Friday, July 6, 2018

There Is No Substitute: Martin Campbell's Unique Approach to James Bond

Martin Campbell with Famke Janssen and Pierce Brosnan on the set of GoldenEye

The choice of Martin Campbell as the director of two James Bond films was much more than the assured success of in the return of a very popular fictional character. GoldenEye and Casino Royale are not just the introduction of two different actors in the leading role, but very good films and classic on their own. The quality of these two movies has rarely been surpassed in the series and the visual impact of these productions gives the audience the feeling of being blended into the plot. The luxury world that Ian Fleming utterly described on his books is thoroughly adapted in both Campbell movies and, thanks to many cinematic resorts, it feels as equally rich as the one Fleming described.

When James Bond returned after a six year and a half hiatus to the theaters in 1995, he had to prove he was there to stay. GoldenEye had to be much more than a very good action/adventure film to ensure audiences that Bond was still relevant for the new millennium and to establish Pierce Brosnan as a strong leading actor in the role.

EON Productions took notice of Martin Campbell's talents as a director after the success of 
the ecological thriller Edge of Darkness in 1985 and the sci-fi adventure No Escape in 1994, which proved that Campbell was not only the right man for the job, but that he could deliver an artistic tour de force for the much awaited return of 007.

While John Glen brought solidity on the previous five Bond films starring Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton, Campbell and his crew delivered a unique, rich and dramatic take on Pierce Brosnan’s first 007 outing, taking every possible advantage of the cinematic experience a Bond film could offer.

GoldenEye: the leader of Janus reveals surfaces from the shadows to reveal his true identity -Alec Trevelyan, former 006- to a shocked Bond. Supreme quality chiaroscuro techniques by DP Phil Méheux.

GoldenEye: breathtaking opening shot of the movie showing the Verzasca Dam in Lugano, Switzerland. It doubled for a part of a Chemical Weapon laboratory in Archangel, USSR. 

Trough behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, it’s easy to notice how the New Zealand-born director has taken the job very personally and put all of his energy and mind on the film, with seven days schedules that went from four in the morning to late in night. He has also been supervising every little detail that would go unnoticed to any other filmmaker.

 Overall, the Martin Campbell movies are all about the details. While the text, the dialogues of his films are outstanding, the first notion Campbell transmits on his films is that the action speaks a lot: it takes a single blow with a towel and another quick judo jab to establish Brosnan’s Bond as a trained, professional government agent who leaves an attacking assailant unconscious (or most likely dead) as he tries to attack him from behind on the Manticore yacht. "When Brosnan kills, he kills very hard and fast. I made all his actions very economic. One punch does it. It's just very simple and economic, no fussiness. I made him stand still a lot,” he commented.

GoldenEye brought back well-choreographed fighting scenes into the series that harkened back to that memorable Orient Express fight between Bond and Grant in 1963’s From Russia With Love, something he wanted to deliver to the character with Sean Connery’s Bond on mind. Take the 007 vs 006 scene in the antenna in Cuba, where you have the feeling that both men want to see each other dead in the most brutal way. Of course, this effect was achieved also by the sharp editing of Terry Rawlings, very reminiscent to John Glen’s fast-paced editing of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

When Bond isn’t fighting, he’s living by the highest possible standards. Campbell knew it was hard to bring back the apparently outdated James Bond in a world and a time where action heroes were the Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger types. Instead of adapting Bond to this kind of heroes and their stories, Campbell noted that one thing those screen action supermen lacked the sophistication of 007 and that precisely was the key of his success, offering GoldenEye “as a window for that kind of hero.”

GoldenEye: Bond reflects on his future confrontation with his former friend, Alec Trevelyan, on a Cuban beach as Natalya approaches him.
GoldenEye: Bond kisses Natalya in a cuban beach. Courtesy of editor Terry Rawlings, the image cleverly fades into the burning fire of a hearth showing the passion between the two.

With his longtime collaborator cinematographer Phil Méheux, Campbell gave the film a unique look, much more atmospheric and dramatic than ever before. This was very important to differentiate Bond’s style from the blue collar heroes around. While these men’s scenarios are the dark alleys and urbane settings, Bond’s playground is on a luxurious hotel and in exotic spots such as Monte Carlo or the Caribbean. Following the orders of Campbell, Méheux offered eye-popping visuals of the Manatí beaches in Puerto Rico (you’d never think there was a dumpster there behind the lens of the camera!) or the Principality of Monaco at night, where a tuxedoed Bond parks his Aston Martin DB5 before some gambling in the famous casino, brilliantly replicated by Peter Lamont on the Leavesden studios.

The color palette of GoldenEye was rarely surpassed in future Bond films. Bond’s encounters with Trevelyan are a good example of that as the ally-turned-enemy emerges from the shadows twice: when he first meets his friend at the Archangel facility he’s covered by the dark until a shade of light reveals him as a good guy, Bond’s ally and teammate. Later, in the statue park, he comes out of the shadows again until the light reveals him as Janus, the treacherous crime syndicate leader holding a grudge to Bond and England. These brilliant chiaroscuro techniques of Phil Méheux helped to bring a special mood to the tone of the story and the meaning of each location. The facility, the statue park and the interrogation cell of the Russian military archives have this treatment.
GoldenEye: Bond and Natalya are interrogated by Mishkin at the Military Archives. Once again, the chiaroscuro techniques help to create the appropiate effect.

GoldenEye: Bond meets Xenia at the Casino de Monte Carlo, whose interior was recreated at Leavesden Studios. Notice the blend between the gold and red hues on the background to emphasize luxury.

