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L’affaire MGM

Studio turmoil halts the 23rd Bond film, if anyone still cares.

[Movie Production]  

By Ian Dunross
May 10, 2010
For clarity, all book titles are displayed in small caps (Casino Royale), and short stories are shown in quotes and capitalized accordingly ("Quantum of Solace"). Film titles, on the other hand, are italicized and shown with the capitalization used by the filmmakers (Quantum Of Solace).

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
- Shakespeare, MACBETH (Act II, Scene 3)

Daniel Craig's throne, now
residing at the Smithsonian.

It’s hard to remember now, nearly four years later, how audiences worldwide were deeply stricken by Casino Royale fever and the corollary Daniel Craig mania. From my questionable perspective, the 2006 reboot of the series enthralled the entire planet because everyone was eager to forget our great human folly of allowing Matt Damon to be a box-office star. Historians, on the other hand, have come to a reasonable explanation: the Bond-Reboot fever/Daniel Craig mania was the most influential cultural period in human history, more captivating than the Renaissance and the Enlightenment combined.

Let’s remember: for a brief time (circa 2006-2007), Daniel Craig sat on the throne of accolade, and the sun did not set on the Bondian film empire. In an unprecedented move, the powerful marketing campaign of Casino Royale dictated the course of the world: the PR department (fueled by a budget bigger than the GDP of China) controlled all television, radio, print, the internet, and even the governments of the G8 countries. As a result, world leaders were forced to assemble in a UN summit meeting to declare that “Casino Royale is a ‘Must-See’ film.” Likewise, the ministers of Profound Historical Events (i.e., the mainstream media) were compelled to express admiration: reporters, film critics, TV entertainment commentators, and newspaper columnists were suddenly proclaiming to be well versed in Fleming fiction (which has long been forgotten by the public), asserting that the 21st Bond film was true to its literary source. This sonorous collective voice covered with its mask of joy the disagreement of the film’s detractors and set forth the decree that Daniel Craig is Ian Fleming’s James Bond. In what seemed like an overnight movement, the privileged status of a Connery or a Brosnan as “the best Bond ever” was subverted to make the newcomer Daniel Craig the definitive incarnation of the character. The result: the grand march to the praise for Casino Royale. Not admiring the film is to risk arrest and deportation to a prison camp in balmy Siberia.

One of the greatest planetary events: The Casino
Royale/Daniel Craig mania.

Through it all, Mr. Daniel Craig gazed at a world where people showered him with untold praises, gladly and without question, because he was, well, the supreme being. Craig, the Anointed One. Craig, the Crowned One. Craig, the Beatified. In every major city, scenes of mass hysteria surrounded any news concerning Casino Royale. In Bulgaria alone, approximately 300,000 zealous citizens, running and screaming in excitement on the day the Casino Royale DVD arrived in stores, created more noise than a Boeing 747 jet in flight. The New York Stock Exchange suspended trading to devote five minutes of silence to commemorate the DVD’s release. I remember strolling along Las Ramblas in Barcelona at the time, noting a throng of ardent fans who were protesting that the famous Columbus monument—a cast iron column topped by a statue of the explorer—should be replaced by an effigy of Mr. Craig. Meanwhile, at the internet blogs and forums, fans were ever vigilant to defend any criticism of the actor. Magazine articles also appeared periodically, touting that Craig is sheer brilliance, that Craig is the best dressed man for the next several centuries, that Craig is the only 007 who women have longed for, that old Danny boy rescued a series in shambles. Indeed, there were those who would sacrifice the most precious things in their lives—even their dignity—just to collect the dirt off the ground to clear the pathway for his Eminence. The profits from the theatrical and DVD releases soared on and on. High above on the balcony of their palace, the renowned Bond producers, along with their cohorts (the less-than-brilliant MGM executives in Ray Bans) admired the view of the glorious empire. It was truly a joyous and magnificent time.

Inevitably, it all had to end. A kingdom that powerful is doomed to deteriorate from within and thrust so much uncertainty upon itself. The first stirrings of decline surfaced with Quantum Of Solace, when the reign of Daniel Craig seemed to have reached its apex: for no sooner had the film reached theaters in November 2008 than it began to fade from everyone’s memory. The abysmal reviews poured on and on, and the public was perplexed by the film itself. It was an odd stew, featuring an onslaught of action scenes, an incomprehensible plot, and blatant emulation of the Bourne films (in terms of narrative style and editing), and inexplicably emphasized effeminate villains, a shortage of babes, and a gay-friendly Bond. The final forgetting of the film occurred just one week after its release, when audiences turned their attention to the vampire love story Twilight and to its hip young stars—in a sudden flash, Quantum Of Solace and Daniel Craig and his glorious press releases were booted off the lighted stage of pop culture.


