For his latest action film, Stratton, director Simon West plunged himself into the history and the future of British Special Forces.
You don’t have to ask much to get Simon West going. He’s seen it all, he knows it all. Twenty years ago, he exploded onto the action film scene with Con Air, and since then he has built a massive filmography of tough guy cinematic adventures. West prides himself on his preparation, and the research that he forces himself to plow through before he ever yells action. For Stratton, that meant getting buddy-buddy with the real-deal grunts of the SBS (Special Boats Services). He pried as many stories from soldier-turned-novelist, Duncan Falconer, as he could, and when those dried up he went looking for more.
Stratton is not the over-the-top extravaganza that launched West’s career. Instead, it’s a meticulously detailed thriller in which Dominic Cooper looks to unveil the reality behind the James Bond myth. West was not looking to dull your desires with green screen. He puts Cooper in the cockpit, and Stratton is at its strongest when he’s terrifying the production’s insurance adjusters with his brazen stunt choreography.
Stratton is now available in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD.
I recently read your article on the three most important stages of filmmaking: The preparation, the shooting, and the editing. And I thought we could start with your preparation for Stratton.
How did that idea generate? Were you already familiar with the book?
I wasn’t too familiar with the book, but I was somewhat fascinated by that particular branch of special forces, the SBS, which is the special weapons unit, they were sort of created in the second world war by British Navy for a specific mission and then just carried on since then and they haven’t stopped working. And they were sort of the inspiration for the U.S. Navy Seals and they become a sister organization and they transfer, you know, British SBS officers work with U.S. Navy Seals and U.S. Navy Seals will send someone over to work on missions with them, so they’re very closely tied in.
Although, the SBS is much smaller and was probably a little bit less well funded than the Navy Seals and a lot less famous now. You know, they’re still very secretive. You never have any interviews with them. They never … you know, you never read a book by an ex-SBS officer. They only difference on this was that Duncan Falconer, who was an SBS officer, and that’s not his real name, wrote a series of fictional books, you know, which are dramatic books, based on the world of the SBS, but they weren’t, you know, accounts of actual missions, recounting of missions that like you get with the British SBS or with the U.S. Navy Seals, so they’re very secretive. Very small group, and so I was fascinated by that aspect of it, and then of course I read the books to get the sort of dramatic take on it from Duncan Falconer’s point of view, who created this character based on himself and people that he’d known in the SBS and sort of amalgamated them together.
But I did get to meet some current and past SBS officers in the search process, which is very interesting, and you kind of realize that they’re the guys who sort of actually do what James Bond is depicted doing in his films. I’m a huge Bond fan. Watched those films since I was a kid, and it’s part of the reason I went into filmmaking is because I love James Bond films, but this was, when you get into it the reality of it is, those things that James Bond does are really not Special Forces but the Intelligence side, MI-5 and MI-6, sort of gather intelligence and can oversee operations, but really the guys that are going in and breaking down the doors and doing the action stuff are Special Forces and quite often the SBS in the U.K. doing these things.
So, there was a lot of research and background and interviewing before actually starting, even the normal prep of the film, which is like locations and, you know, how do we work out the stunts and script work and things like that.
So how do you balance that authenticity with the drama of the piece? I mean did you ever have to sacrifice one for the other?
Well, I mean sometimes you’re amalgamating events. Everything that happens in the film is based on real missions that had happened, though they didn’t necessarily happen one after another, within our timeframe. I mean typically with a movie, you condense the timeframes, though in reality these missions may have happened a couple of years apart in reality, and they may have been, you know, separate cases where they weren’t to do with the same shoot, but everything in it was based on something that had happened, either through my conversations with Duncan Falconer, because there was a lot of things that he didn’t have in the book.
When I sat down with him and was talking, he would just come up with some stories and anecdotes about things he had seen on missions and those sorts of events. And I said, “Oh that would be great to put in the film.” I would take that nugget and again, I would talk to current SBS officers to see how they met, with what equipment and how they train, because obviously Duncan was in the SBS in the 70s and so some of it is the same, but sort of technology and the techniques and the threats are quite different. For instance, you know, in the 70s they didn’t have to deal with drones, you know, these little tiny drones that are now very widely available and the technology is different, so they would be amid a different threat. You know, I had to sort of combine what Duncan had done in the 70s and what the guys are doing right now and think what are they going to be doing in the future?
Dominic Cooper is absolutely aces. He screams Secret Agent Man. So as the shooting is concerned, I mean it really looked like you put him through the wringer. He is a total gung ho hero.
