Director Martin Campbell Shares Stories From Casino Royale, The Mask Of Zorro, And More [Interview]

Director Martin Campbell is all about clarity. From his action to his storytelling, there's little confusion in a Martin Campbell film. And he seems to almost always knows exactly what he's making, no matter its quality. If it turns out well, he'll say it's okay. If it doesn't, he'll blame himself and admit, as he did at one point during a career-spanning interview with /Film, that a movie he did was "terrible."

The filmmaker, known for his top-shelf James Bond pictures and his work in British television, is back with a new action-thriller, "The Protégé," where he lets Maggie Q's action chops finally shine front and center in a film. While promoting "The Protégé," Campbell took the time to reflect on his career and past films, including "Casino Royale," "Goldeneye," "Cast a Deadly Spell," "The Legend of Zorro," and "Vertical Limit," just to name a few.

How much easier does that just make your job when you have actors, like Jackie Chan and Maggie Q, that are as physically skilled as they are?

It makes a big difference. When I cast Maggie Q, I had no idea of her action background. I happened to see some footage of her, oddly enough, in "New York, I Love You" with Ethan Hawke. I saw her performance, and I thought it was really good, so I cast her on that basis. To then find out that she had trained under Jackie Chan and was excellent at action, that was a real kick because it helps enormously.

Michael Keaton, he doesn't do many action films, so clearly, that's not his forte. Actors who are not practiced in action, if they really commit to doing it and working hard then they can do it as Michael Keaton did. He really committed to doing it and up against Maggie, of course, with all her experience and everything else, he had to work bloody hard to match her, but he did extremely well.

Even though it's a more action-heavy role for Keaton, it felt like one of his earlier roles with his sense of humor.

Yeah, you're right. You look at "Beetlejuice." You look at all these great movies that he did. He's got this quirky sense of humor. There's something left field about Michael. You're never quite sure how he's going to deliver a line, which makes him exciting to work with. A great sense of humor, a great sense of timing.

One of the greatest eyebrow actors as well.

[Laughs] Yeah. Twitching eyebrows. Well, apart from Roger Moore perhaps, who's the best eyebrow twitcher in the world.

For the fight scene between Maggie Q and Michael Keaton, how do you visualize a fight sequence such as that one when you first read it on the page?

Well, the thing was it was foreplay towards sex, basically. That's what it was. These two are very competitive, right? It's not romantic. It's just these two, there's a spot between them. There's a sexual spot between them. I always saw that scene as foreplay. So the more violent it gets, the more they get turned on. When they finally go through the table, of course, that's the orgasmic roll sort of the ... It was designed that way that they're both actually equally skillful in what they do, and the reactions between them both where it turns both of them on.

Are these mid-budget action movies, even with their obvious commercial appeal, still tricky for you to get made?

They are. With "The Foreigner," it was made obviously because of Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. That combination got it made. But all these independent movies, they're tough to get set up and so forth. With "The Protégé," it was easier with that cast because of Millennium, because Sam Jackson worked a lot with them. Well, Sam always brings a lot to the table. And once you've got Michael Keaton, Maggie Q perhaps not quite as well known as those two, but equally, I think to a lot of people, she's a surprise in the movie. She's very good.

You started off making comedies and then, of course, became acclaimed for your television work. How did you see or hope your career would go when you started out?

The truth is you have no idea. I worked from I guess about 1979 onwards, I was doing British TV, all the big series and stuff, the hour-long episodes. And then pretty much up until about '86, '87, I was working for the BBC, and I did a series, "Edge of Darkness," a six-part series that was very successful, and that got me to Hollywood. But then you get your first film and you go through that, and you're a bit beaten up when you do your first film, particularly dealing with studios and so forth, and you gradually go from there. It's all hit and miss. Sometimes you have success. Sometimes you fail, if you know what I mean, at the box office. You hope you get enough successes to keep you in work, basically.

"Criminal Law" was your first Hollywood studio movie?

Yeah. A three and a half million dollar film. Interesting that Gary Oldman should play the sane person, and Kevin Bacon plays the nutcase. It was a good cast, though.

But then you watch Gary Oldman turn into the nutcase.

[Laughs] Yes. Well, he basically becomes the same as the criminal, doesn't he? He's crossing that line, that very fuzzy, gray line into when you're almost as bad as the criminal.

"Cast a Deadly Spell" was shortly after, right?

Yeah. You should see that one if you haven't.

I have. It's such a fun movie.

Oh, good. It was another HBO film I did. I had just done a film called "Defenseless," which was terrible. The film was lousy, and partly because of me. It was after "Criminal Law." Taylor Hackford's company said, "We'll do anything you want." I had this script called "Defenseless." I made it. Basically, I f**ked it up.

