In a 2009 interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Tony Scott discussed his plans for his intended remake of the 1979 cult classic The Warriors, which included reshaping the story as a modern tale of rival Los Angeles gangs. The vision was expectedly simple, with“10 guys stuck at point B and they need to get back to point A.” In preparation for filming, Scott had started meeting with actual L.A. gangs (always the second guy, never the leader, he explained). It was an interest and approach seemingly mismatched, but oddly appealing given his history of only being predictable by his unpredictability and his reliable affection for his surprisingly human characters.
Ultimately, Scott’s updated version of The Warriors was left on the table, but his last film, Unstoppable (which ended up being his most critically admired since Crimson Tide) provided its own opportunity to understand who Tony Scott was as a filmmaker. In promotion of the film, the director explained to the Wall Street Journal:
…this is like a 100,000 tons of steel moving at 70 to 150 miles an hour, and it’s a dramatic tool for me. And then crosscut that with the two boys having to unfold their differences, it’s Kurtz and Kirk (laughs) in the cab together, and I’ve got two of the best actors around stuck in this tiny little space at 70 miles an hour. So I responded to the challenge, but it’s a great tool for me, to cut those two things.
A slightly reductive interpretation of this interview excerpt yields the perfect autobiographical microcosm of Scott’s approach to his art. “Two things…” The characters and their circumstance, people and the thing happening to them. Tony Scott was gifted at employing his film devices. He was a director with few constructional weaknesses. His movies were above average in measure of framing, editing, music cues, performance mining, and more and he unleashed all of those skills in a constant fury. But often, Scott’s reputation suffered because his technical and creative astuteness was aimed at ambition so novel and perhaps naïve —that is, his commitment to caring about his characters within their simple-statement conflict–that he was frequently dismissed by critics as a run-of-the-mill seat-filler. Unfortunately, this became more and more true in the later stages of his career.
The democratization of film discourse that has been provided through the internet’s enhanced provision of forum and social media-driven platforms has predictably resulted in an overwhelmingly collectivist tone in conversation. We may not want to admit it, but perhaps too much of our discussion of film as an art and institution leans upon the conversation participants’ ability to list and cross-reference. Accordingly, consensus adoration is almost exclusively reserved for those filmmakers whose auteur theory-ready style is established and whose patternistic trademarks make it possible to describe his or her filmography in generalized statements of boastful recognition. This model, in which the characters serve a film that serves its artist who in turn serves the self-interested critical body, is one that willfully disregards artists like Michael Mann, M. Night Shyamalan, and, particularly, Tony Scott, a filmmaker who is rebelliously and almost incomparably selfless in his application of an overloaded pop-film vocabulary to serve the characters he loved and their circumstances.
Within the shelf space to which he is most often catalogued, where his reserved portion of the landscape is challenged only perhaps by that of Michael Bay and his frequent producer Jerry Bruckheimer, no filmmaker has been more successful in removing smudged fingerprints and signatures from their work. Scott, like Bay and Bruckheimer (at least on paper), worked predominantly with stories that (again, at least on paper) appealed to masculine movie-going sensibility. But unlike Bay and Bruckheimer or most other more successful directors, he was not wholly or even partially defined by a standard approach to every project. In fact, stylistic and/or narrative patterns are hard to trace in the Scott’s frenetic filmography. In a broader measure, with all genre and non-genre artists from the same working period included, perhaps only the Coen Brothers, renowned for their exceptionally airtight craftsmanship, are worthy of comparison in terms of project-lead flexibility, but even those masters of film leave bread crumbs in structure, theme, and, most transparently, the fatalistic narrative cruelty they unleash upon their hapless leads. On this last point, Tony Scott is almost the exact inverse.
In fact, Scott’s character allegiance often drew criticism from his own collaborators. Quentin Tarantino, who penned the script for True Romance, famously opposed Scott’s decision to change the flow and ending of the film to allow Clarence’s (Christian Slater) survival and the central couple’s “happily ever after.”
