Istanbul on film: Skyfall
A famous English spy, sugar windows, and a storm when you least expect it: how to shoot a James Bond film in Istanbul.

By Agata Trojak

It has been years since the film’s premiere, but many of James Bond’s biggest fans continue to visit Istanbul to follow in their favorite character’s steps. Perhaps what fewer people know, however, is that the film’s Istanbul scenes were executed by locals, too.

A local affair

Skyfall (2012) is the third Bond film to feature Istanbul as a visual backdrop to the adventures of the agent. In a press conference held in Istanbul in April 2012, Mendes exalted Istanbul as “the most magnificent place and incredible city” and revealed his attempt to capture its contemporary essence with a different eye. He’s not the first director to do so. From Russia with Love (1963) with Sean Connery, directed by Terence Young, featured such landmark locations as Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Bosphorus, and Sırkeci Train Station, while the Maiden’s Tower appeared in The World is Not Enough (1999) by Michael Apted, with Pierce Brosnan.

This time the plot turned around a search for a stolen hard drive containing the identities of agents placed as moles in terrorist organizations. James Bond, played by Daniel Craig for the third time, after his own “resurrection” travels from Turkey to Shanghai via London. Skyfall opens in Istanbul, with a spectacular chase scene in the city’s famous historical peninsula. The 007 agent follows his enemy of the moment, Patrice (Ola Rapace), through the crowds of Eminönü and over the Grand Bazaar’s roofs. Bond ends up on a train going to Adana. Shot accidentally by co-agent Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), 007 disappears into a waterfall. Presumed dead, he enjoys his life on a magnificent beach in Fethiye until his return to London to continue the case.

Nevra Koçoğlu, a production manager at ANKA Films, told The Guide Istanbul the story of their preparations for Skyfall. “The first idea for shooting Skyfall in Turkey came up with a scene held on the bridge. We have been asked to do some research of Turkish bridges and when we found the proper one in Adana, the Varda Viaduct, we started moving other locations to Turkey. The whole scouting process took around eight months.” ANKA is a production studio based in Istanbul, and was well up to the task. Other films in its portfolio include The World is Not Enough, and other international movies filmed in Turkey such as Head-On (2004) by Fatih Akin, Armageddon (1998) by Michael Bay and The Accidental Spy (2001) by Teddy Chan.

The rooftops of the Grand Bazaar

A comedy of errors

Shooting began with two crews working simultaneously in two different locations – one part of the crew was shooting in Adana, while the second unit was shooting the beach-bar scene in Fethiye. Later the two groups of filmmakers merged in Istanbul to continue together (totalling around 700 members of the crew, without extras) shooting the spectacular opening scene of the film in Istanbul’s Old Town.

The work was not without glitches – some provided by Istanbul’s fitful weather. The opening sequence starts in Eminönü, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Istanbul, with the Ottoman-era Yeni Cami (New Mosque), built in 1665, and the ever-crowded Spice Bazaar (or Mısır Çarşısı in Turkish) from the same century. ANKA’s team built complex sets with various props, including the sculpture of an Ottoman fountain and the construction of an outdoor bazaar in front of the New Mosque.

“It took many days to build the decorations. And unluckily while we were shooting the first scene, there was a storm in Istanbul, which destroyed the whole set,” says Koçoğlu. The art department had a challenging task rebuilding such a set in a very short time.

Often, urban legends arise among locals in the places where famous movies have been shot. This time there were some rumors that the Ottoman fountain prop would be kept in the historical part of Istanbul after the film, but unfortunately for James Bond fans, the rumors were denied by Koçoğlu. According to her, all important props were sent back with the British crew to their studios and anyone searching the city for the remains of Bond’s props will find their search sadly futile.

That thrilling motorbike chase on the Grand Bazaar’s roof right at the start of Skyfall captures a lot of attention. When we asked him about that scene, Menderes Demir – a production manager for Skyfall in Turkey – pointed out that it wouldn’t have been possible without help from some Grand Bazaar neighbours.

“Before shooting we had to negotiate and convince 1,650 shop owners in the area of Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, and in between. We covered around two streets in the background of the action with our own decorations, but we didn’t dress all of them,” he said.

And it wasn’t just the locals the team had to convince: they needed to collect endless numbers of permits from different institutions, beginning with The Ministry of Culture and the Transportation Commission, and ending with particular departments of the city’s police. “It was a hard and long process, but without the help of many institutions it would be impossible to block roads and make the film,” added Koçoğlu.

Bond wreaking havoc at the gates of the Grand bazaar

And the credit goes to Istanbul

Shooting on the historical roof of one of the oldest covered market in the world certainly required special protection – and the citizens of Istanbul were not entirely convinced that the filmmakers had pulled it off. “We built a second layer of the roof on top of the original one in order to protect it, but also for security reasons. People have been gossiping that we had destroyed the authentic roof, but it is not true, it was carefully protected,” says Koçoğlu.

There is one rumor, however, that is true: a real accident happened on set during the shooting of the stunning moment that the villain Patrice crashes through the window of the Grand Bazaar, followed by Bond who then chases him through its historical interiors. Despite several rehearsals and improvements for the motorbike’s way, after the stuntman broke the artificial windows, specially prepared from sugar, and landed in the Grand Bazaar, he lost control of his motorbike and broke the real glass of one of the nearest shops. The accident was widely commented in the Turkish news.  

With the city playing such an important role in the film, it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that many Istanbullites have taken advantage of the MI6 agent’s popularity: you can now go on guided tours to listen to stories and catch imaginary glimpses of 007 across the city. Of course, to enter the roof of the famous motorbike-chase scene, you will be asked to pay a small amount of Turkish lira to a local guard.

It wouldn’t be Turkey if there weren’t a possibility of drinking a small cup of Turkish tea while chasing the agent. The Grand Bazaar’s savvy neighbours have opened pop-up cafés on their terraces to serve thermos tea in disposable cups to James Bond’s fans during sunny days when the roofs are the most crowded. Of course, you can still do the Istanbul Bond tour on your own, but you’d be surprised by how many people came up with the same idea — on weekends you might find yourself with a whole crowd of Bond followers.

Maybe it is this ubiquitous chaos, toying with even the most careful of plans, that makes Istanbul the best place for atmospheric spy stories and the shenanigans of criminal masterminds. As the director of Skyfall mentioned at the opening press conference, the city is “old and new, both its traditions but also its modernity… It’s an ever-changing and evolving city.” For that reason — and maybe for the many challenges it throws at producers — it will always attract filmmakers from around the world, as a character, and not simply as a canvas.

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