Who let a Canadian set designer loose on the new James Bond film? For the last 25 years, every Bond adventure except one had sets created by Peter Lamont, who had been in the series’ art department since Goldfinger; even as 2006’s Casino Royale gave the series a new grittiness and a new Bond, the producers kept Lamont. But shortly before the filming of Quantum of Solace (opening on Nov. 14), Lamont was replaced by Dennis Gassner, a Vancouver native who has mostly worked on offbeat movies, including six by the Coen brothers. This may well be a bigger change than the switch from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig, because in 007’s world, the sets are as important as the guy in front of them.
From the first James Bond movie in 1962, this has always been a series where moviegoers came in part to gape at the scenery. Ken Adam (Dr. Strangelove), who designed most of the Bond films in the ’60s and ’70s, created an ultra-modern, stylized, spacious look that gave every room the appearance of belonging to a world that’s a little cooler than our own. It’s one where villains and heroes alike live in huge rooms with angular furniture. “It’s heightened reality,” Gassner explains of the Bond style. “We’re going for a post-geometric kind of modernist feeling.”
But if all the Bond movies share that basic larger-than-life look, why bring in a different designer? Lamont was once expected to handle Quantum of Solace, and in 2007 he was talking to a French James Bond fansite about plans for the film. But when Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) was brought in as director, he may have thought that the series needed a new look to match the new tone of Casino Royale. “I think Marc felt that in the last film, Daniel brought a new energy to it, but it still held onto a lot of the old feeling of the previous films,” Gassner says. “When Marc came in, he said, ‘I think we should change that.’ ” While Casino Royale featured Lamont’s plush, beautiful-looking settings, Quantum of Solace goes for a style that parallels the darker tone of the Craig films. Gassner and Forster abandoned some sets that had been standing for years: “I got to redesign MI6, a totally new look for Judi Dench. I thought she was a bit tired in the last film, so I thought, let’s bring her into a new world.”
There’s an obvious reason why the producers would want to make sure the sets are as spectacular and interesting as possible: for Bond films, great sets are actually a form of insurance against script problems. Many a weak Bond movie has been saved by great design; the script and casting problems of You Only Live Twice didn’t seem to matter once the world saw Adam’s famous hollowed-out volcano set for the villain’s hideout (a set that has been parodied in Austin Powers and many other films). Quantum of Solace is getting good notices for its writing, but Gassner notes that his design work predated a decent script. “We had a thin script that was going to be worked on. But I said to Marc, ‘what we have is Daniel.’ ” Writing may be important, but in a Bond movie, it’s not as important as finding an appropriately craggy setting for what Gassner calls Craig’s “great angular, textured face and wonderful blue eyes.”
It’s particularly essential that Quantum of Solace knock us out with its sets, because Bond films have lost their ability to surprise us with much else. Michael Apted, who directed 1999’s Tomorrow Never Dies, said on a DVD commentary that it’s hard to find real locations that hadn’t already been used in a Bond movie, and Casino Royale used a location (the Bahamas) that had already turned up in Thunderball. Gassner, who also selects locations outside the studio, says that he tried to make sure that Bond visited some new places, like Chile. But unless the audience is really astonished to see Bond go to Italy again, it’s the set design that will provide “unusual things that haven’t been done before.”
If the look of Quantum of Solace catches on, Gassner might get to define the look of Bond for a generation, the way Adam and Lamont did before him. There’s already been a moment where Gassner seemed to become an heir to the Bond tradition, when Ken Adam came to visit the studio near the end of shooting. “It was the last set that we built for the film, and there was a domed roof very much like one of his sets on the island in Dr. No.” And though he wasn’t intentionally copying Adam, Gassner is proud of the resemblance. “We all have those memories, and we want to honour those. You want the audience to have the sense of a Bond movie.”