Director Simon West: Stolen, Con Air, Rick Astley and more

With his latest film, Stolen, out now, director Simon West talks to us about Con Air, Jason Statham, Expendables 2, Rick Astley, and more...

Although it’s always a pleasure to talk to a filmmaker about their work, it’s not often you get half-an-hour or so to really go into a more detailed conversation about their career to date. It was a real treat, then, to be able to talk to director Simon West about such a huge range of topics, from working with Nicolas Cage and Jason Statham to his transition from working in commercials to making the 90s summer blockbuster Con Air for producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Throughout, West was generous, funny and full of great stories, and he didn’t even mind when we brought up the subject of his music video for Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up – an 80s chart topper that has more recently become a weird internet phenomenon.

So on the day his latest film, the Nic Cage-starring crime thriller Stolen, comes out on disc in the UK, here’s what Simon West had to say on a range of movie-related topics…

I suppose the logical place to start is with Stolen, which is out on DVD this week. What was reuniting with Nic Cage like, after the 15 year gap since Con Air?

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It was great. Over the years, I’ve seen him every couple of years, probably. We’ve talked about doing a few things together – I’ve brought him stuff and he’s brought me stuff – and for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out. Either the money’s falling through, or we’re busy on other things and the schedules don’t line up.

But we’ve kept in sporadic contact over the time, and the biggest surprise for both of us was that we managed to do it this time – we were both available. It was great, like no time had passed in between. I was very surprised and pleased that he hadn’t passed at all. We’re a bit older and a bit more mature now than we were then, but largely, it was exactly the same – great fun.

He’s got a great sense of humour, and it’s always fun working with him, because he creates a very creative environment. He’s willing to try anything, so it’s very relaxing – he’s not like a movie star who only wants to do certain things, or only wants to play safe and do the things he always does. Anything you suggest, he’ll consider. It was a lot of fun.

We were reminiscing, because a lot has happened in our own lives in that time, so we were catching up on all that. And he’s got a whole British part of his life – he’s had houses in Bath, and he lived in a cottage in Somerset. He lived in Glastonbury. He’s had a whole English part of his life that I had no involvement in.

He even turned on the Christmas lights in Bath I think, one year.

Probably. He really loved it round there. I can’t imagine Nic Cage living in an English village, because he’s so American to me. His humour’s very Vegas or New York – he doesn’t seem like the quiet country type. But he loved it.

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It would be quite exciting to meet him in a village pub for an ale. I think I’d like that.

Yeah. I think he said he did have some quite interesting encounters with locals. It was interesting living in England, because he’d get so much adulation in America, and so many people would know him and like him, but they’d just come up and talk to him like another bloke in the pub. He really liked that, I think. They’d say, “I loved that movie you did,” but then they’d move onto some other subject. 

Probably the weather!

Yeah, the weather or the football or something. 

Cage’s role in Stolen – he’s a thief and a safe cracker. How much research did you do into that safe cracking thing? How realistic is it?

We did quite a lot of talking to guys who do it, and the thing I found out, really, is that there’s a cat-and-mouse between the people that build them and the people that crack them. And they have two or three different approaches. One is the stealthy approach, where if the safe’s in a quiet or remote place, you can spend a lot of time trying to get into it, or the other way is the big smash-and-grab, where you drive a bulldozer into the building and rip that safe out of the back.

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There’s the brazen, in-plain-sight [approach], or the old-school stealth sort of thing. But we found a lot of [the thieves] are very clever, and the ones we spoke to, it’s not even so much the money. For a lot of them, it’s about breaking the system. A lot of the safes are very electronic now as well, so some of them are very computer savvy, and it’s all about the hacking part of it, while others are more like the old-school mechanics of how the machinery works. They’re like people who like mending clocks, or are fascinated by mechanical things like that.

[Nic Cage’s] character is supposed to be the very clever version who sizes up a job for a long time, and works out the best way to do it. He has many skills – technical, physical. We didn’t get so much into the computer side, because it can get very tedious to watch on film, just tapping buttons. So I wanted to get into the more old-school sort of side, the mechanical side of it.

And also, it’s not just the safe, it’s how you get into the building. Sometimes the safes aren’t hard to crack, it’s getting into the building that’s difficult. So that’s why I was looking at old cases of people who’d gone in through sewers and adjacent buildings and things like that, and in this story, we wanted to up the stakes. What if, to make it really hard for him, he was being watched by the FBI as it happens? So he’s not just got to get into the building and crack the safe, he’s got to do it while he’s being watched, so it’s about subterfuge. That’s why we created that opening, where they think he’s robbing one thing, but he’s actually robbing something completely different.

It’s sort of a combination of a couple of real cases I read about, fused together into one job. I don’t think anyone’s done one quite as brazenly as ours, but not far off – some of them were really brazen. 

