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IFH 565: Inside Creating Top Gun & Writing in Hollywood with Jack Epps Jr.

It is an absolute thrill to have Jack Epps Jr. on the show today. The award-winning writer, USC Cinematic Arts professor and filmmaker is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He’s best known for writing Top Gun, The Secret of My Success, Turner & Hooch, and Anaconda 1997 screenplay

Jack first became involved in making films while doing his undergraduate at Michigan State University. Inspired by a student film festival, Epps made his first film the following semester which became Pig vs. Freaks that was later titled Off Sides.

Top Gun was Epps’ big break. He partnered with Jim Cash who was his screenwriting professor at Michigan State University, to write several projects and Top Gun was one of those screenplays. Top Gun’s success was seismic. It became a box office number one grossing $ 357.1 million on a $ 15 million budget while also stacking several accolades including an Academy Award, Golden Globes, and a number of other international film awards. 

As students at the United States Navy’s elite fighter weapons school compete to be the best in the class, one daring young pilot (Tom Cruise) learns a few things from a civilian instructor that are not taught in the classroom.

Epps is credited for the original screenplay in the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick which will be released this November.

Epps shares co-writing credits with Jim Cash and Hans Bauer for the screenplay of the Anaconda adventure horror film series of 1997 and 2004. The first story follows a National Geographic film crew in the Amazon Rainforest that is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.

While the first film did not receive critical acclamation, it grossed $136.8 million worldwide against a budget of $45 million.

In the second film, Anaconda: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, the premise is quite similar. A scientific expedition team of researchers set for an expedition into the Southeast Asian tropical island of Borneo, to search for a sacred flower for which they believe will bring humans to a longer and healthier life, but soon become stalked and hunted by the deadly giant anacondas inhabiting the island.

Here is a clip of Gordon (Morris Chestnut) after being paralyzed from a spider bite, who comes face to face with death.

These are some classics and I couldn’t wait to chat with Jack about his creative journey—from his work as a cinematographer and an assistant cameraman on various local productions, to his love for writing or reviewing romantic comedies films like Viva Rock Vegas, and Sister Act.

Let’s dig in, shall we? Enjoy this conversation with Jack Epps.

Right-click here to download the MP3

Alex Ferrari 0:04
I'd like to welcome to the show Jack Epps Jr. How you doing Jack?

Jack Epps Jr. 1:01
I'm doing really well. Nice to be here. Thank you!

Alex Ferrari 1:09
Thank you so much for coming on the show. Um, I'm excited to kind of get into the weeds about your career because you've written some of some of the some, you know, classic 80s and 90s films that I grew up with. And again, the audience will get tired of me saying this, but you had an impact on my video store days when I was working at the video store. Great days. Oh, those. Exactly. So all of all of your films and your especially in the 80s and early 90s, all the stuff that you wrote was like I was there moving the boxes, rec recommending them to the customers got me good. So. So let me ask you, how did you how did you get started in the business?

Jack Epps Jr. 5:41
Well, you know, it's one of those sort of long stories in the sense of, I became interested in film as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I'm from Detroit, Michigan, moved out to California because I just fell in love with movies. And I said, this is what I want to do with my life. I actually came out to California be a director, because I was making short films, had no money, virtually no contacts, and the best way to direct was on paper and started writing. And in through a friend I met at Michigan State Anderson House, his dad knew the producer of Hawaii Five O and said, If we wrote a treatment, he could get it to him. So we actually put together treatment called the capsule kidnapping, sent it to his dad who sent to the Phil ECOC, who sent the the showrunner, who then called us and said, We love this idea. So quickly, I sold it exact. So we sold this script, and and had a Hawaii Five o produced very, very quickly, I mean, and then we worked together for a couple years trying to get other things produced. And we sold a Kojak and things like that, but didn't really move forward a lot. At the same time. I had to pay rent. And so I was because I was a filmmaker. I was actually an assistant camera man. And so doing a lot of work on stuff like that. I actually worked for Orson Welles on the other side of the wind. River, what was that? Like? You know, it was really great because it was there is Orson Welles. In the story. How it happened is my wife was my girlfriend at the time. She was working as a typist. And so she got a call from her temp agents agency and said, Orson Welles needs somebody and she she was in Peoria now to film family. So she goes Orson Welles, I know the name but don't worry, just go meet him. Because I knew the less she would know the more he would like her. And so he hired her. And then I said, he got to get me on this film. You got to get me on this film. So I spent a couple months with Orson and Gary Graver on the piano was great because it's Orson Welles omit really nice. I mean, he didn't throw a temper tantrum. He wasn't like this big. He was just Orson Welles. And there's the guy and you some pitching myself. I said, I cannot believe I'm pulling focus on Orson Welles here.

Alex Ferrari 7:58
That's, that's amazing. And that booming voice that he has,

Jack Epps Jr. 8:01
And the whole persona.

Alex Ferrari 8:03
Oh, my God, that must have been amazing. So yeah, so and everyone listening, when you're starting off as a screenwriter, generally it works out that you write a spec pilot for a television show or a television show, and it gets picked up right away and then you start making lots of money just like yourself, correct?

Jack Epps Jr. 8:20
Absolutely not. What happened is I then my my college screenwriting teacher, Jim Cash had contacted me and said, We should write together. And so Jim and I went back to Michigan to pick up my motorcycle to drive back to California. I looked him up. We sat down at the school union, and we pitched out eight ideas. I didn't think anything work. We said, Thanks, goodbye. I was riding back cross country. And I said, you know, this idea actually works. And Jim and I spent the next two and a half years doing about five different drafts and figure out how to write together long distance because he was in East Lansing and I was in Santa Monica. We wrote a script finally, that I felt was ready to take it to go into the business to let out because I had learned enough through internships and things to know that you really have to enter the business at a high level, the script has to be very, very good read. It's got to be a good story and show off your work as writers and storytellers. And that script was called Izzy and Moe. And we got representation to major agency through a friend who recommended us and it got optioned by Bud Yorkin of Yorkshire and Lear. And so suddenly, we were paid some pretty good option money that may both of us say we should stay at this. So we were lucky that our first spec actually got options.

Alex Ferrari 9:47
That right and again, a lot of in a lot of times when a lot of screenwriters think that just because you get the option, it's an automatic production, and that's not the case. At all, most most option scripts don't get into production is that is that a fair statement?

Jack Epps Jr. 10:00
All right, is that the truth? I mean, it's what it what it does is what it puts it. So yes, no is emo never got made, but Yorkin, who was a European leader could not get it made. And so but what it did is it put us on a spotlight, people knew we were there. And then we did a second script, a second spec script, which was called old gold. And that was a sort of Charmin Chase adventure set in San Francisco, about a fortune 100 looking for lost gold from the Nazis that ended up in San Francisco. And then that got that got bought on an auction. And so we earned good money and he was like, Okay, this is now we're throwing ourselves into it. But that didn't get me

Alex Ferrari 10:46
I've spoken to so many screenwriters over the years and known many during my time in the in the business that sometimes you look at an IMDB filmography, and you're like, oh, They've only done three movies. I'm like, Yeah, but they've been working steadily for a decade. And just because they haven't been produced. I mean, they're still pulling in six figures a year, and working on major projects that just either they're rewriting or polishing or Script doctoring. And don't get don't get made. Is that your experience as well?

Jack Epps Jr. 11:16
Absolutely. And what I learned very quickly is that if a studio has a choice between their idea or your idea, they're always going with their idea. So why not develop their ideas, which they already invested in. And SmartKey has yet been tricked into your idea. You have to you have to make it, you've got to own it, but realize that you're writing for them, and you want to make the producers in the studios happy. So we then started writing an assignment. And we had six unproduced screenplays and then yeah, we did Dick Tracy. For four directors that got shelved wasn't kidding me. We then Simpson Bruckheimer. We actually through Jeff Katzenberg was involved in Dick Tracy because it was actually owned by Universal and Paramount. So as a joint production, they had international and domestic rights. And so Jeff Katzenberg liked our work and wanted to hire us after Dick Tracy and I had a breakfast meeting the famous ADM breakfast meeting with Katzenberg. And he rolled out six ideas of which I thought this really interesting idea be stood out to me. Yeah, based on this school pilots called Top Gun. And I thought, wow, I actually got my private pilot's license at Michigan State, they had a flying club. So I thought, Well, if the movie doesn't get made, I'll get to find a navy jet. So okay.

Alex Ferrari 12:46
It's a win win win,

Jack Epps Jr. 12:48
That one get made. So why would this one get made but flying a navy jet? That's a hard thing to get to do,

Alex Ferrari 12:54
You got to go through, you have to jump through a few hoops to get to that tough life to say the least. So So okay, so the original idea for Top Gun was basically it was Jeff Katzenberg, kind of throughout the like, hey, there's a school pilots figure something out.

Jack Epps Jr. 13:09
Well, actually, it was actually, Jerry Bruckheimer, okay, we found an article in a California magazine. Based on that there was a school and there are these pilots, and they were having fun. There was no story, no characters, but it was a potential world. And so Jerry brought it to, you know, the producer will do product to he was had to deal with Paramount, but Don Simpson and Paramount want to develop the idea. And so for for us, it was like, Okay, we had just finished a Tracy and that was not going into production. And so

Alex Ferrari 13:42
This is at 84-85 for Dick Tracy?

Jack Epps Jr. 13:44
Actually, if Dick Tracy was actually in the early 80s, right, I went in for directors on that project.

Alex Ferrari 13:51
And we'll get to that we'll get to Dick Tracy it a little bit down the line. But so so with Top Gun so you're basically on assignment, essentially you you got it was an open assignment. Jerry came up with the the concept of just the world and you guys came up with Maverick and Iceman and the whole thing. I mean, so Okay, so when you're writing this, it's another assignment. You're like, this is not going to get me both hell, we'll have some fun. And we're getting paid to do it. So you didn't think it was Did you have any idea that it was actually going to go into production? Did you feel something?

Jack Epps Jr. 14:24
Well, so basically, sips and Bruckheimer when I met with him, I said, Look, guys, I don't want to do this unless we can actually get the planes but I really don't want to have these like little CGI is not what it is today, right today. Hold off, but then you could not and so they agreed. We went back to the Pentagon. We got approval by the Pentagon. They gave me a technical adviser but even Pete Pettigrew. I went to doubt the NAS Miramar and I got to fly jets and

Alex Ferrari 14:57
you and you were in the back like you The Oh absolutely. Oh, absolutely.

Jack Epps Jr. 15:01
Yeah, that's amazing. A couple of things happen. One is the f 14. Wow, I fell in love with the plane. I really didn't know about military planes at that time. And I fell in love with it for one or two reasons. One, it looks incredibly cool on the ground. It's like, wow, this thing is just the fastest, most beautiful thing ever designed. And to it had two people flying in it a front seat or in a back seat. And I didn't really know about that. And that gave me a relationship. So I already went, Yes. I don't have to have guys going from plane to going on Maverick are you doing in Qatar? Are you so I can actually have these two people and form a relationship, which gave me a core to develop in the story. So I said, Great. We've got a relationship. But I'm looking for all the guys there are great. Get along. And I'm going for where's the conflict? What am I writing here? I've got to look for the conflict. And then it came to me, like one of those bolts of thunder. Lightning is what if one guy doesn't get along? What happens if you got a guy who sticks out like a sore thumb? What happens to this environment? Maverick is born. So I had the conflict. And then we just start building out the story from there in a sense. And I pitched the DOD and Jerry said, Look, we're gonna do a school movie, but it's kind of a real fight in the end, guys. We're not going to have a school. It's got it. He said, Yeah, like Star Wars at the end. Absolutely. That's what we're gonna do. We're gonna do Star Wars. You know, the big dog fights for real stakes at the end. So I did all this research, Simpson Bruckheimer. Great. I said, Look, guys, you got to leave us alone, just let us go away, we're gonna have to find a story. I can't pitch it to you, you got to trust us. And if you don't want to trust us get somebody else because we just can't go through this development process. We have to find it. And they were great. They said guys go away. Afterwards, they said they will never do that again. So we're at able to just find the story, you know, and that was a hard story to find this set in the school. And I mean, so yeah, it's a school guys flying around. What's the story there? And so for us, that was the big thing, breaking that story, finding what that art was, and who those characters were in the relationships and what the whole, the drama of it was.

Alex Ferrari 17:09
And, and I mean, obviously, the top cons of a classic film, and you know, when I was when I've seen I've seen it a million times. But that whole movie is all about character. It's like, the plot is the plot moves things along, but it is about character so heavily as opposed to like, Sherlock Holmes story, which is all plot and character kind of rides along. It. Would you agree? I mean, this is the Iceman and Maverick and his interest and his father and that, that baggage that he's carrying and, and the conflict between him and Iceman, which is just amazing. And we'll talk about all the stars aligning in a minute, but as far as the character, do you agree with that?

Jack Epps Jr. 17:52
Oh, yeah, I mean, I think that that's why we couldn't pitch it. It's almost unpickable script, because it's like, well, what happens? And it's like, because so much came out of the research, I did about 40 hours worth of interviews with pilots. But first, the Pentagon had insisted in there with me, and they wouldn't talk and I said, Look, you gotta get out. I'm sorry, I got to talk these guys alone. And they know I won't, and then they call the Pentagon. So yeah, leave me alone. And then the guys opened up and you know, learn about their lives and met these guys. So they were inspiring as people. But also Gemini were athletes. So we knew what it meant to be on a team and to and to try to make sure you're, you know, the sense of being, you know, one of the stars on the team, you know, you got to be the best, you know, that's part of what sort of the drive for excellence is. But it's a long way to get to your question. We had in the script shift, since the break ever loved it. They loved this movie, but Paramount said, I don't get it. I don't get it. Of course, it's all these planes in the sky. It's like this. So they said no. And they put it on the shelf. So there's number seven unproduced motion picture and so we thought we had something we believed in and so so did Simpson Bruckheimer but not going to happen. So we want went on to a next project Legal Eagles with Ivan Reitman.

Alex Ferrari 19:15
Not a bad, not a bad

Jack Epps Jr. 19:16
project. Not a bad thing. And Ivan was great. And it wasn't until the studio changed. It. You know, the executives and new chickens came in TrackMan cuzzo, who called Simpson Bruckheimer. I said, Guys, we have nothing in the cupboards Do you have anything you want to make? And they pulled the script down and said, Yeah, we got this project we'd like to make and they say go do it.

Alex Ferrari 19:37
That it's just just like that. And then what I find so fascinating about that film specifically is it was a perfect alignment where Jerry and Don where we're coming up they had they had already started building from Flashdance. I think it was in probably a little bit before, but they started to build but they weren't yet. Jerry and they weren't Bruckheimer Simpson company. pletely yet that Top Gun is what took them to the next level. We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. So you have young producers who are about to explode, they bring in a commercial director who had done one other I think he did what did he What was the other film that he did? Oh, hunger, the hunger. So, vampire so in brought him in, and then this young actor who had been had success with risky business, but yet wasn't Tom Cruise. All these things aligned. And it exploded into this this supernova, essentially. And that movie was a massive for people understood triple net wasn't around at that time. It's a massive hit. And one of the best recruitment tools The Navy has ever added probably still as to this day.

Jack Epps Jr. 20:59
We wrote the movie for Tom, yet we wrote it with him in mind from the very beginning, when we gave the script to Don and Jerry, I said to Don says Jerry, I said, think Tom Cruise when you read this? And and they said Yep, absolutely. And that was the only person that they they went after Tom. Yeah. But Tom, but the ability factors. Part of it was because because of character. You know, Mary is a bit of a jerk. And so he's, he's really arrogant. So you've got to have an actor that you're going to like that you're going to stay with, or else just going to go after this guy. I'm out of here. And so and Tom did that he was the young American, so to speak, and he represented that sort of this bravado and, you know, pushing it at the limit. And, and, and, and they nailed it. They got him and that was in he was great. He actually he understood it. And he's played Maverick for the rest of his career.

Alex Ferrari 21:49
It's such a Top Gun in the car and Top Gun. He said that's well, he developed who Tom Cruise is and Top Gun basically. And he's, I remember some comedians like I love that movie with Tom Cruise with these young cocky white guy. Oh, you mean every movie? Got it? Okay, got it. All right, great. Yeah, I got it. But but but to be fair, though, that is a very slippery slope as an actor and a character to play because you're right. He's arrogant as hell but yet for some reason. You love him. What do you think about Mavericks character? Is it partly how it's written? And obviously how Tom performed it. But I think there there was meat in the script that allowed you to feel empathy towards him. And I think it might be the father baggage that you kind of, because if you don't add that baggage, I don't think he's as there's no empathy there. I don't know. What do you think? Yeah, no, I

Jack Epps Jr. 22:45
think that's all part of the story. And I'm part of it, we made him a second chance character. He was the underdog. Remember, he didn't have he wasn't going first. He had to win. A Cougar had to hand in his wings for him to get in. So he was he was always the underdog. And we tend to root for underdogs. And Iceman, of course, immediately is is a is a great counterpart. And, and that rivalry makes your root for Tom, you want that you want him to stick a nice man's face and you're rooting for him. And and, you know, you also feel for him, you know, he's he wants to do it, right. He's got some stuff. He's got to work out. Hopefully you can work it out. Right. And

Alex Ferrari 23:22
he put but at the end of the day, he's a good guy trying to do good work. And you know, he's trying to be all you can be, as they say,

Jack Epps Jr. 23:31
we've got some things to learn.

Alex Ferrari 23:32
Yeah, no question. And and I mean, how were you excited to know that they were breaking making a sequel?

Jack Epps Jr. 23:37
Yeah, yeah, I was excited. And I was happy that one times involved and Jerry is doing it because Jerry be true to the to the movie. And I know that he'll keep the continuity going with that. And so I think, you know, I'm excited to see it. I've read it. I know, I know what they've done. I can't talk about it, because there's any talk about it, but I think people will like it because it is a continuation.

Alex Ferrari 24:01
It's a true sequel. It's a true sequel. Yeah.

Jack Epps Jr. 24:03
Yeah, it is. It's a continuation. It's it's not just a different movie. It's the characters come back and there's some there's growth and development.

Alex Ferrari 24:10
That's amazing. That's amazing now, so you're ready. Are you worried working to Legal Eagles when before Top Gun gets into production?

Jack Epps Jr. 24:19
Yes. So we went from having seven unproduced screenplays to three films in production in 11 months. Jesus, that's unheard of. It was insane. It was insane. Because suddenly, you have Tompkinson production legalese in production. See for my successes in production,

Alex Ferrari 24:35
she's so so and for people again, that weren't around at the time Legal Eagles will start obviously, Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah and Debra Winger. That was a massive hit. It was and then and then secret of my success, which by the way, personally, one of my favorite 80s films of all time, I watched that. When I was a kid I watched I must have watched that story in that film 100 times because I was I was Michael J. Fox. I wanted it you know, it was During it was during the Wall Street day. So yeah, I wanted to make it in business and all of that kind of stuff. And it was just such a wonderful film. And that was a huge that was a massive hit as well. It was it was Michael J. Fox at the peak of his powers.

Jack Epps Jr. 25:14
Yeah, right after back to feature one. And he was great. I mean, Michael was fabulous. We wrote it for him, we were brought into a rewrite. So basically, it was a screenwriters dream. Frank Price, who was the executive of universal new as well, like, at work? I pitched him an idea. And they said, what if we took that idea and put it into this movie we have wasn't called secret of success, success at that time, something else? And they said, Yeah, sure. So we did a page one and just went through the whole script. But it was great. As they said, We have to start on June 1, because we have Michael J. Fox, and then we have to end by August, something because he's going back to his show, family ties. And, and so they had to shoot what we wrote.

Alex Ferrari 25:56
Oh, so there was no chances to rewrite. So it was perfect for you guys.

Jack Epps Jr. 26:00
Exactly. So we just we just bust through it had a great time. And really, you know, no, you don't you write from Michael J. Fox gives you a lot of fun in the script. And we also wanted to not demonize business as it always is. But as you were saying, people with ambition, and that character, I have a you know, coming to want to make his place in the world. And also, I wanted to do a, I've always wanted to be a big Billy Wilder fan, and wanted to do a, you know, a character who's assuming an identity. So a guy who's playing two identities, I always want to work that and that's really difficult to write that and, and but it was fun. There was a lot of fun to do it. And we were really pleased with the outcome. And Herb Ross, who was the director was a Broadway director, so he liked the words. He wasn't one of your Broadway direct, you direct the words and he wasn't playing with him and was really just going for it. And I thought I thought the movie really worked out well.

Alex Ferrari 26:57
Now with those three films, I mean, it's kind of unheard of for a screenwriting team, a writer screenwriters in general to have that many hits back to back to back in such short amount of time as well. How did the town treat you? I mean, after top gonna loan? I mean, I'm sure your phone was ringing off the hook at that

Jack Epps Jr. 27:15
point. Well, in my as my agent would say, at that time, don't ask they're not available.

Alex Ferrari 27:22
Everybody was reaching out to you at that point. It was you were the belle of the ball, as I like to say,

Jack Epps Jr. 27:26
right, it was that stuff. And because we knew Katzenberg and liked him. We worked at Disney worked on SR act. You know, he did a major rewrite on that. Turner and Hooch You know, Jim, Jim didn't want to write Topcat originally, because he didn't like planes, like flying planes. So he had a phobia. I said, don't worry about it. We'll do it. So he did it for me. And then he wanted to do Turner and Hooch because it's a, you know, he's has dogs. He's like four dogs, and I want to write a dog movie. i Okay, I owe you one. So we sort of traded off it, you know, things just came our way. And so it was it was it was fun. It was different. Because we were unknown people left us alone. And and the more unknown, you got the more of a looking over your shoulder. And that was a very different experience in terms of just how that could change a little bit.

Alex Ferrari 28:15
And for people listening, especially young screenwriters coming up, I mean, yeah, you had a lot of success in a short amount of time, but you had been putting in the years of work. Prior to that, like you said there was seven unpaid or six unproduced screenplays. Yeah, you had representation? Yeah, you'd optioned a few things. But you would have been, it's not like you just woke up one morning and like, Oh, here's Top Gun, like it took you years to get to that place. And I think screenwriters young screenwriters need to understand that you've got to put in the work, and it's not gonna happen overnight.

Jack Epps Jr. 28:45
I think we were actually fortunate that we didn't get our first movies produced, I think we would have grown as writers. No, you're right. You're right. I think we have tapped ourselves in the back and say how brilliant we were. And we would have been very happy at that level. And, you know, first movers are fine, they're good reads. But we had to grow. And we had to work harder and dig deeper, to basically teach ourselves how, you know, just because they were trying to figure out how does this thing work, and to basically, and the more and more we got to character was was really, really the breakthrough, you know, telling stories about people lives in crisis. You know, rewriting is a big part of what Jim and I did together. And it you know, we just realized you had to dig in. I mean, like I said, for Dick Tracy, we went through four directors, and for each director, we did two drafts

Alex Ferrari 29:33
now, so let's jump into Dick Tracy really quickly. So I remember 9090 Very well, it was right smack in the middle of my video store days. So I was it was in the heat and that was Dick Tracy, I think and please correct me wrong. This is my assumption. Dick Tracy got greenlit and got fast tracked into production after Batman came out in 89. Because that kind of just changed. It just changed the landscape. All of a sudden superhero movies. Were it because Prior to Batman for people not understanding because now every week there's a new Batman or Superman or Marvel film coming out, but there was a time there was a time where there was one maybe and it took every two, three years before you'd get orders something like that. Before Batman, there was Superman and Superman had pretty much petered off after Donner left. So when Batman came out, which was a absolute insane, massive hit, Dick Tracy showed up and then Dick Tracy, I, you know, watching it, I mean, it had Danny Elfman music, it had a lot of tonality. From Batman, it was a dark Dick Tracy was, you know, that the world was so it was that way just so beautifully constructed. And the colors were so vibrant, and the PErforM I mean, you had to look at a cast, but Donna ALPA Chino will enforce I am Warren Beatty, it's just amazing. Was Am I Am I correct in saying that? That was the reason why I got fast tracked?

