After the enormous success of "GoldenEye" it looked as if the James Bond series was back on track. A huge financial sigh of relief was felt by MGM to the tune of $320 million. But with that very success came the burden of expectation. And the burden of expectation was felt mightily on the shoulders of "Tomorrow Never Dies."
Prior to the press junket (again at the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills) their had been the standard press screening, Unlike "GoldenEye" the reaction was less than warm. All the buzz that November was about a small film titled "Titanic." The 'Bond-by-numbers' approach to "Tomorrow Never Dies" was readily apparent, but in retrospect, that criticism undermines the enormity of the problems that befell the production.
Just how much does the commerce of show business interfere with the artistic side? Take the case of the new James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies." The 18th in the long-running franchise of 007 films was put together in record time. Officially starting production in April, the film had its first rough screenings in September (1997).
The rush to production forced the film's budget into the stratosphere, with the tab running around $100-million. A more important consequence of the haste was the script not being ready for prime time. No matter how you try and hide it, the script really creaks. So why the hurry?
Co-producer Michael G. Wilson explains the situation; "After the last film ("GoldenEye") opened, we were given a release date and 'gotta have it on this date' means the studio depends on you to do it. The trouble with that is that you don't have any latitude. Everything goes towards that date. If you find yourself falling behind in script development, or you're not happy with something it puts a lot of pressure on everyone."
The release date for "Tomorrow Never Dies" was set in stone to coincide with MGM's public stock offering. But the process of MGM's sale to billionaire financier Kirk Kirkorian (who could be a Bond villain himself) had left the studio with no films in production. The ace up their sleeve was James Bond. For MGM and Kirkorian it was essential the release of the new Bond film coincide with the stock offering to bolster stock prices.
"In this particular case," continues Wilson, "we didn't have a script that was ready to shoot on the first day of filming, which is a no-no for big budget films. It's just a terrible position to be in."
"These things don't write themselves," Wilson continues, a hint of weariness betraying the pitfalls of a troubled development process. "They do take development and work. They take a lot of going down blind allies and working through an idea and finding they don't work. It isn't a matter of blame its just a matter of the process either working extremely quickly or sometimes taking more time. And this one took more time to develop."
"We did have an on-going development of the script," Wilson states matter-of-factly. Indeed, the film was proceeding on a day-to-day rewrite of the screenplay. "You always have arguments about the script. But they usually don't happen while you're shooting the picture. Which multiplies all the problems."
For star Pierce Brosnan it was a different perspective on the pressures of making a Bond film. He had carried the burden the worldwide press scrutiny of being the new Bond in "GoldenEye." Were things any different for him on "Tomorrow Never Dies?"
"Ultimately you have this pressure." Brosnan says with the icy calm of his screen alter ego. "Because it is the second film and you want the second to be as great as the first one, if not better."
"The new film did get off to a rocky start. The pressure was on at the very beginning because the studio wanted the movie and they wanted it right away." Then he pinpoints the problem area; "And we had a script that was not functioning in certain areas. That was the pressure."
The British tabloids reported severe disharmony on the set with principals not talking with each other. Of those reports Brosnan says that it was pure misrepresentation by the press and that it was 'all untrue.' "There was pressure," concedes Brosnan. "And when you have pressure you have tension. And when you have tension you have words flying around at times...It was nothing more than good old creative argy-bargy. And with a deadline of December 19th waiting there, and with 14 set pieces to do...it was kind of tight of at the beginning."
Brosnan is philosophical about the rushed production. "When you go out the traps and your script is not really up on it's feet...then it knocks people's confidence," he says. "Everyone is aware of the deadline in the making of such a movie. When you have five units going you really feel it. So you just have to have patience."
That patience pays off as it is Brosnan's performance as Bond that stands out among all the frenzied gunplay of the film. His second outing as assured as it is stylish. He has settled into the role with the same kind of ease that one remembers so fondly from Sean Connery's days.
For the sakes of publicity the team has kissed and made up. But "Tomorrow Never Dies" was the subject of intense press scrutiny in Britain as stories of serious conflicts surfaced in the British tabloids. The newspapers reported intense conflicts between director Roger Spottiswoode and writer Bruce Feirstein. Typical of the calm after the storm, Wilson offers the briefest explanation; "I think that when there is so much pressure on everyone tempers will flare. People will try to make their points. But I see Roger all the time, we have dinner together, we work together. These things blow over. It's life."
Wilson then adds that part of the pressure comes from his own role as producer. "There are a myriad of things every day. From the producer's point of view they want to know the schedule, does the set need to be this big? Are we gonna shoot all this stuff in the action sequence? How much of it is going to end up on the cutting room floor? You're putting the director under pressure to make decisions all the time - and he has a point of view he wants to put across."
"GoldenEye" grossed more than $350-million worldwide. In Hollywood that kind of success demands more success. So the stakes for "Tomorrow Never Dies" are very high.
"This is a big picture by any standards," says Wilson of the new movie, adding, "This was the atypical case."
"We always set out thinking why don't we try and do another 'From Russia With Love'" recalls Michael Wilson. "Wouldn't that be great, a nice intimate story? We always start out that way, but then people say, the studios and our writers, and ourselves, we say 'well, that isn't big enough. You need to have the world at risk or something.' And before you know it, it grows into these films."
The expectations aren't exclusively from the studios either. As producer, Michael Wilson has a responsibility to a worldwide audience. "When you go around the world you see how many people are so anxious, in every country, "Oh, when's the next Bond film coming out?"" He says. "You realize that there's a huge audience and I guess you don't want to come out with a film that's going to somehow disappoint them. So you have it grow big in order to protect this expectation that people have. I don't know if we did a 'From Russia With Love' whether we would disappoint our audience."
So, the future of Bond is likely to be bigger still. But so long as they still have Pierce Brosnan at the center of all the mayhem, MGM have a Bond that will continue to pay dividends better than their stock.
This time out there were hints of weariness from Michael Wilson. He was taking on the press solo (for the round tables at least) with Barbara Broccoli choosing to stay in the U.K. Word was out about the film's troubled production and all the inquisitors had their knives drawn wanting to know the gory details. Brosnan was pretty open to discussing the issues. Wilson was the consumate professional, downplaying any disagreements on the set. However, when I visited the set at Pinewood, it was clear that the producers and the director were seriously busy doing their parts of the job and, to casual onlookers, not talking.
Director Roger Spottiswoode, when asked if he'd direct the next Bond film didn't volunteer his time for the project, silently emphasizing that he'd rather move on. For the producer, maybe there was a hint of uncertainty (unlike two years earlier). But audiences flocked to "Tomorrow Never Dies" which surpassed the box-office generated by "GoldenEye." It was, for Michael Wilson, proof that "GoldenEye" was no fluke and no mere aberration of media interest. The James Bond series was performing on all cylinders.