friday night movie club

The Mask of Zorro’s Martin Campbell on the Secret to Making a Great Romantic Action Epic

Martin Campbell, Anthony Hopkins, and Antonio Banderas on the set of The Mask of Zorro. Photo: TriStar Pictures

We need to talk more about Martin Campbell. The New Zealand–born director successfully helped reinvent James Bond twice, with 1995’s GoldenEye and 2006’s Casino Royale. But perhaps even more impressively, he turned 1998’s The Mask of Zorro — a troubled project that seemed uncertain and unlikely until the day it was finally released — into one of the great romantic action epics of the last several decades. Interestingly, Campbell originally didn’t want to do Mask of Zorro; he tells me he said no three different times to the producers before finally relenting. The film — which I praised separately here, and which is Vulture’s Friday Night Movie Club selection this week — was recently released in a beautiful new 4K edition. I talked to the director about Zorro, Bond, what he thinks of the current state of action, and the new film he’s working on.

The Mask of Zorro was a film with a long development history. How did you end up getting hired to direct it?
Oddly enough, it’s a film I didn’t want to make. I turned it down three times. I think Robert Rodriguez was the original director, and Banderas was cast already. For whatever reason, Robert Rodriguez left the production, and I was asked if I would be interested in doing the film. And three times I said no. Finally, Steven Spielberg rang to ask me, and basically, he convinced me to do it.

What was it that Spielberg said that convinced you? 
Well, just that it was Spielberg. I had only worked in England basically up to that point, and I’d just done GoldenEye. So, someone like Steven ringing you up — I was very impressed. I “reluctantly agreed,” you could say. We had an original script, which I didn’t like very much. I don’t think anyone did. I eventually said yes, I came in, and I pretty much hired all of the people that Robert had hired himself. Very good team, very good production-design team.

Did you end up rewriting the script?
Oh God, yes. The script was rewritten by David Ward, who deserves to be credited but wasn’t. He did the final rewrite on the script and did a terrific job on it. That’s really what brought it to the screen. The script that I read, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wrote. They’re great storytellers, so the actual fencepost of the narrative was in place: Zorro mentoring the strong-willed, strong-headed young guy who wants to be Zorro. That whole idea of the peasant from across the tracks meeting the upper-class girl. It’s a classic tale. It’s just perfect. They put all that in place. What David brought were the characterization and the humor. He did a complete pass-through of the script. People were worried that the dialogue was too modern, too contemporary. Even Steven was, I think. My argument was that a modern audience, the people that are going to see this movie, are going to want to see it as a contemporary tale, not as some musty period drama.

Your troubles didn’t end there with the film, though, did they?
Halfway through preproduction, Mark Canton left the studio and John Calley came in to run it. John, of course, I had worked with on GoldenEye. He was a very funny, entertaining man. Never used to announce his name on the phone. He rang me up one day and immediately said, “I don’t like the project, I don’t like the script, and I don’t like how much it’s costing.” I was in a very bad mood because I had reluctantly come on to the picture, and I remember saying to him, “In that case, why don’t you just cancel the picture? Because I’m fucking fed up with it.” Ten days later, I get word that we were green-lit. I ringed John and asked why he green-lit this movie. He said, “Well, I’m in it for $12 million” — which he was, because of delays and they had to hold Banderas, they wanted Hopkins, the whole caboodle, and all the scripts — “I’m in for $12 million, and even if it’s a dog, I can get $45 million foreign, so I’m making a film for $3 million dollars.” Hilarious kind of logic. We were too far into the project. Too much money had been spent.

Sometime around this time, Sean Connery left the project too, right?
No, he never had anything to do with it. Not that I know of. He may have been there at one point but I never heard the name mentioned. What happened was we wanted Hopkins, a perfect sort of star, and he was filming The Edge in Calgary, Canada. I flew to Canada to meet him, and he said, “I’d love to do it, but I can’t because I have a very bad back and the physical stuff, I won’t be able to do. I very reluctantly have to say that I can’t do it.” So, I flew back to L.A. and sent the script to Alain Delon, of all people — who, by the way, had played Zorro in a French version of the film, and looked great at 60, or whatever he was then. His wife was his agent, I sent him the script saying I’d really, really like him to play Zorro, and I never heard back. Not a word. Thank God, because we heard back from Hopkins on a weekend. He had sneaked out of The Edge, and had a laser operation on his back. So, he accepted the role. And he was perfect.

