Interview: Tony Scott
Tony Scott is the hippest looking 64-year-old I've ever seen. Full of energy and dressed in a stylish hoodie at 10 a.m., he gave over an hour of his time to a group of online journalists yesterday, answering questions about everything from working with Denzel Washington in four movies to the homoeroticism of Top Gun. This is a guy who loves movies, who stays young by making movies, and is happy to talk candidly about his 25+ years in the business.
Want to know which movie he thinks he fucked up by overdoing the camera work? Want to know which legendary movie producer discovered him while high at 3 a.m.? Ever wonder how anyone can possibly film a movie in the subway and enjoy it? Then read on, as we talk about Scott's new movie The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and lots more.
How extensive was the shooting in the NYC subway system?
It was all here. We did everything in New York. They gave me the opportunity to use real toys and real trains in the subway. What we shot in the motorman’s booth with Travolta was on stage, but everything else is real. All other movies where you see them on subways they make them build sets, and it’s very hard to catch the real feel, and you always sense there’s something not quite right, or something wrong. I think they gave me full-on cooperation here because the original was one of New York’s favorite movies.
We did a tour of the subways, and it was so dusty and moldy down there. I can’t imagine spending months filming down there!
No, I loved it down there. But I’m from the northeast of England, which is depressed mining and shipbuilding, so I grew up in this. You said you did a lot of research for the film. Could you elaborate on that?
What always leads me in terms of my movies are characters. [I tell my production team] 'Go into the real world, cast these people in the real world, and find me role models for my writers.' Then I reverse-engineer. I don’t change the structure of the script, but I use my research. That’s always been my mantra, and that’s what gets me excited, because I get to educate and entertain myself in terms of worlds I could never normally touch, other than the fact that I’m a director. And I get paid well to do this, so it’s fun!
What about the control room? I heard they don’t let anyone in there at all.
They let me in, and it’s like NASA. I can’t tell you where it is, otherwise I’ll have to kill you! It was difficult for us to get in there because of the security – somebody could get in there and target the subways. . I went in there on a Sunday morning, a hundred people, it’s the size of a football field – three stories high - and you could’ve heard a pin drop. Everybody’s on headsets, in suits, so I just took it right from that, and that’s what we did in our movie.
So what attracted you to the original film, and why did you think it was ripe for a remake?
One, I don’t regard it as a remake. I don’t regard it as a reinvention. My memory of the original was Walter Matthau, with his laconic New York sense of humor, his pants at half-mast – he was brilliant. Our story is motivated by John’s character, who’s a real guy, and his character is motivated by this real guy who just got out of jail before we started prepping the movie. But listen, I love the original. I could only watch ten minutes of it and then I had to stop, because I wanted to leave that as a separate movie, and not make this a reinvention or a remake.
In movies like this, where the subways play such a large character, how well do you think it translates to people whose environments are outside of cities?
I think it’s a very exciting two hours, and it puts you on the edge of your seat. I think everybody’s familiar with what a subway looks and feels like because of television. I think I’ve given a feeling that the subway’s just different from what they’ve experienced before, and I think I’ve made New York a very strong character in the movie.
This is the fourth or fifth time you’ve worked with Denzel Washington. So what’s it like working with someone you’ve worked with so often? Do you guys have a shorthand? And does it make the day go by easier?
No! Our days are always hard. There is a shorthand, but there’s a terrible, old-fashioned word called ‘respect’. I respect his process and he respects mine, and both of us are insecure in that we’re always examining and making what we do better, and my goal every day is to try and think, “How do I see these characters in a different way?” And I’m always motivated by the characters, and it’s the same with Denzel. I mean you look at the four movies I’ve done with him, he’s always reached back inside himself and taken different aspects of his personality, from: Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu and Pelham, he’s always given me a different Denzel. And that’s what I do with all my actors. I say, “There’s an aspect of you inside him, and I’ve got this guy over here, and he fits that aspect of your personality.” With Denzel, he’s always delivered. He’s one of those actors who can do nothing and communicate everything, and that comes from doing your homework. If you feel comfortable about yourself, you don’t have to give. You can just let the camera sit and do nothing – and I rarely do, as the camera’s always [moving].
Your camera is moving a lot in this movie, in scenes where it's not necessarily motivated. For example, Gandolfini comes out of the subway after he first hears about the hijacking and he’s talking to his assistant, and you do three or four 180 swoops in a row. What’s that all about?
360s! It’s about energy and it’s about momentum, and I think the movie’s very exciting, and it’s not one individual thing. The true excitement comes from the actors – that gives you the true drama – and whatever I can do with the camera, that’s icing on the cake. I wanted the movie to grab you. I use four cameras and I maybe do three takes – so the actors love it. Maybe I move it more than I should, but that’s the nature of the way I am. One of the big challenges for this movie, and one of the reasons it’s sort of perverse why I took it on is in the original, it’s really about two guys on the telephone for two-thirds of the movie, and I said, “Damn! This is going to be hard trying to keep it tense!” I was always seeing that tension, and Brian gave me the tension on the pages, and the actors gave me the tension in terms of their interplay.
This is an ambitious project in terms of going into the subway. Were there any specific snafus technically or logistically?
No, it was hard. When I first came here, I was asking all these questions, I want to do this, I want to do that-- "No." Then I discovered it was New York, and there was a way that I had to learn. And embracing them, and actually making them part of the project. And people loved it. It was polled as New York's favorite movie, the original [Pelham 1 2 3]. [During shooting I was] taking 150 people into the subway at night. We've got John, and we've got Denzel, and I had real trains behind them at 40 miles an hour. You can CG a train in , but you watch the performances change. They go to a whole different dimension when you put actors in a real environment. The strength of my movies is that's what I always do. I always drop actors right in the middle. I will not peel away the sound to give them an easier time. They always get angry at me at the beginning.
How do you define both New York and L.A. as characters?
You look at how I shot New York in the beginning, my definition I stole from Koyaanisqatsi. I said 'How can I portray New York, not just differently from how it's done before, but how can I portray it as the guy that John Travolta wanted to take revenge on, wanted to humiliate.' I'm a plagiarist-- I always look back at other movies and I steal, but I steal well, and I reinvent. Koyaanisqatsi, it's a huge stoner movie. It was just time lapse, and i thought it was great. I kept reaching, saying how can I grab the audience right at the beginning, make them feel the anxiety and the pressure of New York. Then I cut my opening title sequence.
When Ridley was shooting American Gangster, he was saying the city is impossible to control when you're shooting. Did you have that same experience?
I got lucky. The Waldorf was hard, because that sequence, they'd only let me shoot six guns at a time, and each gun could only have six rounds in it. I had to shoot all that shootout, and they wouldn't let me use automatic guns, because you know they're scared in the city. Imagine staying at the Waldorf Sunday morning, and hearing all that gunfire. I had to cobble all that together to make it look like-- I stole from Bonnie and Clyde, another movie. I actually stole it from Wild Bunch. No, I had a good experience here. I had a few fingers thrown at me from cars going by. But other than that, it was good. And the Manhattan Bridge, that was hard, with the helicopters and the trains and the cars. We did it on Sunday, and I was respectful of the times. I didn't run over.
How do you work with your brother Ridley?
If Ridley and I worked together on the set we’d kill each other. But we’ve been in business for 45 years together, and when business is good in blood there’s nothing better, but rarely it’s good. So we’re right arm/left arm. And we’ve developed these companies now – our commercial production company RSA, and we’ve got Scott Free Productions. He’s great. He’s the nuts-and-bolts up at the front, and I’m the day-to-day.
What do you think are the basic elements that turn an action-thriller into a classic?
Damn. That’s a very intellectual question! I always get criticized for style over content, unlike Ridley’s films like Alien or Blade Runner or Gladiator that go right into the classic box right away. Mine sort of hover. Maybe with time people will start saying they should be classics, but I think I’m always perceived as reaching too hard for difference, and difference doesn’t categorize you as the ‘classic’ category.
Speaking of your style, you’re known for a very distinctive editing techniques with freeze-frames, jumbled chronologies, slo-mo - Domino is an extreme example.
If you look at Domino, I sound like a broken record, but everything is driven by research. I hung out with these bounty hunters who were all coked up all the time – they’re all on speed or meth – and the movie was a product of my research. Everything in the way I shoot the movie is dictated by the world when I touch it, so we had ride-alongs with bounty hunters who were [sniffing like crazy] in the back, and it’s a product of that. But I think I was wrong. I didn’t let the movie breathe enough. The script was great – Richard Kelly wrote a great script – and I got overcome by the insanity of the world I was touching. I think I fucked up on that one.
We were talking about classics earlier, and I was wondering if you could talk about the enduring legacy of Top Gun? Also, a lot of people have satirized the homoerotic elements of the film. Was any of that apparent while you were filming?
No it wasn’t. Not at all. But with Top Gun, I had just done The Hunger, and Hollywood’s always trying to find the new kid on the block, and nobody’s seen a foot of film, and I was actually developing Man on Fire 25 years ago, and they saw a cut of The Hunger, and all of a sudden my parking spot at Warner Brothers was painted out! It took me four more years to get another movie, which was Top Gun. Don Simpson saw [The Hunger] channel-surfing at 3 a.m. – I think he was high. And he actually saw a Saab commercial that I shot which is a jet racing a car, then he saw The Hunger, and him and Jerry [Bruckheimer] called me. Hollywood just hated that movie. They called it, “Esoteric, artsy-fartsy,” and we’re going to do a sequel to The Hunger. I’m not directing it, but we’re doing it.
Do you have nostalgia for the way films were being made and the way the industry worked in the 80s?
The 80s was a whole era. We were criticized, we being the Brits coming over, because we were out of advertising-- Alan parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne, my brother-- we were criticized about style over content. Jerry Bruckheimer was very bored of the way American movies were very traditional and classically done. Jerry was always looking for difference. That's why I did six movies with Jerry. He always applauded the way I wanted to approach things. That period in the 80s was a period when I was constantly being criticized, and my press was horrible. I never read any press after The Hunger. Me, my brother, not Alan Parker, Alan Parker skated through. Adrian Lyne got slammed like I did.
You've mentioned fear quite a few times this morning. Is fear a motivating factor in many of your characters, and where does that come from for you?
If you look at my body of work, there's always a dark side to my characters. They've always got a skeleton in the closet, they've always got a subtext. I like that. Whether it's Bruce Willis in Last Boy Scout or Denzel in this. I think fear, and there's two ways of looking at fear. The most frightening thing I do in my life is getting up and shooting movies. Commercials, movies, every morning I'm bolt upright on one hour two hours sleep, before the alarm clock goes off. That's a good thing. That fear motivates me, and I enjoy that fear. I'm perverse in that way. I do other things. I've rock climbed all my life. Whenever I finish a movie, I do multi-day ascents, I got hang on a wall in Yosemite. That fear is tangible. That's black and white. I can make this hold or that hold The other fear is intangible, it's very abstract, and that's more frightening.
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