Exclusive: Salt Director Phillip Noyce


When it comes to the political thriller, there are few directors who have done more for redefining the movie genre in the last twenty years than Australia’s Phillip Noyce. Following his thriller Dead Calm in 1989, which introduced many to Nicole Kidman, Noyce directed a pair of Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, two movies that quickly put him on Hollywood’s radar.

In recent years, Noyce has been directing smaller independent projects but ones that maintained his interest in espionage and political conspiracy, whether it was the Vietnam-based The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, or his most recent film, Catch a Fire, about South African rebel Patrick Chamusso.

Now the director has been reteamed with Angelina Jolie, who appeared in the Noyce-directed thriller The Bone Collector eleven years ago, for Salt, an action-thriller involving Russian sleeper agents and what happens when one of them awakens. Really, that’s about all we can tell you about the movie except that if you like long scenes of dialogue and exposition, then Noyce’s no-frills wall-to-wall action approach to Salt may not appeal to you. Likewise, while the movie is set in a world of international espionage that has less to do with historical reality than some of Noyce’s previous films, it still maintains an eerie sense of realism thanks to recent headlines about Russian spies in our own country.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Mr. Noyce at the junket in Washington D.C. last week.

ComingSoon.net: This is a bit of a return for you, because though you’ve stayed in the political realm, you’ve done a lot of smaller independent movies with less action, and this is is kind of a return to bigger Hollywood action movies. So what drew you back into doing them?
Phillip Noyce: I’ve been interested in the concept of sleeper spies for a couple of decades. I’ve read a lot of attempts to bring that kind of idea to the screen. For one reason or another, I didn’t pursue them, and three years ago, my assistant Bayer, who had worked with me for four years, reading scripts and taking care of my life, finally contacted me in Australia and said, “I found one that I think you should read.” She’d read so many. That was Kurt Wimmer’s “Edwin A. Salt” and I said, “Well why do you think I should read this?” and she said, “Because the central character and the central question of the story are so intertwined that I think you’ll find it fascinating.” So I read it and was completely hooked because it seemed to me that the character in Kurt’s script was on the run, but was also trying to answer the question of who they were, which was also the question that the film posed for the audience. Who really is this person? I’ve always believed that logic dictated that there are sleeper spies out there, naturally that would be in deep cover ready to be awakened, and this script fascinated me because it posed the question of what would happen to a sleeper spy who was awakened perhaps after 20 years in a host country. Have they changed their allegiance by being exposed to the values and ethos of the enemy country? Or not? Those questions seemed to be asked by Kurt’s script as well. But more on a personal note, my Dad worked as a military spy during the 2nd World War and I was brought up on stories of sabotage and subterfuge, and even after doing “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games,” all those other movies, “Quiet American,” suddenly that boyhood interest seemed to be reawakened by Kurt’s script.

CS: Obviously, political thrillers have changed since you did the Jack Ryan movies. You mentioned Bourne and Bond earlier, so when you came onto this, knowing that people would be comparing this to those, just by the nature of the genre. Did you have to completely change your way of thinking about moviemaking to do a movie that’s more fast-paced and stands up to those movies? (Note: Noyce uses the same editor as “Casino Royale.”)
Noyce: No, because I kind of feel like I’ve been liberating myself along the way. I used to believe that the camera had to be on a tripod, and now when I look at some of my earlier films, I find them inert, because the camera’s on the tripod all the time. As mis-en-scène has evolved, so I’ve evolved naturally. Now, I can’t imagine telling a story with a static camera. The living camera on the shoulder seems to be the only true way of experiencing a scene, so that’s been an evolution that’s been influenced by the filmmakers you’ve mentioned, but for me, it’s also been influenced by working with people like Chris Doyle, who showed me the dynamic nature of the handheld camera and spontaneous decisions about framing are often MUCH more dynamic than spending half an hour to compose a shot. Chris Doyle, working with him on “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit Proof Fence,” was enormously liberating for me as a filmmaker.

