Saturday, 7 January 2012

How to write a James Bond film

If you're lucky enough to be asked to write a James Bond film, where would you start? Typically the scripting process is collaborative, with ideas emerging through discussions between the writers, producers and the director. Even so, the writers to a large extent are still able to stamp their own personality and style onto the script. But what inspires them?

In an interview with Movieline, John Logan, screenwriter for Skyfall, admitted being a big fan of the film series in general, but thought Goldfinger (1964) the best and From Russia With Love (1963) 'top-notch espionage'. This suggests that Logan has drawn his inspiration from the earlier films, and this seems to have been confirmed by producer Michael G Wilson, who told People magazine that the film will have a '60s, 'magical Goldfinger feel'.

This sounds all very promising, but it's not the first time that writers have sought inspiration from Connery-era films. Jeffrey Caine, who co-scripted GoldenEye (1995), said that the aim of that film 'was to bring back the...essence of the Bond movies that many people regard as the best – Goldfinger and From Russia With Love'. As much as I like GoldenEye, it is arguable whether this was achieved, but in any case, it is clear that Goldfinger and From Russia With Love have become well-established as the prototype Bond films.

There is a third inspirational film. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, when considering ideas for The World is not Enough (1999), the first of their five Bond screenplays, looked to another well-regarded film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Purvis said, 'it's a very faithful adaptation and a very good film'. Purvis was also quoted as saying that he wanted to 'Flemingise' the film, and both writers returned to Ian Fleming's novels to draw inspiration and mine them of unused episodes.

Writers usually express a desire to go back to the books and bring the essence of writing to the screen when the film series is in a period of renewal, as was the case with For Your Eyes Only (1981) following the excesses of Moonraker (1979), and of course Casino Royale (2006). There was also a 'back to basics' approach for Timothy Dalton's second Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989). Dalton had studied Fleming's writing for his portrayal of Bond, but was also impressed with Sean Connery's portrayal in (yes, you've guessed it) From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. Veteran Bond writer Richard Maibaum rewarded Dalton with a script that, as Cubby Broccoli intended, captured the spirit of those early films.

Another way of preparing a Bond script is to largely ignore Fleming and focus on the spectacular, so that the film is a succession of set-pieces, thrills and spills, connected by the thread of a plot. This was Roald Dahl's approach when he wrote You Only Live Twice (1967). The book was regarded as unfilmable (a very poor decision in my view and a waste of a great novel), and Dahl's script reflected the huge budget and Broccoli's aim to make the film big, especially in the face of fierce cinematic competition.

Fleming was also (largely) ignored for Octopussy (1983). (I have a soft spot for the film, but I can't help wishing that more of the original story had made it to the screen.) Co-scriptwriter George MacDonald Fraser introduced ideas, notably taking Bond to India and swashbuckling action, that reflected his interests; Fraser had soldiered in India during the Second World War, and his Flashman series of novels were crammed with exciting, exotic, action.

For a successful film, then, the screenwriter must read Fleming, take the spirit of the films From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, and include lots of action and spectacle. From the little that we know of the film, Skyfall appears to have these essential ingredients. The film could be the best Bond film yet.

References

Fraser, G M, 2002 The light's on at Signpost, Harper Collins
Hibben, S, 1989 The making of Licence to Kill, Hamlyn
Owen, A (ed.), 2004 Story and character: interviews with British screenwriters, Bloomsbury
The official GoldenEye movie souvenir magazine, 1995, Titan
Treglown, J, 1994 Roald Dahl, a biography, Faber and Faber

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