Director Tony Scott talks about making Pelham and the upcoming Alien prequel
He’s the man behind such beloved movies as The Hunger, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop. Now for his latest film, Tony Scott is remaking the classic 1974 heist pic The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. In the original the late, great Walter Matthau played a New York Metro controller trying to negotiate with a violent hijacker. Scott’s regular collaborator Denzel Washington takes the role this time around, while John Travolta chews the scenery as the bad guy. Here, Scott takes us through the latest remake and talks about the upcoming Alien pic.
Q: How extensive was the shooting in the NYC subway system?
TS: It was all here. We did everything in New York. I think for the first time, they gave me the opportunity to use real toys and real trains in the subway. What we shot in the motorman’s booth with Travolta was on stage, but everything else is real. All other movies where you see them on subways they make them build sets, and it’s very hard to catch the real feel, and you always sense there’s something not quite right, or something wrong. For instance, ‘Money Train’ was mostly done on stage in L.A. This was all done here with full-on cooperation. I think they gave me full-on cooperation here because the original was one of New York’s favorite movies.
Q: Its so dusty and moldy in the tunnels. I can’t imagine spending months filming down there!
TS: No, I loved it down there. But I’m from the northeast of England, which is depressed mining and shipbuilding, so I grew up in this.
Q: You said you did a lot of research for the film. Could you elaborate on that?
TS: What always leads me in terms of my movies are characters, so for 20 years now, I have a family–which I call my “extended family”–and I send them out and I say, “Here’s the script, go into the real world, cast these people in the real world, and find me role models for my writers.” So they go out in the real world and there’s this guy called ‘Don’–he got his start working in the D.A.–and in ‘Man on Fire’, he spent six months in Mexico City and found real bodyguards, a real mother, a real kid. Then I reverse-engineer. I don’t change the structure of the script, but I use my research. That’s always been my mantra, and that’s what gets me excited, because I get to educate and entertain myself in terms of worlds I could never normally touch, other than the fact that I’m a director. And I get paid well to do this, so it’s fun!
Q: What about the control room? I heard they don’t let anyone in there at all.
TS: They let me in and it’s like NASA. I can’t tell you where it is, otherwise I’ll have to kill you! It was difficult for us to get in there because of the security–somebody could get in there and target the subways. And when you look at the original film, I saw the original offices–which were just offices, really–and they had taken a regular building and just constructed it for Walter Matthau and the MTA with the graphics on the board. But the real MTA is like NASA. I went in there on a Sunday morning, a hundred people, it’s the size of a football field–three stories high–and you could’ve heard a pin drop. Everybody’s on headsets, in suits, so I just took it right from that, and that’s what we did in our movie.
Q: So what attracted you to the original film, and why did you think it was ripe for a remake?
TS: One, I don’t regard it as a remake. I don’t regard it as a reinvention. My memory of the original was Walter Matthau, with his laconic New York sense of humor, his pants at half-mast–he was brilliant. It was really a very simplistic story: a million dollars for hostages in a subway, and it was a hip location. Our story is motivated by John’s character, who’s a real guy, and his character is motivated by this real guy who just got out of jail before we started prepping the movie. He wanted to take revenge and humiliate the state of New York like he had been humiliated, because he worked for the city, and he lost his life for 12 years. So, he became the role model for John’s character. You think about that, and it’s a very different motivation–revenge and humiliation. But listen, I love the original. I could only watch ten minutes of it and then I had to stop, because I wanted to leave that as a separate movie, and not make this a reinvention or a remake.
Q: Did you and John talk about how ‘big’ he was going to go with the role? He really chews up the scenery here…
TS: When I saw ‘we talked’, I sit with these [actors] and we go to motels/hotels, and depending on how tough the characters are–and how clandestine I’ve got to be–I take the meeting, I transcribe them, and in those transcriptions are ideas or direct words out of their mouths. Brian Helgeland, who’s my partner-in-crime–the writer–he and I did ‘Man on Fire’ together, and he loves this process of reaching in and touching the real world. Because for a writer, it’s so abstract to want to conjure up things, whereas if you can actually give them things, you can say, “Here’s a cigar. Examine that cigar, instead of thinking of examining a cigar.”
Q: In movies like this, where the subways play such a large character, how well do you think it translates to people whose environments are outside of cities?
