Tony Scott: Breaking Down His Cinematic Visual Style
Tony Scott was a British film director who lived for 68 years as a filmmaking visionary. Though he began in commercial work, the call of artistic filmmaking would ring out loudly. He seamlessly transitioned from a commercial maker to a big-budget A-list action film director. With the help of his older brother Ridley for direction, he created a name for himself that was respected from the top actors and professionals in the field to the most discerning movie lovers.
Tony Scott was born on June 21 in 1944 in Northumberland, North East England. From early on he was deeply embedded in the film arts; in fact, he shared his proclivity for film with other famous family members. As the youngest of three sons, he took the experiences of his older brother Ridley to heart and they ushered in his own love of the art world.
Almost from the beginning, Tony Scott was drawn to creative endeavors. He spent his college years at Grangefield School and earned a degree in fine arts. By the age of 16, he made an appearance on screen, portraying a character in Ridley’s first film production. Perhaps it was the experience that confirmed in his mind that film was his desired career choice.
Though he tried to enter London’s Royal College of Art, he failed to get in at first. He proceeded to start working on his own short film production in 1969 and titled his project “One of the Missing”. Eventually he did enter the Royal College of Art and had every intention of being a painter. So, what would the eventual push be that would send him into the field of film making over painting?
The push came in the form of his older brother Ridley Scott. Of course, he would create his own prolific film career but at its inception, he was intent on bringing his younger brother into the field. He discussed the issue on the basis of practicality. Ridley understood Tony’s penchant for documentaries and artistic works, but also understood the likely low-budget revenue that came with them. Instead, he wooed his brother with the promise of a “Ferrari” if he followed him into the film industry. Tony, who was an artist by nature, still had a realistic vision of his future and tagged onto his brother’s Ridley Scott Associates, RSA, company.
Tony Scott began his body of work with RSA with directing commercials. Although the pursuit didn’t have the “flash” of the big screen, it still provided Tony with the outlet he needed. His intent was to bring a creative spin with his own artistic vision. That fortunately is exactly what he got with his commercial work. RSA commissioned a long list of commercial work and Tony was at the helm. For the first 15-years of his career his job was to work with marketing products. Though it may have lacked the Hollywood spark, it paid the bills quite nicely and also allowed him the opportunity to learn about his craft behind the camera.
In addition to his commercial work, Tony also was tasked with running operations for RSA as his brother Ridley pushed towards his own career in big-budget film making. Again- what was lacking in excitement was made up for with the amount of training Tony was receiving. Not only did he get a crash course in life behind the camera, but he developed his own acumen as a businessman.
Of his commercial career Tony was once heard saying “I got sidetracked into commercials…it was a blast.” Though he never intended to follow this path, in the end he accepted and announced that it was one of the most enjoyable times of his career.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Tony Scott would move into long-form film. He was tapped away from his commercial work to film a TV adaptation of “The Author of Beltraffio” by Henry James. At the time, there was a lot of success from other British film directors. This created the perfect time for one more talented artist to make his debut to the big screen. Most of his comrades started off in commercial work, so to Tony it was natural to transition into film work.
That is not to say that a British director had an easier time with Hollywood in the 1970s and 80s. In fact, many of them were criticized harshly for having a “style over substance” method of making pictures. The camera shots were ingenious and captivating; the story however lagged. From an artist’s point of view, the British-made film was a thing of beauty. From the casual movie-goer’s point of view, the vision was not the same.
What Tony Scott was able to do however was gain a few strong supporters who were completely on board with his artistic directing style. Namely, it was Jerry Bruckheimer who catapulted him into notoriety within the Hollywood scene. As Scott stated,
“He [Bruckheimer] always applauded the way I wanted to approach things.”
The first production of the two directors was “The Hunger” in 1982. What made it such an artistic masterpiece was the intricate movie shots and the unctuous visual layering. Scott was able to tap into the backdrop and create a world for stars David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve that allowed them to play.
Unfortunately, though the movie was visually stunning, it failed to reach an audience. Many years later it would evolve into a cult classic, but at the time it was considered a major studio flop.
Reinventing the Action Film
Undeterred, Tony Scott would push on with his film career. In 1985 he would take on a project that would solidify him as one of the best directors in Hollywood, “Top Gun”. Bruckheimer took the idea of Tony Scott as a director to the studio with the ammunition of his reputation with commercial work. In particular, one of his commercial projects features a Saab racing a fighter jet; this was just the visual they needed to convince the studio that Scott was the right person to direct “Top Gun”, a film featuring fighter pilots.
