Con Air and Tomb Raider director Simon West has made a groundbreaking move in the financing of his new movie, Salty. Simon is the first major Hollywood director to turn to equity crowdfunding to get his latest blockbuster off the ground, allowing individuals to take a share in the risks and rewards.
Simon talks Nicholas Cage, Tomb Raiding in Cambodia and why he’s made the decision to go independent this time round in this exclusive interview with SyndicateRoom founder and CEO, Gonçalo.
Gonçalo: As you know from the first time we met, I’m a great fan of Con Air – an absolute classic, and I believe it was your first blockbuster?
Simon: Actually, it was my first film full stop!
G: Tell me, how did you feel about it when you saw the whole piece together but before it went to the cinema and you knew it was going to be so successful?
S: Well, I suppose I was quite relieved that it all worked, because it’s a big project and it was my first film – I’d never made anything that scale – I’d shot shorter films and commercials and things like that, but not with all those big actors!
G: Did you have that feeling – ‘this is going to be a classic’ – straight away, or did it come as a surprise to you?
S: No, it came as a total surprise, because it was an odd combination when I got the script; it was actually quite a small, independent type of film, and as I was making it I blew it up more and more – literally! And it got bigger and bigger as I was making it, but I still had no idea it would be so popular for so long, gaining more and more of a following every year since it launched.
G: So we’ve heard some rumours that you are considering a sequel, but this time in space…
S: That was just a joke! Ever since we made it, people have been asking if there’s going to be a sequel. In all honesty, there’re no plans at the moment to make one because it has turned into such a classic, and I don’t know if we want to muddy the waters of what it is now, and how special it was at the time. If I ever was asked to do a sequel, I would definitely want to make it quite radical – which is where the joke that it would be in space came from!
G: And how did you manage to get that extensive list of Hollywood stars into your first movie?
S: Well, I just cast all my favourite actors from indie films – and luckily they agreed to be in it because I think they were surprised – they didn’t usually get offered those kinds of films, and they thought it would be fun. It’s a formula I’ve kept ever since – getting stars known in other genres – still top A-list stars, but who may not necessarily do action films. It was the same with Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider.
G: Are you still in touch with any of the big actors and actresses that you’ve worked with throughout your movies?
S: Yeah! In the movie business, everyone goes off all over the world and is away for long periods of time on their films, but we’ll cross paths with each other still every now and then. Certainly I’ve kept in touch with Nicholas Cage, I’ve seen Angelina again… When you’ve done a film with people, you’ve shared a big experience with them really, so you become very close with the people you work with. Those big films take a year and a half, and you go to real extremes of location – with Angelina Jolie, we were on glaciers in Iceland and in the jungles of Cambodia, and then working seven days a week for 15 hours a day you do become very close to people. It is always sad when the film’s over, because we all go off and do other things. But you do try and get together every once in a while.
G: Talking a little bit about your other movies, what was the most fun to shoot?
S: I think they were all fun in their own way: it is fun to go to these places that you would never normally go to – I mean, when I’m even just scouting for films, it’s fun because you think ‘where shall I film this?’ and you just look around for inspiration. That’s what happened with Tomb Raider – I was looking for somewhere exotic and I just had a huge stack of books of all places around the world, and I’m just flicking through them saying ‘shall we go to Africa? Shall we go to Australia? Shall we go…’ and then I found a book on Cambodia and the temples in the jungle and thought ‘well that looks interesting – let’s go and have a look there to see if it looks worth filming’. So I actually find even the preparation for a film is enjoyable, because anything is possible. You can say ‘Oh, I want to film in a submarine’ and you'll go and spend a day in a nuclear submarine, or ‘I want to go in a tunnel under the ocean’, and you go to all these places and work out whether that’s where you want to film!
G: I’ve noticed you talk about Tomb Raider quite a lot – is that because it was an exotic location, or because it was more fun to film?
S: I think it was a lot of fun because I did The General’s Daughter before Tomb Raider, which was quite a serious drama – even though it was released and did quite well as a summer film – and I was looking for something afterwards that was just going to be plain fun and not too serious. That’s when I came across the Tomb Raider idea. The script, based on the video game, had a little bit of James Bond in it, a little bit of Indiana Jones... and those films are just great fun to watch. It combines a lot of the genres I love.
G: And tell me, out of the actors you’ve worked with, who would you most want to work with again?
S: I guess I’d really like to work with Angelina Jolie again, because she was wonderful! But really I think almost all of them, because once you’ve worked with someone you’ve got to know them professionally as an actor and learnt about their technique, and I always think you’re much better the second time you work with somebody. I’d love to do a full-blown film with Arnold Schwatzenegger. I worked with him on The Expendables 2, and he’s such an iconic actor – I think he could be another Clint Eastwood who just gets better and better as he gets older. So he would be great!
