Earlier this month, director Tony Scott took his own life by leaping off a bridge in San Pedro, California. The mysterious suicide of the 68-year-old filmmaker stunned and baffled Scott’s peers, collaborators, and fans around the world.
Here’s how I came to understand what a rare talent Tony Scott was:
I was in my mid-teens. Dan O'Bannon’s Return Of The Living Dead (1985) was still playing at one Pittsburgh-area theater, and I was eager to see it. Unfortunately, I was not yet 17, and the theater refused to sell me a ticket. I don’t know if movie theater employees are as strict these days, but back then, unrated and “Hard-R” movies were firmly off-limits to anyone under 17. I remember I couldn’t even pull the ol’ “buy-a-ticket-for-one-movie-but-walk-in-to-see-another” trick, because ushers (armed, I think) were standing guard at the Return Of The Living Dead auditorium entrance.
Pissed off, I saw Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986) as my consolation prize. It was rated PG, so there was no problem buying a ticket. As I hopped on the highway to the danger zone, I was already grumpy about missing Return Of The Living Dead. I had zero interest in fighter pilots, sappy romance, or oily, shirtless dudes playing volleyball. Adding to my irritation was the fact that the Top Gun print I was seeing had a fat, green emulsion scratch marring the left side of the screen throughout the entire first reel.
This was my introduction to filmmaker Tony Scott. I wish I could say that despite this dismal setup, I was mega-impressed by Top Gun… but no, it did not take my breath away. I think I even dozed off for a while in the middle of the film. I walked out of the theater just as cranky, if not more so, about being denied my Return Of The Living Dead experience.
In the years that followed, I saw most of Tony Scott’s other films. Many of his movies didn’t really sing to me, so I never considered myself a big Tony Scott fan. However, when I saw True Romance (1993) I was blown away. Seriously, this was the guy who made Top Gun???
I don’t tend to enjoy big-budget Hollywood films. It seems like, 95 percent of the time, when I see a major studio film at the theater I’m extremely disappointed. This is partly due to my personal tastes – but it’s also due to the fact that today’s Hollywood gets is terribly wrong 95 percent of the time. There, I said it.
However, as I continued to see new Tony Scott films, I began to take notice of a trend. There are very few directors who I can “trust” when I see they’ve made a new big-budget studio movie… and I was starting to trust Tony Scott.
He won me over with True Romance (his best film) and he impressed me next with Enemy Of The State (1998) – a slick, mainstream, big-budget riff on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Tony Scott continued to thrill me with a string of exceptional big-budget, mainstream studio pictures: Man On Fire (2004), Domino (2005), and Deja Vu (2006). Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) was more mainstream, cookie-cutter, and dumbed-down than recent Scott pictures - but of all the directors in Hollywood making mainstream, cookie-cutter, and dumbed-down films, Tony Scott sure knew how to make ‘em better, more transfixing, and more enjoyable.
I have not seen Scott’s final feature film, Unstoppable (2010), but I plan to check it out soon. Scott had become one of those very few directors who routinely made big-budget studio films that actually satisfied rather than infuriated me. I found I had indeed become a big Tony Scott fan.
This summer, I worked as the 2nd Unit director on the feature horror film We Are What We Are. It stars Kelly McGillis, who is probably best known for her role as “Charlie” opposite Tom Cruise in Top Gun. One weekend during downtime on the We Are What We Are shoot, the grips set up a white-sheet screen outside, the gaffer set up a video projector, and all of us on the crew enjoyed an evening watching movies under the stars. Because the film we were all working on starred McGillis, we selected Top Gun as one of the movies to screen. (Kelly did not join us for the screening… which was expected, but still a bummer.)
This was the first time I had watched Top Gun since my disastrous attempt to see Return Of The Living Dead as a teenager. Top Gun was just as cheesy as I’d remembered it. Though the film did not age well, I was able to watch it from a new perspective. We were all drinking a lot of alcohol, so that probably helped. Also, I wasn’t pissed off about the whole Return Of The Living Dead thing – okay, I still was, but not quite as much. And most importantly, I was able to appreciate Top Gun as the breakout project for a filmmaker whose work I had come to enjoy very much.
He will be missed.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze