October 12, 2012 8:33 pm

The name’s Wilson, Michael Wilson

007 is a family business for the legendary Bond producer. In this rare interview, he explains why photography is also his passion
Michael Wilson at home with his wife Jane; at the Wilson Centre for Photography; and on the set of 'Skyfall'©Stu Levy

Michael Wilson at home with his wife Jane; at the Wilson Centre for Photography; and on the set of 'Skyfall'

“Well,” said Barbara Broccoli, “Michael had many careers before the film one. He has an engineering background, and he has a scientific background, and he’s also a writer, so he’s good on construction, on making things work. I’m much more emotional. I think what I really wanted was to spend as much time with my father as I could possibly get. I mean if my father had been running a pizzeria, I’d be making pizzas.”

Happily for Broccoli, her father was a movie producer who co-owned the James Bond franchise, so she ended up making movies, and since her first, uncredited role, as assistant director on Octopussy, in 1983, at 23, she’s never worked anywhere else. Her half-brother Michael G. Wilson, however, came to the movie business by a more circuitous route. He was 17 when his mother, the actress Dana Wilson, met Albert “Cubby” Broccoli in 1958 and married him soon afterwards. When I’d asked Michael Wilson, when we met in London last month, whether he’d had ambitions to go into the movies as a teenager, he said, “Just the reverse. I wanted to be a lawyer, and not be involved, because I knew how insubstantial the film business was.”

Both his parents were actors. His mother and Lewis Wilson met at drama school in New York in the early 1940s. Three years after Michael was born in 1942, they moved to California. Lewis Wilson is now remembered for being the first actor to play Batman on the cinema screen. After their divorce, Dana Wilson became a screenwriter. She met Cubby Broccoli at a New Year’s eve party in Los Angeles and he proposed six weeks later. They were married in June 1959. Cary Grant was their best man.

Cubby Broccoli came from a poor Italian family in Queens, New York. He had worked his way up into the film business and moved to London in the early 1950s to take advantage of the subsidies available for British-based productions. By the time he met Dana Wilson his company, Warwick Films, had already made more than a dozen films, including two successful second world war dramas, The Red Beret and The Cockleshell Heroes.

His wife Nedra had died in 1958, leaving him with two small children, Tony and Tina: 1960 must have seemed the start of a brave new decade. His daughter Barbara was born that year, and his pursuit of the rights to the James Bond novels, which had initially been thwarted by the discovery that Fleming had already sold them to another producer, Harry Saltzman, ended in success with the formation of a partnership with Saltzman, and a new company, Eon Productions. Their first Bond film, Dr No, came out in 1962.

In 1960, Michael Wilson turned 18. When his mother moved to London to live with Broccoli, he went off to college in California to study engineering, then on to Stanford to study law.

Cubby Broccoli (right) with Harry Saltzman at Crockfords casino, London, 1964©Paul Popper/Getty

Cubby Broccoli (right) with Harry Saltzman at Crockfords casino, London, 1964

“The first Bond took place when I was a junior in college,” he said. “Then the summer I graduated, Goldfinger was being filmed, and I came over to London. I remember it was very warm, I was in shirtsleeves, and I drove out with Cubby to the airport with my mother, and he said, ‘Gee, I could really use some help with this film. It’s too bad you don’t have your passport.’ And I had it in my back pocket. I said, ‘Here it is.’ So I went with him to New York and we went down to Fort Knox for three weeks, and that was my first taste of working in the film business – though because my mother and father were both actors I had been on film sets when I was growing up.”

At this point it did nothing to change his plans for the future. “I became a lawyer, went to Washington, ended up joining a firm, going to New York with the firm, and then around ’72 or so, Cubby and Harry were having difficulties, so I took a leave of absence from the firm, came over and tried to work things out. I lived in London again in ’73 and ’74, [and worked] as a lawyer. Then I was assistant to the producer on The Spy Who Loved Me. I went and supervised the underwater bombs. That was my first job in the movies.”

The Spy Who Loved Me was Eon’s first film without Saltzman, who had left the company in 1975, and it was crucial that it succeed. It was Roger Moore’s third as Bond, and he was encouraged by the director Lewis Gilbert to stop trying to be like Sean Connery and be more like himself, “very English, very smooth, good sense of humour”.

This is the film in which Moore, as Bond, dressed in a canary-yellow ski suit, with scarlet hat and backpack, is holed up in a log cabin high up in the mountains, with the actress Sue Vanner, wearing only a white fur coat. As he picks up his ski poles and prepares to leave, she wheedles, “But James, I need you.” “So does England,” Bond replies firmly, closing the door behind him. The snow-chase that followed was, at the time, the most expensive stunt in Hollywood history, and it ends with Bond skiing off the edge of the rock face and falling for long seconds before he finally releases a natty parachute that opens to reveal the Union Jack. Later it was seen as a metaphor for Eon’s financial escape.

Harry Saltzman, Ian Fleming and Cubby Broccoli©Danjaq/United Artists Corporation

From left: Harry Saltzman, Ian Fleming and Cubby Broccoli

It would be years before the rift between Saltzman and Broccoli was healed, but as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Bond films this year, the two families have allowed a documentary to be made about the history of their involvement with Bond. For a cinema release it’s very near the bone in places. Michael Wilson and his half-sister Barbara Broccoli, Hilary and Steven Saltzman all appear, talking about their respective fathers. Among the starry line-up of talking heads, former US President Bill Clinton does sterling work endorsing Bond, just as Jack Kennedy did in the early 1960s. Kennedy had met Fleming and was a huge fan of the Bond books. Apparently he said that he could have done with a James Bond on his staff. From Russia With Love is said to be the last film JFK watched in November 1963, the day before he went to Dallas.

In the 50 years since Dr No, the Bond films have accumulated so much attendant trivia it’s hard to write a straight sentence about them without giving in to the addition of irrelevant facts. How each team of writers and producers manages to slash its way through this thicket in the attempt to develop something new, while staying at least partially faithful to the Bond we all know, and in most cases love, is a feat in itself. As Skyfall, the 23rd Bond film, is about to be released, Wilson and his sister are already limbering up for the type of inane questions journalists must ask about every Bond movie, and even for them, you suspect, it becomes hard to remember instantly which baddie was in which plot and even which movie followed which.

It is rare for a billion-dollar global company to be a tight family concern, but while you could hardly call Eon’s elegant Piccadilly headquarters a mom ’n’ pop store, there are certainly a lot of family members behind the desks. As I am ushered in to Michael Wilson’s office overlooking Hyde Park Corner he gestures towards the imposing double desk under the window. This, he says, is the same desk at which he sat opposite his stepfather when they worked together on the films. Now he sits opposite his younger son Gregg – though these days they are divided by individual computer screens.

“Gregg is an associate producer now,” Wilson explained. “And my other son, David, is on the top floor, working on independent projects and the video games. My niece Heather, you met downstairs, she’s Tina’s daughter. Barbara’s down the hall. So we have a good representation of the family here.”

Did you always get on with your stepfather? I asked. You were almost an adult when your mother married him.

“Yep,” he said. “We were the best of friends. Best friends.”

. . .

I have met Michael Wilson several times before – because of his interest in photography, rather than because of his involvement in the movies – and he always gives off the same feeling of calm, measured approachability; polite, friendly, watchful, reserved. It is difficult to associate him with what he undeniably is, a member of Hollywood royalty, mostly because that suggests a sort of glitzy, overbearing self-confidence, whereas he always appears to be rather shy. His appearance is, similarly, quietly conservative; slightly taller than average, slender, dressed without evident extravagance, with a neatly clipped beard and moustache and steel-rimmed spectacles.

