Simon West unloads ‘Gun Shy’
We here at Film Daily were majorly stoked to take a break from the newsroom to sit down with Con Air, Expendables 2, and all-around action-film maven, director Simon West, for a cozy chat about his recently-released film Gun Shy. West has been a Hollywood mainstay for decades, working over the pond for the BBC and as a commercial director before graduating to shoot the greatest scene in cinematic history everrrr.
Gun Shy is set to be a cheeky action flick with Antonio Banderas’ amazing hairpiece in the lead role along with Antonio Banderas himself playing washed-up rockstar Turk Henry. When his wife (Olga Kurylenko) gets kidnapped on a Chilean holiday, Henry has to fight to free her and save the universe. Or something like that. David Mitchell (Peep Show) also turns up and acts a little maliciously, so you know it’s a laugh riot.
We were given 15 minutes to chat to West – here’s what he had to say.
Film Daily: An interesting tidbit, we hear, is that you began your career by working on comedy commercials. Is that correct?
I started working at the BBC on dramas, and then I went from that to music videos. Then, I went into commercials, and most of the commercials I did were actually comedy. I was sort of known as a comedy commercial director and that’s why, when I was offered the chance to go into features, I deliberately chose something that wasn’t comedy as my first film, which was Con Air. I was fed up of doing comedy and then, of course, you end up getting typecast as the action guy, because of what you did the first time. But I have to say, Con Air has a lot of comedy in it – I couldn’t really turn off the humor muscle.
Described as a “musical comedy”, Gun Shy is a departure from your previous films such as Con Air and The Mechanic. How do you think people will react to the film?
I think it is sort of a dark, twisted surreal comedy with a lot of action going on in the background. Things [that I’ve previously worked on] like Expendables 2 have lots of gags, so the comedy isn’t far from the surface. But this is actually an all-out musical comedy. We recorded songs especially for it, and Antonio [Banderas] did the vocals and we shot musical sequences, because it’s set in the rock musical world, and it felt like you had to see him perform live.
For those people used to my films, it is quite a departure. If you’ve been watching the dark and brooding Jason Statham in The Mechanic, then you see Gun Shy, it will seem quite a contrast. But it’s my personality – I’ve always done all sorts of things. It’s really nice for me to get back to it.
It’s almost as if you’re returning to your roots with Gun Shy in a way.
Yeah, exactly. It’s an itch I had to scratch. I’m sure I’ll be going back to more familiar stuff very soon in the film world, with adventure and drama and things like that.
The film is based on the book Salty, which you acquired several years back. Could you tell us how that came about?
Yeah, it’s a great book. I was actually after the writer. Mark Haskhell Smith had another book called Moist, which I read about ten years ago, and I’d called him up to try and get the rights to it. He said, “Oh, I’ve just sold it. Sorry, it’s just gone.” But he said he had this other one called Salty if I wanted to read that, and he sent it across.
It had the same dark, twisted humor of the other book, but even better, I thought. And again, it was set in this crazy rock music world with a burnt-out rockstar, a sort of mixture between Mick Jagger, Ozzy Osbourne, and Steven Tyler. So I said to him I wanted to make this low-budget, outside of the studio, so that I don’t have any interference. I can make it exactly how I want, with the style I want. I said, what’s your best price for the rights to it? He thought for a while and said, “Look, why don’t you just get the best bottle of tequila you can, and send that across.”
You’re saying you purchased the rights to the book for a bottle of tequila? That’s a story to tell at a party, if we’ve ever heard one.
Absolutely, yeah. I’m sure he thought that I was going to make it within a year or so, and of course I went off and made two or three other films. I got distracted and kept coming back to Gun Shy, but I did eventually get it made, and so he will get properly and fully reimbursed now. He was very generous to give me the rights for just a bottle – it was a very good bottle – but it was the best deal I’ve ever had.
You mentioned you kept coming back to Gun Shy. What was it that initially attracted you to the project?
It was the sense of humor. As I said, the reason I went into action films to start with was because I’d done so much comedy. I was getting tired of that, and I suppose the thing that attracted me to Gun Shy was: because I’d done so much action, I wanted to go and do some comedy, music, and other things. That was the main attraction: for me to have a break, and also to do something outside the studio system. Even in the independent world, if it’s a big budget film, it’s pretty much like a studio film. It’s a big machine and you have to make sure you deliver it, so that it rewards the huge investment that was made. But if I can keep the budget really small, I could sort of keep the artistic integrity and do it how I wanted, because I don’t have to repay hundreds of millions of dollars to people.
The film was crowdfunded through SyndicateRoom. How did you find the experience of working outside of the Hollywood studio system?
