Starlog Interview: Maurice Binder
Sighting Down a Gun Barrel at 007
He made James Bond the target for "Dr. No" and has designed 007's memorable title sequences ever since. Now, with "Octopussy," he makes his mark in this, the biggest Bond year of them all.
By Don McGREGOR
''At the premiere of The Grass is Greener, Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli were there when my titles got a tremendous reaction. Behind the titles were babies who looked like every star in the movie, so you had Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons as four infants. It kills the audience. The next day, Harry said, 'We're doing a picture called Dr. No. Would you like to do its titles and trailer?' I said, 'Sure,' even though I didn't know what a Dr. No was all about. And he said, 'Well, come on over to my house, have some bagels and lox and we '11 discuss it.' " —Maurice Binder
In January, Maurice Binder came to New York City, bringing with him the preliminary trailer for the 13th Albert ''Cubby' ' Broccoli-produced James Bond movie, Octopussy. He was due to return to England in a matter of days to begin lensing the titles for Bond's latest screen adventure, which premiered June 10. It is Binder's work, those exquisite credits which flash over silhouettes of female water nymphs and voluptuous acrobats, which is the last section of a Bond movie to be filmed.
He is dressed in a dark suit. At first glance, Binder seems to be a shorter version of director Otto Preminger. His head is bald, he moves purposefully, looking formidable. He quickly smiles. It is a smile that reaches his eyes and somehow says that he enjoys his life, loves his work, and likes telling an anecdote or two about his titles.
DON McGREGOR, controversial comic book writer, quizzed Robert Vaughn in STARLOG #73. McGregor's latest collaboration with P. Craig Russell, Killra-ven—the Graphic Novel, was published by Marvel Books.
Binder is the man who designed the gun barrel which follows James Bond as he glides across the screen, signaling the start of each new 007 adventure. He has worked not only with Bond, but with several other classic screen personalities during his long career.
Oddly enough, this man who would design the Bond bullethole graphics began working in the field for an American institution, the world's largest department store, Macy's. He created the store's promotional films and ad campaigns and was also partially involved in production of Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.
His work with film companies began while he was a Second Officer on an Army salvage ship. While his ship docked in California, he made contacts at Columbia and began moonlighting, completing photo sessions for the studio. He photographed the glamour queen of the day, Rita Hayworth, and even focused his lens on that timeless tough guy, Humphrey Bogart, for Dead Reckoning.
In the late '50s, producer/director Stanley Donen hired Binder to visualize the titles for a Cary Grant film, Indiscreet. Binder began to do trailers and credits not only for movies produced in America, but in Europe as well.
His innovative cinematic designs had already been recognized by the time The Grass is Greener premiered. And producers Harry Saltzman and Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli knew they needed a clever and original designer for their modest new effort, Dr. No. Saltzman zeroed in on the right man for the assignment when he invited Binder to share some bagels and lox.
The First Mission
"I had never met Harry before," Binder reveals, with a flash of that smile which reaches his eyes, "and he called me on a Saturday. I guess Stanley Donen had told him where I was, just around the corner from where Saltzman was living."
Binder wasn't familiar with Dr. No, but he was aware of Ian Fleming's spy novels. "Harry told me Dr. No was one of Fleming's stories and that they had the rights to all of the Bond novels [except Casino Roy ale and, at the time, Thunderball]. He wanted me to read the script. By the time I did, I had moved to another little flat and was becoming involved in another project, so I had to do Dr. No in a hurry."
No one had any idea that the initial concepts for Dr. No would carry through and be repeated for the next 21 years. The ideas may have arrived quickly, but they certainly had impressive imagery and endurance.
"I had to design a title for Harry and Cubby to show them just what I wanted to do," Binder reflects carefully, trying to recall a creative process which occurred two decades before. "I figured the gunshot thing across the screen would be effective. I had these little white price stickers, and I put them on a black storyboard. I thought it would be a good idea to look down the gun barrel and see James Bond as he walked out, firing at you." The smile widens. "And then the blood comes down the screen, you see? They liked the idea, but it didn't come to life until I filmed it.
Storyboards are illustrations depicting the initial concepts a filmmaker intends to commit to celluloid. Binder has definite ideas about their usage, where they are effective, and where they aren't.
"I find storyboards are good for sketchy ideas," he says. "Many advertising agencies use these storyboards to sell the client on a sketchy idea and then they're stuck with it. I mean, the client remembers the storyboards, and it becomes a hard issue.
