Man on Fire
Director(s): Tony Scott
Writer(s): Brian Helgeland
Release Date(s)Apr 23, 2004 - Wide
When a wave of kidnappings targeting children panics Mexico’s wealthier citizens, many of them hire bodyguards. A wealthy industrialist hires John Creasy (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA operative/assassin, to protect his nine-year-old daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Despite his initial disinterest in the job, he warms to his young charge and when she gets kidnapped after a gun battle Creasy will let nothing or no one get in his way to get her back.
Man on Fire is based on the 1980 novel of the same name by A.J. Quinnell, a pseudonym covering the secretive author. Director Tony Scott ([The Hunger, Top Gun]) was approached to help make a film out of it. He was immediately attracted to the material.
“The story is a huge emotional roller-coaster ride,” says Scott. “It’s about a guy who has lost his way and is reborn by guarding a nine-year-old-girl. When she is kidnapped, he goes after those responsible and works his way through the kidnapping chain of command, and he is unforgiving in his pursuit.”
It took more than twenty years for this film to come to fruition. After two-time Oscar®-nominated screenwriter Brian Helgeland ([L.A. Confidential, Mystic River]) penned a new version of the script (which later included a change of scenery from Italy to Mexico), Scott signed on to direct and the project was finally rolling. The change of location was quite appropriate according to research done by the production team.
“Kidnapping is a huge business [in Mexico City],” says Scott, “very controlled and organized. It’s an actual industry.”
A change of locale was the least of Helgeland’s contributions.
“What Brian did so well was create two stories,” says Tony. “The first story, or first half of the film, is about a guy finding his way back into life through this child; the second story is his quest for revenge.”
Helgeland agrees that the two threads are essential. “Pita knows there’s a heart beating away inside of Creasy, even if he doesn’t know it’s there,” he says. “When the thing that brings him back to life is taken away, he becomes enraged because now his heart’s beating again.”
Tony Scott had the perfect actor in mind for the role of Creasy — a man he had worked with before on Crimson Tide: two-time Oscar®-winner Denzel Washington.
“I love Denzel’s obsessive quality and his internal darkness,” says Scott. “There’s a hardness to Denzel that’s really interesting. He knows how to draw it out and use it effectively. Denzel really brings across how Creasy closes himself off as a defense mechanism against the world. So when his heart does begin to thaw, it’s all the more moving.”
The actor/director was attracted to the character that finds his human side again and then seeks revenge against those who would harm the little girl who helped him.
“Creasy has lost himself in alcohol, lost his purpose and life, and couldn’t cope with what he had done as a government operative/assassin and what he is good at,” says Washington. “He is detached, and that’s what happens when you kill people for a living. Creasy is a lost soul who no longer has the ability to love, and through this little girl, he finds himself and reconnects with his soul and life.”
Casting the little girl who pulls Creasy out of the darkness was not going to be an easy task – until the production team saw Dakota Fanning’s work opposite Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Says Scott, “Dakota is uncanny — she’s nine going on 19. She has an instinctual understanding of human nature. We’d be watching Denzel improvise or pull and push scenes in different ways, and she was always able to go with the flow.”
Christopher Walken was originally approached to play Jordan Kalfus, a corrupt lawyer. He convinced Scott to give him the part of Creasy’s old friend Rayburn, the man who helped arrange the job for him. “I told Tony that I was fed up with playing bad guys,” says Walken. “I wanted to play the good guy!”
The director didn’t take much convincing, since “Chris can read the phone book and make it interesting and funny. He brings a lot of dynamic shadings to Rayburn.” The role of the corrupt lawyer was given to Mickey Rourke.
Radha Mitchell and actor/singer Marc Anthony were cast as Pita’s troubled parents. Though the singing superstar has worked on films before, this one had him shaking at times.
“I even found myself trembling at times working with Tony Scott and Denzel Washington – they’re such formidable talents,” he says.
Helping Creasy find the girl are Rachel Ticotin as a newspaper editor who helps him understand the Mexican crime world and famed Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini as Mexican cop Manzano, who helps provide information that the bodyguard would otherwise not have access to.
Producer Lucas Foster adds that these two characters are very important saying that “Man on Fire depicts the two halves of Mexico. The half that’s rampant with corruption and poverty, and the other half made up of the people who are trying to clean up crime and, especially kidnappings.”
Tony Scott and director of photography Paul Cameron used some interesting techniques to reflect Creasy’s emotional and psychological upheaval during and after the kidnapping. At some points in the film they used hand-cranked cameras to slow down or speed up movement, reversal film stock to make the colors more vivid, created multiple exposures by imprinting three sets of images on the same plate of film, and used Panavision XL cameras and even 16mm cameras for maximum maneuverability.
They also shot scenes with multiple cameras. “Multiple cameras are insane!” Cameron remembers. “We had to keep them all on a specific axis of light, which is really tricky. But among the many advantages of using multiple cameras is that you’re getting the performances precisely as they happen.”
Denzel Washington, who made his feature directing debut with Antwone Fisher, was awed by the team’s techniques. “Yeah, we called him ‘Nine-Camera Tony’,” jokes the actor. “I didn’t know what the heck he was doing with all those cameras, but it’s inspiring because he paints beautiful canvasses with them. It was a real education for me as a new filmmaker.”