Thursday, March 28, 2019

INTERVIEW: Jeff Kleeman, former United Artists VP, on GoldenEye's success and Bond 25

Graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in English, Jeff Kleeman has actively worked on the relaunching of the cinematic James Bond as United Artists’ Vice-president in the 1990s, conducting the difficult task of installing Pierce Brosnan as the new Bond on his first three movies. 
In this interview, Jeff talked with us about the uncertainty of GoldenEye’s release, the way in which Titanic affected Tomorrow Never Dies’ box office numbers and the treatment of spoilers in the promotional campaign of The World Is Not Enough. He also gave us his professional point of view on the two delays suffered by the Bond 25 release date.
First of all, thank you Jeff for allowing us to interview you. How did you become involved with United Artists and what are your fondest memories on working with the first three Pierce Brosnan 007 films?
I’d previously worked for Francis Coppola at American Zoetrope under a deal he had with Sony that led to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  When the Sony deal’s term ended, Francis decided not to renew and moved Zoetrope back to Northern California.  Gareth Wigan, a wonderful executive who oversaw the Zoetrope deal for Sony, suggested I meet John Calley who was coming out of retirement to oversee a new incarnation of United Artists.  I met with John and he offered me a job in the room which I enthusiastically accepted, especially because I knew UA controlled the rights to James Bond. I could write a lengthy book detailing amazing memories of my three Bond experiences.  For now, I’ll it to one...
GoldenEye had a Royal Premiere in London.  Before the screening started, a group of us were offered the honor of meeting Prince Charles.  We were instructed on proper behavior and arranged in a semi-circle.  Prince Charles began on the left end and one by one shook our hands and had a brief conversation with each of us.  I was approx four people in from the left side.  Opposite me, approximately four in from the right side, was Tina Turner.   We looked directly into each other’s face.  As Prince Charles held out his hand to me, Tina, like a mischievous kid, stuck her tongue out at me.   The Prince had his back to her so he was completely unaware.  He asked me about my work on GoldenEye and as I attempted to answer Tina began making a series of increasingly silly faces that only I could see.  What a surreal moment, the premiere of a Bond movie, talking with the Prince of England (who was incredibly charming) while Tina Turner tries to crack me up!

Internet played an important part in the promotion of GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough. How did you and the team deal with these new dynamics, like, regularly posting updates on the production online and the fact that people on the other side became much more impatient with a Bond release?

Did the Internet play an important role in their promotion?  GoldenEye came out in 1995.  Handheld screen devices were still to come and when we released Hackers around that same time many people were initially confused by the premise because the desktop (dial-up) online experience was still not well understood by mainstream audiences. Which isn’t to say there wasn’t an important online component to promoting those films, there might have been, but I wasn’t directly involved in it. However, the biggest new factor, the one that differentiated GoldenEye release from previous Bond films, was the Nintendo GoldenEye game.  It was a huge success and brought a new generation of kids into the Bond fold, something that the subsequent Bond films massively benefited from. The escalation of Bond releases to one every other year was a result of GoldenEye success.  MGM/UA realized Bond was its most bankable asset so they pushed for more films as quickly as possible.  We dealt with that the only way we could, by coming up with new methodologies that allowed us to write, shoot and navigate post-production more rapidly. Many of those methods have now become the norm for most studio franchises.

This leads ut a bit to Bond 25 and not only the internet but social networking. As you probably know, the upcoming Bond film had a change of director (Danny Boyle for Cary Fukunaga) and the release date has also changed three times between November 2019 and April 2020. Many Bond fans felt a bit disappointed, worried and even angry for these things. Would you say the immediacy of communications now causes these sort of feelings or it also happened in the 1990s?

The immediacy of today’s communications has led to a very different filmmaking environment, especially for high profile projects like Bond films. With GoldenEye MGM/UA questioned whether the public would have maintained an interest in Bond and it was only deep into production when the teaser trailer (“You know the name. You know the number”) was released in theatres that we were able to gauge any kind of response. Today, we often have audience reactions long before we’ve begun work on a script.