Jack Epps Jr. 30:56
Yeah, I think so. I think it was the, at that point, looking for something to the big superhero type movie like that, and it was ready to go. The script is ready. And in Warren, people saw him as the only that was one of the problems getting that movie made is that Warren was who everybody saw is the Tracy. There's nobody else. And that becomes a problem because we only make it with Warren. And when we start we first started the script with John Landis, who for my business would have been probably the most interesting, wacky, crazy. Tracy. John had that terrible Twilight Zone accident. He exited. Then we got Walter Hill, who was who taught me a lot. Walter was a screenwriter editor. Oh, a good director. Yeah. And he basically taught us a lot. He was funny, because we're a little arrogant, you know, you know, we've been doing really well. And Walter SS do a fix on the script. And we push back to No, we don't want to do this. And he said, Well, okay, I'll do it. I'll write it, don't worry about it. And we went, Oh, hold on a second here. You know, that's not a bad idea. We'll do it. Because you don't want to direct your writing. You want to stay the writer. So we said, oh, I think I understand what you mean. So you know, Walter taught us a lot how to hang in the game, and also how to focus the characters. Well, I mean, you know, and then, Walter, the, as I understand the story, you talked to Warren and Warren said, Can I watch the dailies? And Walter said, No, I never let actors walk daily watch dailies. And Warren said, Thank you, God. Movie crashes, Dick Benjamin comes on to do a cheap version, Dick Tracy. We cut the script down for budget. That doesn't happen. And then Warren ends up after a couple years, languishing, walking over to Paramount and getting the rights and moving the rights to Disney. And then once he's on board, he's driving I taught him we met, you know, more and more. I went met and talked and he's a good director, you know, I mean, so he was should I direct this? I said, Absolutely. You know, we're doing better than you.

Alex Ferrari 32:55
Yeah. And it was it was, I think people wanted it to be the next Batman and I don't, but it wasn't it was a hit. It didn't didn't do good business, right.

Jack Epps Jr. 33:04
It could business it wasn't quite what everyone wanted it to be. It didn't it didn't get the debt super numbers in there. There was to me, there was a lot of things crammed into that movie. Like me, it's even Stephen Sondheim songs. You can't complain about that. But they took up a lot of space. A bit of a musical. You know, Madonna's done. Yeah, I'm surprised no one's done. Dick Tracy, the musical so far since it would work?

Alex Ferrari 33:30
Yeah, Madonna was at the height of her powers as well. So they had to put there has to be a couple of you know, song and dance numbers Madonna, and it has, that's why we're hiring her. So and that's another thing that screenwriters and filmmakers sometimes don't understand is that there's there's just politics involved here. There's a lot of politics involved. And there's a lot of not only egos, but you know, agendas that need to be cramped like you said a lot of things were crammed in because there was so much pressure on that film I'm surprised that it did as well as it did because of the amount of pressure you they were they were hoping for another Batman and that's like that's you know, lightning in a bottle that doesn't happen very often. And it's still it was still good enough that it did do good business but obviously didn't you know break out into what what Batman was but it still holds up very well today. I watched it the other day it was it still holds up very well.

Jack Epps Jr. 34:21
Or the look is great. Richard silver did amazing art direction let's say the colors and Warren was working to create a sort of a comic book structure if you look at the setups are almost like it's by panels comic panel. He was trying to do that specifically. And you know, you've got great roles with with Dustin Hoffman doing mumble Oh, yeah.

Alex Ferrari 34:38
Forgot definitely, of course.

Jack Epps Jr. 34:40
Yeah. No, he's all in everybody come in and do this little stuff.

Alex Ferrari 34:44
Like, exactly. He's just like, hey, can you just come down to do this character for us, please. But when you're Warren Beatty, you could do things like that? Not but I have to ask you though. How did you convert or adapt a comic strip to Twitter? feature film. I mean, it's not like a comic book, if I'm not mistaken. Right? It was mostly comic strips right? There wasn't like this all comic strip was just comic strips like you would read in the Sunday paper. So how do you take that and adapt it into a major motion picture?

Jack Epps Jr. 35:14
I'm a big believer in research. I did a lot of research on Top Gun secret success. We had a technical adviser from business so I could ask him questions about business because I didn't really I didn't want to make stuff up. I wanted to, you know, to, so I could put totally could feel like it's based on something for Nick Tracy. I asked, universal Can you get me all the comic strips that Chester Gould wrote? Like, can you get them and they got me from 1932 The first one Oh, all the way up into the mid 50s. So I sat down and read it like a book. I just literally read every comic strip. And I felt I could I want to understand Chester Gould's writing style, his intention, his storytelling, I want to know his characters. Because I had to be true to this. And I was, I was not the fan on the strip the gym was but I became a huge fan of Chester Gould, the creator, because He created all these wonderful characters. And I fell in love with characters, all that all his ghouls characters, and my favorite being the blank. I just thought the blank was so interesting. So it's like, okay, we're going to construct your own story, because I can't do none of the strip stories at work, but I can take the characters. And at the very beginning, John Landis said he wants to set around big boy Caprice in the roaring 30s, so to speak, 20s 30s. And so that was our original walking orders. That big boy Caprice at the center of the story, so we had to figure out okay, what can we do? And then once I found the blank, I said, Okay, now I've got a character I love. Let's figure out what the story is. And we and we started building that out with the blank at the center of the mystery. And then telling basically, you know, a basically prohibition style type story, which is sort of funny, those tropes and reach out and do those things.

Alex Ferrari 36:52
And the funny thing is now that, you know, Dick Tracy, always just speaking to his watch, and now we speak it to our

Jack Epps Jr. 37:00
exact Yeah, exactly.

Alex Ferrari 37:02
It was pretty rare. It's taken. I think that was even part of the Apple ad campaign. They put a little bit of Dick Tracy in there, I think was even the Warren shot of him talking into it as part of the that's part of the ads. Now, you when you did Legal Eagles, you worked with Ivan Reitman, who's, you know, a legend in our business? What was it like working with Ivan and Ivan right after ghostbuster. So he was he was on fire and Fago as they say,

Jack Epps Jr. 37:31
Well, part of that was that our agent was frustrated too, that we didn't get anything made. We didn't get Top Gun produce. So he said, Look, I'm gonna put you in. I'm gonna put you with Ivan Reitman, because they'll make anything he wants to make. At that point, Ivan was the hottest director in the world. And so he had this amuse his idea. He wanted to do a thing about the art world, and why to do sort of a romantic comedy set in the art world and so is up for us to once again, figure out you know, what's the story? Who are the people? You know, it's like, okay, that's the assignment. Now, let's go figure out what it is. So again, I went to New York, went to the pace gallery, interviewed people, you know, just to figure out the environment of building building out the story. He did originally this this is one of the funny things originally he wanted to take the characters from Tootsie, the Dustin Hoffman Bill Murray characters and and that was the original cast idea, and wanted to put them build a movie around those guys. A whole different story, but that's what we got the district attorney and then we got the, you know, the whole the fleabag sort of guy, which gives us the relationship that I've been wanting to explore. Well, he said he we had half a script, he said, Look, I can't wait. I gotta send it to these guys. They won't sit around. Wait, I've been to half a script notes. Give it to me now. So yes, sir. You know, exactly half a script. They said to Dustin Well, Warren had just, you know, talked him into doing what's that crazy movie where you know, that horrible film?

Alex Ferrari 38:54
Which one? Oh, God.

Jack Epps Jr. 38:57
Oh, it star. It's just all right. The Tyson needs to do a star. So yes. So Dustin was available. A Bill Murray said I hate attorneys. I'll never play an attorney in my life. So suddenly, that idea crash. We've got half the script. So either goes, what about a romantic comedy with Robert Redford? You think you could do that? I said, Yeah, we can do that. I can do that. So we got to fly in the Columbia plane out to St. George, Utah, meet with Bob hung out for a couple hours into that world. And, you know, found out that he was, you know, sort of self deprecating guy and make jokes about himself sort of clumsiness, which we Yeah, exactly, really, and, and we see that and said, Well, Bob, we would love to make that as part of the character, which we did. We wrote it with that sort of character. Although when it came to set, he wasn't quite thrilled to play that character. So we got a couple beats of him, you know, dancing to singing in the rain in his apartment chewing on ice cream, so we got a couple of beats out of them. They're sort of out of character, but not as far as we want to go.

Alex Ferrari 40:04
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show. Now with the thing about Legal Eagles is in those kinds of films. I remember them so clearly where it's a romantic comedy, but there is act, there's action and there's like thriller esque things in like, there's danger. There's real danger. I like remember, like movies like stakeout. And those kinds of that kind of time period. There were a lot. They don't make these films anymore. They're not really made anymore. And they're so wonderful.

Jack Epps Jr. 40:41
Yeah, they are wonderful. I mean, they get made us you can make a thriller like that, right. Hey, you can cope with a good idea, your thriller but but romantic comedies Gemini call them charming Chase movies, right? We were really influenced by North by Northwest in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks started, Preston Sturges. And then these sort of big romantic comedies were something that we did well. But now they don't make those anymore, and they sort of fell out of fashion. You know, a lot, I have to do with the Apatow comedy, and how that came in and changed the whole comic tone. And it just, they became dated, in a sense, I think that's why they've ended up on lifetime. And you don't see those movies anymore. It's just it's it's sort of comedy changes a lot. And in the comedy and and so those will be just sort of went away. I mean, you can still do the biggest action movies like that you should do them in action, and create that the fun. I mean, I think it's Tom's done Mission Impossible. He created that sense of that.

Alex Ferrari 41:41
But those are those but those are mostly action with some humor, as opposed to romantic comedy with some some really thriller esque elements and real danger elements. But it is a romantic comedy. But yeah, action films with humor. I mean, that goes yeah, even bit Beverly Hills Cop, you can argue is it's more of a comedy than it is an action film, but it's pretty even keel as far as thriller and comedy. It goes. Without question. Now, when do you when you start working on a script Do you outline?

Jack Epps Jr. 42:17
Well, you know, the greatest, the greatest piece of advice I got was from a writer I was doing an internship on a movie called Hearts of the West was Jeff Bridges. And the writer was really great. I Tony, Bill gave me the job. I have six months, three months of pre production, three months of production, which really showed me what a movie is. Not not a screenplay. But here's what movies are. And Rob Thompson gave me a piece of advice. I was talking about how you know how he does scripts and all this stuff. And he said, I used the card method. I said, What? Yeah, I use index cards, I break each scene into an index card. And, and that was like a light bulb within on my on my head and changed my life. Because from that moment on, I've been using index cards. So I, I beat out a story, not an outline, because an outline to me. I want I don't start on page one, I don't start the first scene, I start with scenes I like to see. So what's what is the scene I like to see. And then I'm going to look at that scene, it might be a middle scene might be the ending scene. And so I don't work in any linear map method, I basically start to visualize how I see the movie and start to fill in the pieces. And for me, that allows and I also have to see my movie, if I'm doing an outline, it's I'm looking at one page, what's on page four, or five. So by laying it out in a big table, and I married the right woman, she allowed me to have the dining room table for 20 years filled with guards. Wait the small table. And I basically I'd have i movies about 55 cards, something like that. But I go through literally hundreds of them trying to figure out the movie and I replay them. And I use colored cards to code relationships. So the main characters, the white card, and then different colored cards for the relationships to show. So I can track my relationships and subplots through the movie. But I'm able then to read them in columns and see my movie in one glance, I can sit down and I can show before I work in a scene, I can get the beats the character development, and I got a hole here, I can work on the hole and fix the hole. And I also can change cards around it will because there's no it takes a couple seconds to write a new card. There's there's no like resistance to making a change. Right? And when I feel I'm ready, I've got it, then I've got something to write.

Alex Ferrari 44:26
Do you do you start with the scenes or plot? Or do you start with the character first?

Jack Epps Jr. 44:33
Question. The biggest two things I'm looking for is one, what's the story? What's this about? What's the movie? What's the essence of it? And two, I'm always looking for where's the conflict in the story? Because I learned early on you write the conflict. I don't have the conflict. I've got nothing to write. So and then I'm looking for who lives in this world. Who is the person what is their story? What do they want? What are they trying to achieve? What's what I'm looking for? What are they pushing against what's the antagonistic force? What's the opposition? So I'm trying to find whose story it is. I'm looking for major relationships. So I'm looking to build all these things and understand it before I start going to cards. So I have to pretty much know whose movie it is and what I'm trying to tell. And, and that's something that I work out well in advance of beginning to plot the movie. Now, I pretty much know the story. It is.

Alex Ferrari 45:24
Gotcha, gotcha. Now, another film that you did in that time period, which I literally just watched with my daughters, who are young, Turner and Hooch. And I am sorry, I'm

Jack Epps Jr. 45:37
sorry. I always apologize, because I held back, show it to my kids until they were like, a 12 and 13. So to break their hearts,

Alex Ferrari 45:47
it was like, so we watched it. And that was the other thing, dude, like, by the way, spoiler alert, something happens at the end. But but the thing is, but the thing about that is that they were concerned about the ending when it was happening, because they were just like, Oh my God, oh, my God, is he is he? Yeah, but the way you were able to just bring in that light at the end with the puppies was absolutely brilliant, because I hadn't seen it. Since my video store days, I really hadn't watched in a long time. You know, like, sat down and watched it all the way through. And my wife and I both were just looking at like this so much. And Tom Hanks in the 80s was just so brilliant. And that huge. Oh my god, that dog was remarkable. How would it turn around who show up? Because I know Tom. Tom loves to make jokes about these like, Yeah, I did the doc movie. I don't know why did the duck. But he always jokes about it in interviews.

Jack Epps Jr. 46:41
No, no. All the time. Good. Saves money except his academy word Philadelphia. Yeah. That's right. Better accurate. Exactly. I know. I know. Well, it was it was once again, we're working with Disney and Katzenberg, these things go into production. And they literally didn't have things for Tom to play, Tom, you know, because what we what we became known as the guys to come in and bring character to it. Bring story. We're really good. We're good at fixing things. Like I can read the script and say, Okay, I like this. But this, here's what it needs to make it a movie. And so that was they had the dog but we just double down on the world's messiest dog, and we double down on Tom being the world's cleanest guy, and letting that sort of OCD character sort of, you know, be a problem for him and creating a love story and creating a relationship in there. So

Alex Ferrari 47:29
conflict, a conflict was in there just from the beginning.

Jack Epps Jr. 47:32
Right? Absolutely. And, and also, and making you fall in love with hooch is just this grisly, the worst thing that could happen to the character is the best thing to happen in the character. And what was so much fun about that project is that Tom was involved in development. So I would meet with the director and Tom would be there, and he'd be thrown out lines, I'll be writing all these lines out. Thank you. No doubt, you know. And the thing about Tom Hanks, he is who you think he is. He's a remarkable guy. And great to work with as generous as can be. And it was just such a pleasure to have somebody like that in a development meeting, just just helping develop the character because he and his concern was his relationship with OCE, he wanted to make sure that relationship was solid, because that's the core of the movie. And and we worked on that.

Alex Ferrari 48:17
Now the one of the one thing I really think is a learning moment here in the in the in the conversation is conflict, and how perfectly you know, Turner and Hooch were the conflict was self evident. There's no working for the conflict, like you just put two forces on complete opposite sides of the spectrum. And you just threw them together in a room. And it writes itself almost because of that. And I think that is something that screenwriters writing screenplays now are in their stories. I've read so many screenplays, and you know, you're doing coverage and things like that, where the conflict is almost forced, like, it's like, I don't buy that, like, oh, that there's no motivation there. You know, like, the bad guy has this motivation. And the good guy has this motivation. And it's like, really like convoluted. But the core of conflict from just something as simple as Turner and Hooch. It's built in. And I think as you if you're writing a story, having two characters who are just completely on two opposite sides of the spectrum, without any major details, but it's it's very basic, I'm clean, you're dirty. Oh, my God, we've got to live together. It's the odd couple with a dog and a guy is actually do we agree with that?

Jack Epps Jr. 49:32
Oh, absolutely. And it's one thing I learned early in, you know, figuring out how to write and what's what screenplays are about, is using relationships to produce conflict. And I'm a big believer in having multiple layers of conflict. I call them opposition forces. I want to make sure that my characters have a lot of opposition. And no matter where they turn throughout the story, there's a point of opposition there. And there are different degrees. It's not like it has to be everything's huge. It doesn't matter the main character is going on a journey. And the journey is fraught with challenges of different degrees. And what that character is is trying to do is get what they want, but ultimately what they need at the end and in the process trying to get what they want, they bump into opposition characters and opposition situations, which, which helps define the character because we see who is this character? Who is this person? Why do we root for them? What do we want? Are they you know, what's their growth arc through the story, and by using plot and relationship to help tell the story and create conflict. It allows me to explore the character from from multiple points of view, and allows a character to express themselves to different people in different ways depending upon the relationship and a lot and then I'm a big believer in in you don't want to rely on plot all the time. It's just plot. Because what I say is curiosity. Oh, what's gonna happen but emotion is character. And character is about relationships. It's not no no character exist by themselves. I mean, you know, a castaway. They had to create Wilson, because he needed somebody to relate to so what does he do? He creates this character Wilson, who I don't know about you, but Wilson falls off.

Alex Ferrari 51:13
Oh my god. Oh my god, volleyball. Oh my god. It's a volleyball.

Jack Epps Jr. 51:17
Used emotion to it. I'm going Wilson though.

Alex Ferrari 51:21
And you're like I'm Why am I crying for damn volleyball? Like, what? If that's the brilliance of Tom Hanks. That's the brilliance of Bob Zemeckis. It's just the built brilliance of all of that. I mean, that. I mean, how he did not win the Oscar for that before. She's it's great. It's, it's remarkable. And I have to also ask you another great 90 film that you made Anaconda. I mean, where did that come from? The giant snake movie. It's like, it's pretty sharp, NATO. And it's not nearly as bad, by the way. So please, I'm not I'm not comparing them. But the big fun, there's so much fun. There's so much fun. It's fun. But Anaconda. I remember when it showed up. And we're like, Well, this is genius. I mean, this is like, why hasn't? Why hasn't there been a giant snake? Where did that come from?

Jack Epps Jr. 52:09
You know, it was once again, the agents call and said, By the way, you know, Sony is looking for rewriting this. They said, Yeah, you know, whatever, you know, so we just sort of dropped in our laps. And it was a very interesting, it's very different than any other film we've done yet is there, all the CGI was already being done. So the graphics were already being worked on. So we could not change the basic graphic attacks of the snake. But the story from our point of view didn't work, the characters didn't work, there was no antagonist in the movie. And so our job was to basically rethink the story of the characters. So we came on board and recreated, who the characters were all new story of why they're going up to the Amazon, what was happening, all the relationships and people, we created all of that material, and had to weave it around all the CGI effects.

Alex Ferrari 53:02
It's because the attacks were already that's when you have your cards up on the board, like, yeah, these are the 10. We got to we got to navigate this.

Jack Epps Jr. 53:11
We got to make those things happen. So we had to create new characters, and new relationships and new problems and different characters being caught by obviously, because that's not a problem because it hadn't been cast yet. And so that was sort of a fun thing to do. And it's just sort of fun to you know, to kill people. The way I read

Alex Ferrari 53:33
is, yeah, it's Yeah, it is. There's a bit of humor in it, but it is definitely not your typical, you know, as far as your filmography is concerned, it's definitely not secret of my success.

Jack Epps Jr. 53:43
It is yeah, but I'll tell you, it gets from residuals, I can see how many people watch it and it's still one of the most watched movies. So that it was actually during the pandemic. It was a top 10 of Netflix for one week. I was going through my list. Yeah, I'm going down. Oh, what's the top 10 ago? What? Anaconda is number nine for the week. Okay, so that's like

Alex Ferrari 54:02
23 years old. How is that?

Jack Epps Jr. 54:05
Well, it's cast I didn't have any to do with casting. The casting is

Alex Ferrari 54:08
remarkable. Oh, yeah. Ice Cube JLo JLo

Jack Epps Jr. 54:11
Ice Cube. I got to beat Ice Cube years later. And I said by the way, I'm the guy who stuck you in that swamp with the camera. He goes oh, man, he did that.

Alex Ferrari 54:21
He did okay. He did. He did okay. He did well, he did fine. Now one thing you you've said a lot of that you do a lot of rewriting and you worked on on you know massive hits like Sister Act and diehard three and now that I know that you had a hand in diehard three. It makes sense because there's a lot of my two favorite diehards is diehard one and diehard three with four coming up and then two is the last one and I don't even consider any of the other ones. But three was such a wonderful buddy and talk about conflict. I mean, Sam Jackson and John McClement and Bruce on that was great. How do you approach rewriting a script? Because you've done it so often in your life and you have also have a book, called screenwriting is rewriting. So I'm sure you have a couple things to say about that.

Jack Epps Jr. 55:11
Well, you know, rewriting is the key, every writer is going to tell you that, in screenwriting is rewriting is where the title came from. Because you have to be willing to dive in, you've got to be willing to take notes. And you know, we become very precious with our material. We don't want to, we don't want to, you know, make changes. But when you're a professional writer, and the studio tells you, here's what we want, you can't you can argue and get thrown off the movie, that's not going to help you. Or you can stay there and try to protect the movie. And that's, that's what basically my approach is, let me work with and not everybody's an idiot. Let me work with the best I can let me work with their ideas. And the key is trying to figure out not just the specific notes, but what's what are the notes saying in general, and trying to work on the bigger notes, which is the response you're getting from from people. We always were pretty lucky that took the notes we got were brought to one, we're never huge. The biggest note we ever got was John Landis. When we do the first draft of Dick Tracy, we didn't put Jr into the movie. And his first note was Where's Jr. Tracy? We went, Oh, yeah, right. Okay, we have a junior Tracy, in which we had to actually start all over again, because that's the core relationship of the movie. So suddenly, we can't just what you can't do in writing is just plug things in, you have to realize that there's a cause and effect of everything in the screenplay. So if you put something in this scene, it's going to relate to scenes later. And part of that is realizing the way the puzzle fits together and the way that everything sort of works. So we're always approaching, I'm always approaching rewriting, as, you know, while I'm trying to figure out what the assignment is, to figuring out what the notes are, three, getting a game plan, I'm going to address this in a certain way, I'm just not gonna have at it. As a professional writer, I'm trying to save every bit of work I can. So I don't want to rewrite the whole script I love people throw the baby out, and they start all over again. No, I'm gonna try to preserve everything I can, and try to weave it in the new elements into this existing story if I can, but also, I've had words changed all the time. So I'm not precious, super precious on things. I'm only precious on things I know the story has to have. So what's the heartbeat of this story? What's the core emotional moment of this movie about? How does the audience relate to this movie, I'm not going to give that up. Because that does get damaged story. So rewriting is about figuring out what's a game plan and then going at it my approach is to do a series of passes, not to try to do everything at once I like to do character. First, let's make sure we get this character story. Really well told we know who this character is. I like to know what the theme is. And then I thematic balance, I want to make sure that I understand the plot elements are not only telling a good story, but they're helping reveal the character. And this is really important plot reveals character, how our character responds to the plot. Problem is what tells us a lot about the character. And so using my storytelling techniques to tell a story about a life in crisis is what I like to say movies are about lives in crisis. So is my character in crisis is the crisis substantial is enough to motorhome movie.

