Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Cinema the way I see it
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Damien Chazelle’s latest movie is a perfect example of why movies were created to be shown and enjoyed on the big screen. In an age in which seems that streaming platforms are the only viable way of enjoying movies going forward, Chazelle’s latest foray into the cinematic landscape is here to prove that’s not the case. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride that grabs you from the word go, and never lets go. A touching portrait of a bygone era, and a set of characters larger than life, where excess was the norm, and Hollywood had not yet been tainted by the notions of double morality that still seem to plague, nowadays more than ever, the American cinematic industry at large.
Headed by a strong cast, gorgeous Cinematography, lavish Production and Costume Design, and amazing Sound Design, this is a strong start to the beginning of the year as far as movies are concerned. It’s a visual and sonic assault to the senses unlike anything I’ve seen lately. Why this exquisite piece of cinematic art got ignored by both audiences and critics, is beyond me. If there’s one thing that I can fault from this movie is that, despite its lengthy running time (which I didn’t feel one bit), it doesn’t really give enough time for some of the characters to breathe. Characters like Trumpetist Sidney Palmer, Hollywood chronicler Elinor St. John, Agent George Munn, and Cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu, all wonderfully played by Jovan Adepo, Jean Smart, Lukas Haas, and Li Jun Li respectively, are kind of left to their own devises within a larger narrative that focuses mainly on the main three characters played by Brad Pitt ( in one of his best ever performances as over-the-hill Silent cinema leading man Jack Conrad), Margot Robbie as the exuberant, foul-mouthed, up and coming starlet Nelly LaRoy, and Diego Calva as Hollywood jack-of-all-trades turned Producer Manny Torres, who’s basically the audience’s narrator. I have the impression that, judged as a whole, the movie sometimes feels more like a collection of vignettes, albeit brilliantly done (the craziness of the desert shoot, the frustrating first attempts of the Kinoscope crew to shoot with sound, just to name a few), than a cohesive entity. Those few qualms aside, one cannot help but to be swept up by the story, characters and the general enthusiasm demonstrated, time and again, by Chazelle in trying to put onto the big screen the most beautiful love letter to his trade; Cinema. This is a must see for cinema buffs like myself, and THE reason why movies have to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
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To say that No Time to Die is a divisive movie is the understatement of the century. After having been delayed for more than a year and a half due to the pandemic, the movie has finally arrived in Theaters with fairly good box office numbers, but highly divisive reviews. That the movie delivers in spectacle and excellent production values goes without saying, but it is the story that takes a knocking this time around, especially in the third and final act of the movie. It’s not that is a bad script, far from it, but certain elements of it, and characters especially, are woefully underdeveloped. Let’s delve into the nitty-gritty, and find out what it is that makes this such a head-scratching experience.
The Daniel Craig era has been somewhat frustrating due to the artistic inconsistency of its different entries over the years. After starting off with a bang with Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), delivering what is possibly one of the very best Bond movies ever made, it took a drastic nose-dive with the next entry, Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008), which, despite a promising premise, ended up being nothing more than a haphazardly scripted and edited mess which almost took away all the good will the saga had built when Craig took over the role. Then a few years later in 2012, Sam Mendes came along with Skyfall. Slotted to be released in the 50th Anniversary of the first appearance of the iconic character on the big screen in Dr No (Terence Young, 1962), the movie delivered and even surpassed expectations of what the saga could bring to the table with Craig playing the role. Just as Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002), had done before, the movie paid several homages to the series and gave us one of the best Bond villains to date, Raoul Silva, a disgruntled former MI-6 operative hell-bent on taking revenge on the head of MI-6, M. The movie had a few surprises up its sleeve, even delving into James Bond background, especially his childhood. It was also the highest grossing movie in the series, even though it could be argued that after taking inflation into consideration, Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965), still holds the first position. The movie was a remarkable box office and critical success which only increased expectations for the next movie in the saga, Spectre (2015), also with Sam Mendes returning to direct. Unfortunately, the movie failed to live up to expectations, even though it’s not as bad as some people make it out to be. What this up and down situation did was to create the expectation among the fandom that the next, and possibly last entry with Daniel Craig in the role would be a masterpiece. Does it reach those heights?. Unfortunately not, but it’s not all that bad. Let’s get to it.
The movie is really well made, the Cinematography is excellent and the production values are up to their usual high standards. The movie starts off by giving us, only for the second time in Craig’s era, a gunbarrel before the pre-credit sequence ( although nicely integrated as part of Casino Royale’s main title sequence, that one doesn’t really count). This has been a point of contention and moaning for me since Craig took over. Why the producers were so determined to do away with such an integral and iconic feature of the series, I will never know, although it could be argued that having the Universal logo fade into the gunbarrel, and having no blood dribbling down over the screen is a weird move, to say the least. On top of that, it must be said that Craig has the distinction of being the only actor in the series unable to perform a satisfying gunbarrel. Nitpicking aside, this pre-credit sequence has also the distinction, unless memory fails me, of being the longest pre-credit sequence in the history of the franchise. So long in fact that, by the time the main titles and Billie Eilish’s haunting vocals roll around, we’ve already forgotten that we haven’t had a title sequence. Having a flashback from Madeleine being part of the pre-credit sequence is jarring, but at the same time eerily unsettling and with horror vibes all over it. It does fit the overall tone of the story, and sets up a villain-victim dynamic that is sadly never satisfactorily paid off due to the lack of screen time of actor Rami Malek in the role of villainous Safin. More on that later.
What follows is a continuation of the story thread presented at the end of Spectre, with Bond and Madeleine driving off into the sunset, and trying to leave their respective past lives behind. The setting, the beautiful mountain town of Matera, Italy, where after a visit from Bond to Vesper Lynd’s tomb, the protagonists soon find out that the past is never too far behind. After a murder attempt by Spectre by setting off a bomb at Vesper’s burial site, almost killing Bond in the process (foreshadowing things to come), we’re treated to the one of the best action set pieces in the movie, with Bond and Madeleine being chased through the cobbled and narrow streets in Bond’s Aston Martin DB5. Bond is also made to believe that it was Madeleine who betrayed him to SPECTRE, and having previously experienced the same with Vesper, he falls for it. Bond dispatches SPECTRE’s goons, after which he puts Madeleine on a train with the promise that they’ll never see each other again. This decision will have more dire consequences than he can imagine. After this long, plot laden pre-credit sequence, Daniel Kleinman outdoes himself with a main title sequence that pays homage to the great late legendary main title designer Maurice Binder with references to both Dr No ( those colourful dots at the very beginning are unmistakable), and to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (those clocks also being a clear reference). The main title song sung by Billie Eilish is a perfect match to Kleinman’s hypnotic images, and what follows is a sleek sequence in which SPECTRE operatives break into an MI6 Bio lab and steal a DNA-targeting virus and the only man capable of operating it, Valdo Obruchev, who happens to be working for the main villain of the piece, Luitsyfer Safin, who has a grudge against SPECTRE, and a larger plan in mind for the virus. This is a very cool moment of the movie, as it is something we’ve never really had before in a Daniel Craig Bond movie, which is to witness the villains putting into motion a scheme that will trigger Bond getting back into action, and being assigned a mission in classic Bond style. It doesn’t quite happen that way, as Bond’s circumstances at the beginning after the main credits have rolled, are quite different, with the 00 agent having being retired from the service for five years already at this point, but it’s the closest to the Classic era Bond movies that a Craig movie has got since Casino Royale, in which 007 is actually sort of assigned the mission by M of cleaning off Le Chifre at the poker table so the banker won’t have any other choice but to turn to MI6 for protection in exchange for information. This moment in the movie is for me what brings about the best portion of the film; Bond living the high life in Jamaica, being approached by Felix Leiter (who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time) to find and deliver Obruchev to the CIA, Bond and Nomi’s, the new female 007 first encounter (something over which a lot was made on the Internet during the Production, and that didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would), in which the latter warns Bond to “stay on his lane”, and Bond’s sojourn into Cuba to apprehend Obruchev with the help of a female Cuban agent named Paloma, fantastically played by an absolutely charming and quirky Ana de Armas. This, I’d say, is the portion of the film that feels the most like a James Bond movie. The globe-trotting, exotic locations, sleek action set pieces and the Bond quips, that feel kinda out of place coming from Craig given what’s come before. Still, it’s a lot of fun, only marred by the woefully mishandled death of Felix Leiter, in what seems like nothing more than a rushed attempt to tie loose ends, and give a sense of finality to Craig’s tenure (again, more foreshadowing). After frustrating Nomi’s own attempt to abduct Obruchev, Bond and Leiter are betrayed by Logan Ash, a CIA operative in disguise who’s also under the employment of Safin, and who’s part of Leiter’s operation. After successfully grabbing Obruchev and meeting up with Leiter in a pre-arranged point in the high seas, Ash shoots Leiter, overpowers Bond, whisks Obruchev away, sinking the ship they’re all on, before flying away with his valuable asset. That Felix Leiter, of all people, would die of a bullet wound to the stomach, without putting too much of a fight is lame at best, even though the scene is emotionally charged and brilliantly acted by both actors. In that brief exchange, we get a sense of friendship, respect and brotherhood between the two secret agents, that was sadly never fully exploited during Craig’s tenure. Again, nothing to fault with the acting or the scene itself, but Leiter deserved a better ending.
Once Bond decides to go back to London and demand an explanation from his former boss M ( dutifully played once again by Ralp Fiennes), as to why he never shut down the program that created the DNA-tageting virus code named Heracles ( a fact Bond learns about after being approached by both Leiter and Nomi and having a phone conversation with M), things go back to a more Craig era-like setting when the former 00 learns that Madeleine has set up practice in London, and is the only one who has access to Bloefeld in Belmarsh, where Bloefeld has being held prisoner since the end of Spectre. Up until this point, I haven’t mentioned anything about the main villain of the piece. The enigmatic figure of Safin is kept in the shadows during most of the first two acts of the movie, making a brief appearance at the beginning of the pre-credit sequence as the masked man who came to Madeleine’s Norwegian hideout when she was still a child to take revenge on the family of the man (Mr White), who ordered his family killed. The stealing of Heracles, the abduction of Obruchev and the CIA’s attempt to rescue him is nothing but a foil to lure SPECTRE out and kill most of their hierarchy. After succesfully doing so, there’s nothing left to do for Safin but to try to get to an imprisoned Bloefeld using the only card up his sleeve, Madeleine. This offers the first of only a handful of scenes in which Malek gets to stretch his acting muscles, and through a weirdly monotone and creepy delivery, pushes Madeleine to kill Bloefeld by spreading an atomised version of Heracles on her wrist which, when it comes in contact with Bloefeld’s skin, will kill him instantly, threatening her to kill Bond if she doesn’t comply. Thus, we get the obligatory scene with Christoph Waltz’s Bloefeld which, admiration for this actor’s acting abilities aside, I was never very fond of. His presence on this occasion is thankfully brief, but presents his character with the most non-relevant, ignominious death this character has ever suffered throughout the series. Again, tying up loose ends badly. In the meantime, Rami Malek’s Safin has become nothing more than a McGuffin, an excuse to drive the plot along. We’ve barely had two brief scenes with him, and he’s supposed to be the main baddy. Feeling guilty and unable to go through with Safin’s demands, Madeleine runs away, not before touching Bond’s hand and inadvertently causing Bond to kill Bloefeld instead. By this point, and with the secret help of both Q and Moneypenny played once again by Ben Winshaw and Naomie Harris respectively, Bond knows the gist of Safin’s plan, and wants to find Madeleine before he does. Knowing her backstory, related to him by Madeleine a long time ago, Bond goes looking for her in her family hideout in Norway. It is there that the most surprising of revelations comes to light. Madeleine and Bond had a daughter together, a daughter she’s kept in secret all these years, despite her constant denials that the child is not his. Unfortunately, it is too late by this point as Safin has sent his henchmen to retrieve them. What ensues is one of the most moody and violent scenes of the movie, with Bond clinically dispatching Safin’s goons left, right and centre first through the mountain roads of Norway, and afterwards in the middle of a foggy wooded area in which Bond uses his wits and relentnesness to do away with his rivals, and ends up in a nice call back to a similar scene in For your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981), in which Bond pushes an overturned Range Rover on top of an injured Logan Ash, crushing him. In spite of offering a nice action set piece with the Norwegian car chase, the fact that Bond has a daughter and they have to run away in a vehicle with a baby seat in the back is the most bizarre sight seen in a Bond movie in years. It is nice to see that Madeleine is a feisty character who will do anything to protect his daughter, but seeing the 00 agent we’ve all come to know and love caring for his own child, takes the wind out of everything the movie has been building towards. Bond is too late to stop Safin’s goons taking Madeleine and his daughter away, and a rescue operation is quickly mounted to find them. With the help of Q and the British Navy, Nomi and Bond find that Safin is hiding on an island that’s in disputed territorial waters between Japan and Russia. Here Safin is finally presented in his element, his so-called Garden of Death (another element taken directly from Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice), where he’s harvesting Heracles, with the intention of unleashing it on the world, or selling it to the highest bidder?. And that’s another problem. Not only are Safin’s motives unknown, beyond settling a score with SPECTRE, but we also find out next to nothing about his background story and his connection with Madeleine. That is to no fault of Malek, as he’s given very little to work with, and I strongly suspect that most of his performance ended up in the cutting room floor, which is bizarre given the long running time, the longest yet in the series. Bond and Nomi’s mandate is no other than to destroy Safin’s island, with all his research and rescue Madeleine and her daughter. The final confrontation, although unusually violent for a Bond movie, is kind of underwhelming as Malek is not enough of a physical threat for Craig. There is however one last twist that it’ll turn this movie and this reviewer’s opinion on its head.
I must admit that the sight of Bond running around the villain’s lair with a rug doll stuck in his belt is bad enough, but what really kills it for me, pun intended, is killing the hero of the story. After making peace and declaring their undying love for each other, Bond and Madeleine are set to drive off into the sunset once again just as they did at the end of Spectre, but it looks like the producers had other things in mind and were not going to give Craig’s Bond a happy ending after all. But was it really necessary to kill him off?. Not really. He could’ve escaped at the last minute, even if been infected by the virus would prevent him from ever reuniting with Madeleine and his child. There were lots of ways in which they could’ve handled that ending, but once again they chose to subvert expectations, which weirdly enough reminds me of what happened on The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017). That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a very emotional ending, which brought tears to my eyes, but the producers did the one thing that not even Ian Fleming dare to do, which was to kill James Bond. He did play with the idea, though, and even left the character’s life hanging by a thread at the end of From Russia with Love, but was convinced by a friend of the error of his ways. Maybe the producers felt the need for once to come full circle with this particular actor’s run, but I tremble to think what they’ll dare to do next. As of today, opinions on the movie are pretty much divided, and there’s no telling how opinions on it, even from those that defend the movie’s choices today, will turn in the future. Only time will tell, but to me, and for the time being, I think the producers were in the wrong when the violated the most sacret rule of them all; never kill the hero of the story. You can do away with his friends, wife or relatives, but you should never, ever kill the man himself.
But a movie is not just a bad ending. It is the sum of so many artistic elements that have to fall into place, that it would be unfair to judge a movie simply on the strength of its last act. The movie is handsomely made, entertaining, and has a score by Hans Zimmer that, strangely enough, doesn’t stray too far away from the classical Bond formula, which is greatly appreciated. The acting is strong throughout, with Craig giving one of his best performances in the role, and Ana de Armas being a clear standout in the proceedings. Cary Joji Fukunaga handles the material with a strong hand, and proves to be more than up to the task when it comes to directing the action set pieces ( that one-take of Bond fighting henchmen as he goes up a seemlessly never ending staircase comes to mind), and there are references to previous Bond movies and literary Bond galore, both musically ( a beautiful arrangement by Zimmer of John Barry’s We have all the time on the World, and main title theme from OHMSS), and visually ( the aforementioned main title sequence, and plot threads that are clearly drawn from For Your Eyes Only and Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice). Not all of them are necessary, but are really appreciated by the true Bond fan. That hall sequence with all of the portraits of all the previous Ms hanging on the wall, though inaccurate continuity-wise, was a real treat.
So even though I have massive issues with the way this movie was handled in particular, and Craig’s run in general, there were still enough Bond elements in there to make me have a good time. As for my hopes and wishes for the future; I’m hoping for a return to classic Bond. Hopefully in the guise of Henry Cavill. Just putting it out there.
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When the 20th Bond movie, and fourth and final one of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure came out in November 2002 after a three-year hiatus, no one could have imagined the backlash it would create among fans, to the point of making the producers, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson consider rebooting the whole franchise in the next entry, Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006). For the record, no Bond fan worth their salt can seriously think that the cast and crew set out to make a bad movie which, by the way, Die Another Day isn’t by any stretch of the imagination. That being said, the way in which the producers, writers and director decided to go about the latest entry in the Bond series, (they are all partly to blame, some more than others), took the movie a step too far in the wrong direction. But how did this happen? And why was it that it was decided that was the way to go? Let’s find out, shall we?
Why there would be such a problem for a team of writers to write a script for the next Bond movie having such a wealth of continuation novels to draw from, written firstly by Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Raymond Benson to name just a few, is beyond me. But once again, the producers along with the duo of screenwriters who’d written the previous entry, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, decided to put their heads together and come up with the blueprint for what would be Bond’s next adventure. Together they brainstormed, and after throwing some ideas around, came up with a story involving North Korea and the famous 38th Parallel, A.K.A the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea, and a source of conflict in that area since the end of WWII. On this occasion Bond infiltrates North Korea to take out rogue North Korean Colonel Moon, who’s hell bent on creating a private army to invade the South using African conflict diamonds as currency. Bond succesfully completes his mission, but is captured and tortured by the enemy after having being betrayed. After 14 months of imprisonment, Bond is taken out of prison in exchange for one of Moon’s closest collaborators, Zao. Bond is thought to have betrayed his government under torture and revealed secret information which precipitated the exchange. Feeling betrayed by his own people, and in an attempt to seek revenge and clear his name at the same time, Bond escapes British custody, and following a series of clues provided by the Chinese Secret Service, he tracks Zao down to a private clinic in Cuba which utilizes a revolutionary kind of gene therapy designed to not only change the subject’s appearance, but also their whole genetic makeup. Bond destroys the clinic with the help of a, unbeknownst to him at the time, American NSA agent called Jinx, who’s also after Zao, but fails to capture him, not before finding clues that a recently emergent British diamond tycoon called Gustav Graves might be in cahoots in Zao. Bond confronts Gustav during a fencing match in a private club, and after having won the match is invited by Graves to go to a scientific demonstration he’s hosting the coming weekend in Iceland. Bond is approached by MI6, and asked to go to this demonstration and find out what Graves is up to. He’ll be aided by MI6 agent Amanda Frost, who’s been undercover in Graves’s organization for months without having been able to uncover a trace of evidence that suggests that Graves might be embroiled in some illegal activity. In Iceland, Bond runs into Jinx, but they both soon find out that there might be more to Zao than meets the eye.
The screenplay, as per usual, underwent a series of rewrites, with major contributions by his director, a left field choice to say the least, New Zealander Lee Tamahori. Tamahori’s biggest claim to fame was the film Once were Warriors (1994), which brought him international critical praise. He had also been steadily making his way into the Hollywood market with movies like The Edge and Mullholland Falls, (both released in 1996), and Along came a Spider (2001). The producers wanted at first for Michael Apted to come back into the fold, after succesfully working together on The World is not Enough (1999), but MGM wanted someone new at the reins. They felt that the previous Bond movie had been lacking in action, and wanted someone whose hyperactive visual style would breathe new life into the franchise, and Tamahori fit the bill perfectly. The filmmaker later admitted himself that he might not have been the best choice after all, and even leading man Pierce Brosnan was unsure about the wisdom of Broccoli and Wilson’s pick at first, but was convinced after witnessing the confidence with which Tamahori commanded the set. Having to helm a multi-million production, with several units shooting all over the world at the same time would be a daunting task for anyone, let alone someone who was barely getting used to the way big Hollywood productions work. He got into the swing of things fairly quickly, proving to be quite hands-on on the set, even when it came to the big action set pieces, wisely choosing however to delegate on Vic Armstrong, who was once again in charge of second unit to handle the bigger and more complicated set pieces. In that respect he proved to be a bigger asset to the producers than Michael Apted had been on the previous movie, not being as inexperienced shooting action as Apted had been.
Having the semblance of a script, and a director firmly in place, the producers went about casting their ensemble. When it came to the villains, the producers went for the new blood approach, looking far and wide for fresh faces to play the trio of new villains. For the part of Colonel Moon they chose Korean American actor Will Yun Lee. Lee, along with fellow actor Rick Yune (chosen to play the role of Zao), were both from Korean descent but had been born in the US. Both actors had recently started making an appearance in the Hollywood scene with Yune having already participated on a big Hollywood blockbuster movie, The Fast & The Furious (Rob Cohen, 2001). Having been a martial arts champion in his youth, courtesy of his father being a champion himself and owning several Dojos, also came in handy when Lee was picked to play the role of Colonel Moon. To complete this duo the producers went with two relatively new and inexperienced actors (at least in the case of one of them), to play the roles of villainous Gustav Graves, and rogue MI6 agent Miranda Frost.
Toby Stephens was already an experienced stage actor when he was cast as Gustav Graves. The son of two giant stage and screen British actors Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, he had made some small appearances on movies such as Cousin Bette (Des McAnuff, 1998), and Space Cowboys (Clint Eastwood, 2000), but had never participated in a movie of this size before. Neither was newcomer Rosamund Pike, who was to portray the double-crossing MI-6 agent Miranda Frost, fresh off University and who was thrusted into the limelight courtesy of her agent who got her a screen test for the new Bond movie, as the producers were said to be on the lookout for new faces. Another big star actress coming to the Eon fold was Halle Berry playing the part of American NSA agent Jacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson. Berry’s participation was kept a secret until the very last moment, even though news of her casting were leaked to the press. Berry’s billing in the movie would be equal to that of Brosnan’s, to the ire of most Bond fans who considered that Brosnan’s Bond suffered as a consequence. This had almost happened on the previous movie when during the screenwriting process, the director and writers had tried to give more protagonism to the characters of M and Elektra King, to the chagrin of Brosnan, who felt that his character was being short changed. After some discussion, the situation was remedied, but this time around was not so, and even though Berry’s presence was not so detrimental to Brosnan, it was, and still remains a major point of contention for the fans, and one of the main reasons for them ranking Die Another Day as one of the worst entries in the series. The casting was completed with an interesting and culturally varied crop of international actors like Kenneth Tsang who plays General Moon, Mexican actor Emilio Echevarria, who plays Raúl, Bond’s MI6 contact in Cuba, Spanish actor Simón Andreu, who plays the devious Dr Álvarez, Russian actor Mikhail Gorevoy who plays Vlad, Graves’ tech wizard and assistant and New Zealender Lawrence Makoare who plays Mr Kil, Graves’ henchman. The rest of the cast was completed by the usual suspects with Judy Dench, Samantha Bond, Colin Salmon and John Cleese reprising their roles of M, Miss Moneypenny, Charles Robinson and Q respectively, with one interesting addition, Michael Madsen. Madsen was a neighbour and a personal friend of Brosnan’s at the time who was cast as Falco, the head of NSA. Roger Moore’s daughter, Deborah made an interesting cameo as an air hostess as well.
Shooting started on the coast of Maui, Hawaii for the scenes in which Bond, with two fellow agents infiltrates the coast of North Korea by surfing their way in. The stunt was performed by expert surfer Laird Hamilton and his team of waves daredevils, and it was shot in a place called Jaws, so called because of the size of the waves that could eat anything in their path. Getting onto them, however, was the trickiest part as they would have to be towed by a speedboat into position, and let go of the line attaching them to the boats once they’d gained enough speed and momentum to ride the waves. It also didn’t help that the surfers had to wear special goggles as a requirement of the scene that severely limited their vision. After a few frustratingly fruitless attempts, the stunt was finally achieved. Most of the action set pieces were thought out well in advance, even before the scripting process was over, and extensively storyboarded by the in-house artist Martin Ashbury, who’d also been responsible for the storyboards for all previous Brosnan/Bond movies. This sequence in particular was shot two months before Principal Photography even started, with additional footage completing the scene shot on the coast of Cornwall and Pinewood, with Brosnan performing most of his scenes from the pre-credits sequence on the Pinewood backlot, and its soundstages.
The bulk of the Second Unit shooting was handled once again by Vic Armstrong, whose first assignment was to shoot the Hovercraft chase for the pre-credits sequence. The whole of Colonel Moon’s North Korean military base was recreated by Peter Lamont on Pinewood’s backlot, with Chris Corbould handling the pyrotechnics once again. Due to the grey and rainy conditions in England, Pinewood proved to be a more than adequate fit for North Korea as the crew could not go and shoot in location for obvious reasons. The Hovercraft chase was a tricky proposition for all those involved as they were very difficult vehicles to maneuver, and Armstrong had a very hard time finding expert drivers who could handle the unwieldy craft. Weeks of preparation before cameras actually started rolling on the sequence were necessary to ensure that the sequence could be filmed safely and rapidly. The bulk of the chase was filmed on Aldershot, an army training ground on the outskirts of London. The facility was near an airport, and a deal had to be struck between all parties concerned to make sure that no planes were flying overhead when the explosions required for the action set piece started going off. A carefully planned schedule had to be drawn up, so the crew would have a certain amount of freedom to shoot their heavily charged pyrotechnic scenes. It was during the shooting of this sequence that an incident occurred that threatened to jeopardize the already tight filming schedule. During one of the early scenes in which Brosnan had to make a dash, and jump on one of the Hovercraft, the actor’s knee went. So badly that it required surgery, and a six-week resting period before the actor could go back to work. It was a testament to the actor’s commitment and professionalism that he was able to get back to work so quickly, and the scene could be completed. He also proved to be quite the trooper, and filmed most of his actions scenes on top of the hovercraft, with additional shots being done in the soundstage.
