Reflections on the troubled script for Quantum Of Solace
For those of you who were astounded by the horrendous reviews of Quantum Of Solace, allow me to end some of the preconceptions you might have for the new Bond film. It's not the chaotic, incomprehensible jumble of action scenes as described by the critics. Not at all. It's simply the most chaotic, incomprehensible film made in the last five years. In one sense, such an accomplishment must be saluted; for in a world with finite time, where so many other human endeavors are far more worthwhile to pursue, some people went out of their way to contribute to human confusion. It is a remarkable feat of audacity, the audacity to pursue nonsense. Indeed, it took the complicity of indecisive producers, a handful of incompetent and overrated screenwriters, and a remarkably below-average director to make this the worst Bond film to date.
The chaos of the film derives from the checkered script development. Let us try to catch a few fragments of the events. In October 2005, during the press conference to unveil Daniel Craig as the new 007, longtime Bond producer Michael G. Wilson “revealed work had already started on the 22nd James Bond film,” presumably a screen treatment of sorts (“Daniel Craig takes on 007 mantle”). By early spring of 2007, the producers approached director Roger Michell to helm the as yet untitled film. He looks at those early days with amusement. Sort of. But back then, frustration built up so much that it didn't take long for the director to bow out of the project, citing unease with a muddled pre-production phase and the lack of a script: “It was because in the end I didn't feel comfortable with the Bond process, and I was very nervous that there was a start date but really no script at all” (“They call him Director No”).
So was a script not written at all or does Michell's frank revelation suggest that a solid draft did not exist for him to develop into a final shooting script? Either way, the 22nd Bond film was heading into production without a definite story. And what of the script development from the time of the October 2005 press conference to the spring of 2007? Did work on the script come to a halt? Or was a script never even started? Tapped to add to the confusion was director Marc Forster, fresh from his profound box-office flop, The Kite Runner. Perhaps because no other self-respecting filmmaker was willing to join this brewing mess, the producers settled on Forster to helm the project. Right from the start, the German-Swiss director met with defeat: the producers, in what seems like utter madness, now committed to a release date but the script remained undeveloped. In an interview for the Mail & Guardian, Forster scoffs at the absurdity of the situation: “When I signed on, we had a release date but no script and no title, he says with a disbelieving laugh” (“My work is my bond”).
Ah, laughter, the wild deriding laughter of absurdity. It is the gesture to confirm nonsense, to signal the recognition of meaninglessness. I recall a few more lines from Michell:
Apparently, this internal chaos was not enough to humble the powers-that-be into stern action. But what am I saying? Many movies that started from development hell have resulted as box-office hits—which only proves that in Hollywood, the only thing that matters is not the quality of the film but the degree of its success or failure.
By September 2007, with pressure mounting to have a screenplay, the producers turned to Paul Haggis. Haggis, you'll recall, is the allegedly brilliant screenwriter-director (and devout member of the Hollywood far-left brigade) who rewrote much of Casino Royale.1 Writing the stellar kitsch for that film was apparently not enough to satisfy the self-professed Marxist, and he must have looked into the mirror one morning and realized he had bigger, profound stupid ideas to contribute to the series. One gathers that the producers were unable to court other A-list screenwriters but Haggis reportedly returned for a pittance, in the tune of $4 million—and for that he delivered a lousy script (which was sternly rejected by the producers) and ranted about the production in various interviews.
Haggis first appeared on Craig Ferguson's The Late Late Show near the end of September. As soon as the new Bond film came up in conversation, he dropped the bombshell—namely, he was rewriting an apparent first draft, rather frantically, to deliver the final shooting script:
A draft, then, existed by September 2007, developed by Purvis and Wade, the screenwriting duo who tackled previous Bond entries, including Casino Royale. Whatever draft they completed for Bond 22 must have been in shambles--hence, the reason why Haggis was brought back to rewrite it. Did this sketchy draft exist earlier in pre-production? Put another way, did it exist at the time director Roger Michell was involved, a lousy script that forced him to say there was “really no script at all”? Forster, on the other hand, recalls the script development differently. In his version, the task of melding ideas into a screenplay—one that satisfied the Bond producers—became more elusive and required the involvement of Haggis and committee:
Presumably, there were action scenes galore in the script, but this business of listing topics indicates that Forster never had a single coherent storyline from the outset. Not surprisingly, in this topics-based approach, Forster ended up with a disjointed narrative: disparate action sequences abound, suggesting the film was cobbled piecemeal around its locations.
