Die Another Day: Lee Tamahori looks back at his 'controversial' James Bond film (exclusive)
If Lee Tamahori could change anything about his James Bond film Die Another Day it would be the film’s use of CGI in one infamous scene.
“The only thing I’d do differently [with Die Another Day] would be the kitesurfing sequence,” director Tamahori tells Yahoo over the phone from New Zealand, where he's shooting his next film.
“I don’t know how you’d do it differently. It was virtually impossible to do it for real as a real stunt: falling off the edge of a glacier, hastily concocting a kite-surfing rig, and kitesurfing your way out of danger. If you tried to do it for real… you just couldn’t do it.”
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“The VFX and CGI was the only way out of it.”
That particular scene in the 2002 film — which had its world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall 20 years ago on 18 November, 2002 — sees Bond escaping an arctic tidal wave with the help of some shockingly poor CGI.
That moment, along with the film's ‘invisible’ Aston Martin, became a lightning rod for criticism of the 20th entry in the long-running spy series which to many – at that point – seemed to have gone beyond parody.
However, the public enjoyed it and the high-concept 007 thriller was the highest-grossing Bond film to date when it was released, taking $431m (£384m) at the global box office. But in the wake of The Bourne Identity and the events of 9/11 the glossy action film was instantly out of step with the latest trends. In the cinema too, Austin Powers and Vin Diesel’s xXx were already taking cheap shots at the 40-year-old spy series, and Die Another Day failed to silence their jeers.
It was largely dismissed by critics at the time, and still fails to trouble the top ten rankings of many Bond fans but, like the at-the-time derided Star Wars prequels, Die Another Day now has a hardcore contingent of fans willing to defend its charms, of which there are many.
“I’ve had many Bond fans come up to me and tell me they love it,” Tamahori tells us.
“I’m never quite sure if they’re saying that just to make me feel good, but they generally seem very honest and sincere at the time.
"I’m very pleased to hear that anyway. I think it’ll stand the test of time.”
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Tamahori’s gritty Maori drama Once Were Warriors captured the attention of Hollywood after breaking box office records in his home country in 1994. He then directed neo-noir crime thriller Mulholland Falls in 1996, followed by The Edge, a David Mamet-scripted survival film starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in 1997. And then, in 2001 he directed Along Came A Spider, the Alex Cross murder mystery starring Morgan Freeman, before Bond came calling.
Coming three years after 1999’s The World Is Not Enough (directed by Michael Apted), Die Another Day – originally codenamed Bond XX – was held back a year in order to be released to coincide with the 007 films’ 40th anniversary.
It was to be the first self-consciously celebratory entry into the series, packed with homages to previous Bond adventures, including a scene in Q’s lab which revisits gadgets from previous movies such as Rosa Klebb’s poison-tipped shoes from From Russia With Love, and Sean Connery’s jet pack from Thunderball.
With Apted unable or unwilling to return, the success of Kiwi Martin Campbell’s GoldenEye in 1995 opened the eyes of the Bond producers to other non-British filmmakers — including Tamahori. John Woo, Ang Lee, and John McTiernan were also reportedly in the frame at one point during development.
“They were looking for a director,” Tamahori explains, “and most of the [Bond] directors until that point had all been British directors; they never hired American directors.
"But they had hired a New Zealand director. I guess we are one of the colonies and these qualify.
“Martin Campbell had directed GoldenEye, and they had a good experience with him. And they were looking for another director from New Zealand, Australia, one of the Commonwealth countries, I guess. My agent called me up one day and said, ‘would you like to direct a James Bond film?’ And it took me about two seconds to say ‘yes’. I'm a great fan.”
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Despite some resistance from studio partners MGM, Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson advocated for Tamahori, and eventually got their man. There was already a script in place from The World Is Not Enough screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, but Tamahori felt it needed some work
“Every time you take on a project, you need to adapt the screenplay to the film you want to make,” says Tamahori.
“It’s rare to find a script that is just shootable. I've only done that once without doing any work on the script, that was The Edge with a David Mamet script which was — I won't say perfect — but it was as near perfect as you can get, without modifications.”
“So I changed the [Die Another Day] screenplay quite a bit. The original story had the villain, Gustav Graves [Toby Stephens], who changed his face from Korean to British, but what I saw in there was the opportunity to do some vast and different things with it.”
“Basically I was attracted to it because I knew it was going to be the last of the Pierce Brosnan movies, and I was very much in favour – I was a fan – of the James Bond era when there were lasers in space destroying the earth.
"Just over the top, larger than life, where everything is in peril from a space laser, and Bond has got to stop it. Unlike the way the series has gone into Jason Bourne mode with Daniel Craig. I love Daniel’s films, but they went off in a different tangent.”