Next up the cast and crew moved to Cadiz, Spain to shoot the scenes that were supposed to take place in Cuba. The crew went on a location scouting trip to Cuba, but due to the political unrest on the island, it was decided it would be better to find a suitable location which, appropriately dressed by the art department, could pass off as Cuba. Such location was found on the southern port city of Cadiz. The art department did such a wonderful job dressing the city that the end result was indistinguishable from the real thing. It was here that one of the most recognizable scenes in the movie would be shot; Halle Berry dreamily coming out of the water to the tune of David Arnold’s beautiful score. The scene was clearly an homage to the one from Dr No (Terence Young, 1962), with Ursula Andress coming out of the water dressed in a white bikini. This would be just one of many such homages and call-backs to previous movies in the series, in a movie peppered with them, as the movie was set to come out 40 years from the release of Dr No. Unfortunately, and in spite of choosing this part of Spain mainly because of its sunny weather, the cast and crew hit one of the worst weathers in recent history, to the point that filming had to be halted, and there was even consideration at one point of going back to Pinewood to shoot the rest of the scenes. Luckily, the weather cleared up after a few days, and the crew was able to complete the work. However, due to the gloomy and grey looking footage that came out of the filming there due to the rainstorms, some digital tweaking would have to the applied to the images to make them look appropriately sunny. Color grading has also been a tool of the trade, heavily used by filmmakers to give their movies the final appropriate look and feel desired. On this occasion, even more so. Next up on the table was the fencing match between James Bond and Gustav Graves in the fictional fencing club called Blades. Blades was the name of a social club that figured prominently in one of Ian Fleming’s novels, Moonraker, and it was the scene of a confrontation between Bond and his archenemy, the Industrialist Hugo Drax, whom Bond discovered was cheating at bridge, and sets up a trap for him to reveal Drax’s true nature. The scene from the movie, once again a clear homage to Fleming, changed a game of bridge for a fencing match, but with the same end result. The scene was meant to have taken place very early on, on the shooting schedule but, as a result of Brosnan’s knee injury, it had to be postponed, and shot at a later date. This gave even more time to Toby Stephens and Rosamund Pike to train for the scene under the supervision of legendary swordmaster Bob Anderson. Anderson had been involved in many Hollywood movies, and had trained the likes of Antonio Banderas and Viggo Mortensen for their respective roles on The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003). What it also meant was that Brosnan had very little time to rehearse due to the delay on filming because of his injury. He demonstrated, however, to be more that up to the task, as he managed to learn most of the moves in a short period of time, which result in Stephens and him doing most of the fight without the use of doubles. This scene marked the appearance of Madonna making a surprise cameo as Verity, Miranda Frost’s fencing instructor.
The entirety of the underground MI-6 training facility situated in an abandoned tube station were filmed at Pinewood. This would be the scene of Bond’s encounter with M, the laying out of his assignment, and the presentation of his new gadgets by Q. The filmmakers wanted to use this scenes as an excuse to homage Bond’s previous adventures by showing on-screen some of the gadgets that had been used by Bond on previous missions like the jet-pack from Thunderball, the suitcase used in From Russia with Love, or the mechanic crocodile the 00 agent had used in Octopussy to sneak onto Octopussy’s Island. It was also a scene that was a clear reflection of the outlandish direction in which the filmmakers wanted to take the movie; the replacement of the old fashioned shooting range by a virtual reality version of the same, and the presentation of the now infamous invisible car. The Aston Martin Vanquish was a thing of beauty but , by most fans’ standards, a step too far in the wrong direction. It was also a car so coveted by the movie’s main star, that Brosnan made it a part of his contract to get one of them as part of his fee for working on the film. Even though it was reiterated by most of those involved that the technology had a strong basis on reality, and that it was actually being developed by the US army, most people thought that it was too outlandish an idea even for the likes of James Bond. Like it or not, the car was the star in one of the most thrilling action set pieces of the entire film; the car chase between Bond’s Aston Martin and Zao’s equally gadget-laden Jaguar XKR. What brings us to the absolute set design masterpiece of the movie; the ice palace. The producers first heard of this on a trip to Iceland while scouting for locations. Production Designer Peter Lamont actually stayed at the hotel overnight to check the facilities. He was so impressed by what he saw that decided to take a page out of his mentor’s book, the legendary Production Designer Ken Adam, and go all out on this one. The set was so massive and the level of detail so intricate, that Tamahori decided it would be a waste to use the set for just a couple of establishing scenes, so he push for the interior of the set to be used as the ending for Bond and Zao’s car chase sequence. For this, the whole interior structure of the set had to be reinforced to withstand not only the weight of both cars, but also the heavy pyrotechnics that would be used within. But that was just one side of the problematic nature of the car chase sequence. When the crew went to Iceland to shoot the plates that would be used by the Visual Effects crew later on post-production, Tamahori was struck by the beauty of a frozen-over lake nearby that he thought would be the perfect setting to shoot the car chase sequence. Unfortunately, the ice in top of the lake wasn’t thick enough to withstand the weight of two racing vehicles and the shooting crew, so another possible locations like Alaska were considered. Luckily for the crew, the ice thickened enough at the last minute for the crew to be able to shoot the scene. In spite of all that, ice thickness tests had to be done periodically to ensure that it was safe for the crew to carry on filming. The cars were heavily modified by the special effects crew to make them less heavy, give the engines an extra boost, and too make room for the many gadgets required for the scene.
Unfortunately, the low temperatures wreaked havoc with the cars, with the crew having to constantly melt the ice that would form around the vehicles.
For the finale, Tamahori wanted to skip the traditional face-off in the villain’s base lair and give it an interesting twist by making it airborne. The chosen aircraft was an Antonov 124-cargo plane, with part of it recreated in a sounstage, and mounted on a gimbal to recreate to movements of an out-of-control, falling plane. The outside of the plane would be recreated with a mixture of practical effects, done by John Richardson’s miniature unit, and CGI for the more complicated shots. It was actually the heavy use of CGI on the movie that’s been one of the reasons of the movie ageing so badly over the years. Most of the CGI used in the film, like the scene in which, after Bond escapes being burned to a cinder by Icarus across the snowplains and ends up kite-surfing a massive wave with the remains of the jet he was riding, it’s one of the most egregious examples of bad CGI found across the movie. It was actually thanks to the outstanding job of series mainstays like Lamont, Richardson and Corbould that some artistry can be saved from the film. It is a pity indeed that the brilliant work of Richardson and his miniatures unit is buried under layers of bad CGI.
Due to the hectic and difficult nature of the shooting, as mentioned before, some very heavy digital tweaking has to be applied to the movie’s Photography to have it all achieve the same look and match those scenes shot in location with those shot in soundstages and the back lot. Tamahori, with the help of Title Sequence Designer Daniel Kleinman, got really creative and involved in the design of the Title sequence. He made the unprecedented decision to film Bond’s incarceration and torture scene in a prison camp in North Korea, and include it as part of the title sequence achieving some very graphic and striking imagery. Unfortunately, this was to be musically accompanied by a techno track sang by Madonna that must be one of the worst choices for a Bond song ever. Not all was bad news however as David Arnold once again was chosen to compose the score for the movie which happens to be one of the best things about the movie. Not so was the heavy use of clearly untested CGI that ends up marring the final look of the film and makes it age badly. Some face was saved however due to the brilliant use of miniatures and practical effects courtesy of maestro John Richardson.
The movie, as expected, was a massive box office success, garnering a total of $431,971,116 million worlwide, even though the reviews were mixed at best. This seems to be something of a contradiction, as despite the movie doing great at the box office, it has too overtime been as greatly riviled by the fans at large but, is this hate justified? And where does it rank as a Brosnan/Bond movie?
So, does the movie go a step too far? Yes, but let me elaborate. The movie starts off great. Action packed pre-title sequence that helps to kick off the plot, Bond is captured at the end of the pre-title sequence, imprisoned, and tortured ( snippets of which are shown throughout the title sequence brilliantly designed by Daniel Kleinman, as per usual), and later freed during a prisoner exchange with Zao once the main titles roll off. Up until this point, it is a solid start ( silly sequence of Bond surfing his way into North Korea notwithstanding). Bond escapes and with the help of the Chinese Secret Service, has to use his contacts and wits to find out where Zao is. Great location shooting in Cadiz doubling as Cuba, and the introduction of Jacinta “Jinx” Johnson. This is where things start taking getting weird. The whole set up with Dr Álvarez’s DNA replacement clinic seems like something out of the Ken Adam’s days, and as far fetched as it may be, it isn’t more outlandish than Bond going into outer space in Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979). Suspension of disbelief has to exist. I’d say it’s actually a pre-requisite when watching a Bond movie. Halle Berry’s presence doesn’t really bother me as much as it does other people, even though her acting is a bit iffy. And after Bond comes back to London, we have an action set piece which I absolutely adore; the fencing match between Bond and Graves at Blades. Energetically shot and tightly edited, it is by far one of the best action sequences in the movie. Same can be said about all the action sequences in which Vic Armstrong had a hand, mainly the hovercraft chase and the car scene sequence in Iceland ( an over-the-top sequence that’s nevertheless fun to watch, especially to take in Peter Lamont’s magnificent Ice Palace design. But enough with the niceties, or you’re gonna think I don’t have anything bad to say about the movie. The action bits are well shot, even though Tamahori’s style is all over the place. The inexplicable use of speed-ramps to slow down, and then speed up the action, profusely used during the chase sequence in Iceland, are jarring, and feel something out of place in a Bond movie. Some of the dialogue exchanges between Brosnan and Berry are cringy, the invisible car ( nice looking though it may be), is a clear representation of that step too far I was talking about earlier, and so is the virtual romantic exchange between Bond and Moneypenny at the end. The heavy use of yet undeveloped CGI at the time, only contributes to age the movie further, and give it a haphazard look. There’s always been the dodgy optical effect in the series, but this is even more noticeable due to the heavy use in almost every each action set piece that requires visual trickery. All in all, and despite the generally speaking good performances, it is a movie that only gets halfway there. A very ambitious and interesting idea marred by a badly scripted second and third acts, and awful CGI. It doesn’t help either that in an attempt to inject more action and gadgetry into the story, the writers, producers and director ended up stepping firmly, and might I add, unwisely into Sci-fi territory. But, in spite of all its flaws, it is still a very entertaining and enjoyable flick, best enjoyed if you turn your brain off. Where do I rank it? Dead last, which is unfortunate given that this was the last time ever that Brosnan played the character. Does it deserve all the vitriol from the fans? It doesn’t. It’s entertaining, has great production values, and Brosnan is his usual assured and charming self. This film would actually bring about the end of an era as the next film in the series would go in a far grittier and more grounded direction, so you could say this movie is the last Classic Bond movie.
Thanks for reading.
The James Bond series was on a roll. The character was hugely popular once again, and Pierce Brosnan was comfortably established in the role. But the producers didn’t want to just rest on their laurels, and live off of the previous success the new movies had provided. They wanted to reinvent themselves, and try and improve the formula if they could. Where could the new James Bond movie go from here? How could they still keep the character relevant and fresh in the eyes of modern day audiences, while furthering its pop-culture appeal?. With those questions in mind, the producers set about making a James Bond film that would be more of a study character this time around, without giving away too much of the mystique that surrounded him. For that, the filmmakers decided to draw inspiration from the ever increasing appeal that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969), had in the minds and hearts of die-hard James Bond fans the world over, and come up with a foe that would ultimately be a combination of both villain and victim/love interest, and result in one of the most interesting challenges 007 had ever faced. But how did they come up with this? As usual, it would be a tortuous and twisting road to get there, but with a very happy ending.
On the lookout for fresh ideas and a new direction in which to push the next story, the producers decided to go with two relatively new screenplay writers, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, who’d made a positively good impression with their previous script, Plunkett and McCleane (Jake Scott, 1999). The story they pitched to both Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli revolved around an heiress, Elektra King, daughter of oil tycoon Sir Robert King, who is kidnapped by terrorist Viktor Zokas aka Renard. Following the counsel of his old friend M, the head of MI6, he delays the payment of the requested ransom for her daughter on the hopes that the British Secret Service can lay a trap for Renard and his minions. MI6 manages to rescue King and catch up with Renard, putting a bullet in his head. The bullet doesn’t kill him, instead traveling through his brain, rendering his senses numb, but increasing his physical strength at the same time. What MI6 doesn’t know is that Elektra, infuriated by her father’s refusal to pay her ransom, has forged an alliance with Renard. Together they hacht a plan to kill Sir Robert and take over his empire. The first stage of this plan has Bond traveling to Bilbao, Spain, to retrieve the money Sir Robert naively paid for a fake report that was supposed to point Sir Robert in the direction of the individuals who had been attacking his newly developed oil pipeline in the Caspian Sea. Turns out to be nothing more than a ruse to use MI6 to deliver a case full of money rigged with explosives that kills King. Digging into Elektra’s past, Bond finds out about the kidnapping and the money being the exact same amount, when the currency is adjusted from pounds to dollars, as the ransom Sir Robert was supposed to deliver for her daughter’s safe return. Suspecting a conspiracy within Elektra’s organization, and the return of a very much alive Renard, Bond, on M’s orders travels to Azerbaijan, where Elektra is supervising the construction of her pipeline, to warn her of the danger. Unaware of Elektra’s secret plans, and moved by her supposed frailty, Bond falls for Elektra, starting a chain reaction that will have the 00 agent contending with an unholy alliance that will put his resolve to the test. The story came from a variety of sources and ideas, the main location in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, being suggested by Barbara Broccoli after she had seen an episode of Ted Koppel’s current affairs series Nightline that focused on Baku, and how this city had become the centre of an oil boom after their break-up with Russia a few years earlier. The writers had also read an article in The Economist that revolved around the same subject. It was actually the screenwriters who suggested a female villain loosely based on heiress Party Hearst, who had been kidnapped and fallen for her captors. With these elements in place, the writing duo started working on the screenplay, delivering a first draft that was not to the entire satisfaction of both the producers and director. After toying at one point with the idea of hiring Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón to helm the movie, the producers got in touch with Michael Apted, mostly known for his work on documentaries and dramas like Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Apted was unsure on whether to take on the job, as it wasn’t something that was precisely in his wheel house, having little experience with big budget productions, and really didn’t know how to direct big action set pieces. Michael Wilson assured Apted that Eon’s experienced second unit would take care of that for him, while he could focus on the more character driven and dramatic beats. One of the first decisions he made once he agreed to do the movie was to bring in his wife Dana Stevens to work on the script, to further develop the female characters. That she did, but at the expense of Bond’s character, who ended up being a secondary character in his own movie, a fact Pierce Brosnan wasn’t at all happy about. Stevens gave more prominence to the characters of M and Elektra, but the script would be worked on even further when Bruce Feirstein, who’d helped develop and polish the scripts for both Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, 1995), and Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997), was brought in. Even Michael Wilson would end up doing some on-set rewriting while the movie was in production, taking him back to the days when both Richard Maibaum and him would agonize over the script of the latest Bond entry, something the co-producer didn’t miss one bit. Wade and Purvis weren’t at all happy with these decisions as they felt that the story had been taken away from them. Whatever grudges they may have held against the producers were soon forgotten as the writers would be hired for the subsequent Bond movies.
With the names of Sharon Stone and the then unknown Vera Farmiga tossed around to play the part of Elektra King, the role finally went to Sophie Marceu. Being only her second English-speaking role, the actress was hot Hollywood property at the time having participated in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning epic Braveheart. The studio wasn’t sure about giving the role of the main villain to the French actress, but the producers were adamant on having as varied an international cast as possible. Javier Bardem’s name also came up during the casting process for the role of Renard, which ultimately fell on Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, popular for his roles in Trainsporting (Danny Boyle, 1996), and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997). Bardem would years later land the role of Sylva, Daniel Craig’s antagonist on Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012). Michael Wilson got interested on Carlyle after seeing him portray a psychopath in British TV drama, Cracker (1993-96). The star of that show, Robbie Coltrane, came back to reprise his role of Valentin Zukowski, who’s set up shop in Baku, and is enlisted for his help by Bond once again. The role of nuclear physicist Christmas Jones, which was a French-Polynesian insurance investigator in earlier drafts, went to American actress Denise Richards, popular at the time for her participation in Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997), and Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998). Michael Kitchen and Colin Salmon came back to reprise their roles as Bill Tanner and Charles Robinson, while Samantha Bond stepped into the shoes of Miss Moneypenny once again. Judi Dench would be given much more protagonism in the story this time around, and after having had a difficult time with Roger Spottiswoode on the previous movie, she felt in much more capable hands with Michael Apted, who was more of an actor’s director. This movie would mark the last time ever that Desmond Llewellyn would play the role of Q. In between being too old for the role, and finding it increasingly difficult to memorize his dialogue, Llewellyn felt it was as good a time to retire from the role as any. Not without handing over the reins to his assistant, played with impeccable comedic timing by John Cleese. Cleese was supposed to take over the role for subsequent movies, but only got as far as the next one, Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002), when the decision was taken to reboot the franchise and scrap his character. Soon after the movie’s world premiere, Llewellyn was killed in a car crash. British musician Goldie as Mr Bullion, Danish actor Ullrich Thomsen as Elektra’s Chief of Security Davidov, Serena Scott Thomas as Dr Molly Warmflash, David Calder as Sir Robert King, Fiji-born John Seru as Elektra’s personal bodyguard Gabor, and Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta as the Cigar Girl, completed the cast.
The movie was filmed in a wide variety of locations like Spain, France, Turkey, Baku, and Scotland, with the bulk of the stage work taking place in Pinewood Studios in the UK. Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum (the shooting of the scene was quite disruptive due to the massive turnout of Spanish fans wanting to get a glimpse of Brosnan), served as the setting for the beginning of the pre-title sequence, while the mountainous region around Cuenca doubled as the setting of a Turkish mosque, and Elektra King’s pipeline construction site. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan were recced as possible locations, but were ultimately used only for some establishing shots as it was deemed too volatile a region to risk having the principals actors there. The production team sent in a skeleton crew to grab what shots they could to be used later on as plates in the sound stages. Most of the interiors like MI6 HQ, Elektra’s villa, the pipe control station, Zukowski’s casino and caviar factory were recreated brilliantly by a returning Peter Lamont, after having taking a break on the previous movie, Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997). There’s one instance during the shooting of the attack on Zukowski’s caviar factory that the crew had to do some additional shooting in Aldershot, a British Army training facility in South East England. The facility was chosen due to it being secluded and the amount of pyrotechnics the crew had to use in the scene. Chris Corbould and John Richardson, two James Bond stalwarts, returned to the fold to take care of special effects and miniature work, with the aforementioned Chris Corbould returning to an idea he had worked on as far back as Goldeneye. The idea of Elektra’s minions using helicopters with saw blades attached to their undercarriage to cut through Zukowski’s caviar factory was something that Corbould had wanted to use for Goldeneye, but ended up scrapping due to time and budget constraints. Bond’s new BMW Z8 falls victim of said blades when trying to escape his pursuers, the sports cars is cut in half by the blades, cutting short the car’s screen time, and robbing us fans of a planned chase sequence that never got off the staging state.
What was to be to date the longest pre-title sequence in a Bond movie, the boat chase around the Thames, ending at the Millenium Dome, proved to be somewhat of a logistical nightmare. Vic Armstrong, returning as second unit director after his stint in Tomorrow Never Dies, was to plan out and supervise it. Stuntman Coordinator Gary Powell was to double Brosnan in the most difficult tricky stunts. The tricked-out speedboat from Q branch was very difficult to maneuver at the best of times, and at one point during the sequence, Bond had to perform a 360° barrel roll thar was very reminiscent of a similar stunt that had been performed in The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton, 1974). Powell practiced the stunt for weeks in a nearby lake, nearly getting killed on one occasion when the speedboat failed to turn all the way over and ended up on top of Powell, who struggled to get from under it. The stunt had to be repeated several times, with the crew getting the perfect shot after many tries. The same went for the very tricky scene in which Bond jumps from the speedboat onto a rope hanging from under the hot air balloon in which Cigar Girl is trying to escape, before the boat crashing on the shore in front of the Millenium Dome. Once again, a huge amount of rehearsal went into trying to get the scene just right, sometimes going over, or falling short. One of the things that impressed Apted the most when shooting started was the amazing accessibility the James Bond brand provided everywhere they went. Save from a few complaints from some politicians from the Houses of Parliament, on account of the racket the crew was causing up and down the river Thames, the crew was given a free reign when it came to using locations and famous landmarks in and around London as backdrop for Bond’s latest adventure.
Next up was the scene in which Bond and Elektra are chased down the ski slopes of the Caucasus mountains by Renard’s goons using Parahawks (motorized paragliders that can turn into snowmobiles). The sequence was the brainchild of Stunt coordinator Simon Crane, who had seen these vehicles in action while on holiday. Vic Armstrong and his crew traveled to Mont Blanc, Chamonix, to shoot the sequence, that was to end with an avalanche, caused by an exploding Parahawk, covering Bond and Elektra with a landslide of snow. Unfortunately, right around the same time a real avalanche killed several people, and the crew had to stop shooting, and graciously gave up their helicopters and personnel to the rescue team to help with the rescuing effort. The ensuing avalanche sequence was recreated in the studios in Pinewood. The bunker sequence in which Renard is caught red-handed by Bond trying to steal a nuclear bomb was a masterpiece of design by Peter Lamont, with Brosnan surprisingly performing most of his own stunts during this pivotal action sequence, with the actor hanging from a chain with an enormous explosion going on behind him. The exteriors of the nuclear banker were shot in the plains outside of Navarra, another striking Spanish location. Maiden’s Tower, a light house structure in the middle of the Bosphorous was used as the location of Elektra’s hideout at the end of the movie. With the actors unable to shoot on location due to political unrest in the area, the crew had shot plates of all the major locations in Istanbul to be adde later on in post-production, with Peter Lamont faithfully recreating the interior of these locations in Pinewood Studios. For the last confrontation between Bond and Renard inside a sinking nuclear submarine, they used an uncanny mixture of miniature work and on-set shooting, with the interior of the submarine being built inside a soundstage within a watertank into which it could be submerged at any time. The actors had to work in freezing conditions, being soaked in freezing water for weeks on end.
David Arnold was asked to come back to write the soundrack for the new movie, which resulted in the composer delivering what is quite possibly one of his best scores for the Bond series, only topped off by his music for Casino Royale. In a movement that was reminiscent of what John Barry had done in The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987), Arnold, along with lyricist Don Black wrote not one, but two title songs for the movie, The World is not Enough and Only Myself to Blame, the latter of which can be heard on the soundtrack album, but was never used as intended for the end credits. An instrumentation version of the song can be heard throughout the movie in the casino scene, and as Elektra’s love theme. Shirley Manson, lead singer of Gargabe was a massive fan of Bond, and basically got the gig on account of Arnold thinking that Manson was someone you could easily imagine fitting right into a Bond movie. Daniel Kleinmann returned once again to do the title sequence, this time revolving around the theme of oil with models being covered in thick coats of oil, and nodding donkeys in the background.
The movie opened to good reviews, and a very strong showing at the box office, grossing a worldwide total of $ 361.8 million by the end of its theatrical run. Overtime though, the movie has been generally dismissed as another bland attempt to capture the magic Bond formula. But, is there any truth to these assertions? And how does it fare when compared to the rest of the Brosnan/Bond movies?
There has never been any discussion that during the Brosnan era, script mishaps aside, the Bond formula was a very well oiled machine. It had reached, and even surpassed on some occasions, the technical heights the series had achieved over the years. But what about the character, the stories and the world surrounding him? Well, that depends on the eye of the beholder. On my part, I never really had much to complain about when it came to the way Brosnan approached the character. He’s flawless. He was born to play him. The plots, stories, and characters he was seldom saddled with, those are another thing altogether. And something that completely escaped his jurisdiction. That being said, and probably for the last time, Brosnan has some meaty material to sink his teeth into. Not only is his character given a new lease of life, but he’s also confronted with possibly two of the most interesting foes he’s ever had to face. Interesting in that they’re tragic characters in and of themselves. These are characters who are victim of circumstance, unable to escape a past that still haunts them. Renard is doomed to die slowly, with his physical strength growing everyday, while his senses are dulled. Able to love in his own way, but unable to physically feel, or show it. Elektra, on the other hand, is a very conflicting character. Trapped in a whirlwind of hatred, and determined to restitute her mother’s legacy, is possibly the real villain of the story. She has an agenda, and will do whatever is neccesary to achieve her goal, using Renard as a tool to do it. Both characters are brilliantly played by both actors, with Carlyle displaying an undercurrent of rage beneath the surface, while Marceu shows a slyness and malice that is every bit deserving of the confidence bestowed on her by the producers. As for Brosnan, he gets to expand upon the character the way he started to do in both Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies, only this time giving it a whole new dimension. His rage, and ultimate vengeance upon Elektra stems from the fact that, after all these years he had finally found an equal, the same way Tracy Draco was. Someone to protect, to care about, and to love. That’s why her betrayal hurts the most. Not to say that he doesn’t put up his usual emotial barriers all the same, something that had to be pressed upon by the producers when Apted started to play around with the character’s iconography. No, Bond isn’t like that. He wouldn’t just open up. And Elektra King is the person who gets the closest to doing just that. The story is not without its pitfalls though, and it can come across as a bit generic in places, but as expected, the production team delivers the usual thrills in the form of perfectly executed action set pieces. Top notch. Nothing to complain about there. Performances are generally good with one exception; Denise Richards is not believable at all as a nuclear physicist, and her brash and sassy manner doesn’t help matter either. It is just a pity that the story and characters don’t get the chance to breathe more. Some of the points I’ve made about how good the characters are, and how underrated the story is, can be better appreciated when reading the novelization the official James Bond writer at the time, Raymond Benson, wrote. The characters of both Elektra and Renard are better fleshed out, and given very interesting and compelling back stories. There’s a motivation behind all of their actions. Something that doesn’t come across as readily when watching the movie, especially the first time. This, in my opinion, is the second best Brosnan/Bond movie of all the ones he did after Goldeneye. Next time we’ll take a look at Die Another Day, and all the silliness that happened there, but you’ll perhaps be surprised to find that I’m not completely dismissive of that movie either, like most people are. Until next time.