Which takes us to the recent spate of disturbing news surrounding the next film: screenwriter Peter Morgan was apparently replaced by Patrick Marber; the involvement of Sam Mendes, a director known for introspective dramas, remains questionable, indicating that perhaps a Bond film wasn’t challenging enough for the maestro, although his greatest challenge now is the tabloid circus coverage of his divorce from actress Kate Winslet. As one of the more outrageous rumors, Rachel Weisz was set to play the mad villain, signifying the title of the Fleming short story “Property of a Lady,” wherein the screenplay supposedly referenced the world as her property (ah, world domination once more). Diligent reporters, however, uncovered that the only thing credible in this rumor was that Rachel Weisz is truly mad. Meanwhile, the “shocking story” that Peter Morgan babbled to the media last December supposedly concerned the death of Judi Dench’s M, as if anyone cared at all. The most widely circulated rumor (and I am not kidding) was that Bond 23 was an innovative high-tech thriller/environmental cautionary tale titled Avatar Of A Lady. That rumor had Rachel Weisz as the new MI6 leader traveling to a verdant moon called Pandora to look for the Craig-Bond, who, according to legend, is a renegade blue-skinned double-O agent now working as a bodybuilding trainer for the indigenous inhabitants.

Even more disturbing, the future of the moribund MGM remains uncertain, with no solid takeover bid from investors. It was therefore not surprising that pre-production work for the 23rd Bond film was halted:

Due to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the future of MGM and the failure to close a sale of the studio, we have suspended development on Bond 23 indefinitely.   (Tran and Child)

Fabrication from a tabloid reporter? A fringe whacko cranking out a ridiculous blog from his basement? No, it's the official statement from producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, a statement already forgotten (it all happened several weeks ago, how could anyone possibly remember it!). But when it hit the newswires, I received a gazillion emails from Bond fans expressing a similar theme: “Well, there are certainly other investors who would want to buy MGM and make Bond movies. What’s interesting is that Bond is a moneymaker, so this will get resolved quickly, don’t you think?”

No, no, what was so interesting about the official statement, what made it compelling and, ultimately, disturbing was that it offered a glimpse of how circumstances with MGM and Eon Productions are worse than what either party is willing to disclose. Afflicted with debts of almost $4 billion, degraded in its reputation for releasing lousy films, and chaotic in its restless pattern of reorganizations and executive wackings, MGM is struggling to appear viable in the eyes of investors, especially when one recalls that the studio has failed to lure a buyer since last year. Eon too finds itself in turmoil: the last film, the spectacular kitsch known as Quantum Of Solace, raked in about $570 million worldwide—at first glance an impressive performance; yet it has an unsettling aspect, considering that Craig’s second Bond film cost $250 million to make but earned less (in worldwide grosses) than his 007 inauguration, Casino Royale. Moreover—and I do flinch at the thought—the sale of MGM opens the door to the end of the series: after all, will the new owners (whoever they are) refrain from pouring $250 million into the next film unless they have a bigger involvement in the series and their mandates are honored by Eon? A power struggle could ensue; for Eon has always been adamant in their control of the franchise. In 1998, just after the release of Tomorrow Never Dies, Michael G. Wilson explained the situation in a frank interview with David Giammarco:

But Wilson agreed that it’s also a duty to keep the series from falling into possible disarray at the hands of someone else. Because if Wilson [and] Broccoli ever stopped producing Bond, someone else inevitably will—and this is their family heritage.

“See that’s the thing,” said Wilson. “I don't have much faith in anyone else assuming the reins. There may be people who could do it better, but the way it would probably go, there’s more opportunity for it to be done worse. And I think all you have to do is look at some of the great writers we bring in. . . . So you sit there and listen and realize that you have to really do it yourself from the ground up.”   (“Heir To The Bond Legacy” 24-25)

Twilight of the idol? An alleged photo of
Daniel Craig seated among the crumbling
walls of the MGM/Eon empire.

So where does all the turmoil leave his Eminence, Daniel Craig? Are we now facing the twilight of this idol? Well, he must have sensed the delay in production and thus joined the cast of Cowboys and Aliens and Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. But at the time the producers announced the postponement, Craig was on location in Toronto, filming Dream House with Rachel Weisz (yes, that Rachel Weisz) and managed to babble some enthusiasm for an empire in decline: “I have every confidence in Barbara and Michael’s decision and look forward to production resuming as quickly as possible” (Tran and Child). That was jolly sporting of him, all things considered; but he now finds himself as an “ex-007” in the speculation game of who would take over the role: Sam Worthington, Christian Bale, and Henry Cavill are some of the names being bandied in the media as potential replacements, with the spokesman for betting agent William Hill proclaiming, “The good news for Bond fans is that everyone seems sure that we have not seen the end of Bond, but we might have seen the end of the current Bond” (“Christian Bale to be the Next James Bond after Daniel Craig?”).

