Lessons Filmmakers Can Learn is an ongoing series where I will derive filmmaking lessons (for better or for worse) that I learned after watching a recent film, in terms of writing, directing and editing. For our second edition, we have the Sam Mendes-directed biggest Bond film ever ‘Skyfall’.
At a time when the ridiculously durable and long-running Bond franchise was getting stale with ‘Die Another Day’, perhaps the most successful re-invention for the series happened in the form of Daniel Craig and ‘Casino Royale’, a gritty and grounded reboot that was not only an excellent film but made Bond relevant to the modern audiences. Unfortunately, ‘Quantum of Solace’ took a stumble and was a weak follow-up with its nauseating action scenes and lack of a memorable screenplay.
After a four year hiatus, ‘Skyfall’ brings Bond back in form in one of the best Bond films ever made which is now nominated for 5 (albeit minor) Oscars as well has crossed a billion dollars at the box-office to become the most successful Bond film of all time. Whether it tops ‘Casino Royale’ for you or doesn’t is something you have to answer, but there’s no denying that ‘Skyfall’ is a successful endeavor that filmmakers can definitely take a few lessons from.
Note: Mild spoilers for the film ahead.
Lesson #1 – Dig deeper with your protagonist.
When it comes to franchises, most of them play pretty safe with their lead characters since audiences are very familiar with them and not much work needs to be done to convince them to hop on for another adventure. Whether it’s Indiana Jones or Shrek, their inevitable sequels rarely do anything to move the character forward other than some arbitrary arc that conveniently resolves itself at the end of the film. But for the most part, these iconic characters remain seated in their comfort zone and audiences never really complains. But subconsciously, we want more. And one surefire way to make your directed installment stand out of the rest is to jolt the familiar character out of his comfort zone.
Director Sam Mendes aimed to do the same with ‘Skyfall’, where James Bond felt most out of his element than he has ever done in quite a while. Not only does he get shot in the opening sequence and disappears for years, he’s nowhere near the top form that we have come to expect from an agent of his calibre when he returns. He is faced to grapple with the realities of his old age, and things take a turn for the worse when an antagonist like Silva challenges him both physically and outsmarts him at almost every turn. Stripping a character away from his superhuman abilities (though a lot of that still happens in the film many times) makes him more human and relatable for the audience.
But even aside from that, we get to learn a lot more about Bond emotionally and factually than we did before. Though his last film had a much more personal vengeance mission as the core, his emotional relationship with M here allows the audience to see a new side of the character. We also get to see Bond’s family history as the meaning of the title of the film is revealed and is the setting for the siege finale. Never be afraid to dig deeper with your protagonist and you will be surprised to find aspects to him that can lend to some great story material, eventually strengthening your film.
Lesson #2 – A menacing antagonist can fuel your story.
A Bond film is only as good as it’s villain, some of which have been iconic to the series and have become the best part of their respective films. Mads Mikkelsen’s subtle and calculated villain was a great addition to ‘Casino Royale’, but ‘Quantum of Solace’ really failed in this department though with weak generic villains that I can’t remember for the life of me despite it being the newer film. So it was clear that ‘Skyfall’ needed to bring a villain to the series that can match and even outmatch Bond throughout the runtime. Silva was the answer.
A grand and menacing villain right from the opening scene that perfectly sets him up as a force to reckon with, Silva is exactly the kind of villain that Bond needs at this phase of the franchise. Despite being introduced thirty minutes into the film, he’s a focused and aggressive villain who makes his motives clear to the audience from the get-go. And this time around, the villain and Bond share something in common – they have the same roots. Having the hero and the villain mirror each other in a number of ways is a surefire way of creating an interesting villain, and that’s exactly the case here.
And the screenwriter knows the great villain he has in hand and doesn’t skimp out in giving him some of the best dialogue sequences in the film. His opening is fantastic and perfectly sets up the dynamic between him and Bond, but it’s the disturbingly haunting conversation between M and Silva in custody that seals the deal. Most of all though, it’s how menacing Silva really is and constantly keeps Bond on his toes and challenges him physically and mentally. If you’re writing a genre film, you’d be surprised how much of a difference a menacing villain makes. It can make even a generic screenplay much more memorable and give you ideas to challenge your hero with greater obstacles. I’ll be doing a standalone article on creating a bulletproof villain in your script, but this is a textbook example of how to do so.
