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The plot to kill James Bond was hatched in the back of a black Mercedes on a cold November evening in Berlin. It was 2006, and the cast and crew of Casino Royale had come to the German capital from Madrid on the film’s whirlwind European publicity tour. After the evening’s premiere – their fourth in a week – Daniel Craig and Barbara Broccoli slipped off for a drink.
A year earlier, the news that Craig had been cast as James Bond had caused uproar. His hair was too floppy and fair; his face too craggy; his sex appeal non-existent. At the photocall, dressed in a plain charcoal suit, powder-blue shirt and burgundy tie, he looked less like the world’s suavest secret agent than a high street bank’s employee of the month.
Yet Broccoli – long-time producer and keeper of the Bond flame, along with her half-brother Michael G Wilson – had seen her instincts proven triumphantly correct. The reviews for Casino Royale were ecstatic, while ticket sales were breaking box-office records. Their nerve had paid off, and Craig felt a little more boldness couldn’t hurt.
“How many of these movies do I have to shoot?” he asked Broccoli. Four, she replied – his contract had yet to be extended to a fifth. He paused, then took his shot. “Can I kill him off at the end?”
“I don’t know where it came from,” Craig, 53, explains from his sofa. “It had just been on my mind. And, being Barbara, she didn’t pause, she just said yes.”
“Then I had to go back and tell Michael what I’d agreed to,” Broccoli, 61, chimes in.
The shock death of Craig’s Bond at the end of No Time to Die is, as Craig explains, “something we had been discussing for a very long time”. It was on the cards for the entirety of his 15-year run as Ian Fleming’s iconic creation – and, during the 17 Covid-roiled months his fifth and final film sat in storage, finished but unseen, it may have become the best-kept secret in the history of the film business.
But when No Time to Die opened in cinemas last autumn, that secret was finally out. And now the parties responsible – Craig, Broccoli, Wilson and the film’s director, Cary Fukunaga – have assembled via Zoom to declassify the many confabs and wranglings that led them to that audacious final gambit.
“It’s such a long time ago that we shot it, and it’s really nice to be able to finally talk about it,” chirps Craig, who’s in an avuncular mood. The fateful moment itself was filmed in the autumn of 2019, towards the end of a sprawling six-month shoot. The roof of the island fortress belonging to Rami Malek’s villainous Lyutsifer Safin was, in fact, a set built outside the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, and owing to the scale of the production, a huge crew bore witness to Bond’s demise.
“It was a scary day,” Fukunaga, 44, recalls. “I remember we had to lock the whole place off in order to keep it a secret.”
“I was dreading that day,” Broccoli grimaces. “Dreading it.”
Were she and Wilson present to observe 007’s final moments first-hand?
“No, we were in the south of France,” she shrugs sarcastically. “Of course we were there! It was one of the single most important scenes in our professional lives. It was a very powerful moment. But, I mean, we’re there every day, anyway.”
“Just try and keep them away,” Craig breaks in.
Broccoli tuts. “I love the idea that people always think producers somehow aren’t around when people are shooting.”
“That’s because on most films, Barbara, they’re not,” Fukunaga says.
The filming of the scene, Craig says, was “incredibly simple. It wasn’t a particularly long day, we had everything sorted out, we had obviously talked long and hard about it beforehand. So we knew where we were when the time came”. Léa Seydoux, the French actress who plays Madeleine Swann, Bond’s lover and the mother of his five-year-old daughter, Mathilde, had already shot her half of the pair’s final radio conversation on location in Italy, and the sound team piped her dialogue into Craig’s earpiece. “They’d mixed it for me, so it was like one side of a phone call, so it was as real as it could be,” he says. “And I didn’t need much more than her performance to work with, it was so spot-on. We did two or three takes, and that was it. Cary said, ‘Do you want another?’ after the second, and I said, ‘What, we haven’t got it yet?’”
Killing Bond is not something Broccoli or Wilson would have dared attempt with any of their previous leading men. (As co-producers on the series since the end of the Roger Moore years, they have now jointly seen off four 007s.) But when their company, Eon Productions, finally secured the rights to Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1999 – completing an epically fraught legal process that had been rumbling on since the early 1960s – Broccoli felt the time had come to attempt a self-contained story, rather than continue the tried and tested series of ongoing adventures.
“Casino Royale opened up a whole new world,” she says; by starting from the beginning of Bond’s story, as Fleming himself had conceived it, “it meant we could explore the character’s inner life and emotional complexities”. As he was originally written, “Bond was a sort of silhouette to the world. But the reader was aware of his internal anxieties and flaws. And all the films beforehand had basically concentrated on the silhouette.”
