Filmmaker Tony Scott Takes on New York City


Tony Scott is certainly a fascinating filmmaker whose name has been synonymous with the action-thriller genre since directing Tom Cruise in the classic Top Gun over 20 years ago. That led to high-profile movies with Will Smith, Brad Pitt and three movies with Denzel Washington that has turned them into a bankable filmmaking team.

Scott’s new movie is a modern reworking of the 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, once again teaming him with Denzel Washington as an MTA dispatcher who must act as liaison and negotiator with an ex-con, played by John Travolta, who hijacks a New York subway car with 19 passengers whom he threatens to kill if he’s not paid $10 million. attended a riveting hour-long roundtable interview with the filmmaker in New York last week where he was asked many probing questions about the movie, his prolific career and his filmmaking sensibilities, of which we now share some of the highlights. (You can also hear what Scott said about some of the other movies he has in development here.)

Q: Did you take the “6” train to get here?
Tony Scott: No, I went to 42nd street to check a print. I didn’t take the train. Does Bloomberg still take the train or not?

Q: He claims he does, although he takes a car to the express train.
Scott: Well, that’s what motivated us to put (James) Gandolfini on the train. That was the story. Research always drives my movies.

Q: Could you elaborate on that?
Scott: What always leads me in terms of my movies are characters. I have a family, which I called my extended family, 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: So what attracted you to the original film, and why did you think it was ripe for a remake?
Scott: 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. 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 should go with the role?
Scott: When I saw “we talk,” I sit with these people and we go to motels/hotels, and depending on how tough the characters are–and how clandestine I’ve got to be–I transcribe the meeting, 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: This is the fourth or fifth time you’ve worked with Denzel Washington, so do you guys have a shorthand that makes the days go easier?
Scott: 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?” 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: How extensive was the shooting in the NYC subway system?
Scott: It was all here. We did everything in New York. 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. I think they gave me full-on cooperation here because the original was one of New York’s favorite movies.

Q: What about the control room? I heard they don’t let anyone in there at all.
Scott: 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: When we were taken on a tour of the subways, it was so dusty and moldy down there. I can’t imagine spending months filming down there.
Scott: 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: In movies like this, where the subways play such a large character, how well do you think it translates to people who don’t live in big cities?
Scott: I think it’s a very exciting two hours, and it puts you on the edge of your seat. 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.

Q: This is an ambitious project in terms of going into the subway. Were there any specific snafus technically or logistically?
Scott: No, it was hard. When I first came here, I was asking all these questions, “I want to do this, I want to do that” – “No.” Then I discovered it was New York, and there was a way that I had to learn. Embracing them, and actually making them part of the project. It was polled as New York’s favorite movie, the original [Pelham 1 2 3]. [During shooting I was] taking 150 people into the subway at night. We’ve got John and we’ve got Denzel and I had real trains behind them at 40 miles an hour. You can CG a train in, but you watch the performances change. They go to a whole different dimension when you put actors in a real environment. The strength of my movies is that’s what I always do. I always drop actors right in the middle. I will not peel away the sound to give them an easier time. They always get angry at me at the beginning.

Q: How do you define both New York and L.A. as characters?
Scott: You look at how I shot New York in the beginning, my definition I stole from “Koyaanisqatsi.” I said “How can I portray New York, not just differently from how it’s done before, but how can I portray it as the guy that John Travolta wanted to take revenge on, wanted to humiliate?” I’m a plagiarist – I always look back at other movies and I steal, but I steal well, and I reinvent. “Koyaanisqatsi” is a huge stoner movie. It was just time lapse, and I thought it was great. I kept reaching, saying how can I grab the audience right at the beginning, make them feel the anxiety and the pressure of New York? Then I cut my opening title sequence.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, your camera tends to move around a lot in your movies. Could you talk about the decision to do those sorts of 360 camera shots, like during some of the dialogue scenes in this movie?
Scott: It’s about energy and it’s about momentum, and I think the movie’s very exciting, and it’s not one individual thing. The true excitement comes from the actors – that gives you the true drama. Whatever I can do with the camera, that’s icing on the cake. I wanted the movie to grab you. I use four cameras and I maybe do three takes, so the actors love it. Maybe I move it more than I should, but that’s the nature of the way I am. One of the big challenges for this movie, and one of the reasons it’s sort of perverse why I took it on is in the original, it’s really about two guys on the telephone for two-thirds of the movie, and I said, “Damn! This is going to be hard trying to keep it tense!” I was always seeing that tension, and Brian gave me the tension on the pages, and the actors gave me the tension in terms of their interplay.

Q: Can you talk about the desaturated look you’ve employed in some of your recent films?
Scott: 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. In 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 (referring to “Unstoppable”), is going to be totally different. It’s a little more documentary, a little less stylistic.

Q: Speaking of your style, you’re also known for a very distinctive editing techniques with freeze-frames, jumbled chronologies, slo-mo like in “Domino,” which was an extreme example of that.
Scott: If you look at “Domino” – I sound like a broken record, but everything is driven by research. I hung out with these bounty hunters who were all coked up all the time – they’re all on speed or meth – and the movie was a product of my research. Everything in the way I shoot the movie is dictated by the world when I touch it, so we had ridealongs with bounty hunters who were (starts sniffing) in the back, and it’s a product of that. I think I was wrong; I didn’t let the movie breathe enough. Richard Kelly wrote a great script, and I got overcome by the insanity of the world I was touching. I think I f*cked up on that one.

Q: When your brother Ridley was shooting “American Gangster,” he was saying the city is impossible to control, because people will just drive through sets if they need to get somewhere. Did you have that same experience?
Scott: 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. 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: How do you work with your brother Ridley?
Scott: 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. 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: Do you feel your reputation as an action director precedes you into a room when you pitch an idea?
Scott: As an actor, you get pigeonholed 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. All the actors came to work every day, and nobody wanted to change a word of the script. 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.”

Q: What do you think are the basic elements that turn an action-thriller into a classic?
Scott: 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: What about the enduring legacy of “Top Gun”? Many people have satirized the homoerotic content in that film, so was any of that apparent while you were filming?
Scott: No it wasn’t. Not at all. I had just done “The Hunger,” and Hollywood’s always trying to find the new 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 he 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: Do you have nostalgia for the way films were being made and the way the industry worked in the ’80s?
Scott: 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 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–Alan Parker skated through–but Adrian Lyne got slammed like I did.

Q: You’ve mentioned “fear” quite a few times today, so is fear a motivating factor in many of your characters, and where does that come from for you?
Scott: If you look at my body of work, there’s always a dark side to my characters. They’ve always got a skeleton in the closet, they’ve always got a subtext. I like that. Whether it’s Bruce Willis in “The Last Boy Scout” or Denzel in this. The most frightening thing I do in my life is getting up and shooting movies. Commercials, movies, every morning I’m bolt upright on one hour two hours sleep, before the alarm clock goes off. That’s a good thing. That fear motivates me, and I enjoy that fear. I’m perverse in that way. I do other things. I’ve rock climbed all my life. Whenever I finish a movie, I do multi-day ascents, I got to hang on a wall in Yosemite. That fear is tangible. That’s black and white. I can make this hold or that hold. The other fear is intangible, it’s very abstract, and that’s more frightening.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is now playing in theaters nationwide.