Angelina Jolie takes on a spy franchise intended for Cruise – can she play Bond and Bourne at their own game? Total Film goes undercover on Salt to find out...
Make piquant or more interesting…’ Just one of the many meanings of ‘salt’ listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, coming after ‘a white crystalline substance which gives seawater its characteristic taste’ but before ‘an experienced sailor’ (as in ‘old salt’). Handily, for the purposes of this cover feature, it’s also the one that most readily applies to the star of Salt, Angelina Jolie, who has been mainlining film fans a steady stream of interesting piquancy since the late ’90s, both on screen and off.
Now a gritty, seasoned vet, Jolie no longer needs to prove her worth as a fully-fledged member of Hollywood’s $20m club. In the right vehicle, she can wipe the floor with most A-list big boys – and, if her foolproof-as-long-as-she’s-not- in-an-awards-seeker box-office armour holds firm, she’s about to rub Salt in their wounds. The final proof will lie in the figures, but the trailers and buzz on her summer actioner will certainly be giving its closest cousin/rival Knight And Day (starring the man she ostensibly replaced in Salt, Tom Cruise) something to think about.
And so to her sleek, spiffy spy-thriller, which will deliver summer-movie addicts a juicy fix of adrenalised, ass-kicking Angie, even if it does look like a hodgepodge of elements ripped straight from movie spydom’s greatest hits (including her own): the bold, brash gloss of Wanted, the breathless, kinetic compulsion of the Bourne trilogy and the old-school paranoia of ’60s and ’70s Cold War classics. Director Phillip Noyce is more than happy to admit that Salt has a clasping, grab-bag quality to it. “It’s all of those things,” he chuckles to Total Film when we flag up the perceived influences, plus other touchstones like Three Days Of The Condor, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and even the 1987 Kevin Costner-starrer No Way Out. “But that’s part of what attracted me in the first place.”
If the Bourne comparisons are obvious, Salt’s shakers and bakers don’t want to dwell on them too much. “There’s a big difference,” says the amiable Aussie filmmaker. “Bourne doesn’t know who he is. Salt knows exactly who she is, but she’s deliberately keeping information from us.”
In an industry that typically wants its heroes and heroines to exist in stark black-and-white terms, frowning upon any overdose of ambiguity, Jolie’s sultry, svelte secret agent is all the more tantalising. Evelyn Salt sprints out of CIA doors and goes on the run after being fingered as a Russian sleeper spy – she’s a furtive, inscrutable creation who will send viewers’ sympathies flip-flopping as they question her true loyalties right up to the grand finale.
“She’s one of the more interesting characters I’ve had the chance to play because she is more than one person,” muses Jolie with a mysterious half-smile. “It was a very emotional, challenging role in that way. It’s hard to figure out who she is.”
Long before Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie flickered into view, Edwin A. Salt was a spec script by Kurt Wimmer (The Thomas Crown Affair). It went through various iterations as it reached for the vibe of early Bonds, The Third Man (“for its sense of betrayal,” says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura) and even The Matrix, and all the time remained unloved and regularly rejected by studios. Di Bonaventura admits the detour into super-powered Matrix territory, giving Salt “a bravado that was outside the genre and pushed the extremities of physics and reality”, led to bewilderment (and was swiftly reined back in). But he’s also convinced that, in a new world order of apoliticised Bournes and Bonds, the script’s strong geopolitical context made it an anachronism.
“I went through this with The Matrix for five years where people kept saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ That was confusion,” notes di Bonaventura. “This? They just didn’t think it was cool.” It wasn’t until Sony, acutely aware that their own flirtation with Bond (the studio released Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace) could end up a brief one thanks to MGM’s ongoing survival issues, plucked it from the abyss only after di Bonaventura had sent it over as a writing sample: “That’s how far it had fallen…”
The first time that Noyce read Wimmer’s “shape-shifting” script, he was on tenterhooks: “You couldn’t predict where things were going.” He landed the director’s gig not only because he has form with skilfully spun espionage tales (Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger, The Quiet American) but also because, in di Bonaventura’s eyes, “he’s always able to keep a character at the forefront of the story – he never lets the machinations overwhelm the character.” Cruise was the first star approached to play Edwin A. Salt and expressed immediate interest. After a reading with Cruise and Samuel L. Jackson, serious negotiations were launched. But in the end, Noyce says that Cruise was anxious the part skirted too closely to Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt. That’s the official version, anyway. The unofficial version is that Sony brass were spooked by Cruise’s fading bankability, and the haste with which he leapt into another undercover caper, albeit of the comedic variety, with Knight And Day, gives some credence to the theory. “Whatever the reason,” says Noyce, “he wouldn’t commit.”
