The Spy who Loved Me. Classic Bond.

With Roger Moore firmly established in the role of 007, and the success of the last two entries; the producers wanted to push on with a third successive movie. The book chosen to be adapted this time was The Spy who Loved Me, but the producers encountered a series of obstacles no one was counting on.

Legal problems, and the end of a partnership.

The first problem the producers encountered was a clause in a contract the producers had signed with Ian Fleming, in which it was expressly forbidden for any of the plot elements in the book to be used in a screenplay; thus the screenwriters would have to come up with an entirely original plot for the script, only being allowed to use the book’s title. That’s how the concept of megalomaniac multimillionaire Sea-biologist Carl Stromberg; who is bent on worldwide destruction by hijacking several Nuclear Submarines, and creating a new underwater world afterwards, was born. But the next problem would delay the release of the next movie for several years.

Harry Saltzman had been having financial difficulties for the last few years. He’d made a series of investments that hadn’t panned out, and was now facing serious debt. To overcome this, he’d used his shares at Eon as collateral; which put the whole company in jeopardy, and it also meant that they couldn’t move forward with the next movie until these legal issues had been resolved.

After years of court battles, the Studio managed to prevail. Broccoli found an Executive Producer , William P. Cartlidge, who was willing to foot Saltzman’s bill, but the title of Producer, from that point on, would solely, and squarely fall on Broccoli’s shoulders; meaning that the eventual success, or failure of the franchise from that moment on was totally dependent on him. Sadly, Saltzman, after having sold his shares, had to give up his Co-producer title, and would never return to the series. One more legal obstacle remained, however.

Producer Kevin McClory, who due to having ownership of the rights to the Thunderball novel, had received a Producer’s credit for that film, sued Eon on the grounds that The Spy who Loved Me’s screenplay closely resembled a script he’d worked on. He lost the case, however, which finally cleared the way for the producers to start work on Pre-production.

A new direction

Guy Hamilton had been offered the movie right after he’d finished filming on The Man with the Golden Gun. Sadly, after all the delays, he lost interest in the project, and had moved on to something else. It was then that Broccoli contacted a former associate of his, and someone who had already successfully directed a Bond movie for them; Lewis Gilbert. You Only Live Twice had been somewhat of a turning point in the James Bond saga, as it was the first time that the series fully embraced the fantastical elements of the character, and further separated the film character from his more-grounded-in-reality, book counterpart. It can be argued that Goldfinger had already started going down that path, with larger-than-life megalomaniac villains bent on world destruction, sophisticated henchmen, and the extended use of gadgetry; but it was thanks to the outlandish plot, gadgetry, and Ken Adams’s work in the design of the villain’s lair inside an extinct volcano, that further helped enhance the concept. The last two Bond movies, though financially successful, had been very low-key in that respect. It was time to throw everything, but the kitchen sink into it, to make Bond the pop culture icon he was always meant to be, and further cement Roger Moore in the role.

Going big

The first thing that Gilbert did was to bring along his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Christopher Wood, to help spice up Richard Maibaum’s draft; adding more humour, and outlandish elements to the plot. He also changed Roger Moore’s dialogue to play to the actor’s strengths. Gilbert felt that the producers had tried to go with a more serious tone for Moore, that didn’t necessarily match with Moore’s personality; trying to make him act more like Sean Connery’s Bond would. The tone in both the story, and the character, was definitely lighter; with some goofy elements thrown in, that somewhat undermined the more serious elements of the plot. This penchant for goofy humour would further undercut the filmmakers efforts in the next entry in the series; Moonraker.

One positive aspect that came out of this re-work of the character was the extensive use of gadgetry, the visit to even more exotic locations, and the building of sets, that were taken to a level never achieved before.

The movie was shot in locations as different as Egypt, Sardinia, Canada, and once again in Pinewood Studios, London; the choice of so disparate locations highlighting the globe-trotting nature of the story. But it was, once again, Ken Adam’s amazing set design that really gave the whole thing that larger-than-life quality the filmmakers were looking for. His was the design of Stromberg’s underwater lair, Atlantis, the Supertanker which Stromberg uses to hijack the nuclear submarines, and the Lotus Esprit car which could transform into a gadget-loaded submarine when needed. Most of these designs were achieved with the help of Visual Effects Supervisor and miniature model wiz, Derek Meddings.

The cast

Another important aspect that the filmmakers paid a lot of attention to was the cast. For the role of the main villain, Carl Stromberg, the producers cast Austrian-German actor Curt Jürgens. Stromberg falls in the category of those Bond villains who rely heavily on their minions to accomplish their goals, like Bloefeld and Goldfinger. The actor definitely lends a threatening presence to the character, and the make up artists even went as far as giving him webbed hands to further enhance the illusion that he’s one with his aquatic environment. But no villain would be complete without a charismatic henchman. The character of the steel-toothed assassin was actually sourced from the novel, in which his alias is actually Terror, and not Jaws, as he would be finally known. At over 7ft tall, American actor Richard Kiel was chosen to portray the role, who ended up being so popular with audiences that he was asked to reprise it for the next movie in the series. The Art department made him a special metal mouth piece that was perfectly molded to fit inside his mouth. The contraption, however, was so uncomfortable to wear that he could only wear it for a few seconds before he started gagging. All the scenes in which he wears the metal-platted teeth were carefully edited with short cuts to overcome this particular situation. For the roles of the main Bond girls the producers went with model Caroline Munro to play the rode of Stromberg’s personal assistant and helicopter pilot, Naomi; and actress Barbara Bach to play the role of Soviet secret agent, Anya Amasova; who would, years later get married to The Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr. The rest of the recurring characters came back.

Dangerous stunts, hot weather, and underwater adventures.

The film starts with a bang, with possibly one of the most dangerous stunts ever performed in a Bond movie. I’m, of course, talking about the scene in which Bond is skiing down a snowy mountain slope, being pursued by Russian agents, and ends the sequence by jumping off a cliff and opening a parachute with the Union flag all over it, in mid-air. The sequence was the brainchild of Lewis Gilbert, who though it would be a neat way of opening up the movie. The tricky thing was finding the right place and conditions to perform the stunt, and someone daring enough to do it. The pre-credit sequence is supposed to take place in the Austrian Alps, but these were difficult peaks to reach during the Winter time, in which most of these mountains would already be snowed in. An experienced skier and mountain climber by the name of Rick Sylvester was contacted, and agreed to do it. He also told the producers that he knew the perfect spot where it could be done. The chosen place was in Canada. Sylvester, along with a small filming crew went to the spot, only to find that the mountain side was heavily snowed in, and the high winds made it too dangerous to jump. A few weeks went by without much luck, to the point in which Broccoli talked to Sylvester to ask him if he’d changed his mind about doing it. Sylvester reiterated that he was just waiting for the right conditions, which did come a few days later; and the stunt was finally filmed from numerous angles, and with 4 different cameras to ensure that it was sufficiently covered on film.