I felt there’s a hint of Hitchcock’s suspense, and North By Northwest‘s lightness of tone in places as well.

Yes. I always end up putting humour in my films, no matter what the subject matter is. And I think there’s something old-school sexy about safe cracking. I’m sure other filmmakers could look at it a very different way – much darker, much more brutal. But I definitely gravitated to the more glamorous aspect of it, and like you say, the more Hitchcock thriller aspect of it, rather than, they murder six people on the way in, and they don’t care what they have to do to get the money.

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It wasn’t that kind of story. It was more like the gentleman thief, who has his own moral compass. And that’s how the whole story unrolls – his partner doesn’t have the same compass, and that’s where things start to go wrong, when he starts shooting witnesses.

Going back to near the start of the career, and you were doing music videos. One of those was Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up.

[Chuckles] Yes, right.

I’m sure you’re aware that it’s one of the most watched music videos of all time.

Yeah, but I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons! It just became one of those bizarre internet things, where, you know, it’s so bad that it’s good. It’s enormously kitsch. It’s funny, because it was so long ago, and I did it when I was just starting out – I was probably 22 or something when I made it.

I was just starting off making music videos, and I was doing a lot of cool indie bands, and there were all sorts of early techniques I was experimenting with. By sheer chance, I fell into that dance thing with Stock Aitken and Waterman. I did a couple of videos for them – I did Mel & Kim.

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Then, with one day’s notice, they said, “Will you do this one? We’ve got this guy who works in the recording studio”. He was actually the runner, because I’d been in the studio a week before for a meeting, and talking about the Mel & Kim video, and there was this guy walking around getting sandwiches and tea, and it was Rick Astley.

Literally, the following week, they said, “He’s actually got a great voice, and we’re going to give him a chance with this song. But we don’t want to spend any money on it, and you need to do it tomorrow.”

So it was one of those things where I threw it together. Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong on the shoot – half of the people didn’t turn up. The choreographer was double booked. The production designer hadn’t finished the set, so it wasn’t even shot where it was supposed to be shot.

So we shot it in one day, and we thought nothing would happen with it. But then, of course, it went to number one all over the world, and I couldn’t escape it. Anywhere I went in the world, it would be on TV. It haunted me for about a year. I said to some friends, “Oh my God, it’s the one video I wouldn’t want to be seen everywhere.”

Then I thought I’d escaped it again, and who knew that, 20 years later, it should come back and re-haunt me! [Laughs] 

66 million hits it has today on YouTube.

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I know. It’s the weirdest thing. My life is very strange in terms of these chance events. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m sure there’ll be a third cycle of Rick Astley in another 20 years, where something else happens. It’ll be one of those things where aliens have heard it, and they’ve invaded Earth because this song they’ve heard brought them here.

Who knows? There’ll be a third cycle of Rick Astley, I’m sure.

I think that’s a good premise for a movie. That sounds fantastic!

I know! I think I’ll write that one down now.

Quick! Make a note. After that, you went on to do adverts, and you got a lot of acclaim for those. Then your first feature was Con Air.

Yeah. Well, I mean, when I was in England, I was desperate to get into the movie business. And England at that time didn’t have any opportunities. I was looking at how the other people did it. So I looked at what other directors had made it in movies from England, and of course it was Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne and Hugh Hudson. All these had gone through commercials, so I thought, I should do commercials, as they did.

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I was working in London, and the company I was with had an LA office, and they asked if I’d like to try out there. I said, “Yeah, of course”, because it’s Hollywood. So I went out there to do commercials, and it escalated quite quickly to Super Bowl commercials, which are the highest level of respect you can get. If you can get Super Bowl commercials, they’re like $2 million just to air, not even to make.

I think that caught the attention of Jerry Bruckheimer. He saw one of my Super Bowl commercials, and called me in for a meeting. It was a classic big Hollywood producer meeting, where he was sitting in front of, literally, a wall of scripts. I’ve never seen so many scripts – there must have been 5,000 of them. Just a wall behind him. And he reached around and pulled out three, and threw them across the desk, and said, “I’d really like to make a movie with you. Read these three and pick which one you want to do over the weekend, and on Monday, tell me which one you want.”

I’d had about two or three other offers, because as they say in Hollywood, I was getting considerable buzz off my commercial work. I had to make a decision that weekend between a comedy, a spy thriller from Europe, and Con Air. I ended up choosing Con Air, mainly because it had great characters, actually.

The original script was much smaller than the eventual film. It was a character piece, really, by Scott Rosenberg who did Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead and Beautiful Girls, which were very small little indie films with great characters. Jerry liked it, obviously, and I liked it just because of the characters and their names, like Cyrus The Virus and Diamond Dog and things like that.

