The director of ‘GoldenEye’ and ‘Casino Royale’ on how to make a James Bond movie and more.
Thanks to the failure of Green Lantern, Martin Campbell has not been one of the most popular filmmakers in recent years. Perhaps The Foreigner, his first theatrical feature since the 2011 superhero misfire, will turn fans around, but regardless we shouldn’t forget that Campbell remains a great talent, especially when it comes to action movies.
He helmed two of the best James Bond installments (GoldenEye and Casino Royale), after all, earning him a positive enough reputation to have us wishing he’d direct them all. Now it’s time to honor his expertise by sharing his tips on directing, most of them related to the action genre or the 007 franchise specifically.
Start With a Bang
Being the director of two Bond movies, both of which kicked off reboots of the series with new actors in the role of 007, Campbell knows the ingredients of a successful installment of the long-running franchise. And some of them are also just ingredients that make up a good action movie in general.
In a 2017 GQ article on the “secret history of James Bond,” the director joins many others who’ve worked on Bond movies in discussing such elements. Campbell offers this essential:
“You need an opening sequence that makes a statement. You need to do something outrageous, kick the audience up the butt. I remember the marvelous stunt in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ where he skis off the mountain and his parachute opens – that’s still the best stunt of them all in Bond.
“We opened ‘GoldenEye’ with Bond diving off a dam. It was a 700-foot drop and there was no CGI involved. There was a crane to which the wire was attached and the stunt guy, Wayne Michaels, who doubled for Pierce throughout his Bond days, tells the story that as he was standing at the edge of the dam, he looked up to the guy operating the crane and saw him cross himself! Wayne only did it once and he did it brilliantly. He clearly didn’t want to do it a second time.”
Action is All About Collaboration
Many action directors are not considered auteurs, as they’re talents for hire who come aboard after the script has been written. But action scripts are so often lacking in detail in their descriptions of the big set pieces that these directors do have to be very creative. Still, they also tend to get help from the craftspersons responsible for what can be done.
Campbell jokingly explains in a 2007 DGA Quarterly article on action movie directors:
“The most important thing is to hire yourself a great stunt arranger, then hire yourself a terrific second unit director, then get all the credit. That’s not true, but these things are definitely a team effort. There are a lot of unsung heroes on these films.”
And here he discusses the collaborative planning that goes into action movies in Andrew Lane’s 2014 book “Movie Stunts & Special Effects: A Comprehensive Guide to Planning and Execution“:
“I do a lot of work on action in terms of the conception of action. This type of action-oriented filmmaking all comes down to planning. I storyboard all my action and the reason for that is, as an example, on the Bond films, you’ll have second unit and sometimes even a third unit who might do some model work or even some pickup shots. The only way to get everything you want is to storyboard the action. You sit down with your stunt arranger/coordinator, discuss it, and figure out what you want.
“Now if you have a very good stunt arranger, which I do, the two I work with mainly are Simon Crane and Gary Powell, they contribute an awful lot to it as well. In the case of Bond, Chris Corbould was the special effects guy, probably the best in the world in my opinion. He did Batman and Bond movies, he also contributes. For instance the tank chase in ‘GoldenEye’ was Chris Corbould’s idea. He came up with the idea and we ran with it.
“So it’s a process where I lay down pretty specifically what I want to see in the action and sit down with my stunt arranger, who in my last Bond film was Gary Powell, and we’ll talk about it. He’ll add to that or conceive it a little differently, always to make it better and make it a little more spectacular.”
In the same book, Campbell acknowledges how much creative work he and Powell had to do given what Casino Royale screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade put on the page:
“In ‘Casino Royale,’ the opening foot chase is six lines in the script. I think the script read something like, ‘And what follows is a foot chase, a ‘parkour,’ a free running sequence. The best free running sequence ever made.’ That’s about all that was written in the script. It was down for me to work it all out along with my stunt arranger and map it all out. As with all Bond films, you want a spectacular opening. But it was a foot chase on the page, fairly boring, but actually kind of exciting on the screen.”