Though initially Scott was hesitant to take on “Top Gun”, the film ended up earning more than $350-million. It also introduced the world to one of the biggest action heroes of all time- Tom Cruise. By all accounts the film put Scott on the map of top-Hollywood directors. He moved onto his next project called “Beverly Hills Cop II” with Eddie Murphy.
Again, this film did not earn him many good reviews as a director, however it brought in one of the highest grossing ticket sales of the decade. His next project was “Revenge” in 1990. It starred big-name stars Kevin Costner, Anthony Quinn and Madeleine Stowe.
The team-up of Tony Scott and Tom Cruise would happen once again in 1990 with “Days of Thunder”. This was another film that was big-budget. The budget however, soared to unprecedented levels when directors Scott and Bruckheimer commissioned lavish luxuries during filming. One example was a vacant storefront that they had converted into a personal gym for the cast. It came at a cost of $400,000.
Things like this caused the film’s budget to keep increasing. At the time, detractors stated that to even break-even, the film would have to bring in $100-million…at minimum. In 1990 this was an outlandish number that even the biggest stars and directors could not muster. “Days of Thunder” was the happy exception.After the film was released it brought in $157-million in box office sales alone. Add to that the home video revenue of $40-million, and Tony Scott was officially settling quite nicely into his place as one of the most successful directors of all time .
After his two big releases of “Top Gun” and “Days of Thunder” with Tom Cruise, Tony Scott officially adopted the title of “Top-Earning A-List Action Film Director”. He took on 1993’s release “True Romance”, as written by Quinten Tarantino. Big-name stars clamored for their place in the project; they included Patricia Arquette, Christian Slater, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Val Kilmer and Samuel L. Jackson. Despite its star-power, the film did poorly at the box office and was labeled a “failure”, the first of which Scott would have to endure.
Tony Scott moved on to directing “The Fan” with Robert DeNiro and Wesley Snipes and then took on “Enemy of the State” three years later in 1998. He also was the directorial vision behind “Spy Game”, “Man on Fire”. Along with his brother Ridley, Tony took on co-producing responsibilities for television show “Numb3rs”. In years following, he also directed “Domino” with star Keira Knightley, “Déjà vu” with Denzel Washington, and “The Taking of Pelham 123” with John Travolta. The Scott brothers,
The Scott brothers, however were not done with their television projects just yet. They introduced the show “The Good Wife”, starring Julianna Marguiles and Chris Noth. In the time after these films and projects, Scott continued to produce and direct film projects. One of the notable things about the director was his emersion in film and creativity until his death.
The Tony Scott Style
Tony Scott had a distinct style with his productions. Some critics referred to it as “frenetic”. Though in other genres this word may have been devastating as a review, in reference to action-packed films it was ideal. In fact, it was what made the name for Scott in the action world. He discussed his usage of frenzy when filming, stating that it was able to capture the “energy and momentum” he desired to make the film truly exciting to the viewers. His goal was to “grab” its audience immediately and he used the frenetic method of filming.
Scott was not without critics during his film career. Oftentimes words like “offensive” and “disconnected” were used for his storytelling style. Scott made no apologies though. He connected with his style of delivery and was not one to diverge…in particular at the suggestion of a critic. Rather, he found the process of film-making an artform ready for his intense study. He was a master at telling the story of a “flawed” hero, with Denzel Washington as one of his favored actors. The two collaborated numerous times throughout their careers.
The story of Tony Scott’s life would be cut short however. Though he had many projects in the works and was researching different possibilities, he committed suicide on August 19, 2012. He drove his car to the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles and had notes to his office to direct to his family and his personal information in his vehicle. At some point of the late morning, early afternoon, he exited his vehicle and jumped off the bridge to his death.
The Los Angeles Port Office was called to the scene and recovered his body from the waters. Though he left behind notes, he never explained the reason for his suicide. His family has never revealed what his final written words to them were. The official cause of death was “multiple blunt force injuries” from the fall. There was some rumor that he was suffering from a battle with cancer prior to his death, but details were kept private. In addition, the coroner cited no evidence of cancer.
Despite Tony Scott’s life drawing to a self-determined end, his legacy lived on thanks to his many friends. Famed performers such as Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Eddie Murphy, Stephen Fry, Peter Fonda and Gene Hackman all noted the director’s genius and genuine friendship. His family created a scholarship fund via the American Film Institute. Despite cutting his life short, his work in film will live on indefinitely, as will the impact he had on his coworkers throughout his film career.
Tony Scott was known as one of the most creative visionaries in the film directorial world. Though he was criticized for technique and choices, his movies made a huge impact on the film world drawing in millions of patrons. His films will live on in history forever, as will his place as one of the most prolific and captivating directors of all time.
Interview with Tony Scott for ‘Deja Vu’
Tony Scott interview for The Taking of Pelham 123
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