In his new Denzel Washington–Chris Pine action movie Unstoppable, Tony Scott shoots the big, bad runaway train almost like it’s alive, breathing hard and out of control. Spend a few minutes with him and you can see the connection: In conversation, Scott is a little bit like a runaway train himself, barreling headlong into subjects with speed and enthusiasm, taking unexpected detours, and dropping shouted expletives like a train conductor excited by the choo-choo of it all. Vulture recently sat down with the 66-year-old director of Top Gun, True Romance, and Crimson Tide to talk about casting, his relationship with brother Ridley, and how he got away with setting so much of Unstoppable inside a Hooters restaurant.
You’ve made five films with Denzel Washington, and in many of them, he’s paired with someone who really brings something different out of him: like how The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 pairs him with a contemporary in John Travolta, and Man on Fire pairs him with a young girl in Dakota Fanning. What do you pull from him that’s different when you have him act opposite a younger, up-and-coming movie star like Chris Pine?
You know, it’s funny! It’s a two-hander, but I don’t look at it in terms of “What do I want to get from D if I pair him with someone else?” I do a tremendous amount of research before I begin any movie, so before I committed to the movie I went to Pennsylvania for a week and met these guys and found role models for Chris and Denzel in those guys. In the five movies I’ve made with Denzel, I’ve reached for many different aspects of his personality — if you look at those five movies, he’s very different in all of them — but it’s because we’ve found someone different [to pattern him after] each time. What I love about the way Denzel delivers is that like Gene Hackman, he does all his homework and internalizes everything and then communicates it so simply. There’s very little about him that’s physically outgoing as an actor, and that’s what I love about him.
In movies like this, you have to have to cut away to a lot of concerned reactions from townspeople, and I was impressed that because of the profession you give Denzel’s daughters in the movie, a good third of those concerned reactions come from Hooters waitresses.
[Laughs.] Everything in there is from the research! Those girls were [patterned after the research subject’s] real daughters.
Denzel’s character is essentially hazing Chris in this movie. Was there a real-life dynamic to that?
What you see is very real, because that’s what he did with Chris! As his character did, he always kept Chris at arm’s length, and Chris couldn’t quite work it out. When we worked with Travolta on Pelham, they kept apart for the duration of shooting. I think they shook hands once. It sounds like an actor thing, but it’s not. It’s a good thing, because you really feel it onscreen, don’t you? With Dakota, Denzel never talked to her out of character for six weeks. I love it. He always delivers for me.
How did you come to cast Chris?
With Chris, casting is like painting, it’s putting one emotional color next to the other. Denzel suggested Chris Pine, and I went “Damn.” The lightbulb went off. I was originally thinking more blue-collar, and when I saw the guys there, I was thinking Chris should be a little more working-class, but then I’d met one kid in Pennsylvania who was a pretty boy who got the job because of nepotism, so we reverse-engineered the script to accommodate Chris. It actually went better: I thought, Fuck, this is a great way to go!
Lately, it seems we’ve had to import a lot of Australians for our macho action-hero roles, but I feel like Chris could go toe-to-toe with them. There’s something very solid and masculine about him.
Chris has got a unique quality. He’s sexy, he’s got mystery, he’s smart … this kid’s got everything going for him. And he went to the same school my 10-year-olds went to. [Laughs.]
Where was that?
He went to Oakwood, which was this very progressive art school. He’s great at his craft. I saw him in [The Lieutenant of Inishmore] at the Geffen, and I’m not a big theatergoer. Theater is something I always fight, because I’m always about internalizing [in performance] rather than projecting, but I thought, This kid’s great. He’s this rare combination, and he’s got some danger. There’s a little bit of edge to him.
Do you think that makes him different than most American actors his age?
Yes. I’ve got a great résumé in terms of the young actors I’ve worked with, but the material, you know, it goes in cycles. You look at the material we’re now making and we’re almost dictated to because of the economy. Whether it’s comic-book movies or romantic comedies, that’s what people are making, and the world I normally gravitate to is a bit on hold. There are two things I’m looking to do next, one is in the vein of True Romance, and then there’s Hell Angels.
You say there are two things, but you’re attached to so many films I can’t keep them straight. Hell’s Angels, Nemesis, Potzdamer Platz …
… The Associate …
Right, The Associate with Shia LaBeouf. So which is the other one you might do next?
I’m not going to tell you. [Laughs.]
I feel like you gave me a big hint. I can figure this out, Tony.
Listen, I love them all. Fuck! I want them all to happen, and every one is different for me. I like to educate myself and entertain myself, that’s my goal, and that’s what I do on each of my movies. Research drives all my movies, so whether it’s going to Pennsylvania for a week before committing to this, or for Man on Fire, meeting the role model for Denzel in Mexico City … it bears repeating, but I reverse-engineer every script to suit what I find in the real world. That’s what Mark Bomback did for me on this, and what Brian Helgeland did on Man on Fire. The book Man on Fire was taken from was set in Italy, originally, and I was going to make it 25 years ago with Marlon Brando.
That would have been different.
Then it went from Marlon to Robert De Niro, and then they saw my first movie, The Hunger, and axed me.
Are you producing your brother’s Alien prequel?
Well, I’ve talked to Ridley about it, and I love his vision. The writer is the guy who wrote Lost.
Right, Damon Lindelof.
He’s smart, he’s inventive. But yeah, Rid’s directing, and we never get too involved in each other’s projects. We’ve been in business 42 years together, which is brilliant, but in terms of he and I giving each other notes on how to shoot something? There’d be bloodletting.
Did you ever?
I think in the early days, Rid would show me early cuts of his movies and I’d show him early cuts of mine, but I’d get pages of copious notes. I said, “Stop.” Now, when we’re done, when we’re ready, I show him mine and he shows me his.
Do you sometimes quibble over who gets a hot script?
No, we don’t, it’s funny. I think if you look at our bodies of work, we’re very different. There have been a couple of times where the press picked up on something and said, “What is this? Are Ridley and Tony in competition [with two project in development] over Pancho Villa?” But it was only the name and title that were the same. Very rarely are we in competition because Ridley gravitates toward certain jobs and I get pitched other jobs.
So you’ve never had to go in and pitch for the same project?
Nope. When I first came to L.A., though, I had this meeting at Warner Bros., and even though I hadn’t made a movie, they were all over me like a rash. And they said, “Well, how did you do the alien coming out of that guy’s chest?” [Laughs.] And I said, “Dude. I’m Tony. That’s Ridley.”