Things didn’t get any better when the crew moved to Egypt to shoot in location. The numerous challenges that some locations presented when it came to filming them, like the Giza Piramids exhibition, along with the stifling heat and dreadful local food; really tried the crew’s patience and endurance. The first problem was fairly easy to solve. Given the inmensity of the Pyramid exhibition, and the impossibility of getting enough artificial illumination to light the whole thing, it was decided that a Matte Painting of the Pyramids would be used as a background plate for the scene. The second problem though, was slightly more difficult to overcome. The crew was so worried about getting sick from food poisoning, and so tired of the hot conditions, that they suggested to Broccoli breezing through the shots as fast as they could, so they could return to England as soon as possible. Having always had a reputation of taking really good care of his cast and crew, Broccoli ordered a refrigerated truck with food shipped from England to be delivered in location. The truck did arrive, only empty. To avoid further delays, Broccoli flew in, went about shopping for ingredients and kitchen implements, and personally cooked a huge vat of Spaghetti Bolognese for his crew. That little gesture earned him the respect of the crew, who re-doubled their efforts to get off-location as swiftly as possible. Among the many striking locations the crew got to shoot in were some abandoned ruins out in the desert, outside of Cairo. This is the spot in which Bond, Anya, and Jaws’s first confrontation takes place, which ends up with Jaws almost crushing the van in which Bond and Anya are trying to run away. The second confrontation, aboard a train, proved to be a trifle more challenging, due to the confined quarters that the train cabin set provided. The crew was more than up to the challenge, as they’ve already done similar train fight sequences in From Russia with Love, and Live and Let Die. The entire interior of the train cabin was recreated in Pinewood Studios, and the fight was exhaustively rehearsed by Stunt Coordinator Bob Simmonds, and actor Richard Kiel. It was actually Bob Simmonds who doubled for Kiel when Bond kicks him out of the window.

As soon as the crew had wrapped in Egypt, they moved on to Sardinia, where the scenes in which Bond and Anya follow the clues to Carl Stromberg’s underwater lair Atlantis, and the submarine/car chase would be filmed. The bulk of the Special Effects and Set Design work kicked in then, which presented the producers with a problem of huge dimensions.

Ken and Derek knock it out of the park.

It had already been discussed during Pre-Production the best way to go about the sequence in which a retrofitted Supertanker swallows and holds inside it three enormous nuclear submarines. At first, the crew went looking for a real tanker, preferably a disused one, that they could use to double as both the interior and exterior of Stromberg’s Supertanker. They knocked on many doors, and finally got Shell to lease them an empty one from their own fleet. Unfortunately, the filmmakers soon discovered that an empty tanker was actually more dangerous to film in than a full one, because of all the gases left inside. That made it completely unsuitable to have electric filming equipment inside as the smallest of sparks could potentially blow the whole thing up. The practical solution was to build practical models of both the Supertanker and Atlantis for the establishing shots, and blow them up later on. The life-size interior of the Supertanker, which not only had to hold all three hijacked nuclear submarines, but Stromberg’s control room, detention cells, and missile silos, was too big to fit into any of the existing sound stages in Pinewood. What remained was to build an entirely new sound stage. Adam proposed building the Supertanker set first, and the rest of the sound stage around it. It was a huge undertaking, and the resulting sound stage was baptized as The 007 Sound Stage.

Once construction on both the set and stage were finished, another problem arose. The set was so huge that it was incredibly difficult to light. On top of that, Claude Renoir, the Cinematographer, had been slowly losing his sight over the years, and was finding it difficult to do his job. It was then that Adam came up with a solution that was controversial, to say the least. He recruited the help of Stanley Kubrick, with whom he’d worked before in Doctor Stangelove (1964), and Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick agreed to help him on the condition that no one would find out about it. Adam made sure that no one from the crew was around and upon arriving, Kubrick suggested that it might be a good idea to put up lots of flood lights on the ceiling, and thus allow these set lights to illuminate the set without any additional artificial lighting.

Another important element was the incredible model work done by Derek Meddings. Not only did he build miniature models of all the sets like the Supertanker, and Atlantis, but he was also mainly responsible for the model work in the Lotus Esprit. As many as seven models of the Lotus Esprit were built, in different sizes; to simulate all the different stages the car goes through from the moment ii falls into the sea, to when it becomes a fully formed underwater vehicle with the usual array of gadgets to escape from the bad guys. The bulk of the underwater scenes, and all those establishing shots of both Atlantis, and the Supertanker on the sea were shot in the Bahamas. The waters in the Bahamas are world renowned for being extremely clear, which makes them very useful when shooting underwater scenes. The crew had already gone there a few times before to shoot the underwater sequences for both Thunderball and You Only Live Twice.

Between both Ken Adam and Derek Meddings, they achieved one of the best looking Bond movies when it comes to Set Design, and Visual Effects. The interior of both the Supertanker, and Atlantis look magnificent. As was always the case with his sets, Ken Adam always strived to make them mobile and fully functional. A small crew even went to Japan to take photos of a real life Marine research centre. They brought back hundreds of pictures, with all kinds of exotic fish that would be latter used as background plates for the observation windows.

Meddings’ work on the models is superb, shot in a way that it never gives away the real size of the models. Brilliant examples of this are all the establishing shots for the Supertanker and Atlantis, and their respective explosions later on. So are all the underwater shots for the model Lotus Esprit. A life size mocap of the car was built to be submerged, that had to be moved around underwater by a team of scuba divers. The interior was completely sealed, and only used for close up shots. A remarkable feat of engineering, considering how little screen time it has in the movie.

Financial and critical success

The Spy who Loved Me proved to be wildly successful with both audiences and critics. It’s generally regarded as one of the best Bond movies, and the best in Roger Moore’s run in the role. Little else can be said about it, except for the fact that it made more money at the Box Office than any other Bond movie had ever made before.

Personal thoughts

The Spy who Loved Me is definitely my favourite James Bond movie with Roger Moore playing the titular character. It’s one of the most sophisticated, wity and wildly entertaining movies in the franchise. It has everything going for it; the beautiful Soviet Spy who is Bond’s equal, a madman bent on world domination, an iconic henchman, an outlandish plot, beautiful locations, and lots of gadgets, among them a submarine car!!.

It definitely has some goofy stuff in it; like some of the silly musical cues used to play up the comical elements of the story, but it’s generally speaking a fun romp. A rollercoaster ride of emotions that never lets up; but what is most fondly remembered for is the incredible stunt work, the set design and especially, its over the top, but thoroughly enjoyable action set pieces. One of the aspects of the movie that it’s often overlooked is the soundtrack. In addition to a very memorable theme song sung by Carly Simon, it has one of the most energetic scores to be found in the series outside the ones John Barry composed. Marvin Hamlisch’s score for the movie is a “disco extravaganza”, that often comes up in fan circle conversations, citing it as one of the reasons why the movie has aged so badly. I entirely disagree. I think it fits the movie like a globe, and gives it that unique quality that makes it stand out from the rest as a product of its time.

Sadly there are also some bad things in it. While generally speaking, all the cast does a decent job, with Roger Moore being his usual charming self; the same cannot be said about Barbara Bach. While definitely a beauty, she clearly lacks in the acting department, coming off as stiff and wooden, especially in her line delivery. Curt Jürgens does a serviceable job as Stromberg. He does have a rather laid back attitude about it, but has enough charisma to come off as menacing sometimes. But the absolute standout in the villain camp is Jaws. Richard Kiel does wonders with the role, coming off as menacing, but with a humorous side to him. Some of the funniest scenes are the ones with him in them. No wonder the public wanted him back.

