Following a screening of “Salt” at the L.A. County Museum of Art, Phillip Noyce recounted how, as the son of a former instructor for Australia’s covert ops team Zed Special Force, he was inspired to spy on people on his way home from school in Griffith, New South Wales. Strangely enough, he’s doing something similar today — only with $100 million at his discretion and Angelina Jolie to do his bidding as a CIA agent capable of turning an office chair and cleaning chemicals into a blowtorch and diving out of the way of subway cars while on the run from co-workers who suspect she’s working with the Russians.
As LACMA chief programmer Ian Birnie acknowledged in his introduction for “Salt,” “We’ve never shown a movie that’s been advertised on the side of a bus,” but Noyce is the rare director who can straddle the line between high art and high fun. If it can be believed, “Salt” is the director’s first studio film in over a decade after the twin indie triumphs of “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and “The Quiet American” in 2002 and “Catch a Fire” in 2006, and for a thriller about the scary potential uprising of enemy sleeper cells, it’s anything but sleepy.
Shortly before Noyce was to head to Comic-Con for the first time today to promote the film with Jolie on one of the more anticipated panels, he spoke about returning to the genre he helped reshape during the ’90s with “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games,” why Jolie’s acting muscles are more important than her biceps and how Harvey Weinstein started and ended the indie film revolution.
Since you last directed a studio-backed spy thriller, the “Bourne” trilogy and Bond reboot have changed the mechanics of action films. Were the conversations you were having studio any different than when you worked on the Jack Ryan films during the ’90s?
I think Martin Campbell with Bond and Paul Greengrass with the latter Bourne movies have provided a new high mark that we have to live up to in kinetics and emotionality. Bond used to be most noted for his one-liners. You could never feel the pulse of his heart beating — whereas in “Casino Royale,” he suddenly became a human being, and that breathed new life into a tired series.
And Greengrass’ particular editing style has given us the kind of edge of your seat ride that is more akin to a rollercoaster than a moviegoing experience. Hopefully both of those influences are felt by audiences when they see Evelyn Salt’s story and that we’ve added something else, which is the uniqueness of a female character doing all that and more.
“Salt” seems to place a premium on showing the action rather than following the trend of a lot of recent films where editing is used for energy. Was that important to you?
Sometimes editing by stealth is interesting because you can create rhythms that affect and audience viscerally but they don’t really understand. We do that a few times in “Salt,” but generally the kind of storytelling that we use is one where you can follow exactly what is going on in terms of the geography of the characters. But I love those Greengrass films.
People refer to his style as “shakycam.” Well, for me, given how much we now rely on our home video cameras as a record of contemporary life, “shakycam” is 90% of our day-to-day reality.
You mentioned at the LACMA screening that you had nightmares after Harrison Ford barely made it through one particularly dangerous stunt on “Clear and Present Danger.” Are these films more psychologically taxing than non-action films?
Your worst nightmare as a director of an action film is that people get injured. Your very worst nightmare is that someone might lose their life. It is only a movie and that’s something that you don’t want to have to live with. But it’s one of the possibilities that you always have to be prepared for because there is a certain amount of danger involved in thrilling audiences and it’s become easier in some ways through the years with CGI.
At the time, 15 years ago, I did “Clear and Present Danger,” Harrison Ford really was driving past a massive explosion. Nowadays, we’d use a much smaller explosion and augment it with CG work in post-production so that the actor’s not in nearly as much danger. All of that is fine — except when you suddenly get an adrenaline junkie like Angelina Jolie, who really wants to be out there and doing all these things for herself. [laughs]
You’ve said Angelina Jolie is “great at action because she’s a great actress,” which seems to run counter to what we expect from successful action stars.
Acting is really important if, like Angelina, you are physically adept and athletic, but she’s not muscular. We can imagine that with extreme training as a covert spy, she would’ve developed techniques of hand-to-hand combat that don’t rely on muscle power but rather on skill.
But giving and taking in an action sequence, the believability of that ultimately depends not on really being punched, not on really being kicked, but convincing the audience that you’ve just been through that. And Angelina’s skill as an actress is in direct proportion to her abilities as an action star. She knows how to pretend.