TS: I think it’s a very exciting two hours, and it puts you on the edge of your seat. I had never shot on a subway before… Actually, I did. The only time I ever shot on one was on my first film ‘The Hunger’, and I shot very briefly with David Bowie on a subway. It was a nightmare. We couldn’t move anywhere with David Bowie there because he was ‘David Bowie’, so in the end I gave up. I stopped trying to attempt to shoot the subway because all the freaks came out. But yeah, I think everybody’s familiar with what a subway looks and feels like because of television. I think I’ve given a feeling that the subway’s just different from what they’ve experienced before, and I think I’ve made New York a very strong character in the movie. And I keep saying, “New York’s a bad guy,” because in John’s terms, New York is the guy who took away his life for 12 years.
Q: This is the fourth or fifth time you’ve worked with Denzel Washington…
TS: I’m about to do five, I hope. I shouldn’t have said that!
Q: …So what’s it like working with someone you’ve worked with so often? Do you guys have a shorthand? And does it make the day go by easier?
TS: No! Our days are always hard. There is a shorthand, but there’s a terrible, old-fashioned word called ‘respect’. I respect his process and he respects mine, and both of us are insecure in that we’re always examining and making what we do better, and my goal every day is to try and think, “How do I see these characters in a different way?” And I’m always motivated by the characters, and it’s the same with Denzel. I mean you look at the four movies I’ve done with him, he’s always reached back inside himself and taken different aspects of his personality, from: ‘Crimson Tide’, ‘Man on Fire’, ‘Déjà Vu’ and ‘Pelham’, he’s always given me a different Denzel. And that’s what I do with all my actors. I say, “There’s an aspect of you inside him, and I’ve got this guy over here, and he fits that aspect of your personality.” With Denzel, he’s always delivered. He’s one of those actors who can do nothing and communicate everything, and that comes from doing your homework. If you feel comfortable about yourself, you don’t have to give. You can just let the camera sit and do nothing–and I rarely do, as the camera’s always [moving].
Q: Travolta’s performance is completely over-the-top. How much of that came from Mr. Travolta himself, and was there ever a thought that you could interchange Denzel’s and Travolta’s characters?
TS: No way. They’re total opposites. Denzel said, “Let me play the bad guy!”–he always wants to play the bad guy–“I’ve had enough of playing cops and good guys, let me play the bad guy!” But with John, that’s so much of the research I gave to John–that’s more in terms of the backstory, but the personality is John. I give my actors a stack of tapes and research of the actual guys and I always look back at my real characters. John’s character’s look came from a hitman for ‘The Craze’, and another guy who just got out of jail had a Chicano mustache and shaved head–and John’s never shaved his head before. And it’s not about ‘being hip’, it’s about his commitment to the character. He lost a lot of weight, he shaved his head–he made a full-on commitment to building the character.
Q: Going back to Denzel, since you’ve done four movies together, does one of you decide, “Okay, I’d like to do a movie with Denzel,” or is it the other way around? And did it feel like Ridley was playing with your toys when he did ‘American Gangster’?
TS: I got jealous. I was like a jilted lover! All you do is you read the script and I sent ‘Don’ out–who’s my ‘extended family’–and I sent Don out into the real world to give me ideas, and I said, “It’s Denzel.” Denzel said, “I don’t want to play another cop or FBI agent,” but I said, “We’ve got a great guy! And the guy in my mind who’s a role model is named ‘Ike’, and he’s an Albanian, 65-year-old retired MTA worker.” He’s the guy I stole from in terms of the ‘guy next door’, and the personality traits.
Q: How do you work with your brother Ridley?
TS: If Ridley and I worked together on the set we’d kill each other. But we’ve been in business for 45 years together, and when business is good in blood there’s nothing better, but rarely it’s good. So we’re right arm/left arm. And we’ve developed these companies now–our commercial production company RSA, and we’ve got Scott Free Productions. He’s great. He’s the nuts-and-bolts up at the front, and I’m the day-to-day.
Q: What do you think are the basic elements that turn an action-thriller into a classic?
TS: Damn. That’s a very intellectual question! I always get criticized for style over content, unlike Ridley’s films like ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Gladiator’ that go right into the classic box right away, mine sort of hover. Maybe with time people will start saying they should be classics, but I think I’m always perceived as reaching too hard for difference, and difference doesn’t categorize you as the ‘classic’ category.