The action set pieces are done to a very high standard, and are amongst the best in the series. The sky jump in the pre-credits sequence, the car chase sequence with ends up in an underwater chase sequence with a submarine car, Bond and the newly rescued nuclear submarines crews trying to break into the Supertanker’s control room, the final showdown between Bond and Jaws aboard Atlantis….Gilbert would try and repeat the same formula for the next movie, and although he succeeded to a certain extent, it doesn’t quite reach the same heights. This, to me, is definitely one the best in the bunch, and a real treat. Nobody does it better.

Thanks for reading.

The Man with the Golden Gun. On the trail of Mr Scaramanga.

After having succesfully jumped the hurdle that was his first appearance as 007, James Bond; Roger Moore was ready, once again, to tackle his next obstacle; trying to top what the creative team at United Artists, and himself had done in Live and Let Die.

Creative exhaustion

“Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were very satisfied with the way the two previous entries had been handled, and the consequent financial success achieved by both of them. Riding on a wave of success, they felt that they had to make the most out of this momentum, and immediately started work on Pre-production for The Man with the Golden Gun.

This was a book that they had tried already to adapt, back when Sean Connery first expressed his desire to quit the role, and the producers were in talks with Roger Moore to take over as 007. That proyect had to be scrapped, however, as the producers’ desire to film the movie in Cambodia ground to a halt because of the political upheaval in the area. Moore also had to abandon the role, as he was already committed to another TV show; The Persuaders (1971-1972).

Both Guy Hamilton, and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz were asked to come back, and even though Mankiewicz wrote a first draft of the script; he felt he wasn’t giving it his best. He asked the producers to retire from the proyect, as he was suffering from creative exhaustion, and wasn’t able to come up with a satisfying enough script. The producers decided to get in contact with Richard Maibaum, who had successfully written the scripts for the first Bond movies. While in the process of writing, Mankiewicz, Hamilton and the producers were also scouting for locations. The story in the book originally takes place in Jamaica, but as the crew had already filmed there twice for Dr No and Live and Let Die, it was felt that they had to come up with somewhere exotic where they hadn’t filmed before. After watching a French film that had been shot in Iran, and being mesmerized by the magnificent locations; the team flew there to check it out by themselves. None of the locations lived up to the crew’s expectations, and anyway, on their flight back they learned that the Arab-Israeli War had sprang up, mirroring a similar situation when the crew had wanted to shoot The Man with the Golden Gun in Cambodia, before the Civil War started. It seemed that the James Bond crew was out of luck once again. Or were they?

The James Bond Islands

The misshap in Iran ultimately proved to be nothing more than a temporary set back. Hamilton, the eternal innovator, had always been fascinated about the idea of shooting a Bond movie on one of those isolated islands that formed a chain of rugged, and beautiful looking pinnacles off the coast of China. Hamilton had learned about these while thumbing through a traveller’s magazine, and although they couldn’t get any of those actual locations, they found something similar off the coast of Thailand. Permission was granted to the crew to shoot there, but as none of the islands had suitable establishments were the cast and crew could stay in, being the islands compressed mainly of small villages along the coast; the crew had to make do with the village’s brothel, which was the only house big enough to accommodate the whole filming crew, and convert in into a hotel of sorts. This was the least of the cast and crew’s problems, though, as they had to travel to the island chosen to be Scaramanga’s island by boat every day, carrying tons of wardrobe, set decoration building material, props and filming equipment. The crew had to also watch out for changes in the tide, and weather conditions. After filming, the island became a famous tourist destination, and would in time be dubbed as The James Bond Islands. Being fairly close to Hong Kong and Macau, it was decided that the bulk of the movie would be shot there, with interiors, like the sunken Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbor, the interior of Scaramanga’s island retreat, and the solar energy laboratory, all faithfully recreated in Pinewood Studios.

A great villain for a great actor

The movie gives us the opportunity to enjoy one of the best Bond villains ever to come out of Ian Fleming’s pages; the assassin Francisco Scaramanga, a.k.a, The Man with the Golden Gun. To find an actor capable of bringing across the menace and sophistication of such an iconic character, the producers went to the most unusual of places; the British Hammer Film Productions. Christopher Lee had made a name for himself portraying Count Dracula in numerous movies for the film production company, and was tired of being type cast in the same role. The part of Scaramanga would give the actor the opportunity to explore, and widen his acting range. He was also, in a way, related to the Bond series in that Ian Fleming and him were cousins, they had a mutual affection for golf, and would often play together many times. He was more than delighted to accept the role after he read the script. Tom Mankiewicz, who ultimately had to come back to do some re-writes on Maibaum’s script, had made several changes to the character from the way he was portrayed in the book. In the book, Scaramanga lacks the air of sophistication given to him by Mankiewicz, and comes across as nothing more than a mere thug for hire who happens to have a penchant for golden plated weaponry. Lee welcomed those changes, as he saw his character as a dark reversal of James Bond; a fact that comes to light during the dinner scene in Scaramanga’s hideout in the third act of the film. Even more unusual, and surprisingly effective was the casting of French painter-turned actor Herve Villechaize as Scaramanga’s pint-size second hand, Nick Nack. The actor turned out to be a lively presence on set, always in good spirits and, according to his fellow cast members; with a voracious appetite for the opposite sex.

On the Bond girls front, the producers turned to two Swedish beauties; Maud Adams and Britt Ekland. Ekland, who plays the part of agent Mary Goodnight, would be later on better known for her marriage with actor Peter Sellers than for her acting career, while Maud Adams, who plays Scaramanga’s lover Andrea Anders, would get the chance to play the enchanting and mysterious Jewl smuggler Octopussy, opposite Roger Moore, in the Bond film of the same name, years later. The role of Scaramanga’s employer, the Chinese Industrialist Hai Fat, was played by famous American-Chinese actor Richard Loo. The role of Bond’s assistant in Hong Kong, Hip, fell to Korean-American actor Soon Tek-Oh. Another surprising bit of re-casting was that of Clifton James reprising his role as Sherriff J.W. Pepper, who just happens to be vacationing in Hong Kong with his wife while Bond is on assignment there. Go figure!!.He came back by popular demand, and participates in one of the most exciting action set pieces in the movie; just like he did in the previous one.

Hardship and Luxury

The producers tried to accommodate the needs of its crew and cast as much as possible, but the isolated location on the island of Khow-Ping-Khan, which the crew was using as Scaramanga’s island, was a tricky location to get to in the best of circumstances. The whole cast and crew was staying on a nearby island where accommodations and means of transportation were limited, to say the least. Shooting in location was divided into the island and back on the mainland on Hong Kong, and a floating casino in Macau. The scenes in which Bond follows Andrea from the floating Casino in Macau to the Hotel Peninsula, in Hong Kong, in which Bond travels on a Hidrofoil for one island to the other, were shot in the same day. It was actually in this hotel where most of the crew stayed for the duration of the shoot in location, being treated with the utmost care by the producers, as a way of making up for the uncomfortable accommodations and shooting conditions on the Scaramanga island.

Spiral jumping cars, more speedboat chases, and other death-defying shenanigans.