Meanwhile, Haggis turned out to have a penchant for dropping bombshells about the progress of the script: by mid-October, apparently unable to contain himself, he conducted an interview for Esquire magazine, babbling that “the original idea for the next 007 adventure was thrown out at the last minute.” In understated frustration, he admits that “I thought I had come up with a terrific plot, and we'd worked it all the way through, and yesterday we tossed it out” (“Paul Haggis on rewriting Bond 22 script”). Nothing is more humiliating than for an Oscar-winning writer/director to have his script thrown out. In unspeakable outrage, amid stern orders from the producers, Haggis feebly retreated to rewrite the script to their liking.2
It seems that the glory from his Oscar-winning Crash and the success from his contributions to Casino Royale all came to an end. He had also just returned from the dismal failure of In the Valley of Elah, and no one could even remember his involvement in Clint Eastwood's two Iwo Jima tales because both war films had faded into oblivion. The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, was the rejected script for the 22nd Bond film. Was Haggis worse than previous Bond screenwriters? Or did he just have bad luck? Or has his talent for filmmaking passed its midnight? His situation takes us to a disturbing situation: what happens to an individual when his skill or talent is no longer relevant to the world? Does the person change, struggle to adapt? For example, if Marco Polo (with all his skills in travel and exploration) existed today, would he become the CEO of an exporting firm? How about Monet? Would he take up digital animation and work for Disney? Or would such great figures convince themselves that they were misunderstood and, in feisty defiance, struggle to assert themselves in some other way? Of course, there is no answer to these questions, neither for me, nor for you, nor for our man Haggis.
By the end of October 2007, the Writers Guild strike loomed. Haggis continued to work on the script and turned it over to the Bond producers just hours before the strike began. The script was by no means complete but it did signal the end of Haggis involvement. It was another phase in the project that came and went, an experience that should just flash through an individual's life like a meteor and disappear. For Haggis, though, it was not the end: he found himself immersed in circumstances that allowed him to stay relevant to the Bond production. In early November, he joined the picket line where fellow scribes were in revolt, and there voiced support for his fellow oppressed writers in Hollywood. Alas, timing was not his strong suit; for despite the world revolution and with filming scheduled for December, Haggis trotted into another interview and gave a status on the incomplete script, declaring that “[the producers] haven't gotten the polish finished yet” (“Paul Haggis joins the writers strike picket line, comments on Bond 22”). Despite his struggle to remain visible, Haggis was a man fading quickly into forgetting. Hollywood lingers for no one. Not even for whining pasty writers. Cometh the hour, cometh a new screenwriter for Bond 22: Joshua Zetumer.
Forster again recalls events differently from Haggis. Weaknesses in the script were still evident as the production headed into Spring 2008. Luckily, Forster had the epiphany that something had to be done: “As soon as the strike was over, we did another polish with someone and it worked out with all this stuff coming up. So I was pretty happy with all the work we'd done in January and February so [there won't be any need for reshoots]” (Zydel). Zetumer, now the savior of the script, was a newcomer to the screenwriting world. The two or three scripts he had written (Forster was unsure of the man's accomplishments) were decent enough to impress the director and the producers. With Zetumer's involvement, the battle to patch up the script commenced while filming progressed. Did the filmmakers design the action set-pieces and then ask Zetumer to string the sequences into some kind of narrative? Or did they make up the story as they filmed explosions and stunt sequences and then dictated their ideas to Zetumer who had to piece it all into some semblance of a plot? One thing is certain: the 22nd Bond movie was filmed with an unstable story.
Where does this leave Haggis? Well, he was in a winter of discontent as principal photography was underway and the title finally revealed in January 2008. It was an odd choice: during a press conference in London, the producers announced that they selected the title of a little known Fleming short story, and the world was forced to do a double-take as it absorbed an arcane phrase—Quantum Of Solace. Haggis, about several thousand miles away, was in yet another interview, babbling to the MTV Movies Blog that he was puzzled by the title. He was now standing at the sidelines of the Bond film but still bound up with it. Even his dismissal of the title has a proprietorial edginess:
The rationale for the title is myriad and labyrinthine, and possibly many other words with a y in them. But when they saw that the world was baffled by the title, the Bond team quickly went into damage control. What stagecraft! After the fog of confusion engulfed the public, it was necessary for Team Eon to show their reverence for Fleming; it was necessary to explicate the meaning of the title in context to their film; it was necessary to express that theirs was a thoughtful, sophisticated film, a continuation of the serious approach set forth in Casino Royale, faithful to Fleming's intention and so distant from the outlandish Bond films of yore. Says Wilson: “We thought it was an intriguing title and referenced what happened to Bond and what is happening in the film.” The story continues, he gleefully insists, where Casino Royale ends, and with Bond “contemplating revenge after his betrayal by his true love, Vesper Lynd.”
Oh, so we're back to a revenge routine, which was previously used in Licence To Kill. But not to be outdone, co-producer Barbara Broccoli, who is clearly on the same page with Wilson, explains that the film “is not a revenge movie. It's a lot more complicated than that. It has lots of action but it also deals with the inner turmoil Bond is feeling.” Ah, a red herring, then, this business about revenge. But wait! Craig himself adds to the contradiction by stating that his Bond is “looking for revenge, you know, to make himself happy with the world again” (“New Bond film title is confirmed”).
From the outset, the premise was shaky, reaching into the maudlin, into kitsch territory: the sheer notion of extending the story's concept into the emotional aftermath of Craig's Bond in Casino Royale is laughably pretentious. As Craig (painfully reciting lines from the film's public relations handbook) is forced to explain: “At the end of the last movie, Bond has the love of his life taken away from him and he never got that quantum of solace” (“New Bond film title is confirmed”). Um, no Mr. Daniel Craig. The Law of the Quantum of Solace has nothing to do with the loss of love from the death of the beloved.
Let's read the story correctly: Fleming shuns vengeance, car chases, gunfire, and explosions but offers a quiet drama about marital discord, pointing to the notion that social relations are volatile and require, at the very least, a degree of solace—compassion—to avoid conflict. The reader finds nothing cinematic in scope whatsoever; instead, it's the Governor of the Bahamas, essentially the central character, who takes center stage. With his bits of life wisdom, he recounts, during a dull after-dinner chat with Bond, a haunting anecdote about the marriage of a dull civil servant to an attractive flight attendant. His story-telling captivates the agent and reaches the significance of the title when the Governor describes, by his own admission, a rather pretentious theory about human relations:
Again, the notion of the quantum of solace concerns the degree of humanity in a relationship, not the loss of love from the death of the beloved. If anything, the Craig-Bond has actually experienced quite a bit of solace with Vesper Lynd. In the last film, let us recall that Vesper falls in love with the agent—yes, say what you will, but she has enough interest in the Craig-Bond to fall in love, and we are forced to stretch our imaginations that she can actually fall for a pigmentless guy with a thin disheveled bowl haircut. In fact, despite the bashing of the Craig-Bond's manhood by Le Chiffre, Vesper maintains high interest level to stick around during his recovery to shower him with respect and compassion. To you MBA graduates, this forms a degree of love and humanity between the two, a “quantum of solace” at the very center of their romance.
What we have, then, is a seriously stupid idea from the filmmakers. This leads us to believe that the only justification for calling a mainstream action film Quantum Of Solace is that there were other worst titles—presumably offered by the incompetent trio of Haggis, Purvis, and Wade—that the Bond producers rejected. A clue to the selected title resides in the comment from Michael Wilson, who announced that the title was “chosen only a few days ago” (“New Bond film title is confirmed”), a very odd remark suggesting a slapdash effort for a multi-million dollar film. One senses that, just days before the press conference, the filmmakers were still undecided and forced to make a last minute sifting of the Fleming books for something, anything, to slap onto the new film as a title.
Several months later, during on-location filming in Chile, Wilson reflected on the arduous schedule. “I need a break for a while,” he told reporters, anticipating at least a one-year pause. Based on this proposed interim, the 23rd Bond film will be released later than the usual two-year cycle. Will the keepers of the Bond flame use the extra time to re-examine their approach to the series? Or can we expect the kind of behavior they exhibited during the development of Quantum Of Solace? As Bond fans, must we endure another garbled 007 adventure? Will Daniel Craig continue to look like an odorous, unkempt geriatric? I think you can count on that one. And the lamentable Paul Haggis?
No doubt he's in an interview somewhere.
|1||For an analysis of Casino Royale (2006), refer to my essay “Two Views from the Hotel Splendide.”|
|2||The rejected plot was never disclosed by the filmmakers. But in an interview for New York Magazine in November 2008, just one week after the UK premiere of Quantum Of Solace, Marc Forster describes a plot twist that was adamantly dismissed by the producers. Haggis concocted the ridiculous idea of Bond in search of Vesper's child. Forster explains: “The idea was that Vesper in the last movie, maybe she had a kid, and there would be an orphan out there.... I think Paul thought he just leaves the kid, he doesn't deal with it. But [the producers] thought that would be really nasty, too, because Bond was an orphan himself. If he would find a kid, would he just leave it? They were so vehemently against it” (Hill). Fatherhood for Bond? A little orphan lost somewhere in the world? This smacks of political correctness as well as the contrived sentimentality of kitsch that only a far-left loon would pursue. The Bond mythology, the essence of the Bond character, was clearly way over Haggis head. The series is in desperate need of another Richard Maibaum—a writer who truly understood Bond and the special world that Fleming created.|