What lies be­neath

Top Gun. Days of Thun­der. You might think you get the pic­ture, but there’s more to Tony Scott than car crashes and flash­ing lights. He tells Don­ald Clarke about his quest to emerge from the long shadow of his di­rec­tor brother Ri­d­ley, and how his new movie

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

EVERY­ONE’S got a soft spot for Tony Scott. Don’t they? It is un­de­ni­ably true that with neon con­vul­sions such as Top Gun and Days of Thun­der, the di­rec­tor helped in­vent the class of hys­ter­i­cal action thriller that al­lowed the dread Michael Bay a ca­reer. Yet there is, in Tony’s back cat­a­logue, a guilty plea­sure for all pun­ters. True Ro­mance, his adap­ta­tion of a Quentin Tarantino script, is al­most a re­spectable film. Crim­son Tide is a pretty de­cent sub­ma­rine movie.

Now, with The Tak­ing of Pel­ham 123 –a re­make of a clas­sic from the early 1970s – he has de­liv­ered a com­par­a­tively re­strained, im­pres­sively tense hostage thriller. Okay, un­like his brother Ri­d­ley, he has never di­rected a clas­sic such as Alien or Blade Run­ner. But there is lit­tle chance that he could ever make some­thing as dull as the older man’s A Good Year or his White Squall.

“I wouldn’t be in this busi­ness if it were not for Ri­d­ley,” Tony tells me. “I wanted to be a painter, but I watched Ri­d­ley and helped him with his first movie at the Royal Col­lege of Art. But we’ve been fiercely com­pet­i­tive ever since. Yeah, it’s true. Even now, when he’s done some­thing good, I’ll think: ‘oh, fuck! How did he do that?’”

You also have to give Scott a de­gree of credit for re­main­ing so agree­ably down-toearth. Wear­ing a hooded top with a weird bird on the front, a tad bald­ing, a lit­tle bit portly, he looks like a com­bi­na­tion of Alan Coren and Mickey Rooney and sounds as if he’s spent only a few months of the last 40 years away from the north east of Eng­land.

“Peo­ple of­ten say we’re from New­cas­tle,” he says (mak­ing sure, like all of that re­gion’s cit­i­zens, to stress the “cas­tle”). “But we’re re­ally from Stock­ton-on-Tees and Hartle­pool. My mum died just a few years ago. She was 95, you know. I re­mem­ber when I brought my wife, who’s Amer­i­can, back home and she said: ‘I don’t like Amer­i­cans.’ Ha ha!”

The Scott broth­ers – Tony is 64 and Ri­d­ley is 71 – were raised in the shadow of the sec­ond World War. Their dad be­gan life as a steve­dore, but, when he saw war loom­ing, had the good sense to en­list and, by the time hos­til­i­ties com­menced, he had risen to be­come an of­fi­cer in the Royal En­gi­neers. As Tony tells it, his fa­ther was the per­son who came up with the idea for the mo­bile Mul­berry har­bours that fa­cil­i­tated the Al­lied land­ings at Nor­mandy. At any rate, there are clearly cer­tain con­nec­tions be­tween the role of the mil­i­tary en­gi­neer and the di­rec­tor of high-bud­get action pic­tures.

“Yeah. I like be­ing the gen­eral on set. I love shoot­ing,” Scott laughs.

Stan­ley Kubrick, by way of con­trast, once sug­gested that the shoot was just a nec­es­sary in­con­ve­nience in the film-mak­ing process.

“Yeah, and Scors­ese is the same way,” he says. “Marty sits in there with his oxy­gen mask watch­ing it all on mon­i­tors. I think there’s noth­ing more ex­cit­ing than a day of shoot­ing. It’s danger­ous. You never know what’ll go wrong.”

I guess a lot could have gone wrong in The Tak­ing of Pel­ham 123. Star­ring John Tra­volta as a mouthy vil­lain who hi­jacks a sub­way train and Den­zel Wash­ing­ton as the trans­port of­fi­cial on the other end of the phone, the pic­ture has more to do with hu­man in­ter­ac­tions than ex­plod­ing he­li­copters, but Tony still had to find a way to shoot hours of footage in a busy un­der­ground trans­port sys­tem.

“You shoot at night,” he says. “That’s a large part of it. But it is im­por­tant to shoot on lo­ca­tion. Okay, it’s hard to get Den­zel and John down a sub­way tun­nel at six in the morn­ing, but you can see the dif­fer­ence in their per­for­mance when they are there, rather than on a set. Every­one would be a bit sleepy, then a train would go past and you could feel the en­ergy surge.”

It was never the young Tony’s am­bi­tion to spend his days bel­low­ing at ac­tors in un­der­ground pas­sage­ways. In­deed, he at­tended the Royal Col­lege of Art and had se­ri­ous no­tions of be­com­ing a painter. Even­tu­ally his brother, who had been mak­ing a for­tune in the world of ad­ver­tis­ing, lured the younger man be­hind the cam­era and per­suaded him to do sexy things with chocolate bars and soap pow­der. Thou­sands of com­mer­cials fol­lowed and, in 1982, he made his fea­ture de­but with the glo­ri­ously vul­gar The Hunger. A vam­pire story star­ring David Bowie and Cather­ine Deneuve, the film has gath­ered a rep­u­ta­tion as a gal­lop­ing catas­tro­phe, but, with its co­pi­ous vene­tian blinds and queasy sex scenes, The Hunger could be cred­ited (or blamed) for in­vent­ing the 1980s. In any case, the stu­dios didn’t much fancy the film and he found him­self cast into dark­ness.