The movie, once again, excells in its death-defying, action set pieces. There are not as many car chases, or action set pieces as there had been in the previous movies. In fact, this is one of the few Bond movies that is really restrained in that department, and it takes, for the most part, a very low key approach when it comes to this particular facet of the production. But what little there is, it’s outstanding. First off, we have a speed boat chase through the water markets and houses of the Bangkok area, immediately preceded by a kung fu fight sequence between Bond, Hip and his two nieces against a bunch of Kung Fu fighters in a Temple. The fight sequence was thoroughly rehearsed before hand, presenting little problems; but the speedboat chase sequence had to be carefully planned by the Stunt department, as the nimble boats used by the locals to traverse the river on a daily basis, were too fast, too unstable, and highly unreliable. They were powered by a rotor attached to a pole, which when sunk in the water by the boatman would reach high speeds on a moment’s notice. The peculiar way in which the boats were powered and steered around, also meant that, when bending a corner too fast, the pole with the rotor attached to it, could come out of the water and spin out of control. There was also the added health issue of speed boating around in dirty water, running the risk of falling in and catching all kind of diseases. Not something to be snuffed at.

But the action set piece that is the absolute standout in the movie is the car spiral jump. This jaw-dropping action set piece was performed by W.J. Milligan Jr’s stunt team. “Cubby” Broccoli had heard on the news about a daring car jump stunt performed for a live audience in an auditorium in the US, over a spiralling wooden bridge. It occurs while Bond is chasing after Scaramanga and Nick Nack, and mistakenly takes the wrong turn and ends up in the opposite lane with a river in between. Halfway through, Bond spots a broken-down, rickety, chopped-in-the-middle wooden bridge, with two very steep and short, spiralling ramps on either side. This is the point he chooses to cross over to the other side. The spiraling ramps were designed and constructed to Milligan’s specifications, after careful mathematical calculations were made using a computer model; taking into account mass of the vehicle, weight and speed necessary to achieve the jump. The steering wheel had to be placed in the middle of the car to even out the weight, while a mocap steering wheel, with two dummies seating on both front seats standing in for Moore and Clifton James were put there to perform the stunt. One driver from Milligan’s team was chosen to perform the stunt, who did it to perfection on the first take. It was actually Hamilton who was concerned that the jump looked too perfect, and asked if it could be repeated. Given the dangerous nature of the stunt, Milligan refused.

Another bit of funny business was the scene in which Scaramanga turns his car into a flying machine. Special Effects Supervisor John Stears, a veteran of the Bond movies, was asked to do the required modifications to a real car for close ups, while the shots of the car flying away were achieved using a model car.

Design challenges

For a movie light in action set pieces, it sure had a lot of, at times, overlooked work put into his Props and Set Design. Peter Murton was the man in charge this time around to provide the necessary background glitz to James Bond’s newest adventure. With Peter Lamont as his right hand man, Murton was in charge of designing not only Scaramanga’s entire island hideout and its Solar Energy lab which, by the way, is very reminiscent of Ken Adams’s design for Dr No’s lab from the first movie in the series, but he also was in charge of designing one of the most bizarre and psychedelic sets seen in a Bond movie; Scaramanga’s fun house, which he uses as a target practice arena for would-be assassins who come over the island to kill him. The set was recreated in its entirety in Pinewood Studios, using an assortment of mannequins, mirrors, period-themed areas, like a Western town Saloon, and an Al Capone gallery, and even a life-size wax sculpture of Roger Moore’s Bond himself!!. Another challenging set whose interior had to also be built in Pinewood was that of M’s office inside the capsized, half sunk, and water corrugated Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbor. The real life ship was used as a establishing shot, while a mocap of the exterior and an access hatch were built in Pinewood. As the real ship was tilted to one side, so had to be the rest of the set’s interior. Doors, furniture..everything was built on an angle; making for one of the most bizarre sets seen in a Bond movie. One prop that gave the designers a run for their money, and especially Peter Lamont, who was in charge of designing it; was the Golden Gun. Lamont was given instructions to build two models of the Golden Gun; one that was constructed as a whole piece, and other that could be taken apart, and put back together. Lamont took the design to a company they frequently worked with, to have them design a gold-plated lighter. In addition to this, a golden pen for the cannon and cuff links for the trigger completed the design, which was put together by a London-based company that specialized in Jewellery design. Lamont got used to assembling and disassembling the gun so much, that he could do it without looking at it. A trick that was never completely mastered by Christopher Lee himself.

In addition to all the Set and Prop Design, a great deal of miniatures were used, especially for the finale, in which Scaramanga’s entire rock-hidden Solar Lab blows up. For this, the producers recruited the help of Derek Meddings. Meddings had been hired in the previous movie to simulate the explosion of Kananga’s poppy fields at the end of the movie; which was all achieved with the use of miniatures. This time around, the use of miniatures was going to be even more extensive; as he had to, not only, recreate some of Murton’s sets in miniature for the long establishing shots, but also blow them up in the finale. The end result is so seamless, that I didn’t notice the difference between the real set and the miniature set until it was pointed out to me in the Audio commentary.

Struggling to finish

One other problem surfaced when Principal Photography in location for the movie had been completed. Ted Moore, the Cinematographer responsible for lighting most of the previous Bond movies fell ill. Faced with an ever encroaching delivery dead line, and with a good chunk of the movie yet to be filmed in Pinewood, Broccoli and Saltzman got in touch with Oswald Morris’ agent. Morris was a well known Cinematographer by then, with such credits as Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Norman Jewison, and Lolita (1962), Stanley Kubrick. Morris was reluctant to take the job, as he’d done it several times before, and wasn’t comfortable with walking into someone else’s set, taking over, and having to complete the job adhering to someone else’s style. It took him some convincing, especially by Broccoli, but he finally relented, and completed the movie on schedule.

Financial and critical reception

The movie was generally well received on both fronts. Moore was firmly established as 007’s new face and everyone was happy. Or were they?

Personal thoughts

The reason why I asked the question is because, for some reason or another, The Man with the Golden Gun seems to hold the record as the Bond movie most people make fun of. And this is totally undeserved. We also get some of that with Live and Let Die, but with this one, people really like to stick the knife in, and twist. Ok, granted it’s not the most exciting, or groundbreaking of Bond adventures at times, as say; Goldfinger, Thunderball, or Moore’s next Bond movie; The Spy who loved me. But it still has a lot going for it. It’s got a great villain, great locations, amazing action set pieces and stunts, and John Barry is back to compose the soundtrack. What more can you ask for?. Its heart is definitely on the right place. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s some goofy stuff there, we could’ve done without; the return of J.W. Pepper, (funny though Clifton James may be), the kung fu fight scene in the temple, and consequent speedboat chase sequence that’s done for the sake of doing it because of the kung-fu craze prevalent at the time, and an excuse to have an extra action set piece (as brillianty executed as always, I might add), and especially the blow whistle effect used for the car spiral jump scene, which totally undermines the effectiveness of such a wonderful stunt. An inclusion that John Barry has admitted, regrets having done. All that aside, there’s much to be enjoyed here. Moore is clearly in his element, and has some very good dialogue to work with thanks to Tom Mankiewicz’s contributions. Both Bond girls are beautiful, and in the case of Maud Adams, though admittedly inexperienced at the time, has some real meat to her role. Ekland does her best as the silly and clumsy assistant, but is regrettably nothing more than that. As for Herve Villechaize as Nick Nack, he’s a hoot. It’s unusual to have a short person as a sidekick, but I think it works wonders with this setting, and this story. The clear standout here is Christopher Lee. His interactions with Moore are very well written and acted, and Moore really has to step up his game to be on par with him on an acting level on occasion. The final duel is well shot, and very suspenseful. Editing and music play a great part in this, and the conclusion is rather surprising. This one is a minor title in the Bond/Moore movie run, but it’s got a lot of charm, and should be seen without prejudice and an open mind. It’s also the last time that Guy Hamilton directed a Bond movie, which was definitely a loss for most of us. One of the best directors in the series, and a consumate innovator.