Enter Jolie, bosom buddies with Noyce (who helped propel her onto the A-list with 1999’s The Bone Collector) and Sony studio topper Amy Pascal, who had been looking to plug the actress into her own “female James Bond-type” spy franchise for years. A viable alternative to Cruise? “She was the very next person we went to after Tom because she has the intensity and ferocity that we were looking for in that character,” says di Bonaventura. “There are not many stars, male or female, who have that.”
After her cartoonish spy-capades with Wanted and Mr & Mrs Smith, Jolie had been on the prowl for a serious action vehicle stripped of bells-and- whistles stylistics and, having dismissed a host of slinky, slutty, sexed-up vehicles, spotted a golden opportunity in Salt. Before she would even commit, Noyce, Wimmer and di Bonaventura first had to descend on Villa Brangelina in the south of France for several days of intensive retooling, working out if they could pull off Salt’s radical sex-change op. “What a painful assignment, ya know?” laughs di Bonaventura. “‘Let’s go to the south of France and hang out with Angelina Jolie!’ Yeah, it was rough.”
Jolie liked their approach. “They didn’t sit down and think, ‘What would a woman do in this situation?’ They just thought, ‘What would a CIA agent do?’” says the actress who, by all accounts, generated several cool concepts that were folded into the script. “It was much harder than we thought to switch it from a male to female,” she admits, “because the challenges and surprises or how a man would react to a certain situation are not necessarily the same when it’s a woman. For example, the original character was married and he had a child and part of the discovery at the end was that he would find love. But for a woman the discovery of love is not a deep surprise…”
Among several snips, a sequence in which Edwin Salt saved his wife was axed. “It just didn’t feel right having the wife save the husband, so we made the husband the kind of character that didn’t need saving,” says Noyce, while admitting that in toughening up her spouse (played by Inglourious Basterds’ August Diehl) his importance to the story was diminished. Other alterations were simply attitudinal – things that men do but woman don’t – while Salt’s relationships with friend and foe were made more intense. This especially applied in her dealings with the two most pivotal characters not named Evelyn: Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), her longtime mentor and head of the CIA’s Russia House, and the tenacious counter-intelligence officer Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The former is forced to question years of loyal friendship after Salt’s accused, the latter simply assumes the worst and leads the hunt to recapture her.
“Ted’s been her friend for 15 years and their relationship sometimes blurs the line,” says Schreiber, a latecomer to the cast. “So what looks like her betrayal is particularly devastating for him.” Does that mean Winter is in love with Salt? “I don’t want to say too much but it’s safe to say that they were very, very close and it went beyond a working relationship in his mind…”
For Jolie, she likes how the gender switch made the character “more emotionally complex and physically meaner”. Simply put, Evelyn Salt is easily as badass as the field agents she works beside, enhancing her appeal to both sexes. “Females in those films rely on being female but we wanted to ignore that – she’s just Salt,” muses Jolie. “She doesn’t use her sexuality to get anything. In fact, in many ways it’s the roughest I’ve looked because when you fight it gets ugly and if someone breaks your nose it’s not pretty.”
The actress imported her own long-serving stunt team onto Salt, lead by celebrated fight choreographer Simon Crane (the Tomb Raider films, Mr & Mrs Smith). “He knows her capabilities. He knows she’s not afraid of heights for example, so she doesn’t mind being suspended off a 10-storey building, she didn’t mind jumping into the air from a freeway overpass to a moving vehicle down below,” observes Noyce. “Unless you’ve been around these wire people for years, it’s hard to believe that your $20m actress is really safe. I think she gets a real thrill out of it.”
Jolie and her fight club pored over the fighting styles of Bourne and Bond before coming up with Salt’s own version. What they settled on, according to the actress, is “not flashy, not gymnastic, not inventive – she’s just mean when it comes down to it. Fights I’ve had in the past have been more elegant, but this was like street fighting. It was bent over and hunched and swinging.” Without revealing whether they come to feel the “panicked, aggressive” fury of her curvaceous fugitive, Jolie’s co-stars concur. “She fights with commitment,” laughs Ejiofor. “The fight stuff is brilliant. You feel like you’re right in the middle of it.”