I thought, well, I can do something with this. But I had to make it into a big summer action movie, whereas at the moment it’s a small character piece. So then I set about blowing it up out of all proportion, really. 

And it worked! Was it a bit of a trial by fire, though, because I can imagine you were working in some confined spaces with some very imposing actors.

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Yeah, it was a trial by fire on many levels, but the actors were the least of it, really. The thing about Jerry is that he’ll get you anything you want – he’ll sign a cheque for anything. So I could cast all my favourite indie actors – because at that time, all those actors were not in action movies, or even in commercial movies. They were in cool indie movies. But we got them, just by paying them four times as much as they’d been paid before on any other movie.

They were all great actors, and usually, great actors, if they’re talented, are very well behaved – they’re mature in their talent. It’s movie stars that are the real pain in the neck. But real actors, like those guys, were great. So the actors were no problem at all, and Nic, as I said before, leading the charge, was really kind, generous, intelligent. There was no problem with him, and we got on great.

If you have a vision and charge through, everyone follows, really. People just want to be told what to do, and on something as big and as complicated as that, only you know what the big picture is, so they’re looking at you to tell them what happens next. They’re in a scene here and a scene there, so the actors really look to you to tell them what’s going on.

So the actors were great – it was just the size of the film and the logistics that were daunting. I think the most I’d shot was a seven-day shoot on a big commercial. Most of them are one, two, three days. So to then suddenly be faced with a 100 day shoot – that was the thing I didn’t realise. You get to day 70 and there’s another 30 to go, it’s like a marathon race.

Trying to be creative on a scale like that is the hardest thing. Trying to be creative on a day-to-day basis, with no sleep, and marshalling 400 people. But it’s a fun skill once you’ve got it, and I’m not complaining!

How did working on that film compare to The Expendables 2, because that had a similarly testosterone-filled cast.

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Well, yeah. I got some deja-vu as I was doing it. But I suppose the difference is, it’s the non-thinking man’s Con-Air [Laughs]. The acting style is very different, if you know what I mean. These are action guys who are used to doing one line, then punching somebody, then saying another funny line, and firing a machine gun.

Whereas with John Malkovich, and John Cusack and Nic Cage and people like that, they’ll do a three page soliloquy about their murderous psychosis. You’re never going to get that out of Sly or Dolph Lundgren or someone like that [Chuckles]. It was very similar in some ways, and very dissimilar in other ways. We get some great, bizarre dialogue in Con Air, while in Expendables 2 you get quick one-liners.

It was definitely trading on the fact that you’ve seen all those guys in tonnes of action movies, so you’re relying on the baggage they bring with them. They almost don’t have to say anything, and everyone gets the joke. There was a rare day when Liam Hemsworth came in, and his character, his scene, he has a one-and-a-half minute speech about being in the army.

It was funny, because he was surrounded by the other actors, these big action guys, and he does this incredible speech all in one take. And all these guys were so impressed, they all went up and shook his hand off. I don’t think they’d ever seen anyone do a minute-and-a-half of dialogue without shooting somebody or punching them in the face. It was funny to have that juxtaposition: a young actor who can really deliver a speech like that, and these older guys who are used to the quick one-liners.

But when we were crashing the plane and things like that, I was definitely getting deja-vu. “Haven’t I done this before?” 

So you’ve got all these big stars on set there. Was there a clash of egos out there on set? Could it have turned into Lord Of The Flies with action stars?

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It’s funny, because like any kind of tribe, they quickly organise themselves into a hierarchy. You can definitely see who’s had the longest career, who’s had the biggest box office. So it was a pretty rapid organisation of hierarchy. You could see Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone at the top, who were sort of level pegging, and with Arnie sort of circling around, because he’s had a political career as well, and then everyone else just falling behind them. It was interesting to watch, that dynamic, when you have that many big action stars together. But it’s like any group, you know – school kids or a football team, or anything. They quickly organise themselves into who’s above who in terms of ranking and standing and respect.

It means that there isn’t much in-fighting going on. And also, they’re old pros. They know what’s expected, and some of them are glad to be still doing it. For some of them, it’s a great second chance. They probably remember doing it the first time, and never thought they’d be doing it the second time. So they were actually very well behaved!

One of the actors you’ve worked with a few times now is Jason Statham. You’ve done The Mechanic and Expendables 2. Then you’ve got Heat coming up as well.

We’re just editing that at the moment. But yeah, Jason – this is my third film with him, so we’re very familiar with each other, really good shorthand. You know, there’s the English thing as well, which helps, and we’ve got this thing where we have a lot of trust in each other. So I know what he’s really good at, and how to get the best out of his talents, and he knows that I’ll look after him, and we can work on stuff together. We can be frank with each other, we don’t have to beat around the bush.

