How GoldenEye made the world believe in Bond again

·16 min read
Sean Bean as Alec Trevelyan and Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in GoldenEye, 1995 - Alamy
Sean Bean as Alec Trevelyan and Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in GoldenEye, 1995 - Alamy

In Pierce Brosnan’s 007 debut, GoldenEye – and for the first time in the character’s cinematic history – James Bond went to Russia. Previous adventures had stemmed from Russian chicanery, of course – bushy-eyebrowed Soviets plotting against the West, or sultry double agents sent to be seduced by Roger Moore – but no Bond film had been shot there until 1995’s GoldenEye.

Much had changed since Bond’s last adventure – the Timothy Dalton-starring Licence to Kill – was released in the summer of 1989. Six years on, the Cold War had ended, the Berlin Wall tumbled down, and the Soviet Union was dissolved. The world in which Bond had operated for decades – the world that necessitated Bond existed at all – was gone, effectively dismantled. Now Bond, returning from a prolonged hiatus, was scrambling to find his place in the post-Cold War world – which he partly did by joyriding a 36-ton tank through St. Petersburg, smashing through statues, walls, and balustrades.

There was some reluctance to send the production to Russia, with concerns about Russian Mafia in the air, and just days into the second unit filming there, the tank chase hit an administrative blockade. The St. Petersburg authorities suddenly decided that Bond was causing too much damage (though all destroyed artefacts had been made by the art department). “The St Petersburg militia showed up,” recalls Jeff Kleeman, then Production Vice President at United Artists.

“They explained that they had orders to shoot anybody who rolled film,” says producer Anthony Waye. “They shut us down. The mayor wanted to renegotiate – as he put it – now that he understood the extent of what we were really doing. Read into that however you like. But we had a problem. They woke up to realise that they could make more money from us with our tanks running around the streets.”

To complete the sequence, St. Petersburg was recreated at Leavesden Studios in Watford, built on old aerodrome runways, so Bond could tear through the streets with little regard for historical buildings. There is a post-Cold War irony to it: that Bond’s first venture into Russia saw him retreat back to Blighty.

The tank chase is a crunching, muscular showpiece, and punctuated by one of those Bondian moments that made Brosnan a perfect Bond-of-the-moment – pausing post-tank carnage to adjust the tie of his impeccably-worn Brioni suit.

“Nobody’s ever seen this – only we have copies,” says screenwriter Bruce Feirstein about the tank chase. “Every beat was written out. Everything – T-junctions and F-functions. It’s an 18-page script unto itself. I remember sitting there with [the director] Martin Campbell and going, ‘Here, here, here, and here – this is how we’re going to do this.’ Even down to where he straightens his tie.”

More significantly, it’s one of three action set-pieces – along with a 720-ft bungee jump off the Contra Dam in Ticino, Switzerland, and a climatic punch-up at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, dangling over a 1,000ft dish – that captures the spirited reinvention of GoldenEye, one of the most important, most seminal Bonds.

It’s the film that retooled Bond for the Nineties – Bond’s first true reboot – and renewed 007 as an icon of then-modern masculinity: a Bond for the age of Cool Britannia, laddism, Union Jack guitars, and an exuberant, youthful jolt of patriotism. Without the tank-sized, zeitgeist-smashing success of GoldenEye, it’s hard to imagine that Bond would be where he is now. “There was a need to reassess Bond’s place in cinema and culture,” says Jeff Kleeman. “And address that within the movie, in a way that I don’t believe that any other Bond has ever done.” But according to Kleeman, production of GoldenEye was also “incredibly nervy.” Even without the St Petersburg mayor.

Indeed, it wasn’t just global politics that had changed in Bond’s six-year hiatus. Five-time director John Glen was let go, replaced by Martin Campbell – a director with zero blockbuster hits to his name; the Bond distributor, United Artists, had a new, not-entirely-enthusiastic administration; long-time producer and Bond guardian, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, now in declining health, passed the production reins to his daughter and step-son, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson; and James Bond was now some fella who we last saw playing second banana to Mrs Doubtfire.

Uncertainty over Bond’s future went back to Licence to Kill. Even 007 himself thought his number was up. “My feeling is this will be the last one,” said Timothy Dalton during an on-set interview, ostensibly intended to promote Licence to Kill as the next blockbuster. “I don’t mean my last one. I mean the end of the whole lot.”

