through, and some life size puppets of the T-1000. Fantasy II Special Effects Inc, would take care, as they had done for the first movie, of everything that had to do with miniature work concerning the Future War pre-title sequence and the sequence in which a Liquid Hydrogen tanker capsizes on its side and crashes into the Steel Mill. All of these scenes were shot in a Soundstage and later on used as background plates, back proyected in a Process stage. They also took care of some of the pyrotechnic shots; like the burning playground in the title sequence.

Another important player was 4-Ward Productions, whose main task was taking care of the Nuclear Nightmare sequence; which was achieved with a mixture of miniatures, and moving models that could be blown apart using a series of wires, air cannons and small explosive charges. This shots were edited together with those produced by Stan Winston; who produced a series of life size adult and children casts to be blown apart as part of the playground Nuclear explosion nightmare sequence. The marrying of all the shots produced by these Effects Houses with that of the amazing and often breathtaking stunt work footage produced in location is seamless, like the T-1000 chasing John Connor, who is riding a dirt bike, through the LA flood system canals with a truck, the T-800 bike jump into the canal from a narrowing concrete wall, the truck crashing into a bridge in the middle of the canal and exploding, all the Cyberdyne action set pieces, the final confrontation between the T-800 and the T-1000 in the Steel Mill….

But who really take the cake here are ILM and the amazing work they did recreating the liquid form of the T-1000. To achieve this, they would scan Robert Patrick’s body, both still and in motion, and feed this information to the computer that later, using a 2-D to 3-D conversion software, made a digital replica of Robert Patrick to be used in all the scenes in which the T-1000 morphs into something else. This was groundbreaking CGI work at the time, and would pave the way for what would be achieved years later with films like Jurassic Park and the Star Wars prequels.

Hectic shoot

Pressed for time as he was, the shoot was an arduous and very nerve-wraking affair. Before the actors even started shooting, they all underwent a rigorous training regime. In the case of actors Linda Hamilton and Robert Patrick; they were both trained in the usage of weapons by an Israeli ex-commando by the name of Uzi Gal. Patrick became quite a fast runner; so much so that he even caught Furlong while the actor’s dirt bike was being pulled by an insert car during the first chase sequence. Needless to say; that take couldn’t be used. In location filming was done in and around California, mostly at night, and making sure that a minor like Furlong would get all his scenes shot before midnight. Aside from the use of the LA flood system canal used for the first chase sequence, the crew also made use of a former Mental Institution that had to be abandoned due to the seismic activity in the area. Extensive research was done on the procedures and protocols conducted in real Mental Hospitals, and photographs were taken of a real, functional one to be used as reference for the Art Department crew to dress up the abandoned building accordingly. Some other locations like the gas station garage where the trio of protagonists hide out, were used only as an exterior location; the interior being recreated in a soundstage. Others like the truck stop/gas station or the Dyson’s resident out in Malibu were real locations that were slightly altered or dressed up, to avoid any permanent damage on the properties. The same could not be said of the abandoned office building that doubled up as the Cyberdyne building. The building was an empty husk which the original developers, after suitable monetary arrangement, were only too happy to loan the crew to blow up. Only the lobby of the building was used to recreate the security office and reception area of Cyberdyne. The rest of the interiors were built in a soundstage. A third mock up floor was built on top of the two existing floors and rigged with explosives and gasoline barrels to produce an even more spectacular explosion. For the final showdown, the crew moved to a derelict Steel Mill and dressed it up to make it look like it was a functioning one. All of the elements like vats of molten steel, pour ladles and flying sparks were carefully recreated to give the whole set a lived-in feel. The highway Swat van/semi-truck and helicopter/tanker chase sequence was a logistical nightmare as the Cinematographer Adam Greenberg struggled to get sufficient lights to light up the vast stretch of Highway, where the chase took place. Practically every light that the crew could get their hands on was required. The chase also involved the use of live footage of a real helicopter performing such daring stunts as flying under an overpass at very low altitude, and a mock up of the same helicopter hooked up to a crane and moved by an insert truck from which the scenes would be shot. The final result was a mixture of stunt work, miniature and back projection, all edited in a seamless fashion.

The final touch

The tight schedule forced the editing process to be going on at the same time that the main units were still shooting. ILM were still delivering Visual Effects shots while at the same time, matching footage of those same shots were coming in from the main units. That also meant that Composer Brad Fiedel had to try and work out his music into some of the scenes without having a real sense of how those scenes worked or what they even looked like, as most of the Visual Effects shots weren’t even finished yet. This made for a very haphazard and nerve-wracking picture and sound editing process; not helped by the fact that Edward Furlong’s voice had changed over the course of the shoot and his early scenes had to be looped in in Post-production or pitch-altered to make them have a consistency. The release date was getting closer, but despite some last minute changes; like finding an alternate ending, because the original one hadn’t worked in the preview screenings, and cutting it pretty close to the wire; the final cut was delivered.

Critical and Financial reception

The movie was a massive success. The successful marketing campaign and the trickle of trailers and promotional material that had been strategically released in the months leading up to release date, had got everyone excited. Critics unanimously praised the movie as an intelligent, and very well constructed follow-up to the original and the movie served to cement Cameron’s reputation in the pantheon of greats even further. It was the most expensive movie ever shot at the time of its release, at a little over $100 million, but it was also one of the most successful, making a little over $516 million worldwide, breaking several box office records and making even more money when it came out in Home Video a year later.

Special and Extended Editions

A year after its Home Video release, the movie came out in Laserdisc in both its Theatrical Version and a brand new Special Edition that restored back 15 minutes of unseen footage and a slew of Supplemental features that would turn this lavishly designed boxed set into one of the most sought after Laserdiscs for collectors and fans of the movie alike. Of all the restored footage the most interesting scenes were the one that takes place early on in the Hospital were Sarah is locked up, in which she has a dream in which Kyle Reese appears to her and reminds her of her mission of protecting their son. This scene leads into a precursor of the Nuclear explosion nightmare scene that will be seen in its entirety later on. The other one is a brilliantly executed Special Effects scene, which takes place in the abandoned gas station where the trio takes refuge, in which Sarah and John remove the Terminator’s CPU and reset it to Write Mode. Sarah tries to smash the chip, at which point John has to stop her, explaining to her that they still need the Cyborg to survive. These two scenes are brilliantly executed and acted, and were removed for pacing reasons. The second scene especially, in my opinion, better explains why the Terminator starts to adapt better to human behavior from that point on. As for the rest of the scenes; it’s a case of leave or take. They’re interesting scenes; but not necessary for plot development. The Extended Edition has the exact same scenes included, with the addition of an alternate ending in which Sarah is shown to us as a 60 year old woman who reminisces about what could have been while observing his grown up son playing with her granddaughter in the playground of her dreams. This was the end scene that was removed from the theatrical cut because test audiences didn’t like it. I can understand why. The scene doesn’t ring true, it seems forced, and Hamilton’s awful old age makeup makes it even worse. The movie was remastered in 4K back in 2017, and re-released in Cinemas. It was 3D post-converted, and the results are remarkable for a movie that was never meant to be shown in 3D. There’s not an over-abundance of gimmicky pop out effects, but the 3D depth of the image is substantial, especially in long shots and in scenes like the first chase sequence and the final showdown in the Steel Mill.