CS: I think Chewitel mentioned that one of the things that makes you a director he wanted to work with was that you always have a good handle on the characters in the movie and their motivations. In a movie like this, there isn’t as much exposition as you’d assume yet you still get that out there. Can you talk about developing characters without having a lot of talking?
Noyce: Yeah, sure. In a movie like this, because there’s not a lot of exposition, the actors have got to be able to use all of their body language and all of the pauses between the words to tell you about their characters. The way to do that is to fill them with so much information about their character and their character’s potential reactions to every single situation that it just seeps out by osmosis, that it comes from your belief that this character has done this before, and this is how they’d react. Of course, that’s doubly hard in a movie like this where nobody is who they seem to be (laughs)… mostly. Because you’re telling two stories. One is the official story and the other is the story that’s hidden, but it’s all gotta make sense at the end. So we did a huge amount of research. That might seem odd for a film like this which is such an escapist piece of summer entertainment, but I think that research helped to ground the story in reality and to make the characters more complex despite the paucity of information that you’ve given about them.

CS: Having loved the original script, how did that change for you when they suggested changing the gender of the character and having Angelina star in it? Did that happen about the time you came on board?
Noyce: I came on board just on two years ago, in June 2008, then we were talking to a number of male actors and couldn’t pin anyone down to a start date and therefore, a release date, when Angelina was suggested by Amy Pascal. It was in August 2008 that Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the producer, Kurt Wimmer and myself went to the South of France to Brad and Angie’s villa there, drank a lot of wine, ate a lot of cheese and spent a week just talking through the possibilities and laying out the parameters of how we might reinvent the story. That’s when we all realized that there were only pluses to be had in changing the character from a man to a woman.

CS: Besides being really fast-paced, it’s a fairly short movie. 90 minutes for a movie these days…
Noyce: No, it’s 93 minutes of story and…

CS: But these days, you expect a movie about this sort of subject to be much longer. I assume the script must have been longer than 93 pages so it must have been hard to cut stuff out.
Noyce: No, the script was always around 100 pages. We wanted the film to be relentless in its storytelling, and we wanted the twists and turns to always be one or two steps ahead of the audience. My objective was that if you stop the movie at any minute, any time after 10 minutes, and asked anyone in the audience what was going to happen next, that they’d all be wrong. That was the objective.

CS: The ending seems open-ended, so when you came into this, did you think it might be set up as a franchise or something you’d do more of as you did with the Jack Ryan movies.
Noyce: I look upon this as an origin story. At the end of the movie, Evelyn Salt and the audience are only just beginning to answer the central question of “Who is Salt?” There’s a long way to go in Evelyn’s journey.

CS: I think the last time I spoke to you, you had already been developing “Dirt Music,” so did this come up while you were working on it, and you figured it would be easier to make this than that movie?
Noyce: At one stage, Heath Ledger was going to play the lead in “Dirt Music.” Obviously, that’s no longer possible. Now Russell Crowe is going to play the lead, and he’s older than the character in the novel and in the existing screenplays, so we’re in the process of reimagining the story to be played by Russell. It’s just been a natural evolution, which was necessary once Heath was no longer able to play the lead.

CS: Is that other project you mentioned earlier something you might get going on first?
Noyce: You’re dependent on two things, script and actors, and occasionally they align, so it all depends on what happens. Russell and I are going to try to make the film next year.

CS: I spoke to Lorenzo earlier and he’s doing another Jack Ryan movie, and he’s going younger so they’re doing a prequel. Has he approached you at all or thrown the idea your way of maybe going back to that?
Noyce: No, I don’t think that would be in the service of Jack Ryan. It’s time for a new director to come on board and not to go back to one of the previous directors.

CS: And yet, Martin Campbell went back and did “Casino Royale” and that ended up being one of the most popular Bond movies in decades.
Noyce: That’s true, that’s true, but Martin hadn’t just done “Salt.” (laughs) One of the other movies that I’m thinking of doing is “Wenceslas Square,” which is a love story between a young CIA operative and his counterpart who works for the STB, the Czech secret service, and that’s another spy story, but it’s a completely different setting and a completely different encounter.

CS: In either case, do you think those movies would be more independently made?
Noyce: They’re both independent, yeah.