But killing Bond would take forethought. “You don’t want him to simply die with a bullet,” says Wilson, the 80-year-old Eon veteran and stepson of original Bond producer Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli, Barbara Broccoli’s father. “You’ve got to make it meaningful, and that was the challenge.”
“If we hadn’t found the right story in which to do it, we would have had him walk off into the sunset,” Craig continues. “But as the films progressed, we just kind of found a way to make it work. The idea of him making the ultimate sacrifice because he couldn’t live in the world without the people he loved just seemed right.”
A scene originally written as tragic and poignant took on a new resonance, however, during Bond’s year and a half of enforced self-isolation, when loss became a constant drumbeat in the lives of cinemagoers around the world. After Covid reared its head in the west in early 2020, Eon acted fast, postponing the film’s release three times in order to dodge various lockdowns and pandemic waves. Then there was Safin’s evil scheme, which relied on close-contact transference of a highly infectious bioweapon. Did any of them worry this would prove too close to the bone?
“During the initial part of the pandemic, I did wonder whether there might be an issue over the nanobots being a transmissible person-to-person threat,” Fukunaga says. “Although it didn’t feel like there was anything offensive about the way we handled it, so there was no need to adjust it. But it did cross my mind.”
“The other thing,” Broccoli quickly interjects, impressively on-message, “is that one of the big themes in the film is personal sacrifice. And I feel there’s a parallel between Bond’s work and the work so many people did during the pandemic – everyone on the front line putting themselves in danger; the nurses and NHS staff, the people who provide food and transportation.”
It’s a honed producer line, of course. But the film’s extraordinary commercial success (it all but single-handedly revived cinemagoing last autumn) proves it did strike a resonant chord.
Why does Craig think it connected? “If I knew, I would be sitting on a private island in the South Seas right now, with a fleet of yachts,” he shrugs. “I think it was beautiful and emotional and had all the right things, but when you give it to an audience, you just have to cross your fingers. Maybe because of the pandemic it did resonate in an unexpected way. But maybe people were just happy to have a reason to go out.”
He also pays tribute to distributor MGM, who fended off substantial offers from streaming platforms to put the film online during lockdown. (It’s believed that in mid-2020, Netflix and Apple TV each offered MGM somewhere in the region of £300 million to take the film off the studio’s then-tied hands.)
“The money was dangled in front of us by the streaming services,” he says, “and it would have been a way to recoup losses. But they held their nerve and it worked, and thank goodness it did.”
Were they dreading that audiences would stay away? “Obviously, we felt a weight of responsibility, because the theatrical experience was in peril,” Broccoli says. “And it was very important to all of the people on this Zoom that we fought to keep the cinema experience alive. So that’s why we didn’t even agree to going out on a streaming platform day-and-date” – an industry term meaning a simultaneous release in cinemas and online. “It was really important to us. We make our movies to go on the big screen.”
“We got together with the distributors and thought that September looked pretty good,” Wilson adds. “But I think we were lucky. And we’re grateful for everyone who came out and made the film a success.”
That leaves the Bond franchise in rude health in its 60th anniversary year: on Wednesday October 5, exactly six decades will have passed since the world premiere of Dr No. On that date, can we assume a major announcement is in store?
“Yes,” says Broccoli, with a fixed smile. “On October 5, we’ll say it’s the 60th anniversary.”
However – and with whomever – things proceed, Eon will be working with something they haven’t had since 1962: a blank slate. And, for his part, Craig is optimistic.
“I mean, as much as the killing-off of my version of Bond has been problematic for a lot of people, I do think it’s a positive thing that whenever these guys get together again, it can be completely reset,” he says. “They can start again wherever they want.”
But need that be in the here and now? It has been speculated recently that the best way of squaring Bond’s defiantly retrograde character with the changing times would be to make a film set in the past – which, like Mad Men, can look at the character’s flaws from a comfortable historical distance. But Wilson shoots down the suggestion.
“We’ve kept Bond in the present as we’ve gone along, which means there’s always been a lot of change in the character,” Wilson says. “He’s like Sherlock Holmes, or Batman – one of those characters who’s so ingrained in the culture, he’ll be with us for a long time yet.”
Broccoli concurs. “I think Michael and I would rather focus on the character in a contemporary setting.”
“That’s where it just becomes a curiosity, doesn’t it?” says Craig. “To me, it feels like an exercise. I mean, you could look back; you can do whatever you want. But the harder thing is to make the movies relevant. Part of the point of the Bond myth is the nostalgia of it, but what we’ve tried to do over the past five films is to take those myths and reinvent them. Which is a lot harder than, you know, just remaking Goldfinger. But it’s above my pay grade,” he beams, nestling into the sofa. “It’s not my problem any more.”
No Time to Die is on digital release