For nearly 60 years on the silver screen, James Bond, the rakish secret agent who jets from one exotic port of call to another, romancing women and besting bad guys in the name of queen and country, has answered to one person. M, the no-nonsense intelligence chief, is the only one who can revoke the British spy’s license to kill. And even M isn’t always successful at reining in 007.
Off screen, it’s a different story. One family, the Broccolis, has long maintained an iron grip on the franchise. Thanks to a highly unique deal, they have been able to exert an unprecedented level of creative control, serving as the final arbiter on everything from the scripts to the casting to the promotional materials.
Eon Prods., the family’s company, splits profits with MGM/UA, the studio that has the right to finance and distribute all of the Bond movies.
It’s an arrangement that was first hammered out by Broccoli’s father, the producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, when John F. Kennedy was president and the Twist was all the rage. Miraculously, that pact has prevailed through the decades and generations, enduring everything from corporate mergers and bankruptcies to shifting consumer tastes and geopolitical upheavals. The elder Broccoli died in 1996. but not before ceding control to his two children with the 1995 release of “GoldenEye,” a film that proved a sexist superspy, conceived by novelist Ian Fleming in the 1950s, still had a role to play in post-Cold War cinema.
Hollywood’s longest-running — and one of its most lucrative — franchises, the spy series has spawned 24 films that have collectively amassed $16.3 billion in global ticket sales, adjusted for inflation, according to a 2018 Forbes story on Bond by the numbers ($6.9 billion unadjusted, per data site The Numbers).
On April 10, “No Time to Die,” Eon’s 25th Bond adventure, will hit U.S. theaters, representing a moment of both triumph and uncertainty for the series. It serves as the culmination of Daniel Craig’s critically acclaimed, massively successful five-film run as 007; this time, after threatening to turn his back on the series for years, the star is insistent that he is finally holstering Bond’s Walther PPK for good.
“I’m in total denial,” says Broccoli. “I’ve accepted what Daniel has said, but I’m still in denial. It’s too traumatic for me.”
Broccoli, who joined Wilson in a rare sit-down interview with Variety last month, conducted in a drab Brooklyn studio far removed from the casinos, five-star hotels and villas that Bond habituates, weighs her words carefully. She’ll cast a reproachful eye at Wilson when his attempts at humor strike her as ill-considered. “Americans don’t do irony,” he notes at one point, gesturing toward his U.S.-born interrogator.
Unlike the famously chatty Bond villains who have a penchant for spilling every detail of their deadly schemes instead of concentrating on killing off 007, the plot details of “No Time to Die” are being closely held. There’s a paper-thin logline, one that states that Bond, having retired from active duty, finds himself pulled back into the world of espionage after a scientist is abducted. Neither Broccoli nor Wilson will reveal much beyond that, but they do promise that the film will tie up loose narrative threads left over from previous Craig outings.
“We have come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion,” says Broccoli.
On the press tour for 2015’s “Spectre,” Craig complained about the physical toll of playing Bond, saying that he would rather “slash my wrists” than return for another outing. After giving him time to rest and recuperate, Broccoli prevailed upon him to reconsider.
“Barbara doesn’t take no for an answer,” says Craig. “It’s not in her wheelhouse. I had a nice long break, which I really needed. And then she was just persistent and came to me with some ideas, which we started formulating, and I got excited again.”
Already, the media has begun speculating about who could step into Bond’s impeccably tailored tuxedo, with everyone from Idris Elba to Richard Madden finding himself at the center of chatter. Broccoli and Wilson insist they haven’t started to map out a post-Craig world; they’re focused on completing “No Time to Die,” an enormous, $250 million production. But they seem open to broadening the search beyond the usual suspects.
“You think of him as being from Britain or the Commonwealth, but Britain is a very diverse place,” Wilson says.
“For better or worse, we are the custodians of this character. We take that responsibility seriously.”
There are certain things the duo appears open to considering, and other conversations that are nonstarters, when it comes to selecting the next Bond. “He can be of any color, but he is male,” says Broccoli. “I believe we should be creating new characters for women — strong female characters. I’m not particularly interested in taking a male character and having a woman play it. I think women are far more interesting than that.”
If anything, Broccoli and Wilson’s experience with Craig has emboldened them to shake up the Bond formula. On paper, the choice was shocking. Craig, with his blond hair, boxer’s swagger, creased face and gruff volatility, didn’t fit the mold. He wasn’t conventionally handsome, he didn’t smack of fine living and chateaubriand and he lacked the black or brown locks that previous Bonds, from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan, had all rocked — though in Connery’s case that was courtesy of a toupee. Craig’s selection was considered to be such an affront to 007 purists that websites, dubbed CraigNotBond, sprang up to decry his casting. Even the actor was surprised to win the role.
“I thought I was just on a conveyor belt of actors who go through their door,” remembers Craig. “I assumed they were just casting their net very wide. I thought I’d go and meet them and then have a story to tell friends about that time I was considered for Bond. When they suggested they were serious about me doing it, I was completely flattered but perplexed.”
It turned out, however, that Broccoli and Wilson were interested in doing something entirely different with the character. Although 2002’s “Die Another Day,” the last of Brosnan’s four-film run, had been the most financially successful movie in the series’ history with a worldwide gross of $432 million, its climax, replete with a giant space laser and an invisible car, pushed the story in a preposterous direction.
“We got too fantastical,” says Wilson. “We had to come back to Earth.”
They were also looking at a much different global situation than the one in which “Die Another Day” was conceived. “The world obviously had changed,” says Broccoli. “We’d had 9/11, and the stakes were higher, and we felt we needed a more realistic Bond.”
Martin Campbell, the director of “GoldenEye” and “Casino Royale,” says finding the right man to play a fresh version of the legendary superspy involved whittling the final list down to eight candidates. Craig, just off a red-eye from the U.S. set of “The Invasion,” was subjected to a series of screen tests. In one, he read a tense tête-à-tête in an office from “Casino Royale,” while in another he re-created a seduction scene that Connery performed in “From Russia With Love.”
“To be honest, it took me a little while to see it,” admits Campbell. “Daniel’s acting was terrific, but he wasn’t a pretty-boy. Barbara was adamantly in favor of him.” Campbell won’t say who else was considered, but one insider says Craig beat out the likes of Sam Worthington and Gerard Butler for the part. Despite the pushback, Broccoli knew she made the right call.
“He brought flesh and blood to the character,” she says. “Bond in the novel is a silhouette. Daniel has given him depth and an inner life. We were looking for a 21st-century hero, and that’s what he delivered. He bleeds; he cries; he’s very contemporary.”
Barbara Broccoli grew up immersed in the world of Bond. In 1961, as Ursula Andress rose out of the sparkling waters of the Caribbean in a white bikini while filming an iconic scene from “Dr. No,” a diaper-wearing Broccoli, all of a year old, looked on from her mother’s lap. One of her earliest memories is of being sick on a remote Japanese island during the shooting of 1967’s “You Only Live Twice.” Connery intervened, lending the Broccoli family his personal doctor. School vacations were spent at Pinewood Studios, which designer Ken Adam would transform into the high-tech lairs for various Bond adversaries; or in whichever tropical paradise or European ski resort was being featured in the 007 installment of the moment.
Bond was such a vivid part of the family’s life that a young Broccoli became confused. “I thought James Bond was a real person until I was 7 or 8,” she says. “He was always talked about, so I didn’t think of him as a fictional character.”
Wilson, who at 77 is 18 years Broccoli’s senior (his mother, Dana, married Cubby Broccoli in 1959), had a different entry to the franchise that formed the basis of the family fortune. During a break from law school, he worked as one of the extras in the climax of “Goldfinger,” playing a Fort Knox guard. When Cubby Broccoli began having tax problems, Wilson, who specialized in that issue, grew more involved.
“I was a partner in a law firm at the time, but once I came in and got a taste for it, I never looked back,” Wilson says.
From advising on legal matters, Wilson quickly moved into the creative realm. He started as an assistant to the producer on 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me,” becoming executive producer on 1979’s “Moonraker” and moving on to full producer with 1985’s “A View to a Kill.” He also co-wrote five scripts for the series, beginning with 1981’s “For Your Eyes Only” and carrying through to 1989’s “License to Kill.” Wilson has continued to pop up in Bond films, making cameo appearances in every installment since 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me,” playing blink-and-you-miss-them roles as varied as “Greek priest at wedding” and “Man in corridor when M and C meet.”
People who have labored on the franchise say that Broccoli’s and Wilson’s abilities are complementary. “They both have strong points,” says Robert Wade, who has co-written seven Bond films, from “The World Is Not Enough” to “No Time to Die.” “Barbara is very much concerned with the emotional side of the story as well as the relevance of it to now. Michael’s got a very good story brain and has a macabre dimension that allows us to keep the Ian Fleming flavor of the thing.”
Privately, those who have worked with the pair describe Wilson as “cerebral” and keenly interested in exploring the inner workings of MI6. Broccoli is viewed as more finely attuned to what’s going on in the industry. She’s also willing to go toe-to-toe with studio heads, making it clear that she’s outlasted previous regimes and will still be standing when one film czar is deposed for another.
With the cast and crew, many of whom are long-standing Bond veterans, it’s another story. The pair tries to create a familial atmosphere on set.
“Barbara never stops taking care of the crew,” says Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of “No Time to Die.” “When I was sick, she’d make me homemade soup. And Michael is like one of those old-school coaches who takes you aside and gives you a pep talk to keep your chin up if he thinks you might be down.”
They take their conservatorship seriously, reading and rereading all of Fleming’s novels to ensure they are remaining true to the essence of the character, even occasionally pulling out a dog-eared edition on the set of a film to prove a point. They see themselves as preserving a legacy, one they hope outlives them both. “Michael once told me, ‘No one wants to make the last Bond movie,’” says Neal Purvis, who has co-written seven Bond films with Wade. “The first time we went off to start writing, he said, ‘Don’t screw it up.’”
