The moviegoing world was saddened earlier this week when it was learned director Tony Scott had died. Despite the manner of his death, it’s no less sad when a filmmaker such as Scott, who continued making films well into his 60, had many more films to helm. We felt it was time to hear some filmmaking insight from the man himself, which leads us to True Romance.
The movie itself is a modern classic, an energetic tale of love, drugs, and a whole bunch of bullets courtesy of fledgling – at the time – screenwriter Quentin Tarantino. He also provides a commentary for the film, a rarity for the Pulp Fiction writer/director, but we’ll cover that another time. This is Tony Scott’s time, and here, without further ado, are all the things we learned listening to him speak about his film, True Romance.
True Romance (1993)
Commentators: Tony Scott (director)
- Scott was admittedly a slow reader, and he was given the screenplays for both Reservoir Dogs and True Romance to read. He ended up reading both scripts very quickly and immediately told Tarantino he wanted to direct both films. Tarantino said Scott could do one or the other and he himself would direct the other. You can judge how history played out with that.
- Scott wanted a genuine Elvis track to play over the opening scene, but the King’s estate wouldn’t release any of his songs to be used.
- The first scene of True Romance was the first scene shot and the first time Scott had worked with Christian Slater. The director notes that at the end of that first day, the two were on completely different pages how they saw Clarence being portrayed. Scott gave Slater Taxi Driver to watch to get the right mood. He says nothing about whether or not he asked Slater to sport a mohawk.
- Terrence Malick’s Badlands was one of Scott’s top five movies, and the film about a young couple who go on a killing spree was a big influence on Scott for True Romance. He asked the film’s composer Hans Zimmer to use the theme in Badlands as a reference to his theme for Clarence and Alabama here. “I didn’t have any qualms for wanting to pay homage to that film,” says Scott. He notes it reflects Alabama’s child-like innocence extremely well.
- True Romance was a surprising production for Scott in terms of actors and how they came to the script. The Tarantino script was so well received that no one who signed on wanted to stray from the screenplay at all.
- Scott, a painter, approached his films by doing storyboards each morning for the shots he wanted to get that day. “As I’m drawing out each scene for the day, I’m not just thinking about the look of the scene,” he says, “I’m thinking about who the characters are or how they interact or what the focus is for the scene or what the energy or the drama of the scene is.” He also notes a picture tells a thousand words, and most people on set don’t pay attention if they’re handed a shot list. Storyboards keep them interested.
- Scott notes he likes to add a little strange into scenes that are saccharine and sweet. He is, of course, talking about the early sex scene between Clarence and Alabama. This is also his explanation for including the shot of Patricia Arquette licking Christian Slater’s stomach.
- Scott came up with what he calls a “persuader” when trying to get Patricia Arquette to get to where she needed to be emotionally for a scene. The director would occasionally slap her before shooting a scene, which became such an occurrence that she ended up approaching him for her “persuader” before heavy scenes late in the production. “It’s called English school of Directing,” he quips.
- It was evident Arquette was a method actor early on. Before shooting began, she spent time with prostitutes to get into her Alabama character, three weeks in all. No telling what kind of prep work she did for Medium.
- Scott had a number of ideas for Drexl Spivey. Gary Oldman, who plays the part, ignored these ideas, as he had encountered someone on the set of another film, Romeo is Bleeding, who he felt would be perfect for the Drexl character. The white Jamaican Oldman plays in the film is based mostly on this character he knew on the set of the other film. In related news, Oldman’s mother was often on set to ensure he was getting the part right.
- Val Kilmer really wanted to play Clarence and even sent Scott recordings of him reading the part. Scott, who had worked with Kilmer previously on Top Gun, felt he was much more suited for Elvis. Kilmer took the role on so well that he would often answer the phone as Elvis when Scott would call him. He would also phone Scott in the middle of the night singing Elvis songs. Now, that sounds like the Kilmer we know and love.
- Scott originally wanted a Frank Sinatra song playing during the scene where Clarence faces off against Drexl. This idea was scrapped, though, when the director saw the intensity coming from Oldman and Slater, and the “acid house rave music” worked better with the vibe the scene was already building. “The fight is self-explanatory,” Scott says. Yes, it is.
- The director brings up the violence in True Romance and how that became the film’s biggest flaw in the eyes of many. Once again, Scott mentions Taxi Drive and how, like that film, the violence here is integral to the story being told.
- Scott notes the finished film is verbatim from Tarantino’s original script except for the ending. Originally, Clarence died and Alabama rode off with all of the money. Scott fell in love with the characters and changed the ending to appease the romantic in him. True Romance was shot in sequence, and the idea to have Clarence live at the end was a decision made during production.
- According to Scott, vehicles in films are a touchy aspect. You can’t make a car look old. It has to have the lived-in look and have a naturally aged look. For Clarence and Alabama’s pink Cadillac, Scott had seen someone driving the vehicle around Hollywood. Thinking the car would be perfect for True Romance, he tracked the vehicle down, purchased it, and shipped it to Detroit for filming.
- “I can only applaud Quentin here,” says Scott as the infamous scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken begins. The director intended to shoot Walken’s part of the scene first, but the actor came to him before and begged him to shoot Hopper first. After the first day of shooting the scene, when they had filmed all of Hopper’s side, Scott noticed Walken finding his character as he watched the other half of the scene playing out. “I watched him build and construct this character through that scene while he was playing off camera to Dennis the day before,” explains Scott. He notes this gives Walken’s performance the feel that he improvised much of it, but he says it was all pre-planned in the actor’s head.