Thanks for reading.

Live and Let Die. Here comes Roger.

After Sean Connery’s refusal to come back to the role of James Bond, it was time for producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli to try out an actor who had already been approached even before Sean Connery was cast for Dr No; Roger Moore.

An old friend

Roger Moore was an old acquaintance of Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli’s. He’d been on the run up to play the part of Bond back in 1961 when the producers were casting for the role, and was again approached by them when Sean Connery expressed his desire to abandon the role after You Only Live Twice (1967). The first time around, Moore had to pass up on it, because he was working on The Saint tv show, which run from 1962 to 1969. The second time around he was asked to come back, and the idea was to shoot Ian Fleming’s last 007 novel; The Man with the Golden Gun in Cambodia. That idea had to be scrapped because of the Civil War in the region, and by the time the producers were ready to tackle another proyect, Moore was already engaged in another TV show; The Persuaders (1971-1972). Moore had stayed in contact with both producers over the years, however, as they use to go gamble and socialize in the same casino, and when the time came to cast another actor for the role; Moore was asked once again to come back.

A controversial book

Tom Mankiewicz, who had worked with Richard Maibaum in Diamonds are Forever; was asked to pen the script, and was given the choice of picking which one of the remaining Ian Fleming novels he wanted to adapt next. He immediately jumped at the idea of adapting Live and Live Die. Fleming’s second 007 book was a controversial one. The main villain and henchmen were black, and the way they were portrayed and spoke in the book was the subject of heavy editing when it came to publishing the novel in the US. Nevertheless, the idea of Bond going after an Afroamerican baddie fascinated Mankiewicz, as he thought that the characters and the story would give the film an edge that would differentiate it from any other Bond movie before it. It was also the perfect opportunity to go in a different direction, as there was a different actor coming into the role. Guy Hamilton was once again on the director’s chair and, as he’d always been someone to experiment and try, and come up with unusual and original ideas to try and surprise his audience, he was all in on it.

Assembling the cast

Apart from the recurring cast members like Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewellyn and Lois Maxwell, a very interesting number of actors were cast for this movie, some of whom; like David Hedison as CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Clifton James as Sheriff J.W. Pepper, would even reprise their roles in subsequent movies. For the part of the main baddie Mr Big/ Dr Kananga, the producers went with a very interesting choice. Yaphet Kotto was an MGM player who was actually wrapping up on Across 110th Street, Barry Shear (1972), when he got a call from the head of United Artist, David Picker; to participate in the movie as the main villain. Kotto was at first reluctant to accept the role, as he was concerned about the way in which the Black community, and especially his character would be portrayed. He was quickly put at ease when he read the script, and saw that his character was a dark reverse of James Bond. Actually, Kotto took those elements of his character, ( the suave demeanour and intelligence), to heart; in such a way that it would take the actor years to get rid of the habit of trying to behave and live like Bond, much to the detriment of his finances. In turn, Kotto pulls off one of the best villains in the Bond series; a mixture of extreme intelligence, ruthlessness, and sadism; that had been sorely missing from the villains portrayals in the latter movies. A definite return to form on the villain front.

For the part of the main henchman, Tee-Hee; we have actor Julius Harris. Tee-Hee joined a illustrious line-up of henchmen with special “gifts” or peculiarities, like Odd Job, Mr Kitt and Mr Wint, and later on; Jaws and Mayday. His peculiarity was a hook-arm that could cause considerable damage. That, coupled with Julius Harris’s imposing physique; made for one hell of a henchman. His presence, however, was topped by that of actor/choreographer/dancer Geoffrey Holder, who portrays the other “henchman”/ “voodoo doctor”, Baron Samedi, who lends the movie a supernatural element that had never been present in any of the previous movies. Now for the Bond girls. Because of the movie setting in Jamaica, and the impossibility of getting native actresses who could convincingly portray the two main Bond girls in the movie, the producers chose New Yorker Gloria Hendry to portray the role of MI6 liason, and double agent, Rosie Carver. Being such a small part, and in such an important franchise; Carver was worried that she would not get the part after a rather unusual interview with “Cubby” Broccoli. The producer didn’t give her the part right away, and even though she was asked to stay in Jamaica at the expense of the producers until they reached a decision; she decided to reject the generous offer, and move to California to try and get another acting gig, much to the disappointment of her agent. She was actually already lined up for a movie there when she got the call from her agent to catch a plane back to Jamaica, as soon as possible, as she had been given the role. It was a more straightforward affair when it came to casting the actress Jane Seymour. Seymour was an up and coming British TV and Theater actress who was asked to come to “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman’s office for an audition. After just one look, Broccoli was convinced that they had their Solitaire. The Tarot toting, mystical lady portrayed in Fleming’s novel had to have a certain virginal innocence about her. It was argued at the time that Seymour might’ve been too young for the role; but that quality that the actress exuded in spades, was spot on for the role, and exactly what the producers were looking for.

On a funny note, we have New York actor who had to pull off the no mean feat of playing a Lousiana native Sheriff; Sheriff J.W Pepper. His character brings a touch of levity and comic relief to the movie that proved so successful, that he would come back for the following Bond adventure; The Man with the Golden Gun.

Double-deckers, Crocodiles and Speeding boats

The movie was shot in location in Jamaica, New York, New Orléans, and in Pinewood Studios, England. The lavish locations were used to their fullest extent. Guy Hamilton was a director which always looked for the unusual and different in each one of the Bond movies he directed; so scouting for locations was a very important part of this process. He at first thought that they would struggle to find something different , or surprising enough, to dazzle the audience. That turned out not to be the case. Right off the bat, two locations were used for the pre-title sequence that were completely opposite in both tone and feel. They managed to get inside the United Nations while they were not in session, to photograph as much of the interior of it as they could, and recreate it on set in Pinewood later on. It was surprising to find out how they managed to recreate it so faithfully and realistically, though. Apparently, while the crew was there photographing everything, they stumbled upon a set of blueprints of the building that apparently the electricians had been using to do some re-wiring. Needless to say, as Hamilton jokingly remarks on the DVDs Audio commentary, they were more than happy to “pinch” those to design their set. The other setting was New Orléans. Looking for locations in the area, Hamilton was told about the Jazz “Funerals”. This odd costume is apparently a hallmark of the city, in which the whole town gathers to celebrate the passing of a celebrated citizen in a colourful and musical fashion. Those two settings, plus the use of a recreated Jamaican voodoo ceremony in Pinewood, filled with snakes, dancers, torches and the like; help set up the dark, but whimsical tone of the movie right away.

Location shooting in New York involved a car chase in which various highway intersections were closed off for the day, and some exterior shooting in downtown Harlem. Most of the interiors for those buildings would later on be recreated on Pinewood.