I had heard about crowdfunding, but I had always assumed that it was like Kickstarter. You know, a donation. You send in five pounds and you receive a t-shirt or a pen and that’s it. Just to help people along with their projects, mostly non-film projects. In the UK, the law is very different and if you crowdfund in this way, the investors actually become shareholders in the film and are like mini-producers. They have a stake in it and actually own shares in the film, so they will be rewarded if the film does well.
That was very different, and it gave me complete creative freedom along with a very efficient way to make the film, because every penny that’s invested by these people goes on the screen. Whereas, when you raise money independently for a film, you’re paying a lot of interest on that money, so not every penny that you raise for the budget goes on the screen. You might have a ten-million-dollar film, but you’ve only got three or four million to make it, because the rest is finance charges and fees. It was a very transparent and economically frugal way to make a film, because I could make it this way, for a much lower budget, because I didn’t have to pay interest on all the money that was coming in.
What was it like working on a smaller budget? More challenging, or liberating?
Funnily enough, it wasn’t any more challenging than any other film I’ve done, because it always boils down to the same thing. Time is your enemy. The weather is your enemy. It’s logistics. But it was a lot of fun making the film. It wasn’t any harder than any other. We could make it for a lot less money – that was the charm of it, really.
Taking a look back over your career, which film was the most challenging and difficult to shoot?
They’re all pretty challenging, but I think Con Air was the hardest because it was my first. I’d never done something on that scale before. The giant cast, the huge action sequences. Just having a five-hundred-man crew every day and organizing and running that was a challenge. I had to learn on my feet, and I learned everything on that first film. I guess the first one is the most challenging – it only gets easier after that.
You’ve worked with some iconic action stars throughout your career, from Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables 2 to Nicholas Cage in Con Air. Who was the most macho?
Sylvester Stallone I would say is the most macho. He’s Rocky and Rambo rolled into one. You can’t get much more macho than that, can you? Nicolas Cage was the fittest. He could do seventy one-arm push ups and inverted pushups and things like that. He was the most physically fit, and then there’s Jason Statham, who is very skilled at fighting. He’s more of an athlete than an action-movie star.
The role of Turk Henry seems almost tailor-made for Antonio Banderas. What was it like working with him in such a comedic role?
It was very easy. He really loved the part and when an actor loves the part they’re doing, they come bouncing in everyday with new ideas. If they’re excited to be there, it’s not an effort, you know? We don’t have to force them into anything. He really wanted to experiment and let his hair down, I think because in a lot of films he’s played very cool. He’s been El Mariachi in Desperado. Even Puss in Boots is a cooler character than this character. I think it was fun for him to be a bit of a clown and look weird and strange, act being weird and strange. It was a lot of fun to see an actor so enthusiastic about what he was doing.
Did that atmosphere carry over to the rest of the cast and crew as well?
Olga Kurylenko came in saying that she’s never been on a set like this before. She said it’s normally pretty tense and stressful, and she was coming in saying that this set is a lot of fun, because everyone is trying to make each other laugh on screen, but also off-screen. It was relaxed and positive – a really good experience.
What’s next on the horizon after Gun Shy? Are you already working on something?
I’ve got several films on the go, but I’m never sure which one is going to come to the top. I’ve got an Iraqi battle-tank film, I’ve got a sci-fi film on the boil, and I’ve got a disaster movie. I always have three or four going, and I never know till the last minute which one is going to bubble to the top.
What inspires you to direct films and continue to make action and comedy movies?
I think it’s just escapism. I like to create a world that’s different from our reality, a bit more fantasy-based. It’s fun to create that, to be this sort of master puppet maker.
As a director with an established career in the industry, you must inspire many budding filmmakers. Who inspired you to begin making films?
In the early days, I didn’t even know who the directors were. I was watching the film and loved the film, and I wanted to make films because I loved watching them. I wasn’t very conscious that there was a director, and then, as you get older, you realize that there’s an author behind it or there’s a director. Then, you start to find out who they are. Stanley Kubrick, Francois Truffaut, and Francis Coppola from the early days of my career, to people now, like Ridley Scott: I always loved to watch his films.
Sometimes, a director will make a great film every five or six films. It’s more about the films than the directors, I have to say, because we all have moments that are much better than others. Some films work better than others, but most films inspire me – good films. But I rarely find a film that is totally unwatchable. There’s always something to learn from a film, however good or bad it is.
Was there a film in recent memory that stood out and caught your eye? Perhaps one that inspired you?
I loved Dunkirk. That was my favorite film. It was very inspiring, the way it was made. Not a huge budget, but very effective and a great sense of style. Also, being British, it’s such a lump-in-your-throat kind of story that had you anyway, especially as soon as the Spitfires turn up. That was my favorite film of the year.