Very recently, on 19th August, 2012, the film director Tony Scott parked his car on a bridge over Los Angeles harbour, climbed a 12’ wire fence, and jumped to his death without hesitating. He had just completed shooting a new film and associates have stated that he appeared, a couple of days before the leap, to be as optimistic and buoyant as ever. There was a rumour that he had brain cancer (denied by his family) and also that he suffered bouts of depression.
In a staggeringly successful career Tony Scott directed 17 feature films (“Top Gun”, “Unstoppable” etc) virtually all of them commercially successful. The various obituaries for Tony invariably list his first feature as “The Hunger” in 1983 – a film slaughtered at the time by critics, but admired now for Tony’s visual flair and dynamic editing style.
“The Hunger”, however, was not actually the first feature directed by Tony Scott, although it was certainly the first to achieve wide distribution.
From 1965-1971 I was running the British Film Institute Production Board, a very small scale film making unit set up in London with the aim of helping young film makers get started in an industry which was shackled at that time by archaic union rules that prevented recruitment. There were numerous applicants for our modest budgets and facilities. It was my job to assess the feasibility of all the submitted projects, then present them to a committee which was chaired by Sir Michael Balcon (former head of the famous Ealing Studios) and included not just film people(Karel Reisz) but theatre directors (William Gaskill) a film critic (Eric Rhode), an art critic (David Sylvester), a painter (Sir William Coldstream), two elderly documentary makers (Lord Elton and Basil Wright) etc etc Fresh off the boat from Australia I was never sure how I landed this job, perhaps it was just the enthusiasm of my letter of application.
I expected to have endless problems with a committee that appeared to me to be out of touch with the swinging sixties. This proved to be not the case. The youngest of them would have been at least double my age, but all were frighteningly well informed and were quick to spot originality and talent among the mass of applicants. Among the film makers whose careers began with BFI assistance are Lindsay Anderson, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Nick Broomfield, Chris Menges, Gale Tattersall, and Ridley and Tony Scott.
Tony was 21 in 1966,when he first came to the production office, hidden away in the middle of a street market called Lower Marsh, behind Waterloo station. He was friendly, cheerful, even ebullient,and spoke with a Northern accent ( an accent that filmed interviews shown after his death reveal he never lost). He screened a short film directed by his brother, Ridley – “Boy on a Bicycle”. Tony was the eponymous boy. I could see immediately that Ridley was vastly talented ( his later successes include “Gladiator”,”Black Hawk Down”,”The Duelists”etc) but did this gift extend to his young brother? Tony wanted to make a short film from a story by Ambrose Bierce, set in the American Civil War – “One of the Missing”. I thought this an ambitious undertaking for a novice film maker, but changed my mind rapidly when Tony produced a set of beautifully drawn storyboards detailing every shot through the entire 30 minute film. Tony and Ridley were both students at the Royal College of Art and could both draw like Raphael – at least that was the way it seemed to me (someone whose drawing skill has still not progressed past stick figures.)
Tony edited the film in the Waterloo editing room so we were in daily contact. He was hard-working, meticulous and always amiable. For relaxation he climbed mountains in Scotland and Wales and would terrify his friends by doing handstands on the edges of city buildings. He had no fear of heights, or of anything else, it seemed. On one occasion he was refuelling his car late at night when three large West Indians pulled up and began to make comments about a small man like Tony driving a smart sports car. They began to push him around and he retaliated by flattening all three. They responded by suing him for assault. In court, the Judge took one look at the three men and then at the diminutive Tony and dismissed the case.
Despite some objections from the BFI Board that Tony’s style was “commercial”, rather than “experimental” – vague appellations that all too often could be more accurately termed “professional” and “amateurish”- a budget was approved that enabled him to make a black and white feature film – “Loving Memory” . This sensitive film is the only one Tony Scott ever made that exploited his north country background. It told of a brother and sister on a remote farm, who accidentally kill a cyclist, then take the body back to the house, where the lonely sister keeps it in the attic, makes it cups of tea, and engages in one-sided conversation. Macabre, but oddly delicate and touching. Well photographed by Chris Menges, it won the Opera Prima at the Venice film Festival in 1971.
Apart from an occasional message from mutual film industry friends I lost touch with Tony after 1973. I know that everyone who worked with him loved him – his dedication, his good humour, his straightforward North of England manner. A few actors complained that he was more interested in visuals than their performances, but actors always complain as they believe any film is about nothing but them.
Why did Tony jump from that bridge in Los Angeles? I doubt if we will ever know, though there are no doubt people who do know.
At the time Tony Scott made his Civil War film, “One of the Missing”, he was inspired by a French film adapted from another Ambrose Bierce story –“Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”. He and I watched it a number of times. The story is about a prisoner of war who dies when he jumps from a bridge into the river below.