Issue 10: Winter 2012
Chris O Neill
Style Dictated By Character...
Monday 20th August 2012 was a ponderous day for this writer. At the time Tony Scott was to me the most notable commercial filmmaker working within the American film system. Often criticised and dismissed for his bombastic style, yet rarely applauded for the experimental and committed approach he applied to traditional narrative storytelling, I championed Tony Scott at any vaguely appropriate opportunity among my cinema-literate friends and colleagues. It was after such a discourse the evening before that I awoke to several messages on my phone asking "Have you heard the news? Tony Scott is dead". At the time of writing, no explanation has been uncovered as to why he jumped off the 180-foot tall Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, California. He was observed scaling the fence and then leaping to his death without hesitation. Initially, there were reports claiming he was suffering from incurable brain cancer, but this was soon disproven. What a frustrating, startling and extraordinary end to a life.
Tony Scott came to feature filmmaking from an arts background, having studied painting for eight years and then spent ten years directing television commercials. This gave him a unique and precise sense of visual composition that he pursued in every project. He was known to get up at four o'clock every morning during production and design the oncoming day's storyboards rather than write-up a simple shot list. This immense energy and dedication was applied to every aspect of a film's production. 'Heightened reality' is a term Scott used when discussing the vibrant colours and grain textures he achieved with reversal film stock, but the term could also neatly summarise the overall aesthetic of a Tony Scott film. He was rigorous in his research and would delve wholeheartedly into the real environments that his fictional characters would populate to comprehend the worlds they inhabit on-screen. From Crimson Tide (1995) until his final film Unstoppable (2010), Scott would find real-life counterparts for the actors to relate their characters to, and would often request rewrites to accommodate details he would learn from these peoples' experiences.
In regards to acting Scott once said "I like a lot of texture and a lot of things can be misinterpreted as not texture but as distractions in terms of actors and performance". Due to the restless, grandiose imagery of the films, such elements don't initially register with the viewer but are significant to the overall picture. There's always a sense of life going on around the principal characters, and he would add much detail in and around the edges of a scene to enrich the material further. Scott was a wonderful director of actors, and a prime example of this is True Romance (1993), which to-date is the best presentation of a Quinten Tarantino screenplay on-screen. When helming his own material, Tarantino has a tendency to have his actors perform in a stylised manner which can often make the dialogue from one character sound interchangeable with another's. But Scott's approach is much looser, allowing the actors enough room to invest their own individuality in each character. One of the most memorable and iconic moments in 90s American cinema is the confrontation between Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper) and Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken). Hardly any dialogue was altered from Tarantino's screenplay, but a significant addition was the laughter between the two men. Both actors started doing this during rehearsals, and Scott encouraged them to develop this into the final result. It's another small but important detail that enhances the scene even further.
True Romance (1993)
What differentiates Scott from other filmmakers who followed in his footsteps is that, love or hate his method, there is always some sort of logical reasoning behind each film's bold look. It wasn't simply style over substance but rather "style dictated by character". Domino (2005), the fictional account of the real-life bounty hunter Domino Harvey, is a prime example. With the combination of Richard Kelly's unconventional and non-linear script and the fact that all the real-life bounty hunters he met "were on speed", Scott wanted the film to have a vibrant and unstable visual palette - Bounty Hunting On Acid. To achieve this he would use multiple camera set-ups (up to six cameras over one scene in some instances), high speed film transferred also at high speed, handcrank cameras, and colour reversal film stock that would be cross processed and photochemically manipulated. Blurring, trails and smearing within the imagery would be encouraged and used (and appear in the released version of the film); it is a controlled and assured process for the filmmakers but still with an element of unpredictable experimentation. Regardless of one's opinion as to whether or not Domino ultimately works, one must admire a director who is willing to take such creative risks on what is a commercial venture.
I never met Scott but in any print, audio or video interview I have encountered, he came across as infectiously generous and genuinely unassuming. He once commented "I steal all the time, but I think I steal good!" But while he may have taken elements from other filmmakers, he adapted and warped them into being uniquely his own. A prime example of this would be the opening sequence of his feature-length debut The Hunger (1983), a vampire tale set in modern-day New York. It juxtaposes images of the band Bauhaus performing their song Bela Lugosi's Dead in a nightclub, with John (David Bowie) and Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) seducing their next victims. With the crosscutting and the introduction of intensely sexual and viciously violent imagery, the scene is clearly inspired by the work of Nicolas Roeg (his 1970 film Performance is often cited as an inspiration for Scott), but Scott's highly-stylised use of anamorphic cinematography (all of his features were shot in this aspect ratio), movement, freeze frame, and glossy lighting possesses its own individual quality to make it one of the most arresting and alluring opening scenes in a debut feature.
Comparing his work to that of his brother's, Tony Scott once remarked "[Ridley] makes his movies to be around for a long time, I'll rock 'n' roll a lot more and experiment and try things that are only there for a while". There's a no-nonsense quality to Scott's films, they are unashamedly pulpier movies that lack Ridley's pretensions but are far more interesting, particularly in the way they bring unconventional cinematic techniques into commercial filmmaking. Working within the studio system he was able to create his own style of cinema that has been much imitated but rarely equaled. Sometimes his creative decisions went one step too far and the flamboyant imagery swamps the on-screen action, but it was exciting to see a director attempt new things with every project. His first feature, The Hunger, has developed a cult following since its original release but was deemed a failure at the time. "I got ostracised because [the critics and Hollywood] said it was 'artsy', 'esoteric' and 'self-indulgent'," Scott commented years later. "On all those accounts they were right but I still thought it was an interesting film".
Chris O'Neill is a filmmaker and the cinema programmer of Triskel Christchurch, Cork.