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Ten Bonds And Counting

20th June 2013

Guest writer Mark O'Connell takes us behind the scenes of the new documentary, 'The Other Fellow', charting the lives of real life James Bonds

MI6 logo By MI6 Staff
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"Names are for tombstones" remarked "Live and Let Die" bad boy Mr Big. But they can last a lot longer than that. Some men would bungee jump off a Russian dam to be called James Bond. Others less so. But what would you really do if you were called James Bond? Who would you really be? And what about those who had the choice made for them and those men that had to be called James Bond (and not always for reasons you might imagine)?

It was April 1994 when Australian director Matthew Bowyer caught his dad watching Moonraker on the television. A Lewis Gilbert gargantuan 007 epic or two later and Bowyer's fixation was fixed. The starting pistol to a lifelong fascination with all things Bond had been fired. Flash-forward nearly two decades and Bowyer is finally making his own 007 movie - "The Other Fellow". Already it is a veritable "The Spy Who Loved Me" of globe hopping, multiple narratives and a lead character called James Bond. In fact, Bowyer has quite a few lead characters called James Bond. Ten to be exact. But he is rightfully quick to point out "we are not making a James Bond film". These James Bonds are all very real. As is the long shadow of the cinematic and literary fiction that is Double-O-Seven. It is that which this new documentary feature investigates.

"The Other Fellow" is all about identity - the identities we assign ourselves and those which we let other people, cultures, peers and even nostalgia dictate. The title is of course an allusion to George Lazenby's Connery-busting quip to camera in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969) - "this never happened to the other fellow". But what about these other fellows, a veritable Royale of ten James Bonds flung across the globe like the pins on a SPECTRE map?

If only Ernst Stavro Blofeld had been able to play with social media. Imagine the hissy fits over who is "liking" what. But Bond's arch nemesis would do well to take a leaf out of Bowyer's tracking methods for it was the likes of Facebook, Twitter and other social media that enabled the director to assemble his real-life Bonds. From Texas to Guyana, Toronto to Manchester, Wyoming to New York, Colorado and the Caribbean, Bowyer has found a rich tapestry of James Bonds. But the one James Bond that nearly eluded him was a London one. It made absolute sense for "The Other Fellow" to find a James from Bond's fictional home. Fortunately an eleventh hour suggestion led to a London James eventually being located and introduced to the project.

As with all his James Bonds, Bowyer has popped aboard his own Universal Exports jet (sort of) and gone to deliver their filmic mission in person. A fierce advocate of the filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) and his intimate, direct-to-camera methods of engaging both subject and audience, Bowyer has filmed these disparate other fellows with a uniform approach. It is their stories which greatly differ. The London shoot is no different. Holed up in a South London film studio with a surprising (and refreshing) lack of kit and paraphernalia, Bowyer's 'soundstage' is a hardy suitcase. It may not come with SPECTRE-baiting stun gas and hidden knife wear, but it does demonstrate the changing democracy and methodology of filmmaking - all ideal for a project like "The Other Fellow" and the Bond chasing involved. In a media age of endlessly inane and detached talking heads, part of Bowyer's technique is to work against that. All visitors to the set are purposely asked to keep out of the subject's eye-line and Bowyer - even though he is of course present - questions and examines his Bonds via a sound feed, a Skype visual and a room far removed from the camera. So far, so very Tiger Tanaka. However, the end result is remarkably fresh and involving, testament to how Bowyer knows his form and is adapting his influences into something new and socially vivid.

Flashback to 1968. Two English parents name their son James Bond. James was a family name for this Bond family, a tradition passed down through the generations of men. The Bonds were neither spy fiction or film fans - though a great grandfather does hold the unfortunate glory of being one of the first Brits to be killed by a motorcar. Whilst the books had been in the public domain for fifteen years at that point (and the films for barely six), the Bond family of 1968 assumed the 007 craze would not outlive the 1960s, left to three or four eventually forgotten films and some jumble sale paperbacks. But as London James's early childhood started spanning the 1970s, so too did the healthy survival of the Bond phenomenon.

Naturally cautious to Bowyer's idea but fully engaging with the filming process and suggesting "it is a great idea" for a film, London James is originally from England's West Country. A good looking 44 year old bespoke carpenter with a few specks of grey betraying his otherwise youthful looks, this James could almost be a first-act Bond film assassin. Guarded and confident, there is a sense this caution is a well-practised preservation method. Possibly one that men called James Bond have to get used to. A recounted first meeting between Bowyer and James details how the latter tried to choreograph the meeting, to check his exit strategy and endeavour to hide his initial resistance (Bowyer has yet to tell him that is indeed a very 007 tactic). "None of it is real" remarks James with a pragmatism about the character and rationality not a million miles - again - from that of his fictional namesake. There is also an interesting, yet downplayed awareness of the films - "I imagine they must have been very popular" he remarks before demonstrating that he is indeed aware of the films, enjoys them (perhaps more now than thirty years ago) and would circle Timothy Dalton as his 007 of choice. Must is a phrase of hindsight the 007 series has of course yet to use. Yet whilst London James hints upon a "great" idyllic rural childhood with hours spent in the summer sun and trying to impress girls with flash BMX manoeuvres, there is a suggestion the character's "popularity" directly affected his own. He is certainly wise to the fa├žade and reality of Fleming's Bond - "he is a fictional character... without friends".

The "Bond" tag is almost more than public domain. It is not "Jason Bourne", "Jack Reacher" or "Jack Ryan". It is now culturally more akin to the legendary British likes of King Arthur, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood. The "James Bond" label has a momentum and edifice of its very own. When asked what indeed is a name, London James quickly suggests "I am not sure I have an answer" before wondering for himself and the audience whether any of our names may or may not ultimately matter. As 007 scholar and author John Cork (James Bond - The Legacy) has noted, "this is not about being called Clark Kent". James Bond is not a superhero. Yet the ease in which some Zod-minded kids can use a label to beat others with any kind of notoriety can be quicker than any speeding bullet. This James knows all about that.

James the carpenter is initially polite about his "blessing and curse" - certainly for Bowyer and his camera. "I felt it was my load to carry" he continues with a hint the series' fortunes through his school years in the 1970s was very much a jinx. At junior school, his aptitude for tests and schoolwork success was almost matched by his unstinting resolve to never be nicknamed 'Jamie' (after the non-boy friendly sounding Bionic Woman). But that all changed when James started at senior school and went from "feeling smart" to "being an ant". The unwanted attention to the kid called James Bond became that curse. "The worst thing", he notes, "is the humming of the theme tune". By his twenties James began to properly tire. It was indeed just a name - something London James frequently says. But it became one "without respite" - an icebreaker with kudos for the boys, but useless when it comes to girls (and later women). "There is nothing quite like school for standing out", he observes with an underlining resentment intimating the teenage and twenty-something James really battled with the tag. He would be compelled to keep his name away from any dates, to make headway on his own terms rather than ones involving Sean Connery and Roger Moore. "007 is just a character in a film", he asserts before proposing fictional characters do not have to think of parents' night at school, kids' sleepovers, bouncers wanting to see passports and the effect a name has on a mortgage application (could you imagine the fictional Bond getting quizzed at parents night - "so, is there anything happening at home we need to know about?"). London James has faced all of this - which goes a long way in explaining what he then did next. That and a great deal more final act revelations and twists are a bedrock of "The Other Fellow", part of Bowyer's intent to surprise, to put that interviewing technique of his to great use and to play with all our expectations about life being a James Bond. Not everyone ends the film as James Bond. But not everyone starts it that way either. And a few are even more Bond than they would care to acknowledge.

This James and "The Other Fellow" know now the baggage of being christened Bond is not wholly about the character, but "the phenomenon of Bond". He shrewdly notes how the 007 name is also very much a male dilemma. Of course not many women are called James Bond (or not that Matthew Bowyer has been able to find). But women get to change their name through marriage. Their lives have the chance for their former title (and its associations) to be changed. Men do not get that 'rebranding' moment, to regenerate on paper into a revived identity. Men are stuck with a name for life. They are also territorial about things - enabling Bowyer and his camera to signpost a covert loyalty and even responsibility to the moniker. Maybe that is why London James got involved in the film? He certainly does not blame Bond, Fleming or Eon Productions.

The recent Daniel Craig films have seen 007 back at the sharp end of popular culture. However, many of "The Other Fellow"'s James Bonds have found themselves the sounding board for less favourable reactions to the character's evolution - often misdirected rants at these real-life other fellows. "Everything you expect is common to them all", says Bowyer. But where "The Other Fellow" will surprise is the stories, circumstances and opinions of these men (and boys) that are far from 'universal'. Each has a unique set of experiences and motivations, triumphs, sadness, annoyances and acceptances. Ultimately the name is all these Bond, James Bonds share.

The Other Fellow - Teaser Trailer

The Other Fellow is in post-production. Check out www.theotherfellowmovie.com and the Facebook page for more information. Mark O'Connell is the author of Catching Bullets - Memoirs of a Bond Fan, published by Splendid Books with an introduction by 007 producer Barbara Broccoli.

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