I caught up with director Simon West (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) to talk film-making, influences, the visual art of film, what an "action star" is, and the challenges of film-making (and the great fun of overcoming them) on his new film Stratton, out today in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD.

Based on the novel series of the same name, Stratton  stars Dominic Cooper (Captain America: The First Avenger), Austin Stowell (Whiplash), Gemma Chan (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Thomas Kretschmann (Jungle), Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!!), with Tom Felton (Harry Potter series) and Connie Nielsen (Wonder Woman) and Derek Jacobi (Murder on the Orient Express). 

Stratton (Cooper), a Special Boat Service operative for MI6, and his American counterpart Marty (Hoechlin), scope a laboratory complex in Iran in order to intercept deadly biochemical weapons.  This most complex of missions goes spectacularly wrong however and in the mayhem Marty is mortally wounded. Stratton knows his trusted friend isn't going to make it.  Back at base Stratton is summoned by the big boss at MI6 (Nielsen).  She has received intel that a former Soviet operative – Barovski (Kretschmann) – has gone rogue.  Thought to be dead for the last 20 years, it is believed Barovski has plans to take revenge on his former paymasters by using stolen chemical weapons. From hereon in, Stratton and his team must draw on all their training and experience to race against time and stop the unimaginable happening.

The novels which inspired the screenplay were written by Duncan Falconer, an ex-Special Boats Service (SBS) operator.

I highly recommend Stratton as an eminently watchable action flick, with a new type of British spy with (as Simon West put it), "the Britishness of Bond and the relatability of Bourne.” He goes more into this different definition of "action hero" in the interview below.

Hello Simon and welcome to The 405! I thought I might start by asking: what makes a great film?

I like films that are timeless where you feel like "I could watch this again in ten years' time and it would still work, still resonate." It's not so about that moment, what's going on in the world at that time or so fashion-oriented that it's not going to last.

Having said that, films that I've grown to love from the '60s and '70s feel very much of those periods but I cherish them a lot. I try to make it feel like it could be ten years' time in my films and still fit the climate and not speak too much of that moment or be too fashion-oriented. 

Dominic Cooper as John Stratton in the action thriller film “STRATTON” a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Favorite films and directors? Which have been most influential on you as an artist?

As a preteen and a teenager, I was sort of glued to British TV which would show on its arts' channel – we only had 2 channels – well, there was 3, the third one that came along was a sort of arts' channel – films from all over the world. So, at 12 years-old I was watching American classics like Two-Lane Blacktop – these very gritty, Americana kind of films. It was a very eclectic world of film I'd be watching. I didn't realize – in the process – that I was doing a sort of home-study film course that kids don't normally do until they're in their twenties in film school. Even very weird stuff that was very image-oriented – I would be very interested in the way things looked, the way they were portrayed, without the necessary dialogue: for instance, I was much more interested in the "spaghetti westerns" than a lot of the '50s American westerns which would be on TV a lot – Shane and movies like that. I found a lot of them to be so moralistic that it was really interfering with the atmosphere, and then spaghetti westerns came along and it's all about the look, it's all about the music, it's all about the style. As a teenager, that was far more attractive then morals and hidden references to communist invasion and things of that nature.

So, I was very moved to tell stories that weren't reliant so much on dialogue – what I like about movies is that you can tell the story without the words so much. I think a lot of my films do that – although you always obviously want to have as strong a dialogue as possible – I still ultimately try to tell my stories visually so you can follow them and enjoy them from a visual point of view. Especially in these action movies where you want your hero to be a man of few words: the tall, dark stranger coming into town. Where he does everything with a look – very little dialogue, where it's all-done on the expressions of his face. The less he says, the more interested you are in him. Much more mysterious.

Indeed. The "Man with No Name" comes to mind especially per the spaghetti western.

You'll see that in my films, especially The MechanicJason Statham who has about two lines in the film. Even this one, Stratton, he is a man of strict repose, very good at his job. But at home he's a bit of a failure. He doesn't know how to do it, and a lot of these guys are like that – incredibly functional at their job and training hard for it, but normal street life is just difficult for them. That's where they prefer to be out on the job and that's how Dominic played it in this Stratton film.  