Final thoughts

The original T2 add campaigns do justice to the quote; ”He’s back”. And what a way to come back. This movie is a triumph in every sense of the word. It’s exceptionally well scripted, directed, acted, edited and scored. It does the rare trick of surpassing the original in both success and cultural status. Cameron achieves a landmark in filmmaking; succesfully blending old school storytelling with state-of-the-art Special and Visual Effects, using the visual trickery in service of the story, and not the other way around. For him, technology is merely a tool; a means through which to tell a story. The acting is excellent. Cameron can be easily considered the only filmmaker to elicit a truly remarkable performance from Schwarzenegger every time they work together. He did it in the first movie; he does it again now. Hamilton delivers a stunning performance as the hard edged, cold, machine-like warrior, who will do everything in her power to protect her son, and to ensure that the much feared future that she’s envisioned doesn’t come to pass. Robert Patrick really excels as the T-1000; his is a very calculated, measured and powerfully menacing performance. He truly gets under the skin of this character. But the real surprise here is the young Edward Furlong. For such a young and inexperienced actor he delivers the good with just the right amount of cockiness and vulnerability.

Brad Fiedel knocks it out of the Park once again. His soundtrack this time is a perfect blend of heart-pounding rhythms and understated melodies. The perfect acompanying piece to the movie. Not meant to call attention to itself, but to underline the action and the dramatic moments. Of special significance are the T-1000 Theme, the action cues that accompany the first chase sequence in the flood system canal and the raid on Cyberdyne.

Adam Greenberg’s Cinematography is gorgeously natural and warm during the daytime scenes, and cold and bleak during the nighttime scenes with a prevalence of blues and greens.

Production Design by Joseph Nemec III, Art design and Special Effects and Makeup by Stan Winston and his crew are top notch. So is the work of all the above mentioned Effects Houses. Special mention to ILM, though. Their groundbreaking work to bring the T-1000 to the screen is the highlight of the show, and the groundwork onto which so many barriers regarding what could and could not be achieved in Visual effects were torn down.

All in all, a remarkable Sci-fi/action movie that ushered cinema into the digital realm, and closed the chapter in a story that should have never been continued.

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The Terminator. Mechanical Nightmare

In the Summer of 1984, one of the most recognizable staples of the Science Fiction genre was released. It was a low budget movie, directed by a first-time filmmaker that would forever etch its name in the History books, which would spawn one of the best sequels of all time; rivaling with such cinematic landmarks as The Godfather II and The Empire Strikes Back, and would also pave the way for one of the most brilliant filmmakers of the Century; James Cameron.

The story of how this movie came to be, and those who made it possible, is remarkable in and of itself.

Inception

Jim Cameron was an up and coming art designer who’d been taken under the wing of Roger Corman. He quickly worked his way up from Matte Painting artist to Set Designer when his help was needed to finish the movie Battle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T. Murakami, Roger Corman (1980). It was during that time that he met Gale Anne Hurd, who at the time was an Assistant Producer in the Roger Corman Company. She was impressed by how sure of himself and authoritative he already was, and knew that it wouldn’t be long before Cameron got his first gig as director.

It was during his time in Rome while shooting the movie Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981), that he had a nightmare in which a Cyborg was coming out of the flames trying to kill someone. That image stuck with him; and shortly after he’d gone back to the States, and started writing a story around that dream; a story that would soon turn into the first draft of a screenplay. The story revolved around a Cyborg, The Terminator; that comes from a Future in which the Machines have taken over, and is here to ensure that the leader of the Human Resistance, who will eventually lead them to final victory over the Machines, is never born. The Machine has targeted the mother of said Future Resistance Leader; Sarah Connor. Unbeknownst to her, The Resistance has sent a warrior to protect Sarah. A soldier from another time who will do whatever is necessary to protect her.

With this draft in hand, and with the help of Gale Anne Hurd as producer, they went around the Studios looking for someone to finance the movie. They got turned down by every Studio, but managed to slip the script to a couple of producers who worked for Orion, who read it and really liked it. Being Cameron the rookie director that he was at the time, though; the producers weren’t willing to throw much money into the proyect, and Cameron would have to make do with a budget of $6.5 million. Casting the right people for the parts, though, wouldn’t be easy.

The perfect Terminator

In its original conception, Cameron had conceived The Terminator as a non-descript cyborg who could blend in easily in a crowd and thus, be better prepared to acquire his target, as no one would see him coming.

The first actor that Cameron had in mind was Lance Henriksen, with whom he had previously worked in Piranha 2: The Spawning. The actor even worked in the mannerisms of the Cyborg, and even showed up at the Orion offices characterized as The Terminator. Unfortunately for him, in order to get the movie going, Cameron had to cast a known actor for the main role. As it turns out, Henriksen would end up playing the role of Detective Hal Vukovich along with actor Paul Winfield who plays Lt. Draxler, the police officers who take Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese under custody after their first encounter with The Terminator. Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Austrian actor and bodybuilder had had great success with Conan the Barbarian, John Milius (1982), and when first given the script, he thought he was being offered the role of Kyle Reese, the human soldier from the Future who has to protect Sarah. As he was reading the script, he realized that the role he felt the most identified with was that of The Terminator. In a fateful lunch meeting he had with Cameron, he explained to him that he wanted to play the role of The Terminator, which suited Cameron just fine, as he never thought Arnold as the right fit for Kyle Reese to begin with, and resented the fact that the Studio would meddle in his casting of the main role. This would turn out to be the best casting decision he made for the entire movie.

The mother and the Protector

For the roles of both Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, two relatively unknown actors were chosen for the parts. Cameron immediately liked Linda Hamilton, as the actress was possessed of both a vulnerable, but at the same time, fierce quality that would have to come out at the end of the movie as part of her character arc. As for Michael Biehn, he was chosen basically on the same basis. At the time he auditioned for the role, he’d been working for a part in a Theater play of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and had to audition twice as the first time around he’d read his lines with a Southern accent that he’d been working on for the play.

The Monster Puppeteer

With the cast in place, it was time to go looking for the right technical crew that would help Cameron bring about his vision. The first make-up artist who was contacted by the Studio was Dick Smith, who would win an Oscar for the make-up of Amadeus, Milos Forman, in the same year. Upon reading the script and seeing the storyboards that Cameron had drawn for the movie, he immediately saw that he wasn’t the right person for the project, and recommended his friend Stan Winston for the job. Winston ended up bringing a lot to the table; not only making different sized models of the Terminator’s Endoskeleton, but also helping with the use of life size puppets cast in the likeness of Schwarzenegger, that could be remotely controlled, stop-animation for the most challenging scenes in which the Endoskeleton has to be shown moving, and developing a special type of make-up for Arnold that absolutely helps sell the illusion that under his skin there is a mechanical being. In addition to this, Fantasy II Effects were brought in to help with the building of all the different miniatures and in camera effects used for the Future War sequence in the prologue. All of the Hunter Killer Tanks along with the miniature Endoskeletons and the ravaged futuristic landscapes were recreated in a Soundstage using a mixture of miniatures, Stop-Motion, wires and Forced Perspective, using generous amounts of smoke and lighting to sell the illusion of depth. All of these shots would be later used as back proyection in combination with the live footage of the actors running around in a life size recreation of the desolated futuristic war zone.

Guerrilla filmmaking

The movie was shot all around Los Angeles, mostly at night, and in most cases, without any shooting permits. The cast and crew would have to get in, shoot the scene, and get out before being detained by the police. Having such a shoe-string budget forced the crew to come up with some very imaginative solutions for the tight schedule; like shooting in some very dangerous areas of the city, and even dressing up a former restaurant as a night club for the scenes that take place inside and out of the Tech-Noir night club. The dressing was so realistic and well done, that people thought it was a real night club!!.

The final touch

To top it all off, Cameron wanted to find a composer that would faithfully recreate the spirit of his movie. After receiving numerous samples from different composers, he settled on Brad Fiedel, a composer of electronic music that was the perfect fit for the project. He envisioned the beat of the soundtrack as that akin to the beating heart of a machine, and the constant and relentless use of percussion for the action set pieces, though sometimes repetitive, perfectly recreated the nightmarish mechanical world that Cameron had envisioned in his dream.

Critical and financial reception

Even though the movie was poorly marketed, it immediately gained an audience, and a very warm critical reception. The critics praised its very imaginative use of special effects, story and its gritty and grimy vision of a future ruled by the machines. It made over $78 million worldwide, and gained even more legs when it came out in Home Video.

Final thoughts

Cameron’s debut feature is a very solid one for a first-time director. His bleak vision of a future in which A.I has taken control, and was left of Humanity are forced to hide underground, is one of the most desolate recreations of a dystopian future ever seen onscreen. The main cast do a terrific job, making their characters absolutely believable, and grounded. Schwarzenegger is terrifying as The Terminator. He really sells the notion of a relentless, pitiless, unstoppable machine, that will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Scenes like the first encounter and shootout in the Tech-Noir club, and the ensuing car chase through the streets of LA, ending in an underground car park; during which Reese reveals to Sarah what The Terminator is, his objective, and why he is there to protect her, is brilliantly executed. The editing is very tight. No dead spaces, hardly any time to breath. There’s the obligatory love story, which is by the way, beautifully handled and acted. Cameron doesn’t give the audience time to rest in their laurels; the protagonists, and by extension the audience, are always in a state of trepidation. Brad Fiedel’s music helps heighten this sensation. The practical and visual effects are excellent, considering what small a budget they had to work with. All in all, a masterful example of what can be achieved with very little money and tons of imagination. A Sci-fi movie that helped reinvigorate the genre, and a very auspicious start for a notable filmmaker.

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You Only live Twice. 007 goes oriental.

After becoming a household name in the course of just four movies, it was decided that the franchise would be taken one step further; this time to the far East.

Broccoli and Saltzman had wanted to adapt On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ever since they’d wrapped production on Goldfinger, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shoot Thunderball; which was a book they’d wanted to adapt since the very beginning, but couldn’t, because of the rights issues the book was tied into at the time. This time around it wasn’t possible either, because of the lack of suitable Winter locations to shoot the movie.

You Only Live Twice seemed like a good alternative, but it was a choice that would bring its fair share of problems.

Inception

The next Bond movie was due to be released on 23rd of June, which proved to be something of a problem, as the producers found themselves behind schedule, and without a writer and director to helm the project. Albert Broccoli thought it a good idea to offer the role of director to Lewis Gilbert, who was primarily known for directing small, low budget, character pieces, and who’d gained some notoriety for directing Alfie, which turned Michael Caine into a household name that very same year. Gilbert was reluctant to accept the role as he didn’t think he was suited for the material, but Broccoli made him change his mind about it. He, nevertheless insisted in bringing along his Cinematographer Freddy Young, who was renown for his work for David Lean in both Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Next step was to get someone to pen the script. The job fell on children’s writer Roald Dahl, who had no credit as a screenplay writer, but knew Ian Fleming, and was familiar with his work.

Family reunion

Having overcome those hurdles, it was time to get back some of the old faces who’d worked in the previous movies. Actors Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewellyn as Q were some of the familiar faces who were coming back to the fold, along with Production Designer Ken Adam, Peter Hunt; who, on this occasion, filled the role of Supervising Editor and Second Unit Director, Special Effects Supervisor John Stears, Composer John Barry, and Title Sequence creator Maurice Binder. Sean Connery was returning as James Bond, but the unprecedented media pressure to what he was being subjected during the shoot in Japan, and the fact that he was terminating his contract, made him consider abandoning the role, and moving on to something else.

Location Scouting

Before the pre-production on the project started, producers Albert Broccoli, Harry Saltzman, Production Designer Ken Adam and Director Lewis Gilbert flew to Japan to scout for suitable locations where to shoot the movie. Broccoli hired an expert Helicopter pilot to fly them around the country, and they managed to explore 2/3 of the country in three weeks. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any of the locations described by Fleming in his book. The villain in the book, who as in the film, turns out to be Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, lives in a Japanese castle by the sea. They couldn’t find anything like it. What they did find where some striking looking volcanic formations on one of the islands, and viewing the size of some of the volcanic craters from the air, it was decided on the spot, by both Broccoli and Adam, that it would be an interesting idea to have Bloefeld’s lair inside a hollowed-out volcanic crater. That decision would turn into one of the most amazing Set Design feats in Cinema.

New faces

To play the part of Bloefeld, the producers had chosen Jan Werich, a Czech actor who didn’t quite fit the requirements that Gilbert was looking for, and after five days working on set, the decision was made to replace him for American actor Donald Pleasance. His proved to be a more threatening presence, even if his role in the movie is quite short. Being as it was a movie that takes places primarily in Japan, the idea was to cast professional actors from the country, and while the producers lucked out when it came to casting the Head of the Japanese Secret Service, “Tiger” Tanaka, who would be played by famous Cinema and TV actor; Tetsuro Tamba, who’d previously worked with Gilbert, and Teru Shimada as Mr Osato, one of Bloefeld’s minions; they wouldn’t be so fortunate when it came to the female casting. The producers couldn’t find an actress with enough experience; or knowledge of English, for that matter, to play the parts of Japanese secret agent Aki, or that of Kissy Suzuki; with whom Bond pretends to get married to go undercover as a humble Japanese fisherman on a small island where he suspects SPECTRE’s base of operations is. The casting director finally chose two actresses; Akiko Wakabayashi, who was going to play the part of Kissy Suzuki; and Mie Hama, who was going to play the part of Aki. Both girls were taken to England so they could rapidly learn to speak sufficient English to play their respective roles, and while Akiko proved to be quite adept at learning fast, the same could not be said about Mie Hama. Hama was informed by Gilbert, through Tetsuro Tamba; who acted as a sort of spiritual father to all the Japanese actors in the film, that she would be returning to Japan. Under the threat of suicide by the actress, the producers agreed that something could be done with her, but her role was reversed with Akiko’s, and she’d end up playing the part of Kissy Suzuki instead, as her lines of dialogue and time on screen were less. For the part of the “bad” Bond girl, the producers went with German actress Karin Dor to play the role of SPECTRE agent number 11, Helga Brandt. The lack of a work permit to work in the UK meant that she almost didn’t get the role. Regrettably, her presence on screen is way too brief.

