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
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