What do you do if your big, splashy movie has just opened to mostly favorable reviews and a not-too-shabby $30 million weekend at the box office? If you're Tony Scott, you immediately start thinking about commercials. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the 57-year-old film and commercials director, hunkered down in his office in Los Angeles, seems more interested in upcoming ad jobs than in dwelling on the fortunes of his new film, Spy Game - which was managing to hold its own, thank you, even in the midst of Harry Potter mania. In years past, Scott might have obsessed about the film's opening (he's been through 10 before, starting with 1983's artsy vampire flick The Hunger, and including blockbusters like Top Gun and Crimson Tide). "At one time, I would actually ride around to movie theaters to check the lines," Scott laughs. But these days, he says, he's focused on twin infants at home, a commercials production house that's battling to keep pace in a rough market and - perhaps most intriguingly - his own ad career, which seems to have picked up new energy and momentum of late.
Of course, Scott, along with older brother Ridley, has been a formidable presence on the international ad scene for more than 30 years, ever since the two emerged as hot directors first in their native U.K. and later worldwide. Today, the brothers continue to head up their own production house, RSA, with its various film and commercials divisions on both sides of the Atlantic and a stable of A-list helmers (latest addition: Martin Scorsese, who recently signed on to shoot spots with RSA's London office). In fact, RSA has been in the news several times in the past year, most recently when it held merger talks with Anonymous Content, though the plans for a powerhouse alliance eventually fell through.
But if RSA has tended to remain in the spotlight, Scott's own commercials reel - which for many years has featured moody, cinematic spots for cigarettes - has seemingly been relegated to a supporting role behind his action-film work. That began to change last year, however, when Scott directed a series of acclaimed commercials for Barclay's Bank and Italian Telecom. For the former, he shot a mesmerizing soliloquy by Anthony Hopkins, titled "Big"; for the latter, Scott turned the camera on Marlon Brando and let the big man riff.
What prompted Scott's ad directing mini-comeback? "At the time, I'd just finished a movie (Enemy of the State) and I couldn't find another one that I wanted to do right away, so I sort of plunged back into commercials," he says. "And I ended up having quite a good run." Now, with Spy Game completed and his next film still in the development stages, Scott aims to keep the ad momentum going by shooting several major spots over the next two months. At press time, he was aggressively bidding on a handful of jobs (yes, even if your last name is Scott, you still have to scramble for gigs right now; "It's such a competitive market and I'm out there fighting with the Sam Bayers and all these other guys," Scott says).
In fact, these days, it seems Scott has to work harder to land ads than movies; he and Ridley just inked a three-year producing/directing deal with 20th Century Fox that should keep both of them busy on the film front. So why bother scrounging for commercials? "I just like to mix and match movies and ads," Scott says. "Making a movie is like a marathon and commercials are like sprints - they're equally satisfying, but in different ways." Besides, Scott adds, the commercials set is where he learns new tricks - some of which end up in his movies. The Brando spot, which includes a dramatic sequence shot on a rooftop with a helicopter sputtering nearby, helped Scott nail down a similar scene involving Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in Spy Game.
Scott sees this synergy as a boon to his work - in fact, it was his ad training (such as using ample coverage on shots) that helped him to master all those complex aerial scenes in Top Gun, he points out. On the other hand, some critics have tended to feel there may be a little too much synergy between Scott's ads and his films. Writing about Spy Game, New York Times critic A.O. Scott opined that the film "has the pointless, thrilling kineticism of a sports car commercial."
For his part, Scott feels that his film work clearly stands apart from his ads, though he is aware of certain tendencies in his style that can be seen in both categories: "Pace and momentum," he says. Indeed, anything Scott shoots tends to move quickly, with plenty of action, camera movement, special effects and rapid cutting. It seems to be part of his filmic signature, though he attributes it to nothing more than a short attention span. "I can't sit on my bum very long in a movie theater seat," he insists, "and when I'm directing, I always want to move the camera or edit." But he also points out that Spy Game, for example, is more than pure action; much of the film is, in fact, character-based, as it focuses on the relationship between the Redford and Pitt characters.
Some reviewers have noted the film's subtleties, but others have applied the "slick" label. Scott says he is used to hearing the same basic criticism leveled at "crossover directors" - the now-ubiquitous breed that he and Ridley actually helped spawn a quarter-century ago - and he believes it is often unfair. "I've always been at the head of all that criticism about style over content," he says. "The critics have been fucking nasty; they've always gone for the throat. They look for an easy handle with ad guys, whether it's me or Antoine Fuqua doing Training Day." Scott says he stopped looking at press reviews "after I got slaughtered with The Hunger and fucking shredded with Top Gun."
But at the same time, Scott does acknowledge that some commercials directors are, indeed, unsuited for the longer film format. Likewise, he says, "the advertising industry has been burned by feature film directors who don't have that understanding of how to tell a story in 30 seconds." Still, Scott believes there are more than a few esteemed auteurs who can pitch product well, which is why he and Ridley have been on a mission to recruit some of them during the past year. The Scotts' year-old U.K.-based Top Dog division is specifically designed to match ad projects with the likes of Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Woody Allen - all of whom have shot spots for the Scotts in recent months. "We feel like we're working with most of the really big boys out there," says Scott.
One of the advantages that A-list film directors can bring to ads is the ability to lure top movie stars, Scott says. "An established film director can just pick up the phone and say to a star, 'Hey, are you interested in doing a commercial?' " Moreover, he says, they can handle a megastar on the set. "That's important, because let's face it, some of these stars are a fucking handful," Scott says. "If you don't have their respect, you can get beaten up. And all of a sudden you may find you're doing the star's commercial instead of the client's." (Of the notoriously demanding Brando, Scott says, "It was difficult getting him to the shoot, but when we got him there, he was actually a dream to work with.")
The question is, will today's penny-pinching clients shell out for all that star power? Scott acknowledges that this is not necessarily an easy time to be a big-name, big-budget ad director. "There is still A-stream work coming in with big budgets, but generally there's been a huge ax dropped by clients," he says. " Ridley and I have been in business 38 years, and we've been through two other major other recessions, but this one has hit advertising the hardest. People are drawing in their horns." That includes RSA: Amid all the turbulence in the production market, RSA is taking a conservative approach to hirings, expansions or new ventures. "We're maintaining the status quo until we ride the storm," Scott says. "My sense is the storm's going to come to an end after this year." One bright sign: "Last week, amazingly enough, all the directors' reels at RSA were out - we were bidding everywhere," he says.
And Scott was out there bidding with them, hoping to nab, among other things, a European car spot starring Robert DeNiro. That, of course, would fit Scott's recent MO (big budget, big stars), but the director insists he's also willing to think small, in terms of more modest budgets without the lush production values he's known for. "The high-end stuff tends to come to me, because that's what I'm known for - but I'm interested in whatever's a good idea," he says. "If it is a good idea, I'll bite the bullet and do it for less money."