Most of the in location shooting was done mostly in and around Jamaica and New Orléans. The standout set piece that takes place in Jamaica in which Bond and Solitaire escape Kananga’s goons on a Double-decker bus, and go under a low bridge shearing off the top half of the bus, had to be thoroughly planned out and rehearsed. An expert British Double-decker bus driver was approached to perform the stunt. A mocap of the low bridge was built on Pinewood Studios, and the top half of the bus was taken off and put back on a sliding mechanism which would allow the top half to slide off when the bus hit the low end of the bridge at the appropriate velocity. After constant and tireless trial and error, the stunt team managed to performed the stunt on the third try. It wasn’t the only dangerous stunt that the bus was used for. The driver had to be able to skid from one side of the road to the other to get rid of the motorcycles that are chasing after it. Despite all the necessary precautions taken to avoid danger; some of the motorcycle riders ended up going off road into the shallow end of the coastal waters and landing on some coral reef. Despite some minor injuries, no major incidents were reported.

Back in New Orleans, two major stunts were in the cards. First off, was a chase sequence in which Bond gets rid of Mr Big’s henchmen in a biplane zooming around a small airfield. For this stunt, Assistant set decorator Peter Lamont, who would later go on to work in many Bond films, was to secure the supply of derelict and beat up planes, which could be used for the stunt team to be crashed into, while pursuing Bond.

The other major action sequence was actually connected to a daring stunt which was actually the brainchild of Guy Hamilton. This set piece was conceived when Guy Hamilton while scouting around for locations, happened upon a Crocodile farm. The owner, Ross Kananga, a professional stunt performer, was actually who screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz named the villain after. After meeting Kananga and having taken a look around the crocodile farm, Hamilton decided that it would be a great idea to build an action set piece around the farm in which Bond is taken by Tee-Hee and his men to the crocodile farm, and left stranded on a little rock in the middle of a crocodile-infested swamp. The way in which Bond escapes the dangerous reptiles by jumping onto their backs and using them as sort of a thrashing and biting bridge, is something to behold. The original idea was for Bond to escape the snake pit situation using his magnetic watch, seen at the beginning of the movie; to bring over a small boat that, unfortunately, happens to be tied up to a nearby tree on the shore. The stunt was performed by Ross Kananga himself, who had to do it a total of five times before he was successful. That sequence, jaw dropping in and of itself, was to be followed by what Mankiewicz described in the script as “the most terrific boat chase scene you’ve ever seen”. That boat chase sequence was another brilliant occurrence by Hamilton after exploring Louisiana’s swampy bayous. The boat chase was brilliantly planned out, and executed by a team of stunt men, performing what was considered at the time the biggest speed boat jump seen on-screen at the time. The idea was for the boat to jump as high up as 80 ft, over a parked police cruiser which was on a small stretch of road in between two river fronts. As was the case with the double-decker bus stunt, this too was exhaustively rehearsed, causing no small amount of on-set accidents. It was one of the most daring stunts seen on a film filled with many, and one that; contrary to the case of Diamonds are Forever, was placed in the latter half of the movie, so it wouldn’t be outstaged by any other stunt seen later on. Running over a stretch of road or a lawn on a, at times, uncontrollable speed boat was no easy task, and one that required careful preparation and skill.

Despite the brilliance of all the action set pieces in the movie up to that point, the finale wasn’t without danger. Real snakes, sharks and compressed air bullets were part of the fun. The scene in which Bond faces off against Baron Samedi, and the latter ends up in a coffin filled with snakes; was a major cause for concern for actor Geoffrey Holder. Holder wasn’t very keen on performing the stunt, and Guy Hamiltin knew this. Fortunately for Hamilton, a member of the Royal family showed up on set, which forced Holder to perform the stunt out of a sense of pride. Here is too where Syd Cain’s set design came to the fore, showing off what he’d learned working with such masters of the craft as Ken Adam. His design for Dr Kananga’s underground hideout are very reminiscent of Ken Adams’s previous designs for some of the Bond movies. This location is also the setting for Bond and Kananga’s final confrontation, in which after being tied up along with Solitaire over a shark-filled pool, being cut up by Kananga, so the dripping blood will attract the hungry predators; Bond manages to escape using his magnetic watch as a buzz saw, and has a final fight to the death with Kananga, in which Bond force-feeds him a compressed air bullet; causing Kananga to explode. The scene in and of itself is ludicrous, and the effect of Kananga exploding as kind of an oversized, inflatable doll, is rather wonky; but makes for one of the most funny moments in the movie.

And, as it’s traditional with all Bond movies written by Tom Mankiewicz, there’s one final showdown between Bond and Tee-hee aboard a train, which serves as kind of a nice coda to round up the adventure.

Financial and critical success

The movie was a resounding success, and in spite of Roger Moore’s initial misgivings; it was well received both critically and financially. This time around, there was definite proof that there was life for 007 after Sean Connery’s departure.

Personal thoughts

Live and Let Die is a fun romp. As with all Bond movies scripted by Tom Mankiewicz, and directed by Guy Hamilton; it is enormously witty and entertaining. It boasts one of the best and most original villains seen in a Bond movie up until that point, and a definite improvement on the somewhat un-charismatic performances by the previous actors. Dr Kananga/Mr Big is one of the best villains in the series. The clever mixture of intelligence and cruelty, coupled with an all-seeing, all-controlling criminal organization; was something that hadn’t been seen since the times of Spectre and Dr No, Goldfinger or Emilio Largo. He doesn’t reach the levels of brilliance and sadism of Robert Shaw’s Grant in From Russia with Love, but he’s definitely up there with the best. So is Tee-Hee, who unfortunately doesn’t get enough screen time to show off what he can do. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about the Bond girls this time around. Gloria Hendry doesn’t get enough time to fully develop her character before she’s killed off, and although she does a good job, and looks wonderful on-screen, Jane Seymour doesn’t get to do much, apart from playing the damsel in distress. As for the rest, the action set pieces are imaginative, and brilliantly executed, the title song by Paul McCartney and The Wings is one of the best, George Martin does a very good job taking over from John Barry, who had been the official Bond composer up until that point, and the dialogue is deliciously funny. And that’s the real strength of this movie, and one that allows Roger Moore to shine throughout. Despite his initial misgivings about taking over from Sean Connery, he does a brilliant job. His take on the famous spy is quite different from what Connery had done, and Mankiewicz writes the dialogue for him accordingly. His excellent comedic timing, witty comebacks, and one-liners are some of the best in the series; some even add-lipped by Moore himself. His Bond is definitely more sophisticated and definitely not as rough as Connery’s was. Two different takes from two completely different actors in both style and mannerisms. Overtime, Live and Let Die, along with The Man with the Golden Gun, became the butt of jokes for most people familiar with the series on account of its supposed campyness, and silliness. Things had not yet become as campy as they would later on, and it’s unfair to label this movie as such. On my part I think this is a fun, well written, acted and thoroughly entertaining Bond entry that needs to get more love.

Thanks for reading.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. End of an epic journey

When the last installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part epic adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s literary masterpiece,The Return of the King, finally came out on Christmas, 2003; the director completed what was thought to be impossible at the time. Not only had he adapted a seemingly unadaptable book to the big screen; the critical and financial appraisal for his work on the saga had gone from strength to strength. The Fellowship of the Ring had already set the bar quite high, but when The Two Towers came out, Jackson did the impossible. He took it another step further, and garnered even more critical and financial acclaim. It was only fitting that the last movie in the Ring saga would be even more spectacular and epic in scale. And Jackson and Co, did not disappoint.

