As is customary, the end credits of 2015’s 007 movie Spectre read: “James Bond Will Return.”
The intention was always clear: Ian Fleming’s British Secret Service agent would be back for a 25th outing in the world’s longest-running film franchise. However, nobody anticipated it would take six years, enduring director dropouts, an ankle injury to star Daniel Craig during the Jamaica leg of the shoot and a global pandemic that postponed the film’s release three times.
Finally, Bond is back in No Time To Die. Behind the camera is True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga, remarkably the first American to direct a Bond movie. “I didn’t even know that fact until I wrapped,” he remarks. “It didn’t even cross my mind.”
He took over from British filmmaker Danny Boyle, who parted company from the production before shooting began. It meant a rapid script rewrite, as Fukunaga and his co-writers looked to bring Craig’s five-film arc to a satisfying close.
But how? In the final reel of Spectre, Bond successfully captured Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) – the classic Fleming-created villain from the novels and overlord of the titular evil organisation – and seemingly left MI6 for good. But it seems there’s always someone else out there willing to press the "destruct" button on mankind. In this case, it’s the scar-faced Safin.
“Like all the good villains, you understand where he’s coming from,” says the director, cryptically. “You understand the reasoning and may even think some of the ideas aren’t that bad.”
Playing Safin is the Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek, the star of Mr Robot who also won an Oscar for his portrayal of Queen singer Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
“We’re so thrilled that he wanted to do this,” says series producer Barbara Broccoli. “He’s superb in this, really chilling.” Fukunaga calls the actor “a thinker” in his approach to his work. “You have to understand the rationale to the character. Because Rami’s going to ask the questions that are going to poke holes in anything that doesn’t really feel watertight.”
When Fukunaga, 44, came in, his first task was to reintroduce Dr Madeleine Swann, the French psychotherapist played by Lea Seydoux who captures Bond’s heart in Spectre. When No Time To Die begins, she and Bond are holidaying in Italy, but inevitably there is trouble in paradise. Knowing that she would return presented him with a clear brief “not only to include her but the why of including her,” says the director. “What makes her someone on par with Vesper Lynd? What makes her an even better potential partner for Bond?”
Lynd, the agent played by Eva Green, died at the end of Craig’s 2006 debut Casino Royale, a fact that has haunted him ever since. “I think it’s more connected to Casino Royale than to any of the other films,” says Fukunaga of No Time To Die, a film that picks up threads from all the Craig-era movies.
Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Bond franchise has been weaving an interconnected web for 15 years. “There’s a deepening of character,” says Fukunaga, “because now we have that connection with the earlier films in the arc.”
Swann and Lynd are not the only women that shape No Time To Die, either. “The female characters are totally integrated and essential to the story,” says Broccoli. “I think the women are more relevant and more important than ever.”
While Bond’s faithful MI6 cohort Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is back, he also encounters Ana de Armas’s feisty CIA agent Paloma in Cuba once his mission begins. Also making a splash is Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, his replacement at MI6 and the first female 00 agent. Even behind the scenes, Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge took a crack at the script.
It’s all part of a credible attempt by the franchise to modernise Bond, all of which comes filtered through Craig’s authentic turn. “What Daniel brought was really fresh and new layers of complexity to Bond, from the brute force to that potential [for] violence to the wit and the vulnerability,” says Fukunaga. It was the chance to see Bond’s rawness, his emotions – a radical difference from the early movies with Sean Connery and Roger Moore. “Just seeing those changes take place on screen … [was] fascinating,” says the director. “It’s a real character study.”
A gruelling seven-month shoot that took place in Italy, Scotland, Norway, Jamaica, and the Faroe Islands (as well as Pinewood Studios, where one stage set caught fire), finally came to an end in October 2019. “Last day was the most emotional one,” says Fukunaga. “And it caught me by surprise. I’m not usually one to get misty-eyed on a set. And I think just that collective realisation that [it] was coming to an end, not just our film, but Daniel’s run – his five films – was immensely impactful to everyone there.”
That swansong had to be put on ice for almost 18 months after the outbreak of Covid-19 led to cinema closures the world over. Faced with this strange limbo, Fukunaga turned his attention to other projects – he’s currently shooting Second World War mini-series Masters of the Air – but after so much time has passed, does he feel people are getting shaken and stirred to see Bond back on the big screen? “I definitely get the sense there’s anticipation,” he says, “and I’m hoping that people show up to cinemas but, god, I have no clue!”
Whether or not Bond rescues ailing, pandemic-rattled cinemas, as Hollywood clearly hopes, the sense is that No Time To Die will provide a fitting end to Craig’s tenure as the character. “It has an epic emotional quality, this film,” says Broccoli.
But where can the franchise go next? Who will replace Craig? “I have no idea,” says Fukunaga. “And thankfully, I don’t have to make that decision! I don’t even think Barbara’s thinking about it to be honest. I think Barbara really loved working with Daniel and right now, at least, she’s not going to be rushing to replace him.”
'No Time To Die' opens in cinemas on Thursday