I remember reading at the time about a Zorro movie coming out, and thinking, Why on Earth are they making that? Then, of course, it comes out and it’s delightful, incredibly charming to this day. It still holds up. 
Yes, it does.

Aside from the fact that you are a genius, why did it work so well? How did this happen? 
Who knows? [Laughs.] One of the great things was having Catherine Zeta-Jones. There’s nothing like being able to have someone really stand out. That was Steven’s suggestion, actually. We went down to Mexico, I tested three lead ladies and Catherine got the part. Banderas was terrific, of course. And we also had Hopkins.

It was a tough film to make. The studio hoped it would turn out okay, but there were no expectations. We just got on and made the film. I remember getting back in the editing room at Sony afterward, and I didn’t get a phone call from anybody! We were orphans. I didn’t get a call saying, “How’s it going? How’s it looking? Blah, blah.” Nothing. So we quietly got along with our editing, and we previewed the film, and the preview went terrifically well. We didn’t even have a second preview.

I did reshoot the ending of the film. The original ending was a scene at the end where after the mine blows up, all the prisoners, Zorro, and Catherine all go through the desert and Santa Anna turns up. There’s this kind of “I know what you’ve done, you know what I’ve done” relationship between them. Then, they’re escorted into the desert, and as the crowd heads off, the two people standing there kissing, now separated from the crowd, [are] Catherine and Antonio. That was the ending. That was what was previewed and the preview went tremendously well. [But] someone came up with an idea and said “Look, there’s one day of shooting. Why don’t we bookend the scene where de la Vega arrives at the early part of the [movie] with the baby where his wife dies? Why don’t we have a mirror of that?” Which I thought was tremendous. So, that’s what I shot on the lot.

There’s a couple of things that jump out at me about your work. You have a really good sense of space. You always know where everybody is and the context of the action is always very clear. Is that something you work on a lot ahead of time? 
Yeah, very much. I mean, a lot of action films, there’s a lot of shooting and people doing crazy things, but I don’t understand what the action is or where anybody is. A lot of people firing guns and people dropping dead. Where is everybody? I don’t know. The action itself tends to be very fast, blurred. There’s no geography at all. I’ve always thought [about] that problem. I do it on Bond as well; you gotta see the action and see what people are doing and what the strategy is.

One of the great things on Zorro is that they fight with swords. Well, how often do you get that these days? I was watching on Netflix the other night a film called Extraction. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. It’s Chris Hemsworth shooting probably around 500 people. It’s just guns, blasting, almost to the point of deadening. Now, it’s very well-directed. The action is very well-directed, and you do know what’s going on. At least we didn’t have guns in Zorro. That was the great thing.

What’s the secret to shooting a good sword fight? 
The secret is to have a bloody good trainer training the actors. It’s very dangerous, that stuff. Of course, they use aluminum blades, but you can still inflict very nasty injuries if you don’t do it right. On Zorro, we had an old guy, Bob Anderson, now dead, but he was an Olympic swordsman, very tough. Not impressed by actors’ stature. He just put them through the mill. That’s the secret of it, to have a terrific swordmaster training your actors.

In the ’90s, it seemed like there was this period of swashbucklers, or sort-of swashbucklers. The Three Musketeers in the early ’90s and then The Last of the Mohicans — which isn’t quite a swashbuckler but has those elements in it — and then even Braveheart and Rob Roy. The Mask of Zorro was at the tail-end of that trend, and I’ve always wondered what was it about that period? Was there something that created this interest in the genre? 
I don’t know. Robin Hood with Kevin Costner was also in there, and that was another big hit at the time. I’m not sure Rob Roy was big, but Braveheart was obviously a hit and it won Best Film. Zorro was obviously sword fighting, and indeed as you say The Last of the Mohicans, which is one of Michael Mann’s best — a terrific movie. I wish they did make a few more because the last Robin Hood was dreadful, the one that just recently came out. And quite recently in the last three to four years, there was also the King Arthur one that was bloody awful. What they do now is they’ve got their toolbox, their visual effects, and they start using that to do the improbable.