The fun starts

The movie was shot on location in Japan with the cast and crew even taking over a Japanese castle to set up a Ninja training school, an island off the coast of Japan; which doubles as the small fishing village where Bond goes undercover, an underground train station that serves as the entrance to Tanaka’s underground Headquaters, Kobe Docks; which serves as the place where Bond finds the location of the Ming Po, and where the dockside fist and gunfight ensues, and some amazing exterior locations for the establishing shots of the volcano area where Bloefeld’s secret lair is hidden. This is the area where the crew attempted to shoot the aerial battle between Little Nellie; Bond’s retrofitted Gyrocopter, and Bloefeld’s squadron of helicopters. Unfortunately, due to an accident during shooting in which one of the aerial cameraman, John Jordan, was injured; the scene had to be postponed, and shot later on in Andalucia, over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, in Spain. Other scenes were shot on location in Gibraltar Harbour, Gibraltar, for Bond’s fake sea burial at the beginning of the movie, in the Bahamas; for the scene in which a couple of scuba divers pick up Bond’s wrapped up body from the bottom of the ocean, and off the coast of Bermuda; for the scene at the end where life rafters are thrown off the back of military aircraft to rescue Bond and his army of Ninjas.

The bulk of the sets, however, were built as always in Pinewood Studios. Amazing sets like Tanaka’s underground Headquaters, the NASA control room, the high-tech Japanese operating room; where Bond undergoes his physical operation to transform him into a humble Japanese fisherman…All of these, however, pale in comparison to the set design tour de force that was the recreation of Bloefeld’s underground volcanic crater lair. It was a feat of engineering, the likes of which had never been seen in British Cinema. The set was humongous, and occupied an entire soundstage. It even had a life replica of the Space Rocket that could be lifted out of the set using wires attached to a crane to simulate it being launched into Space. Even the retractable crater ceiling was a working prop that would open using a winch attached to steel cables. They even built a monorail track with carts that could move around the set!.

Bob Simmons, was again, the stunt coordinator for the show. Not only did he plan out and execute most of Connery’s fights in the movie; like the one between Bond and one of Sato’s henchmen in Sato’s office, but he also coordinated with the team of Japanese stunt men, especially brought over from Japan to act as Tanaka’s Ninja fight force in the movie’s climax. These were skillfully trained Martial artists that showcased some very innovative fighting styles and choreographies when it came to the action sequences. John Stears also threw everything but the kitchen sink at the scene, making use of some very spectacular pyrotechnics for the end of the movie. Even though the movie has lots of action set pieces, it’s not especially loaded with gadgets. The “Little Nellie” aerial fight scene was the exception to the rule. This retrofitted Gyrocopter was the brainchild of RAF Commander Ken Wallis, who accepted Broccoli’s offer to go to Japan and fly the Gyrocopter for them in the aerial fight sequence. Adam would, of course, make some changes to it; fitting it with all manner of machine guns and missile launchers, even giving it a new yellow and white paint job that would make it look like a bee.

Final thoughts

You Only Live Twice is a fun movie. It was the first of three directed by Lewis Gilbert, and often considered one of the best. It is certainly a more entertaining and better paced movie than Thunderball. It’s got a very well put together script, and the action set pieces are even better than those from the previous movies; which is saying something. It’s got a wonderful score by John Barry; one of his most inspired and lyrical. The Wedding scene music is especially beautiful, with its enchanting oriental notes. A side note to the title song sung by Nancy Sinatra; one of the best and most recognizable of the entire series. It makes very good use of the Japanese exterior locations, giving the entire thing a travelogue feel. Ken Adam went far and beyond, delivering some truly remarkable sets. Connery plays the part effortlessly by this point. Not much else that could be improved there. As for the rest of the actors; it is unfortunate that most of them don’t get to shine as much as they should. Some of them; like Karin Dor, Teru Shimada, or even Donald Pleseance seem kind of wasted, in my opinion. This wasn’t the case with all the villains in the previous movies like Gert Frobe’s Goldfinger, Adolfo Celli’s Largo, or even Luciana Paluzzi’s Viona Volpe; in my opinion one of the best “bad” Bond girls of the franchise. Not even the Bond girls in this movie are that remarkable. Their lack of acting skills shows in more than one occasion. The same cannot be said about Tetsuro Tamba, who glides through the movie on pure charisma. Another gripe that I have with this movie is Connery’s silly Japanese makeover. The thing is so ludicrous and far-fetched, that not even harfcore Bond fans can swallow that one. A disguise that, “magically dissapears” as soon as Bond enters Bloefeld’s lair. All in all, a fun, entertaining and colourful entry to the series.

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Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Journey begins…

When back in 1999 filmmaker Peter Jackson took it upon himself to adapt J.R.R Tolkien’s massive, and considered by some, unfilmable book to the big screen, he would embark on a filmmaking journey that would take him, and all those involved, the better part of five years to complete. It would end up being one of the biggest cinematographic endeavours achieved by a single filmmaker, as the decision had been made really early on to film all three movies, one for each part of the book, back to back.

A daring enterprise

Jackson came to the public attention with the movie Heavenly Creatures (1994), starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. The film gave Jackson the sufficient notoriety for producer and filmmaker Robert Zemeckis to give him a leg up to direct his first major Studio picture, The Frighteners (1996), starring Michael J. Fox and Trini Alvarado. Jackson’s very striking visual and storytelling style soon came to the fore, and he began to be noticed by the Industry, but that sadly didn’t give him the creative and financial clout necessary to embark on his next proyect; the adaptation to the big screen of Lord of the Rings.

Being as he was a huge fan of J.R.R Tolkien’s seminal literary masterpiece, Jackson had acquired the rights to adapt the books. He’d written, along with his wife Fran Walsh, and screenwriter and collaborator Phillipa Boyens, a draft of the script, and had some Conceptual art at the ready to show to the Hollywood Execs to try and shop his proyect around the Studios. He would get lots of doors slammed in his face, as most producers thought the proyect too expensive and risky to undertake. It would be New Line Cinema, with Robert Shaye at its head, who would find the idea interesting, but insisted in there being three movies instead of just two, as he thought that the material wouldn’t be given the proper justice when compressed into just two movies. The idea of shooting just two movies came because Jackson didn’t think that any Studio would want to invest the amount of money needed for such a large production, and extend it for three movies in total, as the production was already expensive and ambitious enough as it was. Alas, with New Line’s backing, Jackson was free to expand upon his original ideas, and not be creatively constrained to bring about the books to the big screen in the proper manner.

Off to the races

With the necessary financial support in place, Jackson went about rewriting and expanding upon his original draft, and started assembling the best creative team around him that would enable him to bring his grand vision to the silver screen.

The first stepping stone was to enlist the help of Illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe as Conceptual Designers; as they were the official Tolkien Illustrators for all the different books and Tolkien related media over the years, and would have the best appreciation of Tolkien’s visual world to translate it to the screen.

It didn’t take Jackson too much convincing to get both Lee and Howe in, and once they were, Jackson and his team of Production and Set Designers started flying all over Jackson’s home turf, New Zealand; scouting for locations to shoot the movie with Lee and Howe in tow, with a sketch book, drawing designs for the movies. It had always been Jackson’s desire, from the very beginning, to shoot all three movies in his home country; as he’d imagined growing up, reading the books, that New Zealand was the ideal setting for Middle Earth. First ideal location they came upon for the movie was that of Mata Mata, a rural area on the north of the island, which Jackson thought would be perfect to build Hobbiton. Access to the location was very difficult, and roads had to be constructed to bring in all the set materials needed for the construction of the entire town. The construction crew took over the entire area with an idea that once the shoot was finished, everything would have to be put back the way it was, to preserve the area as a place of astounding natural beauty. The crew of set designers went to great lengths to make Hobbiton look the way Tolkien had described it in his books, and how both Alan Lee and John Howe had drawn it. It’s a wonderful piece of set design that is a testament to the great work done by Richard Taylor and his team from Weta Workshop.

