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007 goes art house with `Quantum of Solace` director Marc Forster

13-Oct-2008 • Quantum Of Solace

The ‘serious’ new Bond film has not only excitement but critical credibility in its sights - reports Times Online.

Some years ago, and this is gospel, a friend of a friend obtained some casual work in the food hall of a Knightsbridge store. He was warned about bothering the celebrities who frequented the place, but the sight of Roger Moore perusing the deli counter proved too great a temptation. As the story has it, he sneaked up, pressed a two-fingered gun barrel into Moore’s back and intoned, in a cod Russian accent, “This time you lose, Mr Bond” — an act that resulted in instant dismissal and a failure to extend his tenure as far as lunchtime. Moore, apparently, was not without appreciation for this piece of improv, arching an eyebrow in casual amusement.

Poor old Roger has always been a figure of fun. But this overlooks the fact that he retained the licence to kill for longer than any other actor — 12 years — making him the standard bearer for the franchise. Watched now, those early flicks (Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me) are great entertainment, certainly superior to any other Bond movie of the next three decades. A better memory to hold than that of the jowly japester leering his way through A View to a Kill, his final mission.

When it comes to Bond, one thing is sure — no matter what the cyclical reinvention, or the trumpeting of “back to basics”, the sporter of the tuxedo will inevitably be sucked into a slapstick of ridiculous gadgets, preposterous scenarios and a flabbiness that even the sturdiest of Moore’s corsets could never contain. Moore, Dangerous Dalton, even George Lazenby: each was hailed as an exciting new broom. The avowals of “grittiness” that greeted Daniel Craig are interchangeable with the “Bond for a modern era” banners that welcomed Pierce Brosnan — until he went out in a fug of Cossack hairspray, smug one-liners... and an invisible car. We’re still in thrall, of course: Sebastian Faulks’s Devil May Care, “writing as Ian Fleming”, is Penguin’s fastest-selling fiction hardback. “Why?” does not figure with Bond. It’s simply “How does the new film compare with the last?”.

Following Casino Royale is a tough assignment. Regarded as the best Bond for ages, it came with the unprecedented kudos of a Bafta nomination for Craig, the proverbial “blunt instrument”, as M called him, a man for our time, less Walther PPK than Saturday- night special. Perhaps this nod from the industry explains the decision to premiere its sequel in the upmarket context of the London Film Festival this month. Directed by Martin Campbell, Casino Royale made nearly $600m at the box office, the most financially successful of the series. “There’s really no upside,” says Marc Forster, the put-upon director of its sequel, Quantum of Solace. “If I make a film that isn’t as good as Casino Royale, it’s going to be a failure. If it doesn’t make as much money, it’s going to be a failure. Casino Royale was so beloved, people now expect more. The film has to be better.”

Meeting Forster entails an element of cloak and dagger that would have done Ian Fleming proud. It involves directions to a nameless, numberless building in Soho and ringing a bell marked “Savile Row”. There’s no intercom, so someone comes down and casts a furtive glance up and down the street before whisking you in. Tucked away upstairs in an editing suite, you find the director — a tall, shaven-headed Swiss national, 38 years old, who dresses in black and could feasibly pass as Blofeld’s sprightlier nephew. He is very pleasant and speaks in slow, German-accented English. Even so, the nerves are jangling. “This is crazy, this is absolutely abnormal,” Forster groans. “I only have, like, five weeks to cut the movie. Usually, I reflect, I make decisions, I cut it again, I look at the rhythm, because a film, when you cut, it’s a piece of music. But the whole journey of this film is very different than anything I have ever experienced.”

The first thing you are compelled to ask Forster is what the hell he’s doing helming a Bond flick. Forget that he’s the franchise’s first non-Commonwealth director (though, according to Fleming, the agent’s mother was Swiss), Forster is one of the most sought-after directors around, a man who has made his name with an eclectic mix of sensitive, decidedly nonaction fare. There was the grim Monster’s Ball (2001), which earned Halle Berry an Oscar (until she blew her credit by appearing in, ahem, a Bond film); the awards-showered Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp as JM Barrie; the surreal fantasy Stranger Than Fiction; and an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, with dialogue largely in Dari and Pashto.

His only stab at a thriller, Stay, can be found in all good DVD stores. Reportedly, the Quantum producers wanted “an art-house movie”.

“My agent called me and said, ‘They want to offer you Bond. Are you interested?’,” Forster recounts. “I said, ‘Not really.’ He said, ‘They’d like to meet you.’ And I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to do it, there’s no point.’” He was eventually shoehorned into a room with the producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, daughter and stepson of the mogul Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, and keepers of the Bond flame. They argued that Forster was just the sort of chap to further Bond’s new serious direction. “It was a pleasant meeting, and I liked them. They were much more open than I ever would have thought, because you hear these stories of them being protective of the franchise — there’s a sort of machine in place, and you become a manager, and I wasn’t interested in doing that.” They assured him he could do whatever he wanted within the framework of the Bond tradition, and could bring in his own people. “But,” says Forster, “I still wasn’t convinced.”

At New York University’s film school, Forster’s heroes were Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman. He’d been stubborn enough to turn down Brokeback Mountain for artistic reasons. He liked the early Bonds, he says — “Dr No, Goldfinger, I thought they were ahead of their time” — but had no intention of directing one. Then they wheeled out the secret weapon, Daniel Craig. “So I met with him,” Forster says. “I thought, ‘He’s really real. There’s no bullshit. I felt like I wanted to work with this guy.’ The next thing I knew, I was on a plane.” Thus was Quantum of Solace born. “What scared me,” he continues, “was that there was no script.” A minor problem in the world of Bond.

Quantum of Solace has 007 in hot pursuit of a villain named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Almaric), a purported environmentalist who’s really intent on nicking Bolivia’s water supply. The story features the usual repertoire of travel-brochure set pieces: the Palio horse race in Siena; the lakeside opera at Bregenz; scenes in Chile and Panama. It has a theme tune by Jack White and Alicia Keys (“I thought with Amy [Winehouse] it was going to work out, then it didn’t”, is all Forster will offer), and two Bond girls: our own Gemma Arterton and, the result of an exhaustive global trawl, the Ukrainian Olga Kurylenko. “It was an amazing thing to find a beautiful woman who could act and speak English.”

Such things cannot mask an indisputable fact: the film’s title is a stinker. “I felt the same as you,” Forster concedes, relaying how he was summoned to the Broccoli office and they’d stuck it up on the wall. “They said, ‘Look, what do you think?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I just felt, ‘That sounds a little strange. How commercial is this?’ I just wasn’t so sure. But the longer I have lived with the title, the more I like it. I think it really works.”

Quantum has a tenuous link to the canon, inspired by a short story in Fleming’s 1960 compendium For Your Eyes Only. Unrelated to the world of espionage, it refers to a dinner-party conversation Bond has, reflecting on relationships. The quantum is a mathematical formula for love. “There’s this beautiful excerpt,” Forster says, rummaging around on his desk before realising he’s left it at home. “When you think about Ian Fleming, you don’t really think of him in a literary sense, but he was such a good writer.”

For a film based around a character who has bedded two women per picture for the past 46 years (and the first one always dies — will they never learn?), this seems a remarkably sentimental appraisal. Forster also suggests that in these times of single-parent families and broken homes, Bond can be some sort of heroic role model. He’s a cold-blooded assassin, I say. “I think there are so many abstract things about human existence,” he ponders. But then Forster is inclined towards the touchy-feely — a fan of the oft-maligned On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only one in which 007 ever blubs, after Diana Rigg takes a bullet. “In Casino Royale, Bond lost someone he loves [Vesper Lynd], but at the same time he kills people,” Forster says. “That’s very interesting psychologically, because someone like that can’t be at ease with themselves. They must constantly be haunted.”

Forster has had something of a Bondian youth himself. He was born in Germany, but his family fled to Switzerland after threats from the Baader-Meinhof group in the mid-1970s. (“How do you know that?” he asks.) His father’s pharmaceutical company, he explains, was bought out by Pfizer, and when the value of his father’s stock option was published — “It was an enormous amount of money” — the self-styled communist guerrillas issued kidnap threats against the Forster children. “I was very little at the time,” he recalls. “My two older brothers were brought to school with a police escort.”

Though Forster Sr later lost his money, the family “grew up very spoilt and wealthy”. But that replacement of parental love with material possession gives Forster a unique handle on Bond, he says — the man denied love as a child and who now can’t quite fathom it. “That’s why he always sleeps with women, but can’t find a relationship, because he doesn’t love himself,” Forster says. “And you can’t love yourself, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to kill without a conscience.”

In Bond’s sights this time is another Doctor Evil, but the villains have changed, Forster says: “It’s not like it was during the cold war, good and bad. The lines are much more blurred.” In any case, Greene isn’t the real enemy. Neither was the terrorist banker in Casino Royale. For, in the final hours of Pierce Brosnan’s watch, a new nemesis was looming — a fugitive CIA operative with a case of amnesia who seemed intent on dragging the espionage thriller into the post-9/11 world. His name was Bourne, Jason Bourne, and it is the phenomenal success of this rival series that has largely been responsible for Bond being retooled as down and dirty.

Mention Bourne to the Bond people and it gives them the jitters. They are paranoid about a possible fourth Bourne outing.

“It always comes up, this comparison,” Forster prickles. “I feel there’s a huge difference — it’s like apples and oranges.” Fortunately, he’s not one to go too far down that road. “Stylistically alone, Bond should never be in the Bourne vein.” For, while he has seen off all comers, from Harry Palmer to Austin Powers, the great tragedy of Bond is that when he does try to get “realistic”, bothering himself with quotidian security matters, he’s nothing more than an episode of Spooks or, worse, The Living Daylights. “Bond has a different kind of quality,” Forster agrees. “He can still transport you.”

You can argue until your tears turn to blood about Bond’s relevance. You can mull over his role post-cold war. But that misses the point. For Bond never fought the Soviets, and will never tackle Al-Qaeda. His real enemies are fantasy proxies, Smersh and Spectre; evil scientists in nifty subaquatic domains or with death factories at the bottom of volcanoes. He kept the British end up against lesbo-sadists with blades in their shoes and bowler-hatted butlers — all but a short step to undoing dress zips with his magnetic watch or “attempting re-entry” with a woman named Dr Goodhead...

Don’t worry, it’ll all Roger up again. As Forster says, each new Bond film has to out-spectacle the previous one, “because you get used to the character, and the actor becomes more familiar and you have to take more risks. It’s hard for any artist or sportsman to keep that same focus, the same grittiness”. Which is why, one day, some idiot in a food hall will be sticking up a toupéed, superannuated Danny Craig.

Forster must get back to his editing.

“I had to get accustomed to the whole product-placement idea, because I never had that on my previous films,” he adds. “But the film turned out really good, and I’m really happy.” Hitchcock, he says, became a pale imitation of himself, ploughing the same furrow, while a variety maestro such as Billy Wilder had greater depth. “That’s why I jump from genre to genre, because I always feel I’m doing something new and fresh. I can always fail, but I don’t try to repeat myself. I felt, with Bond, doing something so completely different after Kite Runner would be refreshing and challenging. That’s how I try not to fall into parody myself.”

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