Sam Mendes may be British, but his film career tells distinctly American tales. His directorial debut, American Beauty, was an intimate, yet theatrical look at suburban suffering. Despite its focus on the red, white, and blue, the film managed to gross $356.3 million worldwide, as well as landing him Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director. He followed this up with the Depression-era Road to Perdition, which received six Academy Award nominations, and the Gulf War saga, Jarhead. After the less-than-stellar Away We Go and another intimate story on suburbia, Revolutionary Road, Mendes decided to take on the most distinctly British property out there: Bond, James Bond.
“This is about my own country and I relish that, actually,” says Mendes. Skyfall, the 23rd installment in the 50-year-old franchise, landed at the top of the box office its opening weekend with $87.8 million. It’s the largest opening for the Daniel Craig-era Bond, as well as the highest opening for any Bond, period.
“I love what America is as a movie landscape, but the last few movies I made were circumstantial,” he explains. His son and stepdaughter with ex-wife and Revolutionary Road star Kate Winslet were going to school in the United States. “I didn’t want to leave them, so I ended up making American movies,” he says. “But it’s enough now.”
Despite being a director’s dream, Skyfall represented an initial price to pay because Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had severe debt issues when the film was about to take off. On November 3, 2010, MGM had to file for bankruptcy protection in order to reorganize and shed debt that totaled more than $4 billion. The financial troubles put Skyfall on hold and made Mendes question if he should even work on the picture. “I thought about leaving,” he says. “And then I thought it would have been such a waste of my time because I had already done so much work on it.” Mendes was forced to turn down a variety of properties during this nine-month stretch—most notably The Hunger Games, which Mendes says was the only other property he was truly interested in.
Still, this period proved to be a blessing in disguise. This was when Skyfall’s script was really born. “First I worked with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have an immense knowledge of Bond,” he says. They’ve worked in the universe since co-writing The World Is Not Enough. The real game changer, however, was John Logan. “He was very clear about what in the script worked, what we needed to work on, but also letting us know that we had great stuff.”
Since Casino Royale, Bond aficionados have praised the series’ grittier take on the iconic character. When 007 fights, he bleeds. It hurts. His actions have developed true consequences. Somehow, Skyfall retains that while harkening back to kitschy characters like Jaws with the film’s new villain, Silva, played with flamboyant flair by Javier Bardem. “One of the things that Martin Campbell did so brilliantly with Casino Royale by casting Daniel was eradicate pastiche, and that’s what it needed at that moment,” Mendes says. “I very much wanted to have the old with the new because the theme of the movie is the old versus the new.”
Mendes cites John Edward Williams’ novel Butcher’s Crossing as inspiration for this idea. In it, a young man enters the Colorado Rockies to take buffalo hides. “He organizes a trip, kills the buffalo, and gets snowed into the valley for an entire winter,” Mendes recalls. “When he comes back, the world has moved on and no one wants buffalo hides.” Whereas the main idea in this book is the death of the Wild West, Skyfall gets the same general idea of changing times: As Bond returns, the Cold War is painfully over and cyberterrorism is at the forefront of fear. “I love the idea of throwing him completely off his axis and having him go from being the naughty boy that they have to chastise to being the old guy,” he says. “But by the end, he’s the wise one.”
Skyfall is already one of the most successful films of the year, but that doesn’t mean Mendes is strapped on for a sequel. Typically, he goes back to directing theater after a major film. Just this past year, Mendes staged Richard III with American Beauty cast member Kevin Spacey as the hunchback determined to be king. “The worlds are interlinked,” Mendes says of film and theater. “I worked with Ralph Fiennes for the first time on stage and I worked with Judi Dench for the first time on stage,” he says. “I saw Ben Whishaw as Hamlet.” Mendes also determined that he wanted Naomie Harris for the role of operative Eve after seeing her perform on stage. Likewise, he and John Logan wrote Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street together before Mendes dropped out as a director, a job that eventually went to Tim Burton.
Mendes is following Skyfall by staging a musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London. “I’ve always wanted to do it,” he says. “I tend to get hungry for the peace and quiet of the rehearsal room.” Still, after Skyfall's success, it would be hard to turn down a sequel of explosions after the film’s revelations. “We’ll see,” he says.