It’s another thing about action: When the action is absurd, people know it’s special effects or visual effects, and they just switch off. It’s just bullshit when you see that. People can’t drop 50 feet and land on their feet, or they can’t drive a car off a building, drop a hundred feet, and then keep going. And even the sword fighting is below par even if you look at Robin Hood, the latest version, and King Arthur, which I thought was abysmal. Those films just sort of came and went. Nobody was interested. A film I would love to remake is Scaramouche, which probably had the greatest sword fight of all. I don’t know if you remember that film with Stewart Granger, but [the sword fight] I think goes on for nine minutes at the end of the movie where it gets into the opera house. I think it’s Mel Ferrer and Granger. It’s a wonderful story.

There’s also this palpable sense of loss in a lot of your movies. In The Mask of Zorro, with the brother early on and Anthony Hopkins’s wife and his daughter. In Casino Royale, with Vesper — even though that’s at the end — or in The Foreigner, Vertical Limit, Edge of Darkness. It seems like if you can nail that sense of loss, it can really fuel that character and our interest in the story moving forward.
It’s also in my new film The Asset, too. Maybe it’s just sort of instinctive. I don’t know why I choose those projects. Yeah, now that you mention it, it is an element in my films. I don’t quite know why.

A lot of revenge movies do this, obviously, like the Death Wishes of the world. In your case, you take the structure, but you don’t make it a revenge movie — you make it a thriller or action movie. You find other ways for the story to develop than just this guy killing a bunch of people. 
You’ve got to get into the emotional spine of the story, which is really the most important thing. In something like Extraction — I know I keep talking about this, but I just saw it recently — the action stops and they have these moments between Chris Hemsworth and the boy that he’s extracting. There’s a long emotional scene where Hemsworth talks about his son he lost and so on and so forth. He is not emotional at all. You don’t feel anything for him. So, it feels like we got all this action, but we need a long, so-called emotional moment that goes on throughout the piece, to understand his character and why he’s so internalized and so on. Oddly enough, for me anyway, it just doesn’t work. And by the way, the action scenes in Extraction are brilliantly choreographed and shot and everything else … but do I feel anything? No, not really. I just think it’s very important to have an emotional spine to the story that is woven throughout it.

That’s something James Cameron gets. Apart from his technical brilliance and sheer scope of his work, there is an intimacy in all his movies. There’s always an emotional spine, whether it’s True Lies, or his Aliens, with Newt, the little girl and the mother instinct. Titanic worked because of that relationship. Even in Terminator, he does it with Schwarzenegger and [Linda Hamilton] and you believe it. Otherwise, brilliant though he is, it would be flat.

Is that something that as a director you have to fight for — emotional context? 
The emotional side of it, I’ve never really had a problem with producers or “the suits,” as they’re called. But they always comment about pace. “Is it fast enough?” “I think it could move faster here.” “This goes on and on.” I’m very careful to pace my movies before I even shoot. For example, if you have a lot of phone calls, of which I have a few in The Asset, there’s always someone moving with the phone while the other person’s there. In terms of pacing, I try to make sure there are no longueurs where the whole thing drops and drags.

I feel like that really comes through in something like Casino Royale where the signature set piece in the film is a poker game. 
That was my biggest worry in the movie! I simply thought, My God, we got three big sections in the poker game. How is an audience going to put up with this, playing poker? So, I watched all the films, probably everything from 5 Card Stud to the McQueen film The Cincinnati Kid, Maverick, all these card games, and what I realized is it’s not about the game, it’s about the guys playing the game, and if you will, the eye-fucking between them and what’s at stake, not just in terms of money but also personally. Between each of those sections of card games in Casino, there’s some action that goes on. When I cut it altogether, I didn’t have to worry, I just felt that there was enough going between Le Chiffre and Bond and even the other players to sustain the scenes.