In contrast, the casino scenes are “painted” with gold, red and brown gammas and the Monte Carlo harbor scenes in blue tones so we can get the sense of being in a coastal and vocational region of the world. For the scenes in Cuba, where Bond and Natalya seal their love, warm orange tones with deep green flora and black shadows helped to create the feeling of the hot Caribbean and to spread into the screen the “warmth” between the leading couple. It was not a coincidence that their kiss fades into the burning fire of a hearth, courtesy of the creativity of Terry Rawlings.

This attention for the details, as important as the dialogues and portrayal of the actors, makes GoldenEye a very visually strong movie where even the unbelievable is believable.
In 2006, the reboot of the franchise called for the introduction of a new actor in the role of James Bond and Martin Campbell was asked to helm the first official cinematic adaptation of Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig in the leading role.

Being the genesis of the character, the James Bond introduced here would be different from Brosnan’s style and much closer to the humorless Bond of the Ian Fleming’s novels. Casino Royale’s Bond had to be much darker and psychologically complex than his self-assured predecessor, and the overall tone of the film also had to be that way.

Casino Royale: a pre-00 Bond meets Dryden, the corrupt Head of Section M marked for death. This scene was shot in black and white film by Phil Méheux to take an unique approach to reintroduce a rebooted 007.

Casino Royale: a pastel palette is prominent as Bond arrives to Nassau to follow the lead left by a bomber he eliminated in Madagascar.

In contrast with GoldenEye, Casino Royale is not escapist at all. The story is crude and realistic and the new rebooted Bond has to play with all his wits, get hurt both physically and emotionally before achieving his objective. We see our hero bleeding and getting bruised much more than before, and one scene particularly stands out where 007 looks at him in the mirror as he drinks a glass of whisky minutes after strangling a man to death with his biceps.

The preceding scene, where Bond and lord of war Obanno have a cruel fistfight on a hotel stairwell, has the same intensity as the Bond vs Trevelyan fight at the end of GoldenEye, where the audience can feel they’re both facing dangers and could die at any moment. The scene looks expensive and –once again- the frenetic close shot editing –this time by Stuart Baird, from The Legend of Zorro- brings back vibes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  

Casino Royale: A helpless Bond is about to be tortured by Le Chiffre. The obscure setting with a few shades of light is what the scene needs to build fight and tension to the viewer, sympathising for Bond.

Casino Royale: James Bond finds out his Vodka Martini has been poisoned. A close up to  Daniel Craig looking at his drink achieves the desired effect. The casino atmosphere is still mantained with the gold background.

In the same way that GoldenEye reinvigorated the series after five somewhat repetitive Bond films in terms of style, Casino Royale brought fresh air after the three last action-hero type films of Brosnan in the role. Ian Fleming’s 1953 character was now adapted to a world surrounded by technology and with the international terrorism hanging like a shadow after the 9-11 attacks.

While Bond wouldn’t directly fight these fundamentalists, Le Chiffre, the Soviet Union treasurer in the original novel, became a banker for worldwide terrorists and African warlords whom Bond would have to face in the poker tournament the man is hosting to recover the clients’ funds he spent speculating in the stock market.

As much darker this James Bond had to be, the film isn’t without humor and style. If in 1995 Bond had to be an alternative for the blue-collar heroes like Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis, in 2006 he had to be an alternative for the likes of Jason Bourne or Chirstopher Nolan’s Batman version. And the alternative was based, once again, in the style of Bond – a very different style from the other heroes. Campbell insisted that not everything had to be changed and, while Daniel Craig’s portrayal was offering a much more grittier and muscular Bond than before, he would still move in the same exotic world, wear the same elegant suits and live in the same world of luxury everyone would desire to be.

Casino Royale: Bond tries a home-made emetic recipe to counteract the effects of the poison. The white, blurry lighting Dutch-Tilt shot by Phil Méheux and Stuart Baird's dynamic editing make the scene believable.
Casino Royale: After his ordeal in the hands of Le Chiffre, Bond is being taken care by Vesper Lynd. Green, a color associated to peace and hope, is prominent in this shot.

Casino Royale starts with a grainy black and white introductory scene, but as Bond accomplishes his two assassination missions and is promoted to 00 status, Phil Méheux uses every possible resort to give the film an unique glossy quality where the palette of colors give the scenes their proper mood: the freerunning chase in Madagascar is given an orange filter to give the sensation of hotness, the confrontation between Bond and a bomber in the Miami Airport is given a static blue gamma to make it look colder and darker and, once again, the casino scene is a mixture of black, gold, brown and green to emphasize the richness of the place Bond is playing, which is not any casino but a high stakes gambling spot where few people can be. For the ending scenes in Venice, the screen is filled with green, blue and white in the scenario, giving it a sort of Renaissance sculpture feeling. It is noticeable how James Bond recognizes Vesper Lynd for her distinctive red dress, different to what everyone else was wearing in that scene.

The highest point of creativity would probably be the scene where the secret agent is poisoned by Le Chiffre during the card game. As Bond goes to the bathroom, a bright and somewhat blurry white filter makes the audience feel the same dizziness Bond is feeling. Martin Campbell made sure this scene feels as realistic as possible with the artistic view of Méheux and the sharp techniques of Stuart Baird to create a unique and substantial effect.

Between the 11 years that separate GoldenEye from Casino Royale, Martin Campbell has refused to direct any other Bond film even after being asked to return. He claimed he didn’t want to repeat himself, and looks like a very conscious decision on his behalf considering his return was very welcome in 2006 and helped to calm –or silence– those who were with doubts about the success of Casino Royale. Both films occupy the number one place on many fan lists and are regarded as generational classics for many moviegoers.

Unlike the Archangel mission from GoldenEye, where half of everything was luck and the other half was fate, when it comes to a Martin Campbell movie nothing comes out of luck or fate. It’s a matter of talent, passion and experience. 

Nicolás Suszczyk

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