Tony Scott: From Macho to Mellow
"Mellow" is a relative term for the guy who made glossy action films like Top Gun and Crimson Tide. But no question, Tony Scott, director of this summer's The Fan, has softened at the edges. Here he talks about how Quentin Tarantino changed his life, what makes Fan star Robert De Niro a "sweetheart," and why Don Simpson's death was no surprise.
I'm cruising to Tony Scott's Hollywood offices one night, figuring him to be one director I pretty much have down cold. Rich, highly employable, best-known for outsized, glistening, machine-tooled flicks. Check. Fatter on visual firepower and technique than on stick-to-the-ribs emotion. Check. Marginally interested in female characters, at best. Check. Moist with adoration for jock-y, macho flyboys (Top Gun), jock-y, macho, overrated comics (Beverly Hills Cop II), jock-y, macho speed racers (Days of Thunder), jock-y macho ex-Secret Service goons (The Last Boy Scout) and jock-y, macho submarine crewmen (Crimson Tide). Check. Disinclined to bother with the niceties--like subtext and high aspiration--that distinguish Blade Runner, Alien or Thelma & Louise, all of which were directed by his rather more respected brother, Ridley. Check. Add to all this the fact that Tony Scott's about-to-be-released thriller, The Fan, features a psychotic Robert De Niro stalking pro baseball star Wesley Snipes. Jeesh, haven't we seen this movie a couple of times? Why am I busting my chops in rush hour to be on time to Scott's office?
Easy. Tony Scott inspires tall tales. On the set this guy is said to strike like a ball-peen hammer, and he usually sees that he's well-matched with ball-peen stars: Brad Pitt. Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Ellen Barkin, Gary Oldman, Kevin Costner, Eddie Murphy. He's also said to be no slouch at going mano a mano with such producers as the recently deceased wild man Don Simpson, as well as legendary blowhards Ray Stark and Joel Silver, Scott is also famous for relaxing between shoots by scaling serious mountain peaks. Then there is the 50-ish Scott's rep with women--he allegedly finished off one of his marriages by hooking up with Red Sonja herself, Brigitte Nielsen, right when she was fresh from her involvement with Sylvester Stallone. All intriguing stuff.
But what truly fires my curiosity, what makes me think there's more to Tony Scott than meets the eye, are the two or three oddball movies he's made that just don't track with the Top Gun mode of his usual fare. His first film The Hunger, for instance, in which David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon played cool, chic, pretentious vampires, was a very hip, very now exploration of addiction. Somewhere deep inside the messed-up, messed-with Revenge was a dark, nasty meditation on obsessive love. And what about the splendidly weird stuff he drew out of Quentin Tarantino's script for True Romance? I'm thinking Scott may be capable of serving up more enriching stuff than his customary high-carb action fare suggests.
I arrive at the unprepossessing building that houses Scott's office, an erstwhile emporium for Native American rugs and kachina dolls on Santa Monica Boulevard. So far, so typical. But once beyond the entrance, I begin to think I've fouled up the address. An elegantly designed waterfall splashes into a pool of river rock with almost Zen-like calm. The lighting is muted, the color perfectly controlled. Surfaces of stone and slate meld elegantly with impeccable, inlaid wood furniture--all very Frank Lloyd Wright meets Philippe Starck meets Melrose. Scott hails me in a warm, quiet voice, beckoning me upstairs to his second-floor aerie. Dressed like an Urban Outfitters poster guy--costly shadow plaid flannel shirt, sunglasses hanging over the neck of his bright white T-shirt, sinfully expensive sports watch, cool two-tone sneakers--he certainly sports the robust affect, the ruddy skin, the hearty demeanor of a guy accustomed to measuring himself against the elements. But he also radiates serene focus.
Moments after we settle in, one of Scott's two male assistants uncorks a bottle of very good champagne and pours it into flutes. The director barely speaks above an animated whisper, laughs readily, and appears mildly disappointed when I decline a Monte Cristo from his private reserve.
I can't honestly tell Scott that he makes my favorite kinds of movies, but what I can honestly say is that I think he casts like nobody's business. Consider, I point out, how Top Gun showcased such fairly fresh faces as Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan and Anthony Edwards. How True Romance broke Christian Slater from the date-bait mold and alerted the universe to Patricia Arquette. Or how Crimson Tide was envisioned in terms of matched doubles that included Warren Beatty vs. Andy Garcia, Al Pacino vs. Brad Pitt and, the winners, Denzel Washington vs. Gene Hackman.
"People think I'm insane because of the lengths I go to with casting, whether it's a lead, a one-liner or a no-liner," Scott observes. "I like to find people I think are on the brink of becoming stars. Of course, you never know--with Anthony Edwards in Top Gun, I thought, 'Sweet, brilliant sense of humor. I've discovered somebody who is going to go into orbit.' But he slowed down and went through a laugh period before 'ER.' Casting is just a sense I have. I guess. Like I think Patricia Arquette is going to be huge, because she has a childish naivete pitted against strength, a weirdness that can't be meddled with."
Having heard Brad Pitt's name mentioned in association with practically every Tony Scott film since Pitt first appeared in Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise, and having noted Pitt's hilarious cameo as the committed pothead in True Romance, I ask Scott to size up the hot commodity. "Brad is a male Patricia Arquette," he answers. "He's got this good-looking, sweet, boyish thing on the outside, with a lot of strangeness, darkness, weird twistedness on the inside, I originally offered him the lead in True Romance, but when I met him with his then-girlfriend-- God, what's her name?" Juliette Lewis? I offer. He nods, "I had just seen her in Cape Fear and when I came in, she was sitting down in reception and I thought it was some junkie that had stepped off Santa Monica Boulevard. She had her stocking seams all crooked and there's this little miniskirt and it looked like she hadn't washed her hair in weeks. She's brilliant as well, but Brad has got a star quality and is a really interesting actor. Anyway, he was with her and when I offered him the part, he said, 'Fuck, we just committed to Kalifornia and it's similar.' I said, 'Nothing's similar to True Romance.' I think he felt guilty, because eventually he came back to me and said, 'Look, I'd love to play the roommate in True Romance.' And he was brilliant in that. We'll work together. In The Fan, I wanted him to play the ballplayer, but he wanted to play the stalker."
Is it true that not just Brad Pitt, but almost every star Scott approached for the ballplayer role lusted after the juicier stalker role instead? "Yeah, that's true," Scott says. "Wesley wanted to play the stalker, too. But Wesley found his character, and he's in awe of De Niro, so he would have given both of his arms to play opposite him." All along, Scott had only two actors in mind for the psycho role in The Fan-- Al Pacino or De Niro. "Working with De Niro was a brilliant experience." he declares. "In this business, there are so many pricks. Usually, the bigger the star, the bigger the prick they are. But Bob is at the top of the ladder, and he's an absolute sweetheart. It's a lot of work when you work with De Niro. He's tireless in his pursuit of trying to get the character better or make the scenes better, but it's always constructive, never destructive. He and I were worried that he had played this kind of role before. In the script, his role is one-dimensional: the psychotic, knife-toting stalker. In the movie, though, you almost wonder. When is he going to pick up the knife and go crazy? When is he going to be Robert De Niro? And he doesn't do that. He made this guy so sympathetic and sweet, so childlike, he's an Everyman. It's very different, very warped."