Con Air

The nail-biting life of an action film director

July 12, 2012: 10:57 AM ET

Director Simon West discusses the highs and lows of directing some of the great action stars working in film today.

FORTUNE -- Directing a movie requires more than sitting in funny chairs and yelling "action" on a set. Directors need to intelligently discuss finance, set production, and acting all in a day's work.

Simon West is multilingual in the way directors must be. He's a big-picture action director whose latest project is Expendables 2, a shoot-em-up that's hitting theaters this August. He was also the man behind the camera for The General's Daughter, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and Con Air.

He recently spoke with Fortune about what it takes to manage the many moving parts of a big picture. After over a decade in the business, West says, he's finally starting to have some fun.

Fortune: What does a day in the life of an action movie director look like?

Simon West: Even my family members don't really know what the day is. They see directors on TV shouting, "action" and "cut," and they think it's mostly about directing traffic.

But in one day, I can be talking to the accountant about how we're going to stay on budget, then a technical guy about how we're going to make it look like a plane is really flying over the building -- we're talking physics and engineering. By the end of the day, I'm talking to an actor about what his feelings are. So I've gone the whole gamut in one day from money to engineering to art to emotions.

How do you coax actors to give genuine, emotional performances on an action set?

I make them feel them comfortable because, ultimately, I'll get the best performance that way. You have to learn everyone's personality because all of these people are human beings and everyone has a different psyche.

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I have this memory of a scene I did for Con Air with John Malkovich, Nicolas Cage, and John Cusack, and they all had completely different styles of acting. In action movies, you don't really rehearse that much. The actors come on, run through it, and then you shoot, so I had to learn their styles very quickly.

I soon learned that John Cusack likes to do as many takes as possible, then run around to the back of the camera, then do it again. Nicolas Cage would come in and do his scene, and he'd been thinking about it very hard for days before, and he knew exactly how he wanted to do it. Then John Malkovich would do take after take, and he would do it in a completely different style. One minute, he'd be doing it in a little child's voice, and the next minute, in aNew Yorkaccent. It was so different, that I had a huge choice with his scenes. More

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