Q: You have two very interesting projects on the table. One’s another retooling of a 70s NYC cult classic, ‘The Warriors’…
TS: Retooling–that’s a good word. With ‘Warriors’, it’s not a remake. I’m shooting it in L.A., and I’m doing it present day. The original doesn’t stand up very well, because it was very 70s New York, but this one I’m doing about the gang culture in L.A. I met with all the gang members–from the 18th Street to the Crips, the Bloods–I met all the guys, and they said, “If you get this movie on…”–because ‘The Warriors is obviously their favorite movie–“We’ll all stand on the Vincent Thomas Bridge”–100,000 gang members in the beginning of the movie–“And we’ll all sign the treaty, and we’ll be there.” But I’m thinking, “How hard can it be?” Because it’s really about 10 little Indians getting from point b to point A over the course of the night, but I can’t get the script right. I’ve been struggling to get the script. I’ve wanted to make this movie for ten years now–I love it–and I’ve got all these gang members.
Q: So what will your take on L.A. be when you’re making ‘Warriors’?
TS: With each project, I re-look at how I represent the city. L.A. is now the city of the future. If it’s the ‘Warriors’, it’s sunset and it’s quiet. I’ve got a whole different feel. I’m letting it breathe in a different way. Then on the Vincent Thomas Bridge, which is Long Beach, you have 100,000 gang members up there, then Cyrus goes bang. It’s almost like 9/11, bodies coming off, it just goes ballistic. Then these guys have got to get from the Vincent Thomas back to Venice, through all these different gang territories. And it becomes anarchy. The gangs are meeting for a truce, just like they were in the original. But once that truce is broken, they each individually go back to their turf. And our guys, The Warriors, they’ve got to get back to their turf, back to Venice.
Q: What about the ‘Alien’ prequel?
TS: I’m on time out on that one! I don’t want to get caught in the middle. We’re in the process, but I don’t have enough information to bring it to this table. But we’re going to make it!
Q: One other movie that hasn’t been mentioned with ‘Emma’s War’, which has been in development for a long time, presumably with Nicole Kidman in the lead role. Is that still happening?
TS: It’s something I’m not going to direct, and we’re going to do it through our company. I love it. My dance card is so full, I’m so lucky! I’ve got ‘The Warriors’, I’ve got ‘Hells Angels’, I’ve got some of the best titles out there. And I’ve been working on ‘Hells Angels’ now, I’ve owned the Hunter S. Thompson book for 12 years, and Stephen Gaghan is writing the script right now. There’s another one called ‘Lucky Strike’, about the guys who made the Reaper aircraft, and ‘Potsdamer Platz’, which is the guys that wrote ‘Sexy Beast’. I’ve got all these movies ready to go. They’re scripted, they’re budgeted, and now I’ve got to make them before I die. I’m getting old!
Q: We were talking about classics earlier, and I was wondering if you could talk about the enduring legacy of ‘Top Gun’? Also, a lot of people have satirized the homoerotic elements of the film. Was any of that apparent while you were filming?
TS: Yeah, Quentin [Tarantino]! No it wasn’t. Not at all. But Quentin did that little cameo in that movie ‘Sleep With Me’, and it was brilliant. He sent it to me and said, “Watch this, and don’t take offense!” But with ‘Top Gun’, I had just done ‘The Hunger’, and Hollywood’s always trying to find the knew kid on the block, and nobody’s seen a foot of film, and I was actually developing ‘Man on Fire’ 25 years ago, and they saw a cut of ‘The Hunger’, and all of a sudden my parking spot at Warner Brothers was painted out! It took me four more years to get another movie, which was ‘Top Gun’. Don Simpson saw [‘The Hunger’] channel-surfing at 3 a.m.–I think he was high. And he actually saw a Saab commercial that I shot which is a jet racing a car, then he saw ‘The Hunger’, and him and Jerry [Bruckheimer] called me. Hollywood just hated that movie. They called it, “Esoteric, artsy-fartsy,” and we’re going to do a sequel to ‘The Hunger’. I’m not directing it, but we’re doing it.
Q: Can you talk about your working relationship with Gandolfini? He played such a mean bastard in ‘True Romance’ and in ‘Crimson Tide’ too, but here he’s sort of a bumbling mayor. Did he get any tips from Bloomberg or Guiliani?