Alex Ferrari 58:32
Right, exactly. And well, let me ask you a question, though, when you're working on projects, like SR act, and diehard three, I know a lot of a lot of screenwriters don't understand why some people get credit and while others don't, you know, Lee, you know, technically on their name on it, how does that work? And can you explain a little how the DG that the BGA kind of, you know, police's, that situation. Sure. Well, the

Jack Epps Jr. 58:56
WTA was founded basically, for to to award credits, that's what went on strike for because in the 30s, you know, the studios would give credits to their brother in law and whoever it was, and so writers had no say in what how they were credited, and that's what the original one of the original strikes was for. So the DGA, WGI handles all of the credit determination. There's a a anonymous arbitration panel that is convened, and they basically read the materials and there's rules that the guild is laid down and how credit is determined whether story credit screenplay credit written by credit the different layers of different different credit and depending upon the work that you've done on the script depends upon what credit you deserve

Alex Ferrari 59:43
so it so that all right so that makes perfect sense because obviously Sister Act had and diehard three both have a lot of your touches, I can sense a spirit

Jack Epps Jr. 59:53
is there Yeah, they definitely do and sister acts as sort of a sore point with me because we were advised not to see credit because The movie was a disaster on the set.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:04
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:00:13
And, and I always felt bad about that, because I really liked the script. And so then of course, we went to well, you know, but we went to the premiere and I went like, Well, that was unfortunate because it there's a lot on Gemini in that movie, and we we feel a kinship to it. But you know, that's when they got away. So we're glad that we could basically put so much into it. It

Alex Ferrari 1:00:34
was it was it was there. I didn't I never heard that. I mean, I think I might have heard something in regards to the being a disaster onset and in nobody I knew no one was expecting subtract to be a monster hit.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:00:46
No, no, but I think any. Right and then from the first I was sitting at premiere for the first note, I went on it. And it was, it was not read for whipping Whoopi Goldberg. Originally, she was at Les cast, who was the winner for I'm trying to think of the actress to Broadway actress. I can't think of right now.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:08
Okay. Oh, she did. She did other movies. Yeah, yeah.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:01:12
I can look it up.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:14
Because now I'm fascinated because I cannot see Sister Act with anybody else other than the will be called her.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:01:18
No, no, she was the perfect cast. Absolutely. She was a perfect cast. That Midler.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:24
Oh, that myth. That would have been an interesting Sister Act. It wouldn't have been the same by any stretch. No, but it would have been interesting.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:01:33
Yeah, that was for bet Midler. And she didn't want to do what she said about two rows in front of me at the premiere. And I could tell that she slouched I think she even knew Oh, I you know, but what the was the perfect cast? Yeah, I think I think we bet I think she was in a good job. She's a talented actress, it would have been funny, but what the elevated that movie and made into what it was, what it is. And I think that was a brilliant casting that made it as a standout film and still is.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:57
And where can people find your book screenwriting is, is rewriting.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:02:02
It's on Amazon,

Alex Ferrari 1:02:03
it's on Amazon. And you run and you run it basically, because you want to help screenwriters, I wanted to kind of help them in that kind of process. Because rewriting it's hard, especially when you're not a professional writer, and you're like, become precious, and like, I can't do this word. And I know Stephen King's, like, just kill your babies.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:02:20
Well, it is you have to let go and letting go is really hard. And also how to approach it is hard. Because people get overwhelmed by notes, they get overwhelmed. They don't want to do it. They tend to take it personally, they tend to feel they've lost. You know, part of things about being a writer is the creative, creative people, we have a lot of insecurities, we there's a lot of imposter syndrome. And so now you're rewriting Oh, they found me out, and all this sort of stuff. And it's important for writers to know you're not alone. All writers virtually feel that. And that what you have to realize it's a process and that scripts don't get, you know, oh, I've written something. It's brilliant. Well, maybe there's some brilliance in there. But right now you got to get to work and make it into a movie. And be willing to let go of your darlings. And and realize that notes and feedback are what help you to write a better script. But my book is about how to approach it. How do you approach a rewrite, and it's not easy. And I tell you that you get 100 screenwriters in a room together, they all do it differently. So there's no one way to do it. This, this book presents My Way, which is really about organizing, I believe that you organize a rewrite and prepare for a rewrite. If you organize it, then all the sort of the right call the circle confusion of these notes, what should I do? Where's the answer? I don't know I'm doing it, you're gonna find me out. If you start to put it on paper and you start to organize it into categories, character plot, theme, scene structures, you know, just relationships, if you start to break those notes down and then address the notes that you're going to the most important for you. Oh, okay. These are the ones that start first to lay this thing out. It will get better over time, if you're willing to give yourself time which it's, it's, you know, it's the process, not the product. And that's where we're young writers have had, they want the product. And I can tell you that what was what the advantage of Gemini having seven unproduced screenplays is it became the process. We didn't believe there was a product

Alex Ferrari 1:04:24
right? Apparently our career is just gonna be writing stuff that never gets made.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:04:28
And there are guys who have as you say, you've earned a good living and never gotten a single thing made right. But are super talented writers. Absolutely talented. And there's no good reason that and my favorite script is never got produced. And it just Well, there it goes. That's just how it happened yet got close, got close and never got got done.

Alex Ferrari 1:04:47
I've read I've read script by by scripts by screenwriters that I'm like, This is awesome. This shoulder masker like this. This is amazing. This is remarkable. And there's tons of those scripts scattered on shelves and how Would from decades and decades, I remember when Billy went back and got the body guard and Unforgiven, out of the archives, and they brought it back out and look at turn into two hits, there's always these two. So it's about not only the talent, and the skill, but luck being at the right place at the right time.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:05:18
There's a lot of luck, but I also think it's staying with it. Right? Just you know, Damien Chazelle, said he had he had no the plan, you know, there's only a plan. And that's it. If you're in for it, you're in for it. Which means that you've got to be willing to dive in, do the hard work that has to be done. I also any writer listening to this, find yourself a writers group. Don't be out there. There. No matter where you are, what city you're in, there are people doing what you're, what you're doing, find them get together, give each other feedback, you're writing support group, it helps, it helps to get feedback. Secondly, you need people just to help keep you in the game. And realize that you will get stronger, the more you stay at it. And if you want to become a better writer, learn to be a rewriter because that's where you get stronger, because it teaches you how to be a better writer, because what you find out is I want to rewrite, so I'm gonna make sure I have all this shit down right from the beginning, so that I don't have to do this next time. So I'm gonna make sure my characters have a really good story. They have a really good strong one. I'm gonna make sure that I have great opposition in my story that I understand, you know, what is what is driving this movie and what the emotional stake is for the reader in the audience. I mean, those things you've got to have.

Alex Ferrari 1:06:35
Now I'm gonna ask you a few questions. I asked all my guests. What are three screenplays every screenwriter should read?

Jack Epps Jr. 1:06:41
Chinatown. Robert Towne who I basically interviewed my book, which was great talking about his rewriting process, and I think it really was because everybody's different and but Robert, it's he's really opens up and he's honest guy. It's, it's really amazing. I think that's a great script. And not on old script, but I love it is the apartment. Yep. Oh, yes. Come up a couple times here. Yeah. And I say that because to me, that script had a huge influence and Gemini because the character development, the storytelling, the emotion of it, Billy Wilder and Aiello, diamond are amazing. Just amazing screenwriters. You and I don't, it's always hard to say what is that other one? I'll tell you what's a good one to read? Okay. Read go look for the first draft of goodwill. Honey. Not not the one that got produced? Yeah, go read the first draft, or the first draft of Back to the Future? Hmm. Okay. Because what you see there are two scripts that that don't work too well, they got some real problems, especially back to future. And then you see what they ended up doing through a series of rewrites and needs. It teaches you that, that those guys you know, they didn't hit the ball of the park in the first swing? You know, they barely got the first base. And and it's it's I think the port is read scripts and didn't work. But the movies did because it shows you okay, they really work this they took the idea and and built it out. And they see what works. Oh, I see why this movie works. Now of course. Yeah. How could why were they it seems obviously to have those elements that they weren't there. And that the back the future off? You know, it is the the ending takes place. They had to get to a nuclear power plant to power the car back to get back to the future. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. So it's this whole big thing that goes through this news. There was no clock tower. But But universal said, Guys, we don't have the funds for this. We can't do this. You got to do we got to do it on the standard lot. So they looked at the clock tower, and they said, alright, well, we'll have lightning hit the clock tower. You can't imagine the movie without it. I know that but he wasn't there. And they basically, you know, they just they just were okay, here's how we made it work.

Alex Ferrari 1:09:01
And it gives us hope. When you read when you read scripts like that gives us hope as screenwriters and filmmakers. You're like, look, they look like geniuses. And they are in many ways, but they don't not everyone hits it out. Like no one comes out of the womb, and writes the great American novel or the great American screenplay. It takes work, and even the best ones. I remember Casa Blanca, they were writing it on the on the set,

Jack Epps Jr. 1:09:23
writing on the set. Absolutely.

Alex Ferrari 1:09:25
And it's one of the best screenplays ever written. And it's like they were just trying to figure it out. You know, what looks like genius to us was some some screenwriters in there going, I don't know how we're gonna get to next.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:09:37
You know, I asked Robert Towne. I said, Does it ever get easier? And he said, eff No, no, and he wrote to me is one of the great screenwriters of all time and Robert, you've written all these great things is never easy. You know, it's so I mean, and that's the truth. It is a hard thing to do. But the most important thing is, is that one you're telling a story you you're passionate about. You have characters that that have a story to life going On a crisis at the heart of your movie, and or your TV show, why do we care? What's our emotional state? What does the audience care about? Why is it important for this character to basically achieve their need at the end of the movie, what it is emotionally that they need not only just the physical thing that happened, but what does it mean to them emotionally?

Alex Ferrari 1:10:20
Now, what advice would you give a screenwriter wanting to break into the business

Jack Epps Jr. 1:10:23
today? I would say that don't be frustrated, it's going to take time that what you need to do is to read a lot of scripts, see how they work. Make sure you have a support group writers group so that you know you're getting feedback as you're going along. Know when your script is ready, that's a question I get a lot is, when do you know your script is ready? You know, because there's a thing of, I don't want to send it out, I don't want to send it out. I don't want to send it out. Eventually, you have to let it go. Which means that you're telling your story as best as you can, or the feedback you're getting from people and you do need to get feedback. Is it you know? Is it not like to the heart of the story, and then send it out, take the bumps, whatever happens and then start another one? You have to continue? It's not it's not? I've seen so many people I have this one idea. My one idea. No, no, my pitching story is so I go, you know, you try to go pitch ideas, right? So I got the pitch I want to sell. I walk in there, it's my you know, my eight minute pitch. I've got my song and dance routine of doing the whole thing and they go, what else you got? Alright, now I got my three minute pitch. Alright, here's this one. I really like this one. They go Alright, what else you got? I get my thumbnail is 20 seconds ago. I love that one. I mean, so you just don't know what is going to hit. You don't know what's gonna strike the chord. Right? But if you write from your heart, and you write from your passion that will come through as a writer, and it's got to be a good read. This is a reading process. It's got to be a good read. And again, Damien Chazelle is listening to an interview he had on on fresh air. And Robin, I think it's Robin grosses and said, Damien, you did all these sort of horror movies and all these rewrites. What did you learn from that? He said, I learned how to make them turn to the next page. Credit. Is that to me, I CIA? Holes. I got chills because I think he's a cool character. And no, he learned how to hold their attention and make them read to the end. And I thought that's just brilliant and simple and honest.

Alex Ferrari 1:12:31
That's amazing. Now what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?

Jack Epps Jr. 1:12:39
I think understanding character, understanding what character was and I had a tough stay ahead. here's the here's a story how I learned the meaning of what how to write character and what true character was. This, Andy and I had sold a Kojak and we pitched the idea of a cop who shoots his partner. And we want to get the script screenplay. So we sold the idea for it. Right? Okay, they bought the idea. So we kept going and pitching to the showrunner. Okay, here's what the show is. He goes now I don't like that we can't came back and came back. We never got the script. We didn't get it. We watched Kojak. I watched the hired somebody watch the episode. And it blew me over like like a bolt. Okay, we were pitching plot. This veteran writer wrote story of a character. And the whole episode was about this character, and about his life and about his wife who was having a drug habit. And she was chained to a bed, and he was out there and he kills a partner and his whole life is falling apart. And all we were doing was doing people chasing running around shooting is like, no, the emotional core. That's what character is. And that taught me that I needed the center of my stories to have stories about people and lives that we relate to.

Alex Ferrari 1:13:48
Yeah, and I think and I've said this many times on the show before is that you remember character, you remember Indiana Jones, you remember James Bond, you might not remember all the details of the plots of those films, but you definitely remember those characters. And that's, that's what we're not emotionally attached to plot plot is just a vehicle in my opinion, you're attached to the you're emotionally attached to character, what happens to them, if they're going to make it if they're not going to make it, they're gonna find love, they're not gonna find love, or they're gonna beat the bad guy, or they're gonna beat are they the bad guy, whatever that is. That's what you are attached

Jack Epps Jr. 1:14:21
to. But you still have to have a good plot.

Alex Ferrari 1:14:24
Again, it's a vehicle. It's a it's a vehicle because it's

Jack Epps Jr. 1:14:28
what it's what pulls us through it. But you know, and you have to have isolated you know, cool shit happens. You have to be a part of it's a piece as well, it's sort of it you know, I'm good at set pieces. I love writing set pieces. They're fun to write, I think it's one of the joys of writing action movies is creating thinking of big set pieces. And it's hard to think they're really harder to write than people would think of, because it's all been done. You know,

Alex Ferrari 1:14:49
it was a lot easier in the 50s 60s. To come up with these kinds of things.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:14:53
It's really hard to write something new and so but but if there if we don't care about that person at this center of it. It doesn't matter what happens. Um, it's not about the explosions. It's about the person in the explosions. And we're worried is he going to get out of these motions? and at what

Alex Ferrari 1:15:09
price? Right I mean, drastic Park is about dinosaurs. But we're not emotionally attached to the dinosaurs were emotionally attached to the characters and running around in that park. It's yeah, and I think sometimes I think some sometimes screenwriters get a little bit too uppity when it comes to plot. Like you were just saying with your when you were pitching Kojak.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:15:30
Yeah, yeah. Well, that's it. I mean, you have a tendency to Well, it's funny because you actually have to pitch plot, it's very hard to pitch character, because character development you but you have to have it there. And you tell it, and then you guys say, Okay, here's the story, because I'm looking for what are the events, and then how this person was woven into the story. But it's, that's that's pitching, which is a whole different game in itself.

Alex Ferrari 1:15:51
I've had many episodes about pitching just on pitching alone. And it's always tough. It's an art. It's an art form. It's an absolute art form. And last question, three of your favorite films of

Jack Epps Jr. 1:16:01
all time. Oh, three are favorite films of all time. Okay, well, we already mentioned one, which is the apartment because it just, I saw that when I was really young, and I never could forgive Fred Astaire no matter what made me Fred. About Yeah, no. Okay. All right. So and so I love that movie again. I like Chinatown for how it works and how it weaves? So isn't it? Yeah, it just is one that is, you know, you it's got a great sense of place. In the end, I'll tell you a movie that really had a huge influence on Gemini was the sting. Oh, that makes him ID that makes sense. I mean, yeah, it's because it totally kept you off guard off balance expectations. And the movie just it tricks you so many times. It was really and David S word want to wrote a wonderful script that basically I went to school on June, but we broke that script down every line every just the way it was done.

Alex Ferrari 1:16:59
And do you do you advise that to screenwriters to actually like take structure from other other screenplays and just maybe use it as inspiration to, because if it's been if it's been not storyline, but structure of like, this happens at this point, this happens at this point, and kind of start off, it's kind of like a roadmap a little bit. And it's gonna probably change obviously, as you write it. But I've seen a lot of I mean, if you look at I've said this so many times, if you look at Fast and Furious, it's Point Break, it's Point Break with cars. I mean, that's exactly the same story.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:17:27
Yeah, no, I think the danger is make copies, right? The danger is, I'm going to make a copy of something because I really liked a lot, doing homage to it, you can love it, and have a feeling and tone of it. But you got to tell your own story. And yes, you can learn how we structurally put this type of movie together what have successful movies, I mean, I I'd like to break down and understand how movies work. And and you know, what the core of the storytelling is? So yeah, I mean, absolutely. You can go in I mean, every all art is referenced from something else. But you want to make it yours. And yours is who that character is, what is the story? What's that emotional relationship going on? Because that then makes it yours. I'm not a big believer that this things have to happen on page 30. And page 40. In this sort of, I'm a big, I don't believe in that. There are there we definitely have a three act structure and culture. So as a beginning, middle and end we'd have we definitely have coming out of a first act where a character is thrown into a situation. I believe that I've learned that a mid mid term midpoint Plot Turn is really good. If you have something happened in the middle, it makes your second act easier to write because as a writer, the hardest place to write is the end of the second act. That's that's really hard, you know, easy. First acts are easy. endings are fairly easy. If you know if you set it up well, you can edit. But that big middle is really where it's hard. So you got to keep that middle moving. And that's where that's where I use relationship to keep that middle moving.

Alex Ferrari 1:18:56
But Jack, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to the tribe today and in sharing your knowledge and experience in in your screenwriting journey with us today. So thank you so much, Jack. I truly appreciate it, man.

Jack Epps Jr. 1:19:08
It's been fun. It's been fun chatting with I feel like we've been chatting for a long time. Like, I've known you for a while.

Alex Ferrari 1:19:12
Thank you my friend

Jack Epps Jr. 1:19:15
Pretty comfortable to do.

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Tony Scott: The Ultimate Guide to His Films & Career

The Director Series is at its most effective when I’m analyzing the careers of the deceased, as I can view their works in totality and make observations about the course of their full development. For the living, obviously I’m tracking developing careers that are still evolving and changing. From that perspective, I can only assess a living filmmaker’s development from that particular moment in time.

Tony Scott is the first director since I’ve started blogging to be no longer with us, so naturally he will be the first to get a specialized DEBRIEFING.

Prior to reviewing Scott’s work, I had always approached his films with a degree of caution. In all honesty, I hadn’t planned on reviewing his films at all, but the outpouring of love and respect from collaborators and industry personnel in the wake of his death made me rethink my own judgement on his standing within the art form.

The first time I saw a Scott film (2001’s SPY GAME), I wasn’t even really aware of who he was. Even when I did know who he was, I always held his work at arms-length, seeing him as an inferior, strictly commercial version of his older brother, Ridley. In fact, I had always thought that perhaps Scott always felt he was working in Ridley’s massive shadow, and could never quite get out of it in his own right.

I was wrong to assume that. Tony Scott and Ridley Scott, while brothers, are two entirely different people with entirely different interests and concepts about what a film is. As it turns out, Tony was more interested in films as thrill rides, and while that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a completely legitimate pursuit.

The course of Scott’s development as a filmmaker shows a career that started from humble, foreign beginnings, and then took off into the stratosphere of the American pop cultural landscape with the release of TOP GUN in 1986.

For the remainder of his career, he remained in those lofty heights of mainstream filmmaking, weathering the occasional heavy turbulence, and touching back to Earth slightly battered, but more or less whole. His films, while made for mass consumption, aren’t for everyone– but it can’t be denied that an overwhelming majority of his feature films were huge commercial hits.

He also accumulated his share of key collaborators– people who worked with him again and again because they admired his work ethic and the way he told stories. Producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, actors like Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, Directors of Photography like Dan Mindel and Paul Cameron, Musicians like Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer.

All of them frequently turning in their best work under Tony Scott’s direction. Scott’s choices in film weren’t driven by any particular theme or story preoccupation. Rather, he was a man inspired by the high-concept idea that promised thrilling action.

Competing fighter pilots jockeying for a place at the top of their class. A power struggle inside a nuclear-class submarine. A man left for dead and hellbent on revenge. A female bounty hunter just as tough as the boys.

A runaway train. Tony Scott was a stylist that photographed the hell out of his subjects, and as a result, he cultivated a distinct look that influenced countless young filmmakers.

Scott wasn’t content to simply limit his craft to cinema either. He dabbled in music videos, commercials, and television, and also took an active role in Ridley’s company Scott Free, where he became a producer for a variety of other projects.

In his early years, he aspired to be a painter, and he fully realized that dream by painting in light, color, action, and special effects. His canvas was a largest one of all: the silver screen.

In terms of my own impression of his work, I may not have liked a good number of his films, but I respected them. There’s a degree of intelligence at work in each of his films, which is more than I can say for counterparts like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner.

I found his work to be wildly uneven in terms of quality. For example, I think his debut film, THE HUNGER(1983) deserves a spot in the Criterion Collection.

SPY GAME is my favorite film of his, but TRUE ROMANCE (193) and MAN ON FIRE (2004) will always grapple for best film overall. DOMINO (2005) is a guilty pleasure. I wouldn’t lose a night’s sleep over the thought of never seeing THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009) again.

At the end of the day, everyone is going to see something different in his films, and if that isn’t the definition of art, I don’t know what is. Sure, he made his films in a bid to win the box office, but he made them in his own uncompromising way, and it’s clear that he loved all of his creations.

Tony Scott made the kinds of movies he loved, and had little pretensions about his work. His films may have never had the prestige of a major award or festival play, but you could always count on him to deliver a strong opening weekend. He had a remarkable knack for capturing energy on film, frequently utilizing as many as four or six cameras to capture spontaneous moments.

Some of his films, like TOP GUN, are ingrained in the public consciousness as nostalgic archetypes. And for a long while in the early 90’s, he was one of the premiere tastemakers in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. To ignore the contributions of this man on the medium would be like ignoring the influence of an entire film movement.

Scott’s films didn’t do much in the way of exposing personal aspects of the man himself. Indeed, he was very quiet about his private life in general. In that respect, the reasoning for his shocking suicide will never be known.

Reports of being diagnosed with a terminal illness turned out to be false, as did the notion that drugs might have played a part (the coroner found negligible amounts of anti-depressants in Scott’s system). By all accounts, he had a successful career, his health, and a beautiful family. He even had a full slate of exciting projects in development including TOP GUN 2 and a remake of THE WARRIORS. So why end it all?

It’s not my goal to speculate. What’s done is done, and what’s left behind is an admirable body of work that injected an explicit sense of style into mainstream filmmaking. Tony Scott has bequeathed an aesthetic legacy that pushed boundaries and gave us new ways of looking at the world. Quite a feat from a young boy in England who just wanted to be a painter.


ONE OF THE MISSING (1969)

Truth be told, when I made my long list of directors to study for the purposes of this series, Tony Scott wasn’t on it. I’d seen a small number of his films, and while I constantly found them to be entertaining, I didn’t see much of a reason to include his work for analysis. It’s funny how death can suddenly encapsulate a life’s work and make it worth study. Even the most commercial, formulaic filmmakers have something to contribute to the art of cinema.

