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Director Series: Tony Scott

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Anyone considering director Tony Scott’s body of work can safely call him a man’s man. Spy Game, Top Gun, The Fan, The Hunger, The Last Boy Scout, Crimson Tide, True Romance and Enemy of the State are some of his titles. His movies usually involve heavy special effects, stylized camerawork, physics-defying stunts and great performances from key actors such as Christopher Walken and Gene Hackman.

His latest film, Man on Fire, stars Denzel Washington as Creasy, an ex-Special Forces operative in anguish. He drifts to Mexico, encounters his old friend, played by Christopher Walken, who sets him up as a bodyguard. Creasy’s job: protect Pita, the young daughter of a Mexican businessman and his American wife. He succumbs to the girl’s charm and takes on a father-figure role. Then a kidnapping occurs and Man On Fire kicks into a classic revenge tale. Creasy now has only one goal in mind: kill everyone who was involved.
One of the film’s highlights is its super-realistic and gritty cinematography. Scott’s background in TV commercials means his action/adventure films aren’t reigned in by fear of unorthodox camera techniques and shots.

Below the Line spoke with him about this recent release and his collaboration with his crew.

Below the Line: You worked with cinematographer Paul Cameron (Collateral, Swordfish, Gone in 60 Seconds) on this project, who you also collaborated on the award-winning BMW commercial.

Tony Scott: That was the first time Paul and I worked together. When I next did Man On Fire we used Paul and the same team. We experimented and tried different techniques to elicit emotion to tell something about character, to get inside Denzel’s head. Normally, techniques interfere with story and they become tricks that cloud dramatic issues. We experimented with some on BMW and worked them out on Man on Fire. I think it worked really well.

BTL: Talk about your work with Company 3 colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld on this film.

Scott: I’ve known Stefan at least 10 years. He is really unique. There are many colorists in town that are good, but Stefan is brilliant. It’s not just a work ethic, but that he’s a painter and he paints and functions instinctually, which is the best way that these guys can work with and operate pieces of technical equipment. In the end, results are instinctual. He manages to divorce himself from the technology and produce something that is very painterly. He’s rare. He’s the best. I work with him on everything I do.

BTL: There is a very organic feel to this film—the blending of different film formats and camera equipment, like the hand-cranked camera. Can you talk about specific cameras used?

Scott: Yes, we used Panavision cameras in terms of regular sound cameras and regular high-speed cameras, but then we always have on set our adapted 35mm cameras with hand cranks on side. The first time I did a hand crank was with a 1914 Bell and Howell, years ago, for a United Airlines commercial. We used black and white print stock. This time it was a little iffy because the studio was terrified I was experimenting on their movie. Whenever I did the hand crank, I was made to shoot on negative as well. Also, we learned through watching the dailies, and learned from the BMW commercial, that the cranking becomes an extension of you and of what you’re trying to tell in the story, so If you go faster, it gives a different emotion than if you are going slower. There’s jerkiness or different densities in terms of exposure. We learned how to use it in terms of different sequences. Like when Denzel is attempting suicide, we cranked it very fast. So you get a lot of hard bleaching. We were trying to show the audience what it would be like to be on crystal meth.

BTL: Your editor, Christian Wagner, has been with you for several films, The Fan, Spy Game and True Romance. He also is a Bond movie veteran. What common vision do you both share?

Scott: Chris and I have been together since Revenge. He was assistant to Chris Levinson; that is where I met him. I work with the same people all the time and I work with Chris Wagner and Chris Levinson, depending who is available. It is always the same team. His (Wagner’s) personality becomes an extension of mine. It has so much to do with personality when you spend time day in and day out. I work on every frame; a lot of editors don’t like that. Some just want to be left alone. You come at the end of the day, they show you a sequence, you give them notes, and you leave. But when he and I are working together and going through the process—and my process is particular—I sit with Chris and I get ideas and I change things in a constructive way. Especially now, working on the Avid in a digital format enables me to continue to paint right up to the last minute. That’s what a lot of editors don’t like.

BTL: You’ve said that the personality of the characters inspires the color and frame. Can you elaborate?

Scott: Personality inspires. For instance, with Denzel and the suicide scene you find lots of stuff with him that’s off center—the back of his head, his shirt on and off. The continuity didn’t matter; I was inspired by what was going on inside his head. Again, we knew what we were getting in terms of the speed of hand cranking, which gives different bleach effects or different densities of color and contrast. Again, everything for me goes back to painting. In my mind we are represented by light and shade and reds and blues, and so I always relate personalities to frame and color.

BTL: Veteran directors have film crews that sometimes seem clannish. What’s been your process in selecting the people you want to work with on a feature?
Scott: Over a period of time, I’ve gotten the best crew in the industry. When I went to Mexico, I used a lot of Mexican crew and didn’t use my regular crew out of L.A., but I used my keys out of L.A. They are all guys I do commercials with. It really comes down to the fact that all these guys are really good at what they do. There’s one guy, Pebbles, a focus puller who is absolutely unique. He had a gallstone, so the crew calls him Pebbles.

I think it’s brilliant to have a crew where all the guys have a sense of humor. Filming is so hard and the hours you keep. It’s like embarking on a journey and if there’s a bad penny, you’re fucked. My guys have a sense of humor, no matter how tough it is. I hate bad feelings on the set. They’re in tune with what I want. I think they enjoy coming to work with me and I love coming to work with them. I think our sets have a reputation, especially for the actors, as the most comfortable sets they’ve ever worked on.

BTL: Let’s talk about costume designer Louise Frogley. She has done some wonderful work. Did you first work with her on Spy Game?

Scott: No, our first work was with Louise in England, 20 years ago, doing commercials. She was my costumer; we called her Frog Legs. She has these long wispy beautiful legs. She came and started working in America and I met with her just before Spy Game. We worked on Spy Game and then Man on Fire. She’s great. Everyone I use has a passion about what they do. And they feel lucky that they get to go to different places and meet different people, different environments. It’s an adventure every day.

BTL: Supervising sound editor F. Hudson Miller worked with you on Spy Game, Days of Thunder and Enemy of the State. Will you be working together on future projects?

Scott: I always work with the same guys. I’ve worked with George Watters II since Top Gun. Hudson is part of George’s team. I’ve worked with Juno Ellis and my Foley guys for at least 10 years. George has the same people for a long time like I do, because the communication becomes much faster.

BTL: Can you talk about your production design team?

Scott: Benjamin Fernandez has been with me a long time, but I will also give credit to Chris Seagers. Chris and Benji worked together on this and also my set dresser, Elli Griff. Chris did Spy Game with me. That’s where I met Chris. He was an art director who I moved up to production designer on Spy Game. That is where we began, and he’s going to do my next two movies with me.

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