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The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 was not the best film of Tony Scott's career-- it seems safe to acknowledge that even today, when we're mourning his shocking death yesterday at the age of 68. But Pelham 1,2,3, did give me the opportunity, back in 2009, to participate in a lengthy roundtable interview with Scott, one of the longest interviews I'd gotten to do that point, and more freewheeling and wide-ranging over his entire career than I ever would have expected.
Wearing his trademark orange hat, and with an enchanting energy that I think inspired everyone in the room to ask him more out-there questions than they would have otherwise, Tony Scott seemed to be talking about everything-- including summing up his trademark frenetic camera style, which wound up in Pelham 1,2,3 as a gigantic 360-degree pan shot around James Gandolfini talking on the phone:
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.
And in talking about how he defined New York as a character, he good-naturedly described himself as a "plagiarist," and name-dropped probably the last movie you'd expect to inspire Tony Scott:
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.
He also allowed for a little nostalgia storytelling, including the warts-and-all story of how Top Gun got made, which includes late producer Don Simpson channel-surfing while high and catching Scott's low-budget feature The Hunger:
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."
Scott had previously described his working relationship with brother Ridley as "right arm/left arm," but when asked a fairly boilerplate question about what turns an action movie into a classic, he allowed a little insight into a life was hugely successful, but not as well-regarded as for the man who made Alien and Blade Runner and won Oscars for Gladiator.
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.
He ended with an anecdote that's fairly chilling in light of his death, jumping from a bridge in Los Angeles. Having used the word "fear" many times to describe a motivating factor in his filmmaking, Scott first described the darker side of his many characters, then told us of his pastime of rock-climbing when he was finished with a movie.
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.
You can read the full, original interview here. Tony Scott, who changed commercial filmmaking forever with his much-initiated but never-repeated style, will be missed immensely.