Although Salt star Angelina Jolie is the one getting the most photographers' shutters clicking, the movie has a whole team of talented people behind it. It's impossible to overlook her costars Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor's dynamic presences onscreen, or director Phillip Noyce's (Catch a Fire, Rabbit-Proof Fence) touch when it came to frenetic action scenes. Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura was also behind the scenes to shepherd Salt from script to screen.
As Salt stomps into theaters, it seems like spies are everywhere, and not just in the movies. Earlier this summer came news that 11 Russian spies were arrested by the feds; neighbors and friends were shocked, although perhaps one of the stories that's gotten the most mileage is about the sexual proclivities of one of the younger spies, Anna Chapman, whose photos have been making the rounds.
In any case, for a few days in D.C., both Salt-y and real-life spies were the topic of convo among journalists, stars, and a panel of experts. The expert panel was comprised of former Secretary of the US Department of Homeland security Tom Ridge, retired KGB agent Oleg Kalugin, former CIA agent and consultant on Salt Melissa Boyle Mahle, and Kurt Whitworth, former Director of Communications for Intelligence and Analysis. During my time in DC, we assembled to talk to us about everything from researching roles, going undercover, and, of course, working with Angelina Jolie. (Read an interview with Angelina Jolie talking about Salt here.)
Spying can be slow, not sexy.
Although action movies make the life of spies look like they're always on the run, spying isn't always car chases, sexy ladies, and bloody noses. Melissa Mahle noted, "First of all, when you work on a film, you are dealing with Hollywood and you have to understand that espionage is chess. Chess makes boring film. So, always aware of the limitations of the reality in terms of film, what I endeavor to do, and what the director wanted, what Phillip really wanted, was to make it as real as possible... Yes, the action scenes are over the top, if I had one day in my career like Salt, I'm sure I wouldn't have had a very long career."
Kalugin added, "[Jolie's] performance was perhaps a little too much violence for an intelligence guy. I was a quiet fellow undercover of a Fulbright scholar later journalist, a little later diplomat. I never resorted to violence myself, but I understand that people do if necessary." The experts agreed that the most powerful scene for them was when the Russian spy Orlov comes to turn himself in.
Ridge noted, "What I think one of the themes in the movie for me was the notion that you struggle as an observer trying to figure out who's telling the truth and what's going to happen. And one of the challenges around was the walk in true? Was he truthful? And what were the impacts of his being truthful?"
Angelina definitely made an impression (and not just with her fists).
Liev Schreiber, who plays Salt's coworker Ted Winter, was possibly joking when he said he was intimidated by the superstar. But maybe not... "I get very nervous around famous people and I get nervous around beautiful woman. This was a big double whammy for me and initially really uncomfortable which was worrying me because I felt like the important part of the job for me was to develop familiarity with her because that was the humanizing factor." Luckily, they were able to bond as parents of young children. Teething brings people together.
Noyce worked with Jolie previously on The Bone Collector and reports that she's blossomed but still retains her fearlessness. "When she was young she didn't know any better so she was fearless of trying anything, doing anything story-wise, character-wise, shot-wise, anything-that she didn't lose... And that's unusual because when people get to a higher position usually they are trying to thin themselves, they don't want to go down. They want to maintain their position, and so they become conservative. She hasn't [become] conservative, not an ounce. If anything success has given her more fearlessness in every way."
"Steve McQueen is the guy I keep thinking about when I think about Angie," said di Bonaventura. "He wasn't a big guy. He had a ton of attitude, and you had absolute conviction that he was going to do what needed to get done. She has a ton of attitude. She's not a big woman, not a big person, but you absolutely believe she can succeed."
Research was key.
Ejiofor plays the counter-intelligence agent Peabody who is trying to stop Salt no matter the cost. Ejiofor noted, "I was very fortunate to speak to people who were very open about, not necessarily operations, but certainly the bureaucracy and the inter-departmental ideas of the CIA, and where the tensions can arise between counter-intelligence and agents in the field," something that definitely played into his antagonistic relationship with Salt and Winter, especially.
Noyce later added, "Angelina spent a wonderful day interviewing spies who were gathered for her by the CIA and we sat in a room and looked at them on television, many of them in deep cover, who were helpful up to a point, but because they still were in deep cover they couldn't answer most of the questions. But then we found a lot of ex-spies who did answer all of the questions."
Mahle agreed that she was impressed by the diligence of Jolie in researching what it's like to be a female CIA agent. "She sucked my brain dry trying to get details to help her put together her character. What she really wanted to know, what she really wanted to feel was how does my brain work when I sit down and I look at an operation. What are my way stations? What does it mean to be loyal, what does it feel like to be accused, and issues of loyalty and death?
"In working in a secret world, in a secret organization, what are your relationships like with your peers, when you are working in a high-risk dangerous environment? It is one thing to risk yourself, but what happens when you risk your family? So she was just, I was very impressed by her -- keying in on these core things in a very focused way. I think we see the result of that in this movie; it was a very strong portrayal."
Schreiber has played spies before, but his first encounter with the CIA was narrating the film CIA: America's Secret Warriors. "That was really terrifying. There was this rude awakening about how the CIA has controlled a lot of critical foreign policy for years in many ways. I think the CIA has matured a lot, I hope. But the first thing I was intrigued by was the fact that the average CIA operative was not ex-military or Special Forces or in anyway lethal looking or James Bond-y."
Yes, there is a director's cut.
If you noticed there's a slightly sex scene in the trailer but not in the movie, well, you're right. There were other small changes, as well, and maybe, just maybe... a slightly different ending?
Di Bonaventura admitted it was a hard choice cutting out the scene but "when we were developing the script, we had a lot of flashbacks to try to explain her life. We didn't know how many we needed, and so we shot a lot of those things... But what happened was that when we put it together, there was a really careful balance between trying to keep the movie moving at the pace it moves, because every time you're having a flashback, you're slowing down." As for that specific scene, "It was definitely not an easy choice."
According to Noyce, "In the DVD there will be two movies, one is the cut you have, and some alternatives, you'll have another cut, which is the director's cut, which will run like that, and occasionally they'll have the same scenes, but quite often they don't... [It will] be about seven minutes longer, and it's got a different ending, and a different middle. But we're not going to talk about that... It's not really the director's cut, it's just another cut."
Location is key.
Salt was shot on location in D.C. and New York City, which was not an easy task considering the scope of the action scenes and the fact that Angelina Jolie is probably the most photographed woman in the world.
According to Noyce, "The biggest challenges in NYC is paparazzi and crowds, but that's about the only challenge. Everything else because of the nature of New Yorkers, you know, who have learned over centuries to live together and be accommodating is easy. That was the major challenge, the many photographers everywhere, and trying to maintain order and concentration is always difficult."
One scene obviously required shutting down a good part of Park Avenue and taking over St. Bartholomew's church, which was as impressive to film as it is to watch. "That's probably up there with [the scene of me] running through the Washington Mall in my dress shoes. But that was just amazing to me, that we were at St. Bartholomew's church and not only had we stopped traffic but there were like 20 bagpipers marching up the middle of Park Avenue. It was like, wow, this is really decadent."
Salt opens Friday, July 23rd, nationwide.
(This roundtable was conducted as part of a Sony junket in D.C.)