An Interview with Simon West, Director
By Roger Crow / @RogerCrow
Simon West has helmed some of the biggest blockbusters of the past few decades, including Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Expendables 2, and The Mechanic. He discusses working with Rick Astley; directing Sylvester Stallone; turning Angelina Jolie into a superstar, and making new disaster epic Skyfire…
Skyfire is a stunning adventure. How complicated was it to make?
Well, it’s just as complicated as all the other films. (Laughs). They’re always a nightmare, and this one has fresh nightmare elements I suppose. It’s all the usual technical stuff and everything, but the conditions were pretty hard.
You wanted to make most of it in-camera rather than green screen as the producers planned?
Yes. After persuading them it was possible… and obviously you need some CGI help, but to be honest most of it is shot in a Malaysian jungle. So that’s the hardest bit I suppose. It’s the physical side of it. You get used to working out the technical side of stuff; of how to make a volcano explode around everybody. It’s actually standing in the jungle surrounded by snakes, and heat and smoke fumes. That always ends up being the thing you never think of when you’re sat in a nice comfy office.
That stunning monorail sequence, in which all hell breaks loose, is worthy of a James Bond movie.
Yeah, I love doing things like that. In the original script, they (the heroes) just drove up the mountain in a Land Rover. Then they come down the mountain in a Land Rover. And I thought ’I can’t really build a whole film around a Land Rover’. That’s why I invented the monorail sequence because I love those kind of Disneyland fun things. The childish element is exciting, and if you’re gonna build a resort on a volcano, you’re gonna want something special. And also during my research of volcanoes and also of Chinese attractions, they love these glass platforms; these glass bridges. I also saw in Blackpool I think it was, this glass bubble that goes up and down on a big pole, so I copied that, and we made a gigantic one to go down into our volcano. It’s sort of a crossover between a Chinese glass bridge obsession and a Blackpool glass pod elevator.
“I’d put my neck on the line for her”
Let’s go back to your early days. Is it true you directed Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ video?
I have to admit, yes. I did do that video, and actually I constantly get ‘Rickrolled’ by friends. That’s very, very annoying (laughs).
How did you make the leap into blockbusters?
I started at the BBC; that’s where I was trained, in the film department, so I worked on documentaries, current affairs and things like Newsnight, and in the drama department. I worked with Mike Leigh and BBC Drama. I learned so much there, and I use it all the time; stuff I learned in documentaries and drama, all the time on the set. Then I started freelancing, doing music videos, and I did a music documentary, but I wanted to get into movies; I wanted to be a film director. At the time in the UK it was mostly commercial directors who were making it… Ridley and Tony Scott, Hugh Hudson, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne. All those guys had gone through commercials, so I joined a company that made commercials as well as music videos, and they had an LA office, so of course immediately I went over to the LA office to get closer to Hollywood. I went over with a test commercial I’d made, so within a couple of years I was doing Super Bowl commercials. I kinda got spotted by Jerry Bruckheimer, and that’s when I got invited in and he said “Do you wanna make a movie?” I said: “Of course I do!”
I love Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. How was it working with Angelina Jolie on that?
It was quite tough to start with because she had a quite tricky reputation. She’d done small indie films like Girl, Interrupted, and was obviously a great actress, but had a troubled persona, and so the studio and the producers were really against her being in it. Also she hadn’t starred in a film as the lead, and it was a very expensive film. So first I had to persuade her, and it was such a rare thing, especially in those days. I said: “You’re going to be a role model for girls and women, and you cannot let this opportunity go because it’s so rare”. So that’s when she came on board and then I had to persuade everyone else that it was a good idea. And she was great. She realised I’d put my neck on the line for her, so she turned up early every day, worked seven days a week. She really threw herself into it because I think she also saw what a rare thing it was to be a female lead in an action adventure film.
When you made Expendables 2, how was it a) directing Sylvester Stallone, who’s also a director and b) how much testosterone was on that set?
Well, mostly the testosterone was Stallone’s (laughs). It was very strange because I had a meeting with him, and he’d done the first one. And I said, “Are you okay handing over this franchise?” Because I think the first one nearly killed him. To write, direct and star in a very physical film like that. He said “You’re the director, I’m just an actor coming along to do this one”, and he was very supportive. He would come in every day and look at the new set and say “Oh, this is fantastic! Much better than the first one.” Sometimes he got the cast and crew disciplined even though I wasn’t there. That’s a bonus of having a director also in the scene. He knows we’re not going to do this massive action sequence again (for example). He’s a giant force, but I think he was relieved as much as anything not to have the responsibility.
It must be terrific to work with Jason Isaacs on Skyfire, because he’s such a smart guy.
He’s so skilled. When you work on Expendables 2, they’re such great action stars, but you have to help them a lot with how to make a dramatic scene, but with someone like Jason, I can put my feet up and watch a master at work because he’s just the consummate actor, skilled and he’s lovely to be with. He also understands how to make the camera work, because you’re gonna have to go in a really weird position for me to make this scene work, and you’re gonna have to act.
Finally, tell us about your next film, The Legend Hunters.
That’s actually a cousin project to Tomb Raider. It’s (about) a husband and wife team, and they have a sort of cuckoo-in-the-nest comedy sidekick who lives with them, so it’s very much along the lines of Tomb Raider, but with a Chinese mythology. It’s a big action adventure fantasy that I shot entirely in China.
‘Skyfire’ is released on DVD & Digital on 23rd November