On the 'Skyfall' set©Edward Burtynsky

On the 'Skyfall' set

This apparent calm may be, of course, his secret weapon when it comes to Bond, since nobody, looking back over the company’s history, could say it has had an easy ride. After the split with Harry Saltzman in 1975, Eon was dogged by legal battles with the screenwriter and producer Kevin McClory that continued across almost four decades as McClory, to whom Fleming had given the film rights to Thunderball, tried repeatedly to create an alternative Bond film franchise. Though Eon had paid McClory to produce Thunderball in 1965, 11 years later McClory exercised his option to resell the rights to another company, and Sean Connery was persuaded to return to Bond in Never Say Never Again, released in 1983, based on the same plot. McClory’s attempts didn’t cease until his claim was finally thrown out of court in 2001.

Alongside its legal battles, Eon has had to deal with the changing fortunes of the various studios to which the franchise has been attached over the years, most recently with MGM, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and brought the whole Bond juggernaut to a halt. A financial restructuring is now in place, but there was a long year in which it must have looked as if Bond 23 would never be made at all.

When I asked how they’d coped with the difficulties they’d been through with MGM, Wilson said, “Well, it’s disconcerting, you know. You have to be in some way optimistic, you hope that somehow or other they’re going to get out of this, then they’re going to want to make a film, and you have to keep the process going and spending your own money until they come out of bankruptcy, so that when they’re out and want a picture, you’re ready to deliver it.”

Did he mean spending the company’s money, or his own personal funds?

He chuckled ruefully, “There’s not much difference.”

How much had the film cost in the end?

“We can’t tell you. About as much as the last one.”

After 1977, Wilson took on more of the responsibility for the company. He has been executive producer or producer on every Bond film since then, and in the 1980s he was also a co-screenwriter on five of the films, working alongside Richard Maibaum, who had written almost every Bond script since Dr No.

Barbara Broccoli joined her brother as co-producer for the first time on GoldenEye in 1995. It ushered in a series of firsts: this was the first film to star Pierce Brosnan as Bond, the first with Judi Dench as M; the first Bond to use computer-generated imagery (CGI); the first with a plot set in a post-Soviet world; the first to product-place BMWs (a deal which, despite Bond’s allegiance to Aston Martin, made BMW millions in sales of their special 007 edition Z3s); the first to have a theme (composed by Bono and The Edge from U2) sung by Tina Turner. It was also Cubby Broccoli’s last film before his death in 1996.

Scenes from the stunt training camp of Skyfall at Pinewood©Mary McCartney

Scenes from the stunt training camp at Pinewood

Since then, the two siblings have shared the production of the films, and have also developed theatre projects, most recently Chariots of Fire, which opened at the Hampstead Theatre in May and transferred to the West End during the Olympics. Michael Wilson is now managing director of Eon.

Given that the trouble with MGM came right after the 2008 financial crisis, I wondered who he thought was dealing best with the recovery, the British government or Obama’s.

“Oh, I don’t want to try to second-guess what is a complex area. All we, all any citizen does is see the output and say, well, we’d like the output to improve. But whether stimulus is good [or] austerity is good, I have no idea.”

Did the European financial situation make any difference to their business?

“As far as the film business goes, despite the fact that everybody complains about the price, it’s still good value for money for a night out, therefore films tend to do OK in downtimes. In good times they have to compete with a lot of more expensive nights out, but if somebody wants to take their girlfriend on a date, the movies is still pretty good.”

Does Bond open in as many cinemas as it used to?

“More. And that’s because the cinema business in what we used to call the less developed world – and I guess the economists still do – in the film business is the developed world. For instance, there is a large number of cinemas in China, and all of them are digital, and you find in the less developed countries that when they build new cinemas, they build digital, and they’re a lot easier to deliver programming for and in many ways a lot safer from a piracy point of view. It’s actually the United States and some other countries that are behind.”

Film piracy is an enormous problem for them, with only the US and parts of Europe as relatively safe territories. “It starts almost immediately, when you release the film; sometimes before,” he said. “To give you an idea: I would see within the EU as the last point [in Europe] when we earn something, then all the way to Japan, then all the Southern hemisphere except for Australia, and all of Africa, Asia, Asia Minor, India, China, Russia, all – except for some TV income maybe – we get zero. All that’s pirated.

