We’re driving just after dusk along a wooded country road, rain pitter-pattering on the windscreen, the white beams of the headlights cutting through the shrouding mist to reveal pine trees and furrows of sticky mud lining the roadside. We come to a gentle stop at a small guardhouse beneath a commanding silver sign, the CCTV cameras above watching us. The security guy punches his keyboard, waves us through. That’s when I see her.
Zellweger, that is. Her beautiful filled and filtered face is plastered over a towering billboard on the side of a massive white, windowless sound stage at Pinewood studios, west of London, where parts of Judy – the Judy Garland biopic – were filmed.
But I’m not here for Renée. Or Judy. I’m here for Bond. James Bond. Nearly all the Bond films were shot here at Pinewood, beginning with Dr. No in 1962. We pass one sprawling sound stage after another – there are 18 on the lot – including a stretch of cleared land set aside for a massive new stage, testament to the voracious appetite for film and TV content in this age of streaming and nesting.
Located within the green belt, a swath of rural land that rings London, Pinewood opened in 1936 on the grounds of a Victorian manor house, Heatherden Hall. Thousands of films have been shot here, from classics like Oliver Twist (1948) to recent blockbusters like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). It hosts the 007 sound stage, one of the largest film stages in the world.
This is the first act in a press junket extravaganza for the latest and 25th James Bond film, No Time to Die. It’s late October 2019, over two months before China will alert the World Health Organisation to several cases of an unusual pneumonia in the city of Wuhan. At this point, No Time to Die is pitched for an international release in the first week of April 2020. Box-office takings across Asia will be a crucial determinant of its success – and the future of the Bond franchise. Vast amounts of money are at stake. This is the most expensive Bond movie ever made, with a reported budget of $US250 million ($380 million), a crew of 650, and enough sponsored product placement (Omega, Aston Martin, Heineken, Jaguar Land Rover, Bollinger) to make a marketing executive’s eyes water.
Film junkets on this scale are a devil’s bargain for journalists – leaving us feeling guilty of churlish ingratitude if we don’t deliver a positive, gushy story after we’ve been flown to film sets across the world and put up at fancy hotels, and shamefaced for selling our souls if we do. Scout’s honour, I’ve been a 007 fan since I was a kid, so I’m torn between the “Wowww, I can’t believe I’m on a James Bond set!!!” response, and the captive anxiety of “Oh no, they’ve changed my interview schedule again,” “Will they give me enough time with Daniel Craig/Rami Malek/Lashana Lynch?” and “Crikey, how do I make this story not sound like a free ad for the film?”
Either way, my circadian rhythms have been doing a river dance since I arrived in the UK the day before, after 27 hours in a tin can in the sky. Just after dusk, about a dozen of us, all long-lead print and online reporters from Europe, Japan, the US and UK, pile into two minivans for the 10-minute drive from our hotel to Pinewood. But not before we’re asked to sign two embargoes and cautioned “interviews should be straightforward and film-focused and not involve any games or gimmicks”. It’s not as if we could go crazy with plot spoilers: even the actors don’t know how No Time to Die ends, as three alternatives were reportedly shot.
I know this because, in the interests of hard-nosed investigative reporting, I spent a night in a semi-coma googling fun facts such as 007 author Ian Fleming choosing the name “Bond” because he considered it short and manly, and his fictional super spy attending Fettes College in Edinburgh, where Sean Connery was the school’s milkman in the mid-1940s.
Upon arriving at Pinewood, we’re ushered into Workshop 10, where a German journalist ahead of me is gazing wide-eyed – gasp! – at Ursula Andress’s white cotton bikini from Dr. No (often dubbed “the most famous bikini of all time”), which is suspended in a tall glass cabinet in a corner. (I later learn, to my disappointment, that it’s a replica.) That iconic cinema moment when Andress’s character, Honey Ryder, emerges from the glistening Caribbean waters all coppery and dripping was reprised by Daniel Craig in his nutcracking baby-blue togs and tanned, jacked physique more than four decades later in Casino Royale.
