The shocking and tragic death of Tony Scott deprives Hollywood of a true legend and moviegoers of a man who almost single-handedly redefined action movies. He could engineer an improbably awesome set piece, ratchet up tension through whipsmart dialogue and manipulate audiences’ adrenal glands like a ringmaster controlling the world’s most explosive circus. He was a pedal-to-the-metal filmmaker whose movies, in his own understated words, “don’t hang around”. From The Hunger to Unstoppable via Top Gun, True Romance, Crimson Tide and Enemy Of The State, they made an indelible impression. We’ll miss them – and him.
Scott’s first was a sexy vampire flick starring David Bowie, made years before such things became fashionable. Adapted from the novel by Whitley Strieber (later abducted by aliens), it also featured a groundbreaking lesbian tumble between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. And billowing curtains. Lots of billowing curtains.
I’d been given Flashdance and it really was, ‘Fuck, what am I going to do with this?’ Adrian Lyne had got The Hunger and was like, ‘What the fuck am I going to do with this?!’ So we swapped scripts. A week after, he said, ‘My daughter’s been watching this thing called MTV.’ He said, ‘I’m going to do an MTV movie of this piece of shit...’
I stole from Nic Roeg, for performance and for style, and I stole from Helmut Newton’s erotica. His pictures tell a story. They’re always erotic and sexy and perverse and strange and fucked-up. I showed the girls (Sarandon and Deneuve) what I wanted. And they were a bit, erm, long faces. So I did a lot of body-doubles. A lot of the sex in there is around the mouths and the faces. When you get down below it gets porno if you’re not careful. I used a lot of smoke and so on. That was really the influence of my commercials. A lot of smoke, backlight, the occasional billowing curtain. Well, a lot of billowing curtain. It got slammed for being esoteric and artsy. It got fucking killed. It took me three more years to get another movie after it.
During the barren years after The Hunger’s failure, Scott returned to commercials, including one for Saab that featured a stunningly shot Harrier Jump Jet. This happened to catch the eye of a young Hollywood producing duo who had this idea for an airborne blockbuster taxiing along the runway...
Jerry (Bruckheimer) was passionate about style and photography. He was a little bored with what was going on with American movie directors at the time. He was looking to me, my brother, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne… He was looking to Europe. I met Jerry via Ridley, who used to shoot commercials for him. Rid shot Pepsi commercials for him. I had this idea that it was going to be Apocalypse Now. It was going to be in the bowels of this aircraft carrier. It was going to be this very different movie, a very dark journey: Conrad, you know, Heart Of Darkness. And then one of the boys, Jerry Bruckheimer, looked at me and said, ‘Er no, I don’t think sooo.’ I didn’t quite get what they were after. I love war movies and Apocalypse Now is my favourite. I wanted to bring that to it. Eventually I got it. It’s rock ’n’ roll stars against blue skies and silver fucking jets. It’s pure pop culture. In the end, that’s why I took the movie.
It was my first real studio movie. The Hunger had been slammed, as I said. When I sent back the dailies, I said, ‘For God’s sake don’t send back all the stuff in slow-motion — they’ll think I’m making some artsy-fartsy movie. Just send back the dialogue stuff!’ Of course, they fucked up and sent all the stuff I’d shot at, like, 400 frames a second. And they fired me. Fortunately there was bad weather and I couldn’t get off the aircraft carrier so I kept shooting. All they’d seen was the opening title sequence. They’d been thinking, ‘Christ, this guy’s making The Hunger with the Navy!’
When it came out I got slaughtered. ‘It represented everything bad that had ever been done in cinema.’ David Puttnam said that. He was meant to be my buddy and the fucker sank me! But with the material I had, you can’t do it in a serious way — it had to be pop. I think it is the ultimate piece of Americana from 1986.
Top Gun was such a success it led Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer and Paramount to let him loose on a sequel to another of the defining movies of the ’80s. 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop had been a $300-million smash hit and cemented Eddie Murphy’s position at the top of Hollywood’s A-list. The prospect of working with him terrified Scott.
I loved Beverly Hills Cop. I wish I’d made that movie. I thought it was fantastic. But I remember being terrified of working with a star as big as Eddie Murphy. I couldn’t talk in front of him at first. I was tongue-tied. And the idea of doing comedy terrified me. But Don and Jerry just kept saying, ‘It’s okay, you can do it, you can do it.’ I tried to bring my style to this genre, the comedy-action movie, that really didn’t have much style.
Eddie, though, I loved him. I was really on a roll then, I had great fun doing it. It is possibly the most frightening thing I had done in my life and then the most rewarding. I thought he was going to decimate me. He’d play games with me — he’d say, ‘This shot won’t be in the movie. It’s arty crap.’ He’d lay bets on it. So I kept all those arty shots in the movie! (Laughs) He actually applauded the style in the end, but really I just let him do his thing, roll into who he was. I thought as long as I let that happen I would be alright.