“When I went to Kuala Lumpur years ago, the night we opened the film there they were selling pirate DVDs in the streets. We hadn’t even made any DVDs, and just round the corner from the cinema they were selling them.”

And is there no way to police it?

“There is no will within the governments to police it. And of course nobody can deal with internet piracy. The only way is by tackling the service providers and they have too strong a lobby and they don’t want to be in the middle.”

How did he think cinema on-demand was going to affect the market?

“I don’t know. I think you just have to see. We have to have a good delivery system that’s sufficient and reasonably priced, I hope that comes and I hope people use it.”

Was there ever a time when he’d thought, “That’s it. That’s the last of James Bond. I just can’t do another one”?

At this he laughed delightedly, opening his hands and looking slightly mesmerised, as if Bond had a mind of its own and wasn’t something he had complete control of.

“I dunno … Bond’s like Sherlock Holmes, he’ll always be around. Who does it, how it’s done, you know, these things never go away, they’re like Superman or Batman, they’re fictitious characters, they’re part of the culture.”

Detail from '97 figurants', portraits of extras from Istanbul scenes of 'Skyfall'©Luc Delahaye
Detail from '97 figurants', portraits of extras from Istanbul scenes of 'Skyfall'©Luc Delahaye

Detail from '97 figurants', portraits of extras from Istanbul scenes of 'Skyfall'

A few days earlier, I’d sat alone in an empty screening room in Sony’s Soho Square offices and been shown selected clips of Skyfall. In such surroundings it was hard to remain undelighted by the sight of Daniel Craig momentarily pausing to straighten his shirt-cuffs in the midst of a spectacular struggle on the top of a moving train, or not to groan inwardly at the customary one-liners that shorthand the plot:

“Where the hell have you been?” demands M.

A beat. “Enjoying death,” replies Bond.

Later:

“How much do you know about fear?” asks the beautiful Severine, played by Bérénice Marlohe.

“All there is,” says Bond.

And later:

“Everybody needs a hobby,” Bond comments, to the villain, Silva, played by Javier Bardem.

“So what’s yours?” Silva asks.

“Resurrection.”

. . .

There is always much discussion among Bond aficionados about Bond’s “inner life” or the lack of it, and much has been made of the fact that Daniel Craig, despite building himself up to a hunk of prime beefcake for Casino Royale (not everyone’s idea of a suave, svelte secret agent with a 60-a-day habit of custom-made cigarettes with a higher than average nicotine content), had “humanised” Bond. How much, I wondered, did they discuss his character each time?

“It’s something we were looking for the writers to deliver. I think, starting with Casino Royale, a new cycle, that we’ve done that. I think he’s very human. It’s very easy for the caper and the hardware and the locations to take on a life of their own in the mind of the director, and the character sort of gets left behind. But [the director] Sam Mendes is very involved with getting the best out of the actors, and with bringing in great talent. He’s brought in all these great people, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney … ”

Ralph Fiennes takes the role of Gareth Mallory, an ice-cold government official who has been brought in to supervise M, whose own human fallibility is exposed after she loses a hard drive that contains “the identity of every agent embedded in terrorist organisations across the globe”. The arrival of Albert Finney suggests one more link to the franchise that must surely be Bond’s closest rival, Jason Bourne. Finney, along with some of the Skyfall crew, worked on some of the Bourne films, but when I asked Wilson whether he had considered asking Paul Greengrass – who made two successful Bourne films – to do Bond, he wouldn’t be drawn. “He’s a good director. We look at different people from time to time.”

'Skyfall' director Sam Mendes©Anderson & Low

'Skyfall' director Sam Mendes

Rory Kinnear returns for his second Bond, after his much-praised Hamlet at the National Theatre, and Ben Whishaw makes his first appearance as the technical wizard, Q, a geeky near-adolescent who can, he tells Bond at their first meeting in the National Portrait Gallery, “do more damage sitting at my laptop in my pyjamas”, than Bond can do in a year in the field.