All throughout the month of August 2012, I was preparing to cover the films of the Coen Brothers– that is, until August 19th, when Tony Scott leapt to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro. I was struck by the outpouring of grief among the film community, and of the fond remembrances of his work. His suicide was sudden and inexplicable– nobody saw it coming. Truth be told, he had been scouting locations with Tom Cruise for TOP GUN 2 only a few weeks prior.

What possessed this man, blessed with fame, fortune, family, and good health (despite his age), to end it all? I’m well aware that my own analysis of the man’s work won’t generate any answers, but perhaps in my own way I can come closer to understand the mentality of a man who loved making movies, but was doomed to always toil in the shadow of Ridley Scott, his brother and an admittedly much more skilled filmmaker.

Growing up in midcentury England, he initially had no plans to become a filmmaker at all. Instead, he went to the Royal College of Art to study painting. It wasn’t until Ridley’s success with commercials that he was coaxed into the world of filmmaking.

Tony Scott’s first directorial effort was a short film he made in 1969, titled ONE OF THE MISSING. Shot on black and white 16mm film, the story concerns a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War who sneaks up on a Union encampment, only to be trapped under a pile of falling rubble from a collapsed building. As his hopes for escape rapidly dwindle, he begins the agonizing process of summoning up the courage to commit suicide.

In his more recent career, Tony Scott would gain a reputation for highly stylized, hyperkinetic camerawork, but ONE OF THE MISSING is much more steady and level-headed in its execution. Serving as his own director of photography, Scott constructs a visual language comprised of extreme close-ups and a locked-off camera that is limited only to pans and zooms.

Despite the more straightforward visual presentation, he eschews dialogue and creates a surreal ambient sound bed out of heightened natural background noises and atmospheric dream textures. It’s slightly trippy, and sets an experimental tone for what could be a fairly straightforward narrative.

Tony Scott adeptly uses quick edits and unconventional frame compositions to jarring effect, amplifying the agony of being buried alive. While watching a man struggle under immense weight could get boring after a while, Scott ups the suspense by introducing the fact that his own gun has fallen in such a way that the barrel is pointing directly at his face, and could go off at any second.

Cutting from the soldier’s frantic eyes and to the cold, uncaring black hole of that barrel ratchets up the tension and keeps the viewer intrigued. Even with his first directing effort, Tony Scott shows a knack for generating engaging action.

ONE OF THE MISSING also contains a great cameo– just as Tony had played the titular role in Ridley Scott’s debut film BOY AND BICYCLE (1965), so does Ridley return the favor, appearing as a handsome young Confederate officer.

It’s incredibly interesting to see the filmmaker as fresh-faced young man, especially now when his general public image is that of a grizzled old man. ONE OF THE MISSING is a strong start to a rich body of work, and proves that talent runs in the family.


LOVING MEMORY (1971)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

At a scant 50 minutes, LOVING MEMORY (1971) can barely be called Tony Scott’s first feature-length film. As a quiet, pastoral character film, it’s quite the anomaly within his action-oriented canon.

The film follows an old couple in midcentury England who accidentally run over a young man on his bicycle. They proceed to take the body back to their home in the country and store it in the attic. While the husband spends his days building a mine (seemingly by himself), the wife cultivates a one-sided friendship with the carcass, telling it stories of her youth and her dreams. It’s a very creepy story that raises more questions than it answers.

Shot in Academy ratio 16mm black and white film, Tony Scott builds off the visual language that he established in his earlier short,ONE OF THE MISSING (1969). He locks off his camera on a tripod and limits his movements to pans and zooms.

He also employs a recurring visual motif, where he starts close up on a subject from an overhead angle, and then slowly zooms out to reveal them as a speck against a wider landscape. This is repeated several times throughout the movie to dramatic effect. For the firs time, Tony Scott utilizes cinematographers outside himself. With LOVING MEMORY, he employs the services of Chris Menges and John Metcalf.

On an audio level, Scott maintains a naturalistic atmosphere of heightened background noise, and whispered dialogue. Indeed, what little dialogue there is in this nearly-wordless film is barely intelligible. We have to strain to hear the words before they dissipate in the air like breath vapor on a cold day. The only music is non-diagetic, played from a creaky gramophone in the couple’s rustic house.

LOVING MEMORY is the slightest strand of a story, but it’s strangely compelling in a morbid way. Tony Scott gives us just enough visual information to create a sense of curiosity and mystery to the proceedings.

Why does this woman dress up the dead boy as a soldier? Why is this man building a massive mine all by himself? Why did they never alert the authorities as to the accident? These questions coalesce to form an incredibly enigmatic film. It’s a far cry from the types of film that Scott would very soon be making his name on.


NOUVELLES DE HENRY JAMES: L’AUTEUR DE BELTRAFFIO (1976)

In 1976, Tony Scott broke into television with an episode of the French series NOUVELLES DE HENRY JAMES. His particular episode, “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” deals with the tale of a heated in-family feud that ends in tragedy.

It’s tough to track down the full version, but the first five minutes or so are available via a French website with no subtitles. As such, it’s difficult to discern exactly what’s going on, but it does provide a few avenues in which to examine it in the context of Scott’s development.

The most notable aspect is that it appears to be the first of Tony Scott’s works filmed in color. While he would be noted later on for his extreme use of color, “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” employs an even, natural color palette. True to television screens of the day, it looks to have been shot on regular 16mm with a 4×3 aspect ratio. Lighting is also naturalistic, yet with high contrast.

Tony Scott also utilizes a locked-off camera limited to quick pans and zooms, but rarely moves the camera around the subject of the frame. He also uses immersive sound effects to realistically place the audience in the aural landscape of his pastoral imagery.

I can only imagine where the narrative goes from here– the synopsis makes it sound as if it gets pretty juicy as it goes on, but the selection I viewed was pretty low-key energy-wise, and a more than a little dull. Chalk it up to generational and cultural differences. Tony Scott would later make television a significant portion of his career, and “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” represents the first step down that path.


THE HUNGER (1983)

As his breakout debut feature, 1983’s THE HUNGER finds Tony Scott establishing his personal style. Being somewhat of a box-office disappointment upon its release, THE HUNGER has since achieved cult status for its incredibly unique and stylish depiction of vampires. While it is very much a product of its time, the film manages to feel fresh and daring, especially when compared to the neutered vampires found in today’s cultural landscape.

Personally speaking, I hate the over-saturation of vampires in pop culture almost as much as I do zombies. THE HUNGER, however, makes up for it by eschewing the cliched vampire tropes while cooking up entirely new ones. Almost a decade before Ann Rice’s leather-clad goth vampires glam-ed it up on screen, Scott presents his vampires as androgynous, highbrow creatures of grace, elegance and taste.

There are no fangs to be found here– instead, they siphon the blood from their victims by making an incision with a tiny blade that they wear as necklaces. They can go out in daylight, and can even appear in mirrors. In a nod to traditional lore, they do sleep in coffins– but only as a final resting place, just like the rest of us.

THE HUNGER concerns an ageless vampire couple, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), and John (David Bowie), who haunt the hippest punk/goth clubs and drink their victims’ blood to stay young forever.

One day, however, John begins aging rapidly, and by nightfall he is a decrepit old man. No amount of blood will restore his youth. In his desperation, he reaches out to an anti-aging researcher, Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon). As Sarah becomes more involved in her investigation of John, her young, nubile body is seen by Miriam as John’s successor.

The storyline could easily be pulpy genre fare, but Tony Scott fashions a tone ripped straight out of the pages of Vogue. The performances are compelling, especially Bowie, who is perfectly cast as a supernatural, androgynous vampire.

Deneuve works well as the seductive Miriam, and gradually reveals more depth and malice as her storyline progresses. The most surprising performance was Sarandon, who fully embraces the lesbian overtones of her relationship with Miriam in order to become the agent of her demise.

She uses her natural intelligence effectively in her depiction of a curious researcher on the verge of a great discovery. Scott’s older brother, Ridley, would use Sarandon to great effect almost a decade later in THELMA & LOUISE (1991), but Tony gets first crack at her and allows her to generate one of her most iconic performances.

Scott worked with Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt to establish a unique look for the film, and he would later incorporate many aspects of this look into his overall personal style. In a striking contrast to his earlier, low-key work, Tony Scott shoots on anamorphic 35mm film, thereby allowing the film stock’s deep contrast to create striking backlit silhouettes.

The picture is dark, very dark– most of the lighting comes from background sources like blown-out windows. Scott uses the recurring motif of billowing curtains as an effective framing device, especially in the film’s climatic scene where the obscuring of certain figures in the frame becomes crucial. In a bid to reflect the cold nature of his vampires, Scott gives the film a steely blue color palette– offset by the use of bold reds (like the blood or a woman’s lipstick) to punch through the gloom.

His camera-work is low-key for the most part, choosing to stay bound to a tripod and limited to zooms and pans. However, he makes up for it in stylish, experimental editing (especially in the opening credits).

He also uses music effectively, creating a striking juxtaposition between classical music, original music by Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini, and punk songs. For instance, the film opens with the Bauhaus track, “Bela Lugosi Is Dead”. It’s the perfect choice to illustrate that these vampires are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

At the same time, Tony Scott uses well-known classical music to score a majority of the film, as a reflection of the vampires’ elegance. One particular moment that stands out is the use of classical music during a lesbian sex scene. A lesser director would’ve embraced the grindhouse, exploitative nature of that story development, but Scott’s take elevates it to high art.

This was my first time seeing THE HUNGER, and I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would. Tony Scott’s mainstream debut is as solid as anything his older brother Ridley did during that time period, and sets the stage for a long, successful career.


SAAB- NOTHING ON EARTH COMES CLOSE (1984)

While Tony Scott’s first credited commercial is for DIM Underwear in 1979, his epic spot for Saab is his first publicly available commercial work (as far as I’m aware). It’s notable mainly for the fact that it would later secure him the job of director for 1986’s TOP GUN. That said, there’s some striking elements that would later find their way into the feature film.

As his slick visuals are highly suited towards commercial work, it’s no surprise that Scott is behind some of the most iconic commercials of all time. After his work on THE HUNGER (1983), Saab contracted Tony Scott to direct their “NOTHING ON EARTH COMES CLOSE” spot. The concept is very simple: the utilization of a series of parallel cuts that favorably compare a Saab car to the sleek lines and powerful performance of a fighter jet.

Atmospheric visuals, slow-motion walking, aviator shades, the fetishization of a plane’s elegantly sculpted steel…. all the hallmarks later found in TOP GUN are present here. What is interesting is the dreary weather present— one would think that Tony Scott would have sprung for dramatic sunset shots on a clear day.

Whether intentional or an inevitable occurrence on the day of the shoot, the overcast weather doesn’t put a damper on the spot’s high-soaring spirits.

As most commercial work inevitably becomes, the spot comes off as incredibly dated and even a little cheesy. That’s to be expected. If anything, the spot captures a certain mid-80’s zeitgeist, and is an intriguing preview of the career-making film that Scott would soon embark on making.
“Nothing On Earth Comes Close” is available in its entirety via YouTube.


TOP GUN (1986)

Academy Award Wins: Best Music (Original Song)
Inducted into the National Film Registry- 2015

Tony Scott’s second major feature film, 1986’s TOP GUN, tends to be a watershed moment for people my age. It’s endlessly quoted, parodied, and adored by guys at my reading level (almost exclusively of a certain frathouse persuasion). Even a class retreat at my high school had a TOP GUN theme, so it’s surprising to most people that I had never seen the film until only a few weeks ago.

Seeing it for the first time as a grown man, almost thirty years after it’s release, I was hard pressed to get as jazzed about it my contemporaries have been. Basically, it’s goofy as shit. It’s undeniably cheesy and dated, but it manages to capture a certain zeitgeist of 1980’s pop culture. It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience– the aerial photography is still pretty thrilling after all these years, but I was rolling my eyes during a majority of the running time.

In the context of Scott’s career, TOP GUN is the film that made him a mainstream and sought-after director. It catapulted him into the level of success that his brother Ridley was enjoying, and firmly established a style that he would utilize throughout the rest of his career. It was also his first collaboration with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two powerhouse producers whose films would come to define an era of high concept blockbusters.

Maverick. Goose. Iceman. We all know the players, and we all know the story, so I’m not going to waste time recapping the plot. Tom Cruise delivers a breakout performance as Maverick, utilizing his boyish charm and cocksure swagger to great effect.

A slim Val Kilmer is the primary antagonist of the film, but ultimately is forced to swallow his pride when a larger threat to national security looms. Tom Skerritt and Kelly McGillis are memorable in their respective roles, and even Meg Ryan shows up as Goose’s wife-turned-widow. Nothing groundbreaking here, but everyone gives their best with what they got.

Visually, TOP GUN is a striking departure from Scott’s previous feature THE HUNGER. For one, it’s shot on the Anamorphic aspect ratio, creating wider vistas and more cinematic compositions. Contrast is high and colors are super-saturated, favoring the warm orange hues of southern California. Acting as the director of photography, Jeffrey Kimball imbues the film with a glossy, epic feel while keeping the camera steady and locked-off, favoring composition and music-video edits rather than actual camera movement. The aerial dogfight photography is admittedly where TOP GUN excels– it’s gorgeous to behold, even now in our post-IMAX world. Since the cameras are mounted to the actual fighter jets, you get the feeling of being there in the action and soaring across the clouds.

Another stylistic element that became Tony Scott’s trademark is firmly established here, having previously been explored in THE HUNGER. Much of the interior action takes place in rooms that are backlit by intense, washed-out daylight screaming through the windows.

There’s almost always a framing device, like a billowing curtain or more consistently, venetian blinds. In that sense, Scott seems to be borrowing a page from the production and lighting design of his brother Ridley’s BLADE RUNNER (1982). It’s actually pretty distracting when you notice how often it shows up in his films.

A second visual motif is Scott’s use of dramatic, magic-hour skies. He adds a lens filter to the camera to make the heavens a deep red while maintaining the normal daylight colors in the bottom half of the frame. It’s become a visual cliche by now– slow motion shots featuring men of action doing their work while backlit by a setting sun– but Scott truly owns it.

Other parts of the movie don’t age so sell. Specifically, the music. Scored by Harold Faltermeyer, it certainly exudes an unmistakable mid-80’s feel, but I just can’t get over how goofy it is. It’s just inherently silly.

Kenny Loggins’ “Highway To The Danger Zone” shows up three times, and the cheesy, crunchy guitar riffing doesn’t help any aspirations to timelessness. (Same goes with the recurring love theme, “Take My Breath Away”). It’s fun to be sure, but it definitely didn’t make me want to go hop in a fighter jet and shoot me some commies.

More than enough has been said of the blatant homoerotic undertones of the film– it’s so prominent that I suspect that it was Tony Scott’s intention all along to make the film really about the strange fetishization of masculinity the military fosters. We all know about the beach volleyball sequence, the moments of rivalry between Maverick and Iceman where their faces are so close that they could kiss, etc.

What’s more interesting to me is how it’s almost a perfect crystallization of a bygone era, or of a very specific moment of time in American history.

TOP GUN was released at the height of Ronald Reagan’s administration, and it wears that influence on its jumpsuit sleeve. The film illustrates the excess of a superpower who’s largely unequaled. They have the biggest, baddest toys that money can buy, and they fly them with wild abandon because..why not?

There’s always another one waiting in the wings! Hell, they even wear aviator sunglasses at night. Everyone in this film in convinced of their awesomeness and supremacy over everyone else. It’s an incredibly Reagan-era mindset, right down to the nameless communist country they end up fighting at the film’s climax.

Ultimately, TOP GUN is just a very, very silly film disguised as a serious blockbuster. Despite my own opinion, I can’t discredit it’s influence on pop culture and, even, modern filmmaking. It’s the film that put Tony Scott on the map and Tom Cruise in our hearts, so that has to count for something. There was even talk of a sequel in recent years, but with Tony Scott’s recent suicide, it’s uncertain how that will pan out.


KENNY LOGGINS- HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE (1986)

What would a mid-80’s blockbuster film be without an accompanying music video for its breakout soundtrack hit? We certainly wouldn’t have this little gem for Kenny Loggins’ “HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE”, would we?

This music video was crafted entirely as a marketing tool for Tony Scott’s feature film TOP GUN (1986). It’s notable in that Scott himself also directed the music video, most likely when they had some leftover film and time to kill after wrapping early on the last day.

“HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE” falls into the most tired trope of music videos for motion picture music. It alternates between footage/B-roll from the film, and a mullet-ed, dead-eyed Kenny Loggins while he mouths the lyrics and gropes at himself like a total weirdo. Oh, and hey, there’s the aviator shades they wear in the movie, too!

The only dead giveaway that this is Scott’s work is in the way that the blown-out daylight is filtering in from the venetian blinds. It strives to match the color tone and look of TOP GUN, despite being shot on the 4:3 aspect ratio intended for television.

It might have seemed cool back in the day, but it’s the heights of cheese today, so it’s really hard for me to take it seriously and judge it on artistic merit. Ultimately it just seems like an afterthought and barely represents even a blip of development in Scott’s overall career.


GEORGE MICHAEL- ONE MORE TRY (1987)

George Michael was a huge star in the late 80’s, and it only made sense that a director of equal stature should direct the music video for his single “ONE MORE TRY”. Those duties fell to the capable hands of Tony Scott, fresh off his blockbuster success with 1986’s TOP GUN.
Shot on the 4:3 aspect ratio intended for television, the look of the music video bears Scott’s unmistakeable fingerprint.

In a tone that evoke his gothic debut feature THE HUNGER, Scott films George Michael mainly in silhouette against blown-out daylight. Everything is draped in a colorless patina, with a cold, blue tone. All the furniture is covered in sheets, and the windows are dressed with billowing curtains. It’s so quintessentially Tony Scott that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a little bit.

What’s most interesting about the video is the camerawork, or rather, the lack of it. Scott frames a majority of the video in a wide, static full-body shot that’s held for two minutes before cutting away to a closeup. He uses said extreme close-up of George Michael’s too-perfectly manicured beard sparingly, and is quick to cut back out to the wide shot.

This was a time when music videos as a medium were still being figured out, and what the proper format should be. The idea of “music video editing” hadn’t quite come into play, so many music videos (this one included) were content to simply be moody performance pieces. It’s a technique that serves to put more emphasis on the song and its lyrics, as well as the performer, rather than any flashy techniques.

Ultimately, it’s a very low investment in terms of Tony Scott’s involvement; it most likely was a one day shoot that pocketed Scott a few thousand bucks without having to work too hard. It’s barely a blip in terms of his personal development, but it serves as further validation of his cache within pop culture.


BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987)

Tony Scott followed TOP GUN’s (1986) mega success with a big-budget sequel to one of the biggest film franchises of the 1980’s. BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987) features Eddie Murphy at the top of his game– a bittersweet sensation considering how dismal his career has become. Proving that Scott had the chops to handle a huge franchise film, the movie builds on his penchant for slick action and stylish visuals, while also delivering a heavy dose of humor throughout.

I haven’t seen any of the other BEVERLY HILLS COP films, so I had a fair amount of catch-up to play in regards to figuring out who these characters were. Murphy is the wise-cracking, fast-talking Axel Foley (a zeitgeist 80’s name if I ever heard one), who’s tendency to shoot off his mouth rather than his gun gets him into a fair amount of trouble.

Presumably, he returns to his native Detroit after whatever happens in the first film, where he is called back to LA’s sunny streets when his friends at the Beverly Hills police force run afoul of a nefarious crime syndicate.

An effective comedy relies on strong performances, and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 certainly delivers. This younger, edgier Murphy is infinitely more watchable than today’s hollow incarnation. 80’s comedy personalities Paul Reiser and Judge Reinhold presumably reprise their characters from the first film. Reinhold’s character was my personal favorite– an uptight, whitebread guy who becomes loosened up throughout the case and finally lets himself have some fun.

I got the biggest kick, however, from all the celebrity cameos throughout. Chris Rock shows up as a valet at the Playboy mansion, long before anyone knew his face or name. Hugh Hefner shows up too, looking a spry 25 years younger than what I’m personally used to seeing.

Gilbert Gottfried even shows up, using his unmistakeable screech of a voice to great effect as a smarmy lawyer. Celebrity cameos in general tend to be a cheap gimmick, but Tony Scott uses them to solid effect here and keeps our attention from flagging.

Despite it being somewhat of a broad action comedy (and a sequel warranting a look similar to its predecessor), Scott utilizes all the hallmarks of his trademark style here. Lensed in the Academy aspect ratio by TOP GUN’s Director of Photography Jeffrey Kimball, the picture is quintessentially Scott: high contrast, with saturated (yet naturalistic) colors favoring warm orange tones when in Los Angeles, and cold blue tones when in Detroit.

Lighting is also supplemented by bursts of neon and that old standby: overblown light filtering in through venetian blinds. He also retains his affectation for dramatic, orange skies. It’s a good fit for the subject matter, and the sunny climes of southern California.

Other visual tricks include mounting cameras to moving vehicles, like Foley’s sports car. It comes off as a ground-based interpretation of the epic camera-mounted shots of fighter jets in TOP GUN. The camerawork is steady and mostly stationary. Again, he relies on cuts and composition to tell the story, rather than relying on moving the camera.

Tony Scott retains the services of TOP GUN’s composer, Harold Faltermayer, who creates a synth-y electronic score that reprises the iconic BEVERLY HILLS COP theme song (admit it, you’re humming it along in your head right now).

Tony Scott also peppers the soundtrack with popular contemporary rock songs– which means that twenty five years after its release, it now just sounds incredibly dated and silly. However, the film is clearly a product of its time, so the music is congruent with all the other outdated elements.

All in all, the film is consistent with the then-burgeoning Simpson/Bruckheimer brand. It’s a mass market release that deals in the heights of 1980’s escapism- fast cars, big sunglasses, tropical locales, high-riding bikinis, and long hair. It’s notable as Tony Scott’s first overt comedy, albeit wrapped up in action that’s more along his wheelhouse.

It would be entirely disposable entertainment if not for the BEVERLY HILLS COP brand (which has no cultural cache with me personally, but certainly does for a large swath of the population). If anything, the success of BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 proved that Scott’s success withTOP GUN was no fluke– he was one of the top mainstream Hollywood directors of his time, and he was there to stay.


DAYS OF THUNDER (1990)

As Tony Scott’s first major work of the 1990’s, DAYS OF THUNDER is obviously trying to recapture past TOP GUN (1986) glory by swapping fighter jets with race cars. That said, it’s not nearly as cheesy as its predecessor, but recycles many of the same style elements and story tropes. As a result, the reheated leftovers can’t quite amount to the undeniable cultural impact of Maverick and Goose.

In the beginning of the 90’s, the producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer had a near-monopoly on the highest-grossing American studio films. They developed a certain gung-ho, patriotic style that utilized huge budgets to deliver super-sized thrills.

They shepherded an entire generation of action directors, from Michael Bay to Simon West– but Scott is arguably the finest director in their stable. With DAYS OF THUNDER, Scott again works with these producing powerhouses to score another box office hit.

Tony Scott re-teams with Tom Cruise, who headlines the film as Cole Trickle: a young hotshot race car driver whose supreme confidence is shaken when he’s involved in a traumatic accident on the job. The characters of Maverick and Cole are essentially the same– the key difference being the length of Cruise’s hair.