Bond (Brosnan) and Simonova (Scorupco) make an explosive escape - Alamy
Bond (Brosnan) and Simonova (Scorupco) make an explosive escape - Alamy

Attempts were made to get another Dalton film off the ground – the beginnings of what ultimately became GoldenEye – but Bond was held up by behind-the-scenes drama: the frequently-changing ownership of United Artists’ parent company, MGM; legal wrangling over Bond’s international distribution; and the potential sale of Cubby Broccoli’s company, Danjaq, which owned the Bond film rights. The resulting six-year hiatus would be the longest (non-pandemic forced) break between Bond films.

During the hiatus, MGM/UA brought in new management, including the legendary producer and executive, John Calley, who was lured out of retirement to get the studio in shape for yet another sale. Jeff Kleeman, formerly at Paramount, came in to meet with Calley. “I’d kill to work on a Bond film,” Kleeman told him. “I was Bond obsessed!” Kleeman says.

But Dalton was closer to the truth than fans might realise. “John hired me,” says Kleeman. “Then I discovered there was no desire at all from the studio to make a Bond film. Bond was absolutely not on the books.”

It wasn’t a cat-stroking lunatic that almost killed Bond. Not sniffy executives, nor a laser beam up the Double-0s. Not even Tim Dalton’s curmudgeonly catastrophising. It was the disinterested teenage boys. With the new administration in place at MGM/UA, audience research was carried out. “What they came back with, to everybody’s momentary shock,” says Kleeman, “was that every single teenage boy in America either had no idea who James Bond was, or they referred to James Bond as, ‘Oh, that guy my dad watches on TV sometimes.’ It was the kiss of death.”

Teenage boys were a key demographic for action cinema. The genre itself – with an influx of hi-tech, CG-powered mega-hits, such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park – had left 007 in the dust.

(Teenage boys were largely won over by the GoldenEye N64 video game, a phenomenon itself. The game was so popular that a new documentary, GoldenEra, explores its production and impact. “When I meet people of a certain age and tell them I worked on GoldenEye, they’re so excited,” says Bruce Feirstein. “Until they realise that I didn’t write the game.”)

John Calley and Jeff Kleeman fought for Bond. “We went to [studio boss] Frank Mancuso and said, ‘Please, give us this, we will do this under any constraints. Tell us how much you’d be willing to gamble on Bond and we’ll make it work for that price.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll give you $49 million.’ That was the number.”

Batman Forever – released that same year, and perhaps the closest equivalent in terms of intellectual property and franchise appeal – cost double.

One problem for the higher-ups was the incumbent Bond, Timothy Dalton. His films have aged tremendously, more in line with the grit of Daniel Craig, but Dalton was the dads’ James Bond. “With all due respect to Timothy,” says Anthony Waye, “and as good an actor as he is, I think he was a bit old-time.” Licence to Kill had also been a box office disappointment, overpowered by summer blockbusters. The Broccolis wanted Dalton but the studio didn’t.

Other potential actors were in the mix, including Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Mel Gibson – all heavyweight names. “We talked about all of them and more,” says Kleeman. “We also talked about Timothy. We had a big meeting with Barbara, Michael, and Cubby, where they made the case for Timothy. Everybody, in essence, got a day in court.”

Pierce Brosnan had almost clinched the role years earlier, but was tied up by his TV series, Remington Steele. Anthony Waye, who worked across multiple Bonds, thought Brosnan wasn’t ready the first time around. “I remember when we tested Pierce,” says Waye. “He still had the Remington Steele look – quite young and long hair. When we came to do GoldenEye, he had matured.”

Kleeman remembers a meeting in Calley’s office to decide who would be the next James Bond. “We were debating it passionately,” he says. “Cubby, in my memory – which I think is correct – had a walking stick. At one point he thumped the floor with it. Everybody turned. He said, ‘Let’s go with Pierce.’”

The Broccolis informed Dalton of the bad news, and Dalton graciously stepped down. Pierce Brosnan remembered getting the phone call from his agent, informing him that he was James Bond – but not to tell anyone. Brosnan agreed while mouthing to his wife, “I’m f–––––g James Bond!

Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp grips Brosnan’s Bond - Alamy
Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp grips Brosnan’s Bond - Alamy

“Pierce Brosnan was born to play Bond,” says Matthew Field, co-author of the Bond film history, Some Kind of Hero. “Pierce played to audiences’ expectations. He looked like Bond. He dressed like Bond and he had all the sophistication and charm.”

Brosnan does look tailor-made for 007. He’s a Bond created within the context and knowledge of the series, playing off all the Bonds who came before, manifesting as the complete – but contemporary – Bond package. It’s all there: that intangible Connery-like quality that treads between suave and rugged; the occasional glimpses of vulnerability or darkness, from George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton respectively; and – like the mighty Roger Moore – the knack for handling a double-entendre whenever the moment calls for it. One rises to meet a challenge.

Brosnan, however, wasn’t a sure thing. By the time GoldenEye had rolled around, Brosnan was playing supporting roles in family comedies and romances. “To my mind he was the perfect actor,” says Jeff Kleeman. “But from an internal studio and industry perspective – when there was Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes and Mel Gibson out there – it was, ‘You’re going with the cheesy actor who’s the straight man in Mrs Doubtfire?’”

Kleeman says similar about director Martin Campbell, who hadn’t yet made a major film (though he’d made some excellent television, including the British miniseries, Edge of Darkness). Interestingly, Campbell would successfully reboot Bond twice – GoldenEye in 1995 and Casino Royale in 2006 – astutely tapping into the cultural moment each time.

Campbell wanted to begin the film with the stunning, near silent bungee jump. In pre-titles stunt terms, it's second only to the 7,000ft ski parachute jump from The Spy Who Loved Me.

The bungee jump was performed (twice) by stuntman Wayne Michaels. “It was the most extraordinary picture,” Michaels told Matthew Field about the Contra Dam. “You kept looking up and up and up and never seemed to get to the top. It was the most enormous, gigantic piece of engineering, quite awe-inspiring. A lot of really burly tough riggers looked at it and said, ‘F––– that!’”

“The guts of that guy jumping over on that rope!” says Anthony Waye. “It was just tremendous… we could only test the rope so much.”

The story sees Bond uncover a plot by the former 006, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), and some disgruntled Soviet types, who plan to use the space laser weapon, GoldenEye (named after Bond creator Ian Fleming’s estate in Jamaica), to hit London and steal bank records.

Especially fun is henchwoman Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a Georgian fighter pilot who orgasms by squeezing men to death with her vice-like thighs (better than being bitten to death by Jaws, at least), and Robbie Coltrane, playing dodgy Russian gangster, Zukovsky.

The initial script for GoldenEye was written by Michael France, but was unpopular with the studio’s top brass. “It was a step backwards from where we wanted to be,” says Jeff Kleeman. Other writers wrote subsequent drafts – first Jeffrey Caine and then Bruce Feirstein. “They asked me if I’d like to punch it up and add some ‘wit’,” says Feirstein. “Very quickly, I realised that the script needed to be superimposed with an idea. It needed a conceit – that the world has changed but Bond hasn’t. Every scene is about that.”

Bond certainly needed a Nineties debrief. The world was a vastly different place – almost unrecognisable to the James Bond of years gone by. At one stage Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day, came in to talk about directing – on the condition that the film was set in the Sixties. “He was very interested,” says Jeff Kleeman. “But his way of dealing with how culture had changed was to say, ‘Let’s not address the fact culture has changed at all, let’s make it a period piece. We don’t have to worry about ‘Nineties sensibility!’ Which, by the way, is a fair argument.”

But modern Bond is always at his most interesting when reflecting on himself and his relevance: in Casino Royale, breaking down the elements of what makes him 007; in Skyfall, reassembling the pieces and wondering if he still has a place in the world; and in GoldenEye, dealing with a changing politics – in the war room and bedroom – and being a “relic of the Cold War”.

On the opposite side of GoldenEye stands Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan. He is an anti-Bond – one of the key Bond villain archetypes – but also one for the Nineties. Trevelyan is what Bond could have been: a relic of the Cold War-turned rotten; a trained weapon that turns itself back on the establishment. (His supposed Cossack roots, however, are betrayed by Bean’s Sheffield accent: “Finish the job, James, blow them all t’ hell!”)

