According to emails leaked in the Sony hack, the new James Bond movie, Spectre, which began filming this week, will likely clock in among the most expensive movies ever made, with a current projected budget "in the mid $300Ms." Why? Possibly because the script—which leaked in full alongside copious, desperate notes to improve it—features a messy third act that executives are still trying to rework after months of tweaking.
Already delayed because of director Sam Mendes' difficulty juggling his schedule, Spectre was further held up when the first draft of the script had to be punched up by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, veteran screenwriters of the last Bond movie, Skyfall. They weren't the only writers to have a crack at the movie: In October, another screenwriter, Jez Butterworth, was "rewriting" and "tweaking story lines." And according to emails in the leak obtained by Gawker, the script was going through major revisions at least into November. The movie began filming last week.
Throughout the rounds of notes we saw, executives seemed mostly happy with the movie's first two acts (spoilers ahead, if you care): Bond, having destroyed part of Mexico City on a rogue operation, and facing forced retirement as MI-6 merges with its sister agency MI-5, escapes across Europe on a mission posthumously assigned to him by his late boss, M (played by Judi Dench). He seduces the wife (Monica Bellucci) of a man he assassinated, and, using information from her, attends a meeting of a sinister group of masked terrorists led by a man who knows Bond from his past. Meanwhile, Bond's current boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), battles his likely successor and the head of MI-5, C (Andrew Scott), over the future of an intelligence sharing program called Nine Eyes. Bond witnesses the death of Mr. White, a villain from Casino Royale, and finds White's daughter Madeiline Swann (Lea Seydoux) in Austria. The pair head to Morocco, get drunk, screw, have stilted conversations, take a train to the desert, and kill a henchman named Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista).
In two rounds of studio notes and dozens of emails critiquing the script, executives at Sony and MGM agree that the film is generally good up to around this point. "For what it's worth, I think first 100 pages are fantastic," writes Jonathan Glickman, the president of MGM's film division, in an email dated October 9. "It's fun, emotional and the major logic issues have been rectified. And the relationship with Madeline is terrific." (Our read is that it's about as good as the last couple Bond movies, which is to say: Not very.)
But Glickman echoes a sentiment that is consistent among those who have read the script: "You guys set me up for a let down on climax," Glickman says. "So I was not surprised."
The studio notes, if you read the script, are accurate. The problems seem to start when Bond meets the villain, a mysterious man named Heinrich Stockmann, who also uses the alias Franz Oberhauser, played by Christoph Waltz. In an irritating expository monologue, Stockmann confesses over dinner that he is Bond's older foster-brother and also the head of a terrorist organization named Spectre. Bond is tortured; and then for unclear reasons manages to bluff Stockmann into rushing back to London, where it has become clear that C has been working for Stockmann the entire time. Bond, accompanied by Q, who was in the next cell the whole time, follows Stockmann to London, where he kills him.
Stockmann is not a particularly compelling villain; his motivations are never made particularly clear; his connection with Bond completely forced. The plot, once Stockmann arrives, becomes difficult to follow, and, honestly, kind of boring. Stockmann, we ought to note, also has an attractive womanservant who has the hots for Swann.
As a result, the film has a boring and uneventful third act that, according to some executives, barely even makes sense. But those working on the film are still searching for answers.
A memo of script notes from August 25th says this about the third act:
ALSO, THERE NEEDS TO BE SOME KIND OF A TWIST RATHER THAN A SERIES OF WATERY CHASES WITH GUNS. THIS IS BLOFELD AFTER ALL. WHAT DOES HE HAVE UP HIS SLEEVE?
Oddly, the name "Blofeld" appears nowhere in the actual script. The reappearance of the well-known Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld has been widely rumored, and script notes, as you can see see, sometimes call Waltz's character "Blofeld." But in the version of the script obtained by Gawker, Waltz's character is called either Stockmann or Oberhauser, and on two reads we couldn't find "Blofeld" at all.