London has a substantial visual role in the film, and I wondered how important it was to Bond’s success that he remains resolutely British, whatever our national profile might be internationally.

“As far as Britishness goes,” Wilson says, “when Ian Fleming sent a memo to the producers, Harry and Cubby, about what Bond should be about, he said it should not be too English, it shouldn’t have bowler hats and moustaches and cups of tea, and people shouldn’t be calling each other ‘old boy’. Cubby and Harry, remember, had lived here a while, so you had two North American Anglophiles who brought in a North American sensibility to the character, but they loved the British and they made sure they represented them properly. But they understood how tough they were – that’s why they picked Sean Connery rather than a polished British guy.”

What about the type of women who appeared with Bond? The question of an inner life rarely seems to stretch to include them.

“I think we went through a phase when we had Bond posing with a lot of women and we’ve had some characters that were less than convincing. But if you look at Honeychile Rider, or Pussy Galore [setting aside the question of how you take a woman with a name like that seriously], they were all fairly tough, independent women, and that’s the type of women that Fleming wrote about.”

When I asked Barbara Broccoli if she was concerned about the roles women played in Bond, she said, “Yes, of course, I consider myself a feminist. In the early films they were pretty voracious, tough, sexually charged women who knew what they wanted and how to get it. There was a period when they became window dressing and I think those characters aren’t as interesting, obviously, or as satisfying, so I try not to dwell on those. But the ones in the later films, the ones we’ve been involved in – I mean, look, his boss is a woman – the women have been much more interesting, more complex and heroic.”

Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson©Getty

Michael Wilson with Barbara Broccoli, his sister and Bond film co-producer

When they talk about Bond, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli use the plural, “We did this … ” “It was important to us that … ” They can sound like they’re linked at the hip. But I wondered if the age gap between them had any effect.

Barbara Broccoli said, “When I was little, yes. He was 18 years older than me, so we didn’t grow up in the same household as I did with my other brother and sister, so he was always the older one and the clever one, and he was the one to look up to. I still look up to him. And I think my parents looked up to him. I mean, he got Cubby out of a very bad situation when the whole partnership with Harry Saltzman broke up, and I think that Cubby really needed him to help straighten out the company, and then as Michael got more involved, Cubby started to rely on him in terms of his technical and scientific background, coming up with ideas, and then working with Dick Maibaum on the stories. Michael has a tremendous amount of knowledge, you know, he’s a renaissance man. He has the brain of a scientist and the heart of an artist.”

. . .

Which brings us to the other side of Michael Wilson’s life. In the 1970s, he began to collect photographs. He was already a collector of antique books, manuscripts and incunabula (books and pamphlets printed in Europe before 1501). But it was after a meeting between his wife Jane and an old college friend, who was married to Weston Naef, curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that he gradually transferred his collecting to photographs. He began at a time when prints were still relatively cheap; when few galleries showed photographs and auction houses had only just begun to sell them. It was at an auction in London that Wilson bought his first group of 19th-century prints, the basis of a collection that now spans the entire history of photography and ranks among the finest in the world.

Over the past 20 years, he has taken an increasingly public role in supporting and disseminating knowledge about photographs – in 1998 he and his wife opened a private study centre in London, based around his collection, which organises seminars, publications and loans to museums and galleries around the world. He donates works to many other institutions, and he and his wife run a mentoring scheme at Scripps College in California, where Jane Wilson studied in the 1960s and where there is a print study room in their name.

Between 2004 and 2012, Wilson was a trustee of the Science Museum and also chaired the trustees of the National Media Museum in Bradford. During this time he conceived a plan to develop part of the East Wing of the Science Museum into a space for photographs and new media, with a particular emphasis on the collections held in Bradford. The Wilsons have donated a substantial amount (he wouldn’t disclose how much) to this project, which is due to open in 2013.

