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Scott of the Atlantic

Tony Scott pulled a few strokes to film the submarine thriller Crimson Tide. It's how he's stayed afloat in mainstream Hollywood. By Chris Peachment
Like spaceship movies, submarine movies face some intractable problems. A team of guys sealed up like spam in a can, with not much chance of nipping outside for a smoke. And not many juicy roles for women. Which may go some way to explaining why they are few and far between these days. There were a spate of them during and after the Second World War, usually starring John Mills having to decide through clenched teeth just how 30 men were going to escape the doomed vessel with only 20 items of escape apparatus. They had titles like We Dive at Dawn (1943 Anthony Asquith) or Above Us the Waves (1954 Ralph Thomas), and always featured a scene in which the sub sat silently on the sea-bed, crew sweating heavily, while the depth charge explosions crept closer and closer.

The classic sub movie of the Fifties is Sam Fuller's Hell and High Water, which has the unlikely but effective scenario of Richard Widmark as the captain of a privately funded submarine mission to take on a secret Chinese attempt to drop an atom bomb during the Korean War. It features, among other strange things, an underwater sub duel in which each boat tries to ram the other, but is mainly remarkable for its prophetic vision of the later Cuban missile crisis.

In the past 15 years, we have had Wolfgang Petersen's German Das Boot, which set new standards for inducing attacks of screaming claustrophobia in audiences; and The Hunt for Red October, a tale of double-cross and defection beneath the waves, memorable for Sean Connery's battleship- grey, standard Russian-issue crewcut toupee. There was also James Cameron's The Abyss, which certainly did the business underwater, but somehow doesn't quite count since everyone was driving around in "submersibles", which looked like fancy lunar landing vehicles, rather than the old-fashioned phallic submarine. And they cheated a bit by having windows. The whole point about subs is that you can't see out.

Tony Scott, brother of Ridley Scott, and director of Crimson Tide, a new submarine movie starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, didn't much take to The Hunt for Red October. "It took me about three sittings to get through it," he says, with a big fake yawn by way of elaboration. "But I did like what Wolfgang Petersen did with Das Boot. He cast so many different personalities in the crew, so they all had their own character. It's a problem because the military tends to round off the corners of its personnel, so they talk and act too similarly." This he has attempted to rectify in Crimson Tide, using a line-up of actors whose names, such as George Dzundza, you don't necessarily know, but whose faces are certainly familiar from a dozen good cameos in the past. What he couldn't quite manage, though, was Peterson's claustrophobia. "Yeah, I tried and missed on that. He was using wide lenses inside a full mock-up of the boat. We constructed different parts of the boat on gimbals in the studio, and I was using long lenses to make the floors and ceilings look tight. But with long lenses it all becomes a little distant, a little objective."

An admission of failure from a film director! After the hard-driving pleasures of Beverly Hills Cop II, Top Gun and Days of Thunder, movies that most critics took pleasure in savaging, I had expected something of a tyrant, but Scott looks like a big happy baby. He is dressed in standard Hollywood rig of jeans, T-shirt, baseball cap and a pair of multicoloured snakeskin boots with metal toe caps. He is softly spoken, still retaining a slight Geordie accent, and the word he says most is "Yeah", used as an expression of enjoyment, approval, or even admiration.

Crimson Tide pits two officers from different generations against each other. The commander, Gene Hackman, is a do-it-by-the-book man, so when he gets a garbled order to nuke a renegade Russian state, and then radio silence, he gleefully goes gung-ho and sets the thing in motion. His number two, Denzel Washington, is more a think-it-through-for-yourself man, and when he dissents, the crew find themselves splitting down the middle in a scenario that is essentially The Caine Mutiny underwater, applied to the unthinkable possibilities of Fail Safe.

Apparently the Navy saw the script, went collectively puce in the face, and denied Scott any co-operation. "They didn't want to advertise a mutiny on board a sub," says Scott, "but if you read their officer training books, there's a large section on how to cope with exactly that. So, you tell me, do they have them or not?" Still, he got his own revenge, when someone told him that the USS Alabama, whose commander was instrumental in keeping the Navy out of the picture, was sailing from Hawaii. Scott took three cameras, in a helicopter and speedboat, and got some outside footage of the sub diving. The commander spoke to him on the radio, demanding to know what he was up to.

"I told them I was shooting a commercial for Lark cigarettes for Japan," says Scott with some glee. "What's more, since the movie was released in the States, I'm told recruitment applications for the submarine service have gone up by 200 per cent." He shakes his head. "There are a lot of strange people in America. That's one of the main reasons I wanted to do the film. Just what is it that makes a man want to work at a job that entails spending 90 days underwater? There's something dark there, something twisted, almost drug-oriented."

If you want dark and twisted, then you call Quentin Tarantino, which is exactly what Scott did. He had already directed True Romance from Tarantino's original script, and greatly admires the spin that Tarantino puts on dialogue. There are some moments in Crimson Tide of pop culture reference, such as an argument over the Silver Surfer comics, that are obviously Tarantino- esque, but in fact he did a makeover on the whole script, albeit uncredited as he did not change character or plot. There is a nice moment when Hackman is admiring the fragrant smoke from the torpedo-sized cigar he is smoking: "I don't trust air you can't see," he says, and goes on to aver that cigars are more expensive than drugs. "That's my line, actually," says the cigar- smoking Scott. And are they? "Mine certainly are. Monte Cristo Number 2."

Tony and Ridley Scott have recently spent some $12m of their own money acquiring Shepperton Studios, and have done a deal with Disney whereby they are contracted to direct two films every four years and produce anything up to 10 movies each. Part of the reason, he claims, for the purchase is that he would like to spend some time in England and see a bit more of his mum. But he's also very admiring of the recent resurgence that British film is enjoying, in its usual stop-start fashion. He cites The Crying Game as possibly the beginning of it all, and recent examples such as Shallow Grave and The Madness of King George as the sort of film we can make without pandering to a transatlantic audience.

The Scott brothers clearly get along very well; it was Ridley who encouraged Tony in his first film, a short taken from an Ambrose Bierce story, made when they were both at art school. Would they ever direct together, like the Coen or Taviani brothers. "Christ, no," says Scott. "We are both egomaniacs. We'd probably kill each other."

Tony Scott has come in for a lot of stick over the years for too large an admiration for the military (Top Gun, Crimson Tide), or hardware (Nascar racers in Days of Thunder), or ad-man's shorthand (fluttering curtains and white doves in just about everything). But it's worth bearing in mind that until True Romance (which he produced) he was always just a hired hand, with too many studio executives having too large a hand in the finished product. And Crimson Tide really does bear out his plea that it is not hardware that interests him, but "people who live their lives on the edge".

There's a story that on his television commercial for Saab - the one where a Saab Viggen fighter comes hurtling over the top of the Saab car at an altitude of about 10 feet - no one would get on the car's roof to man the camera, so Scott did it himself. "Fearless" is how Scott is most often described by those who know him. Is he still? He smiles ruefully at the question, but says, "True. Yeah."

n 'Crimson Tide' is released on 3 Nov