No doubt influenced by the (then) Simpson-Bruckheimer logo of a pair of lovingly intertwined thunderbolts, the dynamic duo predicted that if they reunited the Top Gun team, transferring the action from jets to racing cars, box-office lightning would strike twice. They were wrong.
The problem was, we started on the movie without a script. Tom was already part of the line-up when I arrived and they said, ‘Tom can sit behind the wheel of a race car and smoke a cigarette and this movie will make a fortune.’ And that was the attitude we went in with. Robert Towne would be writing the scenes at night, we would shoot in the morning. It was a dangerous way to work. But we really thought, ‘Look — it’s racing cars and it’s Tom Cruise!’ But you always have to get a story and you’ve got to get character first, and we hadn’t.
To be honest, shooting it I was always trying to keep my head above water, just to get the day’s shots. Then Towne would arrive with a fresh scene. It would be, ‘Oh no we’re not doing it that way, we’re going to do it this way’ (laughs).
I love testosterone and race cars. At the start, I had tried to persuade the guys to do it Formula 1 because NASCAR is just left turn all the time. “We edited it in the same way that we scripted it and shot it: on the fly. Which is also dangerous...
Pairing Scott with producer Joel Silver, screenwriter Shane Black and Bruce Willis should have led to a slam-dunk. While the end result was one of Scott’s most beloved films (up there with True Romance), ‘creative differences’ marred the shoot.
I opened that with this rock song — Friday Night’s A Great Night For Football. I stole that from some football channel. That script was a great script, by Shane Black. I think the script was better than the final movie.
I got caught a little bit between Bruce and (producer) Joel Silver — they had done the Die Hards together. I was pushed in terms of the cast and in terms of how I was shooting it. I was lower down the totem pole compared with them. And that was tough, because I thought the script was so good. There are people who say moviemaking is a democracy, and it’s not. You have to have one person with a vision of what’s going on. Once you start to get second-guessed... Look, there are always ten different ways to shoot anything and any might be right, but one person’s got to be calling the shots or it won’t make any sense as a whole.
During the shooting of The Last Boy Scout, Scott had been pestered by a ‘groupie’ who asked endless questions about, among other things, the correct use of smoke. At the end of the shoot he discovered the nerd’s name: Quentin Tarantino. QT then managed to get Scott to read a couple of scripts he had written...
He had these two scripts. The day after finishing Last Boy Scout I took both scripts. I took True Romance and I took Reservoir Dogs. I’m a very slow reader but I read them straight through. I said, ‘I’ll do both.’ He said, ‘No. I’d like you to do True Romance.’ He’s a brilliant writer, he fully conceives every character, no matter how small they are. Actors came to the set not wanting to change a word, which is unusual. The only thing that I did change was the ending. The original was very different. It ended with Alabama. She puts a gun in her mouth. She doesn’t shoot herself, and then she just says, ‘Oh fuck it, he isn’t worth it.’ She throws the gun out of the car window and drives off. Quentin thought it was truer to the character. I was trying to make a commercial film, I wanted a happier ending. I’d lived with the characters really, and I cared about them.
Badlands was a big influence, of course. A huge influence. It’s called ‘rip-off’, actually (laughs). Actually, I had always liked that piece of music, by Carl Orff. Badlands broke my heart when I saw it because he (Terrence Malick) used that music. It’s called Children’s Dance (actually Musica Poetica, from Schulwerk), which felt so right because Christian and Patricia are these strange, lost kids in so many ways.
I remember shooting the scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. Actually, they did improvise a little there. That stuff about, ‘And you’re a cantaloupe,’ and so on. Throughout rehearsal, they were laughing so hard, this thing was so outrageous and so funny. That sense of humour, the laughter, isn’t on the page. They brought that. It was really contrary to what’s on the page. It’s a beautifully crafted scene. No need for tricks with the camera.
Scott’s claustrophobic submarine thriller — and the first time he worked with Denzel Washington — is among his best and most successful movies, but unlike with the recruitment drive that was Top Gun, this time he found the military distinctly uncooperative...
The Navy didn’t give us any cooperation on that one. They got cold feet about the plot — you know, treason on a nuclear submarine! We needed a shot of a Trident submarine. I had this guy called Deep Throat in Pearl Harbour. He let me know when a Trident came in and when it was about to leave. So I sat out there in the dark on a Marlon fishing boat, which is a fast fucking boat. It had cameras strapped all over it. Looked like something out of The Road Warrior. Then this guy radioed in and said, ‘It’s leaving! It’s leaving!’ But they sent out a decoy sub, an attack sub, and we chased that first. Then he was yelling, ‘You’ve got the wrong fucking sub! He’s gone the other way!’ So we turned round. We travelled alongside it. It couldn’t dive because the water was too shallow. The captain got on the radio and just said, ‘What the FUCK are you doing?! Get the fuck away!’ We told him we were shooting a Japanese commercial. He just yelled, ‘Fuck off!’ and dived. But I got my shot.