Another note about the third act from the same document says 20 whole pages need to be cut:
WE NEED TO CUT 20 PAGES AND THIS WHOLE SET PIECE COULD GO.
A document from the next day also focuses on the need for a real "twist":
Can we plot out what details Bond uncovers and what he thinks he's found so that the end truly feels like a twist?
In his October 9 email, referring a revised version of the script, Glickman goes into further detail about why the climax of the film feels so drab:
We've already witnessed many horrible acts of terrorism, the finale should be about the biggest one yet that allows SPECTRE to profit the most. They should need the combined resources of all the intelligence agencies to pull it off. Surely there is something more pressing than suppressing one document.
Yes, as recently as October, the new Bond film was about the suppression of a single document.
Hannah Minghella, co-president of production at Columbia, was even harsher in a response email three days later that questions whether the connection between Skyfall and Spectre as emotionally resonant as the writers think:
If this is the movie that resolves the last three films then the emotional significance of that idea for Bond seems only lightly served at best. He finds the Vesper tape but never watches it. He appears to fall in love again for the first time since Vesper but there's no real emotional vulnerability there - why this girl? Why now? When he leaves with her at the end of the movie and throws his gun in the river has he gone for good or is this just a well earned vacation as is so often the ending of a Bond film. Does he feel some sense of completion that he finished the last mission M/Judy left for him? It's hard to know what significance any of these final gestures carry.
"rough rough rough..." begins another response email, this one from Elizabeth Cantillon, an ex-Columbia executive who is now a producer with an exclusive deal at Sony. She calls the set pieces centered around Bond at the end of the movie "overblown and familiar":
the "meanwhile" action for bond is simply fighting henchmen in many overblown and familiar sequences - helicopter, elevator shaft, netting. he's trying to save the girl but there must be a more dynamic set piece to come up with that doesn't involve myriad henchmen and irma while BLOFELD is in another location.
She also objects to the way Bond eliminates the film's villain: "and the killing of blofeld with a final shot to the head? i dont' know. seems brutal even for bond."
On October 21, Glickman stated that the third act still needed to be set up for the audience—a basic tenet of screenwriting:
I agree- third act needs a bit more set up so audience understands what is at stake and what is "supposed" to go down before Bond disrupts it.
A document from October 22 has an entire section titled "THIRD ACT," in which its suggested that a "surgical" look be taken of the movie's end: "We should surgically review the scene- setting in the lead up to the finale so the events of the third act are clearer."
Even into November, executives behind the movie were still trying to hammer down the third act. "Just following up - I believe you said we would get a treatment for new act three," wrote Glickman to longtime Bond producer Barbara Broccoli in a November 7 email titled "Act 3 Treatment." "Do you expect we will get this weekend?"
A week later, Glickman expressed pleasure with the changes but was still looking to tinker with the final act in order to reduce costs:
Just as we are thrilled with the creative changes made in the last outline, it feels like there will be some streamlining in the new structure that should help reduce the number.
Unfortunately, even if the structure is streamlined, edited, and improved, the script just isn't that good. Purvis and Wade, the pair brought in this summer to "punch up" the script after Bond himself, Daniel Craig, had said he hoped to "reclaim some of the old irony," haven't quite succeeded. The lines are clunkier even than classic raised-eyebrow Bonds, and the punchlines often fall flat. Here's one that barely gets a chuckle even if you know that he's wearing a mask:
And here's what sounds like an effort to return Bond to "the old irony" of raised eyebrows and broad winks that ends up being laughable on the page (note also the "your"/"you're" confusion):
One good thing: The "lesbian bad lady" from the film referred to in this Vulture item appears to have been somewhat toned down—this scene is the only one in which the character, Stockmann's henchwoman Irma Bunt, demonstrates a hint of queerness:
But don't trust these—for all we know, the executives and producers handling Spectre could still be tinkering with the final act. And if after seeing the movie you think it ended like shit, just know you won't be alone.