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No Time to Die is a 'piece of history,' and it was a beast to film

Bond movies are big productions with high ambitions. Directory of photography Linus Sandgren talks with us about how the blockbuster 007 film came together.

Cary Joji Fukunaga, Lea Seydoux and Daniel Craig in Matera, Italy

No Time to Die director Cary Joji Fukunaga and actors Lea Seydoux and Daniel Craig in Matera, Italy, where key scenes from the James Bond movie take place.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

A James Bond movie isn't just any movie. It's an event. It's explosive. In the Daniel Craig era, it's epic as well. And there are grand expectations. Just ask Linus Sandgren, the director of photography for No Time to Die.

"It comes with a lot of responsibilities to do a Bond film," Sandgren told me. "It's a piece of history that you're part of."

The weight of all that history has been bearing down on No Time to Die for quite some time. It's the 25th film in a franchise that dates back to the early 1960s. It's also the long-delayed finale of the five-film sequence that stars Daniel Craig and that gave us a Bond like we'd never seen before, with a storyline that carries through from 2006's Casino Royale to today, and an emotional resonance that had been all but absent from the 007 films that came before.

The movie, which had its grand premiere in London last week, is now opening in theaters in the US. With a running time of 2 hours and 43 minutes, it brings a lot to the table.

"No Time to Die," writes Rich Trenholm in his review of the movie, "packs a quintessentially Bond punch while also taking huge risks with the aging character and decades-old formula."

The stakes were high going in, following the emotional heft of Skyfall and the plot twists of Spectre. It's something that Sweden-born Sandgren, working on his first Bond movie, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, also a Bond first-timer, were well aware of. They had to deliver fast-paced action, deep personal connections and just the right number of callbacks to earlier 007 films.

The central question: What's at the heart of the Bond stories?

"We tried to work in that vein of enhanced reality," Sandgren said in an interview Thursday, speaking via Zoom from Los Angeles. "Everything is just a little larger than life.''

Linus Sandgren and Imax camera

Linus Sandgren, director of photography for No Time to Die, peers out from behind an Imax camera on location for the new Bond movie.

MGM

For instance, when Spectre terrorists launch a devastating attack on London early in No Time to Die, the sky is cast an improbable purple, suggesting that this is a fantasy world adjacent to our own, a demimonde of larger-than-life heroes and villains.

Sandgren, 48, came to the world of 007 with an impressive resume over the past decade. Working with director Damien Chazelle, he was the director of photography for Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, and for La La Land -- Sandgren won the Academy Award for best cinematography for that color-saturated film. He's also worked with director David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy, and with Lasse Hallström on The Hundred Foot Journey. Films with distinctive looks, all of them.

But back to Bond. For all the action, Sandgren says, No Time to Die is an emotion-driven story.

As the cinematographer, he was looking for images and sequences that would work like a soundtrack, conveying a mood and underscoring what's going on inside Bond and the other characters. It's a sort of impressionism -- not necessarily the first word that comes to mind when thinking back to the eras of Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. 

For a skilled filmmaker, often a single location can serve a dual purpose.

Case in point: the scenes in Matera, Italy, where we meet Bond relaxing after quitting the secret service. It's a picturesque locale, as befits a Bond movie, but there are layers to be peeled back. The romance between Bond and his love, Madeleine Swann, plays out under the soft lighting of sunset as they arrive at their hotel with a spectacular view. But Matera is also where Bond meets a cadre of bad guys as the sun comes up under a harsh, bright sky, and it becomes a much harder place -- you may have seen the trailer with the Aston Martin DB5 doing doughnuts and taking care of business.

James Bond's Aston Martin DB5 spins out

James Bond's Aston Martin DB5, reporting for duty in No Time to Die.

MGM

In the bright sunlight, Matera becomes a more visually contrasty town, and with its narrow, stone-structured alleys, Sandgren says, "it sort of enhances the risk of dying from any kind of car crash." 

Matera presented tactical and logistical challenges along with the compositional opportunities.

The filmmakers wanted to shoot in Imax, but those big, bulky cameras -- weighing some 80 or 90 pounds -- weren't exactly suited to high-speed pursuits through narrow alleys and relentless uphill and downhill action. The crew did lots of preproduction testing and R&D with the cameras on motorbikes, as well as with crane and drone shots.

"We had to invent a little bit of technique for being able to drive in Matera," said Sandgren.

The thing with Bond is that everything's oversized, in overdrive. 

While there's a common experience across films in general -- do you place your camera up close to be intimate with the character? Do you pull back for a panoramic scale? -- Bond movies work with much larger setups, so much more than what you normally encounter in movie production, Sandgren says. At Pinewood Studios in London, they were working across 10 stages, and the crew was always building sets that they then had to figure out how to light.

Still, there's an intimate scale as well. No Time to Die is preoccupied with asking what James Bond has left to give in the modern age, until late in the film when he delivers what could be described as a mission statement -- in a sudden purpose-filled closeup on Craig's war-weary face and steely blue eyes.

What it all comes down to is that James Bond isn't a run-of-the-mill protagonist.

"Bond is such a big production, with high ambitions, like … let's have him jump from a bridge," said Sandgren. "It's not like every day you're working that way [on other films, so] how do we do that?"

CNET's Rich Trenholm contributed to this story.