Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Raising Hell: Building the world of Skyfall
“Bond opens a few doors,” says Daniel Craig, and there are few cities around the world where the filmic exploits of 007 would not be welcomed. Each brings new sights, new colours and a new atmosphere to an audience, despite decades having passed since affordable foreign travel became commonplace.
The script for Skyfall sends its characters to Istanbul, Shanghai, Macao and Scotland as well as London. Dramatic natural features have always proved attractive to the Bond team, from the Iguazu falls in Moonraker to the Thai islands in The Man with the Golden Gun, and the Turkish mountains and Scottish highlands in Skyfall keep up that tradition.
The architecture of a place is also crucial to incident, mood and flavour, and here again Skyfall does not disappoint, with a night-time assassination and fist-fight in a dazzlingly-lit skyscraper, shoot-outs and train crashes in the great rooms and deep depths of London and a fiery climax at a remote ancestral mansion.
But convincing as each of these scenes is, what is seen on screen is not always what it appears…
The heart-stopping pre-credits action for Skyfall was filmed mostly on location in the street markets and squares of Istanbul in Turkey, although the very first scenes of Bond discovering a body were shot on set in England and the fight on the roof of the train and Bond’s fall from the bridge were recorded in and outside Adana, a town on the opposite side of the country. Fethiye on the south coast provided the beach bar for Bond’s nihilistic drinking game.
It is when Bond is sent to the Far East to tail an assassin that the film-makers’ architectural deception really begins. After location footage of Pudong Airport’s arrivals hall and the eerie blue-lit Yan’an elevated highway, a series of shots of the Shanghai skyline at night ends with a cut to one particular steel and glass skyscraper bathed in coloured light.
The camera tilts down to its entrance, recording the killer Patrice murdering a security guard in the lobby. Bond follows, clinging to the base of a lift carrying Patrice as it rises to an upper floor. Jumping off, Bond observes Patrice cut a hole in the window and shoot a man in the building opposite. The pair stalk each other through the empty office floor then clash, silhouetted against a backdrop of outsize neon signs scrolling, flaring and twisting outside the building.
It’s a stunning sequence, and yet none of it was actually filmed in China with the majority not even filmed in a skyscraper.
The building which Bond and Patrice are filmed entering is in London, not Shanghai; it is the Broadgate Tower, part of the Broadgate business estate extending north from Liverpool Street station in the City. The tower, along with 201 Bishopsgate next door, is the latest addition, opening in 2009. It was designed by the Chicago office of the great American architectural firm SOM. Its distinctive diagonal bracing, an SOM signature here clad in stainless steel, is easily visible in the Skyfall tilt-down shot, as is the galleria between the two buildings formed by the fan of beams that actually hold the tower up on its east side. Chinese signage was added to the main entrance, and its lobby was also employed for the sequence.
The assassination and the fist-fight that follow, however, were not shot at Broadgate or indeed any other office tower. Instead an elaborate set was built at Pinewood, taking up a most of a sound stage. Life-size, four-storey sections of three separate skyscrapers were built, set apart from each other on the studio floor, as though horizontal slices had been taken through three buildings. Finished with simulated cladding and windows, they imitated the buildings at the Shanghai and Broadgate locations. This arrangement eased the complicated assassination point-of-view shots across to the second tower and the choreography of the fight. Digital lighting rigs formed the complex, intensely-coloured moving neon displays visible outside the windows.
The Shanghai sequence contains one more trick. Bond is seen in his glass-walled, rooftop hotel swimming pool at one point, but Daniel Craig was actually filmed at the health club attached to the Four Seasons Hotel London at Canary Wharf, part of the Canary Riverside development on the north-west ‘shoulder’ of the Isle of Dogs. The pool is housed in an elevated, glazed pavilion overlooking the Thames. A form of infinity edge gives the illusion of swimming in the river and the glass permits views west toward central London but, for Skyfall, allowed viewers to believe that downtown Shanghai lay beyond the windows.
All these disparate elements – the real Shanghai, a London office block, a fake office block and a health club on the Thames – were assembled into a stunning, fluid piece of cinema.
Bond’s arrival in Macao by junk was filmed in the exterior Paddock tank at Pinewood; casino interiors were sets there. The Pinewood backlot also hosted sets for the courtyard of the Dead City, Silva’s base, though the approach by yacht featured location footage of the astonishing, deserted Hashima island off the coast of Japan. This natural formation acquired its striking concrete superstructure after being occupied by the giant Mitsubishi combine for coal mining from the late 1800s until abandonment in the 1970s.
Closer to home, Scotland is the setting for the film’s incendiary climax.
Through battered gate posts, a sculpted stag atop one, and sitting in a wide bowl of heather meadow surrounded by woods, lies Skyfall lodge, Bond’s family home. A chapel with small railed graveyard and a barn stand nearby, spattered with lichen; the lodge has tufts of grass growing from its gutters. It is a haunting, intriguing place… that doesn’t exist, and certainly not in Scotland. The only shooting undertaken in that country was at Glencoe for the moment where Bond and M pause in their drive north and contemplate the valley ahead; the remainder of the scenes were filmed on Hankley Common near Godalming in Surrey.
