Tony Scott: Where the Boys Are
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 adrenalin, 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 Pon-tiac 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 sched-ule. 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 styl-ization 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 disappoint-ed 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.
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