Just after nightfall on a muggy evening in Colón, Panama, an air-conditioned SUV exits the grounds of the hotel Meliá Panama Canal past two armed checkpoints. Director Marc Forster slouches into its passenger seat, spent after a long day choreographing a boat-chase scene for Quantum of Solace, aka Bond 22, starring Daniel Craig. Arriving on location in the derelict port city a week earlier, the crew had been warned about the dangers of the town, and it soon became clear, Forster recalls, that stories of gang conflict were not just tall tales meant to scare the gringos.
A scene from Quantum, set on a floating opera stage in Bregenz, Austria.
“We were filming the other day, and right down the street there was a shooting,” Forster says quietly as his driver negotiates the ragged highway toward a small Lebanese café a few blocks from where the gunfight occurred. (Forster, a vegetarian, can’t face another hotel meal.) Making Forster’s film The Kite Runner, shot amid ethnic unrest in western China, was a relentless struggle. In Panama, by comparison, Forster has been “surprised at how smoothly it went.”
Perhaps he shouldn’t be: The director, 39, has the otherworldly calm of a Swiss diplomat and delivered all of his previous seven movies on time and on budget, an impressive track record to money-conscious Hollywood producers. He met his own standards again with the Quantum juggernaut, despite a $150 million–plus budget (making it the most expensive Bond ever), a 103-day globe-trotting shoot, and such additional difficulties as a riot in Panama City and a series of accidents in Italy that had the international press dithering about a so-called Bond curse.
The media attention garnered by 007 is not surprising, even if Forster is more an insider’s favorite than a cineplex draw. Best known for 2001’s Monster’s Ball—which won Halle Berry a best actress Academy Award—he’s a critically acclaimed talent, but his largest domestic box office to date is a mere $51 million for 2004’s Finding Neverland. (Close behind is the high-concept Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction, which earned $40 million.) His stylish yet bizarre psychological thriller Stay, which came and went without much notice in 2005, was, by the director’s own assessment, “abstract.”
Forster has nonetheless enjoyed a fine reputation in Hollywood, thanks in no small part to his cool nerves and impeccable manners. Born into a wealthy Swiss family, he has all the hallmarks of an elite European education—he’s multilingual, erudite and unerringly gracious. While his shaved head and serious demeanor give him the appearance of someone whose iPod holds more Mahler than Madonna, he has the deft communication skills necessary to coax the best from actors. Berry hasn’t lived up to her remarkable performance in her subsequent films, and proving that his tutelage was no fluke, Forster has since drawn heart-tugging performances from the child actors in Finding Neverland, which starred Johnny Depp as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie.
Still, it’s one thing to pull off a twinkly little period film on the coattails of a beloved children’s book and quite another to have the chance to screw up a 21-film franchise that’s generated $4.3 billion at the box office. “Before, I felt like I had a mom-and-pop shop, and now I’m running a big corporation,” Forster jokes.
What he lacked in action experience—presumably a minimal requirement for the Bond job—Forster made up for with the Swiss virtues of thrift, precision and reliability, says franchise heiress Barbara Broccoli, who since 1995’s GoldenEye has served as series producer with her brother Michael G. Wilson. “Marc had an incredible pedigree,” says Broccoli. “His movies have all been great pieces of work, and he’s been very versatile as well. We wanted to push the envelope.”
Forster, apparently, did not. When he was first approached last year about Quantum, the director flatly told his agent he didn’t want to do a James Bond movie. Only after the producers let him replace longtime crew members—among them production designer Peter Lamont, who since the late Sixties has had key roles on films such as Diamonds Are Forever, Octopussy and, most recently, Casino Royale—did he sign on.
From the outset, Forster insisted that his Bond wouldn’t be just another spy flick, recalls director of photography Roberto Schaefer, who has worked on every one of the director’s films, including his very first short for the festival circuit, 1995’s “Loungers.” “He dragged us in and said, ‘Okay, we’re making an art film,’” says Schaefer. “It’s this sort of Eastern bloc aesthetic. After the third day of dailies, I realized that we’re doing a future-Sixties-retro Bond.”
They drew on such Seventies thrillers as Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, the experimental shorts of Kenneth Anger and even James Cameron’s Aliens. When it is pointed out to Forster that he’s setting himself a perilously high bar to meet—both commercially and artistically—he responds, “I think the chance to fail is important in someone’s growth as an artist.” And if such an answer might sound a bit precious—especially to producers staking a fortune on Forster’s success—at least it proves that for all his modesty, the director doesn’t lack ambition.
Even in a radical shake-up, however, some things about Bond never change. Quantum—the word, incidentally, means “quantity” or “portion”—will have its expected share of high-octane explosions and futuristic gadgetry. Likewise Forster won’t let Her Majesty’s secret agent retire the handiest tool in his kit—his passport. The world’s exotic locales may be more accessible since the days when 1962’s Dr. No provided audiences a jolt of travel-poster escapism, but Forster still believes that Bond’s true home is on the road.
Daniel Craig as 007 in Quantum of Solace.
“Locations, like actors, present emotions in a movie,” he explains. “The interesting thing for me about Daniel Craig’s interpretation of Bond is that it’s a journey inward instead of outward, but at the same time, locations are part of the Bond texture.” Hence the jaunt to Colón, once a busy port on the Panama Canal before the U.S. withdrawal from the Canal Zone in 1999 led to rot and ruin. Other locales include Chile’s Atacama Desert; Lago di Garda in northern Italy; and Bregenz, Austria.
Long before Forster became a director, he had already lived a cosmopolitan life. Growing up in the wealthy mountain enclave of Davos, Switzerland, he enjoyed a childhood of rarefied privilege, with vacations to the family villa on the Mediterranean. But when he was 17, his father, a medical entrepreneur, suffered financial reversals. Forster recalls being traumatized as much by the family’s lost fortune as by the loss of friends who dropped them. (One of his more steadfast pals from that period is Princess Olga of Greece.)
To pay his tuition to New York University’s film school, Forster borrowed money from family friend Robert Louis-Dreyfus—the tycoon cousin of actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus—and he now calls the family’s bankruptcy “the best thing that ever happened to me.” What that means, he explains with admirable philosophical perspective, is that having lived with wealth and then learned to live happily without it, he’s not impressed by Hollywood flash. In fact, during the sensitive early negotiations over creative issues on Quantum, Forster says he avoided the subject of salary altogether.
“I’ve never made a decision based on money,” he says. “It’s always based on the story. So I said to my agent, ‘I need to figure out if this is my passion. If they make you an offer in the meantime, I don’t want to know.’”
One trait common to all of Forster’s otherwise varied films is the emotionally throttled protagonist, a character that reappears almost like a specter from the director’s emotionally chilly haute bourgeois upbringing. (Even Berry’s fiery performance had, as its counterweight, Billy Bob Thornton’s stony cop.) “The backdrop changes, but the characters stay very similar,” says Forster. “I just disguise them in different worlds.” It’s a mold that fits the aloof and mysterious Bond perfectly.
Forster’s own temperament has remained steady even as his career has taken off, says Kevin Tod Haug, the visual-effects supervisor who has worked with him since Finding Neverland. Forster maintains the ability to lead a vastly complicated enterprise without raising his voice, pulling rank or shredding producers’ nerves and budgets—behavior typical of “auteur” directors who hit the big time.
“It’s one thing to be a visionary genius; it’s another thing to get a movie made,” says Haug. “Getting a movie made requires an awful lot of political savvy, charm and charisma. You have to talk people into believing in you. He’s very, very good on that front.”
A small but potent demonstration of Forster’s persuasive skills comes as his SUV approaches the Lebanese café in Colón. A few hundred yards before the destination, the narrow dirt road is blocked by a deep pit.
“They’re working on the street,” the driver tells Forster. “We’ll have to go around.”
“We can go over that,” says Forster, pointing to a dirt pile on the road’s shoulder.
“We have to go around there,” repeats the driver, gesturing toward a dark and uncertain detour around the block.
“Oh, really?” Forster asks in a tone that gently suggests that there must be a better solution. “You have four-wheel drive.”
The driver hesitates and then cautiously, gingerly, shifts into four-wheel drive, squeezes past the pit and delivers Forster to the restaurant’s door—just as the director wanted and, more to the point, exactly on time.
Photo: Karen Ballard/anjaq LLC, United Artist Corp., Columbia Pictures Industries