Thanks for reading.
Had Ian Fleming known the turmoil the writing of his ninth James Bond novel Thunderball was going to cause, he might’ve thought better about giving credit where credit was due to both co-writers Jack Whittingham, and Kevin McClory. As it turned out, the whole affair resulted in a lengthy court battle that would go well into the late 90s, with one somewhat successful stop-over along the way; Never Say Never Again, that wouldn’t be without its own behind the scenes controversy. The story behind the making of the second “unofficial” Bond movie is more interesting than the end product. Let’s dive in. Shall we?
Between 1959 and 1960, under the advisement of his old friend Ivar Bryce, Ian Fleming started writing the screenplay that would later become Thunderball with two fellow writers; Jack Whittingham and Kevin McClory. At the time, Fleming was still struggling to get his Bond novels adapted for the big screen, on account of them not being sufficiently “cinematic”. Their mutual friend, lawyer Ernie Cuneo gave the group of writers the initial idea of a group of gangsters stealing a nuclear bomb and holding the world to ransom. Kevin McClory had already being contracted by Bryce, as he’d had ample experience in the movie industry having worked in The African Queen (John Huston, 1951), and Around the World in 80 days (Michael Anderson, 1956). All together, they tossed some ideas back and forth, and tried to get the movie made. When this proved to be unsuccessful, they all went their separate ways. Problem was when Fleming took up the material left by all of them, and used it to write his novel Thunderball, failing to acknowledge the contributions of the other two writers in the process. When McClory learned of this, he took Fleming to court, with the verdict eventually falling on McClory’s favour, granting him the rights to the material therein, and all the characters created for the book; Bloefeld, Emilio Largo, Domino, but most importantly, those of the character Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, and his criminal organization SPECTRE. This meant that when the Fleming novels were finally optioned by Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli to be adapted for the big screen, Thunderball was the one novel that the producing duo couldn’t touch. It was actually their initial idea to use Thunderball as the first ever Bond novel to be adapted for the silver screen, with an initial first draft by writer Richard Maibaum. It turned out for the best that this wasn’t the case, as the budget the production team had to work with was so minuscule, they wouldn’t have done the book any justice, opting to adapt the sixth book, Dr No, instead.
As the James Bond movies became increasingly successful at the box office, and the so-called “spy craze” reached fever pitch levels, Broccoli and Saltzman were still adamant about adapting Thunderball, which meant that a deal would have to be struck with McClory to get the rights. McClory ended up with a producer’s credit, but he also wouldn’t be able to adapt the Thunderball story on his own for another 10 years. Thunderball was a smashing box office hit, and propelled the series to soaring popular and financial heights. Both Broccoli and Saltzman never thought at the time that McClory would ever go back to the issue, and the rights would eventually revert back to them. How wrong they were.
As it turned out, McClory was just waiting for the legal ten-year period to elapse to be able to adapt the story again. McClory’s first attempt to get something together was in 1976. He’d hired writer Len Deighton to write the script, with the title Warhead. Having convinced Sean Connery, who still resented the way things had gone with Broccoli and Saltzman during his tenure as the suave 00 agent to return to the role he’d so adamantly declared in public would never go back to, they started working out the story details together. Connery was apparently so happy with the collaboration, and the amount of creative and financial freedom he was given, that he was all but ready to sign the contract when financial backing went out the window, the main reasons for this being the constant back and forth between McClory and Eon Productions in court. McClory could make his movie, yes, but keeping within the novel’s narrative at all times, and foregoing any attempts to remake Thunderball copying elements from the Eon produced film. The proyect fell into development hell during several years, and became sort of a poisoned chalice that no movie studio was willing to go anywhere near. Alas, as luck would have it, the proyect fell into the lap of Jack Schwartzman, a lawyer who worked for Lorimar, mostly known at the time for producing TV content. Given his successful record as a lawyer, Schwartzman felt confident to take on the proyect, and produce it himself.
As it turned out, it wasn’t as easy as Schwartzman had envisioned. Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr, famous for his contributions to the 1960s Batman TV show (1966-68), and Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980), was hired as a writer, and having to restrict himself to not deviating from the source material, he found it increasingly difficult to write a script with sufficient action and plot to make it refreshing enough. Funnily enough, Connery quite liked Semple’s first draft. So much so that it was one of the main reasons to commiting to make the movie. That, and the amount of creative and financial freedom the actor would have in the production. In addition to having a say in picking the director, the crew, and contributing to the casting process, the actor worked out quite a nice financial deal for himself, and if everything went right, he would walk away with a nice chunk of the box office profits. His were the elections of Irvin Kershner as director, Douglas Slocombe as Director of Photography, and Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer as the main villain, Emilio Largo. The actor would however end up contributing far more, and getting more invested in the production process that he ever imagined he would.
One of the first things that Kershner changed when he became involved in the picture was the script, a fact that Semple deeply resented him for. The writer was trying to do the best he could with the material he had at had, and was having a difficult enough time of it without Kersner’s constant script changes. Kershner, fresh off his success on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), had a reputation of being a prickly director at the best of times, but very efficient. He didn’t have a particular high regard for some of the James Bond movies that had come before, but was confident enough that he could give the material an interesting spin, if given the right script to work with. Sadly, in his opinion, he was saddle with a poor script, in dear need of re-structuring. There were also budgetary reasons that mandated Semple to cut down, or altogether eliminate most of the action set pieces already present on the script. Needless to say, when Connery read the new script, he wasn’t happy at all with the changes, and threaten to walk out of the picture if the script wasn’t fixed to his satisfaction. As a consequence, Semple was fired. Connery was also of the opinion that the present script was lacking that particular brand of British humour the James Bond movies were so famous for. Enter British writers Dick Clement and Ian Lefranais. The writers started re-writing the script when the movie was already in production. They would end up staying on during the remainder of the production, ironing out and streamlining many aspects of the script. They sadly never got a credit for their work, as they later found out that they didn’t have an official contract with the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America), the basis of which Semple used for getting sole script credit for the movie. The writers weren’t at all happy with the final outcome, as their contributions to the script had been fairly substantial. They ended up re-writing most of the dialogue, introduced the character of Nigel Small-Fawcett, played by British comedian Rowan Atkinson, wrote a new opening sequence for the movie, with the war scenario scene substituting the jousting scene originally planned, which had Bond participating in a jousting match which ends up with Bond chasing an assassin through the streets of London on horseback, and contributing all of the humour. The final title for the film was actually suggested by Sean Connery’s wife, who’d repeatedly heard him over the years say that never again would he play the role of James Bond.
As mentioned above, Connery was heavily involved in the casting process. It was actually a suggestion of his wife’s that the producers hire newcomer Kim Basinger to play the role of Domino Petacchi. The actress was quite inexperienced at the time, and somewhat reluctant to take on the role, but as her character demanded that she had a strong background in dancing, which the actress being a former dancer had, she decided to take the plunge. The actress would however admit publicly later on that she’d had a very difficult time during the shoot, and that she was intimidated by both her co-stars Connery and Brandauer. Nicaraguan Actress and former model Barbara Carrera turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Her portrayal of SPECTRE assassin Fatima Blush is easily one of the best bits of casting in the movie, and more than makes up for Basinger’s lackluster turn as Domino. She had big shoes to fill, having to be the counterpart to Luciana Paluzzi’s Fiona Volpe from the first movie, but she passes the test with flying colours. She was hesitant to take on the role as she thought that, as written on the page, it was too small and meaningless a part. Her doubts were put to rest when Kershner reassured her that her part would eventually get bigger as the script was being constantly worked on. Irish actor Gavan O’Herlihy played the role of ill-fated Jack Petacchi, the American RAF officer whom SPECTRE uses to steal the nuclear bombs. Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was Connery’s own personal choice to play the part of Emiliano Largo. He considered him one of the most brilliant actors out there at the time, but Kershner admitted of having a difficult time controlling Bandauer on set as the actor was prone to improvisation. Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, most famous for the roles he’d played on his fellow Swedish Ingmar Bergman movies, played the role of the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, yet another take on Bond’s archenemy. British actor Edward Fox played the bureocratically minded, and extremely posh M, while Pamela Salem stepped into the shoes of Miss Moneypenny, with the press at the time trying to play her off against Lois Maxwell, who had been playing the part of Moneypenny on the official movies since the beginning. Something that came to nought as both actresses had a friendly relationship off the screen. Alec McCowen played the part of Argeron, this movie’s version of Q, who has one of the funniest scenes in the movie, playing around with the fact that his department is underfunded, and the new bureocratically minded MI6 has him confined to a damp basement that wreaks havoc with his sinuses. Afromerican actor Bernie Casey was afforded the rare opportunity to be the first African American Felix Leiter in the series. Jeffrey Wright would succesfully take on the mantle years later on Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006).
The production was a disaster from the very beginning. With a script still being worked on, and a newcomer producer mostly absent from the set, mostly due to his court commitments, trying to fend off Eon’s constant attempts to shut down the production, the whole thing was a recipe for disaster. Constant budgets constraints didn’t help smooth things over, with on-set props being constantly changed without the director’s knowledge, like the fact that the motorcycle that Bond uses to chase Fatima Blush around the winding streets of the French Riviera was to spring wings at one point to jump over a vehicle. Not only did the motorbike not have any wings, but it was also painted the wrong colour as well, and while Kershner went on to shoot something else that day, the crew hastily re-painted the motorbike. On another occasion, and after reviewing the rushes that the second unit had shot of the scene in which Bond and Fatima dive to a sunken ship, and Bond is pursued by radio-controlled Tiger sharks spurred on by a sensor that Fatima has placed on Bond’s oxygen tank, Kersner realised that the stunt man the second unit crew had chosen to replace Connery with didn’t bear any resemblance whatsoever with the actor, which rendered the shot footage unusable. Kershner had to hastily replace the stunt man, with one of Ricou Browning’s underwater crew members (Browning was in charge of the underwater second unit), and the sequence had to be re-shot in its entirety. Kershner found out later that the pictures the crew were using to look for a suitable stunt man for Connery were from Thunderball, in which the actor not only was much younger, but also had a completely different body build. It didn’t help matters that at one point, Jack Schwartzman decided to skirt off on his producer’s duties, remaining absent for most of the production, and with no means for the crew to get in touch with him, prompting the ire of Sean Connery, who at one point declared that the whole production was a “Mickey Mouse outfit”. It was actually the actor’s determination that allowed the production to go forward, with the actor going back to his hotel at night to work on the script, and being one of the main driving forces to get the movie finished, a fact acknowledged by many of his fellow cast and crew members.
The film was shot in five different countries, which made it even harder for Kershner to keep track of everything. Fortunately he had the help of Asistant Director David Tomblin, who the director had previously worked with on The Empire Strikes Back. While the underwater unit was shooting material in the Bahamas, Kershner and the first unit were shooting in Montecarlo, with additional scenes being shot in England (Elstree Studios), Spain and USA. The Domination game that features during Bond and Largo’s confrontation at the casino, and which was also a contribution by the writing duo Dick Clement and Ian Lefranais, featured complicated 3D graphics that would later on be added by Visual Effects Supervisor David Dryer. Kershner wanted to give the whole casino confrontation scene between Bond and the villain a new and refreshing twist. The film doesn’t boast that many action set pieces, and those there are, are fairly low key when compared to what the stunt and special effects crew on the Eon productions were achieving at the time. The most hair-raising stunt in the whole movie was that of the Tiger sharks attacking Bond at the sunken ship, where the crew trapped real Tiger sharks, and had them strapped by their tails to avoid them getting too close to the cast and crew. The scene in which Bond on horseback rescues Domino and gallops away to the top of a cliffside fortress, and jumps into the sea below, was mostly done for real, with a real horse that had been trained for weeks, and famous stuntman Vic Armstrong doubling Sean Connery. Dodgy optical effects were added later to sell the illusion of Connery being on the actual horse. If there’s something that ages this movie significantly, and it’s a clear contrast to the official Bond movies, is the optical work. It’s just serviceable in the best of cases, and downright bad in the worst ones. Optical shots of Bernie Casey and Connery flying to Largo’s underwater hideout in those Navy issue rocket-propelled things are one of the most noticeable, with Kershner having to settle in the end for the best they could achieve, when the scene they had planned out didn’t turn out the way they wanted. Kershner also complained about the scenes taking place inside Largo’s hideout being overly lit, which gives it away as being nothing but a set that was shot inside one of Elstree Studio sound stages. He attributed this as being an oversight of the lighting crew, as Slocombe was absent, due to having some eye surgery done at the time. Many scenes, like Bond and Count Dippe’s confrontation at Shrublands (hands down the best action sequence in the movie, and one of the funniest), were done on the fly, with Kershner admittedly having to come up with an end to the fight on the spot. Another funny piece of trivia is that Connery’s hair piece ended up being one of the most expensive props used in the film, at a cost of $1 million. Connery was also extremely fit at the time as his personal trainer was no other than Steven Seagal. Seagal came highly recommended by Michael Ovitz, who was the head of CAA (Creative Artists Agency), a managing agency that had Connery as one of their high profile clients. Apparently Seagal broke Connery’s wrist during one of their training sessions.
Billionaire Adan Khashoggi’s floating palace, Nabila, doubled up for Largo’s Flying Saucer. Funnily enough Khashoggi had been runner up to acquiring Harry Saltzman’s stakes when he’d been forced to sell his part of Eon all those years ago. The movie also suffered tremendously in editorial, as Kershner struggled to ssuccesfully edit together the material he had shot with what the second unit had shot. The crew found themselves having to re-shoot some scenes, or even shoot new ones that would be written on the set by Dick Clement and Ian Lefranais, that would act as narrative bridges to the scenes that had already been shot. The opening action sequence, which acts as kind of the usual pre-credits sequence present in every James Bond movie, was actually cobbled together by the writers and Kershner while shooting at the Bahamas. It was supposed to be a tense scene set to a metronome until someone from the production company had the wonderful idea of playing the horrendous title song with the main credits over it, which has to be among one of the worst editing decisions ever done on a film. Which brings us to one of the worst things about the movie; the title song, and the score. The original song, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was to have been sung by Welsh rock singer Bonnie Tyler, who after listening to the lyrics, decided to pass on it. The job ultimately went to Lani Hall, wife to musician Herb Alpert, who was producing the track along with musician Sergio Mendes. Kershner had come to the editing stage of the movie without a composer locked down yet. Jack Schwartzman had tried to hire the services of film composer James Horner, but when that fell through, Kershner took on French composer Michel Legrand, who came highly recommended to him by Barbra Streisand, who had used him in her movie Yentl ( Barbra Streisand, 1983). Ultimately the jarring jazzy style of Legrand’s score coupled with the poor lyrics of the main title song really let the movie down.
Considering the convoluted behind the scenes story the production had, the movie turned out fairly well. It was released a few months apart from the official Eon produced James Bond movie (Octopussy, John Glen), which was kind of a relief for both parties concerned as that meant that they wouldn’t end up hurting each other’s chances at the box office. Octopussy would still come out on top that year in the box office battle, but Never Say Never Again did fairly good numbers, making around $160 million worlwide. Reviews were mainly positive, with audiences and critics generally happy to see Sean Connery back in the role. So, how does this un-official Bond movie fare against the original Thunderball (Terrence Young, 1965), and the original source material?
Not that bad, actually. I found the Thunderball novel to be one of Ian Fleming’s weakest efforts. It’s not a bad book, don’t get me wrong. It’s got good elements to it, very good characters, but a somewhat weak story. Richard Maibaum’s screenplay for the original movie vastly improves, and adds more richness to the story, especially during the first act of the movie. It then becomes kind of a drag during the last two acts because of the derivativeness of the plot, and its over-use of underwater sequences, as discussed on my previous Thunderball review. This movie, even though it looks significantly more dated, in spite of having been shot 18 years later, does a better job with the pacing. It clicks along nicely, it doesn’t get bogged down with unnecessary detail, and side plots, and makes good use of Connery’s age, which becomes an intrinsic part of the story from the get-go. As its previous cinematic incarnation, this film stays fairly faithful to the source material, adding some nice twists and turns to the story to keep it fresh and entertaining. The ending is still disappointing, and kind of a slog though. The novel actually does a better job of ending the story than either of the two movie adaptations, and the characters arcs and motivations are wonderfully fleshed-out by Fleming (the vivid descriptions of characters and places always being one his strongest literary assets), in spite of the rather dry and uninspired way in which the story is narrated. When comparing the actors’ performances of the main villains from both versions, I have to give the nod to Thunderball. Even though Klaus Maria Brandauer does a very good job with Largo, and Barbara Carrera’s portrayal of Fatima Blush is definitely one of the best things in the movie, both Adolfo Celi and Luciana Paluzzi as Emilio Largo and Fiona Volpe respectively, are still unsurpassed in my book. So is Claudine Auger as Domino. Neither of the cinematic incarnations of the character do the sensual and enigmatic character of the original novel justice, but the ravishing Auger comes the closest. Kim Basinger was quite inexperienced when she took on the role at the time, and it shows. Beautiful though she may be, and in spite of the wonderful job of DP Douglas Slocombe in bringing this across, she fails to give the character the necessary dramatic depth.
From a purely stylistic point of view, Thunderball is the superior movie. It’s more lavish from a Production Design viewpoint (the great Ken Adam designed the sets), which makes the one done for Never Say Never Again pale in comparison to Terrence Young’s movie. A clear example would be the poor design of sets like the SPECTRE headquarters in which we have this futuristic design by Ken Adam compared to this art deco design done for the one in Never Say Never Again, which very much looks like a home for retired people. The War Room at MI6 on Thunderball is another brilliant example of this, compared to the poorly furnished version on Irvin Kershner’s movie. The action set pieces are nothing to ride home about either ( with a few exceptions), when compared to the more energetically shot ones for Thunderball. It is also true that, even though there are very few action set pieces in the movie, the movie is better paced than Thunderball, and doesn’t get bogged down with unnecessarily long underwater sequences, and the Dominion game sequence between Bond and Largo at the casino is a very interesting and original way of going about the required first confrontation scene between hero and villain in a Bond movie.
So what do I think about the movie? Well, there are some elements that I do like about it. I like the way in which the fact that Sean Connery is much older on this movie is used to great effect, even if it’s done sparingly. His is a Bond who’s tired of his job, who’s been sidelined by the Service, which has become a more bureaucratic organization under the supervision of the new M played by Edward Fox, and whose working methods have become old-fashioned by modern day standards. Love his banter with Argeron, A.K.A, Q, all the scenes Bond shares with Fatima Blush (once again, one of the best characters in the movie), the soft looking photography by Douglas Slocombe, and the brilliant use of locations ( Kershner strived to use as many practical locations as he could), and some of the action set pieces (Bond being pursued by Tiger sharks inside the sunken ship, Bond and Dippe’s amazing fight scene in Shrublands, where the two of them practically demolish the clinic….), the incredibly over-the-top death scene of Fatima Blush by way of an explosive ball pen, and the easiness with which Connery slips back into the role, as if he never left. On the other hand, I’m not so fond of the aesthetic look of the film (too 80s and tacky on occasion), the poor optical work on most of the visual effects scenes, a very disappointing Kim Basinger as Domino, and then again, the low key way in which the movie ends. But one of the worst things about the movie, and what truly renders most of what Kershner is trying to achieve on-screen naught, is the dreadful score, hands down the worst ever composed for a James Bond movie; even worse than that composed by Eric Serra for Goldeneye ( Martin Campbell, 1995). All in all, it is a more interesting film than what people give it credit for, but light years away from what was done by Terrence Young on Thunderball, even if the pacing on Kershner’s movie is better when it comes to the underwater scenes, which thankfully don’t become a predominant element on this movie as they did on Thunderball, to the detriment of the latter’s pacing. In spite of admittedly having had a horrible time when shooting the movie (mostly due to the way the production was handled by Schwartzman), Connery seems to genuinely be having a good time, and the movie is all the better for it. If you haven’t seen it, don’t let yourself be put down by the negative critics, or me pointing out some of the movie’s pitfalls. It’s still a movie I go back to from time to time, and just for the fact of it being the last time Connery played the iconic role, it’s well worth a watch.
Thanks for reading.
On April 3rd, 1968, a movie came out that would forever change the way Science Fiction movies were viewed by the masses. That a movie based on a book by French writer Pierre Boulle, who himself regarded it as one of his minor efforts, and unworthy of being proper cinematic material, became such a Sci-fi landmark, is all the more surprising. It was mainly thanks to the efforts of producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who’d read the novel before it was even published back in 1964, that the movie got any traction at all. Its journey to the big screen however, was a four-year ordeal where Jacobs had to make use of all his publishing skills to turn it into a reality.
Arthur P. Jacobs was a former publicist turned agent and later on producer. His jump into producing movies was encouraged by one of his high-profile clients at the time, Marilyn Monroe, who convinced him it might be a good idea for him to produce his own movies. His first feature as a producer released by his newly formed film production company APJAC, was What a way to go!, released through Twentieth Century Fox. Monroe was going to star in it, but her untimely death forced Jacobs to look for another actress, and with Shirley McClaine as the new lead, the movie was a resounding success. Jacobs was off to a good start, and seemed set to have a brilliant career as a film producer, when he came upon a copy of a French author’s yet unpublished in the US latest novel, Planet of the Apes. Boulle was an up-and-coming French writer who’d already had one of his books adapted to the big screen, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The 1957, Award-winning, David Lean-directed movie had been a massive success, both critically and at the box office, after which the non-English speaking Boulle had experienced his first foray into the Hollywood scene, when he had to receive the Oscar for Best Screenplay for the movie, as the two screenwriters who had worked on the movie, namely Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, had to remain uncredited due to have been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. They would posthumously both receive official credit for their work years later, and Wilson would later play an integral part in the scripting process of Planet of the Apes.
Jacobs really liked the concept behind Boulle’s book of a planet on which the higher being in the evolution chain are Apes, while human beings have been rendered to a bestial state. He immediately bought the rights to the novel, and ensured Boulle and his agent that he could get the film made. That was easier said than done. The first thing to do was to find a writer who could adapt the book. He got in contact with TV screenwriter Rod Serling, mostly known for writing episodes for the popular TV show The Twilight Zone, which made the material ideal for him, being used to dealing with Science Fiction themes. Serling wrote a number of drafts, more or less sticking closely to the novel. In the meantime, Jacobs commissioned a series of conceptual drawings by background artist Don Peters, who at the time was working at Disney, to go along with the scrip, and try to shop the idea around to all the major studios. Jacobs used all of his contacts, and employed every trade secret he knew, to try and generate interest for the movie, at one point even sending the script to big name actors like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, who ultimately passed on it; the idea being that once Jacobs had enlisted a big Hollywood star for the movie, Studios would start showing interest. The closest Jacobs came to finalizing a deal on those early days was when Warner Bros. with director Blake Edwards, who even suggested some changes be made to the script, showed interest in the movie. Sadly, in the end, it was never meant to be.
Planet of the Apes tells the story of journalist and space traveler Ulysee Mérou who, along with Professor Antelle and Physicist Arthur Levain travel on a spaceship to the Betelgeuse system. With a smaller space module, they go down to one of the planets, which seems to be very similar to Earth, to investigate, and discover that a primitive race of human beings who can’t talk, and behave like animals, inhabit the planet. On the second day, without warning, the astronauts are attacked by the savages, their clothes ripped off their bodies, and their ship runsacked. Forced to accompany the savages to their camp, the next day the camp is attacked by a hunting party of talking apes dressed like humans. Levain is killed in the ensuing chaos, Proffesor Antelle gets lost, and Mérou is wounded on the neck, caged, and transported back to the city, where he’s put inside a cage in a medical facility. Though wounded, Mérou tries to make contact with a female chimpanzee psychologist, Dr Zira, who seems to be sympathetic to humans. In this facility is where Ulysee meets Dr Zaius, an orangutan who seems to be in charge of the facility, and it’s not impressed in the least with Ulysee’s apparent efforts to try and make verbal contact to prove that he is much more than he seems, and would be much happier if he was to be lobotomized. After some frustrating first tries, Ulysee finally manages to make contact with Dr Zira, who expresses her desire to help him, and takes it upon herself to teach Ulysee the Ape language, their customs, and culture. After a few months under Dr Zira’s tutelage, Ulysee’s secret identity is ready to be revealed to the world. During a Biology Congress in front of the whole Ape scientific community, Ulysee reveals his true identity, where he comes from, and how on Earth men has evolved from Apes, and not the other way around, as it is believed on their planet, which Ulysee has named Soror on account of its similarity with Earth. Ulysee is now treated as a celebrity, given all kinds of comforts, and paraded around by the Ape authorities. He still goes back to the hospital, to visit both Proffesor Antelle, whom they found living in a cage in the local zoo, and has now been transported to a comfortable cell inside the hospital, and Nova, the first female savage Ulysee and his group encountered when they first landed on the planet, and whom Ulyssee has become infatuated with after sharing the same cage at the hospital for months. Dr Cornelius, an archeologist and scientist, who’s also Dr Zira’s fiancee, tells Ulysee of an archeological dig that his group have been working on in the outskirts of the city. Ulysee agrees to go with him, as the change of scenery will be a welcome change to a stifling social calendar. Once there Cornelius explains to him that his team has uncovered the ruins of a human city, with traces of a civilization equally advanced to that of the Apes. Emboldened by this, Ulyssee confronts Dr Zaius, who’s also at the dig, and tells him that by all accounts, the Apes inherited a culture and a science that is that of the humans, after the latter falling off the evolutionary ladder for some reason. Zaius, and those who follow him, are not the least pleased about this, and try to silence him. On his return to the city, Ulysse is informed that Nova is expecting a child. He’s also informed by Dr Zira that he is prohibited from visiting Nova, but is secretly taken there by her. Zaius and his zealots are afraid that if a child were to be born out of the union of Ulysee and Nova, said child could conceivably speak, and usher in a new turn in the evolution cycle. As both Dr Zira and Dr Cornelius suspect that Zaius wants to do away with Ulysee, Nova, and their newly born child Sirius, and due to Ulysee’s ship module having been trashed by the savages on their arrival, they concoct a plan to hide away all three of them in the inside of a satellite which the Ape authorities were planning on launching to space, manned with human guinea pigs. Once the switch of crew is done, and the satellite reaches orbit, Ulysee can easily reach the orbiting ship, and fly away with his family. The plan goes to perfection, and Ulysee succesfully navigates the ship back home, only to find to his horror that the ruling species on Earth are now Apes.
