Marc Forster brings indie touch to latest Bond

Call it Smart Bond. Or Minimalist Bond.

“Quantum of Solace” is glitzy, glam and packed with eye-popping, violent action, but Bond 22 is also arty, tasteful and elegant. The film’s most ambitious set-piece, a lyrical homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” unfolds around the floating stage of a Bregenz Festival Opera House performance of “Tosca.”

A far cry from “Moonraker,” “Quantum” is both a James Bond movie and a Marc Forster movie.

The German-born, Swiss-raised director of such Oscar bait as “Finding Neverland” and “Monster’s Ball” might seem an odd choice to helm a Bond film. e’s a clear-eyed brainy European who has never directed an action film in his life, and admits to only catching up with such ’60s Bond classics as “Dr. No,” “Goldfinger” and “From Russia With Love” as part of his film education. He was never a fan of the franchise.

While many directors would die to get a crack at Bond, Forster resisted when Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson approached him. Sony chairman Amy Pascal, who had worked with Forster on the offbeat Will Ferrell comedy “Stranger Than Fiction,” had to coax him to even meet with them. But when Forster mentioned the picture to his frequent working partners, editor Matt Chesse and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, they went nuts. “Bond is film history!” they cried.

Forster is a director with a strong personal style who is versatile, humanistic and able to adapt to various genres and budget levels. But this $200-million follow-up to 2006′s reboot “Casino Royale,” which scored $595 million worldwide with new Bond Daniel Craig, posed a serious leap from Forster’s last picture, “The Kite Runner,” a $17-million lit adaptation shot on constantly changing locations in Pakistan and China.Broccoli and Wilson told the director they wanted to take the Bond franchise “a step further,” Forster says. They agreed to let him hire his usual creative team, and he eventually came around to the idea of Bond — partly because he recognized that Steven Soderbergh gets to play in the indie sandbox because he delivers an “Ocean’s” installment every few years.

The producers — up against a ticking clock — also were willing to meet most of Forster’s demands. When he took on the pic in June 2007, he was faced with a firm Nov. 14, 2008 release date and a looming writers strike. The production and post-production schedule were so tight that reshoots weren’t even an option.

Forster’s first demand: Hire Paul Haggis, who had contributed to “Casino Royale,” to retool Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s screenplay. Forster told Haggis to focus most on honing the plot, dialogue and characters. “I’m all for ‘unclarity’ and arty,” Forster says. “But in a movie like this, I thought it was important to stay clear to the last frame.”

Says Haggis: “It was a very brave move on Michael and Barbara’s part. I don’t think they wanted to make a safe bet. (Forster) put his own stamp on it, brought ideas he wanted to see, like the environmental theme. We wanted to explore who Bond was, and tried to treat him as a human being.”

While Haggis dug into the revenge-driven actioner hinged on the death of Bond’s beloved Vesper Lynd, Forster scoured the globe for locations. Exotic physical settings inspired many of the action sequences. While the production was based, as always, at London’s Pinewood Studios, Forster filmed in more overseas locations than any prior Bond film, from Panama and Mexico to Italy and Chile, which subbed for the Bolivian water-starved desert. When the company filmed the colorful horse races in Sienna, Italy, Forster wasn’t sure how he’d use them until he discovered the city’s underground Roman tunnels and cisterns. Then he visualized how to intercut the brutal car-chase opener with the horse race, as a battered Bond screeches into Sienna to an underground safe house, pops up through a manhole in the midst of race crowds and chases his quarry across clay tile rooftops — which was expensive to film in Sienna, requiring huge cranes — and fights his way up scaffolding to a dramatic shattering fall through a glass cathedral dome.

As before, Craig’s Bond is muscular, dangerous, fearless and rebellious against Judi Dench’s powerful but maternal M. But in this case, he’s grieving and vengeful as he chases down the man who killed his beloved Lynd. Forster also constructed a series of interlocking parallel sequences. New second-unit director Dan Bradley (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “Bourne Ultimatum”) shot the opening Aston Martin vs. Alfa Romeo car chase and handled all the car and airplane stunts, while Forster took care of the rest. All the set pieces were related, in keeping with Forster’s environmental theme, to the four elements: water, air, fire and earth.

Forster got away with a lot on this Bond. While product placement is front and center with Ford cars and Bond’s Omega watch, the helmer felt no pressure to foreground anything else. His take on the venerable spy begs the question of how far audiences are willing to go with a Bond film that dispenses with some of the familiar cheese they expect to see.

For example, Forster moved the standard Bond-with-gun opener to the end, while the opening montage is backed by a Bond song by Jack White and Alicia Keyes. Composer David Arnold’sscore pulls back on the use of the classic Bond theme. Bond sips six martinis instead of the usual one, and they aren’t specifically “shaken, not stirred.” There is no “Bond, James Bond” flourish. And Bond villain Dominic Greene, played by “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” star Mathieu Amalric, is bone-chilling without relying on any of the usual tics. Amalric wanted to add a nasty scar, but Forster wouldn’t let him. “You don’t need a crutch,” he said. “We have seen that.”

Some moviegoers may miss these iconic moments. On the other hand, this may be just the kind of modernization that the series requires to stay vital.

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