By Kevin Kelly
At CES last week, MGM announced that the entire collection of James Bond films from Dr. No to Quantum of Solace would be made available in a massive Blu-ray set celebrating 50 years of the iconic licensed to kill British agent. We were lucky enough to sit down with Bond directors John Glen, Michael Apted, and Martin Campbell, who have directed eight of those 22 films between them, and talk about Blu-ray and technology, and the effect it has had on the Bond franchise. Read on for the full interview!
What has Blu-ray meant for your careers and the longevity of the movies that you’ve worked on?
John Glen: Well, I’m really retired now, if you ever retire as a film director. I think it’s very nice, very gratifying to see these movies which are, some of them are over 30 years old now, standing up to the latest movies in a lot of ways. And it wouldn’t stand up in cinema perhaps, but certainly Blu-Ray, it’s given them a new lease of life over the last few years. But I’m very pleased about that.
It was surprising how good the clips looked from The Spy Who Loved Me Looked.
JG: We were just saying that, how excellent they look.
Michael Apted: And I remember at my golf club, one of the fellow golfers came up to me and started criticizing the film he’d seen on TV last night. I made it 30 years ago. I mean he was giving me hell about it, you know. You did this, and you made a mistake about so-and-so. So it’s good, that’s healthy isn’t it? That they still find it current enough to discuss and talk about.
JG: And to answer your question, it makes a huge difference to us that our work, has a much longer afterlife, has a much longer tail to it and it’s still out there and gives it, you know, more life. It’s never bad for any of us to have our work out there even if we did it 30 years ago or whatever.
MA: But it actually just looks better now. There’s a real kick, you think, wow, you know, is it - I didn’t do such a bad job after all.
JG: When you say – I mean when we started, when he started, a film had its run in the cinema and that was the end of that. It may have had one run on television eventually, but the work was gone. Repeats on television was gone, but now it’s just thrilling that that work can survive.
Casino Royale was one of that first wave of Blu-ray movies that came out looking so good.
Martin Campbell: It looks fantastic in Blu-ray. I’ve got to say I remember when they were converting it to Blu-ray because I think there was that battle between Blu-ray and, um, what was the other one?
MC: Right, HD-DVD. There was that battle went on and they were hauling people in. I was one of many who was hauled in to say what we thought about Blu-ray. And Blu-ray, of course, won the day. I watched them actually converting it to Blu-ray and it was a real kick. It was fantastic to watch, it just looks a hell of a lot better.
It doesn’t seem like we’ll ever get tired of James Bond, at least for the foreseeable future, and they’ve announced that they are making Skyfall right now. How much life does Bond have left in him, especially given the fact that the Fleming novels have been exhausted?
JG: Look at the box office returns. It’s unbelievable. They’ve just gone up and up and up. Every time a new one is made, it performs and you can’t dispute that. People are going more and more to see it. Even though you can see it on television all the time, the appetite for it is enormous.
MA: It's a domino effect. I mean the new film coming out gives life to the other ones. It’s very important, I think. As long as they do that, I think it’ll go on for… not an eternity, but certainly a long time, yeah.
MC: Well, I feel the same thing. Bond, if you just look at the financial charts, it keeps going up and up. I think for a while it was sort of out, and I guess there was an eight year gap, John, wasn’t it, between you and I because there was that eight years? Quite a long gap and before that I think every Bond film had made money. It kind of tended to neutralize, depending on the film, and then GoldenEye came along and there was a new Bond and that did pretty well and I think for the first time in the American market, it did a lot better than expected and, from then on in the whole thing started to rise and they were all good movies you know.
JG: I think you have watch it, I think they have to be careful. I keep going on about how you have to preserve what its core identity is. This is a lot of our stuff out there, like The Bourne Identity, you know, which is trying to to put more muscle into. Unless Bond keeps its distinctiveness, it could find itself suffering from competition. But as long as it keeps its eye on the ball, it does seem to be a formula that people enjoy, that mixture of humor, sex, violence, you know, thrills, the girls and all that sort of stuff. If they keep that they’ve got to keep their new unique voice, they can’t blend into imitating other brands, other franchises.
Well, there’s a reason it’s been successful 50 years, and that’s it.
MA: The distributors are influenced by the box office returns of other products. Die Hard a number of years ago, they were all saying the Die Hard films made the most money. They’re very violent, and that's what the screenwriters started writing and they wanted the Bond films to be harder with more violence, which isn’t what Bond’s about really. They’re violent in a funny way. James Bond kills someone and people laugh because they realize it’s a bit of a spoof, and it’s inherent in that. You know, you do something very exciting, you lead the audience on and you give them a thrill and then you relieve it with a laugh and they all explode in laughter. It’s a natural reaction.
MC: Dropping people into shark tanks. That’s always a good one for a laugh.
MA: Exactly, and then Bond turns around and says the line that he used uh, about when the shark bit him… I’m trying to think...
MA: I know the one where they threw the heater into the bath, "Shocking."
JG: A number of those lines were improvised on the set at the time of the shooting, and we were always coming up with those lines. My wife came up with a line in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when the skier falls into the snow plow and comes out, the snow turns from white to red.
MA: The red snow, yeah.
JG: She come up with the line, he had a lot of guts. [laughter]
What about technology? Technology is everywhere in film. How did technology impact your approach to the Bond movies?
MC: Well, it’s obviously digital effects right now, it's huge. It’s number one. Secondly, we’ve all moved to editing on Avid and other systems which is another huge thing. I guess on the set you know, with the technology, it’s more pervavise. I personally have only shot one commercial ever digital.
MA: Have you even shot digital?
MC: I haven’t shot digitally at all apart from one commercial and and having just done the commercial I feel like I’ve really got to embrace this. Itt’s like the cameraman’s choice. It’s a discussion, do we go film or do we go digital? I was hugely impressed with it.
MA: I think that’s right, that’s the – the tool we have, the digital effect tool, CGI, how much do we use it, how much is appropriate? And the same with 3D. How appropriate is it? I mean usually I think it’s, uh, base by base situation. As I said, just going back to the Bond film, one just wants to be careful that it doesn’t get dominated by CGI because that would mean taking it into another arena, or into a kind of interplanetary arena, as it were, which may not be a place that Bond could not possibly survive in. So again, it’s just another tool. You just have to decide how you can use it once its value is in… and we’re talking about whether you do a Bond in 3D. You know, the Bond films have, you know, at least five, six action sequences in them. And usually action scenes are very fast cut, and you can’t do that in 3D. So you might look at it and think it’s not worth it. I had the task to converting it from 2D to 3D. And I had a lot of action scenes in 2D and you still upconvert it so if you watch the film and keep going like that you’ll see great chunks of it that you think are in 3D are in 2D. So there’s lots of challenges, there’s lots of tools.
JG: One of the features of Bond films is that they are very simple visual types. They’ve built worldwide audiences who don’t always speak the language because there isn’t a huge amount of dialogue, certainly not in my films. And so it's visual humor and it could be readily understood by someone who didn’t speak English at all. And I felt that was an important part really of the appeal to a broad audience.
MC: Yeah, that’s why they last. That’s why they last and they still seem funny now, where a lot of the verbal humor doesn’t survive.
It was great hearing you [John Glen] explain that the airplane sequence from Octopussy that was done in camera basically. Today they would just say oh well do it digitally.
I saw the rushes the next day. It was a small unit, and if I think it didn’t work, I’d say go back and do it again. They did about five or six takes in one afternoon and it was a very simple Johnny Richardson had a third-scale model of the minijet and a third-scale model of the hangar door, and he propelled the minijet in on two wires that ran through the wing. And uh, I said to him you know, how are you going to get the minijet to turn sideways? Oh, he said, just take the tension off one of the wires. It was so simple, you know. And so things don’t have to be complicated.
MC: Well, I mean, I – I remember in GoldenEye we went all around Puerto Rico looking for a lake. We couldn’t find one. So Derek Meddings [miniatures supervisor] said I’ll build one. So he built this sort of lake, this huge lake, you know, trees and it was one of those great models, right, with this plastic airplane. [laughter]
MA: And it’s perfect. You can’t tell. It looks totally real.
JG: Just amazing what you can do some times.
MC: They pulled it over a piece of wire.
And it feels like there’s a resistance to old school miniatures, and using trick photography these days. It’s almost cheaper to do it digitally. I can even remember the first Bond film they used extensive CGI, the invisible car maybe?
MC: Well, that was a classic example of where I thought it was ridiculous. I didn’t believe a word of it. So it’s a case where I think CGI is a disadvantage as opposed to an advantage, you know. And you look at John’s sequence of the plane where they couldn’t even get rid of a cable and he had to do it all on camera, you know. It’s just as powerful, and I was just as impressed.
MA: With the CGI sometimes you don’t see that shot completed until it’s too late to do anything about it. So if you’re within three weeks of your opening and your shot comes in crap, then you're in trouble.
MA: What do you do, you know? And the producer says you’ve got to make this date, so your hands are tied. That's why we have both a love/hate relationship with technology.
Well, thank you gentlemen all very much. It was a real pleasure to meet all of you.
JG: Thank you.
MA: Thank you, nice meeting you as well.
MC: Thank you.