“She fights very dirty,” echoes Schreiber. “I love spy stories, especially when they’re done as intelligently as Phillip does them, and the action stuff is… Well, I think it’s one of the guilty pleasures of being a guy – watching beautiful women pull off these action things. The stuff that Angie can do, physically, is remarkable…”
Indeed, everyone involved heaps praise on Jolie’s commitment, passion, onscreen ferocity… and mothering skills. “My kids actually liked coming to the set on that movie because there were huge squirt-gun fights and lots of toys. It was really fun because Angie keeps it fun for her kids,” says Schreiber. According to Noyce, Jolie circa 2010 is a very different woman from the young actress he first met in 1998. “Before, she was looking to others to guide her. Now she knows the business back to front and really had a handle on what she wanted to do with this character,” he says. “It was interesting and satisfying to see how much she had matured. She became in the interim a bona fide superstar and pop culture icon and paparazzi victim but she hadn’t closed down as often happens. She’s still open and embracing of those around her. And she hadn’t closed down in another way – she’s just as fearless as she was on The Bone Collector.”
As you’d expect from a costly summer flick, Salt is packed with supersize set-pieces. Noyce is wary about revealing too much, but two scenes involving escape and clandestine infiltration are “edge-of-your-seat fantastic”, while a face-off in the White House, says his producer, is “flat-out phenomenal… You’ve never seen anybody treat the White House the way we treat it. Roland Emmerich blew it up, but we beat it up.”
Befitting the film’s entrapment storyline, Ejiofor says the vibe on set was intense. “Everyone was very on it, people were into getting it right,” he says. “With a script like this where much of it is claustrophobic and contained, it set the mood.” Schreiber’s take is that he was sometimes in the eye of a storm. “A lot of it for me was trying to keep up with Phillip because the script was changing and he was on the move all the time, which is how he works,” he says. “But as crazy as it got, it felt like it was going to be OK because the right people were on the job. There were moments when I thought, ‘We’re going to hell in a handbasket.’ But filmmakers like Phillip need that kind of freedom to make the films that they make.”
Salt shot predominantly in the spring of 2009, with Noyce then reconvening cast and crew for reshoots in December – partially to fill a few plot holes but also to reinsert a chunky set-piece set on a barge that had been axed at budgeting stage. “We were hoping we could do without it but when you saw the movie you realised we couldn’t,” says di Bonaventura. “We also needed to make the death of one of the bad guys more… delicious. Both things are very good for the movie.”
If you think the whole concept of moles is just a relic of Cold War hysteria, think again. “If you ask all the current CIA people, they still believe there’s a high-ranking Russian mole in the CIA,” insists di Bonaventura. “It’s been a legend there for a long time and they’ve never been able to figure it out. That’s what drives the reality of our film.”
Noyce’s research threw up evidence that not only did the Soviet Union run a sleeper-spy programme, but that Day X – another concept the film plays with, the date when sleeper agents in the West would be called to action – really did (does?) exist. Schreiber, who’s of Eastern European extraction and has spent time in Russia, thinks the collapse of the Soviet Union is the gift that will keep on giving when it comes to compulsive storytelling. “What happened to that incredible infrastructure of the KGB as it dissolved and, quote-unquote, democracy took over?” he asks. “There are a lot of questions about what happened to that very dense and effective spy intelligence structure, and this is one outrageous hypothetical that’s fun to play out.”
As for ‘reality’, it’s being pushed to outlandish Hollywood proportions here… “The challenge of trying to combine reality with extreme popcorn seemed worth taking on,” laughs Noyce. “How to walk the tightrope of maintaining an even tone while you’re dealing with a story where your allegiance to the central character keeps shifting. You love her, you hate her, she’s good, she’s bad. Who is she, what is she?”
And Noyce is still on that tightrope. Working alongside his Oscar-winning DoP Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), he was still tinkering with Salt’s colour-grading when Total Film spoke to him, trying to find the right balance between supreme escapism and gritty realism. “With bright contrast, it becomes a popcorn, cartoony scene; but colour it like a PT Anderson movie and you get deeper, arresting imagery.” Which approach is Noyce favouring? “Well, it’s both…”
Whether this eclectic approach ends up paying dividends is the great unknown, but if Salt hits its target, then di Bonaventura predicts the birth of a new spy franchise. “I think we’re giving the audience something new,” he says, “and as such I think they’ll want to see more of her.”
‘Make piquant or more interesting…’ We’re not the first to say it, nor will we be the last, but should Daniel Craig ever get fed up with shaken Martinis, gorgeous girls and the licence to kill, Bond’s franchise-makers could do far worse than consider giving 007 his own gender reassignment. The name’s Jolie, Angelina Jolie…