The brief and explosive life of 'Skyfall Lodge', on heathland near Aldershot©Simon Norfolk
The brief and explosive life of 'Skyfall Lodge', on heathland near Aldershot©Simon Norfolk

The brief and explosive life of 'Skyfall Lodge', on heathland near Aldershot

Most recently, though, he has been working with the Tate, which made a commitment to collecting and exhibiting photographs just over a decade ago, and now shows several exhibitions of photographs each year. Wilson has made a series of gifts in the form of monographic portfolios by outstanding international photographers, including Bruce Davidson, Taryn Simon, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and William Eggleston.

These days, the Tate appears to be his main focus when it comes to his photographic interests and I asked what had brought the change about.

“Well, I think it’s [because of] the Tate. I’ve battered them for years to do something about photography and they did something and I thought I’d support it. And they decided to take it on in a big way. They decided to do a proper job of supporting contemporary and 20th-century photography.”

Sir Nicholas Serota, the Director of Tate, says the relationship with Michael Wilson has made it possible for them “to show key bodies of work within the context of the national collection … He has also made generous gifts that have enhanced the ability of Tate to show photography.” The Wilsons give generously as patrons, are members of the Tate’s Photography Acquisitions Committee, and Michael Wilson sits on the Tate’s International Council. He is also a trustee of the Art Fund, which helps to acquire artworks for the nation, and a member of the Science Museum Foundation, which “ensures philanthropic leadership”, encouraging donors to support the museum’s development.

All this raises the question of where his collection might go. Wilson is 70 this year, and far from retirement, but it isn’t only the Tate which recognises what a difference Wilson’s photographs can make. Will he pass on the collection to his children – his son Gregg already has what he described as “a humble, small collection” of photographs – or perhaps to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, with which Wilson has close ties?

He sits back in his chair. “Here’s some things I’ve got to speculate about. If there’s a wealth tax, what do they do about people with big collections? I have a collection that costs me money to take care of. I have four curators. So either I turn it into a business, I guess, or I just export it all. You know, the government … When every time you read the newspaper somebody is threatening you with some kind of attack, what do you do? It’s an interesting question. I have no idea what this wealth tax means and I don’t think they know either.”

If you moved it all to America, would you be financially better off?

“Well I wouldn’t be taxed, I assume.”

And if you give it away?

“Well. It works if you give it away in the United States because you get a tax deduction. Here, they don’t particularly encourage you to give away things. It’s a working collection. I have curators who are anxious to do things and I still buy what I can use effectively. We have a lecture series for MA art historians and twice a year we run a day for curators to learn to identify processes and how to preserve photography, so we tend to be at the high level of photographic education, because we deal with original materials and people get the chance to see that.”

Daniel Craig and Michael Wilson on the set of 'Skyfall'©Sam Taylor-Johnson

Daniel Craig with Michael Wilson on the set of 'Skyfall'

Occasionally his roles as a movie producer and as a collector overlap. During the making of Skyfall he invited a number of photographers on to the set and gave them carte blanche to take what they wanted. The results include portraits of Daniel Craig and Wilson by Sam Taylor-Johnson (formerly Taylor-Wood); a sequence of pictures giving the illusion that “Skyfall Lodge” rises on heathland near Aldershot, is blown up and cleared away in the space of one night, by Simon Norfolk; the duo Anderson & Low made working portraits of Sam Mendes and the cast and crew; the Canadian Ed Burtynsky concentrated on the mechanics of the set, and the French photographer Luc Delahaye made a series of 97 head shots of the Turkish extras who appeared in the Istanbul segment of the film.

What about his own role in the film? Wilson has appeared in 14 of the Bond films, in cameos that range from a soldier at Fort Knox in Goldfinger to a man reading a newspaper in a hotel lobby in Quantum of Solace (they’re all on YouTube). Is he going to make an appearance in Skyfall?

“Oh,” he says. “I was cut out. There’s a glimpse of me, but you can’t really see me. So it’s going to be a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ moment on this one.”

‘Skyfall’ is released on October 26.

‘Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007’ is in cinemas now

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