The Story Behind Salt

The making of Angelina Jolie's new action heroine...

 

Here’s a quick question: name a successful, female-driven action film franchise from the past two decades that lasted more than two movies.

You can probably count them all on one hand.

Sure, TV land has plenty of the gutsy, weapon-wielding lovelies to its credit. But for every Buffy The Vampire Slayer on TV, there’s an Elektra in movieworld. For every Ripley, there’s a Lara Croft.

So when a new film comes out with former Lara Angelina Jolie in the lead as – you got it – a gutsy, weapon-wielding lovely, we’re a bit excited. Watch the trailer, and we raise that excited to teeth-chompingly expectant.

But can the former Lara, having toted guns in other action flicks Wanted and Mr & Mrs Smith, recover from Ms Croft’s slated cinematic scrambles?

Like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, the character of CIA Agent Evelyn Salt was originally written for a man (yeah, we’ll get to that later). And look how well Alien panned out. The question is: Can Jolie emulate Weaver’s success with – whisper it – a female Bourne?

Let’s take a look in the Salt vaults for clues to how this one’s going to pan out...

Next: Edwin A Salt[page-break]

 

Edwin A Salt

On 22 July 2007, Columbia Pictures announced that they would be making a new thriller entitled Edwin A Salt.

Written by Kurt Wimmer - the mind behind Sphere, the Thomas Crown Affair remake and Equilibrium - the script followed “a CIA officer who is fingered by a defector as a Russian sleeper spy. Salt must elude capture by his superiors and sets out to reunite with his family and prove his innocence.”

With Tom Cruise looking for a big hit that didn’t involve the words ‘mission’ and ‘impossible’ – his star on the wane after crazy couch-hopping behaviour – the diminutive actor spied the Salt script as a career kick-starter.

As Columbia put out feelers for a director, they began courting Hotel Rwanda director Terry George to helm the project.

Come December of that year, Cinematical were reporting that George had passed on the script, while Peter Berg was now on Columbia’s agenda.

Having just directed The Kingdom and Hancock, Berg was the nearest thing the studio could get to a Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese, the former having just signed on to direct Public Enemies.

As is often the way in the movie industry, things went quiet again for a couple of months. Cruise shot Valkyrie and a cameo in Tropic Thunder, then signed on to star as the US president in The 28th Amendment.

But Variety soon scuppered that deal, saying that Cruise was still attempting to get Edwin A Salt off the ground – which was a priority over Amendment.

Phillip Noyce, who was being lined up to direct Amendment, was linked to Salt instead, a sure sign that Cruise was eager to create a serious, top-quality thriller.

Then, in July 2008, Columbia found themselves in a bit of a fix. Rumour had it that Tom Cruise was going to throw Salt over his shoulder and move on to a brand new project. What to do now?

Next: Money, Money, Money[page-break]

 

Money, Money, Money

On 18 July, 2008, news outlets reported that Tom Cruise was going to skip playing Edwin A Salt.

Why, after so long spent nurturing the project? It seems the actor was seeing dollar signs – and not enough of them. Columbia reportedly offered the star less than he was willing to take.

Formerly a top-earning star raking in $20m per film role, Cruise’s diminished status as a Hollywood star – mostly thanks to box office flops and his continued, controversial association with Scientology – meant a $20m payday was no longer in his grasp.

According to an insider, “an internal memo went around among the film’s producers and top creators in which the Cruise situation was discussed and names were gathered for a replacement”.

However, money wasn't the only issue. Columbia also considered the 45-year-old star to be too old to head up a fresh action film (and potential franchise). They were ready to put him out to pasture.

“We discussed the film with Tom,” says director Noyce (above). “We had a table read with various actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, who kindly played one of the parts, just so we could hear the script read.”

Unfortunately, Cruise wasn’t prepared to shoot with the script in its current state. “His main fears were that the character was too close to Ethan Hunt, being a rogue spy, with extraordinary abilities,” explains Noyce.

Consequently, they “tried to twist and turn the story to differentiate the character of Edwin Salt from Ethan Hunt”. Sadly, it didn’t pan out, and Cruise jumped ship.

Next: Gender Bender[page-break]

Gender Bender

Okay, so Cruise is out. What next? Time to think outside the box, according to Columbia. What if Edwin A Salt was really a woman?

It was an idea that immediately appealed to the studio – especially when the name Angelina Jolie swung into frame.

“[Columbia Exec] Amy Pascal had been talking over the years and had often spoken to Angelina Jolie,” explains director Noyce, who remained onboard post-Cruise. “They’d expressed their mutual desire to try and create a female spy franchise, so we sent the script to Angelina.”

Jolie then met with Noyce and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

In that meeting, according to Noyce, they discussed their “mutual visions for what the film could be, and how, if a male character was to be turned into a female character, how that would be achieved”.

As a result, Brian Helgeland “did a character pass, or dialogue pass on the film” and sent it Jolie to see what she thought. By September 2008, the deal had been done. Angelina Jolie was the new Salt.

