Interview: Phillip Noyce – Part Two

Phillip Noyce discusses his ’90s blockbuster hits and working with Harrison Ford and Sharon Stone.

“Sharon and Billy Baldwin never got along. And that’s very tough when you’re making an erotic film. It got so bad that Sharon insisted on filming her close-ups with a double when she was supposed to be acting opposite Baldwin.”

 In this second part of a three part interview (Part One HERE), We Are Cult’s Nick Clement spoke with Phillip Noyce about his glorious run of big-budget Hollywood action thrillers in the 1990s, such as Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Sliver and The Bone Collector.

Philip Noyce by the camera, New York, 1992. Photo by Andrew D. Schwartz © Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Your first big Hollywood blockbuster arrived with Patriot Games in 1992. How did you get the job directing this high-profile sequel?

Noyce: Producer Mace Neufeld called me, and he’d of course done The Hunt for Red October with John McTiernan. Alec Baldwin was set to reprise his role of Jack Ryan, and during pre-production, Baldwin was completing The Marrying Man for Disney with whom he was at loggerheads. This argument spilled over into the contract negotiations for Patriot Games. Simultaneously, Harrison Ford was at Paramount, prepping a picture with Harold Becker that had budget problems. Ford was at the peak of his popularity at the time and the studio floated the idea of him jumping from the Becker picture over to Patriot Games. Both Mace and I pleaded with Baldwin to reach an agreement, but he was blindsided that Ford was waiting in the wings and that the studio was talking to another actor behind his back. We told Baldwin that audiences loved him in the role and were primed to see him come back. For whatever reason, Baldwin walked away, and in came Ford, who had seen and loved my film Newsfront.

What was it like working with Harrison Ford?

Noyce: At first it was rocky because he wasn’t happy with some of the creative choices I was making. There as an assassination sequence involving some IRA foot soldiers, set to the sounds of an Irish folk group, and Ford wasn’t happy with how it was shot. John Goldwyn, who was president of production at Paramount at the time, told Ford to trust the process. Working with Ford was challenging but rewarding. He made so many great movies because he was intimately involved at every level, and he never stopped asking questions about his character. And this level of commitment would extend into post-production. He’s a force of nature and one of a kind. I’ve never met an actor who felt that much responsibility to the audience; he felt as if he had a contract with the ticket-buyers, to give them exactly what they needed. There’s a sense of honesty and directness about Harrison that evokes that classic Jimmy Stewart quality.

Sharon Stone and Philip Noyce. Photo by Andrew D. Schwartz © Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

“Sliver,” starring Sharon Stone, would arrive in 1993, two years after Basic Instinct broke all the rules of the modern erotic-thriller. How did you get involved with this slick and sleazy movie?

Noyce: Sharon didn’t really want to do Sliver, and when you have a lead that’s not into the film, things can get tricky. She was so hot off of Basic Instinct, but she was naturally afraid of getting typecast. It was the urging of Joe Eszterhas that really sealed it. He was extremely powerful back then, selling specs left and right. And he’s a passionate, overwhelming bull-shitter. Joe and I went to meet Sharon in a room at the Four Seasons Hotel in West Hollywood. We weren’t going to leave the suite until she said yes. Things got very interesting when Sharon started to give Joe a spontaneous massage, and he started moaning from her nimble fingers. She didn’t really want to do the movie but she liked the two of us, so she committed to the film. And foolishly I didn’t take her advice.

Advice on what?

Noyce: Sharon was very committed to her craft, and she was taking acting lessons. And in her class, was this young guy named Brad Pitt, who hadn’t really done all that much yet. And she was over the moon about him. I’d already fallen in love with William Baldwin, though. I loved how mysterious, and how restrained he was in his acting style. But Sharon was so overwhelming in her love for Pitt, and even though the studio was on board with casting him, I said no, sticking to my guns with Baldwin. I was wrong. And that’s not the first time I’ve been wrong with casting!

William Baldwin, Phillip Noyce and Sharon Stone, New York, 1992. Photo by Andrew D. Schwartz © Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Was casting Tom Berenger a nod to the underrated Ridley Scott erotic thriller Someone to Watch Over Me?