“It wasn’t the fact that it didn’t make enough money. They hated the film it­self,” he says. “They thought it was es­o­teric

in­dul­gence and maybe they were right. No­body had the courage to tell me I was fired. I just came into work one day and they’d painted over my park­ing place. It took more than four years for me to come back.”

Boy, did he come back. Top Gun is, for good or ill, one of the most in­flu­en­tial films of its decade. It el­e­vated Tom Cruise into the A list. It re-in­tro­duced un­apolo­getic mil­i­tarism into pop­u­lar cin­ema. It in­vented the no­tion of the movie as a largely plot-free, adren­a­line de­liv­ery sys­tem. Yet a lot of the credit for those in­no­va­tions went to the pro­duc­ers: the late Don Simp­son (co­caine-fu­elled, bel­low­ing ego­ma­niac) and Jerry Bruck­heimer (tiny­bearded, but­toned-up ego­ma­niac).

“Yeah, Don Simp­son was chan­nel-surf­ing one night and he saw The Hunger on tele­vi­sion,” says Scott. “Don was al­ways ham­mered. He was so toasted that night, he thought it was re­ally good. ‘This is the guy I want!’ He phoned up Jerry and he was al­ways on the look­out for the next young gun. There it was.”

With the younger Scott now firmly es­tab­lished, it be­gan to look as if a par­tic­u­lar cadre of English­man were tak­ing over Hol­ly­wood. The Scott broth­ers, Hugh Hud­son ( Char­i­ots of Fire), Adrian Lyne ( Fa­tal At­trac­tion) and Alan Parker ( Mid­night Ex­press) were among the first gen­er­a­tion of film-mak­ers to emerge from the world of tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tis­ing. Not sur­pris­ingly, many crit­ics used this her­itage as a stick with which to bat­ter a bunch of direc­tors they re­garded as a bit too flashy. All that dry ice. All that fret­less bass gui­tar. All those vene­tian blinds.

“Well, yeah, we all had that com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor which was ad­ver­tis­ing,” he says. “And that is about at­ten­tion to de­tail and style over con­tent. Maybe, Alan man­aged to hang on to the con­tent. Ri­d­ley was some­where in be­tween. Hugh got away with it be­cause he did that thing. Erm …” He mimes a man run­ning along a beach.

Char­i­ots of Fire? “Yeah, Char­i­ots of Fire. That’s it. But Adrian and I were par­tic­u­larly slaugh­tered for favour­ing style over con­tent. And we de­served it.

Look, we came from a gen­er­a­tion a bit be­hind Parker and Ri­d­ley. We were all jeans com­mer­cials and rock’n’roll. We had picked up a few habits that didn’t suit the long form. It was all about the vi­su­als. Where’s the light fall­ing on David Bowie? That sort of thing.”

Any­way, he seems to have done quite well out of it. Now on his third mar­riage – cur­rently in its 16th year, this one seems to have stuck – he lives in Los An­ge­les and, when not film­ing mo­tor­bikes and vene­tian blinds, finds time to co-pro­duce films with his brother for their Scott Free com­pany. As you read this, he is scouting lo­ca­tions in Pittsburgh for a film con­cern­ing a ru­n­away train. You can imag­ine a shab­bier life.

Yet one does won­der if has ever been tempted to break out of his com­fort zone. He com­plains that, fol­low­ing Top Gun, he was only of­fered action pic­tures, but, now that he has a de­gree of in­de­pen­dence, he con­tin­ues to di­rect noth­ing else. We should be care­ful what we wish for. None­the­less, it might be in­ter­est­ing to see him make some­thing a lit­tle less hys­ter­i­cal. Where is Tony Scott’s Brief En­counter? Where is Tony Scott’s The Red Shoes? (Stop snig­ger­ing there.)

“The clos­est thing I have done to that is True Ro­mance,” he says. I can see what he means. But that fine film did still fea­ture a great many peo­ple wav­ing guns at one an­other. “Yeah, I sup­pose so. Ha ha! Look, I love mix­ing and match­ing. When I read Pel­ham I thought: ‘oh, this is a bit danger­ous. It’s just two guys talk­ing to one an­other. How do I han­dle that?’” Maybe, The Tak­ing of Pel­ham 123 is Tony Scott’s Brief En­counter.

“Well, if it ever looked like things were go­ing a bit slowly, I knew I could just go back to the guys racing the money to the sta­tion.” That would be the se­quences with the he­li­copters and the crash­ing cars and the flash­ing lights.”

You can’t stop Tony Scott be­ing Tony Scott.

John Tra­volta, cen­tre, and Luis Guz­man, right, in Tony Scott’s The Tak­ing of Pel­ham 123. Be­low: di­rec­tor Tony Scott laps up the lo­ca­tion

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