Dominic Cooper as John Stratton in the action thriller film “STRATTON” a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

While Dominic Cooper did a spectacular job as John Stratton, I couldn't help but wonder what the film would've looked like had Henry Cavill stayed with it. Was Cooper the next choice to play Stratton?

Yeah, I mean I didn't have a list where I just worked my way down – you go after one person and that's the person you have in your head. Henry Cavill did a great job but of course it would be completely different being as they are completely different people.

When he dropped out, I was looking for – Henry Cavill was on the film before I was on board with it – so when the project was brought to me, and Henry Cavill dropped out, I thought "ok, that's who it is because that's who was presented with the project to start with." It wasn't as if I was looking through endless people to play the character – when he dropped out, it was "who do I think would be real disciplined in this role?" By that time, I had met a lot of the real Special Forces' guys, and they';re a very secretive group – they're not like the Navy Seals, or SBS. They don't write books about their exploits.

Duncan Falconer had of course written the series of books but they're dramatic fiction – not like an account of a mission they've been on. So I got to talk to Duncan Falconer (not his real name, a pen name) a lot about the real guys, and met some of the present serving officers, and they're very secretive, ordinary guys – certainly not like your typical conception of "action men" – they're very good at blending into the background. They have to go on missions all over the world at a moment’s notice.

So, I was looking for a character actor who could portray that type of intelligence and Dominic Cooper is a terrific character actor who is completely different – he is not the leading action star in the sense described… I did not want a big action guy because they're not like that anyway.

So Dominic really threw himself into the training and into the research and formed himself into John Stratton.

Dominic Cooper as John Stratton in the action thriller film “STRATTON” a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Greatest challenges as a film-maker? Which ones did you encounter specifically on Stratton?    

These sorts of films are always very difficult because you're not in a sort of nice, air-conditioned studio and everything's under control. You're dealing with the ocean, you're dealing with weather, you're dealing with all sorts of elements and the practicalities of moving hundreds of people around. Those are the challenges of very difficult action / thriller films. We were dealing with the hottest summer in Italy in 150 years or so, so I've got my poor actors Dominic and Tyler Hoechlin running up the beach in a hundred pounds of scuba gear and I'm making them do it ten different times. So physically it's very demanding. You also simply cannot predict things like it's going to be that hot in your planning. You just have to get on with it because there's no way of changing the weather or coming back.

Other challenges: you're approaching the limits of what can be done. Like, I wanted a boat chase through the center of London, through the canal system in London and through the docks. You plan it all for weeks and months beforehand and then the day of shooting they find a deadly algae in the water that could mean death to anybody that fell in.

So, with very little notice, you suddenly have to move an entire giant boat chase sequence to a different piece of water that nobody's ever been on, nobody's ever rehearsed on.

These are all part and parcel of making such a film. It's stressful but it's also a lot of fun overcoming these problems. The difference is: when these Special Forces' guys are doing it, there's people shooting at them. They're coming up against the same challenges, but if they get it wrong they aren't coming back.    

We're not under quite the same stressful situation: we're just trying to make them look as good as possible without spending the whole budget doing it.

Part of the fun of film-making is finding the problem and overcoming it.

Behind the scenes of the action thriller “STRATTON” a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Thank you Simon!

Yeah! Thank you.

I have to ask as it is a milestone this year: how does Con Air turning 20 feel? I think the film has held up really well. I always find it to be a good, fun watch.

Yeah, it's very strange because you make a film – it was my first film – and then I moved on, that was that and it's done and now I'm going to carry on.

Then before you know it, twenty years has past. It's one film that everybody asks me about all the time. Whether it's in interviews, or people in the street. I go to buy something in a store and everybody asks me about Con Air.

Like I said at the beginning, it's one of those films that I like because you can still watch it and it's almost a classic because everybody seems to have seen it. That's kind of gratifying and a cool feeling when people love a film so much.

It's a very unusual film. I don't know if it would get made now quite like that but it's quite a good film.

A still from the action thriller “STRATTON” a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.