On this basis, Serling wrote his first three drafts, with some major changes especially between the first and third drafts, the more drastic one being three completely different endings, for each of the drafts. On the first draft, Ulysee and Nova manage to get back to the ship and escape, while on the other two an important twist suggested by Arthur P Jacobs is introduced; the Statue of Liberty twist. When irrefutable evidence is discovered that the human city indeed proves that Men were in fact the dominant species in ancient times, Dr Zaius orders the whole dig to be rigged with explosives and blown up. The geological shifts provoked by the explosion lead it to uncover a distinct piece of architecture that’s been hidden underground all this time; the Statue of Liberty, which makes the protagonist realize that they were on Earth all this time. On the second draft, after discovering this horrifying fact, Thomas, for that is the name given to Ulysee on Serling’s script, decides to go back to the jungle, to join his fellow human beings, and start a new civilization. On the third draft however, Thomas, unable to cope with the truth decides to give up, and he’s shot to death by Zaius’ goons. Other changes implemented to the book were the changing of the names for the first astronauts from Ulysee, Levian, and Antelle to Thomas, Dodge and Lafever. There was also the inclusion of a fourth crew member named Steward who dies after the dome of his sleeping chamber is cracked during the flight. In the book, aside from the three protagonists, there’s also a chimpanzee named Hector, who dies at the hands of Nova shortly after the arrival of the crew on Soror. The change of setting from a distant planet in the book to Earth was one suggested by Jacobs, and introduced in all subsequent drafts thereafter.
When the deal with Warner Bros. fell through, Jacobs went back to Twentieth Century Fox. Richard Zanuck, who’d recently taken over as Head of the Studio from his father, the legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck, was already producing Jacobs latest venture; Doctor Dolittle (Richard Fleischer, 1967). The incredibly costly film, which would end up being a complete box office failure, and costing the Studio millions of dollars ( even though it would later be nominated for 9 Oscars, taking home two), did however provide Jacobs with enough clout to push Planet of the Apes through. Richard Zanuck finally yielded to Jacobs’s mounting correspondence, and constant on-set pestering, as Jacobs too had an office at Fox Studios. He did however, had several conditions. For one, the budget of the movie had to be relatively low, as Zanuck felt that they were spending too much money on Dr Dolittle as it was, the script had to be re-worked, a star had to agree to do the movie, and the most tricky of all the demands; the Ape makeup had to be believable, and not be laughed at by the audience. The first two conditions weren’t difficult to work out, even though some important changes would have to be made. Seeing that it would be too costly to shoot the movie in a modern setting, with cars, skyscrapers, helicopters and Apes dressed as regular day to day citizens, it was decided that the story would be set in a more rustic, almost medieval setting, with some modern day trappings such as firearms. That would surely keep costs down, as it would reduce the number of sets that had to be constructed, and it would also allow for the necessary tweaks to be made to the script, while at the same time staying true to the spirit of the novel. The third condition was arranged by convincing Charlton Heston to star in the movie. At the same time that also solved the problem of finding a director, as Heston recommended they hire Franklin J. Schaffner to helm the picture. They had worked together on The War Lord (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1965), and even though the movie hadn’t turned out exactly the way they wanted, mostly due to Studio interference, they had enjoyed a good working relationship. It’s funny that J. Lee Thompson, one of the first filmmakers to be offered the role of directing the movie in the early days, but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts, would end up directing the last two entries in the saga; Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), respectively. For the last condition; it was arranged by the Studio to have a screen test of one of the scenes from one of Serling’s last drafts, as a way to test out the make-up. The man in charge of make-up for that scene was Ben Nye, who at the time was Head of the Makeup department at Fox Studios. The scene was an enactment of the scene in which Thomas and Dr Zauis have a discussion in Thomas’s tent about the recent findings in the archeological site, with Heston playing the role of Thomas, actors James Brolin and Linda Harrison playing the roles of Dr Cornelius and Dr Zira respectively, and the great Edward G. Robinson playing the role of Dr Zaius. Even though the Ape makeup on both Brolin and Harrison was a very basic one, the one applied to Edward G. Robinson was complex enough to convince Zanuck to green light the movie. Now it was only a matter of finding the right actor for each one of the roles.
Having already cast Heston in the lead role, it was just a matter of surrounding him with the best actors to give the whole thing as much credibility as possible. For the part of Dr Zaius, they went with British stage and screen actor Maurice Evans. Evans came into the role after Edward G. Robinson had to step down due to his age, and the limited tolerance he had for the lengthy makeup process he would have to endure to play the part. Roddy McDowall was offered the role of Dr Cornelius by Jacobs himself when the two of them coincided in the same flight. The actor accepted there and then, as he was very much intrigued by the story, as was equally the case with actress Kim Hunter, who took on the role of Dr Zira. The actress was best known for having won an Academy Award for her performance as Stella Kowalski in A Street Cat named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951). The actress was put off at first due to the lengthy process of applying all the makeup prosthetics that could take up to five hours, but was ultimately won over by John Chambers’s makeup team masterful work that allowed her performance to shine through the heavy prosthetics. Robert Gunner as Landon, and Jeff Burton as Dodge completed the cast, with the addition of Linda Harrison in her first ever big screen role as Nova. The actress was somewhat of an imposition by Zanuck, as he was dating the actress as the time. Harrison was well aware of her shortcomings as both an actress, and very limited on-screen experience. The rest of the cast showed her support to her by taking her under their wing, and showing her the ropes.
John Chambers, a prosthetics specialist who had worked with WWII veterans, and ended up applying his skills in Hollywood, was the man chosen to make the Ape makeup look believable on-screen. It was thanks to his expertise, and constant experimentation that he achieved what everyone thought impossible. One of the major concerns from all the Studios Jacobs tried shopping the project to was the believability of recreating what Pierre Boulle had envisioned in his book. They thought at first that the Ape characters would be basically actors in monkey suits, which would make the whole thing look cheesy and laughable. It also didn’t help the fact that most Studio execs, and many audience members thought Science Fiction stories to be B movie material, and TV fodder for quirky shows such as The Twilight Zone. There wasn’t a great of deal of respect for Sci-fi stories, and movies based on them. John Chambers managed to crack the formula, even beating Stanley Kubrick’s team to the punch at the Oscars the following year, who was using actors in “monkey suits” for the opening scene of his landmark Science Fiction masterpiece, 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968). Chambers and his team started by making molds of the actors faces, and then breaking the makeup down in different pieces that could be applied separately. At one time during the production, Chambers had as many as 80 makeup artists working all together to produce all the necessary prosthetics needed not only for the principal actors, but for all the extras as well. Chambers had the whole crew working non-stop to have enough spares, because the different pieces tended to break up due to intensive heat. Actors were advised to stay inside their air-conditioned trailers when they weren’t required to be on-set, to eat non-solid food, so little pieces of food wouldn’t get stuck in between the jaw piece (which often happened), and to eat in front of a mirror, so they wouldn’t make a mess of their makeup. For those on the crew who had to wear makeup, and were heavy smokers (like it was the case with Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans, for instance), they were given large cigarette holders, to keep both the heat and smoke from the cigarette from ruining the makeup as well. Even though it was an early morning call for all those involved, and the make-up process was still a painstaking and slow one, Chambers’s crew got so good at it that they managed to reduce its application from six to three hours.
To re-write the script, the Studio hired screenwriter Michael Wilson. As mentioned before, Wilson had already been involved in adapting one of Pierre Boulle’s books, The Bridge on the River Kwai. A victim of the Hollywood Blacklist in the 50s, Wilson had been steadily working his way back to artistic recognition, and the Planet of the Apes script was the perfect opportunity for the writer to get back into the limelight. He not only americanised the names of two of the astronauts, changing them from Thomas and Lavefer to Taylor and Landon, he changed the whole setting and aesthetic of the story; now the Ape City, aptly renamed Ape town, was a series of arboreal-like structures connected by aerial passageways, that aesthetically resembled the work of Antoni Gaudí. The Apes still used firearms as weapons, but the rest of their society was a primitive one, with very few technological advances, still making use of horse-drawn carriages, and horses as their main mode of transportation. The first part of Serling’s script in which the ship lands in a valley, and the astronauts use an all-terrain vehicle to explore the planet, but have to abandon after it gets caught in quicksand, and sucked under, was dropped. That’s when the long trek across the desert idea was introduced. The ship crash lands in a lake in Wilson’s script, never to be seen again, and the crew had to abandon it in a hurry. All these changes were implemented to cut down the costs of the production. Wilson also rewrote most of the dialogue, added little touches like turning the fourth astronaut Stewart, from a man into a woman and the scene in which Landon pitches a small American flag on the ground once they reach the shore, and more importantly, rewrote the ending. The Statue of Liberty twist was still there, but he drastically changed Taylor’s fate. Another idea that was included in Wilson’s script, but ultimately dropped in the final cut of the movie was Nova being pregnant. It was decided that this side plot would be too much of a distraction, and the filmmakers wanted to move ahead with the story. He streamlined the script from a heavily-dialogued parabole on the place of man in the universe, and the Class system, into more of a straightout Sci-fi adventure with a political undertone. That political undertone, most notable in the trial scene, was probably a product of Wilson’s own experience during the McCarthy era, and how he was mistreated at that time. It’s fairly obvious, and surprising that he was able to sneak it in without anyone noticing. Further dialogue rewrites and scene re-structuring were done on-set and on location by writer John T. Kelley, with additional input by Charlton Heston who ad-libbed, or re-wrote some of his own dialogue, most notably for the last scene, in which he went back and forth with the producers on whether he could use the word damn on-screen for his last line of dialogue.
The film was shot mainly in Utah, Arizona, at the Fox Ranch, located in Malibu Creek State Park, and in soundstages 20 and 22 at Fox Studios. The first location proved to be the more agonizing for both the cast and crew. The high temperatures, and remote location, where all the shooting equipment had to be transported via helicopter and mules, took its toll, with many actors and crew members fainting because of the heat. Right before shooting started, Fox cut down the filming schedule from the already agreed 55 days, down to 45. It also didn’t help that Schaffner was taking a very long time to film the scenes of the trek along the desert. The brass back at Fox Studios, who were screening dailies of the shot material every night, were getting restless, and started inquiring Schaffner as to the purpose of taking such a long time in setting up, and filming those shots. Schaffner was adamant that these were very important scenes in the movie that would help set up the tone of the story for the rest of the movie. On location accidents, like some boulders suddenly crashing downhill, destroying equipment, and almost causing serious injury or death to some of the cast and crew, made it all the more important that Schaffner wrap up shooting there. In the end, Associate Producer Mort Abrahams, Arthur P. Jacobs’s man on the ground, had to renegociate the shooting schedule in order to have more days to finish the movie, in case they ultimately went over the allotted time. Another point of contention that was fortunately quickly resolved was Schaffner’s choice of DP for the movie. The Award winning Leon Shamroy had clashed with Heston when they had worked together in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstassy (1965), due to how long the Cinematographer took to set up and light his shots. Heston felt that too much time had been wasted waiting for Shamroy on that production, and with the reduced filming schedule imposed by Fox on Apes, he didn’t want to repeat the experience. He spoke up against the Studio hiring him, but was ultimately overridden. The age of Shamroy coupled with his way of working, and the often unbearable weather conditions in the Arizona location, was a cause for concern for most of the crew but, against all odds, Shamroy turned out to be the consummate professional, surrounding himself with a group of assistants that would take light measurements, and set up shots when either the weather conditions, or the terrain made it impossible for him to do it himself.
The whole of Ape town was built out at the Fox Ranch, in Malibu Creek State Park. It was made to resemble the architecture of famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. The base structure was made out of metal pencil rods around which there were placed a malleable form of cardboard that could be bent and made into any shape the set designers wanted. The interior of those would then be filled with a rapidly expandable form of foam that would harden quickly, after which the cardboard outer structure could be removed, and you had a fully-funtioning, sturdy structure. To give the impression that Ape Town was actually bigger than it appeared, cardboard cutouts of the buildings were strategically placed around the surrounding hills to give the set more depth, achieving the illusion by using forced perspective. William Creber was the set designer in charge of building Ape town, and also a life size mock-up of the conically-shaped spaceship that was anchored to the bottom of Lake Powell, Arizona, for the scenes in which the astronauts are trying to escape the sinking spaceship. The final shots of the ship sinking to the bottom of the lake were achieved using a mixture of models and matte paintings to enlarge the mountainous background. For the shots of the spaceship crash landing, the filmmakers decided not to show the ship physically crashing into the lake, but resorted to a more traditional method, by showing tilting camera angles of an airborne object coming nearer and nearer to the ground, as though from the ship’s main cabin window POV. To achieve this effect, the crew strapped a camera to the nose of an airplane, but due to the dreadful weather conditions, the resulting footage was unusable. In the end, the editor had to cobble together whatever footage they could find to make up the shot. But the more complex shot of the whole movie was that of Taylor and Nova finding the rusted Statue of Liberty half-buried in the beach. It was achieved by building mock-ups of both the torch and the crown and placing them on top of a scaffold structure for the reverse, high angle crane shot of Taylor looking up at the statue from down on the beach. Both the torch and crown were made out of a very light material that made them easy to move around, and the crew painted and aged both models to make them look ancient and rusted. The whole sequence, as were those that take place in the beachside archeological dig, were shot at Zuma Beach, Malibu, California. The last iconic shot of the half-buried Statue of Liberty is actually a matte painting by matte artist Emil Kosa Jr, made to match with a cliffside at the end of the beach whose rock face had some moss that resembled rusted metal.
The sound mixing for the movie was another example of the Studio trying to cut as much financial corners as they could. They decided that they would use the Sound Library at Fox Studios, which is why some of the sounds heard in the movie sound so familiar, as they had used them before in hundreds of movies and TV shows. Whatever shortcomings the sound mix might have, (I never found it to be an issue, by the way), Jerry Goldsmith’s magnificently inventive score more than made up for them. Dealing with the theme of an upside down world in which the predominant species is the Ape, Goldsmith did lots of experimentation with instrumentalization to bring across the weirdness of the movie’s subject matter. Especially notable are his track for the trek along the desert titled The Searchers, The Hunt, The Revelation, and those for The Forbidden Zone.
The movie was a massive success. It made $33,4 million on a budget of $5,8 in North American territories alone, garnering very good reviews in the process. People just flocked to see the movie, which immediately got the attention of the producers at Fox who wanted to monetize the phenomenon for all its worth. So, how did that work out?
The movie not only spawned four sequels ( Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 1970, Escape from the Planet of the Apes,1971, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, 1972, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 1973), of varying quality, and box office success, and for which they even managed to convince Charlton Heston to come back for the first one, but it also spawned two TV series, one live action which run for 14 episodes in 1974, in which Roddy McDowall came back to play the role of Dr Galen (he also starred in three out of the four sequels, being unable to return for Beneath due to scheduling conflicts), a cartoon series which run from 1975-1976, and produced 13 episodes, a remake directed by Tim Burton in 2001, and a franchise reboot that started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017). Marvel Comics also licensed a long-running comic book series, action figures and diverse Apes-related merchandise was produced, and lastly on August 28, 2018, Rod Serling was finally given his due when his original, unproduced script was adapted into graphic novel form by BOOM! Studios with the title Planet of the Apes: Visionaries, with writer Dana Gould, and graphic artist Chad Lewis as the creative minds behind it. I’ve had the chance to read it, as well as some of the script drafts he wrote, and I can’t help but wonder whether Serling’s version would’ve been a better movie on the long run, or not. Maybe as an intellectual exercise it would have endured longer, and got more praise from the critics than Wilson’s version did. I guess it’s just a matter of preference. I find myself enjoying both takes on the story for completely different reasons, and think that Serling’s script, which I think is brilliant, and more faithful to the novel, would’ve made an equally interesting and powerful movie, and don’t find writer Dana Gould’s assertion that Paul Newman would’ve made an interesting Thomas all that far-fetched. As it has been proven over the years with the multiple sequels, remakes and reboots, there’s plenty to be enjoyed in the Planet of the Apes universe. That’s the brilliance of Pierre Boulle’s book; it created, without the author suspecting it, a whole universe of its own, open to multiple interpretations. So, what do I think about the book and its big screen counterpart?
I think the concept is brilliant in either form. The book is more of a parabole about the frailty of the human condition, the consequences of our self-destructive nature, and the ever-present class divide system that’s inherit to every species, especially Men, who think are on top of the food chain. As for the movie adaptation, even though at its core, it definitely retains its social and political themes, it’s more of a crowd pleaser, there to, first and foremost, entertain you, while sneaking in a message or two. Does it work? It definitely does. Both book and film do, each in their own special way. The main plot is there, and so are the great characters, brilliantly brought to life by Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and Maurice Evans. Each of the writers who worked on the different drafts over the years, trying to adapt Boulle’s book, brought their unique perspective and personality to it. As I said, the material lends itself to it. Even some of the writers who would years later come to work on the sequels, remakes and reboots like Paul Dehn, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, would still draw inspiration from the original novel, and original movies, some even given them brilliant twists like Paul Dehn on Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
Planet of the Apes is not only a top-notch piece of cinematic entertainment, it also left us a legacy that still to this day, goes on. Every aspect of this movie seemed to come together at the perfect time, perfect place, and with the absolute best creative minds to bring forth the world created by Pierre Boulle. It is possibly one of the most challenging, and interesting characters ever played by Heston too. Being used at the time to being seen as the perfect cinematic hero, this role was quite a turn-around for him. Not only is Taylor fallible, arrogant and a downright cinic, he’s also a realist; he has no illusions as to the ultimate condition of mankind; men as a social experiment is a failure. Not to mention anything about what Heston went through while shooting the movie. He went through Hell. Make no mistake about it. He put his heart and soul into this one role, and for an actor cursed, as he was, with a very limited dramatic range, he sure as hell gave it his all. Picked up a chest cold from being constantly hosed down with cold water, and running around semi-naked, not to say anything about the high temperatures he and his fellow cast and crew members suffered while shooting on location in the Arizona desert. It was the role of a lifetime, and he knew it. It didn’t hurt that Franklin J. Schaffner always knew how to make the best use of him. He did it on The War Lord, and did it again on Planet of the Apes. But that’s enough about Chuck. What about the rest of the cast?
They’re all unforgettable. All three of them made their respective roles their own. Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall are wonderful as Dr Zira and Dr Cornelius, the two friendly chimpanzees who befriend Taylor. Hunter would return for two of the sequels, and McDowall for three, plus the short-lived TV series, but it’s no wonder the producers kept coming back to them to reprise their roles. A especial mention should be given to Maurice Evans as the malicious, and backwards-thinking Dr Zaius. One cannot help but wonder what Edward G. Robinson’s take on the character would’ve been. We did get a taste, however brief, of what that would’ve been like in the makeup screen test, and it was great; but it’s hard to now disassociate Evans from the character given what he was able to achieve with it. It’s like asking yourself what Kevin Spacey’s version of J. Paul Getty, (surely tacked away in a vault somewhere), on Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017), would have been compared to that of the great, late Christopher Plummer. I’m sure he would’ve been equally great, but the thing is that once an actor makes an iconic character his own, it becomes very difficult to see past them. All three actors are not only mainstays of the first movie, but of the saga as a whole.
On a technical level, the movie passes the test with flying colours. Given the amount of cheating and corner-cutting the crew had to do to try and bring the movie in with as small a price tag as they could, it’s amazing how colourful, pristine and good looking it turned out to be. No doubt thanks to Leon Shamroy’s intricate lighting schemes, and William Creber’s imaginative Production Design. Schaffner conducts his personal orchestra with a firm hand, giving the film on occasion a documentary feel, aided with the extensive use of hand-held camera shots. That coupled with Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully eerie score helps to set the right tone for the movie, just as Schaffner always intended. There’s still lots to talk about when it comes to Planet of the Apes, and in time, I intend to cover each one of the sequels, which have their own merits. But first of all, I think it might be a good idea to tackle the much maligned 2001, Tim Burton-helmed remake which, imperfect though it may be, and definitely not in the same league as the original, or some of the sequels, it deserves some love and appreciation for what Burton was trying to achieve. But that’s a discussion for another day. Until then…
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When Batman came out on June 1989, it took the world by storm. Anticipation for the release of the first serious attempt to bring the Dark Knight to the big screen had been building up for months. It could be said that this movie had the most effective, and massive marketing campaign ever done for a movie. People were really pumped to see what the filmmakers at Warner Bros. had been cooking up in the UK for months. Secrecy surrounding the movie got people even more excited, and by the time the first box office figures started coming in, all those who had poured their heart, time, artistry, and money into the movie, knew they had a hit in their hands. One for the ages. Getting there though, had not been easy. It was a long, winding road that took 10 long years to finally produce what Michael Uslan, one of the chief architects behind it all, described as the definitive big screen version of the character as both Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned it all those years ago.
To say that making Batman was a difficult and arduous process would be a bit of an understatement. When Michael Uslan, a self-confessed Batman fan, and teacher at the University of Indiana, (the first ever in the US to teach a course about comic books), was approached, first by DC comics, where he spent a few years writing comic books, and later on by United Artists; he set himself the goal of making the first serious Batman movie for the big screen. Uslan felt that the character wasn’t taken seriously because of the 1960s Batman TV show (1966-1968), and that the campy nature of that show had tainted the legacy of the character in subsequent years. The Caped Crusader created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 for issue number 27 of Detective Comics, had been envisioned as a myterious and brooding character, that had been diluted in subsequent years in an attempt to appeal to wider readership and TV audiences alike, in its numerous comic book runs and TV iterations. At the time, Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978), had been a massive success at the box office, and Uslan felt that the time was right to get a Batman movie off the ground. Along his associate Benjamin Melniker, whom Uslan had met at UA, and who found Uslan’s ideas very compelling, he optioned the rights to adapt the character for both cinema and animation, but not TV. They also contacted Tom Mankiewicz, who’d been responsible in large part for restructuring Superman’s script into a cohesive whole. Mankiewicz wrote two drafts, and his script was the one Uslan and Melniker used to shop around the project. Even though the deal had been made to hire Mankiewicz to write the movie, and some conceptual art sketches had been drawn; Uslan and Melniker failed to capture the interest of any of the Studios. It is fair to say that, although Mankiewicz’s efforts were worthy at the time, the writing style he applied to the Caped Crusader was not dissimilar to the one he’d used for the Man of Steel a few years earlier, a mistake he admitted to have made, as both characters are quite different from one another, and should be approached in a different manner. Mankiewicz’s script does have some interesting elements to it. It does go deep into exploring Batman’s origin story; the murder of his parents, his training, the discovery of the Batcave, and the setting up of the Batman persona. On the other hand, it lacks action, and some of the side plots are redundant, or aren’t explored enough. He does introduce the Joker as a fully formed character, as the main villain of the piece, and as in later drafts, he has a hand in Thomas and Martha Wayne’s demise. Bruce’s love interest, Silver St Cloud, plays a similar role to the one that Vicki Vale in Sam Hamm’s draft plays for what would eventually become Tim Burton’s Batman, with a different fate for her character at the end of the story, depending on which draft you happen to come across. The first of Mankiewicz’s drafts is too stuffed with characters, and silly concepts that don’t go anywhere; like Penguin’s small cameo in the story, whom the Joker makes a deal with to get rid of Batman. And in both drafts, Robin is worked into the plot, and plays an integral part in the finale. Now, the finale in whatever draft you read, is nothing short of fantastic. It takes place in Gotham’s museum, during a writing exhibit, which includes giant type writers, pencils, and pencil sharpeners. It is in fact, by way of getting pushed into a huge pencil sharpener, that the main villain meets his demise. The script is quirky in places, has some very nice dialogue (Mankiewicz’s stronger suit), but it lacks the action and dramatic drive necessary to push the story, and characters along; something that I feel could’ve been improved upon with subsequent rewrites. In order for the property not to languish in development hell, Uslan and Melniker made a deal with producers Peter Gruber and Jon Peters. Gruber was part of Casablanca Records, a musical label that had recently created a movie division. Gruber was sold on the idea of making a serious Batman movie, and together with Uslan and Melniker, kept on trying to shop around the project. It wasn’t actually until Frank Miller’s four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986, that the Caped Crusader was validated in the big Studio heads’ eyes, as a hot property to be taken seriously. After Universal’s refusal to back the project, Warner Bros. started to take an interest in it. Warner felt that, as a DC comic character, like Superman, Batman should stay under their roof.
This is the moment in which Tim Burton came into the picture. The director caught the attention of the hire ups at Warner when they saw the two shorts he’d directed for Disney (Vincent, 1982), and ( Frankenweenie, 1984). He’d also directed his first feature film (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985), and (Beetlejuice, 1988), both for Warner Bros. The director felt he was languishing at Disney, without nothing much to do, and so he jumped at the opportunity to work with Warner Bros. His first two feature movies were also kind of a test by Warner to see if the filmmaker could handle both the pressure of a big budget movie, and generate a box office hit at the same time. Even though Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure hadn’t been a massive success, Beetlejuice was; which gave Warner the confidence to hand over the reins of the Batman production over to him. These were uncharted waters for Burton, but for a filmmaker used to dealing with small, relatively low budget movies, he demonstrated to have a great resolve, and character to push through the whole production.