Noyce: No.

How did that famous UB40 music video get done in conjunction with Sliver? That aired every day on MTV and everyone bought that cassette single.

Noyce: That song rose to its million copy selling point, well after the film was released. I’d suggested Can’t Help Falling in Love after the music supervisor had provided me with possible songs for a particular scene. There were a dozen new songs coming up for release and I got to listen to them all and that’s the one I was lucky enough to pick. And then Paramount used the music video as the international trailer for the film itself! I also had the chance to put back in 45 seconds of footage, more sexual content, into the international cut. It was a troubled production in many respects.

Why was it troubled?

Noyce: Sharon and Billy Baldwin never got along. And that’s very tough when you’re making an erotic film. It got so bad that Sharon insisted on filming her close-ups with a double when she was supposed to be acting opposite Baldwin. It made for some very challenging days, to say nothing of the eroticism that was in the script. We also re-shot the ending. The original ending as written by Eszterhas had the two lovers flying over an active volcano in Hawaii and, as an extension of the erotic charge that the two characters were always searching for, the film ended on this impressionistic note as if they were headed straight for the molten lava! I still have it on 35 mm film, this original ending, and I think I’ve screened it twice, once for David Stratton’s film class. Needless to say, the audience wasn’t going to see Sliver for an art-house ending, not that the eventual ending was any more concrete, either. We re-shot the ending 10 days before the film opened. We had the wettest print you could imagine showing up in theaters. We were still mixing the film on Monday when the film was opening that Friday.

The test screening process is a fascinating one to me. And you always hear about how movies re-shoot their endings based on what comes out of these preview screenings. Do you enjoy this process?

Noyce: There was an outright rejection of that original ending. The audience wanted to know that she was better than him in the long run, and even though what we ended up using was still a tad ambiguous, we felt it cleaned up some of the audience’s desire to see something with more finality. Joe Farrell, from NRG, he’s the one who truly revolutionized the test screening process, and he was a big deal on the Paramount lot back in the 90’s. Look what he did for Fatal Attraction. He told them to have zero moral ambiguity with the ending. And that film became a smash precisely because of the new ending, shot after the test screenings.

You then got the job directing the third Jack Ryan installment, 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, which is my personal favorite in the entire series of films. I think it’s absolutely fabulous. I wish a current action drama could come close to matching that film’s level of intelligence and intensity. I’d love to hear anything about your experiences on that film.

Noyce: We had three Oscar winning writers. John Milius, who had a bizarre contract on that movie, Steven Zaillian, who was super-hot after Schindler’s List, and Don Stewart, who co-wrote The Hunt for Red October and won an Oscar for writing Missing for Costa-Gavras. Milius was still upset with Paramount for how they handled his previous picture, Flight of the Intruder, so he had it arranged through the Teamsters that his payment for working on Clear and Present Danger would be a new Suburban completely (and secretly) filled to the brim with Cuban cigars! He just didn’t want to take Paramount’s money.

I’ve always admired how Ford’s character never picks up a gun – not once – during the entirety of Clear and Present Danger. Was this a conscious decision?

Noyce: It might have had something to do with the one-sheet for Patriot Games, which featured Ford holding a gun. I know he wasn’t happy about that image, but to be honest, I don’t recall any specific conversations about Jack Ryan holding, or not holding, a gun. Again, that was a great experience working with Harrison. I remember one time we were in dailies, and he didn’t like the way I’d covered a particular bit of back and forth dialogue. He said to me, “You see that nose? That’s a Pinocchio nose, not a Jack Ryan nose. We need to re-shoot it.” And he was right.

Clear and Present Danger features one of the absolute best action set pieces in cinema history – the RPG attack on the SUV convoy in Columbia. How was that sequence achieved, especially considering the lack of CGI that was used? The only other film that has come close to match it is Peter Berg’s underrated actioner The Kingdom, which has a similarly spectacular SUV chase and assault scene.