"I like to use storyboards as a reference, because every time I look through the camera, I see new things that I want to capture. My mind changes constantly. I'm certainly not going to just shoot a storyboard, because what you can do on film, you can never reproduce with a sketch."
Conceiving an idea for a title is only half the battle; it's often quite difficult to find a way to really make it work on film. Binder faced such a problem with his gun-design motif. It sounded on target, but how could they actually lense it?
"We had difficulty with the gun barrel," he admits. "I could not get it in focus. I was working with an animator at the time, and he and I looked down through the camera at the gun barrel. If the front was in focus, the back was out of focus, when the back was in focus, the front was out of focus. It did have a nice spiral barrel. We photographed the gun barrel, but we could never get the lens stopped down—about 22 is as far as you can stop a still camera down. The animator said, 'We must stop it down more [to get the whole gun barrel in focus].' I said, 'Yeah, what do you use to do it? A pin?' And he said, 'As a matter of fact, yes. Why don't we do it?' So, I grabbed a piece of cardboard, punched a pinhole in it, put it up to the lens, and the whole gun barrel suddenly came into focus.
"That first gun barrel shot was much better than it is now," Binder states, with slight chagrin. "I don't know why, but that first one for Dr. No had the gun's beautiful, striated insides which were absolutely magnificent. We even picked up the bleed from the red when the blood came down the screen, which gave it all a silver-sepia look."
The still camera had been positioned right up against the gun barrel, aiming down its deadly length, but that was only the first step in the process of creating that memorable James Bond image.
"I couldn't do the gun barrel and shoot the figure at the same time," Binder says. "The dots of the gunfire were animated across the front of the screen. When the hole opens up, it comes across with Roger or Sean walking across. So, the shot is a combination. The man is shot separately, turning around and firing. I had to do it with Sean Connery, then with George Lazenby when they switched to him, and then, Roger Moore. You can't have Sean walk out there for Roger, or vice versa. The figure in the gun barrel must be whoever is James Bond at the time. Anyhow, I put the still picture of the gun barrel and the film of the figure together, and then add the blood, another piece of animation. It was all done first for Dr. No, and then was used for a trademark."
On Active secret service
Binder did not do the finished title credits for From Russia With Love or Goldfinger, the only two Bond films in which he was not the sole creative influence.
"I didn't do Goldfinger. We were having a bit of a—" he searches for the right word, "—ruckus at the time with the producers. My assistant and Robert Brownjohn did Goldfinger. They took the same dancing girls—the figures from Dr. No—and turned them into belly dancers, projecting the titles on top of them. I printed the titles. Anyhow, although some of my work is on them, I don't take credit for those two pictures."
The title sequences are filmed almost autonomously by Binder, while the director (in the case of Octopussy, John Glen, see STARLOG #68) is involved with the final post-production of the entire movie.
"I make some pencil sketches for myself. I tell the production department what I want. The main reason that the titles are filmed last is that the music isn't written until the picture is finished," Binder explains.
But, is it difficult to conjure new, startling images for each succeeding Bond adventure? "Yes! Definitely!" Binder answers, sounding almost gleeful at the challenge. "It's difficult to come up with new ideas, which are unique, and will continue to be new as you keep looking at them over the next decades. You just don't get tired of looking at a Bond film.
"I watch many of these musical numbers on television and I get sick. If I slough the titles off, I think that's what my work is going to look like. You know the kind of specials I'm talking about, with the singers swirling around the dancers, and little puffs of smoke appearing, and no reason for any of it.
"So, I have to think of exciting ideas and new techniques. Let's take Thunder ball, for instance. It was an underwater picture. The last scene before the titles had this jet of water coming from Bond's Aston Martin, squirting out at these guys who were trying to shoot at him. So, that filled the screen with water, and we segued into our titles."
Describing the effects for Thunderball and the fifth Bond mission, You Only Live Twice, makes Binder a bit gloomy when he recalls how the TV networks have treated his labors of love.
"What they're showing on television is all wrong, " he says firmly. "They have squeezed the film. Some ass at the lab—who figures himself a designer " Binder stops, backtracking a moment, still emotional when he speaks. "It's OK to scan a picture, because you must if it's a scope picture. However, because the titles for Thunderball are on one side of the screen and then the other, this lab man stops the action for the TV version, cuts from one side to the other. And it has nothing to do with my design! They really hacked Thunderball to pieces!
"On You Only Live Twice, they redid the opening, and even killed the storyline. Here's this girl who is supposed to be in bed with Bond; she gets out, presses a button, and the bed closes up into the wall. They really screwed that sequence up."