Robert Duvall is incredibly effective and believable as the blue collar, Southern-drawled farmer/car engineer who’s lured back into racing and becomes Cole’s mentor. A young Nicole Kidman is the love interest, but updated with a 90’s twist.

Keeping in tradition with Kelly McGillis’ whip smart flight instructor in TOP GUN, Kidman plays an equally whip smart doctor who is strongly resistant to Cruise’s charms.

It’s also interesting that she seems to be using her natural Aussie accent here, instead of going for the expected American one. Kidman would later go on to become Cruise’s real-life wife for a spell, as well as his on-screen one in Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999).

The supporting cast is filled out with strong character actors like Randy Quaid and John C Reilly. Knowing how Quaid has somewhat spiraled out of mental health in recent years, it’s really interesting to see him here as a cleaned-up, slick shark of a businessman. I didn’t know he had that kind of range.

It being a new decade and all, Tony Scott switches up his team of collaborators behind the camera, but still achieves a look that’s consistent with his past work.

Ward Russell serves as the Director of Photography, and ably accommodates Scott’s fondness for high contrast, warm color tones, dramatic orange skies, and an epic-feeling Anarmorphic aspect ratio (not to mention that damn daylight through the blinds!).

The camerawork is low-key, choosing to stay locked-off and compositional rather than flashy for a majority of the story. The pace of editing and placement of the camera ramps up substantially, however, during the film’s racing scenes.

Mounting the camera to the cars like he did to the jets in TOP GUN, Scott ably puts the audience right there on the track and gives off a strong sense of speed.

The story is, unfortunately, almost a note-for-note rehash of TOP GUN. It’s not as strong or compelling as its predecessor, and the love story is stale and formulaic, but Scott creates a few memorable sequences.

One of my favorites was a wheelchair-bound racing scene through a hospital corridor. It goes to show the intense competitive spirit inherent in these young men and why their profession is everything to them. It’s a lighthearted moment, to be sure, but it’s also a great insight into the characters’ psyche.

DAYS OF THUNDER marks Tony Scott’s first collaboration with Hans Zimmer, who has since become one of the most sought-after composers in today’s filmmaking scene. Zimmer crafts an electronic, synth-y score that strives for the pop zeitgeist thatTOP GUN’s score achieved.

With the 80’s firmly in the past, and grunge rock planting its roots in dank Pacific Northwestern basements, the soundtrack must’ve sounded a little cheesy even back then. Today, it’s another goofy element that dates what could otherwise be a timeless film.

This was my first time seeing DAYS OF THUNDER, and perhaps it was the outdated DVD transfer, but I had a hard time connecting with it— if even for the fact that it was a rehash of a story I already didn’t connect to in TOP GUN. That being said, I can’t argue against its solid box office success and standing in 90’s pop culture. It’s another notch in Scott’s belt of bonafide action successes.

It was around this point that Tony Scott was crystallizing his “brand” as a helmer of big-budget, big-star-name action vehicles. It’s a decidedly different tack from what his brother Ridley ended up taking, but by focusing his craft on this particular frequency of the cinematic spectrum, his natural talents allow him to turn otherwise-disposable entertainment into enduring fan favorites.


REVENGE (1990)

The year 1990 saw the release of two feature films from Tony Scott. The first, DAYS OF THUNDER, was met with significant box office success, but his far stronger effort that year was REVENGE. It’s a much smaller, moodier film, but Scott still imbues it with his unique sense of style and edginess.

It’s not a great film by any means, and it certainly hasn’t earned quite the cache that his bigger movies have, but with REVENGE, Scott shows he’s at home with small thrillers as much as he is big action spectacle.

REVENGE is the story of Michael “Jay” Cochran (Kevin Costner), an ex-Navy fighter pilot who spends his first few weeks of retirement in Mexico under the hospitality of a wealthy Mexican businessman and close friend, Tiburon Mendez.

When he finds himself falling for Mendez’ beautiful wife, Miryea, he goes against his own personal convictions to begin an affair with her. Their romance meets a tragic end when Mendez discovers the affair and attacks them. Left for dead, Cochran is resolved to track down Miryea, who’s been sold into prostitution, as well as take revenge on Mendez himself.

REVENGE deals in extremely murky morals, which I found to be quite refreshing. Costner is first presented as a principle, rather vanilla guy who loves his dog and his country. He at first resists Miryea’s advances, but then quickly (and uncharacteristically) gives in to his lust.

In doing so, he betrays his good friend and Miryea’s husband, yet we’re still expected to sympathize with him. When the time comes for him to hunt Mendez down in revenge for nearly killing him, it creates conflicted feelings for the audience– why are we rooting for a guy to get revenge when he was the one who did the wrong in the first place?

This strange dynamic is tempered by an antagonist who is only lashing out because an unspeakable wrong was originally done to him. Anthony Quinn plays Mendez as a sophisticated, Mexican gentleman of wealth and loyalty.

Sure, he’s got a history of being unhinged and is seen to go a little bit too far in his business dealings (assassinating business associates and going completely apeshit on Cochran’s countryside cabin), but throughout it all he’s a man who values integrity and respect.

Those are his operating principles, and it makes him a sympathetic villain while also maintaining the sympathy of Cochran. It all reads as an inevitable collision of two runaway trains.

Madeline Stowe is effective as Miryea, Mendez’ wife and Cochran’s lover. It’s tragic to see the consequences of her actions unfold. I was only recently made aware of Stowe as an actress, previously seeing her for the first time in Michael Mann’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992).

I was definitely more impressed with her tragic performance in REVENGE. The rest of the cast is filled out with actors I don’t particularly recognize, although John Leguizamo makes a baby-faced appearance in one of his earliest film roles here.

Behind the camera, Scott re-teams with Jeffrey Kimball, who again serves as Director of Photography.

Together, they replicate Tony Scott’s trademark look: high contrast, dramatic skies, and extremely saturated colors skewed towards the orange spectrum. With REVENGE, however, Scott starts experimenting with drastic coloring– a style he would adopt fully in his later 2000’s features. He paints the Mexican landscape and searing heat in an unrelenting, aggressive orange tint.

The camera-work follows suit with his previous films– low-key and languorous (with the exception of the action sequences). Other Tony Scott fingerprints include the use of intense light streaming through curtains and venetian blinds and a fighter jet sequence that recalls the action of TOP GUN (1986).

Jack Nitzsche provides a forgettable soundtrack, but from what I remember of it, it sustained the tone of the picture without intruding on it.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would. It’s a surprisingly erotic thriller that finds Scott getting down and dirty to deliver a lean, mean piece of pulp entertainment. It’s stature has grown in recent years, and is arguably better than DAYS OF THUNDER, his mainstream contribution that year. I just can’t believe they killed the dog. That’s gutsy, man.


THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991)

By the early 1990’s, Tony Scott had cemented his status as Hollywood’s premier action director. He became the brawn, as opposed to his brother Ridley’s brain. It was inevitable that, at some point, he would cross paths with another burgeoning writer/director well-versed in the genre, Shane Black (of LETHAL WEAPON fame). The combination of Scott’s affinity for high octane action, and Black’s acerbic, dark humor resulted in 1991’s THE LAST BOY SCOUT.

The film is the quintessential 90’s action movie, laced with the cynicism prevalent throughout much of that decade. As produced by Joel Silver, it carries a Bruckheimer/Simpson-lite aesthetic that was the stock-and-trade of late 80’s/early 90’s mainstream filmmaking.

Bruce Willis stars as a burnt-out detective who’s so burnt-out, he can’t even muster up the slightest sense of indignation when he catches his wife cheating. Damon Wayans, at the height of his IN LIVING COLOR fame, is a disgraced NFL player who teams up with Willis when they uncover a conspiracy involving professional sports that extends all the way to the government.

Willis doesn’t show a lot of range in his bread-and-butter action hero roles, mumbling his way through his performance and carrying a large chip on his shoulder. Wayans is grounded enough that his comedic sensibilities don’t ring as cartoonish or out of place with the tone of the piece. Despite their grizzled, devil-may-care attitudes, they clearly relish the chance to chew on writer (and Executive Producer) Shane Black’s witty dialogue.

The supporting roles provide a good amount of the comedic relief, while still letting them be taken seriously. Halle Berry shows up, years before she ever became a superstar, as Wayans’ stripper girlfriend– whose murder kicks the entire plot into gear. Also making a brief appearance is the ever-likeable Bruce McGill, on loan from Michael Mann.

This was my first time seeing THE LAST BOY SCOUT, so its outdated-ness was immediately apparent to me. Part of the problem of being a filmmaker who focuses on being trendy and stylish is that his/her work more often than not looks ridiculous twenty, even ten years on.

Compared to Tony Scott’s other pieces, however, this film stands up mostly well. Scott re-teams with DAYS OF THUNDER cinematographer Ward Russell to recreate his signature filmic look.

Shot on 35mm in the Anamorphic ratio, the film image is high in contrast and deals heavily in warm, orange tones. The presence of neon and blown-out light filtering through venetian blinds reassures us that we are in Scott’s capable hands. A thin haze of smoke seems to permeate each scene, even in the interiors– perhaps as a nod to the smog-choked environs of Los Angeles, the film’s setting.

Michael Kamen provides the score, despite the rumor that he apparently hated the film when he first saw it. The IMDB trivia section cites Kamen’s involvement as a favor to Silver and Willis. As a result, it’s pretty unremarkable and utilitarian. However, the film’s sound mix should be noted for being incredibly immersive.

The film is pure pop escapism– it’s shot as a big, loud, and brassy moviegoing experience. The action is actually entertaining and unpredictably funny, despite its brutality. For instance, the film opens up during a football game amidst heavy rain (classic Tony Scott move, by the way).

As a player runs with the ball towards the goal, he whips out a concealed gun and proceeds to coldly shoot anyone who tries to tackle him. It’s so absurd I couldn’t help but laugh, but I can’t also deny that the sheer audacity on display shocked me a little bit.

It’s the kind of sequence that could only work in the opening of a film, and not at any other point. (Disguising a gun within a hand puppet is also a standout sequence.)

I was also surprised at how morally murky the protagonists were. They had no qualms about casually murdering their opponents and leaving a messy crime scene. Some of these murders are even committed, albeit in quasi self-defense, in broad daylight with a huge number of witnesses. How did they not inflict the full wrath of the LAPD upon themselves?

It’s utterly unbelievable, but mainstream Hollywood films of the 90’s didn’t care about believability. It was about tough guys, tougher villains, and explosions. We still haven’t broken out of the cycle yet, and I don’t expect that we will anytime soon.

In terms of Tony Scott’s development, he’s working well within his wheelhouse, and doesn’t seem to be really challenging himself here. I wouldn’t say that it’s strictly a grab for a big payday, but he’s definitely treading water. THE LAST BOY SCOUT was a huge hit at the box office, so in that regards, it boosted him ever higher into the echelon of Hollywood’s most bankable directors.


TRUE ROMANCE (1993)

Tony Scott created his strongest works whenever he paired with an equally gifted screenwriter. Having found a large degree of success from his collaboration with Shane Black in THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991), Scott’s next project would stem from the mind of 90’s break-out wunderkind, Quentin Tarantino– arguably one of the most original, dynamic, and controversial voices in cinema to this day. The result was 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE, a Generation X take on the “lovers on the lam” film done so eloquently before with Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE (1967) and Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973).

TRUE ROMANCE is one of Scott’s most seminal films, and with good reason. Tarantino’s referential, witty dialogue meshes well with Scott’s aesthetic, and the cast is compelled to deliver some career-best performances.

Despite being nearly twenty years old, it hasn’t aged a day. Tony Scott foregoes a flashy, stylish look for something more subdued, subtle and timeless. It’s clear that BADLANDS is a huge influence on the film, and indeed, TRUE ROMANCE almost plays out like a grunge perversion of the same story.

TRUE ROMANCE is a simple story about a boy meeting a girl. However, it just so happens that the boy is an aimless slacker (whose internal monologue with himself takes the external form of hallucinating Elvis) and the girl is a prostitute. Clarence (Christian Slater) spends a magical night with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a woman he met in a movie theatre (because where else would a Tarantino romance start?).

When she reveals to him that she is a prostitute, he offers to free her from the grip of her slimy pimp so they can be together. To make a long story short: Clarence’s meeting with the pimp (Gary Oldman) goes horribly wrong, he kills the pimp and steals a briefcase of coke, and the lovers flee to Los Angeles with the coke’s mafioso owners in hot pursuit.

As a general observation, actors love working with Tarantino’s dialogue, and it’s certainly evident here. Christian Slater, who frankly has never been better than he is in TRUE ROMANCE, is likeable and sweet, despite his scruffy appearance, cheap sunglasses, and propensity for violence.

As Alabama, Patricia Arquette is sweet and virginal, while fully aware of her sexuality. She’s a smart cookie trapped in a bimbo’s body. Together, they have incredible chemistry that singes the edges of the frame. It’s very clear that Tarantino meant for TRUE ROMANCE to be a modern update of the “lovers on the run” films he grew up with, and the characterization of these two lovers bears his umistakeable stamp.

The supporting characters are equally as strong. As Alabama’s pimp, Gary Oldman is utterly unrecognizable behind rasta dreadlocks and metal teeth. It’s a shocking performance, considering how fresh his take on Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY is our collective consciousness.

Samuel L. Jackson shows up in one scene as well, biting it fairly early on. As Clarence’s cop father, Dennis Hopper is a welcome presence. He’s a straight arrow, an exhausted part of the establishment. As a blue collar, middle-aged man, his performance is a far cry from his career-making role in the rebellious EASY RIDER (1969).

It’s a brief appearance, but he brings an incredible amount of depth to his role, and accomplishes arguably the finest performance in the film.

Michael Rapaport, who never truly established mainstream success outside of television, plays Clarence’s actor friend in Los Angeles, and finds himself as the fulcrum on which the action of the second half swings.

Christopher Walken makes a one-scene cameo as the drug lord who’s cocaine has been stolen. His interrogation of Hopper is one of the most famous dialogues in film history, and he burns the screen with a menace that hasn’t been equalled in his performances since.

The future Tony Soprano– a fit and trim James Gandolfini– appears as Walken’s right-hand man who follows the lovers to Los Angeles. Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore also show up as a pair of tough, wisecracking LA detectives who find themselves way in over their heads at the film’s climax. And last but not least, Brad Pitt shows up in the minor, yet incredibly memorable role of Floyd.

As Michael Rapaport’s character’s stoner roommate, the young Pitt is hilarious and incredibly believable. Having made his feature film debut in Ridley Scott’s THELMA & LOUISE only two years earlier, Pitt is able to squeeze in a career performance (making the most of minimal material) for the younger Tony Scott brother.

I had seen TRUE ROMANCE once before in college, and enjoyed it. Watching it again, and having since seen Malick’s BADLANDS, the similarities were impossible to ignore. Tarantino has built a career out of paying homage to his influences, but TRUE ROMANCE is just different enough from BADLANDS to barely escape plagiarism.

For instance, the score, composed by Hans Zimmer, sounds almost exactly like the theme for BADLANDS. It uses the same instrumentation and tempo, but the notes are inverted, as if this film were BADLANDS’ mirror opposite. The film also opens with a voiceover spoken by Arquette, which apes the manner of speaking heard in Sissy Spacek’s voiceover.

Instead of idyllic midcentury suburban images of Americana, the voiceover is played out over a contemporary, post-industrial Detroit whose buildings are rapidly crumbling from neglect and abandonment.

Despite the similar storyline, Tony Scott imbues the film with enough of his signature that it stands strongly on its own two legs. Re-teaming with cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball, Scott brands the frame with his particular aesthetic: Anamorphic aspect ratio, high contrast, deep saturation, dramatic skies, overblown light through venetian blinds, and a color balance favoring warm orange tones (even in the cold Detroit environments).

Camerawork is similar to Tony Scott’s work of the era, with a locked-off camera limited to pans, zooms, and dollies in terms of movement.

As an LA resident, it’s fun to catch all the little easter eggs in regards to where the film is shot. For instance, the Detroit theatre where Clarence and Alabama meet is the Vista Theatre, a small arthouse cinema near my apartment in Silverlake.

The Safari Inn in Burbank serves as the seedy motel where the lovers shack up when they arrive in LA. But interestingly enough, the geography of the film insinuates that its located off of Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, not out in the Valley.

Once in a while, lightning strikes, and all the elements come together to create a truly memorable film. With incredible performances, sharp writing from a voice that became the zeitgeist of 90’s pop culture, and stylish, effective direction, TRUE ROMANCE deserves its place in Tony Scott’s canon as one of his best works.


CRIMSON TIDE (1995)

By 1995, the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer brand of movies had become firmly ensconced within the American film industry. These films were heavily patriotic, bombastic, and flashy– but more often than not, had skillfully told stories at their centers.

In 1995, Tony Scott again collaborated with these producing titans to create CRIMSON TIDE, an action film about the struggle of power in a nuclear-armed submarine. In the grand picture of Scott’s filmography, I would consider it a minor work– however, it’s an exciting, well-crafted story about male power struggles in a time of conflict.

And most notably, for our purposes here, CRIMSON TIDE marks the first movement in a major stylistic shift that would Tony Scott would adopt for the remainder of his work.

By the mid 90’s, the Cold War was history, but the lingering residue continued to fuel the entertainment industry like it had in the decades prior. CRIMSON TIDE tells the story of Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), the commander of a nuclear missile submarine.

He subscribes to a simple mantra: there are three truly powerful men in the world: The US President, the President of Russia, and the Commander of a US nuclear submarine. Naturally, this is going to be a story about the struggle of power.

The opposition comes in the form of Ramsey’s new XO, Lt. Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington, in the first of many collaborations with Scott). When a transmission implying the launch of Russian nuclear missiles is cut off during an attack on their submarine, Hunter and Ramsey spar over whether to initiate a missile response when there’s a reasonable doubt over the transmissions’ accuracy.

The performances in this film are full of pure testosterone. In fact, I don’t recall a single female in the entire cast. Hackman and Washington are captivating as the two leads, whose opposing ideologies (guts vs. reason, action vs. caution) provide enough fodder to pad out the film’s running time without losing our attention.

Viggo Mortenson (who would later go on to star in 1999’s G.I. JANE for Scott’s brother, Ridley) plays the officer unfortunately caught between his loyalty to his friend and to his commander. Tony Scott also utilizes TRUE ROMANCE’s James Gandolfini as Hackman’s thuggish enforcer. There’s a lot of bravado, angry barking, and swearing between these men, but the claustrophobic confines of the sub and the life-or-death stakes of their actions makes it riveting instead of grating.

I had never seen CRIMSON TIDE before, and truth be told, I would frequently confuse it with THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (they’re both submarine movies with shades of red in their titles, get off my back!). Now that my ocular organs have ingested it, I’m sure it’ll be much harder to get the two confused.

Since the film is seventeen years old, I expected it to be a little dated (especially because the Cold War hasn’t been relevant for about half of my lifetime), but I was surprised to see how well it holds up on a technical level.

Scott trades in his previous collaborations to work with a new Director of Photography, Dariusz Wolski. While the established Scott aesthetic continues here (Anamorphic aspect ratios, high contrast, dramatic skies, warm orange tones in exterior shots), Wolski seems to encourage Tony Scott to refresh certain components of his style.

As a result, this is the first film in Scott’s canon where the tone of his late-career work would come into play. Wolski subdues orange colors, favoring the clinical blues, greens, and even reds of the claustrophobic submarine setting.

Wolski even uses dramatic color blocking to light scenes, where one half of an actor’s face might be lit entirely in red, while the other side is lit entirely blue It’s a more diverse, slightly colder color palette that suits the machinery of the military/industrial complex.

Scott even starts mixing up his tried-and-true camerawork. While keeping true to his preferences for a locked-down, stable camera and wide compositions, he plays around with the film’s unique setting. With CRIMSON TIDE, he begins to introduce handheld camera shots, lens flares, dynamic close-up shots, canted angles, etc.

All of it gels together in a quick, punchy editing style influenced by music video cutting (most noticeably in the opening credits, which is a quick compilation of news footage bringing us up to speed on the state of current affairs).

Being a Simpson/Bruckheimer production, Hans Zimmer naturally provides his services on the score. It’s a loud, brassy score, but iconic and memorable. I had heard the theme years before just by virtue of being a Zimmer fan, but it works incredibly well in the context of the film. My only complaint is that it supports the tone a little too well, as it tends to cross over into the realm of propaganda from time to time.

One of the cool things about ingesting a director’s entire work in chronological order is that I’ve begun to notice small referential things, like little in-jokes. For instance, Hackman’s character carries around a Jack Russel terrier throughout the film, which just so happens to be brother Ridley’s favorite dog breed.

The man is as enthusiastic about them as I am with pugs. Scott also references his debut film THE HUNGER (1983) by playing the classical music from that film in Captain Ramsey’s quarters. Ramsey even dons a red baseball cap similar to the weathered-pink one that Tony Scott infamously sported throughout his career.

Ultimately, CRIMSON TIDE is a compelling post-Cold War film that turns the focus of the conflict inward. No one is truly a bad guy– each is acting in what he perceives to be the best interests of the United States. The story stresses the need for pause and double-checking oneself, even in the most stressful and dire of circumstances.

It’s all reverential and highly ceremonial, much like the military itself, but the performances make the whole thing come alive. While it’s not a wholly unforgettable film, CRIMSON TIDE’s value in cinematic history is only diluted by the strength of other Scott works likeTRUE ROMANCE and MAN ON FIRE.


THE FAN (1996)

By the mid-90’s, Tony Scott had firmly established himself in the pantheon of Hollywood’s most bankable action directors. His 1996 effort, THE FAN, continues his streak of high concept, big budget action films with compelling stories at their centers.

Stories about psychotic stalkers and their celebrity obsessions abound in pop culture, and while THE FAN has mostly been forgotten in the years since its release, it holds up quite well as an effective thriller. Robert DeNiro stars as Gil Renard, a San Francisco Giants super fan whose preoccupations with all-star Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes) spiral downwards into psychosis.

This was my first time seeing THE FAN, and I was struck at how tempered Tony Scott’s depiction of DeNiro’s madman initially was. We see his complete transformation, from schlubby knife salesman who can’t even be a good father without screwing up (despite his best efforts), to completely unhinged psychopath holding Rayburn’s son as a hostage.

DeNiro does a fantastic job of generating a fair amount of sympathy for his character early on. He’s just a regular guy that loves his Giants and his kid– sometimes these two loves butt heads up against each other, but who hasn’t been there, right? He’s disorganized and is treated horribly by his boss. For much of the film, we’re rooting with him to overcome these difficulties. It’s a nuanced, intricate performance where the shift to total psycho is a gradual, believable one.

Wesley Snipes also turns in arguably one of his career-best performances here as new Giants teammate and MVP Bobby Rayburn. He’s fast-talking and cocky, like other African-American protagonists in previous Tony Scott films (Eddie Murphy and Damon Wayans come to mind), but when he must assume the moral high ground in the second half, he compellingly delivers the desperation of a man whose son is in mortal danger.

The supporting characters are comprised of notable faces. John Leguizamo, in his second appearance in a Tony Scott film (and his first English-speaking role in one), plays Rayburn’s manager as an energetic, street-wise businessman.