With so many failed attempts to get the character right on the page, and the revolving-door of directors who’d been at one time or another attached to the project, Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman chief among them, it was time to bring the character up to date under one unified vision. Sam Hamm was a contract writer at Warner who’d been asked personally by Burton to write the script for Batman. Hamm was very excited by the prospect, and immediately started working on a first draft which would end up being the blueprint for what would end up on the big screen. Many of the elements of Hamm’s draft would be used for the movie, especially for the first two acts. There were important omissions, characters and situations that would be changed altogether, or flipped around in subsequent drafts though. On the first draft, the character of Robin was worked into the story, as part of a daytime chase sequence throughout the city at the end of the second act, in which Bruce Wayne has to give chase to the Joker, who’s kidnapped Vicki Vale. Bruce has to resort to wearing a stocking on his head to conceal his identity, and comandeers a police horse to go after the Joker, who’s escaped with his goons in a van. The Joker breaks into a Circus performance that is part of Gotham’s 200th year Anniversay celebrations, and provokes an accident that causes The Flying Graysons, Dick Grayson’s family of acrobats, to fall to their deaths while performing an aerial stunt. Grayson goes after the Joker, and almost gets killed, but is saved by Bruce at the last minute. The placement of this sequence, the fact that it took place during the daytime, and the introduction of the character of Robin so early in the precedings felt too forced, and was ultimately dropped. The relationship between important characters like Vicki Vale, Alexander Knox and Bruce Wayne was also altered during subsequent drafts. Vicki Vale is a stronger character in Hamm’s first draft, she has a strong friendship with Knox, whom she’s known for years, and Knox has strong feelings for her, which drive him to threaten Bruce Wayne to expose him as The Batman unless he agrees to end his affair with Vale. He then redeems himself when he dies at the end of the movie while trying to help Batman fight the Joker. The ending was also much darker. It also takes places at the top of Gotham’s Cathedral, like in the movie, with a battered and bruised Batman climbing to the top of the tower to confront Joker, with the distinct difference that he’s attached a bomb to his Batsuit to take both him and The Joker out. In the end, it is a horde of flying bats that causes the Joker to fall to his death. Warts and all, this was basically the script Tim Burton and his crew were using when they started shooting the movie at Pinewood Studios, in the UK. Being prevented to work on the movie while it was in production because of a Writers Guild strike, the producers hired another writer, Warren Skaaren to do on-set rewrites on the fly. Skaaren dramatically altered the structure of the script’s third act, getting rid of most of the side plots, changing dialogue, characters’ motivations, and adding a couple of changes to the storyline that, still to this day, annoy the fans; Vicki Vale being let into the Batcave by Alfred, and The Joker being the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This last change was one that drastically altered the origin story as written in the comic books, in which Joe Chill, a common thug, had been the one responsible. A fact that had been respected even by Tom Mankiewicz in his early 80s drafts. Both changes had been suggested by Tim Burton on-set, but it wouldn’t be the last minute script change in the movie. After Jack Nicholson and producer Jon Peters had gone out to see The Phantom of the Opera on stage, they came back with the suggestion that the Joker takes Vicki Vale at gun point to the top of Gotham’s cathedral, and they have a dance while waiting for Batman to show up. Peters had also made suggestions regarding some of the fight scenes, which Burton used as, by his own admission, he wasn’t a action director.
As seen in the movie, the story goes like this. The criminal element in Gotham City are scared witless because of the constant sightings of a black figure that looks like a giant bat. Gotham Globe news reporter Alexander Knox is chasing the story, but neither the police, nor his colleagues will believe him. Newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent, along with Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, has vowed to rid the city of the crime and corruption that has plagued it for years, especially going up against the major crime figure in the city; Mob boss Carl Grissom. Grissom feels threatened, and so he sends his second in command, Jack Napier, to get rid of some compromising files stored in one of Grissom’s businesses, Axis Chemical. Unbeknownst to Napier, Grissom has already taken care of it, and the raid is just an excuse to get rid of Napier, as he knows that Jack is having an affair with his kept woman, Alicia Hunt. It is also unknown to Grissom that Jack has ambitions of his own to become the next crime boss in Gotham. Meanwhile Alexander Knox runs into photojournalist Vicki Vale, who seems to be the only one interested in his Batman story. Vicki Vale has secured invitations to a Gala organised by Bruce Wayne, millionaire and philanthropist, to promote Dent and Gordon’s fight against crime. Knox and Vale are hoping to run into Commisioner Gordon at the Gala, who’s rumoured to have a file on The Batman. They both fail to get answers from Gordon, but end up meeting the elusive Bruce Wayne, who’s immediately taken by Vale’s charms. Wayne is then called aside by his butler, Alfred, to inform him that Commissioner Gordon has had to leave the party unexpectedly. Bruce leaves in a hurry, and after studying the footage from his security cameras in the Batcave, he discovers that Jack Napier and his men are raiding Axis Chemicals at that very moment. He then assumes the identity of his alter ego, The Batman, and goes to the factory. During the police raid at Axis Chemicals, Batman dispatches Napier’s goons in short order, and is in the process of apprehending Jack, when he’s interrupted by Bob The Goon, who threatens to kill Gordon, unless Batman let go of Jack. Jack takes the opportunity to try and shoot Batman, but Batman uses his reinforced gauntlet to deflect the bullet, which ricochets, and hits Napier in the face. Napier stumbles and falls into a vat of acid, in spite of Batman’s efforts to save him. When he re-emerges to the surface, he’s badly disfigured, and has a constant grin on his face as a consequence of his exposure to the acid. He’s become the Joker. And he vows to destroy The Batman. Bruce Wayne invites Vicki Vale out on a date at Wayne Manor, and the two of them hit it off. Bruce is afraid that his ever growing romantic feelings for Vale will get in the way of his crusade against crime, and tries to push her away. In the meantime, the Joker has assumed control of Gotham’s criminal underworld after killing Carl Grissom, and the rest of the criminal heads of the city. He’s also fully embraced his new identity as the Joker, taken Axis Chemicals as his headquarters, and used an old chemical formula development by the CIA back in the day as part of their abandoned chemical warfare program to create Smylex. This poison provokes the victim to die of uncontrollable laughing fits, leaving a gruesome grin on the victim’s faces as a byproduct. He manages to hold the city at ransom, by mixing lots of cosmetic products at the source, thus rendering the citizens of Gotham City susceptible to die by Smylex. Now is up to The Dark Knight to rise up to the challenge, and stop the Joker before it’s too late.
The casting of Batman wasn’t without its problems. For the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Burton decided to go with an unusual choice; that of character actor Michael Keaton. Keaton was best known for his roles in Clean & Sober (Glenn Gordon Caroll, 1988), and especially his comedic role in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). It was actually this role that actually made the public panic, as everybody thought that the movie would eventually go into campy territory. The reasoning behind having Keaton don the Batsuit was that Burton couldn’t think of a single serious actor who could wear the outfit without eliciting a laugh from the audience. He thought that a semi-unknown actor like Keaton, who didn’t especially look physically imposing, but had that inner determination that he’d shown to have in his more dramatic roles, could pull it off, and make it believable. Burton also thought that it was perfect in the sense that Keaton as Bruce Wayne really did need to wear the suit to transform him into Batman, and make him more menacing; so there would be a clear divide between the Bruce Wayne persona and the Batman persona. But what really gave the production its momentum, and turn him into the biggest commercial draw and marketing tool of the movie, was the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/The Joker. The tremendously charismatic actor was the first and only choice to play the role. The producers thought that if they could nab him, they could ensure the financial success of the movie. Nicholson accepted in exchange for a sizable fee, and a good chunk of the box office profits. The astute deal made Nicholson a very wealthy man, much in the same way that it had made Marlon Brando very wealthy, when he signed on to play Jor-El in Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978). The marketing strategy employed wasn’t dissimilar to what the Salkinds had done when they wanted to get their Superman movie off the ground. Get a big name on the marquee, and the rest of the pieces would fall into place.
For the part of Bruce Wayne’s love interest, photojournalist Vicki Vale, the producers had already hired Sean Young. She was already four weeks into Pre-production when she fell off a horse while training for the sequence in which Vale is invited by Bruce Wayne on a date to Wayne Manor, and they end up riding horses around the state. The severe injuries the actress suffered prevented her from taking on the role, and had to be substituted at the last minute by Kim Basinger, who was faxed the entire script overnight, accepted the role, and was on a plane on her way to England the next day.
For the role of Bruce Wayne’s faithful servant Alfred, Burton wanted classic British actor Michael Gough. Burton was a fan of the actor and especially his multiple participations in the Hammer movies. Pat Hingle played the role of Commisioner Gordon, and would actually go on to reprise his role, just like Michael Gough, in the subsequent Batman sequels, Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), Batman Forever (Joel Schumacher, 1995), and Batman & Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997). Two actors who would sadly never get to appear on subsequent movies, or reprise their roles were Robert Wuhl as Journalist Alexander Knox, and especially Billy Dee Williams as District Attorney Harvey Dent. Williams accepted the role in the hopes that he’d be asked to come back in future sequels to reprise his role as Harvey Dent’s villainous alter ego, Two Face.
Other important screen contributions were those of Walter Tracey as Bob the Goon, the Joker’s faithful lieutenant (Tracey was good a good friend of Jack Nicholson, and was cast as a personal favour to him), model and actress Jerry Hall, who was dating musician Mick Jagger at the time, plays the part of the Joker’s ill-fated girlfriend Alicia Hunt, and last, but not least, Jack Palance as Mob boss Carl Grissom. Jack Palance was ostensibly chosen because Burton needed someone with as much a big screen presence as Nicholson to play his boss.
The decision was made to shoot the movie in the backlot at Pinewood Studios due to the unavailability of sound stages big enough in the US to accommodate the sets the production team wanted to build. Production Design was done by Anton Furst, who designed Gotham using a mixture of Industrial and Art Deco architecture. The idea was to place the action of the movie in an undefined time period, to give the whole movie a 40s Noir style, but mixed in with modern elements. This notion comes to the fore in the design of some of the buildings facades, like the City Hall, The Monarch Theater, the interior of the Gotham Globe, or Alicia Hunt’s penthouse. All of this in direct contrast to the dirt, grime, and rundown aspect of downtown Gotham. The Gotham skyline would be further extended by the use of matte paintings. Another element that helps the movie further that 40s look is the choice of wardrobe for some of the characters, especially Jack Napier’s and the rest of the gang members suits throughout the movie. Jack Nicholson’s suits were especially tailored for him by Savile Row. Of course, all that aspect of the design is thrown out the window once Jack Napier becomes The Joker, and his outfits get more colourful and outrageous until the end of the movie. Bob Ringwood was the costume designer for the movie, but the single most difficult and striking costume in the whole movie, and one that in my opinion has never been recreated to quite the same degree of intricacy, and faithfulness to the design in the comic books in subsequent movies, is the Batsuit. The whole concept and design, with the black muscle suit, the cape, the boots, the cowl, and especially the black Batshield on an oval bright yellow background is just iconic. A silicon mold of Keaton’s body was made, and then all the different rubber pieces of the suit were sculpted using the mold as a reference. The crew experimented with different kinds of materials for the cape, sometimes heavier, sometimes lighter, but the suit was extremely heavy, hot and uncomfortable to wear; to the point that different stunt people, like professional fighters, dancers and so forth, would have to perform different actions in it when required. Another issue was the limited field of vision the actor had once they put the cowl on, and the fact that the cowl/cape piece was so heavy that the actor would find it very difficult to turn the head. This resulted in what would become to be known as the Bat-turn, in which the actor had to turn his whole body around in one single movement to face a specific camera angle. Even if Jack Nicholson didn’t have to deal with the problem of wearing a heavy, uncomfortable rubber suit, he did have to contend with a more sticky issue on a daily basis. The intricate makeup design that makeup artist Nick Dudman had to create for Nicholson was a long and ardous process of trial and error, in which Dudman had to come up with a way of transforming the actor into the Joker without burying the actor’s performance in the process due to an overload of makeup. Dudman actually molded the character’s extreme grin on Nicholson’s own making a mould of the actor’s face while pulling the most extreme of grins, and another on a normal pose. He then used both molds to work around them, and try to come up with a look that, without losing the character’s iconic look, would still allow Nicholson’s performance to shine through. Another very important design element of the movie was the iconic Batmobile. Several designs had cropped up over the years in the different comic book runs, and TV shows, but this time around, the production team wanted to create a design that would make it stand apart from everything that had come before. The main body of the vehicle was moulded in polystyrene, which was then used as a guideline to finish it off in fiber glass. The whole aesthetic of the vehicle gave it a very sleek, and aerodynamic look, with batwing motifs used for the rear fenders. It is to this day, at least to me, the most iconic of all the looks the Batmobile has had over the years, with the exception perhaps of the look of the 1960’s TV show Batmobile. For the chase scenes in which the Batmobile is chased around the city by Joker’s goons, the crew had to be very careful not to run out of set. As big as the Pinewood backlot, and the Gotham street set was, it wasn’t that big that the crew could film the whole sequence in one take. In fact, given the limited road space inside the set, they had to shoot the whole sequence in several passes, and keeping the speed down, so it wouldn’t be too obvious that they were running out of road, as when the Batmobile was road tested, the crew found that it could go up to 90 mph, no problem. The Batwing too makes an appearance at the end of the movie, but the majority of the shots in which it appears were achieved through the use of model work for those long shots of the aerial vehicle zooming through the Gotham skyline, and those that show the Batwing crashing on the steps at the foot of the cathedral. All the model shots were done by model maker wizard Derek Meddings, a legend in the business who’d made a name for himself working on the James Bond movies and Richard Donner’s Superman, just to name a few. The close ups of Keaton inside the Batwing’s cockpit were done by using a mock up of the cockpit mounted on a gimbal, with a rear projection plate on the background. The Batcave was a very faithful recreation of what fans were familiar with from the comic book. There was no Tyrannosaurus Rex, or giant Penny, like in the early comic books, or the Tom Mankiewicz draft, but it was a very atmospheric piece of set decoration.
The shooting conditions were very trying on the whole cast and crew. They shot for a period of up to three months, six days a week, in freezing conditions in the middle of Winter, mostly at night, from four in the afternoon, ( when it was already dark), till six o’clock the next morning. Burton complained that he didn’t see the light of day for months. Cinematographer Roger Pratt also admitted that it was very difficult to light the immense sets, but ended up doing a remarkable job considering the circumstances.
For the soundtrack of the movie, Burton brought in his long-time collaborator Danny Elfman. Elfman was quite apprehensive at first about taking on the project, as he’d never worked on anything of this scale before. He had prepared several tracks for the movie for a sort of test in front of the producers. He started by playing several of the tracks at random, and after seeing that Peters wasn’t particularly impressed by what he was listening to, Burton insisted that Elfman play the Batman march, which immediately got Peters off his feet. He was in fact so impressed by the music that he told Burton that they’d commision Elfman’s music to be sold separately as another disc, which he did. This was a very uncommon practice at the time. Another Warner label artist came to work on the movie; Prince. Prince came to visit the set while they were shooting, and was so inspired by what he saw that he came up with a whole album comprised of nine songs in total, when he was only asked to compose two, with the most prevalent being Partyman, Trust, and Scandalous.
The movie was also famous for using sound effects from English studios sound libraries that had been used over the years for movies and TV shows produced in the UK. Danny Elfman went on record complaining that the movie was edited and mixed in England by sound engineers who didn’t care, but it is precisely the dated quality of some of these sound effects that give the movie its charm. Not surprisingly, fans of the movie went up in arms when the movie was remastered in 4K, and given a new Dolby Atmos sound mix, which enhanced, or altogether replaced all the old sound effects. Unfortunately, for those wanting to upgrade to 4K, the old Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that was present on both the DVD, and the Bluray, is no longer an option.
To create an appetite for the movie, Warner released a teaser trailer that immediately got audiences very exciting about the upcoming movie. Fans were in fact so pumped to see the trailer thay they would try and find which movies at the cinema were showing the Batman teaser to go in and see it, even if it meant getting up and leaving right after. By the time the day of the premiere at the Westwood Theater in Los Angeles came around, people had already been lining up outside the theater for days. The movie had a total worldwide gross of $411,6 million, even though the critical reception was mostly tepid. Fans of the character finally got the serious Batman movie they had been waiting for years. So, was it it really worth the wait?
Yes, it was. The movie works on a lot of levels. It treats the source material with respect, and the character is suitably dark, brooding and mysterious, like he’s supposed to be. From a purely visual perspective, it’s a beautiful movie to look at. It’s got a very intricate Production Design (its strongest virtue, by far), great special effects, and a smashing score by Danny Elfman, whose next effort for the sequel, Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), would be even more nuanced than the original, which is not always the case when a composer repeats in a sequel. As far as the acting goes, Michael Keaton does a commendable job. He’s not the best actor who’s played the role, that merit still goes to Ben Affleck, but he does try his darnest to give the character some depth, and looks fantastic in the suit. So much for the naysayers who claimed he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Kim Basinger does a decent job, even if her role is mostly relegated to be eye candy, which is a pity given how her character was first envisioned by Sam Hamm on his first draft. The rest of the actors do a very good job, despite most of them not be given much to do on screen. And yes, it was a real pity that Billy Dee Williams never came back to reprise his role as Harvey Dent/Two Face. But the absolute show stealer is Jack Nicholson. His larger-than-life portrayal of the Joker can sometimes go overboard, but he’s an absolute delight to watch every minute he’s on screen. His performance would pave the way for future actors portraying villains for the subsequent Batman sequels, creating a trend that’s the main pitfall that this movie, and the subsequent ones would fall into; the main villain, or villains, becoming the centrepiece of the story, relegating Batman to play second fiddle in his own movie. And that’s the main issue I have with this movie. Nicholson’s presence is so overwhelming, that he drowns out everyone around him. The movie lives and dies by Nicholson’s performance, not really giving much breathing room to the rest of the characters. It also doesn’t help that the movie lacks action, and what little there is, is quite average. Tim Burton has repeatedly admitted that he wasn’t, and still isn’t, an action director. It’s just not his thing. His focus has always mainly been on creating visually stunning worlds for his characters to live in. That’s why a mostly average plot, and action set pieces, but beautiful visuals, makes the whole movie rest even more heavily on Nicholson’s shoulders, which fortunately is not a problem, as the actor delivers in spades. In short, the movie relies most of all on the Joker to drive the story along, turning it into the Jack Nicholson show.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very good Batman movie. It’s the best of the original four that would be released between 1989 and 1997, and I have very fond memories about the first time I caught it on a TV airing. They publicized the movie airing for the first time on public TV for weeks before it actually came out, and I even remember taping it from TV one Christmas. It was a movie I constantly went back to, but as with most movies from my childhood that I had a great fondness for, this one started showing its cracks as soon as I started reaching adulthood. Do I still like it? Yes. Do I still think it is as good as I remember it? Unfortunately, no. Some people seem to place this movie on a pedestal, and while I still think that the movie plays an integral part in finally giving the character the respect it deserved, I also think that it is somewhat overrated. Not let this last opinion of mine discourage you from seeing the movie, though. It rightfully deserves its place in Cinema history, and it paved the way for how many superheroe movies would be made in subsequent years. It doesn’t reach the heights that Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie did. That’s still, in my opinion, the gold standard. But it was the movie that gave the Dark Knight, one of the best comic book characters ever created, the chance to finally rise.
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On June 1982, one of the most influential Sci-fi movies in Cinema history was released. It was based on a book written by prolific Science Fiction writer Phillip K Dick; Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it was a financial failure. But how come one of the highest regarded Science Fiction movies in history became a box office flop? What was it about this particular movie that drove people away from movie theaters at the time? And why did it have such a resounding critical re-appraisal after having had such dismal returns at the box office? Was it a movie ahead of its time? Too intricate, and complex in its storytelling to reach out to audiences? Blade Runner’s road to achieving the cult status it enjoys nowadays was a rocky one, to say the least. It is a journey worth taking, and we’re going to do it together. Nothing that I’m going to write about here is gonna be an eye-opener for those of you who, like myself, know the movie by heart. Countless pages have been written about the subject, and some very interesting and astounding visual accounts on Blade Runner’s movie making process have also been done over the years. When talking about Blade Runner lore, two names come to the fore; those of writer and film historian Paul M. Sammon, who wrote, what is to me, the definitive account on the making of Blade Runner; Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, and Film Restorer and Documentary maker, Charles de Lauzirika, and his efforts on compiling the largest assortment of Special features and Documentaries for Blade Runner’s 5-disc DVD, and consequently, Bluray Boxed sets, chief among them, Dangerous Days: The Making of Blade Runner; a treasure trove of Blade Runner factoids and trivia, that digs deep into the nitty-gritty of what it was like, for all those involved, to make this astounding picture. This is my very humble personal account of what I found most fascinating about the making of this movie, and my personal thoughts on the movie overall. So, let’s begin.
Hampton Fancher was a Hollywood actor, who thanks to his relative success in the Industry, and having recently come into some money, was well-off enough to think about becoming a producer instead. Through a friend of his, he learned of Phillip K. Dick’s work, and especially his novel; Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?. PKD was a struggling writer in a genre that at the time was frowned upon; Science Fiction. The bulk of his literary work revolved around the idea of state control, what it means to be human, how easily that humanity can slip away it the midst of a society increasingly obsessed with technology, and the fatal consequences that can derive from the misuse of said technology. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? tells the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter in a desolated and polluted Earth of the future, in which the vast majority of Society, those who can afford to do it anyway, have emigrated to Off-World colonies like Mars. In this future, set in the year 1992 in the first edition of the book, 2021 in later editions, artificial lifeforms who are practically identical to human beings called Androids, or Andys in the book, are manufactured by big corporations to fight Humanity’s space wars, and to serve the human colonists in whatever capacity they see fit. Some of these Androids escape to Earth from time to time, and it’s up to people like Deckard to hunt them down, and kill them. Almost all animal life on Earth is extinct, and it’s a great sign of social status the possession of a real animal, but for those who can’t afford that, they have to resort to buying an artificial one, like Deckard, who owns an artificial sheep. After having been informed that a bunch of new model of Androids, the NEXUS-6, have escaped from Mars, and are hiding somewhere on Earth, Deckard sees this as the perfect opportunity to earn enough money so him and his wife can buy a real sheep, like they’ve always dreamed of.
So it was that after having read the book, Fancher decided that it might be interesting enough to turn it into a movie. With that in mind, he set about trying to secure the rights. He found PKD, and secured a meeting. The thing was that some Hollywood producers had already tried to option the book, but PKD was extremely unhappy about the scripts these people had shown him, and didn’t want to have anything to do with Hollywood. Unable to convince him otherwise, it was only years later that a fellow actor, Brian Kelly, talked to him about wanting to produce a movie, and, in a last ditch effort, Fancher sent him in PKD’s direction. Surprisingly enough, PKD liked Kelly for some reason, and agreed to option the novel. It was now time to get down to business, and write a script they could use to show around and get people interested in. Actress Barbra Hershey, a good friend of Fancher’s, talked him into writing the script himself. Fancher had never thought of himself as a writer, but wrote an eight-page treatment, taking many elements from the source novel, which is what Kelly showed to a friend of his, British producer Michael Deely. Deely had recently achieved some success with the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), and although he didn’t like Fancher’s first treatment, or the first draft of the script he wrote after that, was still convinced that the story was intriguing enough to get a good picture out of it. Deely also had in mind the perfect director to bring PKD’s vision to life; Ridley Scott.
When Ridley Scott was first offered Blade Runner, he was still editing his second feature, Alien (1979). He’d also been offered, and had been working for some time on adapting Frank Herbert’s seminal Science Fiction novel Dune to the big screen. He felt that whatever he did next, he wanted it to be anything other than a Science fiction movie, and so rejected the picture. He did, however, upon reading Fancher’s script, find the story interesting, and always kept it in the back of his mind.
When the Dune project fell through, Scott decided to have a second look at the script. At that time, Scott had also suffered a personal loss. His older brother Jack had died of Cancer, and Ridley was desperately trying to cope with it by burying himself in his work. At that time, Fancher had already written a few more drafts of the script, and had changed the title several times too, from Android to Mechanismo, before finally settling on Dangerous Days, which was the working title the script had by the time Ridley came on board. But still Scott wasn’t satisfied with the title, and that’s how the title Blade Runner came about. While searching for a new title, Fancher came upon Blade Runner (a movie), a short science fiction story written by American writer William S. Burroughs. Fancher suggested the title to Scott, who loved it, and with the help of Deely, immediately set about securing the rights to use it. Burroughs agreed for the name to be used for a fee, and that was that. As soon as that happened, Ridley started suggesting changes to the script. In his opinion, the movie was a small affair, that took place basically inside small rooms, and in a few locations. Ridley wanted the characters in the story to live and breathe in the outside world. He wanted to, as he put it, “know what was outside the window”. Fancher had no idea, as he’d never thought about any of it, and that is when Ridley brought in Future Visualist Syd Mead, Production Designer Lawrence G. Paul, Art Director David L. Snyder, and Production Illustrator Tom Southwell, to flesh out the future world which the characters were going to inhabit. Scott also took inspiration for such revered works of art as the popular Heavy Metal comic strip, whose designs he would use to inspire his crew to come up with the look he wanted for his movie. Syd Mead was instrumental in this. At first, he’d only been brought in to design the vehicles for the movie. His designs were used to create the iconic look of the Spinner, the police cars, taxis, and Deckard’s sedan, but when drawing these vehicles, he would also design and draw the cityscapes and background environments around them, which gave Ridley a design standpoint from which to create the rest of the city. It was also Ridley’s idea to come up with a retrofitting look for the buildings’ set decoration. Ridley’s idea was that in the future no one would bother to fix something that was broken, choosing instead to work around existing buildings, and technology to keep everything going. His inspired idea of having tubes, and plumbing hanging outside of, and becoming part of the buildings’ architecture, became a source of inspiration for architects all over the world, and became a very important design fixture in movies taking place in the future and music videos from then on. It was actually a decision born more out of necessity than anything else, as we’ll see later on. In the meantime, the filmmakers’ deal that had been secured with Filmways, which was the production company that had agreed to finance the movie, fell apart.
