Tony Scott: Where the Boys Are
Tony Scott, brother of Ridley, was known for making splashy action movies. In the mid-eighties, he had back-to-back hits with Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II. Then in 1990, Scott helmed back-to-back disappointments, Revenge and Days of Thunder. Writer Michael Angeli visited the director on the set of his next feature, The Last Boy Scout, for an interview that was included in the December 1991 issue of Movieline magazine.
Manhood, in its tug o’ war between sensitivity and secretion, has lost sight of the things near and dear to its collective and heretofore unbreakable heart. What we’ve become, if I read my Iron John right, has little to do with what we really are. No one knows this better than Tony Scott, kahuna of kick-ass, duke of dude, Buddha of buddy films.
The mere watching of Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Beverly Hills Cop II or almost any other Scott-directed film does more to purge male grief than a whole hanky-ridden month with the mentor of your choice. Walk out of the theater and just feel the juices coursing through those veins and arteries that two hours ago were blocked by the gristle of introspection and self-doubt.
Squeal the tires out of the parking lot. We real men tromp on the accelerator when “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” comes on the radio. And when Gene Pitney hits the phrase, “he was mighty good,” we make unsafe lane changes. Face it, you’re rugged, and maybe even a little smelly, okay? Getting in touch with your feelings is as easy as shaking your own hand. Above your head. In front of a crowd. Women? Forget it. The few decent ones patch us up and get us back on the road (or in the air). Goddamit, Maverick! The game of life is played in a two-minute offense, a no-holds-barred battle of biting, kicking and stealing for the survival of our cojones. Action is character.
“In film, in terms of grief, power, victory, defeat, it’s like fighting a war,” says the director of The Last Boy Scout, a man among men, who had directed man-stars like Eddie Murphy, Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner long before dealing with his current man-star, Bruce Willis. “Shooting films is the sort of ultimate adrenaline, the ultimate drug. And it’s the ultimate fear– because it’s the ultimate failure. And I have the fear every morning I get up.” Well, yes, a box-office bomb lies somewhere near a botched Kremlin coup on the bell curve of ultimate failures. But guys who make movies called Revenge can eat stage fright for breakfast and show up on the set by nine for a good car chase and explosion.
Splendid masculine occurrences have been filmed in the parceled wilds of Griffith Park. James Dean got his tires slashed here and lost his little buddy, Sal Mineo, to a cop’s bullet. Hoss and Little Joe and Matt Dillon roamed these canyons. Kevin McCarthy discovered it’s dangerous to kiss women once they’ve rolled over and fallen asleep in a cave with you. On this day, high above the pony rides and the antique railroad cars of Travel Town, Tony Scott and a handpicked second unit film crew are shooting stunts for The Last Boy Scout. The theater of operations is one of the highest, driest ridges in the park, accessible only by dirt fire roads that billow into dust snakes with the slightest intrusion of man or machine. Off to one side, the San Fernando Valley is stretched out like a faded plaid shirt under the gauze of ruby-colored smog. The other side is a sheer, brush-covered drop into the flats of the park, where flash fires and carcasses are not uncommon sights.
Gaffers, sound men and technicians have a control board set up just to the left of a clearing where the dirt road widens. Scott and his crew are after two stunts. The first one is literally a drive in the park. With bad guys in hot pursuit, stunt doubles of Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans hurtle a red convertible along the winding ridgetop. The good guys are supposedly going so fast that the top of their convertible blows off. What this stunt concedes to tedium (is Barbara Walters writing action sequences in her spare time now or what?) the next one makes up for in life-threatening implications. Sometime this afternoon, a stunt double will drive a Cadillac Seville clear off the top of the ridge, do a spiral in midair and then land a thousand feet below, right side up.
They’re running through the first take of the Barbara Walters stunt and we’ve all been ordered back, away from the road. An explosive charge rigged to the convertible top is going to send it skyward any second, and all this drama will be caught on film by the crew trailing the red convertible in a modified, jet-black El Camino. Helming the rig from behind the passenger compartment is Tony Scott, stern and intrepidly balanced, looking more like a safari bwana out to bag a rhino than a director off to shoot a Pontiac Sunbird. As the prey roars and fishtails past us in a cloud of dust with Tony in pursuit, the convertible top fails to blow.
