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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was 50 years ago that the movie "Dr. No" premiered and turned a literary figure, James Bond, into a cultural icon. Today the new Bond movie comes out. "Skyfall" finds Daniel Craig once again in the secret agent's impeccably tailored suit. This time he's battling bad guys and his own mortality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKYFALL")

DANIEL CRAIG: (as James Bond) 007 reporting for duty.

JUDI DENCH: (as M) Where the hell have you been?

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Enjoying death.

MONTAGNE: "Skyfall" is directed by a veteran of British theater, albeit a young one. Sam Mendes was a boy wonder of that scene in the late '80s, directing Judi Dench in "The Cherry Orchard" when he was just 24. His first film won him a Best Director Oscar for "American Beauty," and it was on his second movie, "Road to Perdition," that Sam Mendes met Daniel Craig.

They'd meet up again, just a few years later at a party, and start discussing James Bond.

SAM MENDES: We'd both had a couple of drinks, and I asked Daniel, you know, when he was doing the new Bond movie. And he said, I don't know. And I said, and who's going to direct it? And he said, I don't know. Why don't you do it? And I can honestly say that I hadn't any particular agenda in asking him. I was just making small talk, literally.

But it never occurred to me until he said it. I think Daniel sobered up the next day, realized that he'd offered me the job, and it wasn't really his position to do that. So he called the producers, and two weeks later I met them. And they were very open. It was very clear from the beginning what they wanted was not a Bond movie, but my Bond movie.

MONTAGNE: I wonder, though, given the weight of this character, this franchise, what trepidations did you have?

MENDES: Well, the main trepidation was that I would not be able to make a movie that was personal to me in some way. And then I had to make a decision of whether to go back and look at all the Bond movies, or to, sort of, not look at them - to remember the ones that I remembered and forget the others and maybe go back to the books, which I did.

And I chose the latter course, which was to not think about it too much, as a Bond movie, but as a movie. And there was something else as well, which was I wanted to kind of get back in touch with my 12-year-old self, that had sat down and watched "Live and Let Die" with Roger Moore in, whenever it was, the mid-'70s, which was my first Bond experience, and remember some of that excitement.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, I gather one other connection that you had with Daniel Craig was that you both had the same first Bond movie experience.

MENDES: Mm-hmm. Yes. It was a very big moment in both our lives, I think. I mean, there's a great - with the significant risk of sounding a bit pretentious - there's a great Camus quote, in which he says something like, I may paraphrase, but: A man's work is nothing more or less than the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in the presence of which his heart first opened.

You know, I think that's true - a lot of people - is that you're sort of changed by those two or three, what Camus calls, great and simple images. And of course, those days, prehistoric times before DVD and video and access to these movies at the touch of a button, the previous Bond movies were aired at Christmas, traditionally, on the BBC. And they were freighted with significance, and they were big events in family life. And I still have memories of that.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about your Bond and play a scene from the movie. James Bond is being put through several tests - physical and mental - to see if he's still fit for the job. A psychiatrist gives Bond a word and asks him to respond with the first word that comes to mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKYFALL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Country.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) England.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Gun.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Shot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Agent.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Provocateur.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Murder.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Employment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as psychiatrist) Skyfall. Skyfall.

CRAIG: (as James Bond) Done.

MONTAGNE: Well, not giving anything away there. That of course, "Skyfall" is the title of the movie and we won't give anything away on that. But I think what this scene suggests is how much darker James Bond is as portrayed by Daniel Craig. How do you see the evolution of this character?

MENDES: Well, we didn't really create Bond as a dark character. One of the things I love about the creation of Bond by Fleming is that there's a sort of cruel wit. And particularly in the last trilogy of novels, the character is suffering from a kind of mixture of boredom, cynicism, self-loathing. I mean, he's very, very dark.

The issue became, as they moved towards I think the more difficult novels, they started abandoning some of the dark stuff, because they thought it wasn't commercial. And Bond became a much lighter character. So I think this idea that somehow we've created a dark and complex Bond is - I'd love to feel that that was true, but I don't think it is. I think it's always been there. You just need to dig a little under the surface.

MONTAGNE: Well, in the midst of all of this there's also a bit of fun with some icons of the Bond movies. You even bring back the famous Bond sports car, the Aston Martin DB5. It has its ejector seat. It functions as a kind of time machine, but sort of delightful.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: I mean - yeah.

MENDES: Yeah. That's a very good way of looking at it. It does. Yes. I mean, part of the fun of doing a Bond movie is being able to play on the audience's prior knowledge of all sorts of things. And not only large-ticket items like, for example, the Aston Martin DB5, which I was very keen to get into the movie because it's something that, as a child, was my way in, and I loved it.

You know, and I had the model of it and all that sort of stuff.

MONTAGNE: You had the little car?

MENDES: I did. I had the Dinky Toy version, I believe it was called. Anyway, but not just those things but also lines, echoes, musical quotes. That's the fun of it.

MONTAGNE: The child today might be much more likely to covet a superhero, action figure than, say, when you were a boy and you had the little Bond car with the ejector seat. How does James Bond stay relevant with younger audiences who won't have a nostalgia, or a connection to the history of the character?

MENDES: I think that it's important that you make him somebody that you don't assume the audience already knows. In that regard, dealing with an iconic character like this, is not so far away where I originally came from, from theater. You know, when you're doing a production of "Richard III" or "The Cherry Orchard" you can't be unaware of other productions of the play that have existed.

But it doesn't stop you rediscovering it and insisting that the audience goes on the journey, as if for the first time each time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BOND THEME")

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much.

MENDES: A great pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Sam Mendes, who directed the new Bond film, "Skyfall." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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