In the Game
"Right now, obviously, you have to tread carefully, but I think time heals."
Director Tony Scott has had to move cautiously in recent weeks, as he prepares the first major studio release since the tragedy of Sept. 11 that deals with American espionage and international tensions. Universal's Spy Game, which teams Robert Redford and Brad Pitt onscreen for the first time, is sticking to its Nov. 21 release date after a successful audience-research screening and the re-editing of a sequence in Beirut involving a building explosion. "It's a tough call," Scott admits, "but the movie is really a relationship movie."
The mentor-protg relationship at the heart of Spy Game reflects the real-life dynamic between its two stars. Pitt had a major success early in his career as the lead in the Redford-directed A River Runs Through It, and with his blond, preternaturally good looks, the actor has often been referred to as "a young Robert Redford." In Spy Game, Pitt plays Tom "Boy Scout" Bishop, a rogue CIA agent who is arrested in China on espionage charges and sentenced to die. Redford is his one-time friend and advisor, veteran CIA operative Nathan Muir, who fashions a plan to save Bishop. Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata's screenplay moves back and forth in time through the two men's careers, with scenes set in Vietnam, Berlin and Beirut.
Scott is open about the deliberations that took place after the events of Sept. 11. "We had an internal screening at Universal with everyone who was involved, and then we had a public screening. A third of the movie is set in Beirut, and there's one sequence that involves a building blowing up. When you talk to everybody, they've all got images that stick with them—the papers falling, the fireball, the buildings dropping. In the end, all those things were brought to the table, but you can't just appease everybody. In what I would term the sensitive areas of the Beirut sequence, I was more operatic. And I said, 'Oh fuck. How do I deal with this and not lose the honesty of the moment and the drama of the sequence?' So I re-conceptualized and made it much more linear. In the end, I think I gained by making it more linear and tighter. It's all seen from Brad's point of view. When we ran it with a public audience, I'd say for 15 or 20 seconds in this sensitive part, the audience were sort of taken aback, but then it dissolved back inside Brad's character, and he took them through the rest of the journey."
Scott feels that "the trailer misrepresents the film a little bit, because it does focus more on the action aspects. A third of the movie takes place in the CIA—it all takes place in 24 hours—and they're interrogating Redford in order to try to get some dirt so they can wash their hands of the Brad Pitt character and say that this kid went AWOL and was doing things without the CIA's sanction. It's a brilliant movie. When I read the script, I thought: This is a very manipulative vehicle in terms of editing, because they go from the quiet of this room, where it's a mind game, to these bizarre worlds, whether it's China today, Beirut in '85 or Berlin in '76. It's a great, great canvas to edit."
Reportedly, this espionage thriller has been testing just as well with women as it has with men. "More so," Scott insists. "It's pretty obvious—you've got Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to see why I'm going to get the female audience. The 40-pluses are after Bob, and the 40-unders are after Brad. They're both beautiful-looking men, and they're both icons."
Scott feels both his stars are often underrated. "It's hard for beautiful guys like Brad and Bob. They get pigeonholed and typecast into being the pretty boys, and people overlook them in terms of their ability. I worked with Brad before on True Romance, so I'd wet my feet with him, as it were. They come from two different work ethics, two different points of view in terms of how they prepare themselves for a scene. Bob is so tight and so buttoned-up and knows exactly each moment how he wants that scene to play. He knows the interior of the scene, he knows the interior of the character, he knows the subtext. Where Brad is a lot more spontaneous. That can sometimes be a recipe for disaster, but in this case, it was good because the guys knew each other, and there was a pull and push. That dynamic worked for me."
Scott readily admits he found the prospect of directing Robert Redford somewhat daunting. "He's done two of my favorite movies," Scott notes. "It was intimidating going into the process. Before we started shooting, it was a laborious process in terms of Bob making sure we were all on the right page, but once we got into filming, he trusted me. He said, 'It's not the way I would do things,' but he was brilliant and he supported me. For instance, there's a sequence in the movie which is a very dramatic two-hander on a rooftop between Brad and Bob—it's pivotal in their relationship. I shot it on the roof with ground cameras doing tight circular tracks and all that stuff. And then I also covered the whole thing from a helicopter. So at the end of the day, I went up in the chopper and Bob said, 'I don't understand why you are doing this, but I'm fascinated.' It's just two different points of view. But he was great because he understands the problems—he knows what a day is like as a director, he knows what it means to complete your day, and he knows what it means when production things go wrong.
"Bob's always been one of my heroes, one of my icons," Scott adds, noting that Redford's 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor was a major inspiration for his own 1998 hit, Enemy of the State.
This globe-trotting production recreated Beirut and Vietnam in Morocco, Germany in Hungary, and—most surprisingly—a Chinese prison in Oxford, England. "But I did my homework," Scott says of the re-creation. "I defy anybody to know that it's in Oxford. All the Chinese restaurants in the south of England were empty for the period we were shooting. We shipped all the Chinamen to Oxford—you couldn't get a Chinese meal for a week in London."
As for the movie's portrait of the CIA, the director observes, "What it says is pure, common logic. It says when push comes to shove, if we've got to sacrifice the little picture for the big picture, we will do it. It's a little sensitive in terms of the CIA—that's why we didn't get full cooperation. But it was similar to when I did Crimson Tide—we didn't get cooperation on Crimson Tide because they didn't want to advertise the fact that there could ever be a mutiny on board a submarine. But it is a movie; it is entertainment after all. I still do my homework and I always find role models in real life for my actors. I did go to the CIA, and they did give me the courtesy of letting me sit and talk with the guys, as they did with Brad. But they were not totally supportive, just because of what the story issues were."
Scott's biggest hits—Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State—have all dealt with the government and the military, but he's also scored with more offbeat fare like his 1983 debut feature, the cult vampire film The Hunger, and the Quentin Tarantino-scripted True Romance. Other Scott hits include Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder and The Last Boy Scout. And, for the past 34 years, he and his brother Ridley (of Gladiator and Alien fame) have been partners in a most successful commercials and film-production company. "It's a healthy rivalry, a sibling rivalry," Scott says. "I tend to work on the people side, Ridley works on the business side, but it's a good combination. We never share directing notes, but we're always looking at what each other is doing. Rid has three kids who are all directors, doing commercials and videos—and Jake did his first movie two years ago."
Tony Scott is currently developing two new features: a serial-killer thriller called Taking Lives for Fox and Village Roadshow, and a longtime pet project, Tom Mix and Pancho Villa, for Fox and Intermedia. "Pancho Villa has been my passion for ten years now," he declares. "It's a true story, a huge epic—it's Lawrence of Arabia and The Wild Bunch."