That’s very true to the spirit of Ian Fleming, since he was actually all about these long passages, like the golf game in Goldfinger
None of the books have any humor at all. That was brought on by [director] Terence Young right at the beginning when Dr. No happened. When you read the books, they’re dead serious, and you have Bond who smokes too much — as Fleming did, and it killed him in the end — and he drinks too much, and his liver’s a bit dodgy.

You’re the guy who rebooted Bond twice and very successfully both times. Was there any trepidation on Casino Royale? Was there a sense that you had done this already?
There was when I did GoldenEye. They hadn’t made a Bond film in six or seven years, and that’s because [Giancarlo] Parretti, who ran MGM, was a crook and he was legally tied up. So, Bond legally wasn’t allowed to be made. It was only after Parretti went. And the big thing about GoldenEye was: Is it now relevant after all this time? The Tim Dalton ones had been successful but certainly on the lower ends of all the Bonds. The revenue was declining. I remember having that discussion about why would Bond be relevant in the ’90s? Is he an anachronism? So, first of all, we put a female M in. Secondly, we put in that scene where she answers the audience’s questions, when she calls him a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, and that got us over the hump. GoldenEye is more like the Bonds we’ve seen before — not the Roger Moore ones but the Sean Connery ones.

When it came to Casino, we absolutely decided — because of the previous film where there were ice palaces and disappearing cars, snowboarding off ice floes and stuff like that — that it had gone too far. We didn’t have the rights to Casino Royale. Columbia had them because of the terrible [1967] comedy … dreadful piece of work. The Broccolis [producers Barbara Broccoli and her brother Michael G. Wilson] got the rights back and the decision was made to bring it back to earth, completely remake it more realistic, witty, tough — which means you go back to the Fleming conception of Bond.

It sounds like Bond is getting ready for a reboot again, with Daniel Craig now probably having done his last one. Do you have any advice for whoever tries to do Bond next? 
Fleming always said Hoagy Carmichael was his perfect Bond — the face, all of that. And in fact, he objected very much when Connery was first cast, or was first being talked about.

If you look at Connery — who in my mind has always been the best simply because I was brought up on Connery — he was terrific and he looked great. Then you cut to Roger Moore … well, they were two entirely different Bonds, basically. Connery could kill without any hesitation and there was rough sexuality to the guy, something dangerous about him. Roger Moore was never dangerous. He had the charm, and some of the worst — which were some of the best — lines in Bond came out of the Roger Moore films. The sense of humor and the twinkle in Roger’s eyes, he made it his own. Ultimately, Pierce [Brosnan] made it his own, but it wasn’t that far removed from the Connery ones.

I think there’s a tradition that Daniel Craig has set with his Bond that will shoehorn smoothly to the next. It depends on who you cast. They can adapt essentially to contemporary events; I think that’s what’s going to happen. When I read about a female Bond or a black Bond — a black Bond might happen, but not a female one.

What are you working on now?
It’s a film called The Asset, with Michael Keaton, Sam Jackson, and Maggie Q. I shot that in Romania. I’ve still got five days of shooting, of course, because the virus fucked it up. I did manage to get a week shooting in London before the gates came down. I’ve only got five days in the Dominican Republic to finish up, and I’ve got a couple of days in Vietnam to shoot, but that’s it. We almost got through the film before disaster struck.

So, are you now editing what you have?
Oh yeah, I got 95 percent of the film done. What’s incredible now is that I can edit from home. The editor’s in her home and I’m in mine, and we just sit there editing between us with Evercast. She’s in the picture window and I’m in the picture window, and we can hear each other. She has all the footage, and it’s as though I’m in the room. It’s just as fast as if I was there. It’s incredible. I’ll be happy to edit like this while I’m at home. People are going to realize that you can actually do this stuff and just as efficiently. It’s going to change our way of working.

More From This Series

See All
Mask of Zorro Director on What Makes a Great Action Romance