Tamahori got what he wanted. Die Another Day is a throwback to the glory days of the Lewis Gilbert-directed Bond films You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker. The villains have gloriously improbable lairs to match their incredible plots, and the gadgets stretch the realms of believability.
“I guess I made the last of the big Moonraker, Goldfinger type of James Bond films," adds Tamahori. "I wanted to do some things that were radical, and they were rejected, but most of what I suggested was accepted.”
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He takes credit for littering Bond references throughout the film: Bond secretly being filmed in bed from behind a mirror (From Russia With Love), a laser device that threatens to maim Halle Berry's Jinx (Goldfinger), and her emergence from the water in Cuba (Dr No) were all Easter eggs he says he seeded for the fans.
The film was deep into pre-production when the events of 9/11 struck. The terrorist atrocity unfolded before the director and screenwriters’ eyes, who downed tools while working on the screenplay at Eon’s offices in Regents Park to watch the rolling news. Die Another Day's city-levelling finale was scrapped in response to the events, with the final strafing of the villains Icarus space laser moved from a city in South Korea, to the uninhabited demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.
Once the story was largely nailed, production could finally get underway on 11 January, 2002. Shot primarily in the UK at Pinewood Studios, the production would also visit Spain and Hawaii, while Iceland which played host to one of the film’s most stunning set pieces.
On the tail of Toby Stephens’ mysterious industrialist Gustav Graves, Bond visits his ice palace on a frozen lake where mayhem ensues. It's one of the film's major triumphs, and remains a production design, stunt, miniature, and practical effects masterclass.
The interior of the palace, designed by Peter Lamont, was built on a soundstage in Pinewood, with Cornwall's Eden project also doubling in some scenes. And while Tamahori was at Pinewood shooting main unit with his actors, second unit director Vic Armstrong shot a daring car chase with real cars driving on the thin crust of a real frozen lake.
Thinking on the fly, Tamahori suggested a bold change to the sequence at the eleventh hour and, to their credit, the creative team didn’t blink.
“I suddenly had this thought,” Tamahori recalls, “What if we finished the car chase inside the ice palace? I didn't go to the producers. It had already been budgeted and everything. The budget was approved for the movie at a certain level, it was in excess of $100 million.
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“I went to the production designer (Peter Lamont), and he was only doing the ice palace set as a structure only for people to around in, and have a party at the ice palace. I asked ‘what would it take to make this structure be able to race cars in, inside the 007 Stage?’
“He just looked at me and said ‘well…’. I said ‘Can you get me some figures by tomorrow morning, we’ll take it to Michael [G Wilson] and Barbara [Broccoli] and see what they say?’”
Lamont calculated it would cost in excess of £1 million to make the structure strong enough to drive the cars in, and the producers signed it off there and then, and it ended up being one of the most memorable moments in the film.
“That’s the great thing about working on something like a James Bond film,” says Tamahori. “The franchise is so popular, it’s never lost money on any of the films they’ve made.
"MGM saw no problem in just changing the budget and fronting up an extra million pounds because it was a good idea. They could see it was going to be a good idea.”
The ice chase, for all its pros, would also feature the film’s most controversial gadget: the invisible Aston Martin, dubbed 'the Vanish' by John Cleese’s Q. It was a big moment for the series as it was the first time a new Aston Martin had appeared in the Bond films since Timothy Dalton drove the V8 Vantage in 1987’s The Living Daylights.
Despite it being a bone of contention for critics and Bond fans alike, Tamahori has no regrets about the invisible car, and says he was fully backed by the film’s producers.
“The invisible car was my idea, so I take full responsibility for it.”
“Michael G Wilson, who is a science buff, will not let an idea get into a James Bond film that does not have a sound scientific basis in fact. He knew about adaptive plate camouflage. They wanted the Aston Martin to return. I agreed to including it and we talked about making it invisible.
“Audiences said it was ridiculous, but adaptive camouflage was real. Military technology had developed the idea of reflective surfaces, of covering a tank with reflective surfaces, that reflected the trees and the surroundings, buildings. It was like hiding in the haystack.
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"And so we just took that, and developed it to its ultimate conclusion: this so-called invisible car. Of course I'm aware of all the controversy that came out afterwards, people saying it was a ridiculous idea that made a mockery of this and that.”
“But I still maintain that it was a great gag when it was introduced in the disused tube station. It seemed to work for me.”
Talking to Yahoo in 2013, Barbara Broccoli said about the Vanish: “I think you can’t regret anything, because what you do affects your next step.”
“By the way, those are now part of the military”, added Wilson who was promoting the DVD release of Skyfall at the time.
“It’s true,” replied Broccoli. “That’s where we got the idea from when we were making the film. It was the cutting edge of technology.”
