Australian director Phillip Noyce helmed a string of box office hits in the 1990s including Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, both starring Harrison Ford and The Bone Collector, which starred Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.
He returned to his native Australia to make smaller independent films such as The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence. After 10 years away, Noyce is back directing the fast-paced spy thriller Salt which reunites him with actress Angelina Jolie.
Were you on board with this before Angelina was signed to do it and it was still in the form of being a male spy?
Yes, I came on board just two years ago and at that time we were talking to a number of male actors to play the part of Edwin A. Salt. We couldn’t find the right actor (Tom Cruise was attached to the project at one time) and that’s when Amy Pascal (Sony Pictures Co-Chairman) said, ‘Let’s try Angelina Jolie.’
It took me about 15 seconds to realize that all of those changes were a plus. We went to the South of France to Angelina’s villa, ate a lot of cheese and drank a lot of their wine, and discussed the possibilities for changing Edwin to Evelyn.
Was it an exciting prospect for you to have a female star in it?
Oh yes, of course, just her physical encounters with all those bad guys suddenly became very exciting. The idea of arguably one of the most beautiful women in the world demolishing an army of tough guys, that was maybe worth the price of admission alone.
But also the relationships became more interesting. The central relationship in this film is between Evelyn A. Salt and her boss and mentor at the CIA, Ted Winter, played by Liev Schreiber.
That relationship between two men would be entirely different and his level of disappointment that she may in fact have fooled him and be a Russian moll, would not be played out with the same kind of emotionality if it was between two men.
We get the feeling even that Liev’s character has an unrequited love for Angelina’s character. In a way that relationship is the heart and soul of the movie.
What is it that you bring to the table that makes you a good action director and are you tired of doing this genre by now?
I was tired and then I spent 10 years in Australia and South Africa making three films. I must admit that when my assistant gave me this script and said, ‘I finally found a script after 4 years of reading them that I actually like.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Because it’s this central idea about identity that’s just so interesting and keeps you turning the pages.’
I must admit that I was happy to come back to the studio system and to making this kind of movie. I don’t see it as an action film primarily, although it never stops, it’s relentless, but that was the idea, and having you relentlessly asking questions about who’s who and what’s what and which way is the story going to turn next?
Is working with great actors a help in doing action movies?
Yes, and in this film I’ve had as good as I’ve ever had, Angelina, Liev, Chiwetel (Ejiofor), all great performers who within a larger-than-life popcorn, rollercoaster ride, ground the movie in some reality so you’re twisting and turning with the story.
You’ve worked with Angelina before, working with her on this film what did you see in her as an actress that evolved?
An enormous amount had evolved, all for the good. When I met her 10 years before, she was already an accomplished actress about to go onto the part that would win her an Academy Award in Girl Interrupted.
When she came back she had made so many movies compared to the number of movies that I’d made that if I was her teacher at the beginning, I now realized very quickly that I had stuff to learn from this actress, particularly in the area of stunts, because she’d done so many of them.
At the beginning she was fearless because she didn’t know any better. Ten years later she knew everything, but she was still fearless. Most people when they get to the top, they become afraid, they become conservative in their choices, because they’re defending their position. Angelina was only emboldened by her experience and her position to be more adventuresome.
Can you give a specific example of what you learned from her?
I hadn’t done a stunt based movie for ten years, since Bone Collector, and even that was Angie pointing a flashlight into the dark! This script called for some amazing (stunts) on behalf of the lead character, and I imagined we would use CGI for a lot of it.
I took Angie out during pre-production onto the 12th floor and looked down toward the 11th floor of the building that the character lives in. I said, ‘Here’s where you would escape, and we’ll take a plate and film it in the studio.’ She said, ‘What do you mean? No, I want to get out there, I want to do that.’
I was sure that the insurance company would deny our request to hang the $20 million actress from the 11th story, they didn’t, and two weeks later she was hanging there. And the same in other sequences like the freeway chase, which is jumping from vehicle to vehicle at high speeds, she really did it.
She allowed me to make a film that was much more reality based in the action sequences than most action movies are nowadays. When you see those sequences, it is really Angelina and she’s really in danger, potentially.