I remember "Criminal Law" previewing extremely well, and naively, I thought every film had great previews. And I went to "Defenseless," and it got 25 out of 100. I was so shocked. And as a result, I got offered "Cast a Deadly Spell." It was called "Lovecraft" in those days. I didn't want to do it. I simply thought this is not my material. My wife at the time said, "You better get out and do it," so I did, and it was fun.

Fred Ward couldn't be more right as a gumshoe.

It's a Humphrey Bogart impression. It was great. They did do a sequel. Dennis Hopper did it.

How was it?

It was not very good, and not because of Dennis, but the script... I had a very good script. In those days, HBO used to take film scripts that these studios no longer wanted to make, and they used to buy them and subsequently make them into movies themselves. "Cast a Deadly Spell" was one of those.

It's funny, you also didn't want to do "The Mask of Zorro," but just like that HBO film, it turned out very well.

Well, the thing is that with "Zorro," the script wasn't good. Robert Rodriguez, I had to replace him because I didn't think he and [producer] Steven Spielberg got on that well. I'm not sure what the background to it was. I came in and I thought the script was just not good enough, and I said no. I had just done "Goldeneye," and then they asked me a second time and I said no, and then the third time I said no. And as I went back to my office, the phone rang. It was Spielberg blowing smoke up my ass. At that time, and I still am, very impressed with Steven, so I opted to do it and very reluctantly, but anyway, it turned out okay.

Both "Zorro" and "Casino Royale" are very romantic. How did you approach love stories?

Well, it's all about having an emotional spine to the story. It's not a romance in, say, "The Protégé," but it is a chemistry. In "Casino Royale," it was in the book. The Vesper Lynd part was in the book, although we did change the way she dies and so on and so forth. We changed quite a lot in it, but it's the only time other than "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" that he falls in love. It's when someone genuinely falls in love with somebody. And what happens, as in the book, is she commits suicide, and it really sets the table for his relationship with women after that in Bond films. The sense of betrayal and so forth that he feels about her will be unjustified, but the anger and the betrayal is enough to send them down the path of the way that you see him treat women in other Bond films.

You always emphasized the fact that Bond is a killer. Was that a part of the books, too, you wanted to highlight?

Again, based on the book. The point is that in the book, for Bond, quick kills, puts a bullet in his head, he's fine with that. If it's an ugly kill like you have at the opening of "Casino" where he's got this guy in the bathroom, it's an ugly kill. That is something he finds difficult to handle. And this came out of the book, believe it or not, that he also smoked 70 a day, which we obviously didn't put in because you don't do that now in movies. But he also drinks too much. His liver is a bit dodgy in the book. So there are these, which of course is Fleming himself. He drank too much, smoked 70 a day, hand-rolled cigarettes, and at time, it killed him with a heart attack. But those were the elements in the books, and the books by the way have no humor whatsoever.

No, they don't.

So that's the other big thing you notice in the books.

How much with those two movies were you responding to the times?

Well, in "Goldeneye," it was very much in the '90s, so there's that scene with M where she basically says, "You're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. You're something out of the past." She really hands it to him. There's that. There was also M being played by a woman. Stella Rimington, who was the head of MI6 in London at the time, that's why we changed that. So that was very much the '90s.

And, of course, the story had a Cold War backing, if you see what I mean. It was Cold War-ish. And the story with "Casino Royale," it was different. You had Le Chiffre. It was based very much on the book, and the card game and the $140 million stake, the terrorist organization that he ran. I think it was probably very much today. Terrorism, of course, is something that's with us every day of the year one way or another. And also, it's a grittier, harder, tougher movie. Bond is tougher in the sense that he's got his feet well and truly on the ground in "Casino." It was a very deliberate move.

Did you ever want to make direct sequels to those movies or did you feel like you did your part?

No, I felt I did my part with "Goldeneye." I just felt that how many control rooms can I blow up? It'll be a different design control room, but I'm still blowing it up. There'll be nutcases that want to take over the world. And I also felt that Bond, his character is his character. You're not discovering really much more, if you see what I mean. So that was the reason I decided to back off doing any more, except "Casino," of course, which was a vastly different Bond to the last Pierce Brosnan one.

You've probably been offered sequels to other directors' films, but do you prefer to start from the beginning and define the character, tone, and world yourself?

Yeah. I think you establish the character and tone. I think that most sequels are never as good as the original. I can't vouch for the Marvel movies because I don't see any of them, but certainly look at "Die Hard." The best one was the first one. No question. And that was the least high tech one of any of them. The sequels were good, but they deteriorated, if you see what I mean. They went long. There's a tendency to make it bigger and better. I just saw the last "Fast and Furious," which was wallpaper to me. The stunts were so ludicrous and had no basis in reality whatsoever. You just switch off. You know what I mean?