Weta magic

Weta Workshop and its visual effects counterpart; Weta Digital, had been founded by Peter Jackson a few years back. It was a relatively small Effects Company that was based in Wellington, New Zealand, and the bulk of its employees were native New Zealander craftsmen and women, who were very proficient at their job, but there was some doubt on New Line’s part that this small Effects company could handle the massive amount of Effects work that the movie would need for all three movies. Weta proved nonetheless to be up to the daunting challenge, and endeavoured to rise to the occasion everytime it was needed. Under the supervision of Richard Taylor; who oversaw, at the behest of Peter Jackson, everything from Miniature building, to costume and prosthetics, and makeup design, gathered around him a very competent team of technicians who gave it their all. The use of miniatures, or as the crew would lovingly call them given their size; “Big-atures”, was extensive throughout the shoot, and gave the movie such a scale and an old school feel, which resulted in some of the most striking and beautiful images seen in the movie, like the elf cities of Rivendel and Lothlórien, the mines of Moria, the Tower of Barad Dûr and Isengard, and its massive array of underground tunnels and pits, all of this enhanced with the use of visual extensions and matte paintings. The makeup and costume design, which were handled by both Richard Taylor and Ngila Dickson is a work of Art encompassing the worlds of men, orc and elf, giving a distinctive look to them and being faithful to a fault with Tolkien’s descriptions in the books.

Alongside Weta Workshop, its Visual effects counterpart; Weta Digital do a wonderful job marrying the practical elements such as set design, miniatures and matte paintings with digital enhancements like the bowels of the mines of Moria, and complete CGI creatures like Gollum and the fire monster Balrog.

It is the combined efforts of all these departments, and people like Production Designer Grant Major, Visual Effects Supervisors Jim Rygel and Christian Rivers, and Set Designer Dan Hennah; to name just a few, who worked tirelessly to bring about the best possible product. And they succeeded. But all of this couldn’t be possible without the right cast.

The perfect cast

Rarely is a filmmaker afforded the opportunity of finding the perfect cast for a movie, but that’s exactly what happened with the Lord of the Rings. The original idea was to cast British actors for the main roles, especially those of the four hobbits, but when American actor Elijah Wood learned of the casting for this movie, he recorded a tape of himself reciting lines from the book as Frodo, and putting on a convincing British accent to sale his audition. He was immediately cast upon Jackson watching the tape. Another American actor portrayed his faithful companion, Sam Gamyi; Sean Austin, better know for his role in the 80s cult classic The Goonies, Richard Donner (1985). The other roles were filled by Scottish actor Billy Boyd as Pippin and British actor Dominic Monaghan as Merry. For two of the most important roles of the movie, two great British actors were enlisted; both Ian Mckellen and legendary Hammer star Christopher Lee would portray the roles of wizards Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. Lee was actually, at one point, in the run to portray Gandalf. Being an avid reader and very knowledgeable about the source material; as he’d read the book once a year ever since he was a teenager, and had been acquainted with Tolkien himself, he regretfully had to step down and take the role of Saruman as the physical demands for the part of Gandalf, given his age at the time, would have been too taxing.

A relatively unknown young British actor, Orlando Bloom, was chosen to play the part of the elf Legolas and the role of his bickering companion; the dwarf Gimli would be played by larger-than-life John Rhys Davies, who would end up having a hard time with all the facial prosthetics involved to portray his character. He could only play the part for a day with the makeup on, and then take a three-day rest, as he proved to be allergic to the glue used to apply the makeup. On those occasions, a double would step in to shoot some of the long shots, and to help with the more strenuous fight scenes.

Other roles fell on the shoulders of British actor Sean Bean as Boromir, Hugo Weaving as Elf king Elrond, Liv Tyler as his daughter The Lady Arwen, Cate Blanchett as The Lady Galadriel; but one of the most important roles would be one that would come very late in the game, when principal Photography was already a few days in. The part of Aragorn was going to be played by another actor with whom there was a problem at the last minute. Jackson and his team were pushed into a corner, but they’d heard good things about Viggo Mortensen, and decided to get in touch with him and offer him the role. After a lengthy conversation with Jackson over the phone, Mortensen accepted the role on the basis that his son was a huge fan of Tolkien, and had overheard the whole conversation. Mortensen was reluctant to accept it because that would mean spending months away from home, and plus, he’d never read the books or knew anything about them. As it turns out, he ended up being the best possible choice for the role.

Long and arduous shoot

As all three movies in the saga would end up being shot back to back, over a period of several months, and with a hectic shooting schedule; that meant that the physical and mental demands on both the actors and crew would take a toll on all those concerned. The actors portraying the hobbits, orcs, dwarves and elves had to endure extensive makeup sessions that would normally start very early in the morning, and last for a few hours; most of them having to have prosthetic feet and ears attached to them, some of them, like in the case of those portraying the orcs, having to wear whole body rubber suits, complete with heavy armour and prosthetics. Not to say anything about the hours dedicated to Costume fittings, combat training (for which Jackson brought in legendary swordsman Bob Anderson), horse riding and, in the case of some actors, even Elvish lessons. It was important to Jackson to be respectful of Tolkien’s novel, and so a Tolkien linguist; David Salo, was brought in to make sure that the actors speech was as accurate as possible to what Tolkien had envisioned. Dialogue coaches were brought in to assist the actors in that regard. Hundreds upon hundreds of all kinds of weapons and armours were forged at Weta Workshop by actual Blacksmiths to give them a sense of realism. The process was both expensive and time consuming, but yielded astonishing results.

The movie was shot in both location; whenever possible, taking advantage of New Zealand’s remarkable landscape, and in the Studio, in Wellington, New Zealand; where huge sets were carefully put together to match up with the live action footage. The close proximity of the Studio to the local airport meant that shooting would often be disrupted by the noise of huge commercial airliners engines, rendering most of the on-set sound recording to be unusable, and most of it would have to be re-recorded and looped back in, later on in Post-production.

Visual trickery

The movie succesfully uses a different blend of techniques, both practical and visual effects throughout; but some of the most innovative have to do with the way forced perspective shooting techniques, (which consists in shooting two actors in the same scene at two different angles to give the illusion that one of them is shorter than the other), along with the construction of the same sets in different sizes; replicating even the props in it according to the size of the set, for both men and Hobbits, and blue screen filming (where the actors will shoot their part in any given scene separately in a soundstage, and it’s edited back together later on using, either digital or filmed background plates); is used to highlight the height differences between the hobbit and dwarf characters to those of the men. They used practically every trick in the book; resorting even to the use of scale doubles to get the job done, delivering amazing results.

Piecing it all together

Things wouldn’t get much easier in the editing room, as Jackson would have to juggle between being on the recording studio in London; supervising the soundtrack recording sessions, and back in Wellington, where the sound mixing and editing was being done. As he couldn’t be in two places at once, a remote satellite communication system via computer was set up in either London, or New Zealand, so a direct line could be created for Jackson to supervise both teams at the same time. That meant that all those involved would get very little sleep in order to deliver the movie in its allotted premiere date. This would be a trend that repeated itself in all three movies.

