Tony Scott: A Debriefing


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.

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 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.  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.

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.