My attention switches to four framed Bond movie posters – all Craig vehicles – lined up across the walls in order of release: Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), most featuring the gun-barrel silhouette of 007, brimming with adrenalin and testosterone, with a glam, sexy woman draped at his side.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when excessive, smug masculinity became unfashionable. Even Craig himself has labelled Bond a misogynist, and hates the term “Bond girls”, something I’m keen to ask him about. The problem for the ageing Bond franchise has not been finding crazier stunts, cooler gadgets and more luscious locations. The problem has been Bond himself. 007 is the most famous ladies’ man in modern cinema, a love ’em and leave ’em serial shagger whose pick-up and post-coital lines in the first four decades of the series sound amusingly sexist to 21st-century ears. Take the opening scene from You Only Live Twice (1967), when Sean Connery’s Bond is under the sheets with Ling, a pretty Chinese woman:
Bond: Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?
Ling: You think we better, huh?
Bond: No, just different. Like Peking duck is different from Russian caviar. But I love them both.
Ling: Darling, I give you very best duck.
Ah, what a cultural shift has occurred since Roald Dahl, the acclaimed children’s writer who wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice, penned those gems. Or has it? Thirty years later, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), audiences were treated to the following:
Bond: I always enjoyed learning a new tongue.
Miss Moneypenny: You always were a cunning linguist, James.
Over the past 20 years, the Bond women have been empowered, especially so since Craig became the man from MI6. But can Bond survive the post-Harvey Weinstein world too? No Time to Die has been made at a particularly “woke” moment. The last film, Spectre, was released in November 2015, two years to the month before #MeToo went viral. No Time to Die risks hitting a new raw spot when everyone is chattering about gender and power dynamics. How do you update 007’s man-whore ways without stripping him of his macho mojo?
That question has long been uppermost in the mind of Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, who has just sailed into this office/press room with her producer half-brother Michael Wilson. Broccoli, 59, and Wilson, 78, are lauded as Bond royalty.
“Two more nights of shooting,” sighs the balding, bearded Wilson in his deep, southern Californian drawl, sitting behind a tabletop of flickering digital recorders and smartphones.
“We’re exhausted; it’s been seven months,” chimes in Broccoli, who has long, straight, chestnut hair, chocolate-brown eyes and a winning smile.
The wrap in two days’ time will be “bittersweet”, she reflects, because “Daniel is saying it’s his last”.
“But is it really?” one journalist cuts in. “We managed to talk him around for this one, but I don’t think we’ll get him to come back,” Broccoli says resignedly.
“This is it,” adds Wilson quietly.
Craig, who famously griped while promoting Spectre that he’d rather slash his wrists than play Bond again, was reportedly “talked around” when Broccoli and Wilson waved a $US25 million cheque in front of him, plus a percentage of profits.
When one reporter asks if this film has been their biggest headache to date, the duo burst into raucous laughter. (Shooting was plagued by a string of hold-ups, from a change of director over creative differences, to Craig requiring minor ankle surgery after an on-set accident, to the damaged exterior of the 007 sound stage after a “controlled explosion” went awry.)
“They’re all headaches,” says Wilson, tossing his head back, not knowing that the mother of all headaches is still ahead of him.
Broccoli is the daughter of renowned film producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who in 1961 teamed up with theatre and film producer Harry Saltzman to raise money to bring Ian Fleming’s character to the big screen. (Saltzman had already put in a bid to the bestselling author for the screen rights.) The two men formed Eon Productions (an acronym for “everything or nothing”) to produce the first Bond film, Dr. No on a budget of $US1 million, which reaped $US59.5 million and paved the way for the high-grossing blockbusters that followed. When Skyfall hit cinema screens worldwide on the franchise’s 50th anniversary in 2012, it hauled in $US1.1 billion at the box office, an all-time Bond record. (Its successor, Spectre, raked in a highly respectable $US881 million, but was less warmly received by critics and audiences, which puts greater pressure on No Time to Die to succeed.)
From the outset, this has been a family franchise. Albert Broccoli was married to actor Dana Wilson, who already had a teenage son, Michael, from a previous marriage. The half-siblings spent time on the 007 sets, although over different decades, both moving up the production ranks until Cubby Broccoli passed the keys of the Bond kingdom, and its parent company Eon, to his two offspring in 1995, a year before his death. Since then, Barbara and Michael have held an iron grip on the franchise – overseeing every casting decision, signing off on every line of dialogue, presiding over every phase of marketing. (Michael’s two sons also work for Eon.)
The title of the movie, announced last August after more than two years of being called Bond 25, has drawn a mixed response from fans, given the word “die” has popped up so often – Live and Let Die (1973), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Die Another Day (2002). “The title is always difficult,” observes Broccoli. “I came in one day and thought, ‘That’s it.’ Then I realised [No Time to Die] was actually the name of a film my father shot in the 1950s. But that made it more special to me. My dad’s legacy is prominent, all through these films.”
Against considerable hand-wringing among her professional peers who believed a blond, rough-edged 007 would be met with a cool response from audiences, Broccoli was determined to cast Daniel Craig after seeing him in the 2004 British indie crime film Layer Cake. It proved an inspired choice: Craig’s performance in 2006’s Casino Royale, the origin story of 007, succeeded in rebooting the franchise, which was at a creative stalemate following four financially successful but low-calorie Bond outings by Pierce Brosnan. Supported by a more nuanced script, Craig elevated the super spy from a cheesy caricature into something gritty and vulnerable, a man with demons and a capacity for true love. Even Bond’s trademark quips got an update: in a casino scene when 007 is asked by a barman whether he’d like his vodka martini shaken or stirred, he replies, “Do I look like I give a damn?”
Glancing at the four movie posters on the wall opposite, Broccoli gushes that Craig’s upcoming turn as 007 is his best (“this film has an epic emotional quality; it’s going to blow them away”). Rumours are rife that Bond himself will be blown away – that in one alternative ending, Bond is killed, which would throw open the door for a radical reboot of the franchise for the post-Craig films. Slumdog Millionaire’s Danny Boyle, the first director, was replaced after a script dispute by Cary Fukunaga of True Detective fame. But the very title of the film, No Time to Die, suggests Bond’s survival.
Whatever his fate, Broccoli and Wilson enlisted Emmy award-winning actor and scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge, of Killing Eve and Fleabag fame, to sharpen up the dialogue in a script already penned by Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and polished by director Fukunaga. “Phoebe has great humour and wit, is in touch with the zeitgeist and Daniel is a fan of hers, so it was a no-brainer,” says Broccoli.
Zeitgeist-y or not, it’s clear the duo is first and foremost aiming to create a huge popcorn hit. Whatever happens in the world in the meantime is outside their control. “Nobody wants to make the last Bond film,” says Wilson reflectively, adding that they’ve followed most of the tried-and-tested formulas, including a liberal dose of exotic locations. “We started filming in Norway, then Jamaica, then up to Scotland, then locations in London, then Matera in Italy for three weeks, then back here. It adds up to the usual travel adventure.”
Bullets are firing everywhere inside a hotel on a rain-washed, dimly lit Havana street. I have no idea what’s going on because I’m stuck behind a wire barrier with two other journalists and a publicist, checking out a man who looks eerily like Daniel Craig walk towards us with a pastry and a wide smile. Daniel? I squint, before realising it has to be his stand-in.
This is the dream machine in action – in the middle of Pinewood studios. Mark Tildesley, a blue-eyed, bespectacled 56-year-old who is the film’s head production designer, has already explained how he and his team took a reconnaissance mission to Cuba to suss out how they might film there, but were stymied by pesky politics (“they kept asking how we were going to portray the country”) and logistics (“we faced the prospect of shutting down streets and knocking down walls”).
And so, after sketching and taking photos of Havana’s finest neoclassical architecture, Tildesley built this whole street at Pinewood in just nine weeks, including the facades of bars, nightclubs and a barber shop. “We’ve created a set more Havana than anything in Cuba,” the cheery, rugby-mad Brit explains, standing beside a diagram of the set.
We’ve already been taken on a tour of the production workshops, including those of the prop makers who handcraft 007’s guns, but who gives a damn about a rubber Beretta 418 when you get to see a silver birch Aston Martin DB5 replica, the classic Bond car that first appeared in Goldfinger, firing a blaze of fake bullets from pop-out machine guns behind the headlights? (I shamelessly accept an offer from a publicist to take a photo of me beside one of the DB5s used in the film, which I intend to shamelessly post on Instagram.)
In a large tent about 50 metres from the set, we watch Daniel Craig on a monitor, taking his mark on the set of a Havana hotel, looking upwards and firing his gun with both hands. Few men, let alone those over 50, look better in a four-figure Tom Ford suit; few actors do inscrutable swagger better. Between takes, 007 walks into our tent. But the 007 in question is Lashana Lynch, whose character, Nomi, is given Bond’s secret agent number after he leaves MI6 (the film’s opening premise has the super spy coming out of retirement in Jamaica after five years to help his CIA officer friend track down a missing scientist). Lynch, a tallish, vibrant and down-to-earth 32-year-old of Jamaican/British origin, says she is excited to be a major character in the franchise: “My character is a black woman in 2019 overcoming so much.”
Which raises the question, will Lynch be the next James Bond, or is hers a one-off role for this film alone? As Barbara Broccoli has repeatedly said that Bond “can be of any colour, but he is male”, it’s unlikely to be the former. In 2018, Broccoli told The Guardian: “We don’t have to turn male characters into women. Let’s just create more female characters and make the story fit those female characters.”
In any case, the films have come a long way since the days when the Bond girls had names like Pussy Galore (Goldfinger, 1964), Chew Mee (Man with the Golden Gun, 1974) and Holly Goodhead (Moonraker, 1979). Even in the Pierce Brosnan era the female characters tended to be underwritten stereotypes, with the exception of Judi Dench as M.
As most of the journalists I’m accompanying are seasoned entertainment reporters who’ve interviewed many of the Bond stars before, notably Daniel Craig, I ask one what’s he really like. The reporter leans inconspiratorially, outside the earshot of a nearby publicist. “Grumpy. He can be quite short with you.”
“Grumpy?” I say, a little too loudly. “What’s he got to be a grumpy about?”
It’s early December 2019, only weeks before the announcement of the novel coronovirus outbreak, and the worldwide promotion of No Time to Die is in full throttle. I’m in New York for the major one-on-one and group interviews with the cast. As the full twinkling panorama of Manhattan slides into view on this freezing snowy night, my cab driver declares, “I must come this way six times a day, but I never get sick of seeing that skyline.” Ah, the heady thrill of Noo Yawk, a storybook city that’s officially the most popular set location in the film and TV world, but a city that amazingly – or perhaps not – has seen only one James Bond film, Live and Let Die, set here, back in 1973. (That also happens to be the first Bond film Daniel Craig saw as a little boy.)
I ask the driver, who must be in his early 50s, whether he’s a Bond fan, but he mishears me.
“No, no, James Bond, you know, 007. One of the old films, Live and Let Die, was partly filmed here.”
“Live and what???”
His ignorance surprises me: a survey undertaken in 2012 by polling company YouGov found 60 per cent of Americans describe themselves as Bond fans, among them former presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the late Ronald Reagan.
“You have 20 minutes,” a publicist tells us the following morning in the conference room of the mega-elegant Crosby Hotel in lower Manhattan. About a dozen of us have already been given a sneak preview of the trailer for No Time to Die; now we’re set to meet Daniel Craig and Barbara Broccoli in a “round table” interview. When the pair walk into the room, I’m struck by Craig’s assured, commanding presence. Dressed in dark blue trousers and a jacket over an open-necked shirt, he’s craggier in the face and slighter than I imagined, but by no means short, at 178 centimetres tall, or 5 foot 10.