Critical and box office reception

The movie premiered on December 19th, 2001 to great acclaim. The movie proved to be a huge critical and financial success, grossing a worldwide total of $883.726.270. Was critically praised everywhere it premiered, proving to those nay-sayers that Tolkien’s book could succesfully and faithfully be adapted to the screen. Peter Jackson became a household name overnight, but the bar had already been set too high for the two upcoming movies, and it was up to him to back those expectations up with something even more spectacular and daring.

Extended Edition

On December of the following year, and to tie in with the release of the second instalment; The Two Towers, an Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring was released on DVD including 40 more minutes of unseen footage that had been trimmed from the theatrical release. In the words of Jackson himself, he didn’t style this new cut as a Director’s cut of the movie, rather an alternate version of the movie to be enjoyed at home. Most of the new scenes further develop some secondary characters, and even main ones, and dig deeper into the rich history of Middle Earth. Given that some of the additions had an important significance on things that would happen in The Two Towers; this version of the movie would end up being the preferred version to watch for those of us who are fans of the movie

Personal thoughts

The first installment of the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece, there are not two ways about it. It ticks all the right boxes; it’s beautifully crafted, acted, with a superb score by Howard Shore, who proved, for the first time in his life, that his range as a composer could extend beyond musically reimagining David Cronenberg’s twisted cinematic worlds. His score is epic, sweeping and heartfelt. The Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie is magical; giving the world of Middle Earth an otherworldly but, at the same time, grounded look that befits Tolkien’s world. Everything from makeup to costumes and set design are top notch. The visual effects department at Weta Digital deliver some truly epic imagery; like the entering of the Fellowship into the mines of Moria and the escape over the Bridge of Kazad Dûm from the Balrog monster. Many moments that seem to be taken right out of the books. It’s a truly remarkable visual and storytelling landmark that proves that Jackson was the man born to usher Tolkien’s words into the big screen. All of this topped off by a wonderful cast who seem to creep right out of the pages of the book. Once you’ve seen the movie, it’s difficult to separate these actors from their characters. That’s how good a job they did. To me, the defining fantasy movie.

Thanks for reading.

The Thing. Terror from within.

On June 1982, one of the most emblematic movies of the 80s and, by extent, of the Science Fiction/Horror genre was released. It was panned upon release by critics and audiences alike, who didn’t understand its artistic and storytelling merits, and who added it to the growing list of Body Horror movies that were so popular during that decade. Time would put both the movie, and the critics who slammed it in their place. To understand why the movie failed both critically and at the box office, we have to go back to a time and place, and especially a year, that was rife with cinematic landmarks. To say that the movie came out at the wrong time is an understatement. Let’s find out why.

Inception

When the rights to John W. Campbell’s novella; Who goes there ?, written under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, became available, Stuart Cohen, an executive for Universal Studios’ Television department grabbed them, and immediately started working on adapting it to the big screen. Early development work was done by filmmaker Tobe Hooper and writer Kim Henkel. Producers Laurence Turman and David Foster were the ones in charge of bringing the proyect to life, and didn’t like Hooper and Henkel’s treatment. It was then that filmmaker John Carpenter was approached by his long-time friend Stuart Cohen on the possibility of tackling the proyect. Carpenter immediately jumped at the idea, as he was a long time admirer of the 1951 Howard Hawks and Chritian Nyby adaptation; The Thing from Another World. Carpenter had also read the novella on which said movie was based, and really liked it. The 1951 adaptation bore little resemblance to the original text, as the creature of the film was a plant-based creature that looked more like a Frankenstein-esque monster than anything else. Carpenter wanted to go back to basics and take the original concept of the thing being a creature that could pretty much imitate any life form by assimilating its host and creating a perfect replica undistinguishable from the real thing. That shape shifting quality gave the story a unique edge in that anyone could be the creature, thus creating an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia that would go hand in hand with Carpenter’s themes and obsessions from previous films. Sadly, it would be some time until Universal decided to step up and greenlight the proyect, mostly due to the massive success of Alien (1979), Ridley Scott. It was believed that audiences had, once again, an appetite for this kind of movies. Shooting, though, wouldn’t be without its problems.

An all male Ensemble piece

With a director pretty much in place, it was time to look for a crew and cast that could be up to the task in bringing Carpenter’s vision to light. Bill Lancaster, son of actor Burt Lancaster, was entrusted with writing the screenplay, of which he would end up writing three drafts. He struggled with the big number of characters from the novella, and ended up slimming them down to twelve, thus making the story more manageable and understandable. Director of Photography Dean Cundey, Editor Todd Ramsay and Production Designer John J. Lloyd were other important pieces in the creative jigsaw puzzle that Carpenter was trying to assemble. But no piece of the puzzle would be as essential as that of Rob Bottin as Make-up artist and Creature Designer. His was a fundamental contribution in giving the film the look and feel that would turn it into the cult classic it would become. Being a huge admirer of Carpenter’s previous work, he arranged a meeting with the filmmaker through a mutual friend and collaborator of Carpenter’s, Dean Cundey, thus resulting in their first collaboration in the film The Fog (1980). Going off, at first, on the extensive storyboard work that had been done by artists Mike Ploog and Mentor Huebner, Bottin ended up going with his own ideas and concepts for the creature, coming up with some very crazy, and inventive ideas for the creature design, in an attempt to forego the idea of having someone in a suit performing as the alien, and creating something more organic, which suited Carpenter, who was opposed to the idea of the suit, as it was something that had been used in the original movie, and on the recent Ridley Scott masterpiece. Bottin created such a wealth of designs for the film, and had such little time to deliver his work, that he wound up working seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, causing him to be sent to hospital due to mental and physical exhaustion. It was at this point that Stan Winston and his team had to step in to work in some creature design for the scene in which the Thing, in the form of a dog, attacks the rest of the dogs in the kennel of the American station.

Another member of the team who had his work cut out for him was Production Designer John J. Lloyd, who went to Alaska early on during Pre-production to scout for locations. The initial idea was to shoot the movie in Montana, where the 1951 version had been shot, but due to a lack of snowfall during the last two winters, it was decided that production would be moved to Stewart, British Columbia, near a glacier, where a replica of American Scientific Station 31 would be built by a Canadian construction crew during the Summer, and would hopefully be covered by snow by the time the cast and crew came to shoot during the following Winter. The site was perfect, but presented one major logistical problem in that there was only a one way access road used mainly by the workers of a nearby mine. The crew had to come up to the set and go down to the coastal town where they were staying, each day using this road, but making sure they stayed in radio contact with the miners and truck drivers who used it, as those driving down the road couldn’t stop. Some parking spaces along the road were dug up, so the upcoming traffic could park to one side to let the vehicles coming down come through. When the time came for the crew to start shooting in location, the whole encampment was snowed in, and the results were astounding. Shooting days were long, exhausting and the crew and cast had to contend with below zero temperatures that also took their toll in the equipment, which had to stay outside, covered and protected, as the variation in temperatures, if brought inside the set, could cause them to break down.

