Sunday, February 3, 2013

In Memoriam: Tony Scott's True Romance

The director of Top Gun originally wanted to be a painter.

Tony Scott started off as an artist working on canvas before falling into film, thanks in large part to his older brother Ridley Scott. But the background in static visual composition would bleed into the director's film work, from Scott's love of smoky atmosphere to the way he deliberately filled his wide anamorphic frames and layered in fore and background elements. Even when the movie was moving too fast for you to take it in, Scott was sure to paint a memorable frame on celluloid.

And perhaps no film best captures this like Tony Scott's unsung masterpiece, True Romance

Fair Warning: there will be ---SPOILERS---- in this entry.

This is honestly just as much Quentin Tarantino's film as it is Tony Scott's (though each vehemently gave credit to the other), and it's inarguable that Tarantino's writing brought something amazing to the proceedings. True Romance was Tarantino's first finished screenplay, a story he'd worked for years to film, and failing that, shopped around for even longer before someone took the rights to make a movie. The film was so long in coming that Tarantino's second screenplay (Natural Born Killers) had been sold as well and his third (Reservoir Dogs) had already been made - by him - in the intervening years.

But there's something special about True Romance. The movie plays out like two hours of "frustrated nerd wish fulfillment" which is appropriate, as Tarantino calls it his most autobiographical work. Starring a young man working in a comic shop, the film follows his whirlwind romance with a hooker with a heart of gold and their trek across the country as they cross paths with crazy pimps, mafia dons, movie producers, and a half-million dollars worth of uncut cocaine. By all rights it should come off the rails almost immediately, but it's grounded every step of the way. That's in no small part because of the actors - Christian Slater is something of a pop culture relic now, but he seems to have been born to play this role, the idealistic and well-meaning guy with a dangerous edge that even he is unaware of (but seems un-surprised by) as the film opens. And while this manifests in increasingly alarming ways (Scott urged Slater to look at Taxi Driver for cues, and let's just say it shows), his chemistry with Patricia Arquette makes you root for the couple every step of the way.

On their journey they run into a smorgasbord of both great character actors and up-and-coming talent from the early 90's, many of which would work with both Scott and Tarantino again later on. Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, James Gandolfini, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken - it's amazing that the film doesn't buckle under the weight of such towering personalities, but everyone fits into the movie like the perfect piece to the puzzle.

This is deliberate, just as the movie is incredibly deliberate in its writing. Scott and the actors famously stuck to the script almost word-for-word (with a notable exception that we'll get to), and it showcases Tarantino's - even at the time - impressive command of character and story structure. The one initial change that Scott made was the shoot the film with a linear narrative, as opposed to the out-of-sequence structure of the original script. And while the resulting film is certainly marvelous, I can't help but want to see this alternate "cut" of True Romance. Not because the "out of order" schtick is just a fun bit in Tarantino films, but because in this movie he did it as a deliberate exercise in the reversal of dramatic irony. Originally, the film was going to go from the protagonist's introduction to a series of scenes where the audience is told conflicting information about the lovers Clarence and Alabama, and isn't sure what to believe. The film would then flash back to Clarence and Alabama's first night together (the first part of the movie as it was filmed) and then after the audience was "caught up" they would start to get more information from other established characters so that by the third act, they knew more about what was going on than anyone in the movie.

That sort of command of the language of film is something that often gets overlooked in Tarantino's list of accomplishments. While the man seems to relish his persona as a hyper-active self-referential nostalgia geek, he knows his "p's" and "q's" of the craft, from the way he can manipulate narrative structure to things as small as one of his characters using Doctor Zhivago as a code for coke (fields of snow). Tarantino seems to play at being a bit of a savant man-child, but he's a genius in his medium.

Luckily, he's well matched here by another film-maker who's way smarter than you might think. Tony Scott was no stranger to junk cinema and certainly made his share of mistakes as he experimented later on, but he really did approach his movies like a science. Scott would go out of his way to drench his movies in as much realism as possible in key areas of world-building (seeking out old props instead of trying to "age" them), and recreating locations on-set with the use of hundreds of reference photographs. This meticulous attention to detail is obvious in his lighting as well, not just in his atmospheric smoke-filled interiors, but the way he used light on his actors to inform the audience. The first time Clarence and Alabama go on a date, they're sitting in a diner, each with half their face patterned by half-open blinds - half in light, half in shadow - each face completing the other.

This is Scott at the top of his game, from the unexpected bursts of comedy finding their place in the film's tone to the tense "Mexican stand-off" and everything in between, every moment of which is an actor's showcase. The most famous part of the film is easily the conversation between Hopper's ex-cop and Walken's Don Vincenzo, and of course they were going to blow the doors off doing a scene together, but Scott's direction the rest of the cast is equally impressive. There's a raw nature to the performances here, a passion that bleeds into most of the characters. Apparently, it's not all for show either. Scott talks about the "Persuader" he used during the film, a hard slap to the face to get an actor over an emotional hump and ready for a scene. A technique that Arquette apparently asked for a couple times. Tony Scott referred to it as the "British school of directing" but whatever it's called, it was effective here.

If you think some - or all - of this sounds a little crazy, you're not wrong. From top to bottom this movie is nothing if not nuts, a strange fever dream. From the dark and snowy streets of Detroit to bright and cheery L.A., the film moves from dreary (but comparatively innocent) to sunny and seedy (where we see innocence lost). But somehow not corrupted. Clarence and Alabama are absolutely crazy and do some horrible things, but through it all you can still root for them somehow. Tarantino wasn't being ironic with the title, he really does see this as a romance above all else. And Tony Scott, a professed romantic at heart, took the writer at his word. In fact, Scott fell in love with the story of Clarence and Alabama so much that he ended up changing the original more tragic ending. He claims he just had to see these kids make it through, and in the end Tarantino agreed that - for the film Scott had made - this change was the "right" ending.

There's more that could easily be said about True Romance, and honestly entire books that you could fill with the work of the two men most responsible for the movie, but more than anything its an experience every self-respecting film-lover should have. Because being a romantic doesn't always mean what we think it does. Because being lost in the dream-like insanity of a movie like this feels can feel more genuine than any of the "realistic" movies that have come along in the last few years. Because Elvis likes you - always has, always will. Because maybe it can turn out okay after all - or not. Because loves makes everyone a little bit crazy.

Tony Scott 
June 21, 1944 - August 9, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment