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THR Cover: How the Bond Franchise Almost Died

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Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal was keen to move ahead, and agreed to a complex deal through which Sony funded the film with MGM, also taking a stake in Bond 24, while MGM co-financed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The film that had variously been known as Silver Bullet, A Killing Moon and Once Upon a Spy -- as well as Bond 23 -- finally was a go.

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Now the production team began to lock in the elements -- not least signing Javier Bardem to play Raoul Silva, a flamboyant and probably gay former agent whose mission is to destroy M (Judi Dench).

Mendes disputes reports that he talked to Anthony Hopkins and Kevin Spacey about joining the cast, and Bardem confirms he started conversations after being collared by Craig -- like Mendes. "I was at a fund-raiser for Haiti at [Crash director and Casino Royale writer] Paul Haggis' house," Bardem explains, "and Daniel approached me. Of course, he excused himself for bringing business into the conversation, but he asked, 'Would you be interested in doing a Bond movie?' And I said yes. Daniel is the soul of the whole thing."

The Spanish actor immersed himself in his role, having the screenplay translated into his native tongue. "I usually do that, because there is something organic to the words, and when you are speaking a language that is not your mother tongue, words can be misunderstood," he observes. "You need to have the emotional knowledge."

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Even before that translation, "The first time I read the script, I knew there was something very powerful," he says. "And then I spoke to Sam, and he told me the key word for the character was uncomfortable. This was not about creating fear or menace; it was about creating an uncomfortable situation for the others."

While Bardem experimented with different looks, eventually dyeing his hair blond for the role, the production team searched for the sort of exotic locations that have long been critical to the Bond brand. At first, the film was meant to open in Mumbai, with a long chase that has Bond racing through a densely populated market, jumping on a motorbike and eventually fighting an opponent on top of a train as it hurtles into the countryside.

But Mendes' hopes of filming in Mumbai were dashed when he discovered the sheer impracticality of an Indian shoot. "It is logistically incredibly difficult to shut down the center of an enormous Indian city," he says. "We tried to make it work and to embrace the chaos, but in the end there were too many dangers -- I don't mean from people trying to sabotage production, but there are narrow streets [that are difficult to film in]. I was very disappointed."

Exploratory trips to Cape Town and Johannesburg proved equally fruitless. And then, for the first time in his life, Mendes visited Istanbul. "I found it was everything we wanted and more, and gave us so many ideas," he says. "Suddenly you are walking through the Grand Bazaar and someone says, 'You can go up on the roof,' and then you find a way of factoring that into the story," with Bond's pursuit leading him over the rooftops of the city.

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Budget limitations restricted plans for filming in Shanghai and Macao to just four nights in the former; an ultra-modern stadium at England's famed Ascot racecourse stood in for Shanghai's Pudong International Airport.

Shooting began Nov. 7, 2011, in London, with a simple scene in which Bond drives into a subway tunnel, and the crew -- numbering about 400 at its peak -- subsequently moved to the "Bond stage," the vast space at Pinewood Studios just west of London, where they would work for almost a year. There, they filmed one of the most challenging sequences ever shot for a Bond feature, where a subway train crashes through a roof and into an underground hideout.

"That was real, not CGI," Mendes observes. "The head of special effects, Chris Corbould, constructed a track high above the set that was pointed down so that the train came crashing through the roof. We built two carriages and crashed them through the ceiling, and shot it with 11 cameras. We had to evacuate the stage to shoot, and when it came crashing through, it dismantled most of the 007 stage."

"It was a one-shot deal," he adds. "If it hadn't worked out, it would have been two million quid [roughly $3 million] to reshoot. That was pretty nerve-racking."

So was the opening sequence, which has Craig (strapped to a safety wire in reality) chasing that opponent on top of a moving train. It ended up being just about the last thing filmed and eventually involved three separate Turkish cities -- Istanbul, Fethiye and Adana -- where it was shot over 53 days.

"You are literally only getting one setup every four or five hours and having to work around the local train timetable, and it was 110 degrees," Mendes notes. "That's where Daniel's real heroism came in: He was on top of the train in a suit, attached by a wire." With all the takes, he needed "something like 30 different versions of the same gray suit" in different states of disrepair, Mendes laughs. "And these were very fine suits!"

British actress Naomie Harris, who plays one of the two Bond girls -- she was hired on the recommendation of director Danny Boyle, who had worked with her on 28 Days Later, and she likely will have a recurring role in future films -- remembers feeling guilty when she messed up a shot. "I was shooting and I left my safety catch on the gun, and everyone said, 'Fire!' -- and there was nothing. That was a massive wait, and I felt awful."

Throughout the 127-day shoot, which wrapped May 25, Mendes insisted on live action rather than CGI wherever possible. Indeed, there are only 500-some-odd CGI shots in the 143-minute movie (including one where MI6's London headquarters is blown up), compared to more than 2,200 effects shots in The Avengers. This meant Craig had to perform many of the stunts in difficult situations. And yet the only injury he suffered came during rehearsals, forcing two weeks of the film to be rescheduled while he healed.

"I tore a muscle in my calf doing something completely innocuous," he remembers. "I was trying to kick a stunt man, and stepped back on my foot. I heard it go snap and thought, 'Who the f-- did that!' "

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The pain, both real and metaphysical, has paid off.

"Dramatically gripping while still brandishing a droll undercurrent of humor, this beautifully made film certainly will be embraced as one of the best Bonds," wrote THR's chief movie critic, Todd McCarthy, adding that it "leaves you wanting the next one to turn up sooner than four years from now."

If MGM has its way, it will. Bond's return to the screen has been crucial to the studio, whose anticipated IPO features the Bond franchise and Peter Jackson's upcoming The Hobbit trilogy as its two prized possessions, along with a library of 4,000 titles.

Analysts are reluctant to place a value on Bond, whose ticket sales to date have reached almost $5 billion -- not to mention billions more in DVD and ancillary sales -- but the combined promise of Skyfall and The Hobbit have increased MGM's value.

On Oct. 22, THR revealed that MGM Holdings had decided to delay the IPO, which insiders believe will take place in 2013 rather than before Skyfall's opening, as originally planned. That's largely based on the studio's confidence in Skyfall and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opens Dec. 14.

"[Skyfall's success] would be incrementally positive to any proposed stock offering," says Piper Jaffray analyst James Marsh. "First, it likely increases estimates. It also likely raises the short-term growth rate, improves predictability of future cash flow. It was debatable if this franchise was getting a little long in the tooth; outperformance like this suggests it has a longer life."

If it does, MGM can thank Broccoli and Wilson, who have devoted most of their own lives to Fleming's creation. They recently signed Craig for at least two and possibly three more movies and hope to have the next Bond ready a couple of years from now. "It's been a great partnership," Broccoli says of Craig. "You couldn't ask for a better leading man."

Still, after four years on Skyfall, she admits she is too exhausted to think far ahead. "We only finished the film last Wednesday," she said on Thursday, Oct. 18, as she raced from one press conference to another. "We warned Sam how tired he'd be, but he didn't quite believe it. Right now we just want to enjoy the moment."

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BOND AT THE BOX OFFICE: Adjusted for inflation, a look at the actual best and worst of the world's most famous spy franchise.

BEST

  • Thunderball (1965): $993.2 million ($141.2 million in '65 dollars)
  • Goldfinger (1964): $893.5 million ($124.9 million)
  • Live and Let Die (1973): $807.7 million ($161.8 million)

WORST

  • Never Say Never Again (1983): $355.6 million ($160 million)
  • A View to a Kill (1985): $313.8 million ($152.6 million)
  • Licence to Kill (1989): $278.9 million ($156.2 million)

Source: Box Office Magazine worldwide grosses