Scott and his crew of Conceptual designers had already been working for several months on the picture, Filmways had invested $2 million dollars on the project, and the production was all but ready to roll cameras in two weeks, but the ever-increasing budget that went from $12 million dollars, which is what Filmways could allocate to the movie, to $20 million dollars, meant that Filmways had to pull the plug. That left Michael Deely, Scott, Associate Producer Ivor Powell, and Production Executive Katherine Haber, scrambling for someone to finance the movie in a very short time. Scott and his team of designers and Illustrators headed by Larry Paull and David Snyder put together a portfolio with all the conceptual design work they’d done so far, and went around to all the studios to try and get the financial backing to shoot the movie. This is how the three-way partnership deal came about, in which Alan Ladd Jr, who at the time was working for Warner Bros. agreed to put up around $8 million dollars of the budget, which gave Warner the Theatrical exhibition rights, Chinese Producer Run Run Shaw put up another $8 million for International distribution rights, and The tandem corporation made up of Jerry Perenchio, and Bud Yorkin would put up the rest. Yorkin and Perenchio had also taken a completion bond deal, which meant that if the movie was to go over budget, they would have to put up the rest of the money to complete the picture, which also meant that it effectively gave them Final cut control of the movie, on top of home video distribution and ancillary rights.
Ridley’s constant demands of changes on the script, had begun to take their toll on Hampton Fancher. Scott was constantly coming up with new ideas and designs, and wanted those changes implemented in the script, which resulted in Fancher writing a record-breaking eight drafts before he finally decided he’d had enough and quit the project, due to creative differences, and probably too, out of sheer exhaustion. That’s when screenwriter David Peoples came in. Peoples was a well regarded screenwriter, better known for the Oscar-nominated Documentary The Day after Trinity ( John H. Else, 1980) about the creator of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and came highly recommended by Ridley’s brother, Tony Scott, who would also go on to have an illustrious career as a filmmaker with titles like The Hunger (1983), Top Gun (1986), Days of Thunder (1990), and Déja Vú (2006). Scott and Deely set the writer up at the Chateau Marmont in LA, and gave him a copy of the script. As soon as he read it, he realized that Fancher’s last draft was so well written, there was nothing he could really do to make it better. He told both Deely and Scott about this, but soon found out that what Ridley really wanted was to have a screenwriter at hand to make the changes he wanted in the script, as Fancher had been unwilling to do so out of frustration. Peoples immediately realised that this wouldn’t be an easy task, as Scott was constantly coming up with new ideas on the spot, and Peoples was constantly rewriting lines of dialogue for the actors, both suggested by the actors themselves, as well as Ridley. Scott felt that the word Android had been over-used in both science fiction novels and films, and it was thanks to Peoples’ daughter, a Biology student, who told her father about replicating cells, that the title was changed from Android to Replicant. Scott had wanted from the very start to go with a film noir style for the movie, that would resemble the hardboiled feel of such classics as The Big Sleep ( Howard Hawks,1946), and The Maltese Falcon ( John Huston, 1941), but set in the future. A common fixture of this kind of movies was the use of a voice-over narration by the protagonist, an often-used storytelling device that would serve as sort of a guiding hand for the audience into both the story and the protagonist’s inner thought process. The voice-over had been a part of the scripting process as far back as when Fancher was still involved in the project; something that the actor who was to eventually portray Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford, was very much against.
Fancher has admitted that he had Robert Mitchum in mind to play Rick Deckard while he was writing the script. He felt that he perfectly embodied the cynicism and toughness required to play the part, and was at the time, still fit enough to do it. For better or for worse, it was never to be. Another actor who was seriously considered for the role was Dustin Hoffman. He was interested in the role, and had endless discussions with both Deely and Scott about it, but they both felt that the further Hoffman discussed his own ideas about the movie, the further the project was moving away from its original concept. Harrison Ford was fast becoming a major Hollywood star at the time due to his participation in the Star Wars movies, Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), and The Empire Strikes Back ( Irvin Kershner, 1980), and was also currently working on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), with Steven Spielberg. It was while he was there on the set of Raiders at Elstree Studios, London, that he was contacted by Deeley. He agreed to meet with the filmmakers at a nearby hotel, and after that meeting, he accepted to do it.
Production Executive Katherine Haber was the one who suggested Dutch actor Rutger Hauer for the role of Replicant Roy Batty. She showed Ridley several of the movies the actor had done in Holand with famed Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, Turkish Delight (1973), and Soldier of Orange (1977). The actor had also participated in an American movie already, Nighthawks ( Bruce Malmouth, 1981), alongside Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams. Scott liked so much what he saw that he cast Hauer without screen testing him, which almost gave him a heart attack when the actor showed up in very strange wear, and his hair bleached white, the first time they met.
For the part of Rachael, an unknowing Replicant, and Deckard’s eventual love interest, several actresses were tested; but it ultimately came down to actresses Nina Axelrod and Sean Young. A young actor named Morgan Paull, who bore a striking resemblance with Ford, both physically and in his voice, was used by the filmmakers to screen test the actresses who were going to play the part of the Replicants. He not only tested with Axelrod and Young, but also with Darryl Hannah, and Stacey Melkin, who were going for the part of Pris, another member of Batty’s group of Replicant fugitives. In the end, Scott decided on Sean Young, based purely on her looks, as he thought she was the perfect visual representation of the Rachael he had in mind, and Darryl Hannah as Pris. Stacey Melkin was to portray the role of Mary, the sixth Replicant from Batty’s group, but her character was ultimately eliminated due to budgetary reasons. Scott was very much aware of the lack of experience of the twenty-something Young, and tasked Katherine Haber with working with her to try and get the best out of her. Paull had done such a nice job with the screen tests, that the filmmakers decided to offer him the role of Blade Runner Holden, who gets nearly killed at the beginning of the movie by Leon, the other male Replicant member of Batty’s group. This role was to be portrayed by actor Brion James.
Actress Johanna Cassidy was chosen to play the role of Zhora, the last female member of Batty’s group. The beautiful, talented, and athletic actress was the perfect fit for the role. She also had the advantage of being comfortable around snakes, a very important characteristic of her character as she would be found by Deckard, performing on stage with a snake in a seedy nightclub. The actress was not only familiar with snakes, she also happened to own one, which was the same one that was used in the movie.
Edward James Olmos, most famously known for portraying the role of Lieutenant “Marty” Castillo in the hit Cop TV show Miami Vice (1984-1990), was chosen to play the role of Blade Runner Gaff, Deckard’s reluctant partner. Olmos was a creative force during the movie, and not only did he come up with the look and wardrobe for his character, which Scott equated to that of a well-to-do drug dealer, but was the driving force behind the creation of City speak, the jargon that his character speaks throughout the movie, a mix of Hungarian, German, Japanese and Spanish. As originally written on the page, the language most often used by Gaff is Japanese, but Olmos thought it would be an interesting idea to come up with a language for his character that would be heavily rooted in Esperanto. Scott thought it a brilliant idea, and let him go for it. It’s just a pity that it’s never really taken full advantage of during the movie, and most of his dialogue is mouthed in several scenes, but never heard out loud. It’s also barely mentioned in any of the subsequent cuts of the movie where the voice-over was scrapped, if at all.
For the role of Captain Bryant, Deckard’s superior, the filmmakers went with character actor M. Emmet Walsh. William Sanderson played the role of genetic engineer J.F Sebastian. Sebastian suffers from a rare condition called Methuselah Syndrome, that makes his glands age more quickly, giving him the appearance of being three times his age when he’s a little over twenty. This look was achieved thanks to Marvin G. Westmore’s incredible make up prosthetics, that give the actor’s skin the wrinkled look of an old person. Other roles went to James Hong, as Hannibal Chew, Tyrell Corp’s eye designer, and Joe Turkel, who plays the role of Eldon Tyrell. Hampton Fancher had Sterling Hayden, funnily enough another one of Stanley Kubrick’s alumni, in mind for the role. Turkel incidentally had shared the screen with Hayden in The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956), and would go on to play roles in two more Stanley Kubrick movies, Paths of Glory (1957), and The Shining (1980). It was his role on this last movie as the ghostly bartender Lloyd that called the attention of Scott to hire him for the role of Eldon Tyrell, much to Hampton Fancher’s chagrin, who would refer to Turkel simply as “the bartender from The Shining”. The actor at the time was going through a rough patch in his personal life, and had difficulty remembering his lines, so the crew would have cue cards at the ready, all around the sets, for the actor to deliver them. Incidentally he, along with Rutger Hauer were also the source of a rather embarrassing incident on set during the scene in which Roy Batty, infuriated by Tyrell’s lack of help, ends up killing him by gauging his eyes out and crashing his skull. Right before all that happened, Batty was to kiss Tyrell in the mouth, which resulted in Rutger sticking his tongue inside Turkel’s mouth in a moment of improvisation. It made for a few laughs on set, but a powerful scene on the screen. Turkel acknowledges the fact that Rutger might have noticed that he was having a hard time, and that was his way of diffusing the tension; for which he was very grateful.
To say that Blade Runner was a difficult shoot would be an understatement. As Harrison Ford so aptly described it; “It was a bitch”. At first Scott was adamant that the movie had to be shot on location, and they actually went scouting for locations in New York and Boston. Even though Scott was very much in love with New York’s architecture, especially the Chrystler building, he soon realised that it would be impractical to shoot in any of those places, as the uncontrollable conditions, and expense of having to close off entire neighbourhoods for weeks on end, would not do. Scott reluctantly agreed to shoot in the Warner Bros backlot in Burbank California, in what was then known as the New York City set, which was somewhat fitting, as that had been the location where the aforementioned noir classics from the 40s that Scott was trying to emulate, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon, had been shot. On walking through the set for the first time, Scott was very disappointed by the small size of the sets, and that even using all of them might not be good enough to achieve the visual scale he was aiming for. Several changes had to be made to hide the architectural shortcomings of the set, the first of which that the bulk of the movie would have to be shot at night, so the visual effects guys wouldn’t have to matte out the nearby wooded hills for starters, and secondly, as the crew couldn’t very well struck out the old sets to build new ones, firstly for practical reasons, and secondly for budgetary ones, it was decided that all the set decoration elements that had to be used to transform the New York City set into the Los Angeles of 2019, would have to be retrofitted onto the exterior of the existing buildings, going back to the aforementioned idea that in the future, nothing would be thrown away, but rather re-used and retrofitted to keep a society already on the verge of economic collapse going forward. With Larry Paul and his crew already working on the sets way before the time Principal Photography started, and realizing many of Syd Mead’s designs, (which ranged from futuristic-looking cleaning trucks, taxis, Spinners, park meters which could electrocute offenders if they attempted to tamper with them, and some iconic props like the Voight-Kampf test machine, Deckard’s blaster..), the sets were pretty much done for the most part by the time Ridley, the cast and the rest of the crew showed up on set. The Pre-production crew had enjoyed a rare and unprecendented long period of nine months of preparation for the project due to an Actor’s Guild strike at the time, which allowed for the bulk of the on-set work and designs to be ready. The crew, however, would soon find out that working with someone like Ridley Scott, with such a penchant for detail and perfect framing, was going to be no picnic. The long shooting hours, mostly at night, under constant rain and fog created by oil smoke machines, was far from ideal. Scott was constantly changing the sets, took a long time to set up the shots, and when he finally did, he would do as many as 15 to 20 takes, until he was satisfied. Yorkin and Perenchio were starting to worry about the production going over schedule, and consequently budget, which would mean that they would have to supply the additional money needed to finish, which didn’t make them in the least happy. The crew wasn’t very happy either, as they felt underappreciated by Scott. It also didn’t help matters that during the course of an on-set interview Scott had done for the British Newspaper The Guardian, when asked by the journalist who did Scott prefer to work with; British technicians, or American ones, Scott responded British. Ridley was accustomed to working with British crews in his home country, and being used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it, he felt somewhat restrained by the way the American crew worked. He was denied the possibility of handling the camera, as per Union regulations in the US, something that frustrated him to no end, and was pretty much a “hands-on” director when it came to the art department, having studied graphic design, and worked as a set designer. Art Director David L. Snyder recalls that upon meeting Ridley on set, and introducing himself as the Art Director, Scott gave him a sidelong look and replied; ” Too bad for you, mate”. The whole crew got wind of this interview, and the next morning Makeup artist Marvin Westmore had T-Shirts made with the phrase; ” Yes, Guvnor. My ass”, in reference to what how the British crews would address Ridley when he requested something; “Yes, Governor”. When Production Executive Katherine Haber learned of this, she also had a few shirts made with the phrase; ” Xenophobia sucks”, in reference to Ridley and the British team being treated different because of their nationalities. Fortunately, the episode lasted for half a day, and by the end of it, the crew was back to business as usual. This, unfortunately, didn’t stop the on-set friction. Some of the members of the cast were also unhappy, with some of them like actor M. Emmet Walsh complaining about the set ups taking too long, and being asked to wait for hours with nothing to do. But the most problematic situation arose with the constant clashing between Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott. The actor was unhappy on a number of levels, not the least of which was the direction, or lack thereof, of the actors on set by Ridley. Ford was an actor who was very involved in the creative process of any movie he participated in, and would be in constant talks with the director on how to approach his character, or a particular scene. Unfortunately, there was no such rapport with Scott, who according to Ford, was more concerned about the visual look of his film than about any of the characters, or the actors portraying them. It is true that Scott wasn’t particularly gifted at that time with dealing with actors, but with a movie already behind schedule, and Yorkin and Perenchio breathing down his neck, and trying to rush him to wrap up shooting, Scott felt that he did the best he could given the circumstances. He also knew that Ford was an actor experienced enough to be able to deliver the goods without a leg-up. Other things like the lack of chemistry between the two leads, the fact that Ford may have resented the fact that Scott was paying more attention to Sean Young, on account of her lack of experience, and certain aspects of the script concerning Ford’s character he wasn’t happy with, only added to the mounting friction on the set. From the very beginning, Ford was unhappy about Young’s casting, thinking her too green for a role of this calibre, and he also fought hard to have certain passages of the script re-worked and re-written. His chief complaint was that his character was a detective who does no detecting, and after having read Hampton Fancher’s last draft before David Proples took over, I can see how he would think that a valid complaint. He also thought that the use of a voice-over was a clunky, inefficient, and redundant way of explaining the story, and his character’s motivations. He thought that it might be more intelligent and useful, to put some of that dialogue in images instead of over-explaining everything. Scott and Peoples did work around the problem, and came up with a few scenes that addressed many of Ford’s complaints but, as lack would have it, the voice-over narration would become a bane in Ford’s existence throughout the whole project that would not die off that easily.
The production was also not without its shortage of problems off-set. Several locations, other than the Burbank New York City set, had been chosen to shoot several scenes. The exterior of the Ennis House, a landmark building in LA that had been designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright was chosen as Deckard’s apartment block, while the interior was recreated in one of Burbank’s sound stages, Union Station was going to double as the Police Headquaters, and The Bradbury, a world famous building in downtown LA, and the filming site of numerous movies and TV shows, was to double for J.F Sebastian’s derelict apartment building. The interior of the Ennis House was considered at one time to be used to film all those scenes taking place in Deckard’s apartment, but it was decided that it would be easier and more controlled if it was shot on the sound stage. In fact, the interior of Deckard’s apartment was recreated to such a level of detail trying to mimic Lloyd Wright’s architecture, that to many of the cast and crew it really felt like a lived-in place, with its low ceilings, art decor furnishings, and even the block-like masonry that was an exact copy of the interior of the Ennis House. The problem would be lighting such a tight and enclosed environment. That’s where the genius of Director of Photography Jordan Cronenweth came to the fore. Being unable to fix any lights from the visible, low ceilings, Cronenweth resorted to lighting from the floor up, bouncing light from the ceiling. Using the excuse of the 2019 Los Angeles being a place with very dense air traffic, he also took the opportunity to shoot Xenon lights from outside the windows of the set into the interior, giving the impression of there always being Spinners flying by outside the tall buildings. This trick was also used in the Bradbury building. That way it gave Cronenweth an additional source of light that was already written into the story. Although all the interiors of J.F Sebastian’s apartment were going to be shot on the set, the crew still needed the exterior of The Bradbury building, and its entry hall, with its never-ending rows of stairs, for some exterior and establishing shots. The crew always shot at night, never during business hours. They would get in at 6 o’clock in the afternoon, and had to be out of there by 6 am the next morning. To give the place the look of it being a derelict, and abandoned building, the art department would come in, trash the place, putting up huge sprinklers to simulate the constant rain, and fill the floor with small pieces of cork, to simulate debris. The use of cork would make it easier for the clean up crew to clean the place, without the use of excessive water, or inflicting irreparable damage to the floor. For the scenes that take place inside the eye designer shop, Hannibal Chew, instead of choosing a real location, or shooting in a sound stage which would have to refrigerated, Scott decided to shoot the whole of the scene inside a meat locker. The crew had to get in a few days earlier, set up all the furnishings, and then blast the whole interior with water, and let it freeze until there were stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and the props. The problem, apart from the unbearably freezing conditions in which the cast and crew had to work, was that as soon as the crew got in and starting setting up the lamps to light up the set, the temperature in the room would rise to the point in which the stalactites would start melting, and falling on the floor.
In the end, the movie went over schedule and over budget, forcing Yorkin and Perenchio to cough up the additional money to finish the shoot. They were so infuriated by the slow pace of Scott’s shooting that, in a fit of rage, issued a letter to Michael Deely informing him that both his and Ridley’s services were no longer required, and that they would effectively take over the production, and edit the movie the way they saw fit. Of course this was easier said than done, as the whole of the post-production, with additional pick-up shots that would have to be done at Shepperton Studios in the UK, still had to be done. All of that had to be supervised by Scott, and after consulting with his Union representative, Scott soon found out that they couldn’t just simply fire him. And so it was that Scott went back to London to supervise the final edit, shoot additional scenes, and oversee one of the most crucial aspects of the whole production; the special effects. The bulk of these were done by Douglas Trumbull and his Special Effects house EEG (Effects Entertainment Group). Trumbull was a highly regarded figure in the field of special and visual effects, and his credits included the visual effects for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture ( Robert Wise, 1979). Trumbull’s crew had a very limited budget to produce the Visual Effects, and had to be very inventive with what they had. They ended up using miniatures from other movies like the top of the Los Angeles PD HQ building on which Gaff’s Spinner lands, which was actually part of the top of the Mothership that was utilized by Spielberg on the Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and parts of the Tyrell pyramid were also used for various shots representing some of the city’s skyscrapers. The so-called Hades landscape, the visually mesmerising first shot of the movie, was actually a forced-perspective table top miniature, as too was the Tyrell Corporation pyramid. The scale of the Hades landscape miniature was achieved by using oil smoke to create a haze-like effect, and give the impression that the city went on forever on the horizon, controlling the amount of smoke that there would be on the shot at any given time by using electric fans connected to smoke detectors, thus having always the same quantity of smoke on-screen, and avoiding a stuttering effect. To pinpoint the buildings in the miniature, hundreds of little lights were connected to electric cables that run under the table, while the flames being thrown up by the industrial chimney stacks were optically added to the image later on by layering all the different elements that composed the image with several passes of the motion control camera. Having to print, rewind, and re-print elements on the same negative, it was decided that the crew would be better served by using 65 mm film stock. It could then be sized down to 35 mm, once all the visual effects elements had been added onto the scene, thus avoiding the generational loss that occurs when film stock is exposed several times to add optical effects, and the overall quality of the image degrades. The Tyrell Corporation too was another table top miniature, illuminated by so many pinpoints of light, that some of the circuits fried, burning down half of it in the process. Fortunately, by the time this happened, the crew had already achieved all the shots they wanted with it. The flying Spinners were a combination of miniatures, a life-size fiber glass one for close ups that was elevated with a huge crane, optically removing the wires it was attached to later on, and a mock-up, which was basically just the front part of the vehicle with all the dashboard screens, buttons, and steering wheel, mounted on a gimble, to rock back, forth, and sideways. Some things like water and air could be thrown at the windshield to recreate rain and wind. As the mock up was mounted inside the sound stage, everything that could be seen through the windshield had to be added later on with front projection. When the crew was at first testing the optically added shots of the Spinners flying throughout the futuristic cityscape, the matte lines of the Spinners were too visible, giving up the illusion. To work around this problem, the crew came up with the rather ingenious solution of adding a lens flare on top of the flying vehicles, which created the necessary visual edge to sell the effect. The shots of the futuristic billboards, strange-looking buildings, and the advertising mother blimp, were a combination of miniatures and matte paintings. The magnificent matte paintings by Mathew Yuricich’s crew are some of the most eye-catching ever seen in any movie, ranging from the sunset seen outside of Tyrell’s office window during Rachael’s Voight-Kampf test at the beginning of the movie, to the jaw-dropping ones seen in and around the exterior of the Bradbury building during Deckard and Roy Batty’s final confrontation.
Another important element to be completed during post-production was that of the musical score composed by Greek musical genius Vangelis. Vangelis had already started work on the movie while it was still being shot, but his unique working method, in which the composer insisted on doing everything by himself, meant that it took him a long time for him to finish his scores. He did manage, however, to turn in some musical cues for Scott to use on-set during filming. Scott would have his crew strategically set up speakers all around the set, and would play Vangelis music to inspire the cast and crew, something they were very grateful for, as it helped them fully immerse themselves in the story. Scott was also adamant that a particular scene involving a unicorn was shot at Elstree, and incorporated into the final cut of the movie.
PKD had learned through the trades that the movie was being made, but no one from the Studio; Hampton Fancher, Ridley Scott or Michael Deely had contacted him. He was very unhappy about this state of affairs, and made some very scathing comments on the press about the way the property was being handled, and went down particularly hard on Fancher’s script. PKD didn’t like the noir treatment to his story, and much less the voice-over. He was, however, quite gracious and satisfied about David Peoples’ draft. In his opinion, Peoples breathed new life into the story and characters, got rid of the voice-over, and made something, in his opinion more akin to his original text. Wishing to make amends with the writer, Scott extended an invitation to PKD to come visit the set, so he could see for himself some of the things they were working on. The writer came over with a friend, and after a private conversation with Ridley Scott, they were shown around the set, saw many of the props, and even had the opportunity to see a 30-minute showreel of some of the special effects shots the crew had put together with the Vangelis score. PKD was mesmerised by what he saw, much to the delight of Scott, but especially the special effects crew, and had nothing but good things to say about it all. Scott had been somewhat hesitant to meet PKD, as at the beginning of the production, he had made some unfortunate comments about never having read Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? in its entirety, because he’d found it a struggle to get through, and didn’t really understand what it was all about. Whatever disagreements both men had, it’s clear that they sorted them out during that brief private meeting. He would later tell a close friend of his that, “he was as excited for Blade Runner to come out, as a kid is on Christmas eve”. Sadly, PKD would never get to see the adaptation of his book on the big screen, dying of a stroke four months before the movie came out.
The movie was screened for an audience in two sneak previews that took place in Denver, Colorado, and Dallas, Texas. The results from those two screenings were puzzling, to say the least. Half the audience liked what they saw, even if they were a bit at a loss as to what it was that what they saw meant, and the other half flat out rejected the movie. It was quite demoralizing for all those involved, but especially Yorkin and Perenchio, who wanted several changes for the final cut of the movie, chief among them, the inclusion of a voice-over narration by Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, that they thought would clarify, and help flesh out the story, and the main character’s motivations. Now, Ford had been dead-set from the very beginning against the use of a voice-over, as he thought it would over-explain things happening on-screen; something he felt would be better done by putting those words into actions, and let the audience come up with their own inclusions. Scott, on the other hand, was quite receptive to it at first, as it would serve to create the noir-like atmosphere he wanted for the movie from the very beginning. They had tried, once and again, to come up with the right dialogue for Deckard, but could never quite seem to crack it. Everyone, from Hampton Fancher to David Peoples had had a crack at it, and several variations of the voice-over were recorded many times, much to Ford’s chagrin, who was however contractually obliged to do it. In the end, they gave it one more try, and ended up hiring an screenwriter, TV writer and producer by the name of Roland Kibbee, who was a friend of Bud Yorkin’s. Ford didn’t like the dialogue at all, and legend has it that he recited the voice-over badly, in the hopes that they wouldn’t be able to use. Ford still claims to this day that he did his very best, in spite of the circumstances, and conducted himself professionally at all times. Whichever way you see it, the end result was the same; a clunky, over-explanatory tacked-on mess. Funnily enough, there are people who saw it back in the day, and even some newcomers, who actually like the movie better with the voice over.
Another last minute change that was also required by the producers was that of a happy ending. Yorkin and Perenchio thought the original ending to be too dour and pessimistic, and forced the happy ending on Scott. Kathy Haber was in charge of shooting some additional footage for this happy ending in Monument Valley, Utah, but what was filmed was unusable because of the persisting bad weather conditions. In the end, Scott and a small crew went up to Big Bear mountain, California, to shoot the footage of Deckard and Rachael riding in Deckard’s sedan through a forested mountain road, which was complemented with some aerial footage that was provided by Stanley Kubrick. The aerial footage was actually outtakes from the aerial footage Kubrick’s crew had shot for the opening shots of The Shining (1980). With these changes implemented into the original cut, plus the trimming down of various sequences that were deemed too violent for audiences, the movie was released on June 25, 1982.
