Spectre is set to scale heights uncharted by even the last enormous Mendes/Craig production. Andrew Dickens trails them to Rome and Mexico and beyond
I am in a place that looks cold, but is really hot, wearing clothes that make me look like I’m in a place that’s cold. Outside it’s cold. I’m really hot.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the magic of cinema. Welcome, too, to the set of Spectre: the latest James Bond blockbuster and cause of this temperature-related madness. I’m here to take step one of my global pursuit of 007. Pursuit or harassment? Whichever it is, over the next few weeks, I plan to gain some perspective on what must be the biggest Bond film to date. I’m currently standing in the office of Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) at a swanky Alpine clinic. Well, a stage at Pinewood Studios. It’s very convincing; the backdrop that curtains the set has an insanely high-resolution image of the very mountains that surround the real version of this building, where they shot the exterior scenes. They have actually brought the mountains to Mohammad (or Mendes).
Throw in the heat of the apparently nuclear-powered studio lights, the fact that I’m still wearing the thick down jacket I need for the chill outside, and my eyes and nerve-endings are mightily confused.
Pinewood is Bond central; almost every interior shot you see is shot here, along with green screen sequences. It’s also the base of operations; a self-contained Buckinghamshire village, of sorts. A village with a thriving population, in which everyone is creating that magic. I walk through Monica Bellucci’s Roman bedroom (well, her character Lucia Sciarra’s, but let a guy dream) and ‘ride’ a train with LED windows that make it look like it’s speeding through Morocco. Not even Jeremy Corbyn could deliver such a utopia.
Everyone seems to love their jobs, too. Hundreds of people drawing, sawing, cooking, wiring, painting, sewing, carrying, eating, waiting – lots of waiting – and, just occasionally, acting. One man relatively new to the acting, but not, I’d guess, to the eating, is yet another huge thing in this huge production. He’s Dave Bautista: ex-wrestler, human asteroid and, now, Bond henchman: Mr Hinx. “It’s a whole new experience for me,” he tells me. “The closest would be Guardians Of The Galaxy, but even then, in terms of scale and locations, it’s really different. It’s been great [working with Daniel Craig]. He’s the first Bond I’ve believed in since Connery. He looks like he’s been in a few bar fights. He’s had a life. I believe he’s a tough guy.”
Through a glass window, I can see the man himself, beating up a couple of henchmen. Then beating them up again and again as the director Sam Mendes searches for the perfect shoeing. “No! Stay!” he shouts. I can’t see a dog in the scene. I hope that’s not a spoiler.
Of course you can’t have Bond without Bond girls – or rather Bond women. In Spectre, the female lead is Lea Seydoux. Bond women have to be sassy, strong and sexy. Seydoux, being French, was therefore born to the role. It’s compulsory over there. As is being cool under pressure. “It’s like a family here,” she says. “Of course you feel pressure, but there’s no pressure on set. It’s all very relaxed. A film stays a film. It doesn’t really change, except there are more people. There’s a camera and you have to act. I wasn’t a huge Bond fan. I liked the films, but there are things I don’t really get. I love Casino Royale. It’s very big, even in France. Skyfall was a huge hit in France.”
WHEN IN ROME
This international appeal is part of Bond. Spectre isn’t just the biggest Bond film to date, it’s the most international. As well as Austria and Buckinghamshire it’ll take in Mexico, Morocco and Italy, which is where I find myself a few weeks later.
I’m in Rome, to be precise, witnessing the power of Bond outside of Pinewood. Not since the Visigoths has a foreign force invaded the city so successfully. Spectre hasn’t just taken over a few streets or a quaint little piazza; it’s taken over Vatican Square and the river Tiber. Tonight the river where Romulus and Remus were born will see another ambitious pair – Bond and Hinx – go head to head along its path in what was perhaps the one thing lacking from Skyfall: a good old, buttock-exercising car chase. “In Skyfall there wasn’t really much of a car chase,” says Mark Higgins, stunt driver and, for the third time, “Bond from a distance”, as he puts it. “Here we’ve got two proper high-performance cars and it’s a great chase through Rome, with some good speeds. And we’ve got the flamethrower, the ejector seat, a smoke thing on the back, machine guns that come out – gadgets like the good old days. Going sideways at 110mph through Vatican Square is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Thankfully we didn’t hit anything.“
The crew here are the ‘second unit’, led by their director Alexander Witt. Their job is to take care of action sequences while Mendes works his magic elsewhere. It’s a world of walkie-talkies, petrolheads and stuntmen – and caterers serving pizza and coffee (when in Rome). Imagine a Bond film without any acting; this is what they make.
It’s my first chance to get to get hands (and bum) on with the cars. As Higgins said, there are two high-performance cars here, and you won’t see either on the road.