It can be weightless, yeah. It's funny, "Zorro" wasn't that long ago, but in terms of what Hollywood makes now, it feels very long ago.

Yeah. The great thing about "Zorro" is a classic story of the peasant and the aristocrat coming together and all the shenanigans that go on while that happens. Plus, Zorro himself is one of the first superheroes, if you will. He doesn't have special powers, but his power lies in his commitment to the people. That's fun to do. It was a tough film to do because of our tight budget and so forth, but in Mexico, we were shooting and sword fighting and horse riding and all the nonsense that you do on those movies.

The studio didn't have high hopes or much interest in that movie, either. Do you think it turned out as well as it did because you were left to your own devices?

Well, they were tough on budget. What happened on that film was halfway through pre-production, they changed management. The new management didn't like the project. They just didn't like the project, as simple as that. They were already in it for $12 million because of delays and scripts and holding actors. They went ahead with it, and the reason was that they were forced into it; otherwise, they would lose that money. There was no point, so they did. I don't think they had any faith in the project. It wasn't a question of me or anybody else. It was just they didn't want to make it, as simple as that.

I barely saw anybody who came down while we were shooting. Once or twice, yes. And when we finished the editing, sitting in the editing room with my editor saying, "Where is everybody?" Nobody rings. Nobody. God knows where they were. However, when they saw the film, it was an entirely different story. That sometimes happens.

Was "Vertical Limit" your most technically challenging movie?

It was because we were in New Zealand. We're up in the mountains a lot, in the real mountains. We obviously had stuff that was CGI on that, obviously, but we went up to 11,000 feet shooting stuff. The highest peak in New Zealand is 12,000 or just over 12,000 feet, Mount Cook, but it was certainly the most demanding, physically demanding film to do.

It was like a 139-day schedule, but then you weren't allowed up in the mountains at all if there was a cloud in the sky. So it had to be completely clear because the safety people, mountaineering people, very skillful, told us that if you see one little cloud in the sky, within 15 minutes, you can be in the storm. We did get caught out. You should have a look at the making of that film. It's probably on the DVD. You'll see the whole crew walking through a blizzard trying to get down off the mountain.

You were early to the Ben Mendelsohn party with that movie.

Yeah, I was. I cast him. Ben was lovely. I'm so thrilled that, first of all, he's a terrific actor so he deserves everything he's got. He's now become very successful as I guess a character actor but he's in all sorts of things at the moment.

You showed another side of Jackie Chan in "The Foreigner." Was that intentional on your part?

Yeah. Well, the thing in "The Foreigner" was that Jackie had to suppress all his natural instincts, certainly in the action scenes. I was quite tough on him in terms of I wanted to keep the old man feel about him. I made his body language hunched and a little bit old man-ish. Jackie was 65 at the time, but he's a very fit, well proportioned guy.

I kept the action all within military, if you know what I mean. I wanted it to be military. I didn't want any of his tricks or any of his dropping ladders over the heads of waiters and all that stuff that he does so brilliantly. So he agreed to do that. That was a great thing. He was very good in "The Karate Kid." I don't know if you saw that.

He's very good in that.

He was excellent. And again, it was a serious role. It wasn't a funny role. And that was what convinced me he could be really good. He's a fine actor, Jackie, outside of what he does so brilliantly, which is obviously all the action and stuff. He's a terrific guy too. What you see is what you get.

Cliff Martinez's score for that was excellent, too.

Isn't it? Wasn't it great? Yeah, it was really good. On these films, we don't have a lot of money for music and post-production, of course. When you're budgeting the film, post tends to get pushed to the background and the money for music is difficult. So you have to go out and search for people who are very good, and secondly, want to do your movie because you clearly can't pay them probably what they would normally expect for a movie. But that's the independent world. Of course, that's why it happens.

What's one project that's always been a struggle for you to get made? Do you have that one movie you see so clearly in your head that you've yet to make?

There's one project which I really love called "The Berlin Game." I haven't managed to pull it off yet, but it's something about joining the war in 1941 before the Americans went into war. And Ian Fleming was given the task of finding a group of soldiers to go in and stop the train, the gold train, and what he does is he goes to America and hires this group of bank robbers, who speak German. They're from the German community. And these guys go in, and they have to stop that train and get the gold. First of all, there's a lot of humor, number one. It's kind of the tone of "Kelly's Heroes." It's a terrific script with a fantastic twist at the end, which is a script I would love to make. I might be in a position to make it now, I hope, so we'll see.