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Benicio Del Toro shows up, albeit with ridiculously ugly red hair, as a rival Giants player who’s stolen Rayburn’s lucky number. It’s a small but pivotal role, as he is the catalyst in Renard taking his first steps into madness. A pre-fame Jack Black even shows up in one scene towards the beginning, as a radio show employee.

Right off the bat (…pun intended?) it’s apparent that Tony Scott is trying to emulate the tone of a Martin Scorsese film, albeit while keeping his traditional aesthetic intact. He collaborates once again with Dariusz Wolski to create an image that’s high in contrast, deeply saturated, and favors warm orange tones during exteriors and cold greenish hues under fluorescent lights. Skies are dramatic, and overblown light through venetian blinds abound.

However, everything else points to a heavy Scorsese influence: the introduction of handheld camerawork, punchy editing and breakneck pacing in the vein of a music video, experimental cuts (like a deep red tint dominating the image during Benicio’s murder), and the strategic use of slow-motion.

Even the casting of DeNiro is a dead give-away to Tony Scott’s intentions. While initially coming off as an emulation however, it’s important to note that it’s leading Scott to further cement a new directorial aesthetic– one which would become inarguably his own.

The Scorsese-fest continues in the music arena. While Tony Scott retains the services of Hans Zimmer for a traditional score, he also peppers the film with an eclectic (if maybe misguided) mix of pop and rock songs.

He leans heavily on The Rolling Stones to establish a certain tone, but falters in his choices of tracks. Namely, he simply copies the Scorsese catalog of their greatest hits (and the ones most over-used in films): “Sympathy For the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter”. While it’s unoriginal, it fits the aesthetic of baseball as a sport in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Scott also uses a curious mix of Carlos Santana and Nine Inch Nails songs, the latter of which are meant to convey the inner psychosis of Renard. Although, it gets a little Jerry Sandusky when Trent Reznor’s lyrics “I wanna fuck you” can be heard over and over while DeNiro holds Snipes’ son hostage. While the soundtrack is probably an accurate reflection of what was popular sixteen years ago, it is the only element that really dates the film.

Having just seen The Giants play at Dodger Stadium a few days prior to watching THE FAN, it was really interesting to see how passionate their fans truly are, even a decade and a half later.

I witnessed the zeal and bravery with which the small number of Giants fans cheered their team on, amidst the veritable sea of Dodger lovers– so DeNiro’s leap into psychotic obsession wasn’t too big of one to believe.

It’s a very interesting backdrop for a film that plays with the inherent obsessiveness of being a diehard baseball fan, while daring to cross the line into dark territory. THE FAN is a moody, stylish thriller that perhaps has been unjustly forgotten by time, but holds a special place in the hearts of its dedicated super-fans.


THE HUNGER: “SWORDS” (1997)

In the mid-90’s, for reasons completely unknown, Showtime created a television anthology series loosely adapted from Tony Scott’s debut feature, THE HUNGER (1983). It lasted for two seasons, and as far as I’m aware, didn’t make much of a splash in pop culture.

While undoubtedly serving as one of the guiding hands behind the whole production, Tony Scott himself only directed two episodes. “THE SWORDS” (1997) was the pilot episode, and effectively captures the tone and spirit of Scott’s feature, while introducing an entirely new setting and cast of characters.

After the heavily experimental, slightly schizo opening credits (most likely influenced by the opening titles for David Fincher’s SE7EN (1995), Terence Stamp appears as a sort of Master of Ceremonies. Wearing Scott’s famed pink baseball cap and strutting around a baroque mansion, he briefly sets up the story and bows out. It’s not unlike the opening segments to similar horror anthologies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

The story of “THE SWORDS” concerns a young American man who comes to London to study acting. Along the way, he becomes involved with the denizens of an underground punk club, who introduce him to a supernatural stage show called “The Swords”. During the show, a beautiful young woman has her abdomen impaled by a sword, only for her to be completely unharmed when it’s withdrawn.

The young man becomes obsessed with the show, and with the girl. They begin a passionate affair, whereby the woman is impaled by a decidedly different kind of sword. It all ends tragically when the trance of love trumps the trance that allows her to survive her nightly impalement.

I have to applaud the producers and Tony Scott for creating a show based off a vampire movie, and having the gall to not make the pilot episode about vampires. It sets up the notion that the grounded mysticism in the original feature will remain intact, but a multitude of other supernatural stories will be explored. Scott recreates the tone of THE HUNGER with the same kind mix of baroque London settings, classical music, and underground punk clubs.

Director of Photography John Mathieson frames the action in a television-ready 4:3 aspect ratio. The image is classical Scott: high contrast, deep saturation, blinding light through curtains and venetian blinds, and moments of extreme color manipulation (mostly in the hosting segments with Terence Stamp).

Colors veer towards the warm side of the spectrum, only to switch to a cold, almost inhospitable blue in exterior scenes. The camera stays locked-off, and mostly limits its movement to pans and zooms. Tony Scott also shows draws on some experimental, playful techniques, seen here in the form of canted angles and spinning the camera in a corkscrew fashion.

Besides the inclusion of his trademark pink baseball cap, Tony Scott throws in a couple of other nods to his career. For instance, Hans Zimmer’s theme for TRUE ROMANCE (1993) shows up when the young man and the showgirl first begin their affair.

On a completely unrelated note, there’s also just a lot of general weird British-ness on full display. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.

“THE SWORDS” finds Scott returning to the medium of television, as well as to his roots as a director. It’s a small-scale story that he tells effectively within it’s half-hour running time. He doesn’t let the boundaries of a smaller screen constrain his imagination, and as a result, he undergoes a creative refreshing that will propel him onward as the millennium comes to a close.


ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)

After a brief stint in television, Tony Scott returned to features and his longtime producing team, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Their collaboration resulted in ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998), a frenetic thriller that capitalized on an increasing public paranoia over government surveillance capabilities in the internet age.

While dealing with its potent themes in a typically ham-handed fashion, the film has proved over time to be eerily prescient on the government’s tendency to abuse this significant power.

I remember seeing the trailer for ENEMY OF THE STATE when it was released, but mainly because at twelve years old, I was becoming cognizant of movies as a business as well as an art form. I had only started making films myself a year earlier, and as such was beginning to pay attention to films as something more than just entertainment. However, since it was rated R, there was no way in hell I was going to see it anytime soon. As it turned out, my first viewing ENEMY OF THE STATE was only a few days ago, nearly fifteen years after its release.

The film concerns Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), a DC labor lawyer who finds himself on the run from the NSA when he comes into possession of a videotape recording the murder of a prominent statesman.

Initially clueless as to why he’s the target of the secretive organization, his attempts to find the truth make him more aware of the extent of their surveillance operations. It’s a high-concept, big budget idea that’s perfectly suited to Tony Scott’s sensibilities. Furthermore, ENEMY OF THE STATE is the first film that embodies Scott’s post-90’s aesthetic– one that deals in extreme color manipulation, frenetic camerawork and rapid-fire pacing.

The performances in the film, while not terribly memorable, are solid enough to hold their own against Scott’s aggressive direction. ENEMY OF THE STATE was released as Will Smith was becoming a major film star, but he wisely plays down his comedic roots for a more grounded and subdued performance.

While it’s not as accomplished as some of his later, more serious work (such as Michael Mann’s ALI (2001)), it’s a great example of his capability to believably achieve that range. Jon Voight plays the NSA executive who carries out the central murder, and who then must cover up his tracks as the truth leaks out.

He’s cold, relentless and methodical– believable both as someone who would be trusted to head the most secretive surveillance agency in the world, and as the main antagonist.

The supporting cast is made up of familiar faces, who were still breaking through at the time of its release. Barry Pepper plays Voight’s right-hand man with a palpable degree of menace and competency.

Tom Sizemore makes his second appearance in a Tony Scott film, showing up here as a thuggish business owner (and not some gruff war junkie like he’s known for). Scott Caan is memorable only for the fact that he’s made a name for himself recently on ENTOURAGE and HAWAII-FIVE-O. The film also has some fun with the hacker subculture, personified here by Seth Green and Jamie Kennedy working in full-on geek mode.

Jason Lee plays a small, yet central role as a documentarian who inadvertently discovers that his footage of duck migration patterns has also captured a murder. Since his big moment is a large chase sequence, the role has some pretty large physical demands. Thankfully, as a professional skateboarder, Lee is more than capable.

(I also found it pretty funny that he has a University of Oregon mug in his apartment). Other players include Jack Black, appearing in a much larger capacity than he did in Tony Scott’s THE FAN (1996), as well as small cameos by Phillip Baker Hall and Gabriel Byrne.

And last, but not least, Gene Hackman plays a large role as the reluctant mentor to Smith when he’s in over his head. I found his inclusion to be inspired casting, not only because of his successful collaboration with Tony Scott in CRIMSON TIDE (1995), but also because its nod to his infamous performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974) as a man besieged by surveillance paranoia.

With ENEMY OF THE STATE, Scott makes a huge break from many of his key technical collaborators. Newcomer Dan Mindel serves as the Director of Photography, enabling Scott to crystallize a new visual style that he would bring to the remainder of his work. Shooting on an Anamorphic aspect ratio, the image is high in contrast, with saturated colors and warm tones despite the wintery DC setting.

Dramatic skies abound, as do his signature “light-through-the-blinds” shots. Camera-work is mostly steady and locked-down, favoring composition rather than movement. However, when the action kicks in, Scott has no qualms about going completely handheld and frenetic.

Establishing shots gets an epic punch, usually shot from a helicopter circling its subject. Tony Scott also designs many shots from an overhead perspective to mimic the surveillance themes of the story.

Tony Scott also foregoes another collaboration with Hans Zimmer, choosing instead to work this time around with Trevor Rabin and Harry Gregson-Williams. It’s an electronic, string-heavy score that’s fairly typical of its time and of it subject matter. Nothing too memorable.

As time has gone on, it’s fairly easy to poke fun at the film’s heavy-handed approach to government surveillance. It’s presented as an omniscient eye on every little activity, and even then it’s clear the technology was made up by the writers (a fairly dubious 3-D rotating program for surveillance cameras comes to mind).

A recurring shot features a fairly shoddy CGI satellite whipping around the world and feeding information to the NSA. Even the opening credits are built around surveillance footage, much like his brother Ridley would do a few years later in BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001). However, in the fifteen years since its release, the Patriot Act and its fallout have certainly lent the film the proper justification for its paranoid atmosphere.

Even though it’s made with a palpable pre-9/11 innocence in regards to surveillance and terrorism, it’s eerily prescient today. (Also, am I the only one that noticed that Voight’s character is shown to have his birthday on September 11th, an eerie coincidence given what would happen on that day three years later?)

Ultimately, it’s pretty easy to chalk ENEMY OF THE STATE up to typical, blockbuster/Bruckheimer silliness. Sure, there are moments of blatant studio ham-handedness (there’s definitely a scene where downtown LA tries to pass for Maryland. The use of the reflective 2nd Street Tunnel isn’t fooling anybody).

But its prescience can’t be denied, even if it is just popcorn entertainment intended for mass consumption. In Scott’s canon, ENEMY OF THE STATE is an important work, mainly because its his first, full embrace of a new directorial style that would have an overwhelming effect on his legacy.


THE HUNGER- SANCTUARY (1999)

In 1999, Showtime greenlit another season of Tony Scott’s television adaptation of his own film, THE HUNGER (1983). Tony Scott returned to direct “SANCTUARY”, the second season’s first episode, and takes full advantage of the new resources bestowed on the production from the success of the first season.

Full disclosure: I haven’t watched any other episodes of this series besides the ones that Scott has directed, but with SANCTUARY, it seems Scott radically tinkers with the show’s format. He dispenses with Terence Stamp as the de facto Master of Ceremonies, choosing instead to place the original film’s star, David Bowie, in the spotlight.

What’s interesting though, is that Bowie seems to have been worked into the narrative itself– not just as a host, but as a main character. He plays a long-haired, eccentric artist-turned recluse who nurses the wounds from a recent scandal within the stone walls of his converted prison estate.

Giovanni Ribisi appears as the story’s other main character– a young man seeking the guidance and mentorship of Bowie’s artist. However, he’s nursing a gunshot wound and harboring secrets of his own. Overall, the performances are remarkably strong, making the most of admittedly pulpy genre material.

Bernard Couture serves as the Director of Photography in his first collaboration with Scott. He frames the action in the television-standard 4:3 aspect ratio, while mainly keeping in line with Tony Scott’s signature aesthetic: high contrast, even colors that favor the blue/green end of the spectrum, light through curtains, etc. The camerawork is much more frenetic, keeping pace with Scott’s evolving techniques.

He makes use of wild pans, trucks zooms, spins, time-ramps, etc. When he doesn’t cover the action in a standard medium-to-wide shots, he cuts in for extreme close-ups of lips, eyes, hands, etc… all of which lend an air of mystery to the piece. The second season no doubt received a much bigger budget than the first, and it’s on full display here with the camera trickery and production design.

Scott’s adoption of music-video editing techniques continues, beginning with the same SE7EN-inspired opening credits as the first season. He also builds on ENEMY OF THE STATE’s (1998) surveillance imagery, and introduces a new signature technique: abruptly freeze-framing the action with a timestamp, effectively turning it into a black and white snapshot.

It’s an incredibly literal way to depict the time-honored cinematic notion of “the ticking clock”, but it works well enough within his style.

Scott re-teams with Harry Gregson-Williams for a hard rock-inspired musical score that’s appropriate enough for the setting. It’s fairly generic and unremarkable, but it’s effective in capturing the tone and sustaining our interest.

SANCTUARY paints a disturbing portrait of a psychotic artist’s downfall. Bowie’s character desperately wants to create a work of lasting art that will bestow upon him immortality– but the price he has to pay will be higher than he ever imagined.

With its macabre twist ending, it’s easy to see why this story would be included in an anthology series like “THE HUNGER”. The imagery is provocative, gory, and oftentimes over-the-top (a naked woman on a crucifix comes to mind).

There’s plenty of nods to the original film as well, with a flashback to a nightclub-esque art show that recalls the punk stylings of the original film, as well as the overtly homosexual imagery (Ribisi is seen performing oral sex on a man). There’s even references to Tony Scott’s other work, such as mentions of Elvis that bring to mind Christian Slater’s preoccupation with him in TRUE ROMANCE (1993).

With SANCTUARY, Scott finds ample opportunity to experiment with the limits of his newfound aesthetic. It’s a far, far cry from his early works like LOVING MEMORY (1971), but the development of Scott’s unique style is palpable and easily traced.

By this point in his career, Tony Scott was already 55 years old, but his work has the energy and attention-span of a man half his age. This flashy style would serve him well in his upcoming commercial ventures, as well as allow him to carve out a comfortable little niche of his own within the action genre.


BARCLAYS BANK- BIG (2000)

As the world turned the corner into the new millennium, Tony Scott found himself in-between feature films. During the year 2000, he directed (to my knowledge) three commercials:

The first spot, from banking giant Barclays, finds Tony Scott directing Anthony Hopkins as a satirical, exaggerated version of himself. In a spot appropriate for a large banking conglomerate, the theme of the spot is “Big”. Hopkins addresses the camera directly, expounding upon his affinity for all things “big”. He’s seen in his opulent mansion, then as he’s driven in a luxury towncar down the tony streets of Beverly Hills.

Knowing what’s happened to the global economy as a direct result of Big Banking’s actions in the last five years, this spot would be incredibly tone-deaf if it were to come out today. It’s laughable now to buy into the idea that huge banking conglomerates are actually good for us.
But I digress.

Getting back to the craft elements of the spot, Scott frames for the 4:3 television-standard aspect ratio. He imbues the image with a more conservative aesthetic that’s still recognizably his: high contrast, with its desaturated colors tint-ing slightly towards the cold green end of the spectrum. His camerawork is steady and locked-down, save for a few strategic dolly shots.

A pulsing, cinematic score gives the spot a softly-buzzing energy that supports the tone. Stylistically speaking, it’s an effective and well-constructed ad. Too bad it’s an ad promoting an organization run by a bunch of assholes.


TELECOM ITALIA: “BRANDO”

For some reason, this video doesn’t exist in in English on Youtube, so you can view a Quicktime encode of the spot here.

In 2000, Telecom Italia created a campaign promoting its services via the appearance of a small armada of Hollywood heavyweights. Tony Scott directed two of these spots, the first of which was “BRANDO”.

In the spot, Marlon Brando (in what’s probably one of his last filmed appearances ever) sits on top of a huge canyon, ruminating on how quickly technology has upended the world he’s lived in for so long, and how it might be of benefit to his legacy.

The spot allows for Scott to essentially go crazy with his signature style. The footage is edited heavily, almost within inches of its life. We cut from sweeping helicopter-bound vista shots to extreme close-ups of Brando’s craggy, weathered face within milliseconds of each other.

The image is super saturated in an almost duo-tone fashion, with shadows running unnaturally blue. There’s also black and white flash frames accompanied by text that punctuates Brando’s dialogue. Exposure slides up and down with reckless abandon, as if it were a strobe light. Part of me thinks that even Brando himself couldn’t have stomached this rambling, incoherent mess.

It’s more of a brand awareness spot than actively advertising a service or product. It’s an instance of Tony Scott’s enthusiasm for style trumping the substance. Personally, I think it does a great disservice to a figure that’s as towering as Brando. Scott should’ve toned down his bombastic style and let Brando’s words speak for themselves.


TELECOM ITALIA: “WOODY ALLEN”

Tony Scott’s other ad for Telecom Italia starred Woody Allen doing what he does best: paranoid rants. Thankfully, Scott’s style is incredibly restrained here. He chooses to ape the style of his subject, taking full advantage of Allen’s mannerisms to create a quirky, wonderful spot.

With WOODY ALLEN, Scott eschews his personal style and goes for an even-colored, low-contrast visual palette. He shoots from overhead and street-level, making effective use of zooms and tracking shots.

The framing is reserved, showing Allen in full for most of the spot. The quick cutting is the only element that tips us off to Scott’s involvement.

Unlike BRANDO, this is a fantastic ad that melds the subject and message together quite well. It’s a comedic take on the potential neuroses that stem from an expanded life expectancy that only a man like Allen can deliver. The light-hearted,SEINFELD-esque music over the visuals is the icing on the cake.


SPY GAME (2001)

SPY GAME (2001) was director Tony Scott’s first feature film of the twenty-first century, but its focus is very much on the American Century that preceded it (and how it continues to shape the world stage today). It’s one of Scott’s best films, and my personal favorite of his.

I’m unsure of how my original DVD copy of SPY GAME came into my possession. One day, it just appeared on the bookshelf nestled in between the others.

I was at the age where I began voraciously consuming films, not just for entertainment, but to study the craft I aimed to pursue as a career (a decision I had made only a few years prior). As such, SPY GAME became the first Tony Scott film I ever watched, right around the time I became aware of his brother, Ridley.

SPY GAME plays like an intense romp through the various theatres of the Cold War, from the perspective of two CIA agents. The action is framed by a story set in the present-day, and almost entirely within the labyrinthine confines of CIA headquarters.

It’s Nathan Muir’s (Robert Redford) last day on the job before his retirement, and he’s been called into a meeting with CIA bureaucrats to divulge his knowledge on the exploits of his old apprentice, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), who’s been captured during a failed rescue mission at a Chinese prison.

Muir recounts his relationship with Bishop, from their meeting in Vietnam to their collaboration and subsequent conflict in mid-80’s Beirut. All the while, he clandestinely uses CIA resources at his disposal to plan a raid that will rescue Bishop.

It’s an incredibly intricate and involving story that allows Tony Scott to work at his highest level as a director. The extended flashbacks to Vietnam, West Germany, and Beirut aren’t just a way to visualize Muir’s stories on-screen, they inform the present-day narrative and give a justified context to his actions.

We see Muir utilize the tricks he’s accumulated over his entire career, almost like a student taking a final on the last day of school. It’s a subtle, interesting way to frame a story that spans decades.

The performances are incredibly strong, especially from the two leads. This was the first time I had ever seen a performance by Redford, and it informs all subsequent viewings of his work for me. He’s stoic, paternal and incredibly sly. It’s easy to see why Pitt’s Bishop is so successful under his mentorship.

Muir’s friendly, affable demeanor is disarming– and he knows exactly how to use that to his advantage. By contrast, Pitt is young, brash, and hotheaded. The character as written has a tendency to veer into cliche, but Pitt gives a captivating performance that makes the character come alive. It’s funny that the two men almost resemble each other in appearance, but it does go a long way in establishing a completely believable friendship.

SPY GAME is arguably the best fusion of story, subject matter, and Scott’s personal style. Scott keeps his aesthetic restrained just enough so it’s not distracting, but allows for a unique punch to the pacing and visuals.

He re-teams with ENEMY OF THE STATE’s cinematographer Dan Mindel, who imbues the Anamorphic frame with deep contrast and stylized colors. Due to the globetrotting nature of the film, Tony Scott gives the images a different color palette depending on the location and time period.

Vietnam is extremely high in contrast, incredibly grainy, slightly overexposed and heavily saturated with a golden tint that borders on duo-tone. Scenes that take place in West Germany are more blue and desaturated (while Hong Kong/China is shown to be blue and heavily saturated).

Beirut has saturated, even colors with a slight overexposure. And finally, the present-day sequences set in DC are evenly-colored and saturated for a pseudo-neutral look.

Other elements that make up Scott’s style present themselves aggressively throughout the story. There’s the always-reliable “overblown light through curtains” trope, timestamped black-and-white freeze frames, time-ramped establishing shots filmed from a helicopter, as well as a constantly moving, restless camera, among others.

Tony Scott’s preoccupation with surveillance imagery is ripe for exploitation in a story about the CIA, and he finds ample opportunity to include mixed media and found surveillance footage.

Scott continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams for the film’s score, which actually results in a surprisingly memorable set of tracks. Gregson-Williams infuses the picture with a crunchy, technopop theme composed of pulsing electronic elements and soaring, cinematic strings. There’s also the presence of a haunting male vocalist during the Beirut sequences that works incredibly well.

I’m such a fan of the score that I’ve used bits and pieces of SPY GAME’s score as temporary backing tracks to some of my own early works (which we will never, ever discuss). Frankly, I think it’s some of Gregson-Williams’ best work, and elevates the film itself to an entirely new level.

It’s easy to see why Tony Scott decided to direct SPY GAME. The themes are potent for exploration, nevermind the fact that they are well within his wheelhouse. It’s funny to see the paranoia within the CIA, and how information is kept from one’s allies– not just one’s enemies. In the world of SPY GAME, knowledge is a commodity more precious than gold, and Muir knows it well.

His ability to stay one-step ahead of his superiors is what allows him to orchestrate a full-scale military operation under their noses. SPY GAME is an effective survey of the Cold War, a thrilling meditation on information as currency and power, but ultimately, it’s a riveting film about a “father” risking everything to rescue his “son” from certain death.

When he’s working with good, original material, Scott shines brighter than any other director in his league. SPY GAME, an extremely underrated gem of a film, is a testament to that fact. There’s a reason that, even after watching the majority of his output, this film is still my favorite of his.

It may not be his greatest work in the eyes of the public, but it deserves to be seen, and it rests comfortably in that little nostalgic corner of my memory. In the twelve years since I’ve seen it, it’s only gotten better with age.


THE HIRE: “BEAT THE DEVIL” (2002)

In 2002, the world of branded content was still in its infancy. Advertisers were well aware of the power of the internet, but they didn’t quite know how to harness it. While today’s branded content is more stealthy and subtle, advertisers in the early 2000’s essentially created longer-form versions of traditional commercials.

BMW was just such a company, creating a campaign comprised of a series of action-oriented short films, with the intent to show off their cars in a bombastic cinematic fashion. Naturally, Tony Scott became involved, and their collaboration resulted in “BEAT THE DEVIL”, one segment in the viral video series “THE HIRE”.

In wanting to create a big frame for a small canvas, BMW certainly didn’t skip on the details. Clive Owen stars as a driver of little words, whose character recurs throughout the various segments. BEAT THE DEVIL also stars the legendary James Brown (appearing as a highly fictionalized version of himself), who sold his soul to the Devil years ago for success and wants to strike up a new deal.

Owen’s driver transports Brown to a meeting with the Devil, who turns out to be an effeminate cross-dresser (Gary Oldman), and their meeting culminates in a drag race that will settle who gets to keep Brown’s soul once and for all.

This is an incredibly strange short film. While appropriate for a commercial, Tony Scott’s heavy stylization and overcooking of the visuals doesn’t mesh with the short film format. The result is a jumbled, incoherent mess of a narrative.

Truth be told, I only know the synopsis because I had to look it up on IMDB. With his Director of Photography Paul Cameron, Scott seems to be using the format to test the limits of his aesthetic. The image has an extreme amount of contrast and saturation, as if it’s been left to cook in the desert sun for a hundred years.

There’s a heavy orange tint to the colors, and Tony Scott oftentimes rolls the exposure up and down, superimposing shots on top of each other and burning them together. He continues his affinity for extreme close-ups of lips, eyes, hands, etc., as well as the time-stamp over the black-and-white freezeframe. Camerawork is all the over place, veering from locked-off, steady shots to canted angles and rack zooms.

Scott also introduces a few new visual elements to his style, as well. He incorporates flares of light into the shot, as if light leaked into the camera during shooting and burned the film. He also incorporates sound design at an overly-dynamic level, creating sound effects for every camera movement and running the dialogue and sound effects through heavy sonic filtering.

He also starts adding English subtitles on top of the visuals as a way to punctuate the dialogue and highlight important words and phrases.

There’s some interesting performances here, not all of it good. Clive Owen isn’t given much to do as the lead character. He gets to drive the BMW and make it look good, sure, but he’s more of a periphery character in the narrative.

James Brown is a better actor than I imagined him to be, and his arc is a nice nod to his roots. However, he mumbles so hard that its often difficult to understand what he’s saying. Gary Oldman is by far the best performance, channeling his psycho pimp character in TRUE ROMANCE (1993) and going full-glam for his role as the effete Devil.

He’s nearly unrecognizable, and bursts at the seams with energy. It’s incredibly foreign, coming from the recent memory of his performance as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY.

Danny Trejo also appears as the Devil’s bodyguard. And in perhaps the most surprising twist, Marilyn Manson shows up in a brief, bizarre cameo that has him earnestly reading the Bible. Weird stuff.

BMW obviously hired Tony Scott because they wanted him to bring his signature style to their project, but the end result is way too hyperactive for its own good. It’s full of interesting imagery, but narratively, it’s pure chaos.

In regards to Scott’s development, it’s clear by this point that he has no intention of abandoning his newfound style– and that he plans to keep building on to it until the whole thing collapses under its own weight.


US ARMY: SPECIAL FORCES ICE SOLDIER (2002)

As he prepared for his next feature film, MAN OF FIRE (2004), Tony Scott embarked on (to my knowledge) two commercials that would allow him to further develop his style.

Putting Scott and the US Army together for a spot is a no-brainer. Who better than one of our most accomplished action directors to craft a spot about our real-life heroes?

The content is fairly typical for an army recruiting commercial– epic backdrops, helicopters, camouflaged soldiers with impressive weapons and gadgetry, etc. Basically it looks like the coolest session of CALL OF DUTY you could ever play.

Visually, Scott’s style is a good mesh with the Army’s own aesthetic. The extreme contrast and warm color tones complement the gritty action. The handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing reinforce the urgency of armed combat. Tony Scott even finds ample opportunity to indulge in his affinity for surveillance imagery.

The whole thing is wrapped up in a slightly cheesy rock score that’s reminiscent of Scott’s TOP GUN (1986). All in all, a fairly effective, if not entirely memorable, ad.


MARLBORO: “ONE MAN, ONE LAND” (2003)

An embeddable version of this spot doesn’t appear to be available, so you can view it here.
In 2003, Marlboro contracted Tony Scott to dip his English toe into the world of American cowboys. Channeling his work on Telecom Italia’s “BRANDO” spot, Scott creates a veritable storm of images that are anything but the typical idea of cowboys out on the hot desert range.

The visuals oscillate wildly in color temperature, running the gamut to cold, warm, and completely desaturated. Contrast is extremely high, creating a stark, dreary look. The skies roil with ominous clouds, threatening the cowboys’ way of life.

Tony Scott also continues to experiment with the visual notion of a “light leak”– letting bands of overexposed film smear the image. He dials the exposure up and down rapidly, as if it were some rodeo strobe light show. Composition shifts between close-range and afar so jarringly that it’s oftentimes hard to tell what you’re looking at.

Ultimately, the experimental techniques Tony Scott uses result in another incomprehensible mess of a spot. It quite simply doesn’t convey its message, and whatever message we can glean comes out jumbled and fragmented. The fact that the audio is squeezed through several heavy sonic filters doesn’t help the clarity very much.

Much like the “BRANDO” spot, “ONE MAN, ONE LAND” contains several visually arresting images, but it smacks of overindulgence on Scott’s part. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that he was using the commercial medium to push the boundaries of style and aesthetics, but I strongly feel that it’s an extreme mismatch with Marlboro, a brand that is well-known for its stoic and conservative ads.


MAN ON FIRE (2004)

Tony Scott’s MAN ON FIRE (2004) is often mentioned in the same breath as some of his strongest films. To be sure, it’s certainly a polarizing film given its subject matter and Scott’s hyper-aggressive aesthetic. I tend to agree with those in the favorable camp, in that Scott backs up his flashy visuals with a real emotional connection between its two leads that lies at the center of the story.

MAN ON FIRE tackles a subject and a world that is unfamiliar to most Americans. In present-day Mexico City, wealthy citizens are faced with the sober reality of having to hire bodyguards for their children due to the regularity with which they are kidnapped and held for ransom by thieves looking to make a nice, easy payday.

Enter Creasy (Denzel Washington), an alcholic, schlubby ex-serviceman who is hired to provide protection for Pita ( Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of wealthy expat parents. Over time, Pita’s charm causes Creasy to let his guard down and, subsequently, the two become close friends.

When Pita is inevitably kidnapped and presumed killed in a handoff gone awry, Creasy bypasses the incompetent, possibly corrupt police to find her captors. However, his attempts at finding out the truth uncovers a wider conspiracy with shocking revelations and tragic consequences.

Like SPY GAME (2001) before it, there’s something about Tony Scott’s direction that just fits. Mexico City is a seedy, dangerous place, and Scott goes to great lengths to capture the ugliness of its underbelly. It also doesn’t hurt that many members of the cast turn in strong performances.

Like his turn in Antoine Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY (2001) or Spike Lee’s MALCOM X(1992), Washington turns in a damaged, career-highlight performance as the burnt-out Creasy. It’s a difficult role that requires the audience to sympathize with him as the protagonist, even when he’s brutally torturing Pita’s captors.

Fanning’s Pita is equally important to the success of the film, and a poor performance could derail the entire story.

Thankfully, Fanning is more than capable– pulling off an astoundingly nuanced, believable performance beyond her years. Her love for Creasy feels palpable and realistic, and we can’t help but fall in love with her too.

Fanning ably avoids all the traps of child acting (overacting, mugging, being annoying, etc.), and delivers a subtle performance that deals in gestures and the light in her eyes, rather than her words. Tony Scott takes his time in developing her relationship with Creasy, so when the abduction finally comes, an hour into the film, it’s positively heart-wrenching.

The supporting cast is also effective, filled out by recognizable character actors. Christopher Walken, in his first appearance in a Scott film since 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE, plays Rayburn, an American expat living in Mexico City and Creasy’s closest friend. By 2004, Walken was in the throes of his “kooky/possibly insane old man” image in pop culture- but here, he delivers a nuanced, toned-down performance that perfectly fits our idea of someone who would leave the country and go live in Mexico City.

His sunken eyes are an asset, suggesting a haunted past that he’s trying to escape from. Mickey Rourke, who was also enjoying a career renaissance at the time, plays the wealthy family’s trusted lawyer, Jordan. It’s a reserved performance that sees Rourke with short, cropped hair and impeccably tailored suits, in stark contrast to his wild, rock-and-roll persona in reality.

The character of Jordan is a snake in the grass, who might know more about Pita’s disappearance than he lets on, and Rourke portrays that duplicity with his trademark flair.

Rounding out the cast is an effective, if not entirely memorable Marc Anthony as Pita’s successful, slightly effete father, Radha Mitchell as the mother who finds the limits of her compassion tested, and CASINO ROYALE’S (2006) Giancarlo Giannini in Latino makeup as Manzano, the only uncorrupted member of Mexico City’s police force.

Now firmly within his new aesthetic, Scott takes the opportunity to test the limits of the style like had done in previous commercials. In his first feature collaboration with Director of Photography Paul Cameron, he incorporates all the mainstays of the “Scott Look”: extremely high contrast, and severely saturated colors that favor the green and blue spectrum of light.

Overblown light billows through curtains, and the hard sun roasts the vibrant Mexico City setting. Tony Scott’s affinity for dramatic skies continues– even normal blue skies have brilliant cloud formations.

He also ramps up the energy with his music-video editing techniques, incorporating a whole host of processing tricks on top of the visuals– double exposures, flash frames, rolling/strobing exposures, generally overcooked colors, etc.

The camerawork is hyper frenetic, ranging between locked-down and handheld, with the constant being that it’s always moving. Scott even finds room for 360 degree circling shots (a technique that I personally am not a fan of).

On top of all this, Scott implements incredibly dynamic subtitles that animate across the screen, sometimes replicating the english dialogue for punctuation and emphasis. With MAN ON FIRE, Tony Scott completely owns the look and effectively uses it to convey the chaos of its subject matter and setting.

Scott continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams on the score, which implements the Spanish guitar as a key musical component. What’s interesting is that the eclectic mix of score and pre-recorded source music is layered into the sound design in a surreal, experimental way. It’s filtered through a gauntlet of processors and sometimes even used as sound effects– quite an interesting approach.

A stand-out musical moment finds Washington descending upon a hellish nightclub to extract some answers and up his body count. Scott features a feverish, techno rendering of Clint Mansell’s iconic theme for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) that echoes Washington’s chilly, unpredictable state of mind.

Another moment finds Lisa Gerrard, the female vocalist who provided her haunting voice for Ridley Scott’s 2000 film GLADIATOR, performing a choral coda during the film’s climactic trading sequence.

MAN ON FIRE is a tough story, because it requires the audience to sympathize with the slightly evil, yet justified, actions of a man lusting for retribution. One of the film’s standout sequences involves Creasy extracting information from a gangster whose hands are tied to the steering wheel of his car. When the thug is unable to come up with an answer to Creasy’s questions, Creasy brutally saws one finger off at a time and cauterizes the wound with a car cigarette lighter.

It’s a squirm-inducing sequence that is certainly cold-blooded, but it’s also very timely from a socio-political perspective. MAN ON FIRE was released during the height of the Iraq War, when the United States was forced to examine its conscience in light of reports about the horrible torture methods government officials used to extract information from our perceived enemies in the war on terror.

These shocking leaks forced Americans to ask themselves: how can we root for ourselves when we’re just as beastly as those we’re fighting against? MAN ON FIRE intelligently adds that ambiguous morality into its themes and subtext, and as a result, makes the story that much stronger. If you ask me, that’s why it’s so highly regarded amidst Tony Scott’s canon. It’s a pulpy thriller that isn’t afraid to ask its audience some hard questions.

Of course, it stands to reason that the cliched explosions and gunplay dilute that message and keep a good movie from being great, but Scott has crafted a fine piece of mass entertainment with a relevant message. Its standing in the hearts and minds of cinemaphiles has grown over time, and will most likely go down as Scott’s late-career masterpiece.


AGENT ORANGE (2004)

In the mid-2000’s, branded content was beginning to take off as a viable alternative to traditional advertising. As such, it became embraced by companies with unconventional origins and attitudes, namely those who came of age in the dotcom bubble. Amazon is just such a company, and in 2004, it contracted Tony Scott to direct AGENT ORANGE, an experimental short film about finding your soulmate amidst the clutter and congestion of daily life.

The story is pretty simple: boy takes the subway everyday. The boy is always dressed in orange, in stark contrast with the green world around him. One day, he spots a girl also clad from head to toe in orange. He catches only a glimpse of her before the subway doors close, but he’s immediately struck by her. He spends his days afterwards looking feverishly for this girl, hoping to be reunited with her and get their love story started.

Scott works with new Director of Photography Stephen St. John, but his visual aesthetic doesn’t change one iota. The image drips with heavy contrast, and extremely saturated colors that favor the green and orange spectrum of light. Seeing as they are complementary colors, the juxtaposition works incredibly well, and the orange pops vividly against the sea of green.

The camerawork is frenetic, pulling in close for detailed shots of faces, hands, objects, etc. The stylized editing also throws in double exposures, light streaks, and flash frames. The result is a hyper-active, ADD-laden acid trip of a love story. I think it works fine within the context of the narrative and its themes, but its very easy to see how it could turn a lot of people off.

Tony Scott is a big proponent of experimental sound design, evident even in his earliest work, ONE OF THE MISSING (1969). Here, he creates a surreal sound bed that utilizes traditional coal-powered train sounds in place of the electronic whine of modern subway cars. The recurring train horn is abrasive, but so is Scott’s style in general, so it’s somewhat trivial to criticize it.

My personal impression of the film is that it was dated even on the day of its release. By this point, Tony Scott was an old man, and the production design very much betrays the sense of what an old man might consider stylish and edgy.

It rang false to me, and resembled more of an out-of-touch student film than a work by one of cinema’s inarguably edgy directors. Even that name, AGENT ORANGE… it’s so self-aware and lazy, yet desperate to seem to hip and contemporary. As you might be able to surmise, I’m not the most ardent supporter of this film.

AGENT ORANGE is another negative notch in a wildly uneven filmography. I don’t fault Scott for shooting it in his trademark style, but funnily enough, it’s also complacent and tired. It’s as if Tony Scott didn’t feel the need to challenge himself at all. If anything, AGENT ORANGE is the result of Scott simply treading water between feature films.


DOMINO (2005)

We all have guilty pleasures. Movies we secretly like even though we know we’d catch holy hell from our friends if they ever found out. For me, Tony Scott’s DOMINO (2005) is just that- a guilty pleasure. An immensely guilty one.

DOMINO is different from most biopics in that Domino Harvey lived her life as a tough-as-nails, badass bounty hunter, but the plot of the movie chronicling her life is almost entirely fictionalized. Domino tragically died a few months before the film’s release from a drug overdose, but this cinematic monument foregoes factual accuracy in a bid to capture her inimitable spirit and zeal for life.

All throughout her life, Domino (Keira Knightley) has felt different than the other girls. She was more into playing with knives and guns, instead of dolls and boys. She falls in with Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez), two bounty hunters who teach her the tricks of the trade. Swiftly realizing her gift for bounty hunting, she becomes an invaluable addition to the team and eventually attracts the attention of an eccentric reality TV producer.

Now faced with having to perform their jobs in front of a cadre of television cameras, the trio find themselves in the middle of a larger conspiracy involving the mafia and the DMV. It all builds to a psychotic showdown in Las Vegas where Domino’s mettle will be tested and her destiny will be met.

The cast is well aware of the inherent insanity of the plot, and to their credit, they bring an unmitigated zeal to the proceedings. Keira Knightley completely shreds her prim and proper persona to become a razor-sharp, super-tough, emotionally damaged hellcat of a bounty hunter. She uses her words, her guns, and her sexuality equally as weapons of mass destruction.

She singes the screen with a dangerous charisma that’s undeniable. It’s undoubtedly my favorite performance of hers. Mickey Rourke, fresh off his collaboration with Tony Scott in 2004’s MAN ON FIRE, shows up as Domino’s mentor, Ed.

Ed is a tough old bastard who’s seen his fair share of battles, and I really can’t imagine anyone else but Rourke in the role. He clearly is enjoying himself and the character, which makes his portrayal that much more likeable. As Choco, Edgar Ramirez is a strong, almost silent presence.

He lets his dark, highly expressive eyes do most of the talking for him, and when he does speak, it’s in a mumbled Spanish. He’s a wild, unpredictable personality who bubbles at the brim with internal demons and restlessness.

The supporting cast is up-to-snuff, as well. Lucy Liu plays an FBI interrogator, in a recurring and bookending sequence that frames the story and allows Domino to recount her life events in a dramatic fashion. Liu remains a stoic, emotionless presence who approaches her exchange with Domino as a kind of chess game. The role doesn’t allow her to emote very much, but she does a lot with very little.

Christopher Walken, in his third collaboration with Tony Scott, plays the eccentric reality TV producer with a manic energy. He fully embraces his kooky public image and savors every sleazy aspect of his character, even down to the blond highlights.

Mena Suvari plays Walken’s assistant, who complements his quirkiness with a bookish, anxious charm that holds its own against his aggressive characterization.

Other notable appearances include Delroy Lindo as Domino’s bail bondsman boss, Mo’Nique and Macy Gray as a full-on-ghetto pair of DMV employees/thieves, Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering (the BEVERLY HILLS 90210 guys) playing fictionalized, douchebag versions of themselves, and Tom Waits as a feverish desert prophet. The whole cast is dedicated to carrying out Scott’s zany vision, and the result is nothing short of pure chaos.

It could be argued that Scott reaches the zenith of his filmmaking style with DOMINO. He’s subsequently built on his style with each work, and I don’t see how he could possibly top DOMINO’s distinct blend of anarchy.

Working again with Director of Photography Dan Mindel, Tony Scott crafts an image that’s akin to being left out to cook in the desert sun for years. The contrast is obscenely high, colors are saturated to the point of oblivion, and the overall image veers towards a stylized super-green and orange tint.

It’s not just the mid-tones either– black shadows are rendered in a deep green, highlights are blown out and border on yellow or blue, depending on the mood being called for in a given scene. Film grain is slathered on the image like a liberal heap of butter on bread, while various color elements bleed off the frame like they’ve been processed to death.

In essence, DOMINO looks like a two-hour long music video, complete with double-exposures, strobing lights, reverse, fast, and slow motion ramps, and other tricks. The film is very much a product of its time, in that its unique style is made possible only because of the rise of digital, nonlinear editing systems that surpass the physical boundaries of traditional cut-and-paste film editing.

What would normally have to be accomplished via a time-intensive date with an optical printer can be done in two seconds with the click of a mouse, all without any degradation of the image. Camerawork is mostly handheld and anarchic, favoring extreme close-ups. Scott also finds ample opportunity to throw in dynamic, animated subtitles that appear in different fonts and punctuate the dialogue.

Harry Gregson-Williams returns to the score the film, bringing a heavy metal sound that’s appropriate to the proceedings. The rest of the soundtrack is populated by an eclectic mix of source music, ranging from gangster rap to Tom Jones covering Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come”. Scott even finds an opportunity to include the rave remix of Clint Mansell’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM score, which he previously used in MAN ON FIRE.

DOMINO is consistent within Scott’s particular brand of storytelling. He finds moments to incorporate surveillance imagery, as well as over-stylized action. The screenplay, written by Richard Kelly of DONNIE DARKO fame, allows for maximum indulgence on Tony Scott’s part. One of the most potent themes of DOMINO, however, is the satirical aspect of reality television.

Sure, it’s broadly sketched, at times approaching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE levels of parody, but it is a great counterpoint to Domino’s anti-establishment spirit. Despite the grim, brutal acts of violence that abound, Scott always approaches the proceedings with a wry sense of gallows humor. By taking itself way too seriously, the whole thing might have sunk under its own weight.

So why do I like this movie? Admittedly, I know I shouldn’t. I’ve railed before at how I sometimes find Scott’s style to be abrasive and of no extra value to the story itself, and by all expectations, DOMINO should fall into that category. Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the desert setting, or the casting.

Or that, like 2001’s SPY GAME, I first saw the film in the theatre when I was in college, and it now resides in a nostalgic little corner of my memory. Or maybe it’s an instance of Tony Scott finding the perfect marriage between style and subject. Whatever it is, it appeals to me on a bewildering level. It’s far from Scott’s greatest work, but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining as all hell.


DEJA VU (2006)

In 2006, Tony Scott re-teamed with Jerry Bruckheimer in what would ultimately be their last filmmaking project together. That film was DEJA VU, and was released to mixed reviews and middling box office success. It was a far cry from the box office phenomenon of their first collaboration, TOP GUN (1986), but their last team-up has beared underrated, yet highly flawed, fruit.

DEJA VU is an action thriller about time travel, one of many in a long line of science fiction films. However, to its credit, the premise is incredibly novel (if slightly unrealistic), and generates a strong amount of narrative currency. Denzel Washington plays Doug Carlin, a seasoned Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency veteran who’s been called in to investigate a terrorist attack on American soil.

In New Orleans, a ferry becomes a waterborne-bomb responsible for the deaths of 500 men, women and children. In the aftermath, Carlin is teamed up with FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who introduces him to an incredible new technology, code-named “Snow White”. In essence, Snow White harnesses all the digital surveillance tools at their disposal to create an omniscient view of the past– specifically, four days into the past.

They can only visit one spot at a time, and it can only be viewed once before being gone forever, but it allows the user to assume God-like levels of surveillance and observation.

When Carlin begins to suspect this amazing new device is really a time machine, he orchestrates a plan to travel back in time himself to prevent the bombing of the ferry, and the death of the woman at the center of it all.

I had never seen DEJA VU before, and had passively avoided it in theatres when I heard the middling reviews. To be honest, I had incredibly low expectations coming into this film. Imagine my surprise when I found myself thinking- “Hey. You know?

This movie is actually kinda good!”. Don’t get me wrong, those looking for high art and deep questions will find their hunger in-satiated, but if you’re looking for an entertaining ride with a hint of depth, then you can do a lot worse than DEJA VU.

This is first and foremost a Tony Scott film, which means that the actors will bring high levels of energy and zeal to their roles. Everyone here turns in some great performances. Denzel Washington, who has since become DeNiro to Scott’s Scorsese, depicts a quiet, focused, and dedicated servant of justice.

He’s somewhat of a generic hero, but Washington’s undeniable charm generates the appropriate amounts of sympathy for his character. Val Kilmer, by contrast, has become somewhat of a pop-culture punching bag lately.

Known for his Brando-esque ballooning in size and questionable role choices, he does a great job as a bookish FBI agent burdened by the implications of his great machine’s existence. It’s a subdued, layered performance that will make you rethink your punchlines about him. Paula Patton plays Claire Kuchever, the girl at the center of the story.

Initially presumed killed in the ferry blast when her body washes up on shore, her autopsy reveals several chronological inconsistencies that rivet Carlin’s attention. As he uses Snow White’s eye to zero in on her life building up to the blast, he finds himself falling for her.

