Q&A: 'Salt' director Phillip Noyce

The director on remaking a male role for Angelina Jolie

Illustration by Chris Morris
After ten years working outside the studio system, Phillip Noyce could be considered the spy movie director who came in from the cold. In the '90s, the Australian-born helmer orchestrated the Jack Ryan tales "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," but then retreated to his homeland for such indie features as "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and "The Quiet American." Sony's "Salt," opening Friday, marks his return to both the big-budget action thriller and Angelina Jolie, whom he first directed in 1999's "The Bone Collector."

The Hollywood Reporter: You once said you'd had enough of Hollywood and its compromises. What persuaded you to return?

Phillip Noyce: I made three films in 10 years, and each one of the production processes was followed by a year and half of travel to the four corners of the earth -- enjoyable travel, but nevertheless a lot of effort helping distributors find audiences. After 10 years as a town crier, saying "Please come and see my movie," I really was glad for the prospects of having the colonizing genius of Hollywood doing the town-crying for me. The studio system is such an effective proselytizer.

Making films outside the studio system was a different ethos, a different approach to storytelling, a different set of priorities. It was totally invigorating -- working within the studio system can grind you down. I certainly came back feeling like I was 10 years younger, not 10 years older.

Sony is a studio which has no fear of age. Martin Campbell, when he was in his mid-60s, directed a worldwide hit like "Casino Royale" with the vigor and passion of a seemingly much younger director. When we were discussing crew members, I mentioned one potential person and said, "But he's not young." I was very relieved when (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman) Amy (Pascal) said, "We don't mind experience here." Which was really pleasant to hear and affirming, that because you'd been around the block once or twice you might be considered an asset.

THR: Why this particular movie?

Noyce: The hook is so compelling, the idea of a woman being accused of something that forces her to go on the run and examine her own identity.

THR: Except the main character was written as a man when you first discussed it.

Noyce: I came in and spoke to (Columbia president) Matt Tolmach and Amy sometime in 2007. And it was a year later that they contacted me again to continue the conversation. Tom Cruise was considering the role, but eventually it was too close to ("Mission: Impossible's") Ethan Hunt. That's when (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman) Amy Pascal made what at first seemed the outrageous suggestion that we should offer it to Angelina.

It didn't take long to figure out that was an inspired idea: All the relationships and encounters within the movie were only going to be richer if the character were played by a woman and that woman was Angelina Jolie, bringing her extreme athleticism and her acute dramatist's skill as an actress. So (producer) Lorenzo di Bonaventura, (writer) Kurt Wimmer and I went over to France and spent about a week with Angie discussing the possibilities. We laid out the framework for the kind of movie we wanted to make.

THR: In the finished film, Salt has a husband. Was that the only other sex change involved in re-working the script?

Noyce: In the original script, the last act was devoted to Edward A. Salt rescuing his wife and child from a coalition of bad guys. That seemed to be an utterly conventional third act and also predictable for the audience. Our first ground rule was that from any point 10 minutes in, if you asked the audience where this film was going, they would be wrong. We said, let's make a movie that's snakelike, that keeps weaving and changing and shedding its skin. And let's make a film that's relentless in its entertainment value and its storytelling.

THR: So you didn't have to alter any of the other characters?

Noyce: No, but every relationship that she has, every encounter has really changed. It's just a different frisson. For example, Salt's boss was always called Ted Winter, but there was a very different camaraderie, a very male-to-male friendship between Edward and Ted than there is between Evelyn and Ted. We cast Liev Schreiber because we were looking for an actor who could bring a lot more emotionality and almost express an unrequited passion for his protege.

There's also something delicious about a group of guys chasing a woman who manages to elude them through cunning and brawn. That just tickles everyone's fancy. You don't have to be a feminist to respond to the idea. Hopefully, if this film is successful, Angelina will have opened up a whole new genre, not just expanding the arena for herself, but opening up parts for other women.

THR: Do you think what audiences expect out of action movies has changed much since you made your Jack Ryan movies?

Noyce: You know, I think audience attention spans have changed. The rhythm at which information is processed has sped up. I've had fun, as an audience member, and as a human being, participating in that fractured lifestyle that we all lead now. I think when we started to tell the story, the rhythms and the way the story is presented are entirely different from the last time I was making a spy thriller like this, 10 years ago, which seems like ancient history right now, a very sedate time in human existence, just before broadband came in and our stimulation choices increased seemingly a hundred-fold overnight.

The audience is so fast. Their knowledge of cinema grammar is so acute. They are way ahead of you unless you can join in their dance and create a dance they want to follow. So trying to find the rhythm of storytelling was a big part of the exercise of making this film, but also what attracted me to coming back to this grandiloquent arena of the summer studio movie.

THR: The movie looks as if you concentrated on actual physical stuntwork, rather than doing it all with green screen and digital effects.

Noyce: I assumed as we scripted the action sequences that we'd use a lot more CGI than we did. I hadn't counted on two things: Angelina and Simon Crane, our stunt coordinator, who she's worked with on many movies over the last ten years. Angie loves heights. She loves danger up to a certain point, because she knows that Simon knows her limits, is an ultimate professional and is very concerned with safety and will always reign her in just short of where it's dangerous.

I remember going up on top a building and looking down with Angie and saying, "That's where your character would climb out on the windowsill. We'll shoot a plate here and then do it in the studio. She said, "What do you mean? I want to go out there." I sort of looked at her and thought o the insurance premium and some guy in Culver City hitting the roof. But three weeks later, she was out there on the side of the building.

THR: You also use Russian spies, who've been out of vogue since the end of the cold war, as villains.

Noyce: I'd been interested in the concept of sleeper spies for a long time. I'd read a lot of material about sleeper spies from the second world war on and had been looking for a vehicle that might deal with the subject. The interesting thing about a sleeper spy being what happens if the spy who is sent to a host country actually falls in love with the new lifestyle -- whether it's a totalitarian or a democratic regime.

Did I think the idea of Russian spies was an outdated one? No. It was always Russians (in the script). It only took me a couple of weeks research to realize what the FBI had already realized and that's that sleeper spies were not the figment of a Hollywood script writer's imagination. They were really out there. Talking to ex-KGB and talking to ex-CIA, I realized there are not just 11 people in New York City, the 11 who were arrested and exchanged with Russia. If there are 11, there are 1,100, and if there are 1,100 Russians, there are twice as many Americans in other countries. Logic tells us that the human weapon and the potential of the human weapon are so potent. These people are not just going around masquerading as housewives. They are inside the institutions of government. The race among the spy forces is not to get information, but to get that man or woman into a strategic position because that's how future wars, whether they are economic or military, are going to be fought. Through influence.

THR: What was your reaction when that story about the Russian spies did surface in the news?

Noyce: Because the story was circulated by Kurt Wimmer in an e-mail, we thought it was a practical joke at first -- a writer who was trying to set us all up.

THR: They certainly don't seem to have possessed all the talents Salt displays?

Noyce: Well, we don't know really. I think they were nabbed before Day X. I'm here to tell you that Day X does exist. Day X is the day designated by Department S of the KGB, the department with the responsibility for training illegals, which is what the Soviets called sleeper spies, deep-cover moles in country. Day X is the day when all the Russian sleeper spies and their allies will rise up and assassinate leaders, destroy institutions and practice biological warfare. That is the official designation of the day the big war begins.

I must add that all this conspiracy theory stuff, the fact that this all has a basis in reality is neither here nor there. The reality of it all only produced more fantastic notions to play with. It's the playfulness of the notion that interested me.

THR: How do you think the movie will play in Russia?

Noyce: We want to make sure the Russians don't get paranoid, because the villains aren't the Russians of the present. These people are laboratory experiments created by the KGB. Jeff Davidson (a Sony dubbing consultant who oversees foreign versions of the studio's films) came up with a brilliant idea together with the Russian director of inventing a particular language for the character Orlov, which is sort of like old-school KGB-speak. It should allow Russians to see the story with the same irony as Americans will and will not feel like it's an attack on them.

THR: Why do you keep returning to spy movies?

Noyce: My dad had been a military spy. He worked for Z Special Forces, training operatives to conduct guerilla warfare, sabotage behind the Japanese lines. So I grew up with very romantic stories of spydom told about a conflict that was righteous that we won. Each film I made seemed to bring out more recollections from my father and only increased my fascination with spying in general.

THR: Paramount is reviving its Jack Ryan franchise with Chris Pine. Would you like another crack at it?

Noyce: I think after doing "Salt," it wouldn't be a good idea for me to be involved. Better to get somebody new to the genre.

THR: Maybe Jack Ryan should face off against Salt.

Noyce: (Laughs) Now, that's the ultimate spy movie. Jack Ryan versus Evelyn Salt. Would it take a guy like Ryan to finally stop Salt. Question mark!