A reporter kicks off by asking the 52-year-old how he’s feeling now he’s wrapped up his last Bond film. Craig circles the question briefly, saying he feels “sad” it’s over but is “immensely proud” of the five films, which brought “all the Bond tropes back in, but in an original way”. He admits, “I didn’t want to do this movie, I didn’t want to do any of them, but I’m so glad I did now.”
What’s been the hardest thing about playing Bond? “Doing this,” he says dryly, looking down the table at us.
“I didn’t want to do this movie, I didn’t want to do any of them, but I’m so glad I did now.”
I seize the awkward pause and ask how he thinks Bond evolved during his 007 tenure, particularly in light of the social earthquake of the #MeToo movement. “Are you talking to me?” he jokes, turning to face me with more than a little ice. “Of course, you,” I smile sweetly.
“This is a long conversation I’ve had with Barbara,” he replies. “How do you deal with Bond’s misogyny, or his problem with women? He’s got a fairly messed-up attitude towards women. I don’t make apologies for that. What we’ve done is find these incredibly strong female characters who he’s come up against. He’s a hero, but he’s also deeply flawed. It is up to audiences to decide on Bond. Not for me …”
Broccoli cuts in: “Bond has already had trouble forming attachments, and that’s part of the character. He’s an orphan. He fell in love with Vesper Lynd [in Casino Royale] and she broke his heart.” Craig warms to the theme. “We could throw in all kinds of references to the world, and I think we all agree it dates a film.”
Within seconds of the duo exiting the room, there is a little echo, beginning with one reporter piping up, “Well he was in a good mood today,” while another enthuses, “So much more open and chatty,” and someone else offers “nice mood”. Even one of the publicists in the lift remarks on how chatty and cheery “Daniel” is today. Oh, what a tedious grind it must be, having to do interview after interview with reporters asking so many of the same questions. Craig can now return to his $US6.6 million brownstone across town, his day of soulless press meets over.
I’m escorted to the 11th floor, seated in a spare chair outside the lift doors, and asked to wait. I count 10 publicists milling about, some crouched on the floor in the corridor, heads in their phones, at least one standing sentry at each door to the suites. Behind each of these doors a major star from the film is ensconced, waiting for reporter after reporter to march in with their list of questions.
A publicist checks her running sheet, says, “You’re up next” and ushers me down the hallway. Another opens a door with a minor flourish while a third inside immediately clicks on her phone’s timer for my 10-minute slot. I’m about to meet French actress Léa Seydoux, who plays Dr Madeleine Swann, Bond’s love interest in No Time to Die.
I. Can’t. Help. Looking. Resplendent in a black pants suit with black high-heel boots and pearl earrings, Seydoux is breathtakingly beautiful. The odd puffs of smoke billowing behind her ears, which I quickly realise are from her discreet vaping, add another disarming touch (smoking-hot French actresses being apparently exempt from no-smoking rules in New York’s finest hotels). As she describes her character, the 34-year-old’s soft, lilting French accent lulls me into a kind of trance.
“She’s not there to please Bond’s sexuality … she’s a real character … I wouldn’t call her a Bond woman.”
How much of herself does she bring to the character?
“I feed my characters with my experience. I always feel I am many women … I’m sorry, I hear your phone.”
Jolted out of my reverie, I grab my handset in a panic. It’s switched to silent.
Our heads turn to the offending publicist. She’s been rustling her notes, for which she apologises profusely. Confused by how Seydoux has mistaken a clipboard’s paper-shuffling for a ringtone, I offer irrelevantly, “Do you find interviews boring?”
“Nooo … It’s interesting to speak about what you do. I like it when it’s a conversation like this … you exchange ideas … You never know how people will pursue you … purr sue? No, no per ceeeve you …”
She doesn’t strike me as someone who worries about what others think of her, I suggest.
Our time up, I ask Léa Seydoux whether she’d like to see a female Bond. “I don’t really care,” she says.
