6 Filmmaking Tips From Tony Scott

By  · Published on August 22nd, 2012

This is a celebration. It’s come about because of a terrible situation, but it’s a celebration nonetheless. It’s undeniable that Tony Scott affected the filmmaking world at large. Perhaps it wasn’t a revolution or a primordial yawp of a momentum shift, but he opened doors for commercial directors in a big way, continued to innovate when he could have been settling in, and he refused to keep still. Or to keep the camera still.

Seriously. Guy did not like a static camera.

He gave us absurdity that we took seriously (Top Gun), action films that hopped across genre lines (like The Last Boy Scout) and gut punches that we’re still taping up (Crimson Tide, True Romance, and more). Here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a rebellious director/producer who will be missed.

Your Plan A Can Become Your Plan B Which Can Become Your Plan A

It’s the oldest advise in the book, but sometimes it needs to be echoed or said in new ways. So you want to be a screenwriter? A director? A producer? A gaffer? The road to those titles can go through some strange places, but with the kind of technology available (and if you make work your drug of choice), you can utilize a job near the job you want in order to make the best possible jump.

“I was finishing eight years at art school and Ridley had opened Ridley Scott Associates and said, ‘Come and make commercials and make some money’ ‐ because I owed money left and right and center,” Scott recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “My goal was to make films; but I got sidetracked into commercials and then I took off ‐ I had 15 years [making them] and it was a blast. We were very prolific, and that was our training ground: You’d shoot 100 days in a year, then we gravitated from that to film.”

The win-win is that if you get sidetracked into something you love, you’ve found something you love. If you don’t particularly love it, you can keep your sights set on the transition ‐ the moment where you’re main gig leads you to the job you wanted all along.

Just remember to dress for the job you want.

The School Bell Doesn’t Mean the Day is Over

When asked about his process on Deja Vu and one character’s resemblance to Timothy McVeigh:

“I always do a lot of homework, as I say, for my movies and I do a lot of research, and I looked mostly at the transcripts from McVeigh when he’s kidnapped, when he’s taken. BTK and a couple other guys and I really focused around McVeigh and I gave the highlights from those transcripts to Jim [Caviezel]. So I give this to my actors. This is the way I’m thinking: no matter how much you talk, unless you get specific, you know, it’s sort of an abstract area, trying to define characters other than if you’re a real guy. Like for Denzel [Washington], we finally got Jerry Ruden who became Denzel’s role model. But for Jim, a lot of it well, the tone of the character came from McVeigh.”

That’s a specific example, and Scott goes on to talk about finding touchstones for his actors to work off of. However, it’s clear from his work that he does this for more than just the performers. With Deja Vu, he spoke a lot about designing a movie that was “science fact” instead of science-fiction, and the difficulty that comes with that is finding an authenticity that only comes with putting in the research.

Changes Are Gonna Come

Put Your Stamp on the Script…Unless It’s From Tarantino

“There’s one great script that hit my desk that I didn’t change at all, and that was True Romance.”

Scott insisted on altering scripts to put his own signature on the story. As a director who was plugged into every part of the filmmaking process (he notably “got off” on being on set because of the danger but he also loved post), and as a director who showed a great deal of skill, he earned a bit of leeway there.

But it’s a double-edged sword. Changing a script simply to show you’ve added your own touch to it is what studio executives often do to prove they’re worth keeping around. It’s also what torpedoes scripts before they can even go into production. Sadly, not everything needs a giant mechanical spider. Tweaks and twists are fine if they serve a purpose, but consider the writer’s work sacrosanct if there’s nothing else in it but ego for you. Or if it happens to be Quentin Tarantino handing you the screenplay.

On a side note, a million words could be written about how ingeniously Scott directed Tarantino’s words and the actors in True Romance. If that’s out there somewhere, I’d love to see it.

Alright. Back to the tips.

Man on Fire Comes To Those Who Wait

“I started working on Man on Fire in 1980, and then I completed a film called The Hunger, and people weren’t too sure that I could handle this one. . . so I did Top Gun [Laughs]. And then Arnon [Milchan] called me up like two years ago and said he was channel surfing at 3am and said, ‘I saw the old one, I want to make a new one.’ I said, ‘Yes,’ because something’s always stayed with me. . . For me, it’s such a huge emotional roller coaster and it touched so many human emotions in terms of love, fear, danger, violence, and it’s very rare that you get one product or one script that all this stuff.”

Matt Dentler recently called the revenge film starring Denzel Washington (surprise, surprise) Scott’s Oscar moment (that sadly never happened) and his most emotionally relevant work. Joshua Brunsting at Criterion Cast lobbied for it to join the Collection. It’s easy to see why. In a career of solid films, this very well might be his stand out. His most trenchant work.

And he had to wait 24 years for it.

Food for thought.

Have Champagne Ready for the Wrap

What Have We Learned

Tony Scott was definitely a punk rock director, but he didn’t spend all his time talking about bucking the system or throwing off the shackles of whatever in order to make what he loved. He talked about hard work, discipline, homework ‐ but he said it all with a kind of wry smile. He seemed to love the labor of it all, the nitty gritty that comes long before any sets are built. Granted, he thoroughly enjoyed the terrifying/exhilarating filming process, but he loved every step of the way. There’s something wholly admirable about that.

Some have pointed out that he wasn’t a critical favorite, but who cares? Scott, like many great directors, had his fair share of question marks, average flicks and a few homeruns that really sailed over the fence right into the parking lot. That came from investment in the story, dedication to research and the patience to wait until a passion project comes back around.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.