The duo will also use its authority to nix ideas — such as a “Smallville”-like television series that would have followed a teenage Bond at Eton — or to push for casting choices: The Broccolis were able to successfully tap Eva Green as the female lead in “Casino Royale” over studio concerns that the French star couldn’t master an English accent.
They haven’t won every battle. In the early aughts, Broccoli’s ambitions to have a James Bond spinoff film focused on Jinx, the secret agent played by Halle Berry in “Die Another Day,” were foiled when MGM got cold feet about the film’s $80 million budget. That decision left Broccoli incensed. One of her main goals as steward of 007 has been to shake off some of the chauvinism that characterized Bond’s appearances in the novels and early films.
With Craig in the lead, Bond has matured. He’s not just engaged in one-night stands (though he’s had his fair share of those). He fell in love with Green’s Vesper Lynd only to have his heart broken, then embarked on a mature relationship with Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann, the psychologist he first met in “Spectre.” Those ties will be strained at the beginning of “No Time to Die,” when Swann’s past returns to haunt the couple in unexpected ways. The franchise has come a long way from the time when female characters were often named after sex acts or anatomical attributes (see: Pussy Galore or Dr. Holly Goodhead).
But “No Time to Die” presents other challenges. It will be the first Bond movie released in the Time’s Up era. Issues of consent and workplace harassment have been fiercely debated since the last time Bond was on screen, launching his trademark double entendres. Broccoli says that the filmmakers were very careful to reflect the current mood and moment in their portrayal of women. Not only does Swann return, but “No Time to Die” will also include Ana de Armas as a CIA field agent and Lashana Lynch as an 00 operative — both are fully capable of holding their own in the action department.
“Bond’s been evolving along with all the other men in the world,” says Broccoli. “Some have just gotten there more quickly than others.”
“No Time to Die” is expected to dominate the box office when it opens in April, but it faced significant setbacks on its road to the big screen. Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” was originally tapped to oversee the film, and had reportedly wanted to make a movie that dealt with tensions between the West and Russia. Instead, he left the project shortly before shooting was to start, with the official reason being “creative differences.” Broccoli and Wilson aren’t deviating from that line.
“It was hard on both sides because we had mutual respect and admiration, but better to know [the differences] before you embark on a project,” says Broccoli. “We worked together well for a number of months, but there came a point when we were discussing the kind of film that we wanted to make, and we both came to the conclusion we were not aligned. Movies are very hard to make when you’re all on the same page. When you’re not, it’s basically impossible; We recognized that, and in a respectful way we realized that it wasn’t going to work out.”
The film’s release was ultimately pushed back from October 2019 to April 2020, while the producers scrapped the script that Boyle had been crafting with his collaborator, John Hodge. In Boyle’s place, they tapped Fukunaga, best known for overseeing the first season of “True Detective” and the child-soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation.” Commentators were surprised that Fukunaga, who had spent the bulk of his career making dark dramas, would want to shoot a popcorn pic. But he’d been on the producers’ radar for a long time. Broccoli initially had conversations with Fukunaga about directing “Spectre” before Sam Mendes, who had helmed “Skyfall,” came on board. Later, during a meal at En, a Japanese brasserie in New York, Fukunaga asked to be considered for future opportunities.
“We talked at length about who the next Bond could be — this was before Daniel had decided to come back — and concluded it may take years to find someone else as compelling,” Fukunaga remembers. Having grown up watching the movies, he was eager to slide behind the camera. “It’s the longest-running, most iconic film franchise,” he says. “You get to travel the world, work with the best talent, the finest actors out of the U.K. and go on a real adventure. Who would say no to that?”
When production was supposed to begin on “No Time to Die,” Fukunaga was unavailable, but his dance card freed up by the time Boyle left the project. Purvis and Wade were tapped to write an entirely new script with Fukunaga, while Broccoli and Wilson enlisted “Fleabag” creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge to do a polish, punching up dialogue and working on character development. Broccoli and Wilson say they’re thrilled with what Fukunaga delivered, calling it a visually arresting adventure that follows Bond from Jamaica to Norway, with a stop in the ancient Italian city of Matera.
“He’s brought a fresh new approach,” says Broccoli. “He’s made an emotionally engaging film. It’s epic both in the emotional scale and on the landscape scale.”
Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren pushed to have “No Time to Die” shot on film instead of digital, believing it enhanced the look of the picture. They also used Imax cameras for key sequences. These decisions were made with an eye toward boosting the theatrical run of “No Time to Die.” But the film is hitting theaters at a moment of transition for the industry. Netflix has upended the way that people consume movies, providing a direct challenge to the exhibition industry. In the process, Disney has launched a streaming service and Comcast and WarnerMedia are preparing their own subscription offerings. For now, Broccoli says Bond’s future will remain on the big screen, but she doesn’t rule out the possibility that a future 007 adventure could debut on a streaming platform.
“We make these films for the audiences,” Broccoli says. “We like to think that they’re going to be seen primarily on the big screen. But having said that, we have to look to the future. Our fans are the ones who dictate how they want to consume their entertainment. I don’t think we can rule anything out, because it’s the audience that will make those decisions. Not us.”