The ensemble cast was made up of mainly character actors of which the standout one was Kurt Russell as helicopter pilot MacCready, who had previously worked with Carpenter in Elvis and Escape from New York. The actor was viewed by Carpenter as the anchor on which the rest of the performances rested. Brilliantly played by the likes of Wilford Brimley as Dr. Blair, T.K Carter as the Cook Nauls, David Clennon as Palmer, Keith David as Childs, Richard Dysart as Dr. Copper, Charles Hallahan as Norris, Peter Maloney as Bennings, Richard Masur as the dogs keeper Clark, Donald Moffat as the Officer in charge of the station Garry, Joel Polis as Fuchs, and Thomas Waites as Communications Officer Windows.

It was a rare case in that it was an all male cast driven movie, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the industry for some time.

Braving the elements

It was a difficult shoot all round, not only in location. Most of the indoor scenes were shot inside refrigerated sets in Universal Studios. What made it especially difficult was that 1981 was one of the hottest Summers in memory, so actors would walk out of refrigerated sets onto the scalding hot street outside, causing most of them to get sick. They also had to put dry ice inside their mouths to make the effect of vapor coming out of their mouths. All of this, in addition to the thick winter gear the actors had to wear while shooting, made it especially tough, as most of them would elect to keep their winter clothes on, instead of having to change into something more suited for Summer, everytime they went outside for lunch or to rest.

Fortunately, the cast had had the chance to rehearse all their scenes together months before actual shooting started, creating such a strong bond and camaraderie between them that not much on-set prep work was needed when the time came.

Financial and critical reception

The movie came out at a time where lots of major releases, which were more appealing to the public at the time, where coming out. There was one major release though, that I think, stopped this movie from turning a profit at the box office.

E.T The Extraterrestrial was the biggest earner at the box office that year, and one that caused a lot of movies that year to either underperform, or as it was the case with The Thing, to outright flop at the box office. Critic reception was divisive too, to say the least; some critics praising its technical merits, while others, like Roger Ebert famously did, giving it the thumbs down. Some critics retracted in their original assessments overtime, but some, like the aforementioned Ebert, never did. Most audiences found it downright repulsive in that they thought it focused too heavily in the gore aspects of the piece, disregarding the more nuance aspects of its character study in isolation and mistrust. Those same audiences would come around years later and regard it as the masterpiece it is, thanks in great part to its success in the home video market.

Final Thoughts

The Thing is a thoroughly engrossing film experience that thrives on tense atmosphere and paranoia. Even though most people classify it as a Horror movie staple, and it has some truly horrifying gore sequences, the movie is more a character study of a bunch of people couped up in a remote Antarctic Station, who are faced with an impossible situation, in which mistrust and deception are rife, and nothing, and no one is what it seems. Carpenter succeds in increasing the suspense and building tension with each passing scene, in defining the characters with a few well-placed character descriptions, all of this with the help of a brilliant cast, claustrophobic set design, moody Cinematography and a score by Ennio Morricone that is on point in setting a suspenful tone for the film.

It’s also a showcase of practical and visual effects with the work of two of the best professionals in the industry: Make-up and Creature Design wizard Rob Bottin, and Matte Painting artist and Alfred Hitchcock regular, Albert Whitlock. The first in bringing about one of the most terrifying creatures ever seen on the big screen, and the second in coming up with some truly breathtaking scenes, like the one in which MacCready and Co, find the unearthed Alien spaceship. The movie is also intelligently narrated, giving you just enough information, and showing you just enough of the creature and its intentions, to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s unsettling enough, thanks to some very smart editing, to keep you guessing at all times; to the point of not knowing who is who. And that’s the brilliance of it. The terror comes from within. It’s just unfortunate that audiences at the time were unable to appreciate it.

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Thunderball. First true Bond Juggernaut.

After the massive success that was Goldfinger, and the Bond character being so firmly established in the public consciousness, it was time to take it to another level; a more lavish one.

Thunderball would become the first movie in the series to become a true artistic and financial Juggernaut. But the road to its production was a rocky one, to say the least.

Inception

Thunderball had originally been conceived as a screenplay for the big screen, for which Ian Fleming enlisted the help of producer Kevin McClory, and screenwriter Jack Whittingham. The proyect went nowhere, and after languishing for some time in a drawer, Fleming took the material up again, and turned it into a successful novel.

When both McClory and Whittingham learned of this, they took Fleming to court, which failed in favour of them in that they were entitled to a writing credit for the book, since they had suggested, or outright come up with most of the ideas that would later be used by Fleming in the novel.

When Harry Saltzman took up an option to adapt Fleming’s books to the big screen, and would later do so after forming a partnership with producer Albert R. Broccoli, he had every intention of adapting Thunderball as the first ever Bond adventure to get the big screen treatment. Given the rights issues in which said property was embroiled, he and Broccoli had to desist, which would prove to be a blessing in disguise in the long run, as the scale of the production was too big and ambitious to be given justice with a small budget, as the first Bond movie, Dr No had been.

After coming to a agreement with both McClory and Whittingham, to give the first a producer’s credit, and the second a writing credit, the production was green lit, and ready to move ahead. Terrence Young came back into the fold for what would be his last Bond movie as director. It was only fitting that the man who pretty much breathed life into Bond to become a fully fledged cinematographic character would return, once again, to helm the most ambitious and lavish movie of the series to date, and the first one that would usher Bond into the realm of the Cinemascope format.

This would not be the end of the story, though, as years later McClory, still holding the rights for the Thunderball story, and with the help of producer John Schwarzman and Warner Bros., produced in 1983 a remake of Thunderball with the title Never Say Never Again, directed by Irvin Kershner, fresh off directing The Empire Empire Strikes Back, and Sean Connery reprising his role as 007. This unofficial entry in the series would clash directly with the official installment in the by then, exclusively produced Broccoli Bond movies, and the sixth with Roger Moore in the role of 007; Octopussy. Octopussy would ultimately prevail in the box office showdown, despite the McClory produced movie making a profit.

The Old Guard is back

With Terrence came back the old troop of both actors and crew, who had practically become a mainstay in the series since its inception. Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewellyn and of course, the man himself Sean Connery, all returned. So did most of the technical and creative team behind the previous entries like Editor Peter Hunt, Cinematographer Ted Moore, Production Designer Ken Adam and Composer John Barry.

Writer Richard Maibaum came back, once again, to pen the script, this time with the help of fellow screenwriter John Hopkins, who’d been hired by Saltzman to work on the script for Funeral in Berlin, the next installment in the Harry Palmer series made famous by actor Michael Caine. Unfortunately for him, and against the advise of many of his fellow crewmen, he decided to stay behind in London, working on both scripts, instead of going to the Bahamas, where most of the crew was, thus missing out on the fun.

