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Director Simon West talks to us about his new film Salty, directing Con Air and STATHAM!

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Simon West has directed massive films full of massive stars: Con Air, The Expendables 2, Tomb Raider and The Mechanic are all Simon West joints.

His next film is something a bit different. Foregoing studio involvement to keep more creative control, Saltywill be partially crowd funded. But not in a Kickstarter way – in a posher, buying shares in it way. You’ve got to put more in up front, but you also get rewarded on the back end if the film’s a success.

No-one’s done this before, so we could be about to witness the birth of a new way for filmmakers to, well, make films. I was very excited to talk to Simon West about his venture, as well as all his previous work that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

Quite happy to indulge me, Simon talks a lot about working with Jason Statham as well as how he honed his directing style in the way he worked with Malkovich, Nicolas Cage and Cusack on Con Air.

He also gives me the lowdown on his latest finished film: Wild Card, again starring Jason Statham. Plus, his answer to which action star he would most like to fight and beat is a doozy, as is his pithy line he’d spout after laying the smack down.

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Hiya Simon, I’m Alan from Live for Films.

 

Hi Alan, how are you?

 

I’m good thank you, yourself?

 

I am alright too.

 

Good, good. I’m a big fan of a lot of your films, so it’s really cool to get to talk to you for a bit.

 

Ohhh! Thank you, thank you!

 

So, first off, what is Salty all about?

 

It’s about a burnt out rocker, in his 50’s. He’s a bass player in a big, mega band. He’s made a fortune and is now living in his mansion in LA, with his ex-super model wife, just drinking himself into the grave basically. His wife is more outgoing and wants to see the world, so she drags them off to Thailand. He doesn’t really wanna go – he just wants to sit around and drink beer all day. So that’s what he does in Thailand. She goes out elephant trekking and unfortunately gets kidnapped by pirates. They’re a pretty inept bunch, who have lost their boat, so they just want to get enough money to get a new boat so they can carry on their pirating.

 

The leader recognises her from Hello! magazine as the wife of this famous rock star, so he ups the ransom from a few thousand to a million dollars. The money is no problem for our hero, Turk, but, in the meantime, a US agent stationed out there in the middle of nowhere gets wind of it. He twists the whole thing into a terrorist plot so that he can up his career potential. So he starts to interfere and doesn’t want Turk to pay the ransom.

 

So, Turk hires an Australian commando mercenary to help him, and he gets killed in the process, so Turk has to do it himself. He’s never tied his own shoelace or done anything but order room service, but now he has to go and rescue his wife from these Thai pirates and fun ensues.

 

Have you cast anyone yet? Or is there anyone you’re particularly looking to nab?

 

Well, with all my films, usually I approach from the point of view of “who would be interesting that we haven’t seen before?” Because, obviously, there are obvious people that come to mind to play that kind of thing, but I like to turn it on it’s head. Like I did originally with Con Air. I haven’t really changed my concept since then! That’s to get people who don’t necessarily do action films, but to go to the indie world, and get cool actors from that.

 

For comedy, action comedy, I want to go to the sort of Oscar crowd and get one of the “worthy” actors whose never done this sort of thing. Someone that can make it real. It’s a dark comedy, it’s edgy, not everyone survives – it’s not mainstream slapstick comedy, but I love it. It’s got a very dark, twisted sense of humour.

 

It depends on the money. When you go to those type of people and you don’t have a lot of money, what they’re then interested in is “is it real? Is it actually happening?” There’s a lot of people out there talking about films that aren’t real, so I wanna actually have the cash in my pocket first so I can say “I know it’s not very much cash, but it’s definitely happening!”

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You’re financing this film in a very unique way, can you tell me how it works?

 

Yeah, there’s several ways you can go about it. There’s the studio way, which is through big banks that write massive cheques, but then you’re working for those corporations who want to make films in a certain way; then there’s the normal way, which is like going to get a mortgage for a house, you’re asking for a loan. With both those ways you’re sort of making a deal with the devil – so much of that money has to go towards paying for that money that you’ve got very little left for the screen.

 

I was going along that route, but one of the people we approached said “Have you ever thought about crowd funding?” I didn’t really know anything about it, but this company called the Syndicate Room came to me and they pitched me the whole thing. They raise money for people to build planes, or invent new miracle drugs, they make a company and people invest in that company because they believe in the product.

 

I said “Oh, I’ve heard of that. Like Kickstarter?” and they said “This is different, because the rules are quite different in the UK. You’re not making a donation to the film, you’re actually investing in it. You’re a partner, like one of the producers.” So instead of having one or two producers, you have hundreds. That sounds frightening, but none of them have a voice, creatively, with me. They buy in to my faith and passion in the film, and then, when it’s released, they have a stake in the revenue from it.

 

How much does it cost to get involved?

 

The minimum is a thousand pounds. It’s a proper investment, for the kind of people who buy stocks and shares, that sort of person. Except instead of a pharmaceutical company, they’re buying into a film. It’s not a lottery ticket, it’s a proper investment for people who are serious about wanting to back a film.