All hands on deck

Jackson and his creative team had already achieved great things, not only for the previous entries, but had also made big waves in the world of Practical and Special Effects with the New Zealand based Weta Workshop and Weta Digital Effects Houses. Theirs had been the groundbreaking creation of a software and Motion Capture technique that had helped bring to life the completely CGI rendered character of Gollum; so succesfully, that his range of emotions and physicality was undistinguishable from those of his live action counterparts. The extensive use of massive miniatures, lovingly dubbed “Big-atures” by the crew; used largely to recreate some of Middle-Earth’s most amazing sites like the Elf cities of Rivendel and Lothlórien, the Mines of Moria, Saruman’s stronghold Isengard, with its numerous underground Orc pits, the fortress of Barad-Dúr, and that of Helm’s Deep, were of great help. These are only just a few examples of Weta’s mastery when it came to bringing the physical and fantastical elements of Middle-Earth to life. But their work load for this movie was going to be even greater. Something they knew coming in, but didn’t make it easy on them either. It was a “All hands on deck” type of situation that forced the crew to come up with imaginative solutions to tricky problems, and being able to resolve these quickly. The scope and size of this movie required a greater number of effects shots that put even more pressure on a crew who was already dealing with a dwindling Post-Production schedule. Once again, massive miniatures and digital extensions were used for the recreation of Minas Tirith. Entire chunks of its numerous streets were built for the actors and crew to work in. These sets were filled with such a level of detail that the cast was amazed at how realistic and lived-in they looked. Most members of the cast, like actor Ian Mackellen liked to get lost strolling around them, taking in all the details. These sets, both miniature and life-size,were built in the same place were the sets for Helm’s Deep had been built; in the same quarry outside of Wellington, and using most of the leftover material salvaged from the Helm’s Deep set; most of its walls and courtyards being re-purposed to be used for the Minas Tirith set. Not the whole of the city could be built life-size, though. Sets like Denethor’s courtroom and the inside of Edora’s Grand Hall were recreated inside of warehouses, big enough to accommodate them. On top of that, most of these sets were built in different sizes to be used as long establishing shots, and to recreate elaborate camera moves in and around them. It is amazing to think that what most audience members took to be CGI recreated cities and landscapes, are mostly miniature sets recreated in such a realistic way that they effectively passed up for the real thing, or a very realistic digital recreation. Miniature sets like those of Minas Morgul, and the stairs of Cirith Umgol, Mount Doom and its entrance, and the Black Gates, are just some of the convincing miniatures, and in some cases; matte paintings and digital extensions used for the movie. One of the biggest action set pieces of the movie, and one that required the most use of visual effects was that of the Battle of the Pelennor Firlds, outside of the gates of Minas Tirith. It was a huge set piece that required the use of every trick in the book; from matte paintings to digital extensions, miniatures, live action footage and digital replication of crowds to double the number of extras seen on-screen. The software used for this latter Visual Effect, named “Massive Crowd”, had already been used to a big extent on The Two Towers for the battle of Helm’s Deep sequences. This time, however, it would be implemented to an even larger extent. Aside from that particular scene, the crew also had to deal with the CGI creation of yet another important character of the story; the slimy giant spider She-lob who has her lair at the top of the Cirith Umgol staircase. Her character was one that was eagerly awaited by fans of the book, and one that was supposed to make an appearance of the previous movie. Due to the restructuring of the plot for all three movies, her presence was delayed to be included in Return of the King. It was, along with the Pelennor Fields battle scene, one of the highlights of the movie. Her design was largely based on that of a New Zealand tunnel spider. Large in size; it was decided early on that the spider would have the physical attributes of most of her real-life counterparts, but with added fantastical elements like large pinzers, a large mouth, enlarged stomach, and a sting. It was a completely CGI rendered creature. In the scenes in which Sean Astin had to interact with it, the special effects team had to build a crude replica of the creature which was basically a little section with the pinzers that were operated by a couple of puppeteers. Jackson and his Visual Conceptual Designer Christian Rivers, long-life arachnophobics, came up with a design that would represent their worst nightmares; and it was actually Rivers who brought a live tunnel spider from his own back garden as a model for the designers and animators to take inspiration from. Another element that gave the She-lob sequence an extra level of creepiness was her underground lair; which was reconstructed as a set in Studio as a series of overlaying tunnel pieces, that could be easily moved around to give the impression that the cave in which She-Lob lived went on forever. The interior of the cave was built and recreated to the smallest detail based on the sketches and drawings done by John Howe and Alan Lee. Even the spider webs were hand-made of a sticky glue-like substance that had to be heated up to 200° to give it a consistent frame. These would be later on glued to the sides of interior set. The special effects crew also brought in a lot of rubber pets like birds, skulls and bones to be spread all over the floor. The floor was also made to be uneven, and in some cases even tilted. All in all, this additions gave the set the desired creepy factor the filmmakers were looking for. Another sequence that gave the Visual Effects renderers at Weta Digital its fair share of headaches, was that of the creation of the Army of the Dead Aragorn uses to fight alongside him in the Battle of Pelennor Fields. It was thought at first to be a blend of actors in makeup and CGI. Their approach at first wasn’t that different to what the artists at ILM ended up doing in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Gore Verbinski, with Captain Barbossa’s cursed crew. Having seen what the people at ILM were up to, they had to change their ideas mid-stream, and try something different. Their appearance on the movie is more ghost-like, but not radically different from those un-dead pirates seen on the Gore Verbinski film.

An explosive shoot

As per usual, the shoot was a very long and difficult one. Having shot all three movies back to back, it was a Herculean effort for all those involved to keep track of which scenes for which movie had been shot first as, it’s mostly the case, movies are usually shot out of order, in order to accommodate actors’ schedules, location availability, and ever changing weather conditions. This would result in the cast and crew having to make changes on the fly, and find a suitable location in which to shoot scenes indoors when the weather turned bad. Such was the case in which, after only a few days into the shooting, a great flood in the area prevented the crew from shooting the scenes they had planned, and the entire crew had to move into a nearby hotel with a large Squash court where, after asking management for permission, had to rapidly put together a rocky set, which resembled the Cirith Umgol stairs, and shoot a few sequences from The Return of the King. So, it wasn’t unusual for footage, 3 to 4 years apart, to be seemlessly edited together with the help of a skillfull editor or editors as was the case for this movie, ( Jaime Selkirk and Annie Collins doing the honours this time around). The amount of footage coming in every day from all the filming units spread all over the island, made it an almost impossible task to get through it all. It was thanks to Jackson and Fran Walsh, who intimately knew the scenes backwards, and Jackson being able to remember which shot went where, after checking daillies in shooting order, that the editors were able to sift through the footage, and pick the best takes. Most of the battle scenes for The Return of the King proved to be a logistical nightmare due to the large number of horses and horse riders that had to be used in the second and third acts of the movie. A call was put out by the filming crew, looking for all available trained horses and riders around the island to act as extras. The idea proved to be a success. Riders with their horses from horse riding clubs all over the island came to the assigned location; a large field called Twizel, that would double as The Pelennor Fields. Riders in their hundreds congregated, and camped out on this field for the scene in which the Rohirrim cavalry charges against the Orc Army assembled outside the gates of Minas Tirith. The principal actors taking part in these scenes were also trained in horse riding, and some of them like Bernard Lee and Viggo Mortensen got quite good at it, while others like Miranda Otto and David Wenham were so hopeless that they had to resort to a contraption designed by Weta Workshop, which consisted of a wooden barrel with a saddle, on which the actors sat, and a rig that moved the barrel back and forth, giving the illusion, when used off-camera, that the actor, or actress was riding an actual horse. A stunt double was used for the more dangerous scenes. This technique had already been used for the first movie; for the sequence in which Arwen is riding away from the Názgul carrying an injured Frodo on her way to Rivendel. For the third movie, though; Jackson asked Weta Workshop to build a rubber horse which could be used for close-ups, and to give a more realistic feel to the whole thing. This rubber horse was jokingly dubbed “The phony Pony” by the crew. The field on which these riders were going to ride had to be checked every morning, though. The field was filled with hundreds of holes dug up by rabbits and covered by grass, which made it very difficult for a rider at full speed to spot in time before the horse fell through it and broke their legs. Another shooting location, which was ideal for another pivotal scene in the movie, also proved to be challenging. While scouting for locations, the crew had found a large stretch of deserted land which was perfect for the last confrontation between the Army of Gondor led by Aragorn and Sauron’s Army outside the Black Gates. The land happened to be owned by the New Zealand Army and had been used over the years as a shooting range, and to test out explosives. The difficulty resided in that a large amount of mines and explosives that hadn’t gone off during exercises were still buried all over the place. The crew was granted permission to use the land, on the condition that the Army was in charge of clearing up the field of any potential explosive devices before actual filming started. The crew was also given a lecture on what to do in case of running into any of this explosives, and given the sense of discipline that the soldiers brought to the crew; they ended up being used as extras in the Gondor Army, and organising the logistical aspects of moving a large group of extras in a orderly, and military fashion. Another striking location was the Mountainous region known as The Pinnacles, criss-crossed by huge ravines which was used for the Passage of the Dead sequence. It was an eerily beautiful region that had been previously used by Jackson in one of his first movies; Braindead (1992).

