Before I met with documentary filmmaker Josh Greenbaum about his latest film Becoming Bond (now available on iTunes in Canada and on the streaming service Hulu in the United States) when it made it’s local premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting his mother, who made a trip up to Toronto from Saratoga Springs, New York to support her son’s film. We chatted about the rainy weather, her son’s movie, and how she had been enjoying her first trip to Toronto. It made me think that more people should bring their parents along to press days, and after seeing Becoming Bond and talking to Greenbaum’s mother, it’s easy to see where the filmmaker’s good natured sense of humour and humility comes from.
By the time Greenbaum, who now resides in California, is ready to chat, he jokes that he hopes his mother hadn’t given away most of his good stories about his film. It’s kind of impossible to ruin the subject of Greenbaum’s latest in any way because there’s so much to talk about.
The backbone of Becoming Bond is a lengthy series of one-on-one interviews with George Lazenby, the Australian actor most famous for playing Ian Fleming’s beloved super-spy in only one film – 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – following the establishment of the role’s iconography by the Sean Connery. Most of what’s known about Lazenby surrounds his curiously brief time in the role, with some suggesting that the actor was fired and Lazenby asserting that he walked away of his own volition.
Through spending time with Lazenby, Greenbaum quickly learned that there was a lot more to George than meets the eye, and most of the key turning points in the actor and model’s life happened before he ever signed on to play Bond. Lazenby was a hell-raising grade school drop-out and former car salesman who travelled from Australia to England to chase after the woman he loved. While there, things didn’t go so well in his relationships to other people, but he did luck into becoming a sought after model. One day, he moonlighted for a fellow model and friend and ended up auditioning for James Bond. Lazenby had never worked as an actor a day in his life, and suddenly and inexplicably he was being considered for the lead in the first major film franchise in cinematic history. The upward trajectory of Lazenby’s career was astounding, but it wasn’t long before George realized that fame wasn’t for him, and he did everything possible to avoid reprising the role that could have led to untold riches had he kept at it.
Outside of some occasional archival material for context, Lazenby’s experience is told only from his perspective. Not wanting to make his film look like someone sitting in a chair for nearly two hours, Greenbaum hatched an idea to stage lovingly silly and irreverent period recreations of all of George’s major life events, with actor Josh Lawson gamely stepping in to play Lazenby’s younger surrogate.
We met with Greenbaum last month to chat about what it’s like getting to know and work with George Lazenby, how the actor’s early years are arguably crazier and funnier than his time playing Bond, and why his subject’s capacity for self-awareness might have saved him from bigger heartbreaks down the road.
How did you get hooked up with George Lazenby?
Josh Greenbaum: It was basically through a mutual friend. He lives in Santa Monica, California, and I live in Los Angeles, and this friend of mine who always knows I’m on the hunt for good subjects for a documentary said that I had to meet George and talk to him. He told me had all these crazy stories, and being a Bond fan in general I knew a little bit about him from growing up around the franchise. I knew he was the only guy to do only one James Bond. I went online to read up everything I could about him before meeting him, and there’s a lot of lore about him out there. There’s a lot of mystique. (laughs) So that was appealing, but also intimidating, and there’s a lot of stories out there that didn’t sound real. You mean to tell me that this guy lied about being an actor and got this huge role and turned down all these chances to reprise it? It just didn’t seem real to me.
It’s funny that you say that because given how outlandish his life seemed at times, lying to get the part of James Bond seemed like one of the more believable aspects of his story.
Josh Greenbaum: (laughs) Totally! That’s really true. As he says in the film, “How could I believe it if it wasn’t true?” But that’s how it started between me and him, just through a simple meeting like that. I went to lunch with him, and over that three hour lunch with him we only covered his life up until age twelve. We got nowhere NEAR the Bond story, and as you can see in the film, the way he lived his life was incredible. His life up until age twelve – and I told him this – was twenty times more interesting than my life had been up to age 37. When he wanted to go and do something, he just did it. I would have loved to have brought a bag of live bats to school or a snake or something like that, and he really did it! I would have loved to go up to a 23 year old girl when I was a teenager and asked her what she was up to, and he just went and did it.
That being said, even after that meeting, he didn’t sign off on it right away. I drove home from that lunch intrigued and instantly excited by his story, but the most exciting thing for me was this re-enactment idea, which is something I hadn’t seen before. You know as a filmmaker you get excited by something when you feel like you’re doing something new, and I had never seen someone attempting a documentary with these kinds of comedic re-enactments, and so many of his stories are just so funny.
