British director Simon West is the man behind a selection of the biggest action movies of the last 20 years. He burst on to the scene with several bangs as director of the silly, spectacular Nicolas Cage actioner Con Air and followed that up with a number of other big action films, including The Expendables 2 and the 2001 adaptation of Tomb Raider. He has worked extensively with Jason Statham, too, helming The Mechanic and the enjoyable, if bizarre, Wild Card as vehicles for the star.
West’s latest film Stratton brings him back to home soil, following Dominic Cooper as the eponymous Special Boat Service operative as he attempts to foil a biochemical attack, masterminded by a terrorist figurehead. He is assigned American buddy Hank (Austin Stowell) by his bizarrely accented superior (Connie Nielsen) to assist him. Stratton also has the help of strategists Aggy (Gemma Chan) and Cummings (Tom Felton) on the ground, as well as tech expert Spinks (Jake Fairbrother).
I got the chance to chat to West via email this week, discussing the release of Stratton, the weirdness of Steve Buscemi in Con Air, video game movies and his planned remake of horror classic The Blob.
What attracted you to Stratton as a project?
I had been looking for many years for a new British hero to make a film about. I felt there was room for a third option to go alongside Harry Potter and James Bond.
Having made a handful of huge American action movies in your career, how did it feel to direct something that’s properly British?
It is great to bring what I have learned over the years in Hollywood back to the UK. I love shooting here and the crews and acting talent are superb.
You have worked with tonnes of huge action stars, including Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone and Nicolas Cage. How does Dominic Cooper compare?
Dominic Cooper, to my mind, is a character actor rather than the predictable leading man hero who basically does the same thing in every role. Dominic is a chameleon and he has a huge range, as is demonstrated by the roles he has played. From musicals and comedy to deep emotional or mentally twisted characters, he’s never the same twice. That’s a very hard thing to achieve in a business that loves to pigeonhole people.
You started your career with a massive film in the shape of the brilliant Con Air? What was it like to start so big?
Luckily, I had had naivety on my side when I started Con Air. I had no idea how tough it would be and, by the time I did, it was too late. I just had to get on with it and grit my teeth. It was also a wonderful experience to be in the centre of such an amazing event. The chance to have those huge resources and fantastic cast at your fingertips comes around very rarely. However, it is something you appreciate most after the event. During the production, there is just too much responsibility and work to really stand back and enjoy it.
One of my favourite elements of Con Air is Steve Buscemi’s pitch-black, unsettling performance. It almost feels like it’s from a different film. Was there any chance it might end up on the cutting room floor?
The original scene with Steve Buscemi and the little girl was quite a bit longer in my first cut. However, during the first test screening of the film, the audience was so freaked out about it that I cut it down considerably.
You made a video game movie in 2001 with Tomb Raider. That sub-genre has traditionally been badly received by critics. Why do you think this is and what do you think it will take to change things?
Filmmakers seem to be getting better at adapting movies from other media, including video games. A lot of video games are really homages to movies, but when they are then re-worked back into movies they are so diluted that they have no substance. I don’t think game players want to see exactly what they have already spent hours in front of as part of the game.
A game player is in control of what happens in the story to some extent, but the movie audience has no control. This means what you show them must be unexpected and moving emotionally. The filmmaker must be quite manipulative in order to get a response from the audience. They must excite, scare, amuse and make it possible for the audience to connect with the characters. If this is attempted, then there is a much better chance for success.
You’re attached to a remake of horror classic The Blob. Where are you with that project and will it be a tonal shift for your career, moving from action to horror for the first time in more than a decade?
I am always developing several projects at once. The Blob is one of the things I would like to make and part of my reinvention is to make it more sci-fi than horror. Actually, sci-fi is my favourite genre even though I’ve never made a sci-fi film.
Thank you, Simon West! Stratton is in UK cinemas now.