Trevelyan also begins the psychological picking-apart that’s now as much a part of the Bond formula as gadgets and saucy one-liners. “I might as well ask you if all the vodka martinis ever silenced the screams of all the men you killed,” says Trevelyan to Bond in one standoff. “Or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women… for all the dead ones you failed to protect.”

Indeed, Bond’s well-earned, decades-long womanising was, according to Jeff Kleeman, a “very thorny” issue to contend with. “We had cast an actor who is very charming and handsome and falls into the playboy side of Bond,” says Kleeman. “And with the Remington Steel baggage that Pierce brought. We knew we had to solve the conundrum.”

Judi Dench as M in GoldenEye - Everett Collection
Judi Dench as M in GoldenEye - Everett Collection

Take a cursory glance back at the Nineties, of course, and it was the age of the lads’ mag and celebrated lechery. Bond certainly wasn’t ready to give up the womanising. See him seduce an MI6 psychologist by driving fast and whipping out some chilled Bollinger. (“Oh, James, you’re incorrigible.”) Even Roger might raise an eyebrow at the workplace harassment.

Instead, it was M – played icily by Dame Judi Dench – who took Bond to task. “Me and Martin Campbell met at Leavesden at 6 o’clock one morning,” says Bruce Feirstein. “He said, ‘What do you want to do about M?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s a bunch of white guys sitting around in a room talking!’ Which takes on an entirely different meaning 30 years on. Campbell said, ‘Why don’t you try M as a woman?’ It wasn’t without precedent – at the time Stella Rimington was the head of MI5.”

GoldenEye is perhaps best remembered for its action set-pieces, but just as crucial is the first head-to-head meeting between Brosnan’s Bond and Judi Dench’s M; an era-defining moment for Brosnan’s Bond. It’s a tension between the past and present. To Bond, M is an accountant and bean counter; while Bond, says M, is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” (a line inspired by similar comments that Barbara Broccoli made about Bond).

“Judi Dench took it someplace unexpected and brilliant, as Judi Dench does,” says Feirstein. “How could you not be blessed with having her say your words?”

It’s a stellar, stony-faced moment from Brosnan, too; one of those rare but important moments that all Bonds must do: a flash of something behind the eyes, belying the steely exterior. Dench admitted to being so nervous filming her scenes that her hands were shaking – M couldn’t even light her cigarettes.

Not everything needed updating. Bruce Feirstein insisted on writing the Aston Martin DB5 into the script, despite protests from other members of the team. “Campbell said, ‘For f––’s sake, why did you do this?’” laughs Feirstein. “Barbara rolled her eyes and went, ‘Do you know how often that car breaks down?’ Kleeman came in and said, ‘Yeah, use it!’ That car is a touchpoint. You’re hardwired to see Sean Connery in Goldfinger when you look at that car.”

“GoldenEye was the first film to celebrate the Bond heritage rather than run away from it,” says Matthew Field. “Interestingly, this was the first entry to be made by filmmakers, writers, and technicians, as well as starring actors, who had grown up on Bond. The first film Pierce Brosnan saw when he arrived in London as an 11-year-old boy was Goldfinger.”

Premiering on November 13 1995, GoldenEye scored a series-best box office of $352 million worldwide, including its best North American gross so far.

Bruce Feirstein recalls being in Los Angeles after the release. Sat in Starbucks with Michael Wilson, they had a chance encounter: two-time Bond girl Maud Adams walked in and congratulated them on GoldenEye’s success.

Beneath the swish-hair, Brioni clobber, and Nineties politics, GoldenEye is a textbook Bond. It never strays too far from the old formula: the gimmicky henchwoman, the giant laser, daft japery, and cringing bawdiness that would be just at home in the Carry on Roger era (“I like a woman who enjoys pulling rank”). It’s perhaps the Nineties that have aged badly, rather than Bond. With three decades’ hindsight, Nineties Bond isn’t as modern as he once seemed.

But at a time when the British style and voice exploded – Britpop, on-the-pulse cinema, the fresh attitude of lad culture, everything emblazoned with the Union Jack – Pierce Brosnan strolled out of the gun barrel and into cultural relevance. GoldenEye created a new generation of Bond fans.