"Once you’ve touched the real world, there’s nothing more fascinating and nothing stranger than the real world and the people." -- Tony Scott
Tony Scott had ideas. He had so many ideas that, the day I interviewed him (in 2006) for his then newest picture, the remarkable Deja Vu, he talked to me (often off the record) for nearly an hour. We talked about Helmut Newton, Hunter S. Thompson (Scott wanted to bring “Hell’s Angels” to the big screen), film noir, painters he especially loved and how The Last Boy Scout is something of an underappreciated masterpiece (my words). He was exceedingly bright. He was also incredibly personable. He asked me questions about myself. He was curious about what I was doing with my career and life, and asked about any creative endeavors I may have. He offered advice and encouragement. He was clearly interested in real people. He was larger than life and down to earth at the same time. It didn't seem like an act. He was genuine.
What follows is that interview, shortened for my particular outlet due to the many detours the discussion took and off the record talk (I yearn to find my original tape). In person, he was inspired -- one with such enthusiasm, sparkling eyes, warmth, intelligence and excitement for the next thing, that his excitement was infectious. I’ve always heard his crews loved him. I’m not surprised. When I think of Tony Scott, I think of his last, and one of his finest, most beautifully crafted and heartfelt movies -- Unstoppable. What a tremendous loss.
Tony Scott may well have been one of the most influential, yet underrated directors working. He was also one of the most talented, interesting and multi-layered in terms of truly merging that difficult task of style and substance – something lazier critics have a hard time understanding. For as flashy and big budgeted and beautiful as his pictures can be, they’re also both surreal and real, and often powerfully sincere. Unstoppable showcased pure Tony Scott but was as lean and as old fashioned as a Richard Fleischer picture with the added dimension of working class Americans -- and Washington in particular --disenfranchised from his job, sticking it to the man, sticking up for himself and stopping that goddamn train. From his artistic, sensuous debut, The Hunger; to his massively successful and influential Top Gun; to his Quentin Tarantino-penned, adored now classic True Romance; to his solidly entertaining Crimson Tide; to his complex and funny, The Conversation-like Enemy of the State; to the Pitt/Redford teaming in Spy Game; to his ambitious, hyper speedy Domino; to all the other films that have been underrated (like the great, unfairly maligned The Last Boy Scout and the soulful Man on Fire), Scott has influenced, infuriated and entertained people with a boundless energy – on film and in person.
Here, he was discussing the time travel thriller Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington (in their then third collaboration. Washington would continue with The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and one of my top ten of 2010, Unstoppable). Scott found the time to discuss work, inspiration, real life, movies and his famous older brother Ridley. I wish I could include more of this conversation. Like his movies, Scott proved to be both endlessly interesting and interested.
What filmmakers inspired you?
Two influences. My brother and Nick [Nicholas] Roeg. My first movie, The Hunger, was a direct knock-off of Nick’s movie Performance. And Ridley really inspired me…You know, I can talk about Polanski and all the other guys. I steal!
And a lot of filmmakers, as you say, “steal…”
A lot of them deny it though! They’re liars! (laughs) Because that is what art is about. Art is about reproducing and recreating and my background as a painter involves the same choices. Canvases and scripts: You’ve got cast, you’ve got wardrobe and locations. It’s the same mental process.
Your films are incredibly stylistic while being rooted in the real world -- you base so much on real people and events, like Domino.
Domino. I should have slowed down a bit (laughs). But I have no regrets. I love the fact that people will continue to employ me and pay me to do what I want to do, which is attempt another world. That’s what so great even about this. I get the opportunity to do new things. I get the chance to do the research, educate myself and I get the chance in touching bounty hunters, touching this word. But… (laughs) all the fucking guys I met were on speed! [He wanted the film style to match that feeling] And little Domino, God bless her, I knew her for twelve years. She was like my daughter.
Your style mixes different film technologies in really intriguing personal ways. Man on Fire is such a moving story of redemption.
It sounds very intellectual and its not, it’s just a fact -- I let style be dictated by material. The style of Man on Fire and its vision and it’s my point of view of how I want to tell the story. With Man on Fire I had a rule of thumb -- if Denzel thought it, I would see it. To me the movie was about paranoia, betrayal and redemption, so therefore I wanted to work the inner psyche of Denzel’s mind so if he thought it, I would see it. And I would articulate it with the different techniques from a hand crank camera to the flashbacks.
Deja Vu is an interesting kind of suspense - thriller. And it’s ambitious in terms of how real it all feels. And I like the idea of an ATF agent falling in love with an image through “a time portal” of a dead woman. It reminded me of Otto Preminger's Laura. Was that at all intentional?
