A version of this story about “No Time to Die” first appeared in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Warning: Spoilers for “No Time to Die” follow below.
In contrast to almost every other James Bond film, Daniel Craig’s final turn as 007, “No Time to Die,” begins not with a bang but with quiet terror. It opens with a flashback that reveals the first encounter between Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann and Rami Malek’s villainous Lyutsifer Safin when she was a child, a scene that doesn’t feature James Bond at all. Longtime Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and director Cary Joji Fukunaga were all devoted to the scene, even though Wilson jokingly suggested that when people went to see the film, they might be thinking they showed up to the wrong movie.
“I think Michael Wilson even joked that when people went into the theater, they would be wondering if they were in the right theater or not,” editor Tom Cross recalled. “But all that being said, both producers, Barbara and Michael Wilson and of course Cary stuck to their guns and always felt strongly that it should start with this young Madeline story… then it was going to pay dividends later because you would start to piece this story together.”
Still, it’s no wonder that the film’s editors, Cross and Elliot Graham, worried about whether the sequence would remain as the film’s opener—and in fact, at one point they were asked (by unidentified parties) to try dropping it later in the film as a flashback. “Both Elliot and I thought that people would ask us to cut it out of the movie because it was such a strange, unexpected way to start it,” Cross said. Added Graham, “We were defensive in advance because we knew however we can tighten it would be great, but that it needed to exist there.”
Fortunately, the people calling the shots agreed that the unconventional opening was going to pay off later because, ultimately, “No Time to Die” is a love story. And this flashback, paired with the extended prologue set in the Italian hillside town of Matera, set up Madeleine’s emotional state for the rest of the film. “When it drops you at that train station for the titles, hopefully the titles are, in a way, a lot more meaningful because of what you just went through and the time you spent in it,” Graham said. It’s a full 25 minutes before the title sequence even shows up, and then the film jumps forward five years into the future. “[Bond movies have] always been big and some of them try to be bigger than what’s come before,” Cross said. “I think what’s unique about this picture is that it’s also epic in time.” It’s yet another way that “No Time to Die” sets itself apart from the rest of the franchise, along with director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s knack for oners or long takes, which provided their own challenges for the editors.
Some scenes were shot two different ways, including Bond’s confrontation with a character known as Cyclops early in the film. “Cary wanted to shoot that little fight with Cyclops as a oner, there were various other parties who wanted to do coverage,” Graham explained. “So, it was done [both ways] and Tom and I look at it and go, what do we think? And it might not be exactly what Cary thinks, we’ll do what he wants though. We’ll try everything. But it was just cut as a oner, because it was clear when you watched the oner just was really cool.” However, just because the sequence is presented in an unbroken take doesn’t mean there’s not significant work to be done from an editorial standpoint. “Now, within that oner, you do your little editorial tricks,” Graham said. “Like, let’s just speed this up in a way that people don’t perceive. But it was actually never cut the other way. It was only cut as the oner because it was clear to everybody it worked. But it’s nice to cover yourself in case, when you can.”
The other way in which “No Time to Die” stands out from the rest of the Bond franchise is, of course, the fact that 007 bites the bullet in the end. Embracing the emotion of that finale, and indeed of Craig’s entire run of films, was top of mind for all involved.
In fact, Broccoli came to visit the cutting room and encouraged Cross and Graham to lean into the emotion of the film. “She just stressed, above all else, make it emotional,” Cross said. “I think it was important to her to come to us and say, ‘As stuff comes in, just whatever you do, make it emotional.’” That approach continued through to the tear-jerking final moments of the film, which Cross said were meant to allow the audience to reflect following Bond’s sacrifice. “It was a matter of giving the audience enough space to say goodbye after you have this huge emotional moment, one that’s earth shattering for the audience, one that’s certainly earth shattering for Bond fans. You really needed to come down off of that, which is why you go to a white screen, and then we slowly come into an aerial shot of London, which he leads you into the ending voiceover. I don’t think people would’ve been ready to just cut to black, not that anyone ever suggested that.”
Indeed, the film’s final moments are of Madeleine and Mathilde driving, looking happy, as Madeleine tells Mathilde about her father James Bond. “I think what we were careful about was to find the way to let the audience start whatever emotional process they were going to have—to help them do that and find the right place to start that Louis Armstrong song,” Cross explained, acknowledging that the use of “All the Time in the World” is a nod to the 1969 Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” which he calls a “kindred spirit” to “No Time to Die” given the unique emotional impact of both films in the Bond franchise.