Were there any stories that you felt like you couldn’t re-enact?
Josh Greenbaum: There were a few that were fun, but we were mostly just limited in time and budget. I don’t know if you recall early in the film where George says that he stole a car at age 6, but the real end of that story was that his joy ride came to an end when he ran the car into a fire truck. (laughs) He hit a fire truck because he was six years old and he didn’t know how to stop and steer. He didn’t hit it hard, but he still hit it. So the firefighters inside jump out, and George hightails it and goes and hides in the wheel-well of the firetruck. (laughs) We couldn’t get a fire truck and we definitely couldn’t afford a car crash, so we had to cut out of the story before that point. It would have been great to have included it, but you have to choose your battles when you don’t have unlimited funding.
I’m sure there are a lot of producers and backers out there willing to fund any kind of film when the subject is someone with direct ties to the Bond franchise, but was there a hard time convincing people to make this film when the first hour or the film is everything that comes before Bond?
Josh Greenbaum: Absolutely. It was a conversation, for sure. Hulu, who came on board before we even shot, were our financiers and distributor, and I had made a show for them called Behind the Mask, which was a docu-series about sports mascots, so I had a relationship with them already. What was nice is that there was a level of trust, but at the same time taking so long to get to Bond was a challenge. I sort of told them early on and forewarned them that although the Bond stuff was interesting, to me the two questions that I wanted to know the answers to were how a man went from being a poor Australian, middle school dropout, car mechanic to becoming Bond and what kind of guy turns all that success down. And to answer those questions, particularly the latter one, which is the deeper one, you really do need to spend time getting to the heart of. The decisions he made weren’t born in the moment. They carried on throughout his life.
I think without knowing who George was, his post-Bond period would have seemed like he was a hack, wacko who went on talk shows with this giant beard and hated everything. He would have looked like a Joaquin Phoenix type.
Josh Greenbaum: And the fact is that someone could probably make the Joaquin Phoenix doc in a similar way to understand what it was that he was doing. But that’s a perfect analogy. So far the response to the approach we took has been fantastic, but the most die hard Bond fans are the ones who are coming in with that expectation, and they might get antsy wondering when we’re going to get to the Bond stuff, but what I always love is that George was Bond before he was Bond. One of the titles we always kicked around was “Bigger Than Bond,” and I think while George wasn’t as debonair, he was living a very Bond-like lifestyle before he even stepped into that role. And why pretend to live that life when you could actually live it?
Lazenby is cited by a lot of Bond fans as their favourite Bond, so how has the response been among fans of his one film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?
Josh Greenbaum: Great! I obviously watched On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before doing this. I had seen it as a kid, but I think it was more fun to watch it after hearing George’s story and knowing that he never acted a day in his life. The truth is that acting isn’t easy. Some people can make it look easy, and George is pretty damn good, I think. The response at the time was always going to be very difficult. We’re nowadays used to actors stepping in to already established roles. We know there’s always going to be a new Batman, or Superman, or Bond, and that’s normal for us. It wasn’t normal in 1969. First of all, there weren’t franchises like this, and Sean Connery just WAS James Bond. It would be like recasting Abbot and Costello or taking Boris Karloff out of monster movies. Connery WAS Bond. No matter who stepped in there, in the moment they were going to be challenged, and I think George really stepped up.
There are certain filmmakers today, like Christopher Nolan, who cite On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as their favourite Bond film. If you watch Inception now, you’ll see that it’s VERY influenced by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The other fun movie to watch after watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is realizing how much of it made it into Austin Powers. That’s pretty much where the fem-bots come from, and George was the only Bond to wear that kind of a puffy shirt. All of that is from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There’s a degree of camp to it, which could be intentional or not, and it’s definitely a fun film.
For what might be the first time in this great of detail, George is allowed to talk on camera about why he walked away from Bond so resolutely, and what’s great about it here is that it seems like it was the best decision he could have made for his own happiness and well being.
Josh Greenbaum: That’s what fascinated me. Here’s a guy that from an outsider’s perspective, one would assume would be so full of regret. By walking through this entire journey with him and realizing that we live in a celebrity obsessed culture where fame comes at a cost, we see what he sees, and that’s how people love James Bond, but they don’t necessarily love George Lazenby. Everyone wants that adulation, but the truth is that once you step out of that role, fame is fickle and easily gone. He never liked that feeling, and that justification from him is sound. There is some regret that he does express, and it’s for two reasons: financially he wished he had that money and he wished he did another so people didn’t mistakenly think that he got fired. One thing you have to remember is that he was a person who never wanted to be an actor as a kid, so for someone like that, it’s not crazy hard to walk away.
One of the things that’s great about George that we see in the film is that he’s very self aware, and his experiences in his own crazed pre-Bond life speak to someone who immediately recognized that playing Bond was putting him into a toxic environment that he wanted no part of. In some ways it was like he was staging his own intervention.
Josh Greenbaum: He did, and I think you said it well. You see it with a lot of celebrities now, but you didn’t see it a lot back then. Back then, everyone faked more and more like they were happy, when genuinely few of them were. It’s all about balance, and it’s a messed up balance. You lose your identity for these characters that you play. It’s hard to have meaningful relationships with people. You generally don’t know who really cares for you or has your best interests in mind. You’re always wondering what people want from you. Those are the things that take their toll, and George was refreshingly aware of all that.
He told me this story, and I don’t have it in the film, but he said he went to a psychic who told him that had he stayed in that role, he would have been in Beverly Hills mansion, but he also would have had three divorces and become an alcoholic. He genuinely believed that would have been true because that was the only path he could see himself headed down had he stayed on as Bond. He got to the mountaintop and saw that everything wasn’t so great from up there.
It was also interesting to see how much of a take charge person he was, like watching how he personally paid out of pocket to do a U.S. press tour for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when the studio didn’t want him to. I think today when we talk about people doing press from huge franchises, this is the kind of discussion that seems almost unfathomable. That archival footage of that press tour that you show in the film where he seems like a normal human being is incredibly endearing.
Josh Greenbaum: The thing about life is that as you get older, you get more perspective, and I can’t imagine how weird of a process this must have been for him making this film. Looking back at those clips from that press tour, there’s a degree of authenticity to it that just doesn’t jive with how we see celebrities. Generally when people come out on a talk show, they’re still in some form of character or another. My actor friends will tell me that doing talk shows and press is work, and it’s sometimes hard work. I think George came out, naïvely or not, just being himself. It would have been so much easier for him to have protected himself and gone back to a bunch of rehearsed lines, but that wasn’t him. That interview that we have in the film with David Frost is so fascinating to watch. Even the body language in that interview is fascinating to watch. Frost keeps going back to talk about George’s beard, and you can see over time George just politely trying to move around the subject to talk about literally anything else with more substance to it. At the end of it, you can see George trying to walk off stage quickly, and David just pulls him back in. There’s just this weird energy to it. But George lived his life the way he wanted to.
One of the unique things about this project was that George did have approval rights over the final film, and that’s scary and most people should never do that, especially with George, who as you can see in the film is NOT an easy negotiator. He had us by “the short and curly’s” like he said he had the Bond producers, but we had to give him that. One of the scariest things was that when we cut together what we had, we had to show it to him after we shot everything and we couldn’t reshoot anything, nor did we want to cut anything out. Ego is always difficult to deal with, and he could have scrapped the whole thing if he didn’t like how his hair looked or if he complained that one of the actresses looked nothing like anyone he knew.
The truth is that he loved the film, but the scariest part of that process was that by the time we did our fourth interview with George, we had already shot the re-enactments, and this was just sort of a follow-up interview. We cut out a lot of the re-enactments from what we showed him out of fear that if our producers showed him all of it, one little clip might be something he disliked out of context. I wasn’t really of that same mindset because I thought that showing him these moments could also have triggered an emotional response. For our fourth interview, we used the same thing to conduct it that Errol Morris uses, which is the Interrotron, and I wouldn’t be in the room, but George could see my face on a monitor. I called an audible in the middle of an interview to show him a clip because I always wanted a bit more of an emotional response when he talks about leaving the love of his life for the last time. I played that scene and watched his face, and as soon as the scene ended, he gets choked up and starts talking about how life would have been different if he had stayed with her.
It worked out, but I guess this is a long winded way to say that you need that amount of time to reflect on your life authentically. I think in the moment, you can’t do that. My last feature documentary was a film called The Short Game, which was about kids who were professional golfers. I remember interviewing some of those kids on the day of their tournaments, and right after their rounds, and there’s nothing useful in that. No one cares if they pulled their put to the left, but everyone cares about the repercussions of it all. It was only when I returned to them several months later and I showed them specific incidents, then they were talking about their feelings with scope and depth. That’s the benefit of time, and that’s a big part of George’s story. Now he can laugh and be honest.