Indeed, in TV prints of You Only Live Twice, the last segment of the pre-credits sequence comes first, and the first last, with a few snips here and there for anything which might prove sexually or violently offensive. In the process, the storyline becomes incoherent. [Watch the TV Version]
"The Bond films started with a normal size screen," Binder remembers, less emotional now that he is past the personal horrors of unskilled mechanics tinkering with his work. "With Thunderball, we went to Cinema scope. Then with Live And Let Die, they went back to the small-size screen. Now, I didn't have to worry about the proportions of Live And Let Die or The Man With The Golden Gun—or what some TV lab technician might do to them. The screen ratio fits on television.
"But! With The Spy Who Loved Me, we returned to Cinemascope and we had trouble. So, now, I do a TV or Home Box Office version—whatever you want to call it—for each title. That means keeping the same design, but redesigning the proportions and the format so that it fits. When you see it on TV, it looks like the same title, but it isn't. I know what I'm cutting off, and, I know if I left it to some ass at the lab to do the damn TV thing—on For Your Eyes Only, for example —he would have cut out Sheena Easton on one side, or the behind of the girl dancing on the other side of the screen."
The censorship situation
The images behind the credits are often seductive. Sensuous women glide and swoop and sway. They are obviously nude, a fact which could cause further problems when the films eventually reach TV screens.
"I'm very careful about that aspect," Binder assures. "For instance, there was a dancer in The Man With The Golden Gun, and she was nude. She had a gun, if you remember. She was Carolyn Cheshire, who has since developed her muscles and become the Jack LaLanne of England. She was very good and all nude for Man with the Golden Gun. I used some rippling water which covered her body, so we got away with that, but when she danced around sideways, some inappropriate hair stuck out.
"She wouldn't shave," Binder says delicately, but with the flair of a man who loves telling an anecdote. "I said, 'Carolyn, we must do something.' She said, 'Brush it down! Use Vaseline! Do whatever you want to do, but I'm not shaving.'
"So, I said, 'Give me that brush, and let's try it.' There I was, brushing away, when I suddenly felt something behind me. At that time, they were shooting the film itself on the next stage, so for Man with the Golden Gun, we were working in advance. Anyhow, I looked around, and there are Cubby Broccoli and Roger Moore." Binder's eyes twinkle with glee and embarrassment. "Cubby looked down at me, standing before Carolyn with my brush, and said, 'Look, I'm the producer of this picture. Are you sure we're paying you for this?' "
Binder laughs. He eventually solved the hair problem with a cover-up, using appropriately placed titles. Design, however, isn't always the only consideration.
The censorship possibilities are endless, and different from one country to another.
"In Thunderball, we had these girls nude, swimming underwater, mostly in silhouette. But at the time, in Spain, during the Franco period, censorship was very strict. The whole title sequence was simply cut from the film," Binder recounts. "They just flashed names on the screen."
Censorship problems don't only affect the credits, but also the trailers which Binder also assembles for the Bond films.
"A trailer must be G-rated, no matter what rating the picture gets, because it will be screened with other pictures," he says. "You might even have your trailer playing with a Disney picture, where you have many kids present in the audience.
"For The Spy Who Loved Me trailer, there was some trouble with a clip from a train sequence in which Bond smashes a lamp against Jaws' teeth and it flashes. We had that in the trailer originally, but they made me cut it out. On the last picture, For Your Eyes Only, we had problems with the scene in which Bond kicks the Mercedes off the cliff. The British censor said, 'No, you can't show that happening.' I said, 'Why? The guy inside is a vicious assassin who almost killed Bond. And Roger is just giving the car a little extra kick to send him on his way. ' But the censor still said, 'No, we consider that killing a man in cold blood.'
"And I said, 'Well, then, What the hell is happening in the rest of this thing, with all the bang? Everybody's getting shot up! Or killed! Or blown up!' "
The censor remained adamant; the scene had to be removed.
Maurice Binder shakes his head, bemused. He has faced the censors and their scissors before, he has listened to their illogical reasons, and he knows he'll have to do it again sometime in the future. With a title like Octopussy, it seems inevitable.
Next Issue: This is the end of "Sighting Down a Gun Barrel at 007," but Maurice Binder will return in "The End Titles" to discuss James Bond in Egypt and India, Sheena Easton and the lasergraphics of Octopussy.
[Source: Starlog #74, September 1983, P.20-26, 60]