Scott’s second collaboration with Denzel Washington was an ultra-hectic kidnap/rip-roaring-rampage-of-revenge drama featuring a memorable scene in which a man has a bomb put up his bottom (Lord Puttnam’s views can only be guessed at).
We shot it in Mexico City. It’s the kidnap capital of the world. I did it there because it was dangerous. It was fucked up. We had the Chief Of Police come round, who said, ‘Look, there are three people involved in the film who have been earmarked by the kidnappers.’ He said, ‘I can’t do anything about it. My guys take backhanders from the kidnappers.’ We found out who he was talking about. I could afford to send two of these people home but not the other one, so we quadrupled his bodyguards.
But I love the adventure and excitement. I mean, we had four bulletproof cars stolen. We had kids turning up shirtless at 3am on crystal meth carrying Uzis. We just said, ‘Fuck it — take the cars.’
Among Scott’s favourites of his own films, if again critically lambasted, Domino was inspired by the true story of Domino Harvey, a high-society It Girl who abandoned the life of parties for the slightly less glam, more bullety occupation of bounty-hunter.
The story was really manufactured. Everybody is a real person, but we took segments of Domino’s real life and sequences in terms of her bounty-hunting and synthesised them together. I took it on because I’m always inspired by extraordinary people. I grew up in art school in the north of England and my life has been surrounded by life’s casualties. The people who went down and got back have a life I find interesting. I’ve always gravitated to that throughout my life. Even when I was a teenager at art school I was attracted to those darker characters. She was definitely that. Heads you live, tails you die. That was her motto.
Scott’s first remake is really more of a riff on the 1974 original, with Denzel Washington playing a New York Subway engineer desperately trying to negotiate with John Travolta’s crazed kidnapper, holding a train full of passengers hostage.
It sounds strange, but shooting Pelham was a bit like shooting Crimson Tide. With that one, it was you couldn’t really get out of the sub. With this one, two-thirds of the movie is two guys on the phone to each other. It’s very different from the original.
Brian Helgeland did the screenplay, he’s part of our ‘extended family’. Brian came to me with it. He said, ‘Listen, I’ve done a version of this — it’s not the Pelham you remember, but it’s a version of it.’ And whenever Brian brings me anything I’m interested. I thought, ‘What can I remember about the original Pelham?’ I remembered Walter Matthau and his pants halfway up his ankles. A great character with a sardonic view of life.
But even whan I saw it back in the ’70s I had thought it didn’t make sense. Holding hostages in a subway. It’s a cul-de-sac. But then we reinvented it. We found a real guy who was just out of prison and we took his story. The Travolta character is really based upon him. He was Brooklyn-born, ended up on Wall Street. He had been set up during a previous crime and lost everything. So he hatched this plan where he takes revenge on the entire city.
It was really appealing and terrifying, two guys on the phone for an hour. Travolta plays it beautifully, but it’s all from the real guy. He’s funny, he’s fucked-up. He’s dangerous. Denzel liked it because in this he’s playing The Guy Next Door, which he’s never done in any other movie. The odd steal I did for this one was I borrowed from (Francis Ford Coppola-produced art film) Koyaanisqatsi to depict New York — which I thought was kind of the bad guy in the movie!
Scott’s last film was a helter-skelter throwback to ’70s disaster movies that had its origins in real life. Back in 2001, an unmanned train carrying toxic waste – number 8888 – careered out-of-control through Ohio in an incident dubbed the ‘Crazy Eights’. Said train, now with Chris Pine and Denzel Washington in pursuit, and upgraded to “a missile the size of the Chrysler Building” delivered enough physical menace to scare the bejeezus out of CG-inured moviefans.
One of my strengths is putting the audience in the thick of it: in the seat of a racing car, the cockpit of a fighter plane, or the cab of a runaway train. CGI doesn’t help with that. I don’t not use CGI because I’m an old fart, I do it because creatively things look better when the action’s real. We’ve got freight trains going 80mph, smashing into trucks, with helicopters buzzing overhead. You just can’t capture the intensity of that when you’re patching things together after the fact. [But] the logistics were horrendous. At one point, we had the train going in the wrong direction. I fucked up.
The studios are still formulaic in that they go, ‘Well, we should have so many set-pieces in the first 15 minutes, so many in the end. I do think the characters get the short end of the stick in order to get younger males in, get the younger females in. But listen, I love what I do, I’m proud of what I do, and I always think I give a different spin on everything that I do. I want to engage with the real world and educate and entertain in my movies.”