by Magnus Shaw
A little over a day ago, Tony Scott - the renowned film and advertisement director - jumped to his death from a bridge in Los Angeles. The details remain unclear but he may have been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.
Scott would never have described himself as an auteur. His passion and skill lay in grand entertainment and once he arrived in Hollywood, he proved to be a master of the genre. However, his origins lay a long way from the American movie business.
Born in North Shields, Northumberland in 1944 he was raised in a working class family in West Hartlepool and Stockton-On-Tees with his brother, Ridley (also now a successful director). His early inclination was to follow a career in fine art. An accomplished painter, he attended West Hartlepool College of Art, took an arts degree at Sunderland Art School and graduated from the Royal College of Art. But the success of his brother's advertising production company turned his head. On the promise of a sports car, he took a job with Ridley Scott Associates, directing commercials for prestigious clients including Marlboro and BMW.
Having established his creative advertising credentials, Tony then embarked on his first, full-length feature "The Hunger" starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as decadent vampires. Tellingly, the film was highly stylised, resembling an extended music video or indeed, an extravagant advertisement. Not surprisingly, purist film critics weren't impressed, but the picture was admired by fans of gothic culture and "The Hunger" remains a cult movie. Nevertheless, it wasn't this production which caught the attention of the major US studios but a commercial he directed for Saab.
In the 1980s there were very few people in Hollywood as powerful as Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Having produced "Flashdance" and "Beverley Hills Cop", they enjoyed a reputation for glossy, high impact and very profitable movie making. In 1985, the pair were on the hunt for someone to direct their fighter pilots project. Fortunately for Scott, his Saab ad featured the car racing a military jet. A loud, heart-pumping spot, it was more than enough to convince Bruckheimer and Simpson Tony was their man. They signed him to direct "Top Gun".
Tony Scott was the first of the brothers to helm a hit film and "Top Gun" was quite a hit. Launching Tom Cruise as a global superstar, it was the highest-grossing movie of 1986, taking £112m at the box office. Suddenly one of the most employable directors in the business, Scott went on to make "Beverly Hills Cop II" and worked again with Cruise on "Days of Thunder". Blockbuster after blockbuster followed: "The Last Boy Scout" with Bruce Willis, "True Romance" starring Christian Slater and written by Quentin Tarantino, the high-tension submarine thriller "Crimson Tide" and the re-make of "The Taking of Pelham 123". His last movie was "Unstoppable".
Although a thrill-seeker by nature (his hobbies included motor sports and mountaineering), in 1995 he said, "The biggest edge I live on is directing. That's the most scary, dangerous thing you can do in your life."
Scott's work was extraordinary because it was always shamelessly populist but never less than thoroughly entertaining. And real entertainment demands just as much dedication and craft as the intricately artistic and subtly profound. Perhaps more so. Hundreds of motion pictures are released to theatres every year. Each has been designed to attract as large an audience as possible and thereby make a substantial profit. But beyond this, studios depend on a film's popularity, quality and longevity to produce a residual income from television screenings and DVD rentals. Many, many movies fall at the first hurdle, let alone achieve the second - however hard they try to gain universal appeal. Tony Scott had the unerring ability to make pictures which not only put hundreds and thousands of bums on cinema seats, but gave the owners of those backsides a hugely enjoyable time. So much so, people return to those films time and again.
Thanks to his impressive background in advertising, Scott understood the importance of capturing the attention of a mainstream audience and delivering something compelling while you had it. His work didn't seek to give us a deeper understanding of the human condition, it didn't present us with political theories or philosophical solutions. The movies of Tony Scott simply helped us forget all that existential angst and escape to a world of glamour, spectacle, adventure and excitement. Just for a couple of hours. That's a rare talent and one for which we should all be grateful.
I know, along with millions of others, I will continue to enjoy the movies of Tony Scott, because they were made to be enjoyed. But I also know, from now on, there will be no more.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.
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