And some new faces

Some new blood, as always, was required to play Bond’s new romantic interest and some of the most iconic villains and villainess the series has had. First off, Italian actor Adolfo Celi would play the role of Emilio Largo, number 2 in the criminal organization Spectre, and the mastermind behind the plan of stealing two nuclear weapons and ransom NATO for them, Luciana Paluzzi, who had auditioned for the role of Domino, Largo’s mistress and Bond’s new romantic interest, played the role of ruthless SPECTRE henchwoman Fiona Volpe. The role of Domino fell on French actress and former Miss France, Claudine Auger, whilst Young’s old acquaintance from previous casting sessions for the two first movies, Martine Beswick, landed the role of Paula, Bond’s MI6 assistant in Nassau, British actor Guy Doleman played Count Dippe, another one of SPECTRE’S operatives with whom Bond has a near-fatal encounter in the recovery clinic Shrublands concerning a certain spine stretching contraption, Rick Van Nutter took over the role of Felix Leiter from actor Cec Linder from Goldfinger. His was supposed to be a recurring appereance for the next movies, and was actually contracted to do so, but being as it was that the character would not show up for the next two movies, when the time came for Van Nutter to reprise his role, he was engaged in other projects, and would never reprise the role again. Another interesting piece of casting was that of Molly Peters, who plays the role of Pat, the nurse who takes care of Bond in Shrublands, and who is the first object of Bond’s sexual attentions in the movie. With all the elements in place, it was time to bring about, in record time, what would be one of the most costly and difficult shoots in the series to date. A challenge compounded by the fact that a good chunk of the movie would take place underwater.

Under pressure

The shoot would prove to be one of the most challenging of the entire series. There were 4 Units shooting at the same time in the Bahamas, Florida, France and Pinewood Studios, UK. Most of Ken Adam’s lavish sets were painstakingly recreated at Pinewood Studios and Ricou Browning, an expert, along with his partner Jordan Klein Sr in underwater filming, who had devised a retrofitted camera for shooting underwater, were in charge of filming all the underwater scenes, of which there were many.

Most of the Scuba diving equipment that Largo’s SPECTRE crew uses during the Vulkan plane hijack and to move from the Disco Volante to the underwater hideout were the bombs are placed, was designed in London and then assembled in location in the Bahamas. There was such a wealth of material shot for the underwater sequences that the first rough cut of the movie ended up with a running time of over 4 hours, which proved to be so something of a challenge for editor Peter Hunt to trim down to a running time of a little over two hours. Young wasn’t very fond of this aspect of the film, and thought that the excessive amount of scenes that took place underwater slowed the movie down considerably. Nevertheless, the underwater sequences, especially the final underwater battle scene, proved to be one of the most outstanding features of the movie, and one of the reasons why this movie in particular is so fondly remembered by most fans.

A scene that takes place in a Shark-filled salt water pool, and the use of live Sharks for practically the whole of the production, was a major cause of concern for most over the stunt men, actors and crew, due to their unpredictable nature. A plexiglass wall was erected inside the pool to separate the actor from the Sharks for the scene in which Bond falls into the pool after fighting one of Largo’s minions when he goes to Largo’s estate to try and rescue Paula. Unfortunately, due to a shortage of plexiglass, the wall was shortened, thus allowing one of the sharks to slip through, causing a near-fatal incident between Connery and the predator. For some of the underwater sequences, like the final Battle, the sharks had to be tethered by the crew to be made to move around whenever needed. However, most of them would slip out of their restraints and escape, forcing the underwater crew to go after them, to try and capture them again. Aside from these problems, the weather and shooting conditions were mostly benign for most of the shoot.

Another logistical nightmare was the Junkanoo parade sequence, a sort of local Mardi Grass, in which Bond uses the mayhem and crowds to evade capture by Largo’s men. It’s a very colourful sequence that the producers thought would be the perfect chance to showcase Nassau, and their traditions. The sequence was completed with the help of hundreds of local extras that, for two nights of shooting in a row gave it their all, even causing some consternation to the crew when some of the extras showed up wearing the logo 007 emblazoned on their costumes.

Other standout set pieces are the Disco Volante, Largo’s retrofitted yacht/moving base of operations that splits in half during the movie’s climax with the front part speeding away. It’s also equipped with an underwater hatch under the keel to conceal the Nuclear weapons and transport them to a cleverly concealed underwater hideout. SPECTRE’s Parisian secret conference room with its array of moving electric chairs, Q’s base of operations in Nassau and MI6 conference/war room were all meticulously recreated in Pinewood Studios. Having such a large budget at his disposal, allowed Ken Adam to let fly his imagination without any restrictions.

Box office performance

The movie was a worldwide runaway success, breaking box office records all around the globe, and it became, and stood for a long time, along with Goldfinger, as one of the most profitable movies in the series, and one that would cause the spy craze and everything related to the Bond property to become a hot market commodity. The marketing campaign for the movie was extensive, and the sells of merchandise like toys, articles of clothing and books went to the roof.

Final thoughts

Not as grounded in reality as his two previous Bond-helmed movies had been, Thunderball is nonetheless a very enjoyable and entertaining entry in the series. It ticks all the right boxes; a charismatic and somewhat sadistic villain, his duplicitous and resourceful henchwoman, a stunning-looking, but at the same time strong female lead, a very well put together plot, beautifully striking sets and locales, exciting action sequences, and a wonderful music score to top it all off. John Barry delivers here one of his strongest scores for the series, even though the main title song by Shirley Bassey; “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”was never used at the insistence of the producers of having a main title song with the movie title in it. The song was re-arranged and worked around the movie’s title, but time would prove with subsequent Bond title songs whose lyrics couldn’t be worked around the title, and working nonetheless, that it was the wrong call; especially considering how uninspired the resulting song sang by Tom Jones would end up being. The script is well written, despite the on-screen execution being somewhat meandering, and Editor Peter Hunt was, once again on point with his very dynamic and innovative editing style, that came to the fore in the action set pieces. A combination of quick cuts and sped-up footage made for some very fast moving, but comprehensive fight scenes. Ken Adam was his usual brilliant self, delivering some of the most inventive and innovative sets in the series, now without the hurdle of a restrained budget.

Connery was fully settled in the role at this point, and plays the part effortlessly. The same thing can be said about all the other recurring actors. As for the main villain Emilio Largo, Adolfo Celi does a wonderful job perfectly conveying with his voice and body language a sense of threat that always seems to be simmering below the surface, ( even if the Italian actor, like his fellow actress Luciana Paluzzi, and the French speaking Claudine Auger had their lines dubbed over in Post-production). Even though Claudine Auger does a decent turn as Domino, it was really Luciana Paluzzi who delivered the best performance as the “bad” Bond girl of the piece, and seems to genuinely be having fun with the part. This may be in part due to the level of complicity that Young would develop with his leading ladies on set, to the point that he would remain friends with all of them years after they had worked together.

Some of the action set pieces, like Bond’s face-off against SPECTRE’s number 6, colonel Jaques Bouvar are superbly choreographed and executed, whilst others, like most of the underwater action set pieces, especially the final underwater Battle sequence, would go on for a tad too long. And that’s my main gripe with the movie. It moves at a brisk enough pace for the first half of the movie, but once Bond arrives to Nassau to try and find where the bombs are hidden, everything slows down considerably. A complaint voiced by director Terrence Young, once the final cut of the movie had been finalized. Unlike Goldfinger, whose running time breezes past without you noticing it, this movie is not only one of the longest entries in the series, but one with seriously glaring issues when it comes to its pacing, something that I think is due to the use and abuse of its underwater sequences. In my opinion, a good 10 min could have been trimmed out of it. That being said, and in true Terrence Young’s fashion, the final product is a well thought out, and executed spy adventure that lives long in the memories of its fans despite its flaws. Incidentally, this was the first ever time that Connery had the chance to shoot the gun barrel sequence for the pre-credit opening sequence, something that up until that point, stuntman Bob Simmons had done. And in Cinemascope, no less.

Thanks for reading.