Financial reception wasn’t that bad during the first two days, but bad word-of-mouth quickly killed off the movie’s chances at the box office. It also didn’t help that the movie was released at the height of Summer, with E.T the Extraterrestrial ( Steven Spielberg, 1982), having come out only a few weeks prior. A combination of bad marketing, and worse box office timing, stopped the financial success of the movie dead on its tracks. Its main selling point, that of the presence of new Hollywood star Harrison Ford, seemed to work against its favour. Audiences were expecting another action adventure outing by Ford, much in the same vein as his participations in the last two Star Wars movies. His character was anything but heroic, and his fans weren’t quite ready for that. Audiences clearly weren’t ready for the kind of movie they were presented with either. Everyone agreed that it was a visual feast, but that it was dragged down by an incomprehensible plot, unsympathetic, flat characters, and slow pacing. Famous film critic Roger Ebert went down quite hard on the movie, voicing some of the same opinions expressed above. Over the years, he would come to re-evaluate his opinion on the movie, finally caving in, and regarding it as one of the best Sci-fi films in Cinema history. This process of critical and financial re-appraisal of the movie, however, would still take a few years to catch on.
It was actually with the advent of home video in the market that people started looking at the movie with different eyes. With people being able to pause, rewind and pore over the movie’s intricately detailed visual, and artistic merits, the movie found a new market in which to flourish. Only a year after its disastrous theatrical release, some art house theaters, and drive-ins around the country, were hosting midnight screenings. Slowly, but surely, the movie was acquiring cult status, and gaining more and more critical appraisal from most critical circles. Its popularity was further boosted when the movie was edited on Laserdisc by Criterion in all its widescreen glory, something that audiences couldn’t do with earlier iterations of the movie in both VHS and Laserdisc. It was also the first time that US audiences got to see the International cut, which included the bits of violence and gore that had been trimmed from the US theatrical cut. That Criterion LD became a top seller, and a highly regarded collectible item until in 1990 there was a special screening of the movie that had a surprising twist in store for attending audiences.
In early 1990, the Fairfax theater manager requested a 70mm copy of Blade Runner to be screened as part of a revival festival. While looking for it, Michael Arick, a film preservationist who worked for Warner Bros. at the time, stumbled upon a rare copy of the movie that had been thought lost in the Warner vault. It was indeed a 70mm blow-up, one of the very few struck for theatrical exhibition, but not only that. It was a print copy of the very same cut of the movie that had been screened in those early sneak previews in Denver and Dallas; the Workprint. For starters, the condition of the copy was very rough, it had a very different opening credit sequence, alternate takes and dialogue, a louder sound mix, no voice-over narration, except for a little bit at the end when Batty dies, and the last act of the movie, which concerns Deckard’s and Batty’s final showdown, had no music by Vangelis, instead using some cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968) score, and some additional music that James Horner had composed for Oliver Stone’s The Hand (1981). Audiences were thrilled about this new print, and relished the opportunity to see a cut of the movie without the clunky voice-over narration. As soon as other art house theaters around the country learned of this new cut, they wanted to book screenings for it. The new print played very succesfully, wherever it went. To the point that the Warner Bros. executives had started to advertise it as the Director’s cut of the movie. When news of this reached Scott, he asked to see it, but soon realized what it really was, and that his famous unicorn scene, which was never really integrated in any cut, was still missing. It was then that a long process started in which Scott wanted to have this cut restored with the unicorn scene included in it. The unicorn scene, much to Fancher’s and Yorkin’s chagrin, was a visual statement by Scott in which the filmmaker all but spelled out the fact that Deckard was in fact a Replicant. Unfortunately, the original unicorn footage that Scott had shot in England couldn’t be found, and the technicians working on the restoration had to make do with outtakes from that footage. The cut was hastily put together, and released on September 11, 1992 in the US, and later on, the rest of the world. It was a smash hit with audiences, but had a lukewarm reception from the critics. The movie was definitely a better version than the original theatrical cut. The voice-over was scrapped, and so was the tacked-on happy ending. Gone too were the extra bits of violence present in both the International Cut, and Workprint. The unicorn scene was finally put in, even if it wasn’t the original footage, and the Worprint’s original ending with the elevator doors closing on Deckard and Rachael, was left as was. What the director’s cut mostly did was sparkle the never-ending debate of whether Deckard is a replicant or not, which still persists to this day. It was also a bestseller both on VHS and Laserdisc, and became the definitive version of the movie for a long time. Still, Scott wasn’t satisfied. It wasn’t until the year 2007 that Charles de Lauzirika, a documentary filmmaker, maker of special feature content for DVD and Blurays, and frequent collaborator of both Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, took it upon himself, and with Scott’s blessing, to not only restore the Director’s cut to how Scott wanted it to look and sound like, but also offer audiences an unprecedented array of documentaries, special features, and audio commentaries that would give those who loved the movie, a unique and never-before-seen glimpse into the moviemaking process of one of the most fascinating movies of the 20th century. Several edits and tweaks were done to the Director’s cut, with many visual and sonic blunders Scott had never been satisfied with being corrected; like the out-of-synch verbal exchange between Deckard and the Egyptian snake vendor ( Harrison Ford’s son, Ben, agreed to come in, and stand-in for his father’s chin so the Visual effects wizards could finally match Deckard’s lips to his actual words), Zhora crashing through the window display after she’s been shot by Deckard, which is clearly a stunt-double wearing an ill-suited wig, that can been clearly seen in all other versions of the movie ( Johanna Cassidy gladly agreed to come in, and redo her scenes as Zhora on a green screen stage), and the dialogue between Bryant and Deckard at the beginning of the movie, where he explains to Deckard that two Replicants, instead of one, got killed trying to break into the Tyrell Corporation was finally corrected, which always left dangling in the air the identity of a sixth Replicant whom we never get to see (the sixth Replicant was called Mary, was going to be played by actress Stacey Melkin, and was always present in all versions of the script until she was written off due to budgetary reasons). Another thing that was reinserted were the extra bits of gore that had been excised from the Theatrical and Director’s cuts, and Scott was finally able to find his original unicorn footage. All in all, this is for many people nowadays their preferred, and definitive version of Blade Runner.
The final film bears little resemblance to PKD’s original text. The book takes place in the year 2021, according to the most recent edition (1992 in the original print), after the end of a third world war called World War Terminus. The Earth is a desolate place on the brink of ecological collapse, and most of the population has emigrated to Off-World colonies, and use human look-alike androids, with limited life spans, as slave labour for the most hazardous chores. A virtually empathic mode of religious cult called Mercerism is all the rage, and the population have home devices called Mood Organs to regulate their moods on a regular basis. Almost all animal and insect life on the planet is extinct, and it’s considered a great sign of social status to possess a living animal. Those who can’t afford one, have to make do with artificial ones. That’s actually Deckard’s main goal throughout the book; to earn enough money to buy a real Sheep, to replace the artificial one he owns. It’s a more intimate affair, Deckard is married, many of the characters have different names, Rachael is still a Replicant, but she and Deckard don’t end up together, even after they have an intimate affair, the Replicants are portrayed are selfish, cold-blooded assassins, and the overall story goes in a very different direction. What Scott does is expand the universe of Deckard’s text, filling it up with visual and storytelling nuances. The core of the story is still there though; what’s the difference between an artificial being and a human, and when do the two of them start to blend, and become indistinguishable. The animal theme, even though it was an idea that Scott really liked, was something that could never fully be integrated into the story to his satisfaction. Rachael has a very different role in the movie, and the Replicants take on a whole new dimension, making them more sympathetic than the Blade Runner who’s hunting them down. Mercerism, and things like the Mood Organ, disappear completely, which I think is for the best, as it would’ve been very tricky to recreate, and make it come across on the screen in a way that people could understand it. So, which one is better? Neither. They’re both great Sci-fi stories in their own right, and I enjoyed them as separate entities. What’s important in this case is that the main theme of the book is elegantly portrayed on-screen, which is the best one can hope for given how PKD’s style of writing doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an easy adaptation.
Blade Runner is a Sci-fi masterpiece, plain and simple. It doesn’t make for easy viewing, its themes are rich and complex, and so are the characters. When I first saw this movie ( a VHS rental I might add), I must admit I was somewhat dissapointed. I was a lot younger and dumber back then, and didn’t fully appreciate what the movie was trying to tell me. Quite frankly, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill Sci-fi actioner, especially having Harrison Ford in the lead. Fortunately, it didn’t take me that long to come around, and on second viewing (a public TV airing this time, and in widescreen to boot!), I was thoroughly enthralled by the whole affair. Of course, like everybody else, I was blown away by the visuals the first time I saw it, but this time it was the philosophical themes of what makes us human, the story and the wonderful characters that drew me to it. Harrison Ford is playing against type, something that he admitted, was what really attracted him to the project. He does a very good job with it, and would really get to expand on his character on the sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (Dennis Villeneuve, 2017). I completely share his misgivings about the voice-over now, although I have something to confess. The first time I got to see the Director’s cut, if there was one thing I really missed, was Deckard’s narration. Sure, it was over-explanatory and clunky in places, but it provided the viewer with some bits of information about the character, and everything surrounding him, that we wouldn’t have known otherwise; like the fact that Deckard used to be married, information about the character Gaff, City Speak, and even some bits of inner dialogue to further support the theory that Deckard may indeed be a Replicant. Throughout the numerous drafts written by both Fancher and Peoples over the years, it was never mentioned, or even suggested that Deckard might be a Replicant. It was only by the inclusion of some visual clues peppered throughout the movie by Ridley Scott, that the idea started to take hold; like Deckard’s collection of old photos on his piano, the voice-over bit in which he says that he thought it a better idea to become a hunter rather than hunted, and what most thought it to be an on-set technical mishap at the time, but a deliberate one according to Scott, in which Ford accidentally walked into Sean Young’s mark during the kitchen scene between the two actors in Deckard’s apartment, after Deckard has retired Leon, and the light which was purposefully reflecting into her eyes, and which belies the fact that she’s a Replicant, also reflects on his. Of course, all of this was further cemented when the Director’s cut was released, and the unicorn scene included. All of a sudden, Gaff leaving a tin-foil origami unicorn by Deckard’s doorstep is, to me at least, irrefutable proof that Deckard is a Replicant. Which is all the more confusing, given the way the sequel went. Whether Deckard is a Replicant or not, I think it ultimately boils down to which of the five cuts one chooses to watch. As for me, after having seen all five available cuts of the movie, I find myself strangely drawn to the Workprint. It may be down to it being the one which is the most different from all other subsequent versions, but I think is a combination of different factors. The rough nature of the cut, louder music, alternate takes, and the only bit of narration recited by Harrison Ford in the entire movie, and the only one that is unanimously praised as being what the narration of the Theatrical cut should’ve been like, which he does right after Batty dies. It’s true that Vangelis hadn’t finished the soundtrack by then, and that editor Terry Rawlings was forced to use tracks from Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner as temp music for the final confrontation at The Bradbury, but it’s this disjointing element what makes it so unique, among other things. All other versions of the movie are really re-works of the Theatrical cut. I think all the actors do a superb job, especially Rutger Hauer and Sean Young. Him for his wonderful contributions in creating his character ( the whole “Tears in Rain” speech being one of them), and Young for her magnetically intoxicating presence as Rachael, (which is quite surprising given how inexperienced, and hesitant she was on taking the role). Enough good things cannot be said about Jordan Cronenweth’s Cinematography. His unusual lighting style gave the movie the futuristic look Scott was looking for. A technological Hades, which is visually mesmerising, and nightmarish in equal measure. Very few movies from that time have aged as graciously has Blade Runner has. It was probably one of the last movies in the industry to use the old techniques to achieve its visual trickery, and it shows. Everything from Production Design to music contributes to make this a unique piece of moviemaking. A rare avis, the likes of which we don’t see that much these days.
Thanks for reading.
After succesfully proving that the James Bond franchise was still a viable box office commodity with the runaway success of Goldeneye (Martin Campbell,1995), work inmediately started on the next James Bond picture. Having found a new audience for the latest iteration of the iconic character, Eon Productions wanted to move ahead, and demonstrate to the powers that be at MGM/UA, that the movies could come out on a regular basis, and still keep audiences interested. The problem, as it always is with movies, was the tight schedule whitin which the filmmakers had to work to deliver the movie by Christmas 1997. A schedule that would bring more than its fair share of problems.
The producers wanted Martin Campbell to direct the next movie, which had the working title of Tomorrow Never Lies. This would later be changed for Tomorrow Never Dies, because of a typing mistake made by a publicist when the studio was preparing a press release to announce the title. Campbell turned it down, preferring to helm The Mask of Zorro (1998). Campbell was, according to him, offered to direct every subsequent James Bond movie with Pierce Brosnan in the lead, only agreeing to come back to bring a new James Bond into the limelight in the highly successful and groundbreaking, Casino Royale (2006), when Daniel Craig was chosen to take over the role. The producers decided to go with a filmmaker whom they were looking at as far back as when Timothy Dalton was still playing the role; English-Canadian Roger Spottiswoode (Deadly Pursuit, 1988), (Air America, 1990). Spottiswoode confessed that he couldn’t see himself directing a Bond movie with Dalton in the lead, as he thought Dalton’s approach to the character to be too somber, preferring the lighthearted touch that Brosnan had given it.
Pretty much all the players from the previous movie were invited to come back, with a few notable exceptions. Judi Dench and Samantha Bond were asked to reprise their roles as M and Miss Moneypenny respectively. The actresses, who’d worked together on stage for years, had a very good working relationship, and audiences had liked the way both actresses had approached such iconic characters. Desmond Llewellyn was too asked to come back to play Q one more time. At one point in the screenwriting process, it was decided that the character would be written off the story, stating that he’d retired. There was however one scene in one of the early drafts in which Bond would run into Q lounging on a yacht, surrounded by beautiful women. The idea was scrapped, deciding to bring Llewellyn out for one more movie, and sewing the seeds of an idea that the producers had been toying with for some time in the next movie, The World is not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999); which was to bring in a new Q. The role of the main villain, media baron Elliot Carver, went to British actor Jonathan Pryce, a well regarded stage and film actor better known for his roles in Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), and Evita (1996, Alan Parker). Screenwriter Bruce Feirstein had Albert Finney on mind while he was writing the script, although he was never contacted, only becoming part of the Bond family years later in Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012), as Kincaid, Bond’s family’s caretaker of the title’s ancestral home, Skyfall. Anthony Hopkins was also approached about the role, and even showed an interest after having read one of Feirstein’s earlier drafts, but ultimately turning it down in favor of participating on The Mask of Zorro ( Martin Campbell, 1998). For the role of the henchmen, the producers chose German actor Gotz Otto for the part of blond-haired assassin Mr Stamper (choosing to dye his hair blond was probably Otto’s idea of homaging Robert Shaw’s iconic turn as SPECTRE’s deadly assassin Red Grant in From Russia with Love, Terrence Young, 1963), and American actor Vincent Schiavelli for the role of Stamper’s master, the assassin Dr Kauffman. Famous magician-turned actor Ricky Jay was offered the role of tecnoterrorist Henry Gupta. American actor Joe Don Baker made a reappearance as CIA agent Jack Wade.
American actress Terri Hatcher, from Lois & Clark: The new adventures of Superman fame, which run from 1993 to 1997, was chosen for the role of Paris Carver, Elliot Carver’s wife, and a former lover of Bond’s. Hatcher was pregnant at the time, and due also to her conflicting schedule with the Superman TV show, it was the source of some on-set friction with her co-star Pierce Brosnan, as she was said to have been late to the set in a few occasions. Italian actress Monica Bellucci was actually Brosnan’s first choice for the role, but was unable to participate in the movie, only to appear a few years later on Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015). Malaysian action star Michelle Yeoh was chosen to play the part of Chinese secret agent Wai Lin. Hers was a character that was an equal to 007 in every possible way, and the enthusiasm that Yeoh brought to the role, along with her very dynamic fighting style (a product of a very prolific career in martial arts movies, and her background as a professional dancer), never before attempted in a Bond movie, brought a very fresh perspective to the way Bond girls had been viewed thus far, a trend that had already started in earnest with Izabella Scorupco’s characterization of Computer Programmer Natalya Simonova in Goldeneye. Yeoh’s character proved to be so popular with audiences, that the producers toyed for some time with the idea of bringing her back for subsequent Bond movies, something that sadly never came to pass.
As for the crew, a few last-minute changes had to be made. Peter Lamont was unavailable at the time, as he was still working on Titanic ( James Cameron, 1997). Allan Cameron replaced him, and given how tight a schedule all the crew had, he does a magnificent job with the sets. Especially noteworthy is the dressing of the Carver Media Group’s (CMG) Headquaters in Hamburg, for which the IBM HQ in England was used, the interior of the stealth ship, the interior of the British battleship cruisers, and especially an alley in Bangkok, Thailand which was dressed to resemble an alley in Hanoi,Vietnam, for the motorcycle chase sequence; a portion of which was later recreated in Frogmore Studios, UK, for the scene in which Bond jumps with the motorcycle over a helicopter between two buildings. The level of detail that Cameron brought to his sets is amazing considering the time constraints he and his team were under. Vic Armstrong, the legendary stunt double-turned-stunt coordinator, and who was a stalwart of the Bond family since the days of You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967), where he was one of the ninjas climbing down from the roof of Ken Adams’s amazing volcano set, was put in charge of shooting the main action set pieces. It was kind of a full circle kind of deal for Armstrong, who after having had an illustrious career as one of the best stunt doubles in the business, would finally come to be an instrumental part in the design of some of the amazing action set pieces from the Bond movies he’d grown to love over the years. Back to the Bond family fold was also John Richardson. After the untimely passing of master model maker Derek Meddings before the release of Goldeneye, the filmmakers decided to enlist the talents of an equally gifted Visual Effects wizard who’d honed his skills working on some of the most memorable action set pieces in the series. Robert Elswitt would become the first American Cinematographer to light a Bond picture. British Costume Designer Lindy Hemming was hired once again after her work on Goldeneye to dress the cast. Hemming would go on to do the Costume design for every subsequent Bond movie afterwards until Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006). After having proven his mettle in the Sci-fy genre with movies like Stargate (1994), and Independence Day (1996), both directed by Roland Emmerich, David Arnold was offered the chance to fulfill his long-cherished dream of writing the music for a Bond movie. Arnold was a self-confessed John Barry fan, and had even released an album of Bond covers titled, Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond project. It was said that John Barry was considered by the producers to write the music for the film, but bowed out due to asking too much money, and being denied the chance to write the title song. The producers had liked the way things had worked out on the previous movie, where Eric Serra had written the score, but Bono and the Edge had written the title song, with Tina Turner singing. They wanted to keep on doing the same thing, and that’s how they got in touch with Sheryl Crow to sing the title song; Tomorrow Never Dies. Arnold had also written a title song for the movie with lyrics by Don Black, and sang by K.d Lang, which is intrinsically linked with Arnold’s score, and more in keeping with the Bond sound, but was ultimately rejected in favor of Sheryl Crow’s song, and relegated to the end titles. Arnold used a variety of composing styles for the score, going from the more classic John Barry-esque sound for the first part of the movie, full-on techno for the scenes taking place in Hamburg, and which had to do with Carver’s mass media world, and giving it oriental vibes for the last stretch of the movie taking place in Asia. It was a thematically rich soundtrack, that however owed too much to John Barry’s style. As it had been the case with Pierce Brosnan on the previous movie, Arnold would not really come into his own musically until he wrote the music for The World is not Enough ( Michael Apted, 1999). Daniel Kleinman was counted upon one more time to design the title sequence for the movie. Kleinman had been a more than apt substitute for the late, legendary Maurice Binder. After having dabbled with the fall of the Soviet Union on Goldeneye, this time around the design would revolve around the theme of TVs, electronic circuits, and satellites, with the usual gorgeous looking ladies playing an important part in the proceedings.
Bruce Feirstein, who’d been one of the screenwriters responsible for polishing Goldeneye’s script, pitched the producers the idea of a media mogul, who being unsatisfied with England’s handover of China back to the Chinese government in 1997, wanted to create a war between the two countries, at the same time bolstering his newspapers sales all over the world. This character, by the name of Elliot Harmsway, would also align himself with a hard-line Chinese general, who would take over whatever was left of the government in exchange for granting Harmsway exclusive broadcasting rights in China. The producers were very happy with this outline but, following the advise of Roger Spottiswoode, they wanted to get more screenwriters involved to see what they could bring to the table. A total of six screenwriters were brought over to England to stay for a week, and work out the story’s details. Among these were well known screenwriters like Nicholas Meyer (The Wrath of Khan, 1984), Leslie Dixon (Mrs Doubtfire, 1993), and Daniel Petrie Jr (Beverly Hills Cop, 1984). A few ideas were tossed about, but ultimately it was on Feirtein to finish writing the script, while the movie was already being shot. This haphazard way of working round the clock, without a clear vision, produced a great deal of unhappiness within the crew, but especially the cast, who after having learned their lines of dialogue for the next day, would be handed over new revised lines by courier the night before, giving the actors very little time to learn them. Bruce Feirsten had a tent outside the set, on which he’d work on the script every day, handing fresh pages to the cast and crew on the day when needed. Pierce Brosnan was very unhappy about the way the production was being handled, and was pretty vocal about it, going as far as to complain to both Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson about it. As too was Judi Dench, who had a very tense working relationship with Spottiswoode on the set. The problems derived mostly, as Brosnan put it, from the uncohesive nature of the script. Brosnan, as did many other cast members like Jonathan Pryce, felt that the script didn’t have a clear structure. The overall feeling was that the picture had been rushed into production, without having done the Pre-production prep work properly, like it had been done on Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, 1995), which was one of the requisites for Campbell taking on the project; being completely familiar with the script, and what needed to be done on the day, by the time Principal Photography started. Be that as it may, the production team was able to plow ahead, having come up with the main action set pieces months in advance. More on that later.
The core of Feirstein’s first draft remained, albeit with many changes made to the characters and situations. As the filmmakers thought that the subject of the Chinese Handover would be too much of a touchy subject, they decided to drop it, leaving it as follows; the name of the villain was changed from Elliot Harmsway, which pretty much sounds like a name Fleming would’ve given one of his villains, to Elliot Carver. The whole plot about Carver causing an armed conflict, to confront China and the UK, out of resentment for the whole handover thing was dropped, instead being the increase of newspapers sales, the expansion of his media empire, and him being given exclusive broadcasting rights in China as result as his aligning with a hard-line general of the Chinese army, being the main motives behind Carver’s schemes. The Bond girl would not be the daughter of one of Carver’s associates, as was the case in the earlier drafts, instead not only changing the girl’s nationality from British to Chinese, but from being the daughter of a business man to that of a secret agent. The character of Paris was also a late introduction. With the changes in place, the story goes as follows; Elliott Carver, CEO of the Media Carver Group wants to provoke World War III, to increase the circulation of his newspapers, and expand his media empire. With the help of a hard-line Chinese general, he’s built a stealth ship, and stolen a Satellite positioning device that will enable him, through his telecommunications satellites, positioned all around the world, to deviate the course of a British battle cruiser from international waters to Chinese waters. He then uses the stealth vessel to get next to it, and sink it. While the battleship is being attacked, two Chinese Mig fighters come to investigate, and to warn the British to return to international waters. Carver’s crew fire a missile from the stealth ship, and take down one of the Chinese fighters. Once the ship has sunk to the bottom of the sea, a diving team from the stealth ship goes down to the sunken ship to remove two nuclear missiles to be used at a later date. Some survivors from the British Battleship are found by the crew of the stealth ship, and killed using Chinese munition, to better sell the illusion of there being an open conflict between the two countries. Carver’s media group covers the incident immediately, and M, finding the timing a bit suspicious, sends her best mant, agent 007, to investigate.