- Scott tried to rehearse the scene between Hopper and Walken, but the two actors couldn’t help but break into laughter every time they tried getting through the scene. These rehearsals or attempts at rehearsals are, unfortunately, not included in their entirety on this DVD/Blu-Ray.
- Hopper didn’t like the idea of having a gun put against his forehead even with the gun not being loaded. To prove to him that it was safe, Scott had a propmaster put the gun against his forehead and pulled the trigger. The director didn’t take the cartridge from the barrel, which hit him, and he was knocked to the floor with a bleeding head. Needless to say, this didn’t convince Hopper that it was safe.
- Scott gave Arquette a disposable camera for the first scene where she, Christian Slater, and Michael Rapaport are in the Cadillac. Arquette took numerous shots, particularly one of Slater’s bald spot. According to Scott, this made the actor less than happy. The director notes he wanted to make an animated sequence with the stills, but it didn’t work out. Christian Slater probably burned them all just to keep his bald spot safe from the public.
- In Tarantino’s original script, the initial meet about the drugs was written as taking place at a zoo. The location for this idea fell through, and Scott was left with trying to come up with a new, “cool” location to shoot the scene. He saw an ad for Six Flags and thought a rollercoaster drug deal would be have the coolness the rest of the film warranted. It helped that Bronson Pinchot hated rollercoasters.
- Floyd’s Honey Bear bong was designed by Scott, who took the idea from a climber friend of his. The climber friend’s bong’s name was Russell. Scott tells us you can get a Russell at any grocery store, honey included, so keep that bit of information in your back pockets.
- Tony Scott liked to recreate found locations on a set in order to give the production the control it needs to change or even destroy the set if necessary. The honeymoon hotel room was one such location, which Scott recreated in order to pull off the violent scene between Arquette and James Gandolfini. The Hawaii sunset painted on the wall was Scott’s idea to add a strange juxtaposition with the awful violence going on.
- During production, Gandolfini stayed in a seedy hotel, didn’t shower regularly, and didn’t bother to wash his underwear. You know, to get more into character. Scott notes it was difficult to get ahold of the actor, since there was no phone in his hotel room, but they probably didn’t try too hard to find him. The guy didn’t wash his underwear, for God’s sake.
- During the fight between Gandolfini and Arquette, the actor wanted her to actually drive a corkscrew through the top of his foot. Not even Patricia Arquette would go through on that one.
- Scott notes the poster for True Romance in Japan was the image of Patricia Arquette in a turquoise bra, bleeding and screaming. He’s not making a comment about Japan. He’s just stating a fact.
- Floyd’s line about his roommate getting “cleaning products” while he’s out was an improvised line from Brad Pitt. Also, in the later scene when the mob men come to visit Floyd, his offering of Russell to them was an improvisation. Come to think of it, Scott never mentions where Russell ended up.
- Scott likens the elevator scene near the end of True Romance to the Russian Roulette scene in The Deer Hunter. “The danger and the violence of that particular moment in that scene is what I gave to Christian as a note,” he explains.
- Scott’s biggest difficulty with the final shootout between the three groups was figuring out what makes the first shot go off, what causes that first person to fire their weapon. The coffee being thrown in Bronson Pinchot’s face followed by Tom Sizemore firing the first shot came out naturally during a rehearsal with everyone on set. Actually, a lot comes out naturally from throwing hot coffee in Bronson Pinchot’s face.
- The director names Sam Peckinpah and John Woo as the biggest influences on the style and design of the final shootout. It was Tarantino who turned Scott onto Woo’s films.
- Wurlitzer, the cop played by Michael Beach, didn’t have much of a death scene written. He was just shot and died on the page. Scott decided to give him the moment where it takes a few seconds for him to realize he’s been shot based on tales he heard of real cops and experiencing their friends being killed by gunshot.
- The little boy playing Elvis in the film’s epilogue is actually Patricia Arquette’s son. Scott doesn’t mention whether or not he had to give the kid a “persuarder.”
- Scott says about changing the ending to make it more optimistic, “I was criticized for making it such a sweet and romantic end, but honestly, in my heart of hearts, I did this for creative reasons and not for commercial reasons. I wasn’t a sell-out. This was how I believed the movie should end, and I wanted to see my characters survive and live happily ever after, because, for me, the movie is a strange nursery rhyme, and I want my characters to continue on to live happily ever after.”
Best in Commentary
“True Romance, for me, was one of the fullest, most accomplished scripts that I’d ever read. It was so well crafted in terms of character, the dialogue. Quentin is a unique writer.”
“For me, a movie is about character, a story, and performance. Characters are those actors that you decide to put into these roles, and they’re the people that actually engage you and engage you in the story.”
“The movie is such a strange mixture. It’s a black comedy to me.”
“I’ve got a short attention span, and I love momentum. I love energy. Even if it’s just talking heads, I want to give those talking heads, no matter how good the actors are, I want to try and let the camera help support what they’re doing and what they’re saying with odd angles, with movement, with light, and that is part of what I’m known for or infamous or notorious for and often criticized for more than applauded for by the critics. I’m criticized for my frenetic energy which they feel sometimes takes away from the idea or performance, but that’s what I do and who I am.”
Any appreciation you might have for Tony Scott as a director might grow exponentially when you hear the man speak about one of his characters. He has such a passion for story and character, that it’s almost a shame he fell into style-over-substance with so many of his films. Nonetheless, hearing him speak about True Romance, possibly his best film, makes the film grow in estimation for the sheer love and compassion that went into making it.
Scott provides information aplenty with this commentary. He falls into play-by-play near the end of the film, but the commentary is filled with so much insight and talk of technique up to that point, there’s no way one can say you don’t learn anything from this track. True Romance is a great film, and hearing Tony Scott speak about it makes it that much better.