Yes! The Deja Vu writers were inspired by Laura. This movie terrified me more than anything because it’s creatively so dangerous, the science fiction. This movie is a dangerous movie because its science fiction that I wanted to make science fact. And if you get these movies a little bit wrong it can go drastically wrong. So all the technology we used in the movie is used in the world today.
This is the third time you’ve worked with Denzel Washington, why do you like working with him?
One, I love what he does. I love that he always comes up with the goods, he always delivers. I also love his work ethic. He and I are very similar, not just with his ethic but with his process. He loves research. I love research. And he always looks back into the real world for inspiration. And so, in each of the movies, I’ve found a role model for him -- a real guy. Denzel’s very serious about what he does. He loves doing homework.
Jim Caviezel is so powerfully creepy in this movie, were you thinking specifically of him for this role?
For J.C. (as I call him)…it’s hard trying to pass the bad guy or terrorist because in the end in can be so arch or archetypal and I was trying to think of who I was going to use. And I took a meeting with J.C. only because his agent was Denzel’s agent and I thought, I don’t know about Jim Caviezel, he played Jesus Christ. But when I sat with him for thirty seconds and he barely said anything. I said, “You’ve got the part.” [Scott underscored how talented Caviezel was and how he should play evil more often. He felt he could play Jesus just as easily as the devil.]
You’ve worked with a lot of great and legendary actors -- from Gene Hackman to Christopher Walken to Dennis Hopper to Rober De Niro to Robert Redford (and more), and at the same time you’ve showcased a lot of new talent, like Keira Knightley in Domino and Tom Cruise in Top Gun. How do you work with actors?
A director’s like the shrink. You have to adapt to the personality in front of you. So someone like Chris [Walken] is that he’s an adaptation to himself. What’s funny about Walken and Hackman is that in their early days, they almost didn’t have a funny bone in their body, and now they’re so funny. You think of Chris when he was in The Deer Hunter (a great film), and now he’s the funniest guy. His sense of timing. He can read the telephone book and you’ll laugh.
From the flight sequences in Top Gun to the creative and layered vision of violence (and romantic and darkly funny too) in pictures like True Romance and The Last Boy Scout, you’ve been very influential. Do you see a movie and go, I thought of that?
I’m pleased that I do influence things. I see it on television mostly, things like “C.S.I.” It makes me happy when it’s done well. When I did The Hunger, I called up Nick [Roeg] and said, “I think I just ripped you off -- I ripped off Performance” and he said, “Well dear boy, as long as you did a good job, I don’t give a fuck!”
KM: This question is asked so often and hard to answer, but I am curious: Do you have a favorite film?
TS: True Romance.I love all my films but True Romance was the best screenplay I ever had. And all that was Quentin. It was so well crafted. But I did change the end. Originally in Quentin’s version [Christian Slater dies] and Patricia [Arquette] pulls over on the freeway and she puts a gun in her mouth [she doesn’t die]. I shot the film in continuity, so by the time I got to the end of shooting the movie, I had fallen in love with the two characters. It was a love story. I wanted these characters to live!
You’ve sometimes been criticized for the violence in your pictures but I think there’s always meaning attached. I especially admire the ferocious sequence in True Romance between Patricia Arquette and James Gandolfini. Arquette’s trying so hard to fight back and we’re rooting for her -- it’s truly a woman doing everything she can to survive. It hits the viewers with all kinds of emotions and sensations.
That particular scene. It was so multi-layered in terms of charm, humor and violence at the extreme…and James added a lot to that. Patricia is unique; she’s fantastic in that movie. She’s got this angelic childlike quality yet she’s got this strangeness. She was amazing in True Romance.
What’s happening with The Warriors re-make?
With The Warriors, I’m going to set it in L.A. I’m not going to do a re-make, I’m going to do a re-think. I want to do it in L.A. and make it contemporary but instead of the gangs being thirty guys, it’s going to be 300. I got to meet all the gang members, all the drug cartels. To me, that’s exciting. And I’m not just being hip. I’m meeting tough guys. It’s great to do that. You can’t reproduce those faces in Hollywood with extras. Once you’ve touched the real world, there’s nothing more fascinating and nothing stranger than the real world and the people.
Would you ever direct with your brother Ridley?
There would be bloodletting! Someone would die on the first day! Ridley and I are great in terms of business, there’s nothing stronger than blood. But we’re very different… Ridley’s a father figure. He’s always coaxed and guided me through lots of trials and tribulations in my life and I’ve always looked to him. As a family we’re very close. Without sounding corny, he’s my best friend.
Farewell, Tony Scott.