Director Reunites with Washington For Time-Travel Thriller (11/06)

Imagine a world where a clandestine government organization has developed the technology to send an agent back in time in order to prevent the murder of a beautiful young woman. Sounds like the set-up for a Philip K. Dick-style sci-fi thriller, right? Not in the hands of Tony Scott. The director of Top Gun and last year's Domino insists that--time-travel aside--his latest movie Déjà Vu is intentionally less like science fiction and more like science fact.

"Science fiction is dangerous," says Scott, on the phone from Los Angeles. "You've really got to know what you're doing, because it can go drastically wrong. If the audience doesn't buy into the idea or if you get one snigger, you're fucked." To avoid that fate, Scott sought to make the film's fantastical premise easier to swallow by placing it in a contemporary real-world setting. "My goal with this movie is to have the audience walk out of the theatre thinking, 'Damn, if they haven't done it today, they are going to do it tomorrow.'"

Feel free to roll your eyes. That's what everyone did eight years ago when Scott directed Enemy of the State, which was set in a then-present-day America where the NSA monitored everyone's phone calls and satellite cameras could be accessed on desktop computers. Hmmm...sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? "When we did Enemy, 20% was real and the other 80% was bullshit," Scott says, laughing. "But now 80% is real! The main thing we got right was that in eight years, you'd be able to use Google to check out your house from a satellite." That said, Scott doesn't necessarily believe that by 2014 we'll all be able to travel back to, say, 1914. " Déjà Vu isn't about infinite time travel. It's just a small window in time, four days to be exact. Although it would be nice to go back further--I could get my hair back!"

Déjà Vu, which Disney debuts on Nov. 22, came to Scott in the same way Enemy of the State did, through his longtime friend and collaborator Jerry Bruckheimer. "This is the sixth movie I've made with Jerry," Scott says. He pauses for a moment and then exclaims, "Wow, that's ten years of my life! It's almost longer than any of my marriages." Like a married couple, Scott says that he and Bruckheimer have developed a shorthand over the years. "I think we're really good together. Sometimes I push too far right--like with Domino--and then Jerry pulls me back and centers me a little more, but in a good way, not a compromised way. Somehow we always come out with a product that I'm very proud of."

Even though he knew firsthand about Bruckheimer's uncanny ability to match the right director with the right material, Scott admits he was a little skeptical when he first received the script for Déjà Vu. "It wasn't something I would normally gravitate to, because it's an unusual mixture of so many things. At the center is a love story, but there's also action and a little bit of science fact. I've never come across a project that's made up of such an odd combination of elements." In the end, it was Scott's ongoing desire to explore new and different kinds of stories that convinced him to take on the project. "I hate repeating myself," he says simply. "Every day my goal is to shoot a scene or approach a character in a way I've never done before. If you look at my last four movies, they're all very different in terms of style and concept, and this one is another departure for me."

Scott's visual style may change with every film, but his pre-production process has remained the same since 1995's Crimson Tide. After signing on to direct a movie, he takes the script and begins a procedure he calls "reverse-engineering," which involves him and his core group of collaborators (whom he refers to as his family) going out into the world to find real people and real stories that they then incorporate into the film. Before shooting his 2004 thriller Man on Fire, for example, Scott met with real kidnappers and kidnapping victims. And in preparation for his planned remake of Walter Hill's The Warriors (a movie he has been developing for almost six years and still hopes to direct sometime soon), he has already spoken with the heads of all the major L.A. gangs.

"Here I am, this bald little Englishman, and I've met the leaders of the Bloods and the Crips and the 18th Street Gang," Scott marvels, as if he still can't believe it himself. "I sat down with all of them and they said, 'Dude, if you get this movie done, we'll stand on the Long Beach Bridge together and make a treaty for the duration of the shoot.' It's wild." That's one word for it. Other people might say "dangerous," "crazy" or "suicidal." But Scott swears by his process, particularly when it comes to casting. "You don't know how a character should function until you sit down with the real person and share a drink, a cup of coffee or a joint. Then I can say, 'I want to meet an actor who can play that.' It gives you insight into who should be acting in your movie."

For Déjà Vu, Scott's main source of inspiration was Jerry Rudden, a well-known ATF agent who became the model for the film's hero, Doug Carlin. The director knew early on that he wanted Denzel Washington to play Carlin, and as soon as the actor committed to the movie, Scott hooked him up with Rudden. The two hit it off right away, particularly when they learned they grew up only five blocks from each other in the same town in upstate New York. Scott says he also found real-life models for Washington's co-stars, including Val Kilmer, James Caviezel, Adam Goldberg and Idlewild's Paula Patton, who plays the murder victim that Washington goes back in time to save and ends up falling in love with.

"It's a good process because it enables me to give actors an understanding of who I think the character is," Scott explains. "It's difficult to say to an actor, 'I think you should wear these laces with this tie' or 'You should talk this way.' That's all very abstract. But if you've got a point of reference, it's much easier. You can tell Denzel to say, 'I'm Jerry and what would Jerry do in this situation?' And what Jerry did in real life becomes what Denzel does in the movie."

It was also during the reverse-engineering stage of Déjà Vu's development that Scott made the decision to set the movie in New Orleans, after nixing such locations as Seattle and Miami. The director visited the Big Easy for the first time in July 2005 and knew within an hour that he'd be making the movie there. "New Orleans is unlike any other American city. It's more like Madrid or Mexico City or bits of Paris-absolutely beautiful, with enormous character. And it exists in a time warp, which makes it perfect for a story that involves the warping of time."

Filming was set to commence in the fall...until Hurricane Katrina blew into town and changed everything. In the wake of the destruction caused by Katrina, the movie was temporarily put on hold while the studio decided what to do next. During the interim, Scott left the production citing scheduling conflicts, but returned in October when it became clear that the film would be able to shoot in New Orleans after all. Principal photography began in February 2006 and the director made a point of working references to Katrina into the script. "New Orleans is really a third character in the movie," he says now, adding that he shot in locations all over the city, from the Ninth Ward-the area that was hardest hit by the hurricane-to the French Quarter to the outlying bayous. "The Ninth Ward was absolutely devastating, like an atomic bomb had gone off," Scott remembers. "But the rest of the city was in remarkably good shape. And the spirit of the people there is huge. When the movie comes out, I want the public to say, 'Boy, we should take a look at New Orleans again.’”

At 62, Scott is looking at a slate that’s more crowded than ever. In addition to The Warriors, he's deep in development on the drama Emma's War, based on the true story of a British aid worker who traveled to the Sudan in the 1980s and got caught up in the country's brutal civil war. "It's been a difficult piece to crack," Scott says. "We had one writer aboard who did a pass at the script and didn't get it, but we've got someone else onboard now who I'm going to make live down there and smell it, touch it, feel it. There's nothing that can compare to that kind of first-hand experience."

When he's not in the director's chair, Scott has a lucrative second career as a TV and film producer. His company Scott Free Productions (which he runs with his brother, director Ridley Scott) is involved with such upcoming movies as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as well as the hit CBS drama "Numb3rs," now in its third season. And then there are all the pet projects he's been nurturing for years and years, chief among them an epic western entitled Tom Mix and Pancho Villa. "At my age, I don't know how many movies I've got left," Scott says, laughing. "I've got all these projects, I've just got to make a decision. I wish I could do a movie a month!" That's where time travel might come in handy.