If there’s something the other person doesn’t like, we just get on with it – we don’t get offended. It’s a very easy working relationship now. And Heat‘s very much a drama with a lot of humour in it, so it’s Jason doing quite new things as well. He wanted somebody he knew and trusted to do this one, because he’s pushing himself and doing different things. He gets to show a lot of emotion – highs and lows, and there’s humour in it, too, as I said. It’s not the usual Jason Statham “beat them up, throw them out the window and look hard.”

He’s definitely on a whole other level in this thing, and I think people will see it and think it’s quite a revelation, what he can do. 

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Is Heat a film you can both make your mark on, because, you know, the original Burt Reynolds one was compromised quite a lot, because it had a revolving door of directors, didn’t it?

Yeah, yeah. Because the script was by William Goldman, who did all those classics. And I walked with William Goldman on The General’s Daughter, so it’s the second script of his I’ve worked with. It’s a really great script, and it was one of those tragedies that it was so butchered the first time they made it.

There were some great stories from that. When we were casting, we had actors who’d actually been in the original Heat, and who were coming in to now play much older characters in this one, and they were telling me some great stories. The first day they turned up on the set, there was an ambulance, and they asked who was in it, and they said, “That’s the director” – Burt Reynolds had punched him in the face and broken his jaw.

You know, there were countless stories of those kinds of things. It was one of those classic horror story films, which was a shame because the script was really good. We’ve stuck to the script – it’s almost exactly as it was written. We haven’t changed anything. There’s no reason to update it, because it’s quite classic, with great dialogue and great characters.

We’ve attracted some really good actors to it, like Stanley Tucci and Anne Heche, and Jason Alexander and even Sofia Vergara from Modern Family’s in it. There’s a lot of great cameos and characters in it. It feels like we’re putting things right, really, because William Goldman’s a great writer, and to have one of his scripts executed not as well as it could be is a bit of a tragedy. It feels like we’re putting the record straight. I spoke to him before we were shooting, and I said, “Just so you know, we’re shooting pretty much exactly what you wrote 30 years ago,” and he was pleased about that.

And it was unusual for me to go in with a script completely locked. Because usually things change and there are scenes rewritten while you’re shooting and all this sort of thing, so to have a script that was locked 30 years ago was a real luxury.

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So what have you got next? Is Thunder Run set to be your next film?

Yeah. It’s an unusual one, because it’s entirely CGI. It’s a motion capture film, so it’s not done to a normal production schedule. I’d already done six months on it last year, doing pre-vizzes and building what we call the assets in the computer. We only need the actors for two weeks, and it can be any time, really.

So it’s one of those things that’s running concurrently with the other things I’m doing, because it’s not like a live-action film – it’s a long, slow process that’s computer-based. We can do it in our own building, really. So it’s running concurrently with a live-action film I’m doing. I’m not sure what live-action film I’m doing next – I’m reading scripts at the moment, and planning next year.

Heat won’t be finished until Christmas, and next year, we shall see.

So can you tell me a bit more about what Thunder Run’s about?

It’s a true story about a tank battle in the Iraq war, so it’s more  like Blackhawk Down, which is a film I developed a few years ago. To my mind, it’s even better than Blackhawk Down. It’s one of those films that couldn’t even be done [in live action] – you’d need a billion dollars, and no one’s going to spend a billion dollars on a war film. So it’s going to be done using photorealistic CGI, so it’s not stylised like 300 or anything like that. It’s more like Blackhawk Down, but done entirely motion-captured.

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Technology’s so sophisticated now, with the facial capture we’re researching at the moment, that you don’t have that weird, unnaturalness about it that makes you feel uncomfortable; it’s almost impossible to tell that it is CGI. But the difference is that we can make it on a gigantic scale. We’ll build Baghdad for real, and we’ll have 80 tanks and 20 fighting vehicles and jets and things like that. We have unlimited resources, because we’re building it on a computer.

So it’s an action movie, like Blackhawk Down was, but it’s done using a totally different technique. Gerard Butler’s the lead in it, and it should break a few boundaries, hopefully, because no one’s yet done a drama. They’ve done films with part CG and part motion capture, and family films. But this is the first action movie drama, and such an incredible true story. It’s a very tough, emotional film. It’s the first tank battle film we’ve had in many, many years.

As you say, it’s so unusual  to have a CG film that’s for adults rather than children, at least in the west. Perhaps in Japan, it’s a bit more common.

Exactly, and there seems to be a real gap to me, because the possibilities are great, and it doesn’t have to be fantasy or sci-fi or a family film. A big action film is perfect for CGI – just the scale you can make it on, the world you can build. I definitely see it as a new subgenre, and I’m already planning films that use the same technique. Like I said, the technology is accelerating so fast – every six months, the quality’s doubled. I think it’s an all-new genre in film.

Simon West, thank you very much.

Stolen is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Lions Gate Home Entertainment.

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