I’m at Pinewood Studios, 20 miles west of London, deep in the British countryside. Pinewood is the place where Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise holed up for the interminable "Eyes Wide Shut" production, and before that, where all the "Carry On" films were made. More recently, it was a trip down memory lane for "My Week With Marilyn," a movie that depicted the real-life squabble -- one that happened at this very same location five decades earlier -- between Sir Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe.
But the one enduring force to have seen this lot come and go is the pillar of Pinewood, James Bond. Today, he's back once more, this time for "Skyfall," the 23rd outing for MI6's top spy.
After the long drawn-out conflicts regarding MGM’s business affairs (the studio behind "Skyfall" filed for bankruptcy in 2010, causing production to halt), it’s very much business as usual here on the lot. The "Skyfall" set is enormous -– not only has it taken over the standard 007 stage, named in honor of the late "Dr. No" producer Cubby Broccoli, but it's extended right around the block and into a life-size replica of an abandoned Japanese city, where a deposed eastern leader lies in cement blocks on the ground -- the first hint of director Sam Mendes’ singular vision for Bond.
Further inside, a London Tube carriage hangs halfway off the wall of a dark, wet subway tunnel. This set was designed so that pieces of it could be wheeled underneath each other to make things more efficient. The logistics, as well as the army of crew members working on location, is mind-boggling.
Inside the tunnel, someone yells "Action," as hordes of people stop moving around and gaze at the monitor. The only sound in the room comes from Daniel Craig, walking through the squalor and taking aim at the film's antagonist, played by Javier Bardem. As the scene continues, Bardem is halfway up a ladder, making himself -- you would think -- an easy target. Nonetheless, dialogue ensues. Although the moment seems to have all the hallmarks of a traditional Bond/villain exchange, Craig later points out that "Skyfall" has some deeper elements than audiences might expect, calling the film “a rich palette of characters.”
As for the rest of the cast, they're not saying much. When asked about the blond wig that he was spotted wearing on set last month, Bardem responds, all wide-eyed and poker-faced, “Where did you see that?” And Judi Dench, when pressed on the future prospects of her character, M, only states that, “I’m just happy to get to the next job.”
But this movie is obviously not going to be Bond-gone-minimalistic: At one point, I spot a half-built helicopter sitting quietly nearby on set.
As for the general story line of "Skyfall," that has been kept under wraps, as well. Nevertheless, I eventually got a tiny hint when my group of fellow journalists made a trip to the armory consultant, who revealed that there's a mixture of weaponry old and new on this film, with one character, Kincade (Albert Finney), displaying a penchant for the more classical firearms. (Pressed on which Bond was a really bad shot, he'd only say that Daniel Craig may be the best, and definitely spends the most time training.)
After traveling through the London Underground set, we pop up in a replica of a Shanghai casino. Apparently, the ornate carvings on the balconies were made in China, and all shipped over to the UK to be reconstructed. It’s a lot of work for a few minutes of plot.
However, it’s all about the story, says production designer Dennis Gassner, who stands in the middle of this controlled chaos, smiling sweetly like a beatific Buddhist.
“I want people to be excited, moved. Every single day I get out of bed and can’t wait to work, because I know we’re creating something really special, and I just want to share it," says Gassner.
And there, I think, lies the essence of Bond. Everybody in this vast compound knows they’re a part of something unique, made all the more precious by the risk of the movie's demise last year. Now, the wheels are back on the car, each cast and crew member determined to make it the best ever. As Daniel Craig puts it, “It’s been a journey for me to learn how to be Bond. Now I'm here, I just want each one to be better than the last. I'm in a good place.”
He might be being metaphorical, but he could just be referring to Pinewood.