This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Con Air, a roller-coaster of an action movie starring Nicolas Cage and the debut film of director Simon West. Like fellow action maestros Michael Bay and Antione Fuqua, West worked his way through the ranks at Propaganda Films making award winning music videos and commercials. As a feature filmmaker, he’s directed everything from the surprisingly solid Tomb Raider (starring Angelina Jolie at the height of her fame) to Expendables 2 (the best film in the franchise) as well as TV shows like Human Target.
Now he’s here to talk about his latest action project, Stratton. Adapted from a popular book series about an elite operative in the British SBS (Special Boat Service), this could become a new British action franchise to stand side by side with Bond.
|West (left) directing a magnificently grungy Nicholas Cage (right).
Film Combat Syndicate: You’ve had a pretty illustrious career as an action film director. 20 years!
Simon West: [laughs] Yeah, Con Air was twenty years ago this year. That was the first one.
SW: I’d been looking, coincidentally, for a new British action hero. I say jokingly that we’ve got Harry Potter and we’ve got James Bond, but I think there’s room for another one and I spent that last couple of years wondering who that was; a detective, a superhero, a doctor… who would that be? Then I was shown the Duncan Falconer books on Stratton, and it reawakened my interest in the SBS. Not many people know much about them but I’d heard of them. The Special Boat Service which was the forerunner of the US Navy Seals, was started in the second World War. The US Navy Seals became their sister organization but they ultimately became much bigger. The SBS still work with the Navy Seals but they’re ultimately more secretive; that fascinated me. I then spoke with Falconer, who was an SBS agent himself in the 70’s as well as several recently serving agents and I realized that what they do is what you see in the Bond films. In reality, MI6 gathers the intelligence and then hands it off to the SBS to do the dirty work. In Stratton, it’s handled in a more realistic and gritty way to how it actually happens. SBS and MI6 work together on missions and sometimes it can be a bit antagonistic, but the action stuff is all done by SBS. So that’s what was attractive to me, telling that story and coming up with a new heroic character that people hadn’t seen before. Then it was a matter of finding who to play that.
|West (center) connecting with his stars Dominic Cooper (left)
and Tyler Hoechlin (right).
SW: Yeah, everyone hopes so. There’s nine books in the series and I just tackled the first one. The film has sequences in it that aren’t in the book, but from my conversations with Duncan Falconer and other SBS officers about actual missions they did. There’s an endless amount of material in this world and it changes every year as technology changes. Obviously Duncan was an agent in the 70’s, but what the guys deal with now is a whole different technology. What they do underwater… we don’t even know the equipment they have. And even in the film, things have changed. We have miniature drones now, which are very easy to use for ulterior purposes. So there’s endless material. Also, you learn so much about the character and get to work out the kinks in the first one, I think it’d be a shame to throw all that knowledge away. You sort of become an expert in that character and that world; I feel like the second one would be even better because you learned so much on the first one.
SW: Dominic worked on the physical side with instructors to do the fight training and the gun training. He’s a character actor and hadn’t really done this kind of stuff before. And then the other actors who played the MI6 characters actually got to talk to… basically spies in one-on-one conversations. People like Tom Felton, of Harry Potter fame, and Gemma Chan got to talk to MI6 officers about the intelligence side. But Dominic, I hired him for his acting ability not necessarily for his action ability. I did find out that he’s an incredible high-speed, precision driver so I got him to do all his own driving in the car chase sequences in Rome. It was something I hadn’t expected him to be able to do since he wasn’t really trained for that; and then he did the same thing in a speedboat. I put him in a jet-boat going through central London and he seemed to be an expert at that! You never know when you hire these people. You hire them for one thing and then discover they’re incredible at driving.
|(Gross) Point Blank with John Cusack on the set of Con Air (1997)
SW: Well actually I’ve only done pilots, I’ve never done episodes which are much more restrictive. Those guys have to shoot so fast and they normally have two or three units going at once to get it done in time. It’s basically the same process (as film), you just have to work much faster. I feel it’s been really good for me because I started in film and then got to do pilots; I had to increase my speed A LOT. The pilots I did were really great training for me so that when I went back into film I was twice as quick to shoot everything. You learn to cut corners and make it work in the time you have. And tv is such a high standard right now that there’s not much difference between the two. The actors are great, the writing is phenomenal, and in many ways tv is lucky because they have a longer time to develop characters and you can spend more time with them. The line between tv and films is so blurred now.
|Directing the director, West helms the sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s
hyper-violent brainchild, The Expendables.
SW: Obviously CGI has come into its own a lot, especially with superhero movies. It’s fine, in a way, because they’re based on graphic novels or comic books and if you can imagine and draw it, it’s possible. CGI is really good because it can make it possible for those characters to do those things. But sometimes CGI gets used in a normal film and it takes you out of it. It’s a bit of a shame when CGI gets overused. And I think also, interesting thing, is how violent films have gotten; much more violent. I think if you watch Con Air now, it’s incredibly tame. People have become pretty desensitized to violence in action films. I think that’s the biggest change is use of CGI and level of violence over the last twenty years.