Thankfully, Patton’s charming smile and sensitive demeanor make it all too easy to buy into. While the character descends into stock damsel-in-distress territory in the last two acts, Patton does her best with which she’s given.

The supporting cast is nicely rounded out by some recognizable faces. As the terrorist mastermind behind the bombing, Jim Caviezel channels the cold, sinister nature of Timothy McVeigh and his twisted take on patriotism. He’s unrelenting in his focus, personified by a soul-piercing, icy stares.

Caviezel makes for a curious villain, especially after his turn as turn-the-other-cheek Jesus in that infamous Mel Gibson torture porno. Veteran character actor Bruce Greenwood appears as the mandatory bureaucrat hack that jeopardizes Carlin’s mission, and Adam Goldberg fills the mandatory “sarcastic techno-geek” role that’s as standard in science fiction as cup holders in a new car.

Despite their somewhat-cliched roles, each brings a unique layer of characterization to his performance and makes it his own.

Visually, Tony Scott tones his aesthetic way down to more conventional-levels of style. Working again with Director of Photography Paul Cameron, Tony Scott eschews the frenetic chaos that had become his trademark to create an image that’s subdued and even. Some of Scott’s visual quirks persist: high contrast, heavily saturated colors favoring a yellow/orange tint with shadows that take on a blue/green tone.

However, the camera is much more steady and even, covering the action in traditional wide and close-up shots. He also makes use of slow-motion ramping, and employs 360 degree circling dolly in multiple instances.

The Anamorphic aspect ratio adds a considerable amount of punch to the frame, especially in Scott’s helicopter-circling establishing shots. And of course, this wouldn’t be a Scott film without overblown light shining through curtains and blinds.

Tony Scott also continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams for the score, which takes on a conventional cinematic tone with soaring strings against a pulsing electronic beat. It’s effective and brings a large degree of emotion to the action, but let’s just say you won’t find yourself humming these songs anytime soon.

There’s a lot of good going for this film. The setting is New Orleans whose wounds from Hurricane Katrina are still raw and open. In fact, there’s even footage of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, where Caviezel has his hideout. The story goes that the film was originally supposed to take place in Long Island, but New Orleans serves as a much more memorable and unique locale.

Another strong point of the story is the technological time-warping device at the center of it all. While it requires a huge leap of the imagination in order to buy it as a viable machine, the way it works and its explanation within the film is incredibly novel.

The machine itself strongly resembles a miniature version of the Large Hadron Collider, and much like the LHC, “Snow White” is very bold and experimental in its wiring. It is initially presented as a massively detailed composite image of the world as it was four days ago, stitched together from the wealth of digital data afforded by satellites, cell phones, and surveillance cameras.

Omnisciently, it can even go into private residences and spy intimately on anyone they choose. There’s a catch, however– due to the amount of time needed to render this composite, they can only view what’s exactly four days in the past, and cannot rewind or fast-forward.

It’s a very crucial caveat to a machine that bestows God-like powers upon its user, making him or her choose the subject of surveillance wisely.

The applications of this technology is where the film finds its strongest moments. The whole thing has a MINORITY REPORT-esque “pre-crime” bent, albeit with primitive, clunky tech that’s much more realistic. The tech also allows for an incredibly novel spin on that old action film classic scene: the car chase.

Because of the real-time, localized nature of the machine, Washington’s Carlin finds himself behind the wheel in pursuit of Cavaziel, who is actually leading the chase from four days in the past. That dynamic makes for an incredibly inventive and, frankly, brilliant scene that finds Carlin switching his focus from the present to the past instantaneously like he’s chasing a ghost.

DEJA VU doesn’t skimp on depth, either. Any film that concerns itself with time travel is going to have to at one point address those nagging paradoxical questions. Scott takes a simplistic tack, comparing the flow of time to the flow of a river, and if the flow finds itself diverted from its original course, it simply follows a different, yet parallel track.

This is dramatized via a series of clues left behind in Claire’s apartment, the most chilling of which finds Carlin listening to a voicemail that he left for her a few days ago, which is strange considering he just found out about her existence earlier that day.

While that little thread unfortunately is never capitalized upon by the film’s denouement, the rest of the clues in Claire’s apartment are explained in fascinating detail when Carlin travels back in time to save her.

A lesser director would get entangled in all the minutiae and logic paradoxes, but Tony Scott juggles the disparate elements with grace (although, to be fair, he does drop the ball here and there).

DEJA VU is important to highlight in the context of Scott’s career, as it shows a dramatic scaling back of bold style in order to balance it better with the story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a great film, but it is certainly underrated and deserves better than its current reputation.


NUMB3RS: “TRUST METRIC” (2007)

In 2007, Tony Scott returned to the medium of television to direct the season 4 opener of Scott Free’s series NUMB3RS. The episode, “TRUST METRIC” finds the main characters trying to track down a former colleague, who’s escaped imprisonment after being branded as a spy for the Chinese. The overall bend of the show is that complex math is used to solve big crimes, and generally how math can be applicable to seemingly-unrelated fields.

I had never seen an episode of this show prior to watching TRUST METRIC, and honestly, I don’t plan on watching any more. That’s not to say it’s a well-crafted show– it’s just that police procedural television isn’t exactly my cup of tea, regardless of whether math is involved or not. However, I’m not here to talk about the show itself; my focus is on Tony Scott’s performance as a director. So, without further adieu…

Television is a tricky medium for directors, because they have to conform to a pre-established look decided upon by the show’s producer or creator (unless they are directing the pilot episode). Hiring a director like Scott with a highly-developed personal style is an even tricker proposition.

However, Scott manages to re-tool his unique aesthetic in a way that conforms to the existing tone. Utilizing Director Of Photography Bing Sokolsky, Scott imbues the image with high contrast, as well as colors that skew towards a steel blue/green bias.

As is typical with framing for television, Tony Scott covers the action fairly close-up, punching in for tight shots of hands, feets, lips, etc. Camerawork is mostly handheld, and Scott employs rack zooms and 360 degree tracking shots to add punch to his more-traditional compositions.

The actors are competent, as is to be expected from a middle-of-the-road TV show. The series stars Dave Krumholtz, a hard-working character actor who has worked for everyone from Judd Apatow to Aaron Sorkin.

NUMB3RS provides a welcome starring role for Krumholtz, and it’s satisfying to see him excel in the role of a mathematical genius who uses complex equations and algorithms to solve crimes. Val Kilmer, puzzingly, also shows up as the episode’s antagonist– a bespectacled evil doctor proficient in interrogation and torture tactics.

Why a high-profile film actor like Kilmer is in a series like NUMB3RS is most likely attributable to the assumption that he and Tony Scott forged a friendly working relationship on the set of DEJA VU (2006).

As for the episode itself, there’s some interesting moments. While the story falls into the familiar television trope of overly expositional dialogue, its action is well-executed (a harrowing subway escape sequence comes to mind), and Scott juggles the fractured narrative with a steady, competent hand.

Besides my general impression that the show is to be commended for making math compelling enough for primetime TV, my other impressions were a little more scattered: “Hey! There’s the bad guy from GHOSTBUSTERS 2!“ “Oh look, they’re scrawling complicated math equations on a glass wall!”

A spooky observation: the episode’s climactic battle takes place on a yacht in San Pedro Harbor, which is where Tony Scott would leap to his death five years later from the Vincent Thomas Bridge. The bridge itself is visible in the background of some shots.

Overall, Scott’s particular aesthetic transfers over into the realm of television without any significant compromise. The pace is lightning quick, which suits Tony Scott’s sensibilities quite nicely. It’s still a step back from the chaotic heights of his style’s development, but it’s consistent with the general paring-down of sensibilities he was undergoing at that stage in his career.


DODGE: “LAUNCH” (2008)

In 2008, Tony Scott created a high-octane action commercial for Dodge entitled, “LAUNCH”, which kicked off a campaign showcasing the new Dodge Ram truck.

The spot is classic Scott, through and through. The image is high in contrast, with saturated colors that skew warm. The camerawork is handheld, or mounted to helicopters for some truly epic framing.

This is a spot that knows its target audience. Featuring regular guys wearing t-shirts with traditionally-male professions emblazoned across their chests (cowboy, fireman, etc.), these dudes bomb down treacherous hills and blast through structures with reckless abandon.

Set that to some heavy rock music and top it all off with a massive explosion, and you’ve got the ultimate guys’ commercial. And whose sensibilities are better suited explicitly to guys’ tastes than the guy who directed TOP GUN and CRIMSON TIDE?

It’s easy to argue that Tony Scott took the job as a quick way to make some money doing what he does best, but it’s hard to deny that this commercial must have been an absolute blast to shoot. It’s a fun embodiment of Dodge as a brand, directed by one of the best action directors in history. Win win.

DODGE RAM: “LAUNCH” isn’t available as a video embed, but can be watched in full here.


THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009)

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009) is a contemporary update on the 1974 film of the same name. While largely a forgettable film, it’s notable within Tony Scott’s canon as his only remake.

Not having seen the original, I can’t speak for the remake’s quality in regards to its parent’s, but I can say that Scott’s film was produced at the height of the (still-ongoing) remake craze that gripped much of contemporary studio filmmaking in the late aughts. Like others of its ilk, it’s a mediocre affair made distinctive only by Scott’s personal aesthetic.

I had incredibly low expectations of this film going into my first viewing of it a few days ago, and while I wasn’t blown away by the end result, it was more entertaining than I was willing to give it credit for.

The film follows a fast-talking terrorist (unfortunately) named Ryder (John Travolta), who hijacks a NYC subway train and holds its passengers for ransom. It all comes down to Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), an MTA traffic operator reluctantly drawn into the crisis, who must negotiate with the wildly unpredictable Ryder for the hostages’ safe return.

Despite the formulaic script, the actors make the best of the scenario and commit fully to Tony Scott’s vision. In his fourth collaboration with Scott, Washington eschews his handsome leading-man aura to play a schlubby, unconfident guy caught in a high stress situation.

Thankfully, he is given a morally murky backstory of his own, which comes to light during the course of the movie, and makes the character of Garber much more compelling. Washington disappears into the role, which is about as good a compliment as you can give an actor. Conversely…..John Travolta.

Man, what is up with that facial hair? Whoever is to blame for that monstrosity needs to have their thinking privileges revoked. His performance fares slightly better, channeling the high energy, manic whack job character he played in John Woo’s FACE/OFF (1997).

Like Garber, Ryder is given some depth in the form of a twisted code of honor, but he ultimately falls prey to the same tired villain cliches (“I’ll die before I go back to prison!”).

The supporting cast is filled out with some interesting faces. PT Anderson company performer Luis Guzman shows up as a disgraced MTA conductor and the brain of Ryder’s operation (which we later get to see sprayed against the subway walls).

Despite hiding behind a thick nose bandage and yellow sunglasses, he is essentially playing himself. John Turturro gives a subdued, buttoned-up performance as a hostage negotiator for the NYPD who has to impotently coach Garber in negotiation tactics when Ryder demands to speak only to him.

James Gandolfini, in his third Tony Scott film appearance, channels Rudy Giuliani in his incarnation of NYC’s Mayor. It’s a strong performance that’s a mix between Tony Soprano, Giuliani, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In a nice touch of humor, he’s shown not to be a fan of The Yankees, his city’s biggest baseball team. Perhaps he’s a Mets guy?

Scott continues the general toning-down of his aesthetic, allowing the story to dictate the images. Working with Director of Photography Tobias Schlesinger, Scott maintains an image that’s high in contrast, with saturated colors.

Together, they use a color palette that changes for each key location- warm tones for exterior city shots, cold blu-ish/neutral tones in the MTA operations center, and steel-green under the fluorescent lights of the subway car. Tony Scott’s usual camera moves are all present- rack zooms, helicopter-based establishing shots, circular dollies, punchy close-ups, etc.

Camera work ranges between handheld and locked-down, favoring traditional, stabilized compositions. Tony Scott even finds opportunities to throw in visual tricks like dynamic subtitles and timestamp freeze-frames.

Tony Scott’s love for surveillance imagery is incorporated via a live video chat subplot involving a girl watching her boyfriend’s captivity on her laptop. (It’s a little implausible that one can get an internet signal down there, but whatever. HOLLYWOOD!)

A few new visual tricks are introduced, beginning with the slow expansion of the studio logos to fill the entire frame, as well a Google-Earth like map of NYC that whooshes the story from one place to the next.

The editing, whenever possible, reflects the relentless onslaught of an incoming subway train. Other visual elements, like a lens flare or a rack zoom, are accompanied by a dramatic sound effect (usually the sounds of the subway). What little flash the movie does have going for it is evident mainly in Tony Scott’s visual rendering.

Harry Gregson-Williams continues his collaboration with Scott on the score, creating yet another work in a string of wholly unmemorable soundtracks. To be sure, the score is effective in the context of the film, and helps sell the stakes, but I literally can’t remember a single note from it.

What I do remember, however, is Tony Scott’s use of a (heavily chopped and edited) Jay-Z track during the opening credits. “99 Problems” blares as the city of New York rushes by and spotlights Ryder walking purposefully through the crowds.

Is it the best use of Jay Z’s song? No. Does it fit with the tone Tony Scott is trying to convey? Sure. Does it set the stage for a high-energy crime flick? You bet.

As Scott’s penultimate feature film, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is a minor entry in an impressive, yet scattershot oeuvre. It’s an effective action film, but nothing more. Another case of style over substance, if you will. While Scott’s legacy won’t soon be forgotten, I’m afraid I can’t say the same for this film.


UNSTOPPABLE (2010)

UNSTOPPABLE, released in 2010, was Tony Scott’s last feature film before he took his life in August of 2012. By turning in one of his finer directorial efforts, Scott goes out on a high note, with a genuinely solid capstone to an incredibly scattershot body of work.

Most directors never have the luxury of knowing what their final film will be. If they do, the project is usually very sentimental, nostalgic, and bittersweet. However, the vast majority of them read like business as usual, secure in the confidence that there’ll always be a next project.

With Scott, it’s tough to gauge where UNSTOPPABLE stands on that spectrum, as the circumstances surrounding his suicide are so mysterious. We’ll never know whether or not Scott was actively aware that he was making his last feature film.

It’s especially eerie when you take into account that Tony Scott filmed scenes of UNSTOPPABLE under the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, where he would later jump to his death two years later.

UNSTOPPABLE takes place among the rural Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, where rough-and-tumble blue-collar trainmen spend their days manning smoke-spewing steel snakes. The rails are a way of life for these people, fueling their economy and feeding their families.

In terms of setting, it’s the most fully realized of all of Tony Scott’s films. The atmosphere has a palpable grit that makes the film really work.

The story begins when a half-mile long train carrying city-leveling amounts of flammable chemicals gets away from its conductor and begins barreling at top speed towards a large population area.

As various efforts to slow it down fail, the task falls to two wise-cracking trainmen (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) to attach themselves to the back of the runaway train and halt it themselves.

Tony Scott is at his best when he collaborates with Denzel Washington, an observation that certainly applies here. As a veteran train-man on the verge of retirement, Washington’s Frank is grizzled and gruff.

It’s somewhat fitting that Scott’s key career collaborator is shown in his last Tony Scott film appearance as a man looking back on his life and career. Frank is a member of the old guard, dispensing a wearied sage advice only when a young gun earns his respect (which isn’t often).

Like his character in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009), he has a few skeletons in his closet, which add depth to his character and make him more soulful.

Conversely, Chris Pine wisely eschews the trappings of his star-making turn as Captain Kirk in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK (2009), to play Will, a brash young father who’s trying to clean up the mess he’s made of his life.

Will carries a chip on his shoulder due to coming from money in a historically-poor part of the country, and his anger problems have led to marital strife and a series of odd jobs that never last.

He knows he has to prove himself, and he’s frustrated because it seems no one wants to give him a chance. Together, Pine and Washington’s on-screen chemistry crackles with energy and the ball-busting humorous dynamic you would expect from two regular guys in a blue collar profession.

The supporting cast is also effective, headed by the ever-reliable Rosario Dawson as Connie, a local train yard operator for the runaway train’s corporation, AWBR. Mostly confined to her microphone in the operations room, her role is similar to that of Washington’s in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, orchestrating and coordinating the rescue effort from afar.

She excels in a boundary-pushing role that only falters at the end when her character is shoehorned into becoming a love interest for Washington. Perennial human punching bag Ethan Suplee plays Dewey, the hapless conductor who lets his train get away from him and instigates the potential for massive catastrophe (way to go, man).

Despite having all kinds of shit heaped onto him by the other characters throughout the film, he takes it on the chin like a good sport and comes out somewhat likable.

A typecast Lew Temple plays AWBR’s man on the ground, racing alongside the speeding train in his truck. He’s all manic energy and country drawl in his second collaboration with Tony Scott (his first being a bit part in 2005’s DOMINO).

As Oscar Galvin, the stuffy executive charged with looking out for the interests of AWBR, character actor Kevin Dunn serves as the main obstruction to Will and Frank’s efforts. Galvin is the film’s pseudo-antagonist: a driven, stubborn man who, despite his intelligence and competence, can’t see the forest through the trees.

I spent a long time trying to place where I had seen Dunn before, before I realized that he was my favorite cast member in Michael Mann’s pilot for LUCK (2011). Kevin Corrigan, an immediately recognizable character actor and frequent performer for Martin Scorsese, channels a young Christopher Walken in his depiction of an FRA inspector who finds himself thrust into the rescue effort.

Tony Scott accomplishes something truly special with UNSTOPPABLE, in that he brings in a real lived-in sensibility to the visuals. He eschews the sleek, flashy sheen of his previous films for a wet, gritty, and cold look.

Despite the story occurring in that space between the end of Autumn and the first snow, he draws a vivid beauty from the rural surroundings and smoky industrial landscape. Setting-wise, Scott is coming full circle with his boyhood in the industrial fringes of England, as well as the gritty environs of his first films, ONE OF THE MISSING (1969) and LOVING MEMORY (1971).

The setting also allows him to add an element that, until now, hadn’t been present in his films: subtle social commentary. At the time of its release, America was in the throes of the Great Recession’s death grip, with industrial/rural areas hit the hardest.

Whole towns, entire ways of life were on the line, not to mention the heated conflicts between unions and their corporate employers. It’s all reflected in the film, albeit in a very overt, action-movie way. But this subtext informs the characters and their motivations, and the result is a thematically rich film that’s also incredibly entertaining.

At the end of the day, UNSTOPPABLE is a Tony Scott film, and nowhere is it more evident than in the cinematography. Working for the first time with Director of Photography Ben Seresin, Scott is up to his old tricks: high contrast, stylized color tones favoring the green/blue side of the spectrum, etc.

The overall color palette is mostly desaturated, except for reds and oranges, which punch loudly against the dreary blue mountains. Skies and sunsets are still dramatic whenever possible (one would think it’s always sunset in Tony Scott’s universe).

Camerawork is mostly locked-off, utilizing traditional framing that allows the setting to really soak into every frame. Tony Scott also continues to make frequent use of circular dolly shots, helicopter-based establishing shots, speed ramping.

The look is more subdued than films like MAN ON FIRE (2004) and DOMINO, which is consistent with a general paring-down of style in that stage of his career. Even his famous dynamic subtitles are more subdued, crafted with a sensible, conservative font that animates rolls across the screen with little flourish.

Tony Scott’s musical collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams would come to an end with UNSTOPPABLE. For his last Scott score, Gregson-Williams crafts a traditional cinematic-sounding work that sells the action and the high stakes, but once again fails to deliver anything memorable or transcendent.

However, it’s inarguably better than the source music that Scott chooses to end the film on. It’s a screeching Crunk track that’s moronic and obscenely off-tone with the rest of the film. Really, it’s an incredibly baffling choice.

My jaw literally dropped at how bad of a choice it was. I honestly can’t envision what was going through Scott’s film when he threw the track over the credits, but it threatens to undo all the goodwill Tony Scott generated in the preceding two hours.

Given that this is his last film, and thus the last statement he’ll ever make as a filmmaker, I can’t imagine a worse note to conclude a career on. It’s really that bad.

(Another baffling musical choice: re-using the rave remix of Clint Mansell’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM theme in a scene that takes place at Hooters. Seriously. Did Tony Scott like the track that much? Could you imagine trying to choke down wings with this blasting in your ears?)
My only big gripe with the film is the laziness in which the news footage is handled.

Tony Scott strived for a heightened realism in all his films, but the treatment of the live news report, which makes up a large percentage of the film, seem like an afterthought. I understand that the news organization should be that bastion of unbiased media, Fox News, (because Twentieth Century Fox produced the film) but there’s a lot that defies the reality that Scott works so hard to create.

For instance, a dude says “bitch” on live TV, without any kind of forethought or attempts by the news reporter to censor it. When they show photos of Frank and Will on-screen within the news report, the photos are well lit, and of professional quality.

In other words, they look staged. Something tells me that two blue-collar guys aren’t regularly posing for professional glamor shots. More candid photography would have gone a long way towards credibility.

And speaking of photography, the news footage is simply filmed footage for the movie, with a TV-looking filter slapped over it. Last time I checked, the news didn’t capture its footage with 35mm film. It’s lame, it’s lazy, and it took me out of the movie repeatedly.

Ultimately, these are all minor complaints. The fact is that UNSTOPPABLE is a solid film that also ranks as one of Tony Scott’s finest. He had been on a downward trajectory in quality after MAN ON FIRE, but he managed to squeak out a win at the last second.

Tony Scott’s films tell us very little about the man himself, because he was a utilitarian filmmaker– an action-genre maestro that was always more interested in entertaining us than making us think. But with UNSTOPPABLE, Scott lets the socioeconomic subtext sink deep into his story, and provides his fans with a dramatically-rich experience and a sense of closure to a high-octane career.

Scott’s train has been barreling forward at full speed for almost 45 years now, and now that it’s been stopped, we can pause to reflect on the ride. And what a ride it’s been.


MOUNTAIN DEW: “LIVIN THE LIFE”: (2012)

Perhaps it’s fitting that an unabashedly commercial filmmaker’s last work is… a commercial. Shortly before his death, Tony Scott directed a commercial for Mountain Dew, entitled “LIVIN’ THE LIFE”. The concept is comedic, dealing with a man fantasizing about a life of extreme luxury when billionaire Mark Cuban offers him a huge sum of money in exchange for the last can of Diet Mountain Dew.

It’s about as conventional as commercials get, in terms of the concept. Mark Cuban has proved to be a great sport in lampooning his image in pop culture as an obscenely successful businessman (if not a very successful actor). The story is cute, but one can’t deny how much of a cliche it is within the world of commercials. The ad agency was really reaching for the stars on this one.

Visually, it’s a Tony Scott work through and through. The image is high in contrast and incredibly saturated with bright, warm colors. Scott makes good use of his circular dolly, rack zooms, and Hollywood mega-budget playthings (helicopters, tigers, mansion fountains, etc.).

Basically, it’s a license for Scott to shoot whatever wild luxury scenario he can come up with him. To say the scope of that imagination is limited is an understatement. Overlaid with a terrible hip hop song, the spot is short, punchy and ends with the gag that, despite all these crazy riches, the protagonist would still rather have that last can of Diet Mountain Dew.

It’s somewhat sad for a director’s last work to be a commercial, as it suggests something of a career failure, or a fall from grace. However, Scott dabbled in all mediums and made no bones about enjoying his craft, whatever the end product may be. In this case, it’s Scott who has the last laugh.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. 

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors.