Istanbul, Turkey, 14:00.
The square in front of Istanbul’s Yeni Camii mosque is bustling with locals and tourists. As people trek across walkways and bridges, more pedestrians leak out of the nearby Spice Market — an equally dense and colorful strip of shops. Above the energized foot traffic, the spires of the mosque tower over the scene. Behind them, glistening blue waters of the Bosphorus river make the scene even more vivid. This is the location for the opening sequence of Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the James Bond franchise, a rich, tangible setting for what might be the franchise’s most intricate stunt to date. Receiving the invite to join the cast and crew of the movie on set for a day, I hop aboard a jet ready to do my own spy work. What were Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes up to in Turkey?
Espionage, gadgets, beautiful women — all important staples of the James Bond franchise. But at the core of the successful spy series, what gives the 22 existing films their scope and exotic flair are the worldwide locations. From the first film to today, there’s no place 007 won’t go to get the job done, and in turn, there’s no place the cast and crew won’t go to better bring the cinematic spy to life. In 1963, director Terence Young brought a youthful Sean Connery to Istanbul to shoot a sequence for From Russia with Love. In 2012, the globetrotting tradition continues, bringing Bond back to Istanbul for another go at Turkey’s sprawling metropolis.
“[Istanbul] is the most magnificent place,” Mendes told press the day of my visit. “It is an incredible city. Obviously the goal is, in a relatively short sequence, try to capture the essence of the country, both old and new. Both its traditions and its modernity.” Istanbul is a city overflowing with culture, from its religious roots to culinary expertise to historical integrity to its friendly population — but it hasn’t always been accurately portrayed in Hollywood. Mendes’ hope is to reverse any fictional ideas of Turkey, by capturing “the spirit of the country without resorting to easy cliches.”
Designing the opening sequence of the movie — which Mendes thinks may clock in at four minutes after four weeks of shooting — to capitalize on the diverse locations of Turkey is certainly a step in the right direction. The scene is a multi-layered chase [prepare for minor spoilers] with Bond and his new partner Eve (Naomie Harris), hunting down the elusive Patrice (Ola Rapace). Bond pursues Patrice’s Audi A5 in his own clunky Land Rover, cornering him in the chaos of the market. Then he moves to the top of the roofs of Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar (while on motorcycles) before wrapping things up in a high-speed train foot chase. Behind them at all times are the Turkish police, ready to incarcerate both reckless drivers. If you thought nothing could rival the Madagascar construction chase in Casino Royale, Skyfall is ready to give it a shot.
While the Skyfall set isn’t completely immersed into the real Spice Market and the shopping public, the market setting is entirely recreated around the Yeni Camii mosque. The square is even embellished by the art department with towering fountains (although the masses of pigeons are just a lucky, John Woo-esque treat). Entering the shooting space, it’s clear the Skyfall team went to great lengths bringing authenticity to the market set — the only thing missing is a guy selling leeches by the pound for a few Turkish lira (yes, that’s a thing) — even if the fantastic, detailed work would soon be toppled over by a flipped Audi and James Bond’s skillful sharpshooting.
Myself and a handful of journalists made our way through the faux-market to the video monitors to witness Mendes and Craig working their magic. Pulling the strings behind the camera is the legendary Roger Deakins, best known for his work with the Coen brothers and his two previous films with Mendes, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. To capture this sliver of the sequence — Bond ducking for cover behind an orange cart while keeping up with Patrice and simultaneously hiding out from the incoming biker police — Deakins employs four giant digital cameras (the Alexa, for you techies), all shooting the action from different perspectives. The crew moves like clockwork, while Mendes orchestrates the scene with the actors, stunt doubles and stand-ins. There’s too many people working to count, but a movie at this scale requires hundreds of heads all working in specific roles with time always of the essence. Joining us behind the madness was a special guest, Craig’s wife Rachel Weisz, who stopped by to chat with producer Michael G. Wilson and watch her husband kick butt.
As a life-long Bond fan, there’s a distinct difference in watching 007 on the big screen and watching him in real life. The former has plenty of adrenaline-pumping, but standing on set with Daniel Craig as he jumps into the role head on, firing his handgun straight at you — well, that’s something else entirely. Craig is a serious performer, giving it his all even in the shortest shot. That’s impressive, especially considering we were witnessing Day 103 of the Skyfall shoot (with another 30 left to go). With the blazing sun of Turkey creeping through the sparse clouds, the rejuvenated James Bond was as on as ever.
My time on the set of Skyfall was short and sweet, but the promises made up for it. Mendes is aiming to craft an old-school thriller with his Bond entry, kicking things off with a bang to open up potential for a character-driven story in its wake. After Bond knocks down a few oranges, he’ll take off for an epic bike chase that will actually be shot on the roofs of Istanbul. The sequence will then be spliced into footage that’s already in the can, the train portion of the opening that had the crew shooting in the Turkish city of Andana to film.
There’s a ton we still don’t know about Skyfall and Craig, Mendes, Harris, and the rest of the gang made sure to keep mum about the specifics. How does Javier Bardem or Ralph Fiennes fit into the big picture? What is Skyfall anyway? The mysteries remain, but in the world of Bond, that’s exactly what you want.