As mentioned earlier, many of the main action set pieces for the movie had been meticulously planned out and storyboarded, well in advance of Principal Photography during Pre-production, even when the connective tissue provided by the rest of the script was still being developed. This is no strange practice in the movie business, as these sequences are always the first to be ready due to the amount of planning and special and visual effects usually needed for them. A very important element of this process were the storyboards provided by storyboard artist Martin Ashbury, who had every shot of these action set pieces drawn up before all the different units started shooting a single frame of the movie. And so it was, that three months before the main unit started shooting in London, Vic Armstrong and his second unit crew flew to France, more especifically to the French Pyrenees. There on top of an airfield on Peyragudes, Armstrong and his crew built a hangar, and laid out the whole scene to shoot the pre-title sequence that was supposed to take place on the Khybar Pass in Afghanistan. It was decided that they would do it at the beginning of the year, in January, as it would be the time of the year when they would find the most snow on top of the mountain. Not only did they find, to their horror, that what little snow there was, was melting away, but that also due to the awful weather conditions, with rain and fog, they had a very short window during the early hours of the morning, and midafternoon, where they could shoot the scenes. Due to the huge amount of pyrotechnics the special effects crew had to rig, they had to be very precise with their planning and execution, as most of the explosions could only be done once. In the end, the crew managed to sort out the snow problem by bringing truckloads of it from the nearby mountains, with the rest being artificial snow spread all over the place, and mixed in with the real snow. In total, Armstrong ended up supervising three major action set pieces in the movie; the pre-title sequence, which was a combined effort with Mark Wolff taking care of the aerial unit stuff, the car park chase sequence in Hamburg, which was shot in the car park of Brent Cross shopping centre in London, and the rooftop motorcycle chase sequence, which was shot both in Bangkok, and in the backlot at Frogmore studios in the UK, doubling for a section of the same street as mentioned earlier. For the car park chase sequence in which Bond escapes his pursuers using a tricked out BMW 750i that can be remotely controlled via Bond’s gadget-laden Sony Ericsson cell phone, the crew were given as many of sixteen BMWs, each one of them to perform a specific function within the sequence. To sell the illusion that the car was being driven without anyone behind the wheel, they had a driver hidden in a compartment in the backseat, provided with monitors, fed by cameras placed around the car, that would enable the driver to see where he was going. It was a very difficult and time consuming stunt, as even the images showing on Bond’s cell phone screen during the pursuit, had to have been previously shot to then be inserted on the cell phone screen. The motorcycle chase on the rooftops in Bangkok also proved to be very tricky, not only because of the difficulty of the stunt, but because of the exceedingly hot temperatures during that time of the year in Bangkok, with many crew members having the soles of their shoes melt away because of the heat. To perform the motorcycle stunt the filmmakers went to the only man in the business who could perform the stunt safely; Jean-Pierre Goy. Goy was a specialist motorcycle stunt driver, who at the time held the record for the longest running wheelie in the world. The BMW motorcycle provided to the crew was a very unwieldy and heavy piece of machinery. Only Goy could get it to perform well. On the backseat, doubling for Michelle Yeoh, was Vic Armstrong’s own wife, Wendy Leech. Together they performed the amazing stunt in which Bond jumps with the motorcycle from one roof of a building to the other over a flying helicopter in between the two buildings, which was done in the backlot in Frogmore studios, as it was deemed safer to do the stunt there in a more controlled environment, as the stunt team had done with the tank chase sequence in St Petersburg under the direction of Ian Sharp in Goldeneye, two years previously. Another amazing stunt was the one that has Bond and Lin coming down the front of a building by grabbing onto a huge banner with Carver’s face on it. This was achieved by having a model of the banner shot by the model unit headed by John Richardson, and later on superimposing it on the facade of a real building in Bangkok for the establishing shots. The trickiest part of the jump was done by both Brosnan’s and Yeoh’s stunt doubles for some of the long shots, and those having Bond and Lin crash through the building’s windows, while Brosnan and Yeoh did the close ups on a mock up of the building and banner. Principal unit, directed by Roger Spottiswoode himself, took care of the final battle sequence aboard Carver’s stealth ship. The variety of locations and different time zones was mind-boggling, something the Bond crew was quite used to by this point. There were scenes shot in France, Thailand ( Phuket and its chain of islands, a recognizable landmark by any Bond fan, as it was used as a filming location in The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton, 1974), also doubles here for Kowloon Bay), and the UK by Vic Armstrong’s second unit. Roger Spottiswoode, took care of most of the stuff shot in Frogmore and Pinewood Studios, while the Visual Effects unit headed by John Richardson were in Puerto Rosarito, Mexico, shooting all the model shots of the British naval vessels, and the stealth ship in the Fox Baja Studios water tank, the same used by James Cameron to shoot Titanic (1997). That water tank was also used to shoot the underwater scenes of the model of the sunken British naval ship, while the paddock tank in Pinewood Studios, UK, was used by the cast to shoot the equivalent of those scenes in close ups. It was a very nerve-wracking, and claustrophobic situation for some of the actors, especially Pierce Brosnan, who wasn’t the most experienced of divers. Michael Wilson himself, being somewhat of an expert diver, volunteered to go under with the actors, and give them a few pointers on how to best manage the pressures of being underwater for long periods of time. One more stunt was handled by long-time Bond Stuntman and Stunt Coordinator, aerial unit Stunt Coordinator wiz B.J Worth. Worth had been a mainstay of the Bond stunt team as far back as Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979), where he’d performed the amazing freefall off a plane without a parachute for the pre-credits sequence. This time around, he had to perform a HALO (High Ultitude, Low opening) jump from a military cargo plane over the coast of Florida, which would be doubling for the coast of Vietnam. It was a very dangerous stunt in which several things could go wrong, from either getting entangled on his parachute when he pulled it just before entering the water, crashing in the water at too much speed, or cracking his head against the two oxygen tanks he had to carry on his back. An emergency rescue boat was stationed near the area where he would land, in case anything went wrong. Fortunately, everything went perfectly well, and without a glitch.
The film achieved generally good reviews, and a worldwide box office gross of $333,011,068 million, making it the second highest grossing Bond movie of all time, even if it had strong competion that year from James Cameron’s mammoth romantic drama set during the sinking of the famous luxury liner, Titanic (1997). 1997 was the year of Titanic, and the fact that the next James Bond movie could confidently stand its ground against the financial onslaught that Cameron’s movie signified for most theatrical releases around that period, was a testament to how well things were working out for both the franchise, and Brosnan himself. Brosnan had started his run as 007 with a bang with Goldeneye, and was asserting himself as the new James Bond. So, is Tomorrow Never Dies as good, entertaining, or exciting as its predecessor? Let’s see.
It’s certainly not on par with Goldeneye when it comes to its plot and characters, but it is certainly a highly enjoyable, entertaining Bond film, with all the usual visual and thematic tropes associated with the character, (the megalomaniac villain bent on world domination, the gadgets, the girls, the incredible action set pieces, and the final showdown in the villain’s lair). It’s very competently made, with high production values. Brosnan is clearly more settled into the character this time around, the ease with which he portrays him is astounding, given it’s only his second movie. Even though Jonathan Pryce is clearly having fun playing the villain, his and Gotz Otto’s additions to the Bond Villains’ Hall of Fame come off as somewhat formulaic and, uninteresting at times. Michelle Yeoh’s energizing characterization throughout is clearly one of the film’s highlights, and it’s a real shame that she was never afforded the chance to come back. We would get Halle Berry’s Jacinta Jinx a few years later on Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002), instead. Imagine how much better that movie would have been, if Yeoh had been given the chance to come back then. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What occupies us here is a very well made, if somewhat formulaic, Bond movie. It also happens to be, along with Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964), and Quantum of Solace (Marc Foster, 2008), one of the shortest. It’s got a serviceable, but ultimately underwhelming title song, definitely a step down from Tina Turner’s wonderful rendition of Goldeneye. David Arnold and Don Black’s title song for the movie, Surrender, sang by K.d Lang, would’ve been a more traditional sounding and satisfying Bond title song. One thing that is a notable improvement over the previous movie is the score. Not only is the music for the film more traditional, and in keeping with the Bond soundscape of old, I’d even go as far as to say that Arnold is probably the best musician who’s composed for the saga since John Barry. John Barry’s scores for the series became a musical landmark that would forever set the tone for what a Bond movie should sound like for years to come, and here Arnold follows suit. Eric Serra’s introduction into the series was a gross misstep, best left forgotten, which was happily corrected. Arnold would be afforded four more chances to leave his musical imprint in the series with (The World is not Enough, 1999), (Die Another Die, 2002), (Casino Royale, 2006), and (Quantum of Solace, 2008), Casino Royale being his absolute best score for the entire series. Not all Bond movies are created equal, but this one ranks amongst the most entertaining, and it’s definitely not the write-off many people consider it to be. Great entertainment value, and well worth your time.
Thanks for reading.
After a six-year hiatus, the time had finally come to get a new 007 adventure off the ground. Having been entangled in never-ending rights disputes, Timothy Dalton had been waiting for a long time in the sidelines to make another movie. Some very nice ideas had been bounced around in an attempt to breathe more life into a character that, in many people’s minds, had turned stagnant and was in dire need of a revamp. Nothing ever came to fruition though, and by the time 1994 came around, the powers that be at MGM/UA did no longer consider Dalton a viable commercial option to bring the character back into vogue for the 90s. He was kindly requested to publicly step down, a fact that both Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who had already taken over Eon Productions by that time, sorely lamented, as they were sincerely hoping to honour the commitment they’d made with Dalton to stick with him for at least one more picture. Dalton made a public statement, and gracefully stepped down as requested leaving both the character, and the whole future of the franchise in the hands of an actor who’d been offered the part once before, but had to give it up at the last minute; Pierce Brosnan. But how did this come about, and how exactly were the filmmakers planning to modernize a character that, according to public opinion, seemed old-fashioned and ill-suited for modern times?
As soon as the legal issues had been resolved, the filmmakers started playing around with the idea of how to best bring the iconic character of 007 back into the spotlight. First, they had to find a story that would fit within the modern sensibilities of a new world order in which the Cold War was no longer the status quo. They found such a story by screenwriter Michael France. France had recently penned the script to the highly successful Renny Harlin directed Stallone action-vehicle Cliffhanger (1993), and had even been to Russia doing research on a story in which James Bond came face to face with an obscure criminal organization by the name of Janus, comprised of former KGB agents and various terrorist and mercenary groups from around the globe. Their latest coup had been the robbery of an experimental fighter helicopter provided with stealth technology and immune to electromagnetic energy pulses. The organization then uses the helicopter to steal the activation codes for a space satellite weapon that activates an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse), to erase any trace of their theft. Bond’s mission is to recover the stolen codes, a mission in which he will be helped by Natalya Simonova, a computer programmer who used to work at the Severnaya station where the weapon was based. Along the way, Bond will encounter old foes, unlikely allies, and a surprising ghost from the past who comes back to haunt him. The seed of the story was very much liked by both Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who insisted however that more rewrites were done to streamline the story and some of the characters. First Jeffrey Caine, and later Bruce Feirstein, with un-credited help by Kevin Wade, were brought on to help with the re-writes. A director had already been picked by the producers. Michael Campbell had been brought to the attention of the hire ups at MGM/UA on account of his previous movie; No Escape. The producers were mostly impressed by the way in which Campbell had made a relatively low-budget Sci-fi movie look like an A-list movie. His list of TV credits were also quite impressive, as he had directed for the BBC the highly successful TV series thriller, Edge of Darkness, and the spy-thriller Reilly: Ace of Spies, which had been a source of inspiration for the Bond producers. They were also pretty confident that he could both, deliver the movie in time, and make every cent spent on it show on the screen. With this in mind, and Campbell being a self-confessed James Bond fan, everything seemed to be on track for a successful new take on the character. Apart from his usual Director of Photography Phil Mehéux, who had up until that point, lensed every movie ever directed by Campbell, the filmmaker didn’t draw too far away from the well as he pretty much asked the majority of the technicians who had worked on all the Bond movies over the years, to come back. So it was that Peter Lamont came back on Production Designer duties, and so did the likes of Stunt Coordinators Simon Crane, B.J Worth, model maker and Special Effects wizard Derek Meddings and several others who’d grown professionally making the magic for the Bond movies. Some new blood was also incorporated into the mix like Costume Designer Lindy Hemming, who provided the magnificent wardrobe for the multiple characters, and the excellently tailored Brioni suits for the new 007, and Luc Besson’s frequent collaborator, the new-age composer Eric Serra, contributing for the movie what was hoped would be a new soundscape for the character, and resulting in one of the most criticized, and head-scratching decisions ever made for a Bond soundtrack, with the exception of Michel Legrand’s jazzy score for the un-official James Bond entry Never Say Never Again, Irvin Kershner (1983).
With a constantly re-worked script pretty much locked by the time Campbell was all but ready to start Principal Photography, the world press was finally ready to meet the man who would step into the shoes of James Bond; Pierce Brosnan. The official unveiling took place at the Regent’s Hotel in London. Sporting long hair and a beard for his upcoming role in Robinson Crusoe, Rod Hardy and George Miller (1997), the press was a little taken aback by the physical appearance of the new 007. But no one was more taken aback, and surprised by the news, than the man himself. As previously stated on my review of The Living Daylights, John Glen (1987), Brosnan had already been offered the role back then, but had to bow out due to his contractual obligations with the Remington Steele TV show. The actor was somewhat hesitant and cautious about getting excited for it all over again as, and I quote; “He didn’t want to get jerked around again”. When the news were all but confirmed by his agent, the actor was beyond ecstatic. He was excited to give it his best, as he’d been a huge admirer of both Sean Connery and especially, Roger Moore, whom he freely admitted years later had taken a lot of cues from to build his own 007. Brosnan felt that humour was an element that had been seriously lacking in the last two entries, and wanted it to be re-introduced as part of the character’s makeup.
For the all important role of Bond’s archnemesis, Alec Trevelyan, A.K.A former 006, the producers went with actor Sean Bean. The British actor was very popular in the UK for the ITV Sharpe TV show which run from 1993 to 1997. The producers were looking for an actor of around the same age and built, that could be a match to Brosnan in the hand to hand combat scenes, and who could’ve conceivably been thought of as a potential candidate to play the role of James Bond himself. German actor Godfried John was chosen to play the part of General Ourumov, who’s in cahoots with Trevelyan. Scottish actor Alan Cummings was offered the role of computer programmer geek Boris Grishenko, Turkey-born French actor Tchéky Karyo played the role of Russian Defense Minister Dimitri Mishkin, an old acquaintance of Martin Campbell’s from his Edge of Darkness days, American actor Joe Don Baker, came back to the series as Bond’s CIA contact in Russia, Jack Wade. This was the actor’s second appearance in the series after he’d played the villain in The Living Daylights, John Glen (1987). British actor Robbie Coltrane fulfilled the role of Valentin Zukovski, ex-KGB agent, who runs guns, and who has an old score to settle with Bond. An important, and rather surprising contribution was that of Judi Dench, who plays the role of M. Having M being played by a woman instead of a man was screenwriter Bruce Feirstein’s idea, and Campbell suggested that if the role had to be played by a woman, it might as well by a star. Dench was a prestigious stage actress at the time, and had even worked with Bernard Lee, who’d played the role of Bond’s boss for the first ten movies. She was a bit nervous about taking on the role, but thanks to both her performance and choice of wardrobe by Lindy Hemming, she did a wonderful job of it. The only actor from the old movies who was asked to come back was Desmond Llewellyn as Q. Llewelly was more than happy to reprise his role, and surprised to be the only one from the old cast asked to come back, as not even Caroline Bliss, who’d played the role of Miss Moneypenny in the two previous movies was. She was replaced by an actress aptly named Samantha Bond, who happened to be very good friends with Bliss since Grammar School. Both Samantha Bond and Judi Dench, each in their respective ways, give Bond a good tongue-lashing, Moneypenny no longer being the meek, ever-expecting secretary pining for Bond’s elusive affections, and Dench describing him as a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war. The 90s had brought on more awareness towards certain sexist attitudes that were no longer deemed appropriate, a change especially in the attitude towards women that would be further reflected in the way the Bond girls would be portrayed by their respective actresses.
For the all important roles of the Bond girls we have two very interesting choices; Dutch actress Famke Janssen plays the role of sadistic, thigh-crushing assassin Xenia Onatopp. The actress was approached by the filmmakers after they’d seen some footage of a film the actress was shooting in the USA for MGM, Lord of Illussions, Clive Barker (1995). She came in, and did a terrific reading of the casino scene which totally convinced the producers they’d found the right actress for the job. The other side of the coin, the “good Bond girl”, so to speak, went to Polish actress Izabella Scorupco. The casting agent Debbie McWilliams was struggling to find an actress for the role, and was looking everywhere in Europe, until she happened to find herself in the office of a Swedish casting agent who showed her rushes of the movie that Scorupco was shooting at the time, Petri Tears, a medieval drama in which the actress spent most of the running time dressed as a man. McWilliams liked her very much, and chose her for the role of Natalya Simonova, the Russian Computer programmer who helps Bond stop Trevelyan. Her role in the movie was to be somewhat of a breakthrough role for Bond girls in the series as, this time around the Bond girl would be even more resourceful, self-reliant, and instrumental in the development of the action. Strides had been made over the years in this terrain, but the producers were even more adamant to bring across the point that times had changed for the better, and that Bond would have to change with them.
Even before the script had been finished, the filmmakers were faced with the problem of finding a soundstage large enough to fit in the immense sets that the movie was going to need. This was to be an even more larger in scale production than any of the previous ones had been, and the, by all accounts, too small sound stages in Pinewood were no longer a suitable option. While scouting all over Europe for set space, the crew came upon the solution closer to home than they could’ve imagined. Leavesden Aerodrome, home to a former Rolls Royce factory, where they used to build aeroplanes during WWII, was the place chosen by the crew to shoot the next 007 adventure. It was up to the technical crew, under the direction of Peter Lamont, to build one of the largest, working soundstages in Europe. Over the years, the ever-growing soundstage would be host to George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace (1999), and many other Hollywood blockbusters until it became the home base for the Harry Potter movies (2001-2011). The entirety of the interior of MI6 HQ (situation room, M’s office..), Valentin Zukovski’s nightclub, a faithful recreation of a whole floor of the Montecarlo Casino, the control room of the Severnaya station, the interior of Trevelyan’s underground base of operations under the submerged control antenae, and the interior of Trevelyan’s bulletproof train were all built in Leavesden. Associate Producer Anthony Waye was able to secure the French goverment to loan the crew one of their experimental prototype Tiger helicopters that was parked on top of a naval vessel at Monaco’s port. The crew had a very limited time to make use of both the helicopter and the ship, and had to breeze through the shots in all but two days. The crew also made use of many exterior locations like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico for establishing shots of Trevelyan’s hideout, a local beach in the area that was secluded enough for the crew to shoot one of the most romantic scenes in the movie, Verzasca Dam in Lugarno, Switzerland, for the bungee-jump scene at the beginning of the movie that serves as an establishing shot for the Arkangel Chemical Factory in USRR, Montecarlo for the Casino scenes at the beginning of the movie, the Alpes-Maritimes, and its twisting roads for the cat and mouse car chase scene between Bond’s Ashton Ashton Martin DB5, and Onatopp’s red Ferrari, the Swiss Alps for the scene in which Bond jumps off a cliff with a motorcycle to try and catch up with a rapidly-falling-into-a-ravine, pilotless plane, Nene Valley Railway in Northhamptonshire doubling for the Russian Railway station from which Trevelyan’s bulletproof train takes off, the SIS HQ in Vauxhall, London, for establishing shots of MI6 HQ, and finally St Petersburg, Russia, where the crew went to get some establishing shots, and where a good chunk of the tank chase sequence throughout its streets was done.
One of the most remarkable and memorable aspects of this movie is the greater amount of action set pieces that are in it, even more so than in any other Bond movie before it. First off, the movie starts with a remarkable stunt performed by stuntman Wayne Michaels for the pre-credits scene in which Bond has to bungee-jump off the top of a dam to the very bottom of a ravine where there is a secret passageway into the chemical factory. On his way down, he has to take out a grapple gun attached to a belt in his suit, shoot the grapple onto the metal surface at the bottom of the dam, and laser his way in, using the laser cannon fixed on top of the grapple gun. Many aspects of the stunt had to be taken into consideration, not the least of which was the fact that the wind velocity and direction had to be perfect in order for the stunt to work. The wall was concave, which made it difficult for Michaels to control his descent without smashing his body against the concrete surface. For that, the crane onto which the cable was attached had to be sufficiently outwards to allow Michaels enough leeway if the cable recoiled. After many tries in which the crew attached weighted mannequins, and even a tree trunk of roughly the same size and weight, with these almost inevitably crashing against the wall before many of them even got to the bottom, the weather conditions were finally ideal enough for Michaels to do his jump. The difficulty of the jump was also compounded by the fact that Michaels had to get the grapple gun out in camera before reaching the bottom. Amazingly enough the stunt was achieved, and when edited together with the bits and pieces done by Brosnan in the soundstage, it was seemless. The next stunt takes place at the end of the pre-credits sequence in which French stuntman Jaques Malnuit drives the Italian Cagiva motorcycle off the cliff, and after the pilotless plane. The first part of the stunt was done by Malnuit, while the second part was supposed to be done by B.J Worth, a veteran of the Bond stunt team who’d worked in numerous Bond films like Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and Licence to Kill; whenever there were aerial stunts involved. It was actually Worth, who was in charge of coordinating and directing the stunt, but as many times as he tried, he could not get the stunt to work properly, with the idea being that he had to be able to match the velocity of his freefall with that of the descending plane, with weight and gravity always one step ahead. Unable to get the shot, the stunt crew had to wrap up, and recreate the whole stunt in a soundstage with Pierce Brosnan hanging from cables from the roof. The process shot had an unrealistic quality to it that has never quite satisfied both the filmmakers and the audience. For the cat and mouse car chase scene between Bond’s DB5 and Xenia’s red Ferrari, the filmmakers went back to the expertise of an old acquaintance of the Bond family; the French stunt driving team of Rémy Julienne. For the scene to work properly, and for the on-road performance of the DB5 to match that of the Ferrari’s, Julienne and his team had to alter the mechanics of the car. The sequence was heavily storyboarded and shot by second Unit director Ian Sharpe, who also took charge of most of the action in the pre-title sequence and the tank chase around St Petersburg. The tank chase was one of the most difficult action set pieces from a logistical point of view. Barbara Broccoli was in charge of supervising Main Unit in St Petersburg, with the crew having to replace lots of street furniture overnight for breakable materials and props, to be replaced to their original state once they were finished. The local authorities were always a pain in the neck for the Bond crew, even after having acquired all the necessary permits to shoot, because of all the local neighbour’s complaints about the noise and the havoc the crew was wreaking in their beloved city. It was decided that it would be better to work in a more controlled environment by making use of all the extra room that the backlot at Leavesden afforded them. A section of the city of St Petersburg was recreated on the backlot to finish the tank chase, and especially for the crucial scene in which the tank crashes against a truckload of Perrier water.
Brosnan and Bean tried as much as possible to do their own stunts, having occasionally to be doubled by the likes of Wayne Michaels or Simon Crane, but the majority of their hand to hand fight in the dark engine room of the antenae was done by them. This scene was a nightmare for Phil Méheux to shoot because of the darkness of the room, and the fact that both Brosnan and Bean were dressed in dark colors. In the end he came with a solution to his dilemma by having holed up panels put up on the sides of the room to allow some natural light to come through.
One of the best contributions to the movie were those from model maker and Special effects Supervisor Derek Meddings. Meddings was no stranger to bringing the world of 007 to life as he’d been a fixture for the James Bond movies on and off since Live and Let Die, Guy Hamilton (1973). His incredible model work helps bring to life some of the most impressive action set pieces of the movie, most of which were built on Leavesden’s back lot. Among these we have a model built to scale of the Severnaya control station complemented with a Tiger helicopter model as well that was used for establishing shots, as well as some incredibly detailed forced perspective shots in the scene in which Grishenko comes out of the station to have a smoke and the station’s main building and antenae come be seen in the background. Equally impressive are the shots of the Russian Migs crashing against the antenae which is all model work enhanced with a little bit of some early CGI. His are as well the shots of the exploding chemical factory in the pre-title sequence which was all a miniature. A mixture of live action and model work was also used for the scene in which Bond and Natalya are trapped inside the Tiger helicopter which is rigged to explode. A miniature tank and bulletproof train was used for the scene in which Trevelyan’s train rams Bond’s tank. But the most impressive model set which Weddings and his crew built is probably Trevelyan’s base of operations; a control antenae that is submerged under an artificial lake. Meddings and his crew copied the design of the real Arecibo Observatory antanae, and built an exact replica in the back lot, having it rigged to come out of the water on cue. When married with the live action footage of Bond and Natalya walking up to it that was optically inserted, the end result is so photorealistic, it’s hard to tell which part is a model, and which part isn’t. Unfortunately Meddings didn’t live long enough to see his best work on the big screen, having died a few days before the premiere. The film was posthumously dedicated to him. As a matter of fact, this review is kind of my own homage to two brilliant minds and contributors to the way James Bond movies looked on the big screen; Derek Meddings and Peter Lamont, who passed away a few weeks ago. Their time in the Industry, and especially working on the Bond movies, defined a way to work and artistry that is sadly lost these days, where CGI, be it good or bad, runs rampant. They will be forever missed, and their work a living testimony of what true filmmaking of the highest order looks like.
Goldeneye was very well received by both critics and audiences alike. Both modern and established audiences liked the new James Bond. Pierce Brosnan had passed the test with flying colors, ushering in a new era for the character. The movie had a cumulative worldwide gross of $352,194,034 million, and it was, up until that point, the highest grossing movie in the franchise. James Bond was alive and kicking, financially healthy enough to keep going for a few more rounds but, what do I think of Pierce Brosnan’s baptism of fire in the franchise?
This movie has enormous significance to me. I already was a James Bond fan by the time Goldeneye came around. I’d discovered the character first on TV airings as a little kid, and would fall in love with the character all over again when I started renting all the old movies on VHS. I was pretty much aware of the fact that we hadn’t had a Bond movie for six years, for whatever reason, and was really hyped to get to see this one on the big screen, as I’d never seen a Bond movie on the big screen before. Needless to say, the movie lived up to my expectations and more. I was enthralled from beginning to end. Everything from the story, the characters, the sets, the special effects; it all worked for me. Sure, Brosnan still seemed a little stiff, and wouldn’t really come into his own as the character until the next movie; Tomorrow Never Dies, Roger Spottiswoode (1997). When you remove the bias, Goldeneye is everything you come to expect from a James Bond movie; an interesting plot of world domination, exciting villains, beautiful, lethal and resourceful Bond girls, amazing action set pieces, a great title song by an equally great singer; Tina Turner, and good old-fashioned special effects. More modern efforts have aged more badly due to shoddy CGI, i.e; Die Another Die, Lee Tamahori (2002), but this one still stands the test of time. I consider it to be one of the great Bond titles, and certainly the best one that Brosnan was ever in. It’s certainly not in the same league as say From Russia with Love, Terrence Young (1963), or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Peter Hunt (1969), but it sure holds its own against the rest, and even better some others, Octopussy, John Glen (1983), or A View to a Kill, John Glen (1985). It’s certainly more action-oriented than the ones that came before, and it’s highly entertaining, but I still have some minor issues with it. One of them would be the score by Eric Serra. It just doesn’t work for me. He does do however an interesting rendition of the Monty Norman theme for the gunbarrel sequence but, as for the rest of the score there are only a couple of dramatic tracks that I really liked, mainly the Casino scenes music, and Natalya’s theme. Thankfully, the music was changed for the tank chase scene in St Petersburg. The editor Terry Rawlings was having difficulty matching Serra’s score to the images on-screen, and so it was agreed that Serra’s Arranger, John Altman, come up with more suitably Bond-sounding music. As I mentioned before, Brosnan seems a little bit stiff, but that’s understandable given that this was his first time playing the character. It usually takes at least two movies to warm up, and get into the character. Those are really my only two hangups regarding the movie, but they don’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the movie. It’s bucketloads of fun, and one of the best in the series overall.
Thanks for reading.