A while back for this very site, I looked at the truncated production period that saw the movie Lethal Weapon 4 start filming in January 1998, before arriving in cinemas just over six months later. Warner Bros had a hole in its schedule it urgently needed to fill, and the Lethal Weapon sequel got the green light. The end result was a baggy film, more driven by comedy than action, but a very solid hit.
Lethal Weapon 4 was, whilst a very fast production, a more contained one, shot in and around the Los Angeles area. Conversely, the more I read about 2015’s James Bond adventure, Spectre, the more I’m convinced it’s a miracle it hit its deadline at all. Against a backdrop of rumours, the movie took a long time just to get a story together, with some suggestions for a while that it would film back to back with a further 007 adventure. But eventually, John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade put together the final screenplay, after Mendes – who had ummed and ahhhed about returning to the director’s chair – had developed the story with Logan (the aforementioned writer, not Wolverine).
Eon Productions eventually fired the starting gun, but it sure cut things fine. It finally confirmed the title of Spectre at a special launch event held on December 4th 2014, and also revealed its release date: 26th October 2015 in the UK, before heading to the US in early November. I remember at the time looking at that and doing a double take. A full James Bond adventure: shot, edited and released in under a year? That’s going to be some adventure, not least because the production also had to factor in a Christmas break.
Appreciating that pre-production and scheduling work had been done ahead of that formal announcement, there was still also the global nature of the production to consider. Following Skyfall, that was mainly UK-centric as a consequence of budget and scheduling, the plan was for Spectre to be a far more global production. Sam Mendes would ultimately shoot Spectre in Mexico, Morocco, Austria, Italy, Vatican City and several locations around the UK, with the base of operations being Pinewood Studios, just outside of London. At one point, things were even more ambitious: plans were afoot to head to Norway and India as well. Simply transporting the cast and crew around the world was going to knock at least a week out of an already-tight schedule.
Filming began on December 6th 2014 (two days after the announcement event), and principal photography would eventually wrap on July 5th 2015. It would be fair to say the seven-month shoot was on the intensive side, and – not uncommon on big blockbusters – a large editing team, based primarily at Pinewood, was working on the footage as the production continued its journey around the globe. They were uploading footage to a system called PIX, to allow people to keep track of the film from wherever they were in the world. Rarely has a need for decent hotel wi-fi been so pronounced.
It should be noted too that Mendes shot the film on 35mm rather than digitally, just to add a further time pressure (over 100,000 feet of film was shot to capture all elements of just the pre-titles sequence). For all the benefits of film – and there are plenty – it does add more logistics to consider.
Not that there was a shortage of them. It’s worth looking just at the challenges of the opening scene to get a flavour of just what challenges Mendes and his team faced.
As he told us back in 2015, Mendes’ helicopter fight sequence in Mexico City at the start of the movie was organisationally terrifying, and had to be bolted together in bits, in different parts over the world.
The component parts? “First thing, you’ve got a real helicopter flying over the square. So you’ve got a stunt pilot and two stuntmen who have to be on rigs.” But also, then they needed the shots of Daniel Craig and Alessandro Cremona in the helicopters, this being a 007 movie. This part was done back in London, at Pinewood, where special rigs were created. More than one, too. “The helicopter is spinning, then it’s barrel-rolling, then corkscrewing, then it’s looping the loop. That needs three different hydraulic rigs, because you have to make a static helicopter move in three different ways,” Mendes explained.
“So immediately, that’s four different sections. You’ve got the live helicopter, which has to be shot by another helicopter. You have two helicopters flying in the square, one shooting and one that’s spinning, with stuntmen in it. Then you’re cutting in and out to a series of different rigs, all back in Pinewood.”
On top of that, nine cameras were trained on the real helicopter flying around the square in Mexico City (and this material wasn’t even shot until March, four months into production). 1500 extras were brought in for crowd scene work. Meanwhile, the efforts of stuntmen underneath the helicopters was separately shot, and mixed in during post-production.
In all, the putting together of just the opening shot covered seven months of work, from start to finish. It wasn’t helped by problems with the rigs at Pinewood, either. “There were two or three moments where the rigs were wrong,” admitted Mendes. “One specific rig we had to rebuild from scratch, which added two weeks, which meant we had to shoot something else, which meant we had to advance something else in the schedule, which we weren’t ready to shoot, which then took longer.”
