Tony Scott: From Macho to Mellow
Thirty years ago, Tony Scott directed the movie that made Tom Cruise an A-list movie star. Ten years after Top Gun, Scott had his share of hits and misses at the box office. He was generally regarded as the less respected, more commercial brother of Ridely Scott. In this interview from the June ’96 issue of Movieline magazine, Stephen Rebello is pretty dismissive of most of Scott’s filmography. But even he has to give the director credit for a couple of off-the-wall movies like True Romance and The Hunger.
During the interview, Rebello and Scott discuss the then-recent death of famed movie producer Don Simpson. Sixteen years later, Scott took his own life after a prolonged battle with cancer. Here he is about midway through his film career.
I’m cruising to Tony Scott’s Hollywood offices one night, figuring him to be one director I pretty much have down cold. Rich, highly employable, best-known for outsized, glistening, machine-tooled flicks. Check. Fatter on visual firepower and technique than on stick-to-the-ribs emotion. Check. Marginally interested in female characters, at best. Check. Moist with adoration for jock-y, macho flyboys (Top Gun), jock-y, macho, overrated comics (Beverly Hills Cop II), jock-y, macho speed racers (Days of Thunder), jock-y macho ex-Secret Service goons (The Last Boy Scout) and jock-y, macho submarine crewmen (Crimson Tide). Check. Disinclined to bother with the niceties–like subtext and high aspiration–that distinguish Blade Runner, Alien or Thelma & Louise, all of which were directed by his rather more respected brother, Ridley. Check. Add to all this the fact that Tony Scott’s about-to-be-released thriller, The Fan, features a psychotic Robert De Niro stalking pro baseball star Wesley Snipes. Jeesh, haven’t we seen this movie a couple of times? Why am I busting my chops in rush hour to be on time to Scott’s office?
Easy. Tony Scott inspires tall tales. On the set this guy is said to strike like a ball-peen hammer, and he usually sees that he’s well-matched with ball-peen stars: Brad Pitt. Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Ellen Barkin, Gary Oldman, Kevin Costner, Eddie Murphy. He’s also said to be no slouch at going mano a mano with such producers as the recently deceased wild man Don Simpson, as well as legendary blowhards Ray Stark and Joel Silver, Scott is also famous for relaxing between shoots by scaling serious mountain peaks. Then there is the 50-ish Scott’s rep with women–he allegedly finished off one of his marriages by hooking up with Red Sonja herself, Brigitte Nielsen, right when she was fresh from her involvement with Sylvester Stallone. All intriguing stuff.
But what truly fires my curiosity, what makes me think there’s more to Tony Scott than meets the eye, are the two or three oddball movies he’s made that just don’t track with the Top Gun mode of his usual fare. His first film The Hunger, for instance, in which David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon played cool, chic, pretentious vampires, was a very hip, very now exploration of addiction. Somewhere deep inside the messed-up, messed-with Revenge was a dark, nasty meditation on obsessive love. And what about the splendidly weird stuff he drew out of Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance? I’m thinking Scott may be capable of serving up more enriching stuff than his customary high-carb action fare suggests.
I arrive at the unprepossessing building that houses Scott’s office, an erstwhile emporium for Native American rugs and kachina dolls on Santa Monica Boulevard. So far, so typical. But once beyond the entrance, I begin to think I’ve fouled up the address. An elegantly designed waterfall splashes into a pool of river rock with almost Zen-like calm. The lighting is muted, the color perfectly controlled. Surfaces of stone and slate meld elegantly with impeccable, inlaid wood furniture–all very Frank Lloyd Wright meets Philippe Starck meets Melrose. Scott hails me in a warm, quiet voice, beckoning me upstairs to his second-floor aerie. Dressed like an Urban Outfitters poster guy–costly shadow plaid flannel shirt, sunglasses hanging over the neck of his bright white T-shirt, sinfully expensive sports watch, cool two-tone sneakers–he certainly sports the robust affect, the ruddy skin, the hearty demeanor of a guy accustomed to measuring himself against the elements. But he also radiates serene focus.
Moments after we settle in, one of Scott’s two male assistants uncorks a bottle of very good champagne and pours it into flutes. The director barely speaks above an animated whisper, laughs readily, and appears mildly disappointed when I decline a Monte Cristo from his private reserve.
I can’t honestly tell Scott that he makes my favorite kinds of movies, but what I can honestly say is that I think he casts like nobody’s business. Consider, I point out, how Top Gun showcased such fairly fresh faces as Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan and Anthony Edwards. How True Romance broke Christian Slater from the date-bait mold and alerted the universe to Patricia Arquette. Or how Crimson Tide was envisioned in terms of matched doubles that included Warren Beatty vs. Andy Garcia, Al Pacino vs. Brad Pitt and, the winners, Denzel Washington vs. Gene Hackman.
“People think I’m insane because of the lengths I go to with casting, whether it’s a lead, a one-liner or a no-liner,” Scott observes. “I like to find people I think are on the brink of becoming stars. Of course, you never know–with Anthony Edwards in Top Gun, I thought, ‘Sweet, brilliant sense of humor. I’ve discovered somebody who is going to go into orbit.’ But he slowed down and went through a laugh period before ‘ER.’ Casting is just a sense I have. I guess. Like I think Patricia Arquette is going to be huge, because she has a childish naivete pitted against strength, a weirdness that can’t be meddled with.”
Having heard Brad Pitt’s name mentioned in association with practically every Tony Scott film since Pitt first appeared in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, and having noted Pitt’s hilarious cameo as the committed pothead in True Romance, I ask Scott to size up the hot commodity. “Brad is a male Patricia Arquette,” he answers. “He’s got this good-looking, sweet, boyish thing on the outside, with a lot of strangeness, darkness, weird twistedness on the inside, I originally offered him the lead in True Romance, but when I met him with his then-girlfriend– God, what’s her name?” Juliette Lewis? I offer. He nods, “I had just seen her in Cape Fear and when I came in, she was sitting down in reception and I thought it was some junkie that had stepped off Santa Monica Boulevard. She had her stocking seams all crooked and there’s this little miniskirt and it looked like she hadn’t washed her hair in weeks. She’s brilliant as well, but Brad has got a star quality and is a really interesting actor. Anyway, he was with her and when I offered him the part, he said, ‘Fuck, we just committed to Kalifornia and it’s similar.’ I said, ‘Nothing’s similar to True Romance.’ I think he felt guilty, because eventually he came back to me and said, ‘Look, I’d love to play the roommate in True Romance.’ And he was brilliant in that. We’ll work together. In The Fan, I wanted him to play the ballplayer, but he wanted to play the stalker.”
Is it true that not just Brad Pitt, but almost every star Scott approached for the ballplayer role lusted after the juicier stalker role instead? “Yeah, that’s true,” Scott says. “Wesley wanted to play the stalker, too. But Wesley found his character, and he’s in awe of De Niro, so he would have given both of his arms to play opposite him.” All along, Scott had only two actors in mind for the psycho role in The Fan— Al Pacino or De Niro. “Working with De Niro was a brilliant experience.” he declares. “In this business, there are so many pricks. Usually, the bigger the star, the bigger the prick they are. But Bob is at the top of the ladder, and he’s an absolute sweetheart. It’s a lot of work when you work with De Niro. He’s tireless in his pursuit of trying to get the character better or make the scenes better, but it’s always constructive, never destructive. He and I were worried that he had played this kind of role before. In the script, his role is one-dimensional: the psychotic, knife-toting stalker. In the movie, though, you almost wonder. When is he going to pick up the knife and go crazy? When is he going to be Robert De Niro? And he doesn’t do that. He made this guy so sympathetic and sweet, so childlike, he’s an Everyman. It’s very different, very warped.”
And what of working with the gifted, turbulent Ellen Barkin? “Her reputation is a tough one.” Scott concedes. “She kept saying, “I’m in a Tony Scott movie, so I’ll just stick my tits out and stick my lips out and paint them bright red.’ Then she’d go on about how tough it is to be an actor, how tough this and that is, like she’s got such a problem, and you have to say, ‘Shut the fuck up, you bitch!’ One of my talents is that I can diffuse people’s anger very quickly with, ‘Shut the fuck up, you bitch!’ And then she smiles and once she smiles, her defenses are down and you’re in. She plays a sportscaster who weaves herself into Wesley’s life and she said, ‘I don’t understand why the woman is here, other than as some sort of sex interest.’ And she certainly was right, so she brought to the table really good ideas that made her character live. She’s fun, brilliant, and I really did enjoy working with her.”
As we’ve talked. I’ve noticed Scott alluding to his growing clout as a moviemaker. Perhaps his sense of burgeoning power comes from having been powerless in the past to stem the intervention of certain producers and moneymen who decided to mess with his movies. His very first film, 1983’s The Hunger, for example, got mauled by the studio. Ray Stark forced him to recut Revenge, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer glammed up his gritty vision of Top Gun. “I’ve twice stuck my fingers up producer’s noses and threatened to punch out their lights if they didn’t leave me alone,” Scott asserts. “You see, I’m perceived as being very sweet, but people think there’s something a little dangerous about me, and therefore they usually don’t fuck with me.”
But they did at the start. How about sharing a few war stories on The Hunger? “I was being stroked by various people who thought I was in the running to make Interview With the Vampire, which I had just read and loved,” Scott recalls. “I tried to persuade MGM to ditch The Hunger altogether and do the Anne Rice book instead. Nothing doing. So I took a lot of the mood from the book and just brought it to The Hunger. Before that movie came out, the word on it was so great that I got first crack at Starman, the hot script at the time. Nobody had seen one foot of The Hunger, but I snagged this plum project. I kept talking to the studio executives about Starman in terms of movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Road Warrior, Vanishing Point, which terrified them. Well, the studio guys saw The Hunger on a Tuesday evening and all had a heart attack, they hated it so much. I came into the studio Wednesday morning and my name on my parking space was whited out and security made me park in the general parking lot.”
Scott recalls with malicious humor “a two-hour meeting at Fox with studio execs, who shall be nameless. They were all over me like a rash about how they hated The Hunger, all the while they were offering me something like Jaws XII, And at the end of this meeting, one of them said, ‘Hey, how did you get that creature’s head popping out of the guy’s stomach in Alien, anyway?'”
Despite Scott’s free-falling stock in Hollywood after The Hunger, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer bet on his being the right guy to direct the Reagan-era recruitment poster that put Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer on the map. Top Gun was so huge that the Scott/Simpson/Bruckheimer troika spawned three more movies over the next decade. In the process, Scott grew especially close to Simpson. Was Scott at all surprised to learn last January that Simpson had been found dead in a manse so crammed with prescription narcotics that a police investigation is currently underway? “I’ve been waiting for years to get that phone call,” Scott admits. “Earlier, there was that false alarm when someone called me and said. ‘Do you know what happened to Don?’ and I thought, ‘He’s dead,’ but he wasn’t. It was someone else who died at his home. But his death is a terrible hurt because I was so attached to him. I spent six years of the 12 that I knew him in his daily company. We had huge fights, but underneath all the madness and insanity, he was part of my family. He was like the last of the dying breed, the last of the John Barrymores, a wild man, a party animal. He was very funny, very smart, charming, lovable, had an acid tongue and could be a killer. People perceived him as being sad in the way he conducted his life because he lived alone with a staff and his maid. But that’s how he was happy.”
Maybe so, but Simpson was also reputed to seek release in the company of hookers. What does Scott make of Hollywood’s intimate, increasingly blatant connection with prostitutes? “Boredom,” he answers, sounding as if he knows whereof he speaks. “Boredom with doing it in the normal channels. When you get great-looking guys like actors, say, who can get women any which way, the only way they can get it up is paying for it. They get more sexual excitement out of doing it in unknown territory. These guys are always inundated with women. There’s something exciting about hookers and having to pay for it as opposed to girls knocking on your door wanting you to do it with them.”
While we’re on the subject of women, what about Scott’s adventures? Directors have traditionally ranked near the top of the food chain when it comes to attracting highly eligible women. Think such old school giants as Victor Fleming. William Wyler, Charlie Chaplin, John Huston and Howard Hawks. “And most of them were ugly,'” Scott accedes, rubbing his palm over a thinning crop and calling himself “a bidding little Englishman, certainly not the prettiest thing on two legs.” I’d wager a bet that, outside of a select group of actors, directors rule as Hollywood’s babe magnets. What’s the attraction? “Power dicks,” asserts Scott, eyes twinkling. “It’s all about the pursuit of power. There’s something much more fascinating to women, though, about being involved with a creative business, rather than being the head of Citibank.”
What are Scott’s secrets for attracting and keeping desirable women? He leans in and whispers conspiratorially, “Ridley and I grew up in northern England close to the farming district.” Oh, no, this doesn’t involve consorting with livestock or anything, does it? He laughs, shakes his head no, and continues: “But Ridley and I did a lot of watching. When I was nine, the dad of a kid at our school bred this prize bull and put it out to stud. They’d bring the females to him. I remember one Saturday morning watching this female stand in a little corral while the bull licked her from top to toe from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. He licked her nose, her ears, everything, and it was brilliant. By the time he actually did the business, she was quivering like jelly. It made an impression. I look a leaf out of that bull’s book for the rest of my life, and women think I’m a hero.”
Scott emerged from an arts background to become one of England’s top directors of TV commercials by creating montages of sirens in various stages of undress for Chanel perfumes and designer jeans. Any reminiscences of dalliances he cares to share? “I think I’m pretty astute in terms of what models and actresses are coming to me for,” he says. “I’ve had my heart broken many times over the years. I got my lessons when I spent those 10 years in advertising doing underwater and girlie commercials. I practically had the pick of the crop then. Almost every January or February, I’d take six of the most beautiful women in the world and fly to some exotic place to shoot commercials. I got to learn quickly about when girls were on the make, although, as I said, I got my heart broken a few times that way.”
Scott had a couple of marriages broken, too. While he refrains from discussing his affair with Brigitte Nielsen, who starred in his film Beverly Hills Cop II, he admits, “That was absolutely what brought my second marriage to an end.” These days, however, things are different. Scott’s third wife of just over 18 months, Donna, is, by all accounts, a most attractive, companionable woman 20 years his junior. To hear Scott tell it, they are very much in love and trying to have a child. “I’ve never had kids because I was sick when I was younger,” he says. “Modern science now says that I can, so I’m trying. Donna is dying to have kids.”
What, besides pursuing his new domesticity, does Scott do to escape the pressure-cooker environment of the business? “Funny you should ask, because I was thinking recently how I measured my major achievements for last summer by saying, ‘I finished Crimson Tide and I spent three days and two nights climbing 3,500 feet of El Capitan at Yosemite with just me and my friend,” he says, laughing. “I’ve climbed all my life–6,000-foot walls in the Alps in my youth, but it’s a little different when you’re 25 than when you’re 51.”
“I love climbing because it requires concentration, extreme effort and it transports me to other places. Unlike making movies, in which there are a hundred ways to do any one thing and any of those can be right, in climbing the choices are black and white. I never believe I’m going to drop off and die, but it psychologically screws up your sense of time and place. It’s like a major drug. My buddy, the maniac, who’s one of the top 10 climbers in America, takes bong hits all the way–he needs the substances to calm him down. I’m not good on that shit. It kills me. When I make movies, I’m kind of whining and paranoid about the choices I’ve made. Climbing makes the choices more clear-cut. It’s pretty scary sometimes, but that first day of production on any movie is a lot scarier, because you’re faced with 150 people looking at you like they’re saying, ‘Why the fuck is he there and not me?’”
What’s his explanation for why he, and not any of the 150 others, is there? “I’m more tenacious than most,” he says, with the chuckle of a born son-of-a-bitch. “Most people don’t realize how hard it is, physically and mentally, when you’re doing a movie. I’ve got more energy than most.”
One person who is in a position to know about all this is Tony Scott’s brother, Ridley. The two are in business together now with their company Scott Free, but is this genuine brotherhood, or a triumph over sibling rivalry? “My brother and I are about as thick as they come. I’ve always looked up to Rid. If you ask me my top 10 movies, three of them are Blade Runner, Alien and The Duellists. We grew up in a northern family and northern families are very tight. My mum and dad grew up in the ’20s and ’30s and their survival was a desperate thing. There are very strong family ties. Ridley is my best friend, and now that we’ve bought Shepperton Studios in England together, and with the financing deals we have through Disney and Largo Entertainment, he’s my best business partner, too. If you mix blood with business, there’s nothing stronger.”
But things can get competitive even between people who love each other, maybe especially between people who love each other. For instance, there was a much-publicized contretemps about the fact the brothers were both pursuing competing projects about Pancho Villa. “They’re totally different,” Scott declares. “Ridley’s script, Poncho’s War, was about two gunrunners in Mexico at the turn of the century. In fact, it’s Lethal Weapon at the turn of the century, and Pancho Villa is only in it for 30 seconds. My project is an epic, like Lawrence of Arabia and The Wild Bunch rolled into one. It’s a smart, character-driven love story between [cowboy screen star] Tom Mix and Pancho Villa, a brotherly love in which Pancho educates Tom Mix in the laws of life and survival. Tom is a perfect role for Brad Pitt, and I hope he’ll do it.”
Tony Scott is going to direct a smart character-driven love story? “I think I’ve turned the corner in terms of having been perceived as sort of an ‘action director,'” Scott asserts. “I’ve gotten spoiled by shooting scripts by Shane Black–his script for The Last Boy Scout was quirky, different, a lot better than the movie I made of it–and by Quentin Tarantino. Both of those guys write wonderful dialogue, structure and characters. Because I’m a romantic, I changed Quentin’s ending for True Romance because I couldn’t have those kids die like he wanted them to. Quentin educated me to a world where you don’t have to think about using light, camera angles, mysticism and tricks to camouflage things in a script you’re uncomfortable with. He brought people to life for me in a way I’d never experienced before. It changed my life. I always used to think critics were taking cheap shots at me by saying that because I shot so many commercials, my work was slick. I can be more objective now about my early movies and see what was missing. There’s a lot more content and depth in True Romance, Crimson Tide and The Fan compared to my early stuff. So, getting Tom Mix and Pancho Villa right in script form is what must happen before I commit to it, and after two drafts, it’s not there yet.”
With the Tom Mix project in abeyance, Scott enthuses about a flock of offbeat movies he and his brother are developing for Largo Entertainment and Disney. “We want to be a combination of Miramax and Castle Rock,” he says, “and to be able to make Top Guns and Reservoir Dogs, too.” To prove his point, Scott cites a Marek Kanievska film about the Amazon, a bullfighting drama from TV commercials director Hugh Johnson, and a hip, extreme thriller, The Gun, which will mark the feature debut of Jake Scott, son of Ridley.
Scott’s next project may be Down and Under, an unconventional Mafia chase comedy cowritten by Scott Rosenberg, who’s known for Beautiful Girls and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. He surprises me by saying that he’s been tempted recently not by such big, brawny action stuff as Daylightor Eraser, but by smaller fare. “I read Beautiful Girls and just loved it,” he says of the ensemble movie that ended up being directed by Ted Demme. “I just wasn’t ready to handle a coming-of-age movie, but the characters were brilliant. I also loved and was tempted by the Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead script. I’m now mulling taking over a project my brother originally developed for himself that I’ve talked with Bob De Niro about doing. I don’t want to tempt providence by saying any more about it, but it could be very good. See, I’m not good sitting doing nothing. I get paranoid and insecure, brooding about why I didn’t get things right on movies, why I didn’t do something another way, why I didn’t do it better.”
Given that he likes to test his physical limits on mountain peaks, does he ever ponder his own mortality? “It will happen when it’s going to happen,” he says. “In order to be buried in certain places in England, you have to either be born there, die there or have spent a number of years there. When I got married for the second time, I got married in Wordsworth’s church, a beautiful church that overlooks a valley, so that I could be buried there. I always believe that my spirit will continue in the mountains that I grew up near in the north of England. But I think I’ve got more time, more movies to make.”
So, Scott plans to keep testing his limits on the peaks of Hollywood, too? “I think there’s nothing more exciting or stressful, outside of being President of the United States, than what I do. I’ve worked with three of my greatest heroes: Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. Now, I’d like to be thought of as a director who has the ability to cross the whole board. I love my life. I love what I do. How many people are lucky enough to be able to say that?”
Stephen Rebello interviewed Edward Furlong for the March ’96 issue of Movieline.