TS: No, he didn’t. The person we were looking at was Steve’s dad, Steve Tisch, who was a construction billionaire. That was our biggest point of reference. Gandolfini was such a mean bastard in ‘True Romance’, but he is so unique because he’s got this sweetness, he’s got this big heart, and he’s dangerous. So he bounces between both sides. In ‘True Romance’, what he did with Patricia [beating the shit out of her], it broke his heart to have to punch her. But you really felt it. And it’s the same with John. John’s such a great bad guy in this movie because you look in his eyes and you know he’s got the biggest heart. And he plays the other side. In his soul, he’s just the sweetest man. And Jim’s the same. They come out of a similar mold. Tony Soprano’s fantastic. But it was great that he pulled off the mayor, and he got away from Tony. He’s charming and he’s funny, and he’s got these edges.
Q: When Ridley was shooting ‘American Gangster’, he was saying the city is impossible to control when you’re shooting. Did you have that same experience?
TS: I got lucky. The Waldorf was hard, because that sequence, they’d only let me shoot six guns at a time, and each gun could only have six rounds in it. I had to shoot all that shootout, and they wouldn’t let me use automatic guns, because you know they’re scared in the city. Imagine staying at The Waldorf Sunday morning, and hearing all that gunfire. I had to cobble all that together to make it look like-I stole from ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, another movie. I actually stole it from ‘The Wild Bunch’. No, I had a good experience here. I had a few fingers thrown at me from cars going by. But other than that, it was good. And the Manhattan Bridge, that was hard, with the helicopters and the trains and the cars. We did it on Sunday, and I was respectful of the times. I didn’t run over.
Q: This is somewhat of a remake, but how would you feel if someone redid, say, ‘Top Gun’?
TS: I’d hate it. No, that was sort of a knee-jerk reaction. [Laughs] I’m controlling [‘The Hunger 2’], and it’s gone to the next level. It’s not a re-invention nor a re-interpretation. It ends up actually in Sao Paolo. It starts in New York and ends up in Sao Paolo. It’s a very different movie, but it springboards off the original. We’re writing it right now, we’ve got a great writer. ‘The Hunger’ was actually a direct steal from a movie called ‘Performance’. It is a brilliant movie. ‘The Hunger’ was a total knockoff of ‘Performance’. After I finished it, I called Nick [Roeg, the director] and told him.
Q: Do you have nostalgia for the way films were being made and the way the industry worked when you first got started in the 80s?
TS: I do. The 80s was a whole era. We were criticized, we being the Brits coming over, because we were out of advertising–Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne, my brother–we were criticized about style over content. Jerry Bruckheimer was the guy who was always looking for-Jerry was very bored of the way American movies were very traditional and classically done. Jerry was always looking for difference. That’s why I did six movies with Jerry. He always applauded the way I wanted to approach things. That period in the 80s was a period when I was constantly being criticized, and my press was horrible. I never read any press after ‘The Hunger’. Me, my brother, not Alan Parker, Alan Parker skated through. Adrian Lyne got slammed like I did.
Q: Can you talk about the desaturated look you’ve employed in recent films? What’s the rationale behind that?
TS: Again, the world that I’ve touched. I think the first time I used it was in ‘Man on Fire’. That movie was heightened reality. It was a movie about betrayal, about paranoia. The concept was that if Denzel thought it or felt it, I would articulate it and show it with my camera. So maybe it was a little too much, but that was a heightened reality. For instance, the kidnapping–it was about paranoia, and glimpsing things and feeling things. I shot it for that frenetic, paranoid feel. And with that came this heightened reality, this saturation, deep color. Then I did these BMW commercials. That was a test for ‘Man on Fire’. I tested my saturation with that. Then, the worlds I’ve touched after that, it just feels right. What I’m doing, the world I’m about to touch with this other movie, is going to be totally different. It’s a little more documentary, a little less stylistic.
Q: Do you feel your reputation as an action director precedes you into a room when you pitch an idea?
TS: As an actor, you get pitched more. After ‘Top Gun’ I didn’t get offered anything other than car chases and jet movies. You get pigeonholed. But ‘True Romance’ is a great performance piece, and it was a brilliant script. And all the actors came to work every day, nobody wanted to change a word of the script. So ‘True Romance’, that’s what counts in terms of the script. Honesty really counts. I think, as John Huston said, “There’s two things: the script and the cast.”