“You’ve got the Aston Martin DB10,” says Ashley Hollebone, the SFX vehicle technician. “It’s called that because only 10 were made, all for this film. It’s based on the V8 Vantage Roadster, but widened and lengthened.”
“The Jaguar C-X75 [Hinx’s car – apparently it’s quite a challenge to get Bautista in and out] is also a prototype. They cost about £10m each to make, so we couldn’t afford [a fleet]. We’ve got two hero cars that did cost that amount of money, and the rest had to be replicated, which the Williams F1 team did with Jaguar.”
In total, eight Astons and seven Jags (which, brilliantly, have Spectre branding) are being used during the chase, each modified for a purpose. The hero cars are perfect and used for close-ups, the stunt gadget cars have the machine guns and flamethrowers. As I sit in the DB10, I spot the ejector seat button. A Bond ejector seat button in an Aston Martin – we all had the toy. I shouldn’t press it. I press it. The roof opens and the passenger seat flies into the Tiber.
If the cars are a feat of engineering, then shooting them is a miracle of logistics – and testament to the power of Bond. Throughout the night, streets are sealed during takes, while, six bridges’ worth of the river path, which runs about 40ft below street level, are completely closed off. Rome, I’m told, is proud to have Bond here. Happy, too, undoubtedly, to appear in the kind of tourism ad it could never pay for.
The biggest problem the production team is facing is how to keep that film, and the contents of the chase, top secret. They’re only shooting at night, but this is the middle of Rome, which, like most cities, is full of people. When you race sports cars along their river, being filmed by a helicopter that’s flying over and under bridges, you tend to get their attention.
As midnight approaches, news crews – all without permission to film – and members of the public line the river. There’s not much you can do about mobile phones – images of the chase have already appeared online. But commercial interests are a different matter and I soon find myself using pidgin Italian to communicate between security, ‘blockers’ (of which there are easily more than 100), journalists and filmmakers; all very amicable, without any great conclusion, and far less interesting than what’s happening below.
“Tonight we’re towards the end,” says stunt co-ordinator Gary Powell when I ask him to spill the cannellini about the chase. “We’ve had a dynamic chase through Rome and now we’re down here, racing down the river bed at 70-80mph. Hinks is slowly gaining and at some point the road runs out and Bond pulls a rather special move.”
Secrecy be damned
I know the move and I’m not going to ruin it, but “rather special” doesn’t do it justice. Let’s just say it’s elemental. Next for Powell is Mexico City. It’s the same for me. I suggest that it’ll be more sedate than this. “You never know,” he says.
It appears I don’t. The Spectre team was just warming up. It’s now March and I’m standing on a terrace at the Gran Hotel de Mexico (which also appeared in The Living Daylights, fact fans). Below me is Mexico City’s Zócalo Square. You simply don’t ever film there; it’s a major square in a city of 21 million people. Imagine closing that on a Friday daytime just to make a movie. Madness. Oh, they did it.
This is something else. Spread across the square are 1,520 extras in full Day Of The Dead costume, while a helicopter – piloted by Chuck Aaron, the only man on Earth insured to loop the loop in a chopper – flies overhead and Daniel Craig runs around the carnival, chasing a bad guy. This is the film’s opening scene and news crews are welcome; local citizens are invited to watch. Some things not even Bond can hide.
THE BOND EFFECT
This is the biggest statement yet of the franchise’s enormity, his reach across the planet. It’s the Bond effect: men want to be him, women want to be with him, major world cities want him to kill someone on their streets.
“We’re causing a lot of disruption here, but they seem to enjoy it,” says producer Barbara Broccoli. “It’s a beautiful festival and I think they really appreciate us putting it on film. We like to take audiences to exotic places around the world. People are travelling so much on their own now, so the challenge is to find events or places that haven’t been widely exposed.”
So, in short, Bond is massive. You knew that. But it’s more massive than my mind can comprehend or vocabulary adequately express; and despite visiting three sets in three different countries, I haven’t seen the half of it. After a massive production, the film will be released to a massive fanfare, there’ll be a massive premiere, a massive public reaction, massive speculation about Bond’s future, massive ideas buzzing around the producers’ heads and a massive queue of countries wanting a visit from everyone’s favourite spy. And it’s he that should have the defining word on how massive the whole thing is.
“You were there today,” says Daniel Craig. “I’ve done a lot of big movies, but I’ve never been on a set like that. It’s extraordinary. We’ve got Mexico City to thank for that. This film is like no other. It’s eight months of shooting. You begin to think, will the end ever come? It’s also an extraordinary thing. We’ve been in Rome, we’ve been… God where have we been? We’ve been in Pinewood a lot, we’ve been in Mexico, we’re going to Tangier. I pinch myself some mornings. I’m driving through Rome in a brand new Aston Martin, past the Colosseum and I’m like, ‘Fuck yes!’”
Spectre is at cinemas nationwide from 26 October