Noyce: The best part of that entire sequence is that it unfolded in a totally organic way. We went down to Bogotá, and I met with a local DEA agent. She became an advisor on the movie, and she got us the chance to speak with American embassy guys. Kidnapping was rampant throughout the city and you’d see people walking around the streets with Uzi’s protruding from the clothing like a third leg. But our big question was: How do you safely get from the airport to your final destination through a tremendously hostile environment? The agents told us that streets would need to be closed and cleared and that two motorbikes would be needed, one in front and one in back. So when I got back to my hotel one night, I said to myself, what if we just took out one of the motorbikes? We had the Lombardi’s, a father and son stunt and demo team, who had created the explosions in Apocalypse Now. They built real rocket missiles which were fired out of real launchers, and the rockets were guided on a wire. And when those things hit their targets, those explosions were real, with massive fire-balls. We did a lot of storyboard and early animatronic for that sequence, so that it could be done with safety and yet still look dangerous.

Noyce directing The Saint. Photo by Stephen Morley © Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

How did you get involved with The Saint, which I can remember seeing on opening night with my buddies back in 1995? That was such a fun movie.

Noyce: Remember earlier when I said I’d messed up casting more than once? Russell Crowe came in and met for Simon Templar. And I can remember him saying during the audition, “Listen, I know I’m nobody right now, but in five years, I’m gonna be huge! Get in early!” And I let out a huge laugh. And of course he was right! But The Saint came about due to my friend Terry Hayes, who had written an earlier draft and also wrote Dead Calm and Paramount wanted to turn it into something slick and fun, and I figured it’d be my chance at a lighter-type Bond film.

Phillip Noyce with Elisabeth Shue in Moscow, 1995. Photo by Stephen Morley © Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Out of curiosity, do you know anything about the rumor that Val Kilmer asked to have one of the disguises he wore in The Saint modeled after the visage of Marlon Brando in The Formula?

Noyce: I don’t think I’ve seen The Formula!

Oh wow! Yeah, you sort of have to see it. It came out in the early 80’s, John G. Avildsen directed it from a script by Steve Shagan. It was a troubled production, the film is hilarious in some unintentional ways, and it’s super self-serious and self-important, but I’m fascinated by it. Anyways, Kilmer really looks like Brando circa The Formula in one of the scenes in The Saint.

Noyce: I’ll have to see The Formula now! And yeah, you know, Kilmer had been filming The Island of Dr. Moreau for John Frankenheimer, and of course, Brando was in that picture, so yeah, I could see how the experience of working with him rubbed off during the making of The Saint. And those disguises did get more and more elaborate as the production went on – that was Val’s big contribution to that film, the disguises, and making them bigger within the story. So yes, it’s very possible there’s a connection to The Formula.

Premiere of The Saint, London, 1997. Phillip Noyce, Emily Mortimer, Val Kilmer and Made Serbedzija.

In 1999, you did The Bone Collector, which arrived in the aftermath of the blockbuster effect of Seven, which had come out in 1995 and was a massive smash, and revitalized the cinematic serial killer drama. What was the experience on that film like?

Noyce: All of the studios were chasing the success of Seven, which of course was a brilliant picture and could never be duplicated. With The Bone Collector, I very much felt myself becoming a Hollywood “hack.” Working within a genre following in the shadow of Fincher who had set the benchmark, you begin to doubt yourself a bit.

I always thought the film had a really interesting visual atmosphere. It’s one of those genre items that hit its marks but I’ve always really enjoyed just looking at the movie on a pure style level.

Noyce: We had a big problem when we went to make the prints on The Bone Collector. My assistant was up in Toronto checking the prints and I got sent a note saying how some of the footage was too dark. We had this sequence that was set in a series of tunnels with Angelina crawling around down there and you just couldn’t tell what was going on. So I had them alter the grading to make it lighter but when I saw it, the footage looked like someone had used flood lights to light the scene! So on opening day, I was running around trying to talk to the theater owners on the east coast to adjust the bulbs in the theater to compensate for my mistake. It was crazy!


❉ We Are Cult would like to thank Phillip Noyce for providing the images used in this interview from his own personal archive.

 Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

 He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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