Although they were knee deep into production on Die Another Day, Tamahori admits they started filming without a clear idea of how the film would end.
“We were halfway through shooting when we still hadn't figured out the end of the movie, where the final confrontation would take place,” he shares.
“We had a boilerplate underground bunker villain’s lair, that I felt that we had seen this too many times in James Bond movies.”
His solution was to take the villain’s lair airborne, and have the final act take place on a huge airship, which Peter Lamont set about designing and building part way through production. No mean feat for a film of this size and scale.
“I think it is unusual just to make changes halfway through filming,” he concedes. “A film of that size usually has to be buttoned down and pre-produced well to and inch of its life, which we had done, for the Cuban sequences, the scenes in London, but it was all being fine tuned.
“We knew what we were doing in Cuba, in Hong Kong, in London, we knew what we're doing every day, but we still hadn’t nailed the ending. We still had time, it was a 120-day shoot. We started production thinking we were going to build a mountain lair, or a concrete bunker, so Peter and his team still had plenty of time working on what that would be, as well as the ice palace.
"We were still in pre-production when we made the changes to the ice palace, but we were shooting when we decided to go airborne for the final act.”
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“It was a testament to Peter, his crew, and the Bond production machine that they could make that switch and get it all underway.”
One aspect of the production that Tamahori had a little too much faith in though, were the visual effects. It’s been well-documented that the VFX company spent most of its time perfecting the water effects for the scene, but ran out of time to effectively composite the footage of Pierce Brosnan that had been shot for the film into the scene.
“I knew that would be controversial,” mulls Tamahori.
“The James Bond franchise had never used CGI before that… they might have used it a little, but they prided themselves on doing stunts that were real and could be achieved for real with boats, cars, motorbikes or whatever. And when it came to doing the kite-surfing scene and the wave, I knew that would be controversial and indeed it was.”
“So we had the ice rocket going across the glacier, and there was no other way of doing it than with CGI. So we had a CGI kite-surfing Bond coming off the wave. The problem with that sequence was that in 2002, the water effects were not up to scratch like it is today.
"You can buy off the shelf software to do water CGI now, but we spent a fortune on R&D [research and development]. It was several hundred thousands of pounds on R&D for getting water up to scratch, and it never really got up to the level that you can do today.
“But we were committed to it. There was no way of doing it physically in the tank or anything like that, so we went ahead with it, but I realise it’s a weak point in the film.”
It wasn’t just the CGI that spelled trouble for Die Another Day: the arrival of another JB in Hollywood also signalled the end of this specific era of Bond.
“Michael and Barbara and I went to see The Bourne Identity while we were in pre-production,” recalls Tamahori.
“And I remember saying to Michael: ‘I think the spy genre has changed forever, and I’m not sure we can… this era is over’. I’m not sure whether they agreed or not.”
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“But by the time Casino Royale came out [in 2006], there had been two Bourne movies out, and it was a new thriller concept, based on a hard-edged reality.
"Whereas the Bond franchise had moved ever since Goldfinger, into the franchise we all know and loved: the Roger Moore era, with big stunts, outlandish ideas, outrageous villains, which obviously was coming to a close. It’s no secret that the Bond franchise moved because of the Bourne franchise.”
Despite its box office success, Bond underwent a hard reboot in the wake of Die Another Day, but it's unfair to lay blame solely at Tamahori's feet. In 1999 MGM acquired the rights to adapt Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first Bond book, after years of legal wrangling.
Fresh from leading the highest-grossing Bond film ever, an emboldened Pierce Brosnan (or his agent at least) pushed for more money to make a fifth Bond film, yet found himself jettisoned by the producers in favour of a fresh start.
In an interview with Playboy in 2005, not long after learning the news, Brosnan said: "It's bloody frustrating that the f***ers pulled out the rug when they did... It's cold, it's juvenile, and it shouldn't be done like that, not after 10 years and four films."
Daniel Craig was teamed up with GoldenEye's Martin Campbell to deliver the first true post-Bourne Bond movie which was released to huge critical acclaim in 2006, ushering a whole new era for 007 just four years after Die Another Day.
Looking back though, Tamahori is sanguine about his time on the series, despite the film being absent from a recent 60 Years of Bond retrospective celebration at the BFI.
“I was very happy with [Die Another Day],” says Tamahori.
“I wanted to make that type of film: a big, huge globetrotting adventure. I knew why it would not become super-popular with fans, because there are a lot of things in there that people just see as being larger than life, and maybe a little over the top.
"But I was having such a good time, and it was a great thing to live through. I couldn’t stop myself.”
Die Another Day received its world premiere on 18 November, 2002 and was released in cinemas two days later. It’s currently streaming on Prime Video for a limited time.
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