The three Bond films you worked on were released between November and December, a trend also followed by Die Another Day and the Daniel Craig movies, which were all released in the last trimester of their production years. Now Bond 25 is set for the beginning of 2020 (first February, then changed to April). Would you tell us it will impact differently to have a tank like Bond early in the year than closer to the Christmas season?

It should not have an impact.  When we originally began work on GoldenEye it was slated for a summer release - the kind of big June summer movie we see every year. We ended up postponing our start of production and that pushed us to Fall/Winter.  Some folks were very concerned by this change.  But as we now know, things went splendidly.  So well, that we got into the habit of releasing future Bond films then.  GoldenEye release date was happenstance, not strategy.  In general, I don’t think that one particular month is better than another, what matters most is what’s also happening at the time you release your movie.  Tomorrow Never Dies was released on the same day as Titanic (December 19, 1997 in the US). It would probably have performed even better if it had been held until February or April the following year having allowed Titanic to come and go.

Our final question is related to certain marketing techniques concerning spoilers. The trailers of GoldenEye revealed Bond's friend agent 006 as the main villain, while The World Is Not Enough hid the fact that the main villain was Elektra King, the woman he fell for. How is more or less the process of dealing with things like that? Is it completely an EON decision or does the studio have an important say? 

EON was always very collaborative.  Whatever the contractual rights of any of the parties, we all made decisions as a team.  With GoldenEye, we felt the idea of 006 vs 007 was a selling point.  It was a way to bring people back to Bond and introduce new audiences to Bond.  It’s a tiny spoiler that we felt didn’t ruin the experience of watching the movie.   However, we’d intentionally cast and scripted The World Is Not Enough, so as to mask Elektra King’s villainy for a while.  In that case it was important to us to keep that reveal out of the early marketing.  While there are some movies that rely on a plot twist to define the entire film’s experience, much like a punchline defines a joke, that doesn’t tend to be the way Bond films work.  The best are a consistent experience from beginning to end that can be enjoyed over and over again, no matter how aware you might be of the plot before you start watching.

We thank Jeff Kleeman once more for his very interesting insight that helps us to rethink the cinematic James Bond phenomenom on the big screen and to understand the interesting creative process behind the layout of these films from its commercial point of view. We also thank Phil Poggiali for contacting us with Jeff to make this interview possible.

Nicolás Suszczyk

Friday, March 22, 2019

“I Used To Be a Spy”: Revisiting ‘Burn Notice’

Created by American screenwriter Matt Nix and broadcasted by USA Network, Burn Notice was a TV series with seven seasons running from June 2007 to September 2013. It followed the story of Michael Westen, a CIA agent played by Jeremy Donovan who is “burned” from the secret service in the middle of a mission in Nigeria. Miraculously surviving, he is dumped on his hometown Miami and under strict FBI surveillance. Out of a job, he spends his days helping people with problems like blackmail, kidnappings or robberies at the same time he follows the few leads on the organization that burned him.

Westen is assisted by his ex-girlfriend, former IRA operative Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar) and his old friend Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), a former Navy SEAL member whose “origins” story was told in the 2011 TV film The Fall of Sam Axe. At the same time, Michael has to deal with his mother Madeleine (Sharon Gless) and his brother Nate (Seth Peterson), both at first strangers to his suspicious activities and job but later informally introduced to the spy business when a few things go awry. From season four onwards, Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), another CIA burned agent, also joins the team.

I came across Burn Notice back in 2007, yet I was unable to see all the episodes properly until very recently, where I watched all seasons in about a month. My memories on spotting it on TV were good enough to think the series deserved a full watch and I wasn’t disappointed at all now that I could finally go through it.

Burn Notice is highly attractive, innovative, funny and addictive during the first five seasons, with the latter two being so gritty and dramatic that at parts it looks like a different series. I’m not saying the six and seven seasons are bad, but there are quite a few things that make it repetitive, unnecessarily extended and the character of Michael Westen feels closer to an out-of-control disgraced operative, more akin to Jason Bourne than the sort of mix between Ethan Hunt and Simon Templar he was during the first seasons. Without getting into spoilers, there’s a nice nod in the very last chapter to the dialogues we hear in the introduction of every episode.