Lesson #3 – Let your supporting characters shine.
Sometimes, we as screenwriters are so involved into giving our protagonist the best journey and story that we completely forget about our supporting characters. A sign of weak writing is when the film is all about your protagonist and the supporting characters are nothing but puppets of plot devices that you put in place for the script to move forward. But letting your supporting characters loose can result in them surprising you and enriching your story in a number of ways.
In ‘Skyfall’, one could argue that M was the real protagonist of the film. That’s how much focus Sam Mendes and screenwriter Chris Morgan decided to put on her. In the past few films, M has been nothing more than an exposition messenger who appears only for a handful of scenes to deliver assignments to Bond and otherwise has no effect to the rest of the film. Realising that M is pretty much the only lasting relationship Bond has had with anyone in the series, the filmmakers chose to have M and her story dictate the events of the film. Bond’s mission in the film is a personal one and is directly connected to M’s past. Silva is someone who is after M because of their past and Bond is meant to protect her for the first time. Their dynamics are the highlight of the film, because it’s something different that we haven’t seen in the franchise before and leads to some real emotional moments.
Other characters also get a chance to shine in the spotlight. Eve is a new character to the series that has a lot of mystery to her and has a relationship with Bond that is bound to be developed in interesting ways as the series goes on. Ralph Fiennes’ character also gets purpose by the end of the film. The only disappointment was seeing the actual Bond girl being wasted in a very limited role, but her brief time in the film was made use of very well. And that’s the thing – if the filmmakers had not looked at their supporting characters for story material, we would have another boring Bond vs. new villain film that we’ve seen a dozen times before.
So focus on your supporting characters and look for opportunities to derive story elements from them. It not only gives them a chance to grow and have more depth but also makes the screenplay feel more organic.
Lesson #4 – There’s nothing wrong with inspiration.
A lot of times, filmmakers hit a creative roadblock when writing their script. They stop at a particular point and just don’t know how to follow it through. One of the things to get out of that is to watch other films to inspire you. Inspiration has a stigma attached to it when it comes to filmmaking, and it’s really easy to mistake inspiration and plagiarism. But ‘Skyfall’ proves that being inspired by another excellent film and taking themes from that template and applying it to your own film can actually lead to a great film as well.
There’s no denying the fact that ‘Skyfall’ has a lot of things in common with Christopher Nolan’s genre-defining ‘The Dark Knight’ from 2008. There has been a lot of talk about it on the internet and none of it is unwarranted. Even Sam Mendes himself has said in a number of interviews that watching ‘The Dark Knight’ inspired him and made him believe that themes like these can be tackled in a big budget motion picture, which is why a lot of that appears in ‘Skyfall’. Bond is a conflicted hero who has to protect his city (London) just like Bruce Wayne and Gotham. The hero’s inner conflict, the real-world mirroring issues like terrorism and a post 9/11 vibe, and most importantly the villain Silva resembles the best of what Heath Ledger’s Joker had to offer. The same physical villain who challenges the hero and even makes a shrewd escape from prison mid-way through the film. One can even see a lot of similarities between ‘Skyfall’ and the finale ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, but both those films released at the same time.
Point being – and this is my own opinion – that sometimes watching great films similar to what you have in mind for your own can actually inspire you in a way that will better your work. Whenever you’re in a creative block with where you want to take your screenplay moving forward, there’s nothing wrong with looking at other successful films to see how they did it. I’m not saying that Sam Mendes faced this situation with ‘Skyfall’, but his love and admiration of ‘The Dark Knight’ definitely served as inspiration for how he decided to do his Bond film which everyone agrees feels very less like a traditional Bond film (just like ‘The Dark Knight’ feels less like a Batman film than a crime saga).
Are there any more lessons we can take from ‘Skyfall’? Sound off in the comments below.