CS: So how was it going back to doing a studio movie after all those years doing independent ones?
Noyce: I tell you what. It’s a relief to be able to know that whether your movie is good, bad or indifferent, they’re going to sell it. (laughs) And it’s a relief to know that you don’t have to go around the world playing the part of a town crier yelling out, “Please come and see my movie.” The studio is going to bludgeon people to eskimos in their igloos to feel that they owe it to themselves to get out to a cinema and watch “Salt.” That marketing machine is Hollywood’s greatest achievement because it’s a colonizing force that is more effective even than the Romans were. After all, they needed a sword to contain their empire but Hollywood owns the hearts and minds just through the work of publicists.

CS: Were you disappointed by the lack of interest people had to “Catch a Fire”? Do you think many more people discovered it after the fact?
Noyce: I don’t think they did. I think that everything we thought would be appealing about the film turned out not to be appealing. That was just when Hollywood was discovering that the word “terrorist” was a no-go zone for movie audiences. We know that now, but we didn’t when we made the movie.

And here’s a couple things the director said about the movie during an earlier roundtable:

CS: How was it working with Angelina this time around compared to the first time?
Noyce: She was the same fearless person who should know better. (laughter) Then it was because she was relatively inexperienced. Now, it was because she had so much experience that she could still be fearless. There was not much difference in that respect except that perhaps ten years ago, I was maybe the teacher. Now I realize that I had a lot to learn from her, particularly in the area of performing stunts and action scenes. She’d done so many movies in the intervening ten years whereas I was making “Rabbit Proof Fence” and “The Quiet American” and “Catch a Fire,” three films that had singing and dancing but not many stunts.

CS: Obviously, you have a love for spy films. Why so?
Noyce: My Dad worked for Zed Special Force, which was the Australian equivalent of the OSS, so I grew up on stories of sabotage, subterfuge, disguise and winning the war, so they were very romantic stories and I wanted to be a spy. I used to follow people in my small Outback town after school while I was waiting for my Dad to get off work as a lawyer. I would amuse myself by picking some hapless person and following them at a distance and seeing what secrets they were hiding, and in that town, for various reason, there were a lot of secrets.

CS: How do you balance the action scenes and the acting?
Noyce: Well, we had a secret weapon, didn’t we? Angelina, who is a master of both acting and action. That’s how you balance, through her. It might have been different with a different performer, but she’s so athletic and adept and yet has such a wonderful command of performance and character, that the balance just came naturally.

CS: Did you watch any more recent films in the genre in terms of the action and how things have progressed?
Noyce: No director could I think avoid the contribution to editing and mis-en-scène made by Paul Greengrass, and also making a film like this, you have to express a debt to Martin Campbell for reinventing Bond and giving him a heart. Obviously, those two filmmakers’ influence is felt in this movie, but I went back to “Notorious” and “North by Northwest” for real inspiration… always. (laughs)

CS: How do you feel the political thriller has changed over the years?
Noyce: Over the years, having interviewed so many current and former spies, I’ve realized that they are an enormous reservoir of information, you’ve only got to ask and they’ll tell. (laughs) Once they’re no longer working for the government and are free from certain levels of secrecy, their life as a spy was so exciting that they want to go back there, and they’ll tell you about it. My approach has become more and more research-based, because I’ve realized, as we all have realized with the revelations of the last two weeks, that in spy world, the fact is much more fantastic than any fiction that any Hollywood screenwriter could ever dream up, that spies are the ultimate actors and that their performance can never be left in the theater, that they have to continue to wear the mask, if they’re a certain kind of clandestine deep cover spy, their whole time, and the burdens of being a spy on that level are enormous and fascinating. On this film, most of the prep was research and hopefully, that research seeps into the characters and even the choreography of the scenes so we’re in what I hope is a larger than life and fantastic rollercoaster ride for the audience, so you have this level of reality that allows the audiences to take the characters and the situations seriously, so that at the same time, as you have a real relationship with the events, you’re also able to suspend disbelief, but the suspension of disbelief depends on the reality you bring to those little details that come from the research.

Salt opens on Friday, July 23, and you can read full interviews with Ms. Angelina Jolie and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura right here on ComingSoon.net next week.