What I found fascinating was the leading character and the fact he uses spy and special ops techniques to be one step above the petty thieves, kidnappers or drug dealers threatening his clients or relatives. Most of the techniques have Westen getting the trust of his enemy, befriending him and then beating him in his own game – ending in their arrest or their death due to the given misdirection.

Jeffrey Donovan is a fantastic actor and it’s easy to sympathize with his character. Michael Westen isn’t as striking or stylish as James Bond or as determined as Ethan Hunt. His activity, tough, involves techniques used by many cinematic spies like the improvisation of guns and the impersonation of people from different nationalities, where Michael has to adopt the accent of a foreigner in the same way Val Kilmer did in the 1997 film adaptation of The Saint. This and the fact that he has a family (unlike Bond, Hunt, and Templar) generates a connection between the audience and the leading character, as well as his narration of different spy techniques throughout the episodes which felt to me as if he was giving us some basic lessons on how to be a spy. Top marks go to the research for these tidbits in every episode, which was very detailed.

The supporting cast is also very good, particularly the characters of Fiona and Sam and the incredible dynamic the trio have on the job in hand, dealing with last minute changes and having to improvise quickly to achieve their goals. This dynamic is sadly broken when Jesse Porter joins them, as the four tend to usually separate into two groups of two people, each of them handling either the “burn notice” business or solving the current client trouble. Sharon Gless also gives an effective performance as a chain-smoking mother who reprimands her son for “disappearing” plus other typical mother-and-son clichés which work very nicely at first give us the impression that even spies have domestic problems as everyone else.

While primarily set in Miami, later seasons move the actions to Washington and Central America, and the action scenes become more overdeveloped in the sense of a cinematic blockbuster: most of the sixth season has the team with a capture or kill warrant by the government, which detaches the story from the usual humoristic cloak-and-dagger techniques to more of a pure action production with recurring car chases and shootouts. Still, the series manages to attract and be completely addictive, and the 40 minutes of each episode flow in a very appealing way.

Despite the overloaded drama from the last two seasons, which is kind of a setback in comparison to the first ones, Burn Notice deserves a watch if you are a fan of the spy genre and enjoy a pinch of humor. The production makes great use of the usual secret agent clichés and while being very modern in terms of style and scripting they also have a room for escapism and entertainment from the old film and TV productions.

Nicolás Suszczyk

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

'I.G.I. - Origins' Announced!

Every glory has its beginnings. Every victory is achieved by climbing up the ropes and ladders. Every legend has its origins. And therefore comes the time those roots are explored.

Almost two decades after its last release, today the fans of the Project I.G.I. franchise can celebrate the announcement of the third entry in the series which Swedish video game studio Toadman Interactive is developing, aiming for a 2021 release.

I.G.I. - Origins takes us back in time when the organization was seeking its foundations to counter terrorism across the globe. When warlords and criminals were profiting off of civil and national unrest, protected by diplomatic immunity no law enforcement institution could've touched, someone had to step up to execute what others won't. No resources, no backup, an underfunded and nonexistent black ops unit was formed to prevent worldwide chaos before it is triggered.

Other than the reveal teaser trailer, we haven't been informed of much about the project other than its being in early development so far. The game was originally announced back in May 2017 as Project I.G.I.: We're Going In, five months after Artplant purchased the intellectual property from Square Enix. Only last year, Toadman Interactive bought Artplant in full, and now they've taken over the project.

Without revealing much, it was stated the title will feature "the freedom the series has become known for." However, as the current branding suggests, the game is set before the previous entries, serving as a prequel. The period piece wasn't specified by the reveal. But, it seemingly is set either during the 1970s or the early 1980s by the looks of it. Speculations are all over the place. Whether David Jones is going to be featured in the game or not, that is yet to be clarified.

While the project is said to include members who worked on the original two video games in the series, specifics aren't made yet on who's recurring and who isn't. The fans of Project I.G.I. for instance, highly expect the return of composer Kim M. Jensen who was instrumental in orchestrating the atmospheric soundtrack to the previous titles. But, those inclusions and exclusions are yet to be confirmed.

I.G.I. - Origins Reveal Trailer

For more information, visit the developer studio's official website here.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to discuss the topic below.