To underscore: that’s not me ushering the demise of the Craig tenure; it’s essentially the media. But, once again, when all the speculations flooded the newswires, I received a number of emails from fans attempting to make sense of it all. In particular, a chap in Paris, one Thibault Aubertin, was especially baffled by the spectre of Daniel Craig’s exit:

“Why are they announcing that Daniel Craig is finished? He is the best Bond ever and [the media] is dismissing him like this? Eon must refute the reports! Can you please contact Eon on behalf of us fans and tell them we will not put up with this nonsense? This is just unacceptable treatment of Daniel Craig!”

Oh, mon dieu. We are witnessing a foreshadow of the 2012 cataclysmic end of days, as the Mayans had predicted. And to make matters worse for Monsieur Aubertin, I have no affiliation with Eon Productions and thus my chance of success to influence the producers is somewhere in the 1-in-a-million to 1-in-981500 range. Nevertheless, it ought to be clear by now that anything goes with the MGM turmoil—and that includes the Craig tenure, which is looking like a canoe drifting toward the falls. Oh, Monsieur Aubertin, today’s Hollywood doesn’t hold dear to any set formula: everything is easily reset, repackaged, and recast, even for the most successful franchises, by the studios without remorse. We need take no more note of it than of the plans of Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal and Columbia Pictures president Matt Tolmach to overhaul the Spider-Man series with a new actor and a new director, and with an entirely different approach by resetting the timeframe to the hero’s high school days, emphasizing “a teenager grappling with both contemporary human problems and amazing super-human crises” (Kelly). The 23rd Bond film could undergo a similar retrofit: all the uncertainty surrounding MGM and Eon Productions suggest the restless stirrings of a major shake up, with a new actor eventually cast as 007—and I personally have no difficulty in confronting another reinterpretation of the series.

For now, the postponement is a good idle moment for the Bond makers to take stock of the series, to rethink their approach. The last two entries, we must admit, feel hollow in its pretentious attempt at realism and completely uninspired in its blatant emulation of the Bourne films. They’re also creaky against the new trend of sleek, stylish fantasies such as Batman, the Twilight saga, Iron Man, and Avatar. Fantasy has returned, eclipsing realism; and Craig’s Bond, a decrepit hero competing with young brooding vampires with cool thick hair, is in danger of irrelevance, especially in the eyes of the all important demographics, the MTV crowd, who has rediscovered the dazzle of 3-D effects and fantastical characters. Ironically, the very essence of the Bond series is fantasy. We turn again to Michael G. Wilson, to his fundamental rule that the 007 landscape is grounded in fantasy, in a region of “hyper-reality”:

It’s not a science-fiction film. All the technology in the film is presently available although maybe in reality nobody could devote enough money, time or effort into doing some of the things these characters get up to. But nothing is impossible in any physical sense. . . . The hero goes on a quest to different locations in a contemporary action-adventure film that takes place in a world that is parallel to our own but now quite the same. Things are a little more sophisticated and exotic, the women are more beautiful, the villains are much nastier. There’s a kind of hyper-reality to it.   (Johnstone 22)

It’s a bit eerie to read his words, considering how the Craig Bond films have essentially ignored their cinematic roots. But to see the next film return to this fundamental rule, to see the franchise reset once more, will not only be welcoming but indicative that the producers seek the viability of James Bond. The alternative—studio chaos culminating in the end of the series—will be worse.


List of Illustrations

“Movie Camera and Film Strip.” Online Image. Robin Good's Master New Media. 7 April 2010
“Daniel Craig's Throne.” Online Image. AQWorlds Wiki. 5 April. 2010
“Daniel Craig Mania.” Online Photograph. Web Pages of ST.G.Frangopoulos. 9 April 2010
“Rachel Weisz Gun Barrel Collage.” Personal graphic by author.
“Daniel Craig among the Ruins.” Personal graphic by author.

Works Cited

Giammarco, David.  “Heir to the Bond Legacy.”  Cinefantastique  January 1998: 23-25.   Print.
Johnstone, Iain.  The World Is Not Enough: A Companion.  London: Boxtree, 1999. Print.
Kelly, Kevin.  “‘Spider-Man 4’ Is No More.”   Cinematical,  11 Jan. 2010.  Web.  7 April 2010.
Tran, Mark, and Ben Child.  “New James Bond film on hold due to MGM debt.”
The Guardian,  20 April 2010.  Web.  25 April 2010.
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