The rigs had to react convincingly in line with the footage of the real-life helicopters too, so there was only so much work in advance that could be done on the sequence. But even the real-life helicopters threw in logistical problems. A Red Bull helicopter was being used, but its engine failed on day one. There wasn’t another in Mexico, and thus one had to be scrambled from elsewhere in the world. The stunt pilot then alerted Mendes and his team to the thinness of the air. Half the planned stunts couldn’t be done above Mexico City, and thus some were shot elsewhere, with the city background added in post-production.
All the while, Mendes had to continue shooting the rest of the film. He had to manage his opening sequence remotely for large parts too, physically being out of the country as the rig work was being undertaken.
Even scenes in London offered significant challenges. To fly helicopters over the city meant months of preparation, including forewarning over 10,000 people within the fly zone what was going to happen. Lethal Weapon 4‘s action sequences didn’t have anywhere near the same level of ambition. 17 arches along the River Thames were lit up at night for a period of five weeks to allow Mendes to get his shots. Around 200 people were required to manage the basics of each night’s shooting. Furthermore, the Rome-based car chase also involved simply trying to get permission to use specific roads, often unsuccessfully. Parts of the city were ultimately shut down to accommodate the Spectre shoot.
Spectre contained many action sequences, that Mendes was insistent had to look as real (and not computerised) as possible, so keen was he to make James Bond the high watermark for physical action (the film also, don’t forget, contained the biggest explosion seen on film to date). The ones I’ve outlined above are just some of the spinning plates.
On top of that, there was an awful lot of dialogue to get through. Spectre is the longest James Bond film to date – I’ll come back to that – with Mendes having to film sequences such as the board meeting at the start with a sizeable company on set.
Oh, and Daniel Craig needed minor surgery towards the end of the production too, after sustaining injuries in the film’s train fight scene. That was a sequence where Craig opted to do the bulk of the work himself, rather than letting stunt performers step in for big chunks.
To mitigate the size of the task Mendes faced, Spectre had an extensive production team, working around the world and often around the clock. This was hardly an independent production with a bunch of cameras on a road trip. But still: it’s hard to think of any other production of similar size that turned things around with such haste.
Filming was finally completed in July, albeit two weeks later than originally planned. The delays were down to sheer bad luck with weather on some of the exterior sequences, and Craig’s injury. And Mendes didn’t have time to stop. Editing had been underway concurrently with the shoot (and the first teaser trailer had landed in March) but he was finally able to give his cut of the film his absolute attention. The editing had been based at Pinewood Studios, but for post-production work, it relocated to Soho.
The time pressure at this stage was arguably at its most immense. Just to put some contrast in here to what Mendes and his team faced. Mad Max: Fury Road, another 2015 release, had three months set aside in its post-production just to watch the footage that George Miller and his team had shot. Three months after the final day of principal photography on Spectre, and Mendes was within two weeks of locking down that final cut. To offer a Bond comparison, Skyfall’s physical production lasted about the same time, albeit mainly concentrated in one country. It, though, got underway many weeks earlier, and that time gave Mendes a little space in the editing room to pare his film down.
The final lock on Spectre only came just days before the initial press screening of the film. That press screening – the first time the film was shown to anyone not related to its makers – took place on Wednesday 21st October. Mendes was still editing the film the weekend before.
One added aside: when the BBFC saw the film and sought to classify it, it was set to award Spectre a 15 certificate, and Sony – the film’s distributor – wanted a 12A. On taking advice from the BBFC, two scenes were cut slightly ahead of submission, and a 12A was awarded.
There is an argument, whatever you feel about the final movie, that it shows its razor-tight production schedule in its final cut. That the film’s elongated running time could have been brought down with another month in the editing suite. Yet for a film of Spectre’s scale, size and ambition to land in cinemas less than 11 months after filming began isn’t something that should be trivialized. The hope is that the James Bond team will give themselves more wiggle-room when it comes to James Bond 25. With regards Spectre, it’s a testament to a large, very busy team that it managed to do so much in so little time…
Further reading: an excellent, nerdy interview here with Spectre film editor Lee Smith.