G: A couple of trivia questions for you now; is it true that the Robot in Tomb Raider is named after you?!
S: Well, it’s sort of a pseudo coincidence! The initials SIMON had a specific anachronism for what the robot was – it was a training robot for fighting – but I must admit it’s not a complete coincidence that those letters add up to be my name!
G: And is it true that Nicholas Cage travelled to Alabama to perfect his accent for Con Air?
S: Yeah it is! He went down there and spent some time to get his accent just right, because he’s very meticulous when he prepares for a film, and there’s nothing more annoying than when someone’s accent isn’t quite right!
G: That's quite some dedication! Now moving on to Salty – more specifically, tell me, why Salty?
S: Well Salty was again a project I chose because I thought that it’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s in an exotic location, it’s got a lot of humour and a great group of characters – a very strong central character – which is what you always look for in a film, but also great supporting characters. The book sort of screamed out to me to be made into a film, with a really broad appeal. Some of it is pure slapstick humour, but it also has a great heart to it and a great theme of a man struggling to find his identity and a use in life: even though he’s financially very successful, he’s not found his spiritual satisfaction yet and it’s about him finding that. So it operates on a lot of levels.
G: Do you reckon that Salty could potentially become a classic as well?
S: I hope so, touch wood! I mean, you never know but I think that it definitely has the potential for that – very much so – which is why it piqued my interest – it’s the kind of film I like to watch. One that’s not just incredible when you watch it the first time, but you can watch it over and over again and there’s always something to love about it.
G: I definitely give you that for Con Air and Tomb Raider! And why crowdfunding? You are the first Hollywood director with such an amazing track record to use equity crowdfunding to produce your movie.
S: Well, I hadn’t thought about using it in the first place – I was going to finance it in the normal, traditional way, and then I was approached with the idea. I didn’t really know anything about it, but when you guys from SyndicateRoom explained it all to me I suddenly saw the potential for a new way of financing films. There’s plenty of new distribution channels for people watching film – on their computer or through their XBox or Netflix on the TV – or even like performances being broadcast in movie theatres, and there are lots of new methods of distribution, but crowdfunding seemed like a revolutionary way to finance a film that would give everybody involved a benefit. So for me, I get artistic freedom and to get people excited about the film before I make it, and those people can also participate if it’s a success – not just investing financially but also emotionally in it, because it is an emotional experience making a movie and watching it develop. I really want this to work because I’d like to do it this way a lot – I think it’s a great way of finding the audience you want for your film before it’s even made.
G: Why SyndicateRoom?
S: I was very impressed by the way SyndicateRoom and the team set about the proposal of how to do it – I thought it was a very sophisticated approach – and saw that they had had a lot of success with deals that weren’t films, but people launching their ideas. If you’ve invented something and it’s your pride and joy, your baby – a film is exactly like that – it’s very personal to you and you want to put it in the hands of people you really trust and who are as enthusiastic about it as you are. I think SyndicateRoom’s enthusiasm for the whole thing got me excited as much as anything!
G: Some investment funds have been in the news recently for using films and music finance for the purpose of tax avoidance schemes. As a result, some private investors are confusing film finance with tax avoidance schemes run by large investment funds. Would you like to comment on this?
S: Yeah, it’s a shame that film finance is hitting the news for all the wrong reasons, particularly because tax avoidance schemes don’t really have anything to do with the movies themselves, but with the investment funds. Salty is just like any other company that is raising money on SyndicateRoom – it’s a single-entity company with the sole purpose of producing this one movie. It’s a project I’m passionate about, and as a movie investment opportunity, nothing has ever been done before at this scale. The potential returns come from profits, and any investor that expects a return from any sort of tax avoidance scheme will be very disappointed. This has nothing to do with film partnerships or any of those other schemes dreamt up by creative accountants to avoid tax! With Salty, investors that want to be part of history by joining this journey and changing the landscape of how movies are produced will be in for a great ride, with a potential profit at the end.
G: And have you ever invested in a movie yourself?
S: I’ve invested in young people’s movies who are starting out to give them a hand, but not in big films. There hasn’t really been an opportunity like this, where private individuals can invest in a film: normally it’s studios or organisations or financial institutions, and those sorts of partnerships I haven’t believed in because they seem to be set up purely for financial reasons and have nothing to do with the film.
G: Could you ever see Hollywood moving to the UK in ten years’ time, or is the weather over here too cold and wet for movie stars?
S: Yeah I definitely could! Because I think it’s such a film-friendly environment over here, both financially and creatively – amazing technicians, amazing actors, and a lot of government support for film in the UK, so I think Hollywood is very much on its way here!