Perhaps the myth of the tough guy in long pants never penetrated to Tony Scott’s industrial Newcastle birthplace. It’s hard to envision the Lange-wrestling Sam Shepard or man-star Sly Stallone making a uniform of shorts. But then, soccer is not their national pastime and their native clime wasn’t so raw that they now feel the need to bare skin whenever the mercury cracks 70. Tony’s shorts are a washed-out shade of pink. With them he sports a baggy, many-pocketed vest worn without a shirt underneath, allowing for the expansion of a truant belly and a sprig of pewter-colored chest hair to rustle in the hot breeze.
While the mood is generally down among the crew after the failed convertible-top stunt, Tony Scott greets me with the vigor of an outdoorsman. And why not? In an industry that currently looks upon big-budget action films with the enthusiasm usually reserved for colon surgery, someone has given him over $35 million to play with.
“We were a test case–Joel, Bruce and myself–because of our reputations, coming out of Days of Thunder and Hudson Hawk,” Scott concedes, speaking foundry-worker British at an almost intimate pitch. “They kept saying that action movies were dead. Of course, then comes T2. When our movie’s complete, we’ll be one day off of schedule. Which is good for a guy who’s notorious for overages.” The “guy” Scott’s referring to is the aforementioned “Joel,” Boy Scout‘s storied producer, Joel Silver, whom Tony describes as “a madman, but in the best sense of the word. He’s very, very smart and has enormous energy. He eats and sleeps film and never stops from eight o’clock in the morning until midnight.”
In the brew of free-floating dust, heat and smog we’re breathing, Tony looks as bright as the authentic Boy Scout medal pinned to the lapel of his vest (a gift from former wine cooler pitchman and current Boy Scout star Bruce Willis). And indeed, Scott probably deserves a lifetime achievement award of sorts for the number of potentially volatile egos he’s hiked with through films–Kevin Costner in Revenge, Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop II, and now Willis.
“All stars have an ego,” says Tony, as he gives the El Camino a fond once-over. “All the guys I’ve worked with are passionate men, all with a point of view. Unfortunately, that point of view becomes fair game, almost, because of who they are. I enjoy working with them because I have a bit of a rapport with them, I suppose. We’re all smart men and we know what we’re dealing with in our craft.”
“Bruce, for example, has the best instincts. He’s been around the business in the rags to riches sense. He’s a keeper. A stayer. But Bruce is also one of the boys–which means he’s very easy to communicate with whether it’s me or the crew–communication’s very easy and straight forward.”
While the technicians rewire the charges on the red convertible, Tony shows off the El Camino to me the way D. Wayne Lukas might parade around a two-year-old colt with Secretariat bloodlines. As one of Robert Bly’s modern males, I look at this magnificent machine and feel the Wild Man stomping in jackboots down in the cellar of my psyche. Reinforced with sheet metal, the El Camino sits on fat Wrangler tires, comes with a Hurst shifter and a dashboard chock full of analog gauges–the kind with the needles (men of action have a problem with idiot lights). Two cameramen can ride shotgun in front of the grill in a cage of metal piping, their faces and the Panaflex cameras protected by Plexiglas.
“We modified this baby,” Tony almost coos. “Had it on Thunder. It’s the best rig we’ve ever used. Really really fast. Big V-8. Does a hundred-sixty. And the guy who drives it is really talented.”
“How ’bout letting me ride with you for one take?” I say. For a moment it looks as though Tony might allow me to tag along until he comes to his senses. “Love to. But with the insurance and all…”
Once again we are all herded out of harm’s way in anticipation of the convertible stunt. Someone pointing at me wants to know if I’m all right–the presence of outsiders is suspect up here among these blood brothers–and another traffic director-type shrugs, “He’s with Tony.” It takes leather balls to play rugby.
On the third take (the second one yields the same results as the first), the technicians have abandoned the explosive device in favor of good old-fashioned speed and Yankee ingenuity. They’ve left the roof latches for the top undone and the stunt driver is supposed to go faster and let wind resistance do what explosives can’t. But the Damon Wayans stunt double loses faith and tries to help the top along with a little nudge, which makes it looks as though the guys in the story have decided that it’s such a glorious day for a car chase, what the hell, let’s put the top down.
The repeated stunt gaffes and Willis’s hairline notwithstanding, there’s good reason to believe that The Last Boy Scout will have an extraordinary look to it. Visual jazz is a hallmark of Tony Scott films, a quality that might be traced to an education beginning with eight years of art school. After spending five years as a painter, Scott received a degree in fine arts and landed a scholarship in film school.
Then came a 10-year tour of duty in advertising and commercials, which was the point in Scott’s life where he began to hit his stride, judging from the premium he puts on the experience: “I loved commercials because I was always shooting–I was actually getting to turn some film. And for the generation that I happen to be a part of, the adventures in advertising then were the same as what videos are today, here. There were very few restrictions in Europe. In its own way, advertising is as great an art form as documentaries or features.
“But don’t misunderstand me–I love what I do, basically. I’m a shooter. I love shooting–commercials, if I’m not doing films. Normally, what I do when I do commercials between movies is I look at the next film project using the commercial as a sort of testing ground for it. I’ll try out this piece equipment, or that idea.”
Scott’s gift for capturing visual radiance might be a matter of heredity. Director-brother Ridley was responsible for the stunning optical foreplay in Blade Runner, Alien and Thelma & Louise. “Rid and I came from one of the poorest regions in England,” says Tony. “I was watching The Commitments and Dublin is almost the same environment as the one my brother and I were raised in, in Newcastle. I think the darkness in my brother’s films comes from growing up in the northeast–Blade Runner. Enough said.”
Values of that darkness can, in fact, be isolated in Tony Scott’s first film, The Hunger, a Gothic sci-fi/horror stylization that starred Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. As a precursor of the virile, male bonding hunkoramas Scott would become famous for, The Hunger is about as improbable as if Russ Meyer’s first film were The Sound of Music. Blowzy, codeine-high of blood lust, lesbianism and accelerated aging (Dorian Gray meets Vampira?) that it may be, The Hunger unmistakably possesses Scott’s signature visual seduction. Tony is candid about his influences: “It was really a B-movie concept that I was trying to make into a more strange, more psychological film. Performance was one of my all-time favorite films. And basically, The Hunger was a ripoff of Performance. You look at both of them and you can see where I stole from it, especially in the opening sequence.”
The Hunger notably features the explicit coupling of Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. “The kissing [involving Sarandon and Deneuve] was a weird and interesting experience because the difference between a man’s mouth and a woman’s mouth is that a woman’s mouth is much softer. When we shot the scene, the biggest problem we had was to stop them from laughing. Catherine and Susan became great friends. They had a great time and ended up sharing an apartment in London together.”
The stuntman piloting the red Sunbird approaches, looking crestfallen. His news doesn’t augur well for the fate of the Barbara Walters stunt: “That’s the fastest I can go without going off of the cliff, Boss.” Tony’s disappointed resignation isn’t all that convincing–another take means another ride in the back of the monster El Camino.
“It was interesting,” Tony says, returning to The Hunger. “After that film I couldn’t get any work. They said I was dangerous, that I was trying to do art movies and I was unbankable.”
But along came Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the Romulus and Remus of high concept, with a story about a training school for fighter pilots. “When I first read Top Gun, I was thinking of doing something much darker, like Apocalypse Now in the air. But Simpson and Bruckheimer kept saying, ‘nah, fuck, no–you’re wrong, you’re wrong.’ And I was wrong and they were right. I wanted to make it much deeper, but it’s not a deep story.”
That understatement rivals Madonna’s “I do what I want.” Deepness was never a priority once Scott became point man for Simpson and Bruckheimer. Spectacle, glossy kinesthesis, freeze-dried pathos, and high-powered, irresistible malarkey fit the bill. The jamboree of orthodontics worked like a charm in Top Gun. Later, with Days of Thunder, it didn’t.
“The film suffered most from a lack of time in the script stages and lack of time in postproduction,” says Tony, claiming he was given only 22 days to edit an inordinately large amount of footage. “To edit a film of that size was ridiculous. They had a release date and the studio firmly believed that this sort of movie, a racecar movie with Tom Cruise at the wheel, would be a big hit. Unfortunately, at that point in time, it was released with a whole crop of so-called blockbusters and I think the public OD’d.
“In Days of Thunder we never had the chance to come to grips with the darkness or the lightness of it. I think with more time, it could’ve been a much better movie. I mean, we got some of the best car footage ever. We got great stuff that never even hit the editing table. It still did $86 million.”
We’re all milling around in the heat, waiting for the next take. A group of young stuntmen is taking up a collection to entice a man named Bob into riding down a steep slope leading into the Valley on a dolly. The present bid is $500 and the stuntmen are playing off the presence of a gorgeous woman to cloud Bob’s ability to reason. For the moment it appears to be working–as Bob peers over the edge, assessing the rough spots, his peripheral vision conspicuously encompasses the silhouette of the woman.
My inclination is to warn Bob that if he goes ahead with this, the only bone left unbroken in his body will be the stirrup bone in his left ear. But we men must make our own way, even if it means having them find you in the middle of Ventura Boulevard strapped to a dolly with every inch of flesh ripped from your body by thorns. Bob is ultimately spared through the dispassionate intervention of the stunt coordinator, who chews everyone out and says he’s going to need that dolly shortly.
Tony has returned after the last take of the convertible top stunt, which ended in success. We have some time while preparations for the launching of the Cadillac are under way. Tony eases into discussing the biggest trauma of his career: “Simpson and Bruckheimer are very, very smart in that they make one particular kind of movie and they manage to be the best at it. They specialize. But for me, I have been pigeonholed in a way, as a person who does action movies. I tried to get out of that pigeonhole with Revenge.”
Tony pauses to reflect, his gaze set on the tailpipe of the El Camino. “David Lean was once asked what his main problem, on a day-to-day basis as a director was. He said fatigue–mental and physical. And that fatigue keeps you from keeping perspective and an eye on what you want to do and say with your movie. On Revenge I didn’t actually get fatigued–I got beaten up.”
According to Scott, Revenge (an adaptation from the exceptional Jim Harrison novella which, unlike the film, has an unsentimental ending) was a project John Huston once wanted to make with Ray Stark. “Huston tried for 10 years to make the film, but Stark kept putting it off–it wasn’t the kind of material that Ray Stark normally does. And then I think Ray eventually made the film as an homage to Huston after he died. But it was clear that he simply didn’t have an understanding for the material. It’s funny, too, because I’ve had misgivings on different projects. But on Revenge, I read the script and said to myself, I want to do this movie.”
But the movie he made, says Scott, was very different from the movie that was released. “What I did was basically taken away from me. I was editing under instructions. And it was made clear to me that if I didn’t do as I was told, I’d be removed from the project.”
Is Shane holstering his gun while the bad guys bully the town? “How could you allow that to happen?” I ask. “Well, there’s nothing you can do. You’re owned. You’re a hired gun as a director. You’re owned by the studio and by the producer. So I tried to hang on to it as long as I could, but in the end I lost sight of it. Directors often say, ‘Fuck, you should see my cut, then look at the studio cut. You can’t tell the difference.’ Well, in this case there was an enormous difference. And it was a difference in tone. A big difference, especially because tone is very important in that movie. Mine was much darker, much more unforgiving, much stranger, much more offbeat–as was the Jim Harrison story–and that’s what was lost.
“An edit is the most important tool of a director, besides his own vision. An editor is like the director’s hand, in terms of putting the paint on the canvas. They consider themselves artists as well, and they should. You would hardly tell Michelangelo not to slop paint all over his walls, now, would you? Therefore, it’s extremely important to have a talented editor working with you. And some of these guys [producers] think that editing is just the process of assembling the movie.”
We are momentarily interrupted by a report squawking over a walkie-talkie. Much to my dismay, the leaping Cadillac stunt will be delayed for close to an hour, due to a crimped fuel pump. Tony’s thoughts, however, are still on Revenge, which was keelhauled by critics and avoided by moviegoers. “Eventually what I’d love to do is get it back and reedit it even if it doesn’t leave my house. But it’s sad. Saying I told you so doesn’t help. It was 18 months out of my life. A director’s time on earth with his work is very limited. Very few manage to maintain the quality of their work. It’s the fatigue–lifelong fatigue brought on by the necessity to keep fighting the studios. It’s mental as well as physical and I think what happens to directors is they finally grow tired with fighting the studios constantly. It just gets too damn hard and they lose the quality and the edge. I hope it doesn’t happen to me, but it just might and I’m aware of it constantly.”
By now I’m thinking about how much a director’s career is like a football player’s. You’re on top for six to eight years, then you go on to do bad color commentary or weedeater and beer commercials.
“I think there’s a variety of colors inside me that are different from the majority of guys in this town,” Scott continues. “There’s a lot of darkness, strangeness inside of me. I think for straight-out action, I have a broader range of emotional cuts–stranger cuts–that gives me the ability to do the cross-section of films that I’ve done.”
How much autonomy Scott will have in the postproduction phase of Boy Scout poses an intriguing question, in light of the present big-budget paranoia serving as Hollywood’s malady du jour. At the very least, he’s found a compatriot in screenwriter Shane Black, whom Tony describes as “a loner who lives vicariously through his characters. If you meet him, he’s stiff and boyish and not anything like the stuff he writes. Shane is very smart. He has the ability I see in myself, which is to write darkness, strangeness and humor. He has a broad range of talent in terms of putting all these different moods on the paper. I like to think that I am able to do the same thing on celluloid.
“The script is very manipulative in the best sense of the word because it’s entertainment and you have these guys who have this humor and wit–they’re fast with their tongues and fast on their feet. And this is crosscut with the darkness and the violence and the strangeness. It begins like a Woody Allen movie, where you have Art Donovan [a colorful ex-football player, noted for his flat-top haircut as much as his skewered candor] sitting there, saying football is fucked, the players are only in it for the money. Then Glenn Miller fades in over a downpour in Cleveland, where these guys are all getting messed up. You sense something dark and ominous coming in the way it’s shot. It’s a football game, but it’s not the way a football game is normally lit.”
The stuntman who’ll be driving the Cadillac Seville when it flies off the top of Griffith Park has shimmied a quarter of the way down the side of the cliff. He wears hard shoes and is dressed like Tony Manero, indicating Bronx ancestry. From where we’re standing, we can watch him dramatically surveying the lay of the hill, like a perspective homeowner imagining the location of his study. He removes a large, rusting pipe where he thinks the Seville might go through.
“Originally, we wanted to go through the Hollywood sign,” Tony squints, happy again with the prospect of engines gunning and thrills nearing. “We wanted to go right through the ‘W’ but we got bureaucratically torpedoed. We cleared the chamber of commerce, but the residents committee killed us at the last minute.”
Two production assistants are walking us to the spot where the Seville will become airborne while Tony, pulling up his sweat socks, hedges on the future. “I’m reluctant to talk about what I want to do next because I’m afraid it tempts providence, but I’m interested in a project called Interview With a Vampire. It’s between Stephen Frears and myself, with Michael Cristofer as the writer. But Frears–I love what Frears does–it really pisses me off ’cause he’s good. Also, I might be doing a film with Rid–he’ll produce and I’ll direct. A strange ecological piece done in the Amazon for Carolco. It’s almost a documentary, sort of paralleling Dances With Wolves. But,” he adds with a wry smile, “darker and stranger.”
I can see the Seville making its way slowly up the dirt fire road, kicking up a rooster tail of dust. The atmosphere among the crew has taken on the pregame feel of the Super-bowl; everyone is charged up. Tony pads his vest for one of his two admitted vices, a cigar. And the other? “Women,” he professes without missing a beat. “That’s more of a virtue, I would think.” “Well, they make for a healthy life,” Tony Scott grins conspiratorially, his forehead blushing with sunburn.
They’re clearing the area of all vehicles now, 15 minutes and counting from the launch of the Seville into the late afternoon haze. I am slouched in a courtesy van, hoping Tony doesn’t spot me, forgetting that the windows are heavily tinted. The last time I see him, he’s pointing at the van, ordering the driver back out of the way with a string of casual obscenities. As we’re driving back down the hill, the shuttle operator, without turning around, asks: “Wow, man–you’re not staying for the stunt?”
“I wish I could. But I have to be somewhere at five.” The driver nods impassively, strongly hinting that my attention will no longer be required for the duration of the ride. In the end, we all have to live with our private secrets. What I have to do is pick up my kids from school and broil some swordfish before it spoils.
Michael Angeli wrote our September cover story on River Phoenix.