Though open to the public, as the name suggests, the Common also houses a large Ministry of Defence training ground – it was here that a full scale mock-up of the exterior of Skyfall lodge along with its barn and chapel was constructed, and ultimately destroyed, for the film. Local resident and nature photographer Lucy Browne documented the entire process, encountering some problems with MoD security at the time. Her superb images show the extraordinarily convincing detail, including additional ‘gravestones’ – all of Bond’s family – with names and dates carved into them.
Interiors for the siege scenes were fabricated on sound stages at a local film studio.
This remarkable achievement has a further twist. Fantastic though the architectural design of Skyfall lodge is, it is not quite as imaginary as first appears. Shooting was originally planned to take place at a real Scottish location – Duntrune Castle in Argyll. Perched on the edge of a loch, Duntrune’s dramatic situation recalls the much-photographed Eilean Donan castle, which itself featured as an MI6 safe house in The World is Not Enough. When the decision was taken not to film at Duntrune after all, reportedly as part of efforts to control the production’s budget, Skyfall’s designers simply used the Castle as their inspiration when erecting the lodge set in Surrey – right down to those gateposts, which are indeed remarkable but are actually modelled after those at Duntrune.
And then there is London.
A firm commitment to London as a location was made early in the production of Skyfall. Significant portions of the film are set in the British capital, from the attack on MI6 and its emergency relocation to Bond’s reappearance and recovery, and from Silva’s attempt on M’s life to the elegiac epilogue. Only The World is Not Enough, with its epic boat chase along the Thames that begins at MI6’s headquarters, and Die Another Day’s atmospheric meeting between Bond (having flown in to the tune of The Clash’s London Calling),
M and Q in the abandoned Vauxhall Cross tube station fictitiously placed beneath that building have connected 007 to London as closely. In Skyfall, the London Underground features again.
Whitehall, the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square and Vauxhall Bridge all appear as themselves. Most were filmed straightforwardly, albeit with the benefit of considerable co-operation from the relevant authorities in the case of Whitehall whose southern stretch was completely closed to shoot Bond’s dash to save M. Bond’s meeting with Q was filmed at the National Gallery (not the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery, as Sony’s American press kit erroneously states) over a single night after it had closed for the day, and the flag-draped coffins of agents killed by Silva’s explosion lay in state in part of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, the only portion used of a much more elaborate funeral sequence that was filmed but lost in the edit. In one of the most arresting shots of the film, Bond stands on the roof of 55 Whitehall and reflects on what has occurred. Built in three stages between 1906 and 1952, the block originally housed the Office of Woods & Forests and the Board of Agriculture. It is now the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The distinctive turrets visible in the scene belong to the Old War Office next door.
And yet the London seen in Skyfall is not always the London that its residents know. As this is still a piece of filmed entertainment, reality often intrudes in the shape of substitute buildings, sets and other architectural trompe l’oeil.
Thus when Bond turns a corner from Whitehall to dash up the steps of the venue for the parliamentary committee hearing that M and Mallory are attending he jumps several miles east in the process, since the steps belong to the former Port of London Authority headquarters in the shadow of the Tower of London. This immense Edwardian confection was designed for the PLA, which administers the tidal Thames, by Edwin Cooper. It was opened in 1922 by David Lloyd George, performing his last public duty as Prime Minister.
Neo-Classical in style, its vast triple-height entrance portico with massive Corinthian columns and marble-lined lobby has ensured frequent appearances in film and television as a stand-in for establishment buildings in the West End. Films shot here include Patriot Games, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (starring Daniel Craig), Aria and Sweeney! British television viewers will be especially familiar with the building from the opening titles of The Professionals, in which the principal actors tread exactly the same route as Daniel Craig but in reverse. The PLA left Cooper’s building in 1970 and it was subsequently occupied by insurance firm Willis Corroon. It is now being converted into a luxury hotel, club and residences as 10 Trinity Square, its addess. For Skyfall, the hearing chamber itself was a set constructed at Pinewood, as was Mallory’s office.
The curving ramp which Bond’s car descends in order to reach MI6’s temporary underground base is the entrance to the vaults of the Victorian meat market at Smithfield near St Bartholomew’s hospital, originally built to accommodate railway sidings for the movement of livestock. The Old Vic tunnels, disused railway tracks underneath Waterloo Station that are now an arts space, served as the shooting range where Bond tests himself.
The atmospheric top still illustrates the aim of the Shanghai sequence. The remainder depict the real city; filming at the entrance to the Broadgate Tower in London; three stages in the creation of fake skyscrapers at Pinewood; and the pool at the Four Seasons Hotel in London (Sony/Columbia/ MGM/Danjaq; Four Seasons)
Screenshot showing the mock-up tube station and train built at Pinewood for the London chase. The curved tunnel walls and colour detail replicate Charing Cross station which was used for filming in place of Temple station, the scripted location, even though the two are very different architecturally (Entertainment Today)
Hashima island, Japan. Note the concrete housing blocks built for mine workers. Landing on the island was prohibited for years after its abandonment, but is now permitted (unlogged site)