SPOILER WARNING: This story discusses the ending of “No Time to Die,” currently available for digital rental and purchase. Please do not read if you have not seen the film.
If audiences knew anything walking into “No Time to Die,” it was that Daniel Craig’s fifth movie as James Bond — and the 25th (official) Bond movie ever — was also Craig’s final film as the dashing secret agent. On its face, this wasn’t unusual: Originated by Sean Connery in 1962’s “Dr. No,” Bond has been played by six actors over the past 59 years, keeping the Bond movies perpetually alive as the longest running movie franchise in cinema history.
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What most audiences were not expecting, however, was how Craig concluded his tenure as Agent 007.
In the film, the main villain, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), comes into possession of Heracles, a microscopic weapon designed by the British government to target a specific person through DNA-directed nanorobots. They can pass harmlessly though anyone, often unwittingly, just by skin-to-skin contact, and Safin has modified the weapon to attack the DNA of whole families. Even worse, he’s manufactured mass quantities on his secret island compound, with the intent of killing millions of people.
With no known countermeasure or cure for Heracles, Bond orders a missile strike on Safin’s island, and then battles a small army of Safin’s goons to ensure the missiles reach their target. But then Safin intervenes, and infects both of them with a specific strain of the Heracles virus designed to kill Bond’s great love Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) — and any of her relatives, including Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), her and Bond’s 5-year-old daughter.
If Bond leaves the island, he would effectively doom Madeleine and Mathilde to a gruesome death once the Heracles virus inevitably passed from him to them. Faced with an impossible choice, Bond stays and dies in the missile strike.
Although the creator of James Bond, novelist Ian Fleming, has tried to kill off the character in his books, it is the first time Bond has ever died on screen — a massive twist for a franchise that has thrived on the promise that James Bond will return, always.
Remarkably, however, Bond’s death remained effectively unspoiled for most audiences seeing the film. That is at least in part because Craig, director Cary Joji Fukunaga, and longtime Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson have remained quiet about the film’s ending — until now.
For a Variety Streaming Room conversation recorded in early December, Craig, Fukunaga, Broccoli and Wilson spoke for the first time in length about the decision to kill off Craig’s Bond. Below is an edited transcript of that part of the conversation.
The rest of the awards season Q&A — including how the filmmakers mined the rich history of James Bond movies, from production design and score to screenplay and performance, for “No Time to Die” — will debut on Jan. 6.
You all did something that’s never happened in a James Bond movie before: He dies in this film. Was that something you knew you wanted to do from the start?
Michael G. Wilson: If you’re saying the start of when is the question.
Daniel Craig: I’m going to tell a story here, whether or not anybody remembers it or agrees with it. But it was 2006. Barbara and I were sitting in the back of a car driving away from the Berlin premiere of “Casino Royale.” Everything was going well. People liked the movie. And it looked like I was gonna get a chance to make at least another movie. I said to Barbara, “How many of these movies do I have to make?” Because I don’t really look at contracts or any of those things. And she said, “Four,” and I went, “Oh, okay. Can I kill him off in the last one?” And she didn’t pause. She said, “Yes.” So I struck a deal with her back then and said, “That’s the way I’d like it to go.” It’s the only way I could see for myself to end it all and to make it like that was my tenure, someone else could come and take over. She stuck to her guns.
Barbara Broccoli: And I had go and tell Michael and we waited to tell the studio! [Laughs] We wanted to get rid of him. That was the reality. It was like, make sure that this was the way that we get rid of Daniel.
Craig: When he goes, he can’t come back was really what it boils down to.
So what was that conversation between you two like, Barbara and Michael, about how this is something Daniel wants to do and we’ve never done it before?
Wilson: Well, I…uh…
Craig: Well, listen, listen, it was “no” for a long time. Don’t worry. I thought it was forgotten about, put it that way. I didn’t bring it back up again until this one.
Wilson: But I think what happened was, at the end of the fourth one, we wanted Daniel back and he was very reluctant. I think we thought, all of us had thought, that that was the best way to end this whole thing. Now, you know, it wasn’t unusual, because Fleming, he tried to kill him off in “From Russia With Love,” and almost killed him off in “You Only Live Twice.” But I think it’s the fitting way to deal with a situation where a person is risking their life all the time. Eventually, the odds catch up with you. I think Fleming saw it and I guess ultimately we came to that realization, too. It’s also emotionally very important to understand the risks that people like Bond engage in.
There’s also the risk of the audience response. There’s an audience for these movies who walk in expecting that James Bond is going to save the day every time. Was that part of your calculation for what you wanted to do with this?
Craig: If you stay to the end credits, it definitely says, “James Bond will return.” So all is good.
Wilson: Bond does save the day. He does do that.
Broccoli: It’s the ultimate sacrifice. As Michael says, it’s very appropriate because people in this line of work put themselves at risk all the time. The amazing thing was that the audience managed to keep this secret, and that’s really a testament, I think, to the Bond fans, that they didn’t want to spoil other people’s enjoyment by telling them the end of the story.
Cary, when you came on board to direct the film, was the death already baked in?
Cary Joji Fukunaga: There was a few things that Barbara and Michael and Daniel had earmarked. This was definitely one of them. How he meets his end wasn’t decided yet. It was just the fact that he would, so the question then became how to do it.
What was the evolution there?
Fukunaga: There were many, many iterations.
Can you talk me through some of them?
Fukunaga: Blowing him up in a rocket.
Craig: Bad oyster!
Fukunaga: A bullet, like an anonymous bullet, I remember that one. But it just seemed like a conventional weapons death didn’t seem appropriate. Given how much he had been able to escape from everything else, the fact that it would just be a bullet that always had your name on it from the beginning, as a sort of the thematic element seemed, while realistic, for Bond it had to be something even beyond that — like the impossible, impossible situation.
Craig: I think the important thing was that we all try to create a situation of tragedy. The idea that there’s an insurmountable problem, there’s a greater force at play, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. And the greater force being Savin’s weapon. And that it [kills] the only thing that Bond wants in life, is to be with the people he loves and that he can’t be with them, and therefore, there’s nothing worth living for. And he would in fact endanger their lives, and that’s the last thing on earth he wants to do. So that element was incredibly important to sort of thread in there, because it couldn’t feel like a random act. It had to have weight — without it, it wasn’t gonna work. And if we hadn’t have got that weight, I don’t think we would’ve done it. We would’ve found another way of ending it.
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