Simon West: Simon Says

You can make a box-office winner out of a video game. For all those who disagree, here's how British director Simon West turned Angelina Jolie into Lara Croft and created the movie Tomb Raider.

After directing the blockbusters Con Air and The General's Daughter, Simon West had the kind of commercial clout that gives you a lot of leeway in choosing your next project. He turned down Erin Brockovich because two other projects had hold of his imagination. One was Black Hawk Down, the true story of the U.S. raid on Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, a project West had developed with producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The other was even closer to his heart. He'd grown up enamored of the surreal British TV series "The Prisoner," in which Patrick McGoohan played an ex-spy kept captive in a village by forces trying to deprogram him. Adapting the show into a film had long been a pet project of West's. But neither Black Hawk Down nor The Prisoner turned out to be West's follow-up to The General's Daughter. He decided instead to turn the video game Tomb Raider into a movie. Why would West want to be involved with Tomb Raider and its big-breasted lethal heroine, Lara Croft, when Hollywood had such an atrocious track record with similar transformations like Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter? He had his reasons, and now he's talking like he's got one of the biggest hits of the summer on his hands, with a sequel already in the works.

MICHAEL FLEMING: Was Tomb Raider a coveted assignment for a director?

SIMON WEST: I'm not sure. I know there were people desperate to do it who were passionate about the game, but you need someone who's more passionate about filmmaking than game playing. Maybe that's been the mistake in the past. I was never obsessed with Lara Croft. I wasn't even a video-game player. Making a film out of a video game seemed appalling to me. I had turned Tomb Raider down a couple of times, but then I decided it could be turned into something special and different.

Q: What about it brought you around to that conclusion?

A: I'd just come off The General's Daughter, a dark drama where the passions of the characters were what I concentrated on. With Tomb Raider there was drama, character and passion, but I could also run wild with surreal images, humor and action. That got me excited.

Q: But wasn't the project you really wanted to make an adaptation of the '60s TV program "The Prisoner"?

A: In the end, it's actually because of The Prisoner that I did Tomb Raider. The Prisoner got sold a couple of times in a shakeout between Polygram, Universal and USA Films, and that uncertainty pushed back the schedule on which the script could be ready. When Tomb Raider came up again, I suddenly thought I could make it very cool and surreal and unusual, which is what I was going to do with The Prisoner. I try to subvert genres when I make my films. For me, Con Air was an action film that was really a black comedy--I got all those cool, independent actors on Scott Rosenberg's dialogue to subvert the genre a bit.

Q: There was a lot of speculation about who might play Lara Croft. Why did you choose Angelina Jolie?

A: I wanted someone with a dark edge, something Angelina has on every level. She's turned in tour de force performances in very dark stories, and in her personal life people see her as this dangerous, wild person. I wanted that to rub off on the character. Lara Croft is an adrenaline junkie living on the edge of moral correctness. I knew Angelina was going to give that to me. She's also gorgeous and voluptuous, which is a main characteristic, if not the main characteristic, of Lara Croft. If Angelina had said no, I don't think I would have done the film. You can throw all the pyrotechnics and CGI at the screen you want, but if you don't cast right, don't even bother getting out of bed.

Q: Did you have strong convictions about casting John Travolta in The General's Daughter?

A: Yes. I wanted to do this very dark drama about the cover-up of a rape in the military, but I wanted a wider audience to see it than you usually get with this kind of subject matter. I wanted someone they trusted to take them through the story. Audiences, especially American audiences, trust John Travolta. They love to see him in control, with enough room to be warm and charming and a little bit dangerous. I made sure I created a world he fit in that way. Still, I was surprised the movie did so well.

Q: Did Angelina warm to the character of Lara Croft right away?

A: Normally at the end of a film, you never want to see a character again, but both Angelina and I were already talking about scheduling the next one. She said Lara Croft was the role closest to herself. Lara sleeps with knives, she can handle any weapon, doesn't take shit from anybody. That's Angelina.

Q: How good an actress is she?

A: She's one of those actors who come along once every generation. I have 100 percent belief that she will be a major star for the next 40 or 50 years. She's got something that you see very rarely. It's just a natural ability very few have. She knows exactly how to work the camera, how to operate with other actors. I really believe she's a genius.

Q: Audiences traditionally have had trouble buying women as action heroes, from Geena Davis to Demi Moore. Why will Angelina work?

A: You can't act that stuff. You either were genetically born to be believable in that way or not. I've never had any doubt about her. I never had to stop and say, "You know, that looked a bit girly."

Q: Ridley Scott said he thought Sigourney Weaver worked as Ripley in Alien and its sequels because she was statuesque and authoritative. Lara Croft has to be sexy enough to bring guys to theaters, but believable in action. Is that a tough balancing act?

A: Maybe it's a generational thing, but audiences are more open now to having women in authority. And from a purely gratuitous young-male audience point of view, it seems to me bizarre that it would ever be an issue. You say, "Listen, kids, you are getting a film with fantastic action, but you'll also get to look at gorgeous girls, all the time." What red-blooded adolescent male would say no? I don't understand why there isn't more of it, really. You can have all the fun of action and thrills, and you can also have your first sexual experience. If I were a young teenager, I'd think that was money well spent.

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