“No, not so much …” before adding that we’re all a mass of contradictions. “I am a very scary person,” which she immediately corrects to “scared”, adding, “I am strong and I am weak. I like to be in the light, but I also hate it.”
Our time up, I ask whether she’d like to see a female Bond. “I don’t really care,” she says, as I’m walking out the door.
After another 10 minutes or so, I’m escorted deeper down the celebrity corridor, where another door is flung open. I’m about to enter the villain’s lair.
The first thing you notice about Rami Malek is his distinctive honey-rich baritone voice. The second is that he’s exceedingly polite and exudes a chill vibe. Sitting cross-legged, he patiently answers questions, and good-naturedly gets up to shake my hand at the beginning and end of the interview (the only star to do so during my time in Bond’s world).
I’m interested in how he manipulates his voice to suit his character, the villain Safin. “I really don’t enjoy the sound of my own voice,” the 38-year-old admits. “William Conacher [a British dialect coach] helped me get the phrase voice right for Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and gave me some ideas for the villain, which I took to Cary Fukunaga to see whether they would fit.”
Did he research any of the early cat-stroking Bond villains? “Not only did I go through the Bond villains, but a catalogue of cinema history and picked out all my favourite villains.” His favourite? The former MI6 agent turned cyber terrorist, Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem in Skyfall, because of his backstory. “There’s nothing simplistic about being a villain,” observes Malek. “What drives that human being to do what they are doing? Is their malice defined by them or defined by others?”
We proceed to talk very briefly about his extraordinary journey – being the son of Egyptian immigrant parents, having a twin brother, growing up in Los Angeles, going to school with fellow actor Kirsten Dunst – and his astonishing rise. “Look man, if you told me in the span of two years, I’d be playing an icon like Freddie Mercury, then the villain in a Bond film, I would have laughed at you,” he says. “I don’t take this for granted for a second.”
After receiving his Best Actor Oscar statuette at the Academy Awards last year, he took a stumble on stage; there are videos of him on YouTube taking other falls. Is he a little clumsy? “I don’t think of myself as clumsy,” he laughs. “Perhaps I have a little too much on my mind.”
Malek has an earnest reverence for his craft. “When you’re at this level and working with such talented people, there is not much room to be anything other than poised, specific and intense.”
As I’m leaving the hotel and grabbing my luggage for a mad dash to the airport, it occurs to me that Bond wouldn’t be seen dead boarding a plane with a bag. I pass the highly engaging Lashana Lynch on her way to the lifts. “You know, you’re about the only reporter who still uses a notepad,” she observes.
“Well, I like to do some things the old-fashioned way,” I reply, stealing a Bond line from Casino Royale. Lynch looks at me blankly, the reference clearly passing her by. I feel compelled to elaborate. “I record, but the notes are for observational stuff.” “Ah, I see,” she laughs. “Hope you’ll still see the film.”
It’s early 2020. The much-awaited title song for No Time to Die by 18-year-old singer-songwriter Billie Eilish, beloved by Generation Z, has been released, and the publicity machine has the pedal to the metal in the final lap to the film’s opening. But news of the coronavirus has become increasingly alarming. While the entertainment industry is hardly a priority in the face of a global pandemic, those whose livelihoods depend on the production, distribution and promotion of films are hit hard as cinemas across China, South Korea, Japan and Italy close their doors in February.
On March 2, the founders of the world’s two biggest James Bond fan sites send an open letter to Eon, MGM and Universal calling for the postponement of the film’s release because of the public health risk. Then, on the rainy morning of Thursday March 5, my phone lights up with emails and texts. A statement has been issued from the offices of Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli: the release of No Time to Die will be postponed until November. The rescheduling is likely to cost unknown millions in cancellation fees and relaunches.
No Time to Die is the first Hollywood blockbuster to shift its release date because of the coronavirus. Suddenly, Lashana Lynch’s words outside the lifts back in November seem oddly prescient.
Greg Callaghan flew to the UK and the US courtesy of Universal Pictures.