 

My plan is to do this a lot. I want people to see that the model works and to do it a lot.

 

Is being beholden to a studio a problem you’ve encountered often?

 

Err, yeah! It’s kind of a high class problem in a way, because you get all of the goodies. There’s no end to the helicopters and the cranes and the underwater units. You gorge yourself on that for a while, and that’s great – I’m not saying I won’t do it again in a heart beat – it’s a lot of fun working on those giant roller coaster films. But it’s nice to mix it up, to go and do a small film, like a lot of people do. Something that’s more personal and that has your fingerprints all over it. So when people go and watch it, they’re watching my work, not my interpretation of a huge film for a studio and is the way they need it to be.

 

They’re each very good in their own way. Low budget films have their own frustrations and difficulties, but my intention is to do both.

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Going back to your beginnings, how did it all start for you? How did you get from Hertfordshire to Hollywood?

 

Well, by practising I suppose, as the old adage goes. I was a film brat. I was passionate about film from 11 or 12. I saved up from my paper round for a little Super 8 camera, and started making my own little films. Then I managed to get hold of a 16mm camera when I was 16, then, by sheer bravado, I managed to talk my way into the BBC when I was 18. They had a film course, and I talked my way into training as a film editor.

 

I worked on BBC dramas and documentaries for four years, but then I realised that I really wanted to make glamorous Hollywood films really. So I looked at who had managed to do that, and in England at the time, it was all people like Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne… and they’d all gone through commercials. So that was my plan, to do commercials.

 

Luckily the fist company I joined to do commercials had an LA office. So I hopped over there for a little while. Luckily my commercials got on the Super Bowl and were spotted by Jerry Bruckheimer – who also had a commercials background. He’d worked with people like Tony Scott, who’d done commercials, and had a lot of success with them. Then, one day, I got the phone call: “I’d really like to meet you. We should do a film together. Come in and talk about it.” And that film ended up being Con Air.

 

Do you mind talking about some of your previous films?

 

Sure.

Great. I’m a massive Jason Statham fan. The two of you have worked together twice already on Expendables 2 and The Mechanic, do you have any cool stories about him?

 

Well… where do you start with Jason Statham? The ultimate and one and only really, he’s the only sort of real action guy left, and who really does it. In recent years, a lot of the more “thespian” type actors have gone into action, but they’re playing sort of an action role. It harks back to the 70’s, where your action guys were real tough guys, and Jason’s the real thing. He does it all himself, and sometimes it’s breathtaking. I’ve shot with him [this is on The Mechanic] on top of a four-hundred-and-forty foot, forty-five storey building and he’s running round the edge completely fearless, while I’m clinging on for dear life and trying not to throw up! He’s sitting on the edge, swinging his legs over the side and throwing punches, and then you start to realise what he’s capable of, so you start inventing the stuff that you know he can do. So you say to yourself “What if he jumps off this building?” So that was how we came up with the action sequence where he and Ben Foster jump off the building, held by climbing rope. And Jason really did it!

 

The hardest thing was – I sent a camera down with him – and he didn’t look scared! Which is great for the character, but you want a little bit of jeopardy, so it doesn’t feel like an everyday event! I had to make him act like he looks at least a little bit scared.

 

Then Ben Foster came in, and I had a double ready, but he said “I bet Jason did it. So I guess I should.” And I said “Really?!” So he did it, I sent the camera down to, and he looked terrified! Luckily, that worked for the character though!

 

Ironically, we know Jason can do all this action stuff, but when he came to me with a project last year, it was written by William Goldman.

 

Oh, Wild Card?

 

Yeah. This is a project that Jason has owned himself for years, maybe over five years. He showed it to me once when we were doing Mechanic, but I was off doing something else, but then he showed it to me again after Expendables 2 and I got into it, because of the writing really. William Goldman is a hero of mine.

 

Yeah, he’s a legend!

 

I actually worked with him on General’s Daughter. He did plot hole work on the script. So this was a chance to work with him on a whole script – not just a polish on a script. It was a formidable thing, there are pages and pages of dialogue – it’s a drama really. It’s not an action film really, it’s a character piece. Jason is the lead in every scene and he has huge dialogue scenes. I knew he was passionate about it, but was like “Are you happy with all this dialogue stuff” and he said “Yes, yes. I love it. I want to do it”.

 

So I turned up on the first day not knowing what it was going to turn out like. Especially after The Mechanic where he only has five lines in the whole film! That character has no dialogue. But we turned up on the first day and he knew every word by heart and was amazing. So, Wild Card, I think will surprise a lot of people – it’s a very strong dramatic piece by him. There are, of course, also two or three fights! I think some of his best fights ever are in it. They’re very realistic and we spent a lot of time on them, so they’re very detailed and very well executed I think. But it’s a great performance, and he’s surrounded by some very cool actors: Stanley Tucci, Anne Heche, Sofia Vergara… he’s in a proper actor’s environment and he really stepped up. I was amazed. I think this is just the beginning for him, I think you’ll see a lot more dramatic stuff from him.

 

That’s cool. He obviously loves it and was great in Hummingbird – it was a shame more people didn’t see that.

 

Yeah, and he’s very brave to try those things – it was very dark subject matter and a very small film, in an English environment. Wild Card is broader because it’s set in the states, and will have a bigger release and everything.

 

You briefly mentioned The General’s Daughter, I loved that film, and I was wondering what your experience making it was like?

 

Well it’s actually the film of mine I’ve enjoyed the most in some ways, because it’s the only one that turned exactly the way I wanted it. I was meticulous, I had all the resources I needed, I had great actors in it, great writing – it was a fantastic script, and so I really enjoyed it. I think it’s my favourite film of my own.

 

In Expendables 2 and Con Air you directed huge casts of huge stars, how do you go about preparing for something like that? Especially on Con Air which was your first big feature. How do you prepare yourself for directing not just one movie star but a dozen?

 

Well I spose on Con Air I didn’t really prepare! I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, which is probably how I got through it! Through sheer naivete! Now, it’s completely different – hopefully I know a bit more about what I’m doing! My style is to quickly study the actors techniques. I think I learned that at the BBC. I worked with Mike Leigh, who’s a great improvising director. I learned from him that the actors can get you so much if they’re talented. It’s not about telling them what to do, it’s about getting them an environment where they can roam, and they’ll give you stuff you’ll never have expected.

 

I remember one of the first scenes I did [on Con Air] was with John Malkovich, Nicolas Cage and John Cusack. It was a three-hander scene and I was doing them one at a time. They all had such completely different acting techniques that I just had to change my shooting style for each one. For instance, John Cusack liked to shoot without cutting. He liked to shoot take after take after take very quickly.

 

Nic Cage had a completely different approach. He had already studied it and knew exactly what he wanted to do and therefore came in with an incredibly specific way that it should be. Because of who he is and how good he is, I’m just watching this thinking “This is brilliant!” So there’s not really much I’m gonna tell ‘im! Apart from maybe “If you stand over there you’ll be in the light more.”

 

And then, Malkovich, again was completely different. He appeared to have not read the script at all! He was ad-libbing and just making it all up as he went along! He would do a take and it would be completely different from the previous one. So you just keep going “OK, let’s do it again” because you’re fascinated to know what he’s going to come up with in the next one! Some it was so outrageous and absolutely profane and twisted and I didn’t think I’d be able to use it. Then, of course, I go into editing, and those are the bits that I used!

 

So that’s how I work with actors. Whether they’re big stars or first timers, my job is to make sure they’re comfortable, whether that means a noisy set, a quiet set, me giving them a lot of direction, or just telling them to improvise. That’s how I work with actors now.

 

The difference with Expendables 2 was the type of guys – I would be quite happy to tell actors exactly how to say a line, which you would never do to most actors. Plus, the writing style’s quite different – it was more of a retro hark back where you shoot a guy, say a funny line, shoot a guy, say a funny line. So it’s easier to be punchier with those sorts of things. In Expendables 2 people wanted to see those guys not in a radical new way, but how they remember them, it was all about nostalgia.

 

That was the thing. The first Expendables didn’t really feel like that, whereas yours seemed very aware of what an audience wanted to see from a film that united those stars.

 

I remember one scene with Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly at the end of the film, saying goodbye to the girl on the helicopter. Every time you put those three together on camera your hair stands up on end. They’re just such movie stars and they’ve never been in the same frame together – even in the first one they were shot in singles. So it would have been quicker to shoot them all one a time, but I said “I, and the audience, want to see you all together as much as possible.”

 

It took longer to shoot, and tempers got a little frayed, but I think that was what the audience wanted. Even when they had their guns in the airport scene at the end, I choreographed it so that they were all in the same frame shooting their guns at the same time, because how often am I gonna see that?! It sounds stupid, but I was almost welling up! So I’m glad that you liked it, because that was my intention – to give everyone what they really wanted from it.

 

You mentioned how Expendables 2 was a throwback “shoot a guy, say a funny line” film. Now, usually, my final interview question is “If you could be killed by any monster, which one would it be, and what would your last words be?”

 

OK…

 

But, as it’s you, I thought I’d do a Special Edition and ask you: if you could fight any action star, who would it be, and what would your pithy line be after you’d beaten them up?

 

Oooh, that’s a tough one! Ummm… I was always impressed that Jean-Claude Van Damme could still do his mega spiral kicks, and was still incredibly agile and flew all over the place, so I spose I’d like to beat him, because I’d look REALLY cool if I could beat him! My pithy line would be something about a Belgian waffle… “How’s that for syrup on your Belgian waffle?!” or something!

 

Hahahaha, brilliant! Thank you very much for your time and I’m really looking forward to seeing Salty and Wild Card.

 

You’re very welcome. It was great to talk to you. Bye!

 

Thanks, bye-bye!

 

 

If you’re interested in getting involved with Salty, here’s Simon himself to tell you more.

 

If you now fancy a share or two in Salty, head over to Syndicate Room and get involved.

Massive, blockbuster thanks to Simon for taking the time to talk to me, and to Jack at Rhizome PR for sorting it all out for me.

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