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Bond in the '90s
Screenwriter Bruce Fierstein and Producer Michael Wilson on Selling 007 to a New Generation.
By Edward Gross
November 23, 1999
With the debut of the 19th James Bond film, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, it seems fairly ludicrous to have ever wondered if 007 could still be relevant in the 1990s. Three films and $700 million into the final decade of the 20th Century, the answer is pretty obvious. But in November 1994, just prior to the release of GOLDENEYE, that question was very much on the minds of not only MGM the studio behind the series that was desperate for a box-office hit but the producers of the franchise who had been at the Bond game since 1962. And with good reason.
Their previous effort, LICENSE TO KILL, had been obliterated during the summer of 1989 by Tim Burton's BATMAN, Richard Donner's LETHAL WEAPON 2 and Steven Spielberg's INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. The critics weren't impressed, and the audience stayed away in droves; the film collected a mere $38 million domestically. Some blamed star Timothy Dalton, who they felt was too serious in the role, not bringing the humor that had been so integral from the moment that Sean Connery picked up his Walther PPK. Others believed that the series had become a victim of its own success, so mired in formula that this one-time genre innovator had fallen to the wayside in the wake of the competition.
Producer Michael Wilson states that at the time he, personally, did not feel the same kind of pressure as the studio. 'I guess we're consumed by the daily challenges and focusing on that,' he explains. 'When you first start out, you have a sense of having to make this one good, but if you remember Truffaut's DAY FOR NIGHT, in terms of making a film, he says, 'You start off wanting to make the greatest film ever. By the end of the film, you just hope that you complete it.' There is something about that that's true. After you set it up, it becomes a task to make it the best that it can and you stop thinking about every detail. There are production issues, staffing issues, personalities, money. Decisions that have to be made.'
Reflecting on the status of the franchise at that point, screenwriter Bruce Feirstein offers, 'I think the formula needed updating. For me, the scene where the movies left the ranch was in the Roger Moore film, MOONRAKER. Roger Moore is in a gondolier, and it comes out of the water and he goes through the plaza. He's a spy! It's not right to look from today at what they did in 1979 because in their time those movies did really well. At the time of GOLDENEYE, it had been six years since they'd made a movie. Director Martin Campbell was in a position to start over again from scratch. There was going to be a new Bond in the form of Pierce Brosnan, and a new director. I think the six-year break was good. Everyone agrees that although Timothy Dalton was good in his time, the series needed to be reinvented. With GOLDENEYE, what everybody working on the film did was to see how Bond could be updated. When I got to the script, Martin Campbell and I met and talked and realized that the world had changed, but Bond hadn't. Every scene in that movie is filled with that conflict. It was a way of turning the rubics cube slightly to find a new way to approach Bond. That film, in my opinion, has all the elements of a good Bond film. Look at the way that movie opens. It opens with an absolutely incredible stunt with the bungee jump off the dam. That sequence builds and builds. He goes into a chemical factory, all of the chemical stuff blows into the air, then he dives into a plane. Now, the plane is larger than life. It looked fake; I know it looked fake, yet because it looked fake, it became larger than life. It said, 'This is the world we're in. We're in James Bond's world,' and so when the pre-credit sequence ended, there was a huge amount of applause. It set up the fantastic world we, as the audience, were in. To some extent, the movie delivered on that all the way through.'
GOLDENEYE began in the mind of long-time Bond fan-turned-screenwriter Michael France, who had previously written the Sylvester Stallone spectacle, CLIFFHANGER. In writing the 007 film, France explains that he wanted 'to make sure that the action was bigger than it's been in some of the other picture. Not so much that it was bigger than other Bond pictures, but other mainstream American action movies, most of which I don't think are very good and which have unimaginative action scenes. I wanted to make those as big as possible, because I knew these were the producers who could pull it off. As far as Bond's character, I wanted to bring out a little more of the darker stuff and some of the Bond we know from the Fleming novels, and present a Bond that is like the Bond of GOLDFINGER. You're entering a fantasy world, but while you're watching the movie it seems real. Two hours after you watch GOLDFINGER, you think there's no way any of that can happen, but when you're watching it, you believe it you want to believe it. I wanted to make sure this was grounded enough in reality, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and what's happened in the world of spying. I wanted to have enough of that reality in the picture. If you believe that, then you're willing to go along with the bigger parts of it, which are the action scenes.'
The producers next turned to screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, who proceeded to focus more on character relationships than pyrotechnics, embellishing what France had done. 'I think things started to go wrong with the series with Roger Moore,' offers Caine. 'A lot of the stuff with his films were very comic book, like the steel-toothed Jaws, who's indestructible. Bond needs adversaries who are fearful but credible. Timothy Dalton was a little too austere in the role. I liked Tim's performances, but the material he was working with was pretty austere, there wasn't too much wit in it. I think it was a little too heavy on the stunt stuff. In fact, I think they still are. The problem is that these days studios have an idea that young audience require break-neck stunts, ever more fantastic than the last, for two hours. I think that gets tiring; you get restless watching yet another helicopter chase, another machine gun firing, yet another fall off a cliff. What I wanted to do was bring in some new characters and try to add some wit, and stuff to fill the spaces between the stunts. The whole idea of doing this film was to get something back of the flavor of the early Bond films.'
Says GOLDENEYE director of photography Phil Meheaux, 'I think the nature of action films have changed a lot over the years, heading much more into reality. So what we've tried to do is retain the elements of Bond as a fantasy character in a sense, but also try and bring it into the '90s with a more real approach in terms of the way we film it. I think that's been helped by Pierce as an actor, who's very good with all that action stuff and likes doing it for real. Martin and my approach is more of a sense of reality than possibly the previous Bonds were.'
Martin Campbell clarifies one point. 'It's not that I was consciously going out of my way to make it different,' he says. 'I just made it the way I thought it should be made. Not to denigrate the previous director, but I think I've given it a lot more pace. It is tougher. By that, I mean I think the action is tougher and harder, with more of an edge. It's a much pacier film than a lot of the previous ones have been. There have tended to be long stretches between the action. We've got some really good dialogue scenes and so forth, but equally there is a really good sprinkling of action and the whole movie moves pretty fast.'
'When DR. NO was made in 1962,' Meheaux adds, 'people didn't go to the Caribbean. Half that film was shot in the Caribbean, so for all of us in those days that was very exotic. Now everyone has traveled all around the world and that, to them, is no longer an excitement. The actual place that you are is not exciting what is exciting to the audience is letting them see what happens in that place. I think that's what made us change the way the films are made. It's a move away from the exotic place to the more action-packed story. Martin and I wanted to bring it into the '90s, but also put our stamp on it, as it were. We couldn't make a film in somebody else's style. It's very difficult to do that, so it was essential that the Bond company were prepared to let us do what we wanted to do. To give them their due, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli and all of those people said, 'It's your film, do with it what you want.' We wanted to preserve the old Bond-style character and the nature of his way of life, because we liked all that stuff anyway. We preserved that, but we tried to make the shooting of it much more real and grittier.'
Needless to say, GOLDENEYE astounded virtually everyone by pulling in a worldwide gross of $350 million, neatly establishing itself as the most successful Bond film of them all (not counting for inflation, of course) and paving the way for future films. Plus, it immediately established Pierce Brosnan as the true successor to Sean Connery's crown as 007. Two years later, MGM released TOMORROW NEVER DIES, a decidedly more action-oriented Bond directed by Roger Spottiswoode. The plot involved media mogul Eliot Carver's (Jonathan Pryce) attempts to trigger a war between Britain and China in the hopes of boosting his profits and ratings. As such, it seemed quite '90s and managed to equal the box office success of its predecessor.
Director Roger Spottiswoode admits that he tried to take Bond to his next logical step following GOLDENEYE. 'What we tried to do,' he offers, 'was to make it firmly into a different formula, which was a very contemporary thriller that happens to have this character James Bond in it, and many of the things you associate with that character do actually happen, but they're much more cleanly imbedded in the plot, much more functional. Obviously there's a lot of action, but it's pretty well rooted into what is going on. One doesn't want a string of meaningless stunts that don't really connect. I think action like that is completely pointless and it doesn't even work; nobody quite enjoys it. You have to be invested; you have to go for the ride; you have to be involved with the characters, it has to work in that way; otherwise, it's meaningless. If one has succeeded, great, other people will tell you. I can only tell you what I wanted to do.'
One person not entirely pleased with the final results was Bruce Feirstein. 'I personally did not want all of the running and shooting in the film,' he says. 'I had a different kind of conceit for the character of Eliot Carver. I wanted him to be much more like Goldfinger. I have a background in journalism, where I have at one time or another worked for all the moguls. I didn't see this as being a character who was surrounded by eighteen guys in black camo-gear, carrying uzis or whatever. I saw him as a guy being surrounded by eighteen guys with briefcases. That was lost. At the box office, obviously I was wrong. Michael Wilson and I had long conversations about this. Michael has very firm beliefs that this is why people go to see these movies. We have tremendously funny arguments where I would say to Michael, 'You basically believe that in the basement of every building in the world there are eighteen guys in camo-gear waiting to spring.' In the end, TOMORROW NEVER DIES did $350 million worldwide. When I went to work on THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, Michael and I had this very conversation where he said, 'You see, I was right.' And the truth is, the numbers are on his side.'
Fierstein is hopeful that THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH falls somewhere between the film's two predecessor in terms of tone. 'What I've been told from the early screenings is that people love it,' says Feirstein, who had not seen the finished film at the time of this interview. 'Pierce has gone around saying that it's the movie he wanted to make, that it's filled with characters and he got to portray the character he wanted to portray. He is extremely laudatory, as we all are, of director Michael Apted in that he wanted to make a more character-driven movie. This, I think, was the goal there. Hopefully there will be enough action and there will be enough romance, suspense and intrigue that it will have all of the great Bond elements. The reason I sound strange regarding the action is that on one hand I think there was too much action in TOMORROW NEVER DIES, but on the other hand there still needs to be action. It's finding a right balance. The truth is that these are still big international movies that have to play in a variety of languages. I don't know that people who go to see James Bond movies to see the day-to-day struggles and tribulations of James Bond. But I know there's room for character and action and that both can be accomplished. People go to James Bond movies for the ride. I believe GOLDENEYE delivered on the ride. You do not go to a James Bond movie to see things you saw in AMERICAN BEAUTY.'
Having successfully conquered the 1990s, the Bond franchise has its eyes set on the 21st century. 'Bond is a contemporary figure and he has his own unique personality,' says Wilson. 'He's one of the few suave action heroes: intelligent, sophisticated, a man licensed to kill. I think it's a dangerous time. There are more wars going on. Things are not centrally controlled anymore. I think Bond is more timely than ever. As long as all those people were under central control in the Eastern Bloc countries and the former U.S.S.R., it was fine. Now they've all been released from that control and are for sale to the highest bidder. So you've got 5,000 highly trained agents roaming around the world, looking for work. I think Bond is going to be well occupied into the 21st Century.'