Similarly, Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii, the screenwriters behind Déjà Vu, were vocally critical of Scott’s decision to alter some of the most pivotal elements of their high-minded sci-fi script. But again, Scott’s perhaps simplified fantasy of having man’s will to live and love come out victorious in a match against time, God, and fate is so merciful, vulnerable, and human that it’s hard to fault him for the collaborative betrayal, particularly when one combines this understanding with Scott’s visual arrangement of the film’s observation room, in which the present folds back to the past with one of the most stunning screen illustrations of time manipulation that we have ever seen.
Tony Scott did everything for his characters and their story. In the interview with The Wall Street Journal, Scott directly admitted that his “style” in each film is defined by what his characters and story need. This fact more than any other helps explain Scott’s filmography, but only on the film-by-film basis that it deserves.
It explains how Top Gun might be the most 80s film and a cinematic anachronism, the singular symbolic embodiment of a decade full of over-the-top everything and one so desperately determined to push the film medium forward within the mainstream’s witness that the backend of that decade had more forcibly gaudy films than any other.
It explains the uncharacteristic shadowy grit and visually paranoid editing of the under-celebrated prophetic surveillance tech thriller Enemy of the State.
It explains why his most dialogue-driven dramas—the claustrophobic chess match of Crimson Tide and Spy Game, the last foreign espionage film before 9/11 changed the rules—also contained his least aggressive editing and calmest color palettes.
And it explains everything about his most expressive, experimental, and reviled film. Domino is a chromatic abstract collage built from broken bits of commercial cinema, interruptive seizures triggered by MTV music video culture, and shards of biographical truth created through the smashing impact of fictional liberties driven aggressively through a life lived by its own rules. It’s clear that Scott loved Domino more than any character he ever put on screen, almost assuredly because she was a real person for whom Scott possessed a real adoration. His decisions to turn the contrast knob as far as it will go, to drench his screen in the most vulgar blaring tones he ever used, and to film more takes and edit them with more cuts than one might expect even from him was meant as an expression of Domino’s hard-edged spirit. Domino is a work of affection through metaphoric emulation, and arguably, its success is best measured by its commitment to task than its public appreciation.
But one needn’t measure any Scott film in its aesthetic entirety for evidence of his character-first approach. There are many singular instances of unabashed cinema cliché that work in Scott’s films where they would not otherwise. Nine Inch Nails’ The Mark Has Been Made kicking in when John Creasy (Denzel Washington) tells Lisa Ramos (Radha Mitchell) of his intention to murderously avenge her daughter in Man On Fire, the sunset silhouetted shot of Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) sensually admiring a race car in his barn in Days of Thunder, the blue-lit sex scene at the beginning of True Romance. All of these scenes work because at the time of their unfolding, Scott’s cinematic science has already been precise and true to the characters and the story design that lead them to this point, while Scott never inserts himself as a watcher or narrator.
There’s a scene in Spy Game where Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) and Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) meet on the round rooftop of a tall building after a particularly tumultuous operation. It is the first scene of contention between the film’s two A-list leads, captured with facial close-in shots and distant circling chopper shots. The pull away long-view, facing downward on the characters and the city, should be the perspective of an all-knowing narrator, the establishment of an authorial voice according to a history of cinematic technique. Instead, the sound design stays close to the characters. Even from the down-facing authorial visual perspective, we still hear Nathan stand from his chair, we hear the conversation at the same volume. We note the busy complexity of the city below, but our attention only consciously seeks the mentor and the student, never yielding to the obstruction of the assumed narrator.
It seems like every Scott film has at least one of these moments, a scene weighted by technique and character concern so that the stakes are invisible and thus the tension unbearable. In each of these instances, power shifts with the characters’ knowledge of the circumstance, which is communicated through the facial performance of the actors and the framing of the conversation. Think of Robert Dean (Will Smith) and his initial threat to the mob on behalf of his client in Enemy of the State or, of course, the veritable short film at the center of True Romance when Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper) face off in a subdued verbal showdown of hopeless mortal consequence, a ten minute stretch of film scored to The Flower Duet from Lakmé by Léo Delibes and worthy of its own semester-long advanced film class study.