What did that mean in terms of changing the script so that it was told from a woman’s perspective? Not too much more than a find and replace on the name Edwin, according to Noyce.

“The locomotive of ideas that drive the movie are the same,” says the director. “An undercover CIA operative is accused of being a Russian mole, and has to go on the run to defend themselves. That’s been the same since day one.”

But in terms of the film’s tone, there were changes, especially as the script had been floating around for so long.

“Following the trend in action-adventure spy movies, it has evolved into a story where we hope at all times that the audience take seriously the emotional interplay between the characters, and are very, very involved on an emotional level with the story,” Noyce says.

“As well as getting enormous thrills and spills, and all the other popcorn elements that you’d hope to see in a summer movie.”

Next: Who Is Salt?[page-break]

 

Who Is Salt?

“In essence it’s someone who is working for the CIA,” says Jolie, “who is married and who is accused of being KGB and from a programme where they raise children from an orphanage. And they raise them very, very hard as Americans to then infiltrate America.

“The question is whether she is that, or who she is at all.”

Producer Di Bonaventura also has his take on this newly-female embodiment of Salt.

“She's a character you never know,” he says. “People who think they know the real her may or may not. Those who think they can tell whether she's in a disguise also may or may not.

“You're supposed to be kept guessing. She tells you her agenda, but are you supposed to believe it?”

So far so Bourne.

By February 2009, the film was finally coming together. Jolie was onboard in mind, body and spirit. But who could handle playing against such a strong, scene-swallowing actress?

No problem for Liev Schreiber, who signed on to play against her as boss and fellow CIA Agent Winter.

Also in on the action was Chiwetel Ejiofor, who jumped onto the project as CIA counter-intelligence officer Peabody after enjoying success with American Gangster.

Next: Salt Shoots[page-break]

 

Salt Shoots

The week beginning 3 March 2009, Salt finally went under cameras in Washington and New York.

“It's always a thrill to start production. It's especially gratifying to work on redefining this genre with such a talented actress,” enthused producer Di Bonaventura.

“Angelina is a rare combination of intelligence, emotional range, and physical ability."

Director Noyce was equally excited to have gotten Salt into production at long last. “It's great to be working with Angelina once again,” he says.

“She's the only one who could bring this character to life. Salt will be tense and exciting, everything that thriller audiences expect, but also with a strong, multi-dimensional character at the center.”

The obvious Comparisons between Salt and Bourne are drawn by the media. But Di Bonaventura is ready to address them, stating that Salt is the antithesis of Bourne because she is trying to hide the truth about herself rather than discover it.

“The question of Jason Bourne is 'Who am I?'” he argues. “The question of Salt is, 'We know everything about her, but do we?' [Her pursuers] have a ton of information to act on, but that's where they begin to question what is real and what isn't."

As shooting commences, images are released of Jolie in character, sporting both a blonde and dark-haired look. She was gung-ho about performing her own stunts, with Di Bonaventura noting:

“She is so prepared and so ready and gung-ho, she'll do any stunt. We had her jumping out of helicopters, shooting, jumping off of all sorts of things and infiltrating places that are impossible to infiltrate.”

That fearless approach came with its own risks, though.

On 29 May 2009, Jolie’s rep confirmed that the actress was taken to hospital for injuries suffered on set. She quickly returned to filming after being given the A-OK.

Said her rep: “This morning, while filming an action sequence during production of her new movie Salt, Angelina Jolie sustained a minor injury. As a precautionary measure, Ms. Jolie will be taken to the hospital and examined. Production on the film has resumed.”

The rest of the shoot continued without a hitch, concluding in June 2009.

 

Next: Evelyn Salt[page-break]

Evelyn Salt

Salt’s first official trailer hit on 4 November 2009, giving us a glimpse of Jolie in action.

“The major thing the audience is going to find is that the movie’s a showcase for the incredibly diverse talents of Angelina Jolie,” says Noyce.

“When I say ‘incredibly’, that’s not an understatement. Incredibly diverse. I mean, as we know, she’s a brilliant dramatic actress. Without a doubt. That’s been proven.

"But – you know, she’s also, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the Tomb Raider films, she’s shown that she can kick ass as good as any man."

Sounds awesome, and we know Jolie can do both with style.

Still, we come back to our original question: Will Evelyn Salt go down (positively) as Bourne with boobs, banishing our memories of subpar female heroines by sounding the war cry for tough-as-nails female fighters?

Or will we have to wait for Wonder Woman to finally make the jump from comic pages to the big screen? (Yeah, pigs might fly.)

The signs are good, with the flick's trailer (below) promising some ball-busting action, as well as a meaty 'Just who is she?' storyline for Jolie to sink her teeth into.

And, naturally, director Noyles is thrilled to have managed to complete the film when it looked like it would never get started.

“In this film, [Joliedoes drama and guns] in a way that I think will startle audiences," he says. "It’s highly dramatic, it’s highly emotional. It’s a thrill a minute. People are going to be very, very surprised by what they see, and by what they see her do. As I have been.”

Salt opens on UK shores on 20 August, 2010.

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