Well, I think, you know, part of that was what attracted him. I don’t think he realized quite how involved it could be, these sort of action things because he’s a character actor basically. He’s a completely different person. He’s more of a character actor than your class action breed, which is why I cast him because that gets much more interest, because you can’t really invent a great actor, but I can put a great actor through the wringer and turn him into an action guy.
And so, you know, the fitness level I think was the real challenge. Having to do that physical stuff, but ironically what I didn’t expect with him is he’s an absolute expert high speed driver, which I hadn’t sort of suspected or even asked him about until we were actually shooting in Rome. There’s this car chase through alleyways, and I had some guys there already planning to do it, and we were just chatting. We were doing another scene and he was complaining that on a previous film he’d done, which was sort of an R-rating heist film, and he said they made him sit in front of a green screen for the whole thing and take it and he said it was kind of frustrating, and I got from the conversation that he’s actually very keen on driving and loves cars and was into it. I said, “You know, have a quick go with the car and see what you think and see how much I can use you really doing it.”
And so he got into his car and he just ripped it up and was flying down these narrow alleys with just a few inches on either side and was, you know, a great driver. In the end, all I did was just strap on cameras to his car and let him do all the driving stunts, and luckily his partner in the scene, Austin Stowell, was brave enough to let him do all the driving, so he could be in the car with him and be with his acting partner, lean out and shoot guns out of the windows and everything and was confident enough to be in there with Dominic, who had to act and do all the stunt driving. So that was definitely something I hadn’t expected, but it certainly made my life easier because I didn’t have to cheat or do doubling or figure out how I was going to make it look like he was doing these things. I just let him do it.
Funny enough, I thought that was a bonus, but then when I came to shoot the boat chase sequence in London, through the docks and the canals through the middle of London, I was sort of pushing my luck again and I said, “You know, do you want to have a go on the boats?” And actually, this time I sent him off for a day’s training on the speedboat, but unfortunately the engine blew up after 30 minutes on the rehearsal day and he never got to rehearse with the speedboat because we were shooting straight after, but he was still really keen, so I put him in this jet boat. We used jet boats instead of propeller driven boats for safety reasons, in case stunt men or people who got in the water, there’s not obviously a propeller spinning and jet boats are much harder to steer and drive, but again he was willing to do it, and Austin was brave enough to get in the boat with him.
And so again all I did was strap cameras onto this high-speed jet boat and let it rip through central London. Again, bouncing off walls, so that was a big surprise that he could do all that. I never doubted the acting part of it, but, you know, like you said he’s the consummate secret agent type of guy.
You certainly surrounded him with some serious talent as well. You know with Derek Jacobi and Connie Nielsen, Thomas Kretschmann, and Austin Stowell too. What element are you looking for in that ensemble? How do you know you’ve got the right pieces for a cast?
Well some of it is people I’ve worked with before that I know, you know, that I’ve sort of loved their work. Then there’s others, people that I’ve wanted to work with that I’ve seen. So, I’ve worked with the bad guy, Thomas Kretschmann, on something else and I thought he was incredibly sinister, a great actor, and I sort of wanted him to be a bit like the shark in Jaws, where you only see him briefly and he’s sort of more scary, the less he does. He has almost no dialogue in the film, so it had to be someone that could get that menace and intelligence without a lot of big speeches and arms twirling, so I knew I had a great bad in him, and then I just looked for an ensemble to put around Dominic, really good actors both in the U.K. and the U.S. Austin I’d seen in Whiplash. He was great. Sort of a fresh face character now, but I thought he could do the sort of idolized American soldier. Derek Jacobi, I’d sort of always wanted to work with. I’d grown up watching his incredible performances.
Then, I knew I wanted someone different and more representative of what the real head of MI-6 is like, though she’s a woman and she’s sort of very strident and energetic and the opposite of a crusty old English lady, and so I always liked Connie Neilsen for something like that, and of course she went on to be Wonder Woman’s Mother so you couldn’t have a more energetic and powerful a woman than Wonder Woman’s mother! And so, I feel like Tyler Hoechlin], again he was a big incredibly effective dynamic guy, as well as a great actor. I was convinced that he could portray a U.S. Navy Seal, but he also has a great warmth and you just love the guy, so I really wanted someone that you could really feel the friendships, can dominate the character, and they’ve known each other for years. You can believe that this guy was going to be your best friend and Tyler has such warmth. And then, Tom Felton obviously from Harry Potter is just the sort of person that you really meet in MI-6, whose not James Bond.
Kind of a manipulative spinner of facts. I mean these guys have intermortal danger and Tom Felton is great for that, and he’s sort of grown up as an adult actor. He still carries that sort of cleverness and that sort of guile and manipulative thing that…like a spy in MI-6. Yes, it was a great group of real actors to put in sort of an exciting action thriller.