That making of that scene:
Go to the Top
How do you find such great stunt coordinators, effects artists, and second and third unit directors to trust and collaborate with? Find some, Campbell suggests. Seek out the best there is, in fact, and ask them for help, for referrals. Here’s another lengthy quote on the matter from Lane’s book:
“My advice is that it’s all about personal relationships. You should get the phone number of the top stunt arranger you can think of, meet, ask his advice, and inevitably they know people who are up-and-coming who are eager to do something.
“I found Gary Powell the way. When Simon Crane went off to do a Bourne second unit, he had to drop out of a film of mine. I asked who he suggested and he said Gary Powell. Gary hadn’t stunt arranged anything, but he said he would be terrific. He’s due now to do something on his own. So he did the second Zorro for me and he did a terrific job.
“That’s the way I would go about it. Find the top stunt arranger you can think of. Ring Dan Bradley and ask him out for a cup of coffee and say, ‘Okay Dan, I’ve got a small film and I know you can’t do it, can you suggest somebody who is hungry, talented, up-and-coming that perhaps would do it?’ Don’t be afraid to to go the top. Ring them up, ask their advice.”
Action Should Be Character-Driven
You might think the most important thing in an action movie is the action, but it’s just the same as any movie: the characters come first. Obviously that’s true of James Bond movies, that they are foremost about Bond and his needs as a character before the chases and explosions. One more quote from Lane’s book:
“As important as all other elements, all the action has to be related to character. Action for action’s sake is boring.”
And here’s more on the subject from a 2006 YLE24 interview (reprinted at Bond fansite MI6):
“The most important thing is to make sure the action is character based. To have an action scene for an action scene’s sake is not the way to do it. In the way that an actor playing character in a scene has to be an integral part of how the character would react, actions scenes have to be built the same way. The character should keep in character, and the action should project his character. What you can’t do is just have a huge action scene for the sake of it. it’s got to be motivated correctly.”
Pacing is Done in Post
Campbell has been asked in many interviews about the intense poker scenes in Casino Royale. Interestingly enough, he calls it one of the most difficult sequences of the movie in a 2009 DGA Quarterly article, though he also refers to its process as “the old film student lesson.” Three years earlier, MovieWeb asked if those same scenes were difficult, and he said:
“No, the way you do it is, you can milk it. All the looks, just take your time playing your hands, because I can change it all in editing. I can use as much as I need. It’s very simple. I’m looking at you, you’re looking at me, and really, my instructions were simply that they don’t rush it, they take their time, they look at each other, they try to figure the other guy out. The pace of the movie will be dictated in the editing. You milk it all along, so everybody’s reacting, taking their time, trying to psyche the other person out, trying to figure out what hand they’ve got.”
Learn from Your Mistakes
Campbell is known for directing two great James Bond movies, but then the rest of his work is not as good. He’ll defend the quality of Beyond Borders, which he’s said he’s sad was a total failure. But regarding Green Lantern, he knows it’s a bad movie and recently he revealed that he knows why. From a 2017 interview for Wizard:
“‘Green Lantern’ was a failure. It just did not work and didn’t succeed. I think there were a few reasons for that…One was, I think conceptually the movie was wrong. You can’t have a movie where, frankly, your bad guy is a cloud with a face on it. You simply can’t…I think it could’ve been grittier and tougher. The studio wanted it to be not necessarily grittier and tougher. All in all, I just think the whole story should’ve been re-conceived…I came into it replacing another director and the concept was already set. The script was set but I think perhaps we should have perhaps thrown that away and redone it.”
Here’s some B-roll footage of the making of Green Lantern:
What We’ve Learned
Campbell makes action movie directing sound like a lot of work, but not difficult work. Especially if you have the right collaborators, and it’s apparently not too hard to find those. Most advice that’s out there from the filmmaker is from a single book on stunts and special effects, so understandably he sounds focused on that technical stuff instead of on aesthetic elements or working with actors.
He does regularly state that production is his least favorite part of directing, though, after pre-production and post-production, meaning he’s less likely to talk about his shooting process anyway. There’s not a lot to learn here if you’re in line to direct the next Bond movie or DC superhero blockbuster and need instruction, but there is plenty that offers a better understanding of Campbell’s work. And there’s more in Lane’s book for that, as well.