The crew was also given permission to shoot at the feet of Mount Rupeuhu, an active volcano; for the scenes in which Frodo and Sam are trying to reach the entrance to Mount Doom. Due to the fact that the volcano itself, and the mountains surrounding it, were considered sacred land by the Maori; the crew couldn’t show any images of the actual volcano and the surrounding volcanos, and these had to be digitally replaced by CGI replicas of Mount Doom.

Critical and financial success

As expected, The Return of the King was a massive hit with both audiences and critics alike. It walked away with a worldwide total of $1,140,444,782, making it the most successful of all three movies, and achieving a record breaking 11 Oscar Awards at the 2004 Oscar ceremony for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Soundtrack, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects, putting it on par with Ben-Hur (1959), William Wyler, and Titanic (1997), James Cameron, each having been awarded the same number of Oscars.

Extended Edition

As previously stated on my first two reviews with the Extended Editions of those two movies, the Extended Edition of The Return of the King is the way to go. By adding and extending scenes to enhance the richness of the story, and further help to explore Middle-Earth lore, and give an extra layer to already richly developed characters, the experience of watching the movie can only get better. Most of the added scenes left on the cutting room floor for the Theatrical version of the movie, are extended scenes and moments that help to draw the audience more deeply into the story; but there is one particular scene that stands out among the rest, and was sorely missing from the Theatrical cut; Saruman and Wormtongue’s demise in Isengard. The scene was cleverly edited out of the Theatrical cut of the movie, but fully restored into the Extended Edition. This scene plays an important part in the last book, and although it doesn’t play out the same way it does in the book; it does resolve a very important plot hole that wasn’t satisfactorily explained in the version released in cinemas. Jackson does insist that these are not to be thought of as the definitive versions of the movies but, in this case, I strongly disagree. As someone who likes to delve into the sticky subject of whether alternate versions of a movie, like Director’s cuts, Extended cuts, or Ultimate cuts might be necessary or not; or if they simply are nothing more than a shameless cash-grab, in this case I have to side with Peter Jackson. He has had a tendency, as of late, of overinflating the running time in some of his movies (King Kong, The Hobbit trilogy), but is spot on in this instance. The added material makes the movies richer, and give the story the necessary breathing room they need for such an epic tale. It’s just a pity that the same idea applied to The Hobbit trilogy he’d direct a few years later didn’t yield the same results. But then again, that story didn’t need the epic structure this one does. But that’s a story for another day, and one that I’ll be talking about in detail in the future.

Final Thoughts

There’s not much to say here that can add to what I’ve already said on the other two reviews. As I’ve said, when it comes to this trilogy, I tend to judge them as one movie. One movie, that because of the length of its story, happens to be divided into three parts. But when push comes to shove, I would have to say that the third installment is definitely the most epic of the three. Epic in size, story and performances. Such epic showpieces like the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Frodo and Sam’s confrontation with She-lob, or the amazing finale intercutting between the battle between the Armies of Gondor and Sauron at the Black Gates, and Frodo and Sam’s struggles to reach the top of Mount Doom are among some of the most epic, and breathtaking sequences ever seen on the big screen. With this trilogy as a whole, but this movie in particular, Jackson and Co, achieved something so epic and magical that makes it worth it of all the critical accolades, and financial success it received. Every element of the production is on point; from Screenwriting, Set Design, Makeup, Cinematography,Wardrobe, Soundtrack, Acting and Direction. It’s a superb exercise in epic filming. Something that had never been attempted before. Sure, the Salkinds had done it with Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers two-parter back in 1973, the failed attempt by the Salkinds, once again, to repeat the same feat with Richard Donner, and shoot two Superman movies at the same time in 1978, or when Robert Zemeckis decided to shoot his Back to the Future sequels back to back; but nothing came even close to the scale of what Peter Jackson and his team did with Tolkien’s masterpiece. I would definitely rank these three movies among the best movies of all time. This is what Cinema is all about. Stories and characters larger than life, and amazing world-building to boot. These three fantasy tales demand to be seen back to back, and if possible, in their extended versions. One can never get enough of Tolkien’s wondrous world. One of the best trilogies ever made. Period. Right up there with Back to the Future and Indiana Jones.

Thanks for reading.

Diamonds are Forever. Sean is back

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

Back to basics

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

Old friends and new ones

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

Living the American dream

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

Critical and Financial reception

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

Personal thoughts

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

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

Thanks for reading

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

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

Upping the ante

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

Breaking new ground

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

Return of the Big-atures

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

Pushing the digital boundaries

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

New players come into the story

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

In the thick of battle

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

Assembling the jigsaw puzzle

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

Financial and critical success

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

Final thoughts

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

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

To be continued, and thanks for reading.

L.A Confidential. Welcome to Los Angeles.

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

An unwanted genre

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

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

The pieces start to fall into place

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

Critical and Financial success.

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

Personal thoughts

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

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

Thanks for reading.

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

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

Inception

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

Back to basics

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

The Heart of the Story

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

Critical and financial success.

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

Personal thoughts

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

Thanks for reading.

Terminator 2 : Judgement Day. He’s back.

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

Inception

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

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

Interesting cast choices and laying out the groundwork.

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

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

Movie magic

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

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

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

Hectic shoot

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

The final touch

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

Critical and Financial reception

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

Special and Extended Editions

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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The Terminator. Mechanical Nightmare

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

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

Inception

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

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

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

The perfect Terminator

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

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

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

The mother and the Protector

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

The Monster Puppeteer

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

Guerrilla filmmaking

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

The final touch

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

Critical and financial reception

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

Final thoughts

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

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