Perhaps the best example though comes in a three person exchange in Man on Fire, when Creasy returns to tell Lisa of her husband’s involvement in their daughter’s kidnapping. Here, the stakes are all on the table, and in this particular action film, one which spends an atypical amount of time familiarizing its audience with its characters, it is impossible not to consider those stakes with dizzyingly sympathetic emotion, particularly when Mitchell, Washington, and Marc Anthony all exemplify the sort of raw vulnerability and organic reaction that Scott’s character honesty frequently inspired from his actors and actresses.
It might be a leap to view Scott’s action movie opus Man on Fire as a biographical work. Scott, as has been discussed, possessed far too much humility to intentionally establish the most superhuman character in his filmography as a representation of himself. But given the director’s tireless efforts to serve storytelling basics with unmatched film sophistication, it might be a fair analytical reading.
John Creasy’s initials are the most generically obvious sign of his character’s narrative and moral fabric, his early torment, and his eventual martyrdom. But, Man on Fire proves to be far too religiously-astute a film to lean itself upon a vague Christ connection. Rather, Creasy is more usefully tied to the Apostle St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, the connection established by Pita’s gift of a necklace bearing the saint’s likeness and also through the film’s title (St. Jude is often portrayed with fire around his head to represent the presence of the Pentecost).
In his letter to the universal church, the last of seven letters of the sort in the New Testament, St. Jude explains of false teachers: “But these men blaspheme whatever things they know not, and what things soever they naturally know, like dumb beasts, in these they are corrupted” (Jude 1:10). Perhaps a bit of a reach, but one worth making in celebration of a filmmaker who committed to an earnest ambition of serving only what he knew, elements which are slowly becoming something of a lost cause—story and character.
And there is something almost religiously sincere about Scott’s selfless love for his characters and his artistic concealment of self to elevate and enliven his narration. For any character-based story to have utility, its audience must sympathize and empathize, on some level, with the characters. Without that connectedness, any chapter of their conflict is without real engagement or lesson. That isn’t to say that the audience must see the characters as similar, relatable, or likable. That’s a common misconception. Most of the time, in fact, a film or narrative will work if the characters are subconsciously felt to be living, and that cannot happen without a creator’s love for them. And it is very easy to feel Scott’s love.
Perhaps that’s why the Los Angeles gang leaders with whom Scott was meeting regarding the remake of The Warriors had agreed that thousands of members would participate in a peace treaty in order to appear in and help with the production of the film. A small miracle that never came to fruition, but deserves credit as a testimony to the power of film done correctly.
After Top Gun, the highest grossing film of 1986, and Beverly Hills Cop 2, the third highest grossing film of 1987, Tony Scott never had a film finish in the top 10 box office performances of any year and rarely had a film with a domestic gross of over 100 million, a strange set of statistics for a man who helped define the modern blockbuster as much as anyone else. Additionally, far more of Scott’s films fall under the 60% positive mark on Rotten Tomatoes than those that score above it. This statistic might be even stranger, given how easily and endlessly rewatchable Scott’s films prove to be. I think of Scott as the second best filmmaker of the 1990s and 2000s, behind only the Coen Brothers, and he is the one filmmaking artist who most influences my own writing.
Even now, hitting Ctrl + F to search this article submission for personal singular pronouns (I, me, and my), it dawns on me that none of us—critics, screenwriters, budding filmmakers, whatever—will ever prove to be as selfless in service to film and in pursuit of compassionate narrative honesty as Tony Scott was for decades. That sort of egolessness is too rare in contemporary mainstream cinema, maybe in all modern art. And we live in a world where we might lose those rare selfless artists too early to appreciate what they have given us when it matters most, but, thanks to Tony Scott, we will never have to live in a world where Pita doesn’t come back across the bridge to meet Creasy, where Maverick and Charlie lose that loving feeling, or where Clarence doesn’t escape the hotel room and walk with Alabama and his child on a beach. The best work outlives the most popular artists, and so Tony’s Scott’s love for his stories and characters will always be honest and true. And I think that’s so cool…