Saluting Tony Scott: 'Film Journal' looks back at the career of an action auteur

Today, the film industry mourns the death by apparent suicide of director Tony Scott, whose resume of hit movies includes the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, Crimson Tide, True Romance, Enemy of the State, Days of Thunder and Man on Fire. Film Journal International had the privilege of profiling Scott three times in just over a decade, including for the 2001 film Spy Game and 2006’s Déjà Vu. Most recently, Scott spoke to us about his 2009 action thriller, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, the profile of which is reprinted below.

Ask director Tony Scott about the principal characters in any of his films, and he will describe the people they’re based upon. Scott doesn’t write scripts; he “researches” them. He finds men and women who resemble his protagonists and the actual situations which inspired their recreation on the screen. “I reverse-engineer real characters into the existing script, which I do on every movie,” Scott explains. “Then I give those real characters to my actors.”

Scott’s new film, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, opening on June 15 from Columbia Pictures, is based upon John Godey’s book and the 1974 movie, which starred Walter Matthau. All three are about a subway hijacking in New York City. In the original film, Robert Shaw played the villain. With the help of a disgruntled former MTA motorman, he detaches the first car of the hijacked train and then demands a million dollars in exchange for the passengers. In Scott’s movie, the hijacker also demands money, but his motive is revenge: Ryder (John Travolta) holds a grudge against the City of New York for making him the fall guy in a citywide scandal.

“I found a real guy for the Ryder character who had just done 12 years,” Scott recalls in a telephone conversation from California. “He was working as a contractor for the City of New York during the parking violations scandal of the 1980s and 1990s.” Scott mentioned the contractor to Denzel Washington, already cast in the role of Garber, the MTA employee who becomes the ad hoc hostage negotiator, the character Matthau played in the 1974 film.

“Denzel kept saying: ‘It’s John Travolta,’” Scott explains. “So I introduced John to the real guy, and then he shaved his head and lost 40 pounds to make his commitment to the character. For Denzel’s Garber, the guy is a retired 55-year-old Albanian MTA worker.”

Scott, who is a member of a small group of billion-dollar-grossing filmmakers, is best known for his skillfully crafted, fast-paced thrillers, among them Enemy of the State (1998), Spy Game (2001) and Man on Fire (2004). His key crew members are frequent collaborators, as are members of his principal cast. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 marks Scott’s 14th feature as a director. It is his fourth film with Denzel Washington, and his second with screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire), who brought him on the Pelham project two years ago. Production designer Chris Seagers has collaborated on five of Scott’s films, and composer Harry Gregson-Williams has scored seven.

Scott calls himself a “great plagiarist,” and points to the opening of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a complicated time-lapse sequence of New York City. He says it is a “rip-off” of a similar sequence from Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 documentary, Koyaanisqatsi (“Life Out of Balance”), which features beautifully photographed scenes of outsized urban landscapes. Scott’s version introduces what he calls his “third character,” the city that wronged Ryder. The British director is an unabashed fan of the movies; what he calls “rip-offs” are often sequences or characters that express his admiration for good filmmaking. In Enemy of the State, for instance, Gene Hackman portrays a surveillance expert, a character he played 24 years earlier. “It’s a homage,” Scott says. “I loved The Conversation.”

Scott’s talent is not borrowing as much as it is synthesizing; he’s a painter by training and an expatriate of sorts, who combines his European sensibilities with Hollywood-style craftsmanship. His method is to blend, to create a unique palette of sounds and images that cannot be described except as an integrated whole. The key to this distinctive style begins in pre-production. “I do what are called rip sheets,” Scott explains. “I’ll sit in my library for a couple of days, and I have the script in my hand. I just pull visual references from my photography books. In this way, I cobble together a reference for the feel of the movie.”

Scott then hands this collection to his editor. “He does what we call a rip-o-matic,” the director says. “When I think I’ve got the cast that I want, we steal from Denzel’s performances, for instance, or from John Travolta’s movies, and my editor will cut together footage to see how the two actors work together. Essentially, I make a teaser trailer for the movie.” Scott shows his cinematographer the “rip-o-matic,” and begins involving other key crew members and cast during this phase of pre-production. He adds a temp score to the rip-o-matic, too; on The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, he cut in Gregson-Williams’ music from Man on Fire.

During production, Scott is up at four a.m. to sketch what he will shoot that day. “On Pelham, I had to storyboard for the MTA to show them exactly what I wanted, especially because they asked to see what we were going to do with the train,” Scott explains. “It’s part of doing my homework and exercising my ideas. I can’t go to work unprepared. I’d die.”

Scott’s post-production routine also reveals the genesis of that imbrication of image and sound which is a hallmark of his films. “Some directors first cut the picture,” he says. “I never cut with picture and dialogue, for instance. I always cut with sound effects and music, even if music gives us just a template or a reference to the emotional content in the scene. I can’t work on a scene unless I lay in some sort of sound. It’s an organic process.”

Helgeland’s script for Pelham 1 2 3—the title refers to the name of the originating station and the time of departure—globalizes a threat of a different sort of terrorism than the one hinted at in the first movie. In 1974, there was a widespread belief in the United States that Irish-American sympathizers were financing Irish Republican Army operations, which included the London bombings of 1973 and 1974. Although hijacker Robert Shaw was British, Scott, who watched the film as part of his research, calls his accent in that movie “a bad attempt at a half-Irish and half-English accent,” and agrees the director was reaching for the terrorist angle. “But what I loved about the original was Walter Matthau,” Scott admits, “especially his laconic New York sense of humor.” The 1974 film, written by Peter Stone (Charade) and directed by Joseph Sargent, satirizes city agencies and the mayor, as Scott’s does, but New Yorkers especially would be struck by the relative innocence of that era. Helgeland’s post-9/11 take on the hijacking is chilling.

In “reverse-engineering” his characters, Scott frequently creates roguish heroes, and Pelham is no exception. Washington’s character, the guy who saves the day, once took a bribe. “I always find that in the real world people are never completely clean,” Scott muses. “It’s good for the actors—rather than playing it in one direction, they can play with the character in three directions. All my characters are like that: They’ve got a subtext.”

MTA employees who saw the film apparently agree; Scott reports they “loved” it. “This is the first time the MTA has given that sort of cooperation on a movie in terms of letting me use the real thing,” Scott says. Exteriors were filmed at the Hoyt Street station, and rats weren’t a problem—except for the actor portraying a New York City Police officer stationed near the hijacked train. “A rat shot up his pant leg,” Scott recalls, “but he grabbed it before it got up there any further.” The director chuckles and adds: “We were lucky to get that on film.”

Scott, who lives in California, was near Pittsburgh in early April doing research, deciding between two projects he was recently offered. “I’m from the Northeast of England, and it’s like Pittsburgh,” he says. “It’s depressed and there’s steel and mining and shipbuilding. It’s sort of Industrial Revolution. It’s beautiful in its own way, and it makes me think of home.” Scott, who has a wry sense of humor, is also disarmingly self-effacing. He jokes more than once about his penchant for research. “Sometimes I lose the audience because I get too obtuse in terms of those pieces of the jigsaw in my plot,” he says. “I think I did that in Domino. The movie became very speedy.”

Scott laughs when he’s asked if he has ever heard anyone say this film or that one has a “Tony Scott look.” “Yes,” he says, “and I’m proud of that.” So what is a Tony Scott movie? “Maybe it means more to me than it does to the audience,” he declares, “but I think a Tony Scott movie is about being character-driven and having momentum. Most of all, I think a Tony Scott movie is stolen from Nic Roeg.” Roeg, now in his early 80s, is a fellow countryman best-known for his direction of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Don’t Look Now (1973), but also for his work as a cinematographer on such celebrated films as Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966). “Remember Nic Roeg?” he says. “Nic Roeg used to make movies that were jigsaw puzzles.”