What makes 'Salt' a tasty treat

WHILE DRIVING DOWN TO Comic-Con last week to promote “Salt,” Lorenzo di Bonaventura reflected on how long it took him to get the picture off the ground.

The spec script by Kurt Wimmer made the rounds for five years before it caught the eye of Sony Pictures exec Hannah Minghella, who pushed it up the ladder to studio topper Amy Pascal. Then everything began to move. “Then next thing you know, we were developing a first draft and got Tom Cruise,” di Bonaventura said. “That didn’t work out, but within a week Angelina (Jolie) was on board.”

The casting decision worked. The pic hauled in $36.5 million opening weekend.

Di Bonaventura wanted the actioner to be character-focused and turned to helmer Phillip Noyce “because he pays attention to details, even when people are on the run. You’re able to pick up on who they are and their motivations.”

Together they assembled a high-voltage team that included lenser Robert Elswit, production designer Scott Chambliss, composer James Newton Howard and sound mixer Greg P. Russell. But perhaps the most critical member was second-unit director Simon Crane, who handled stunts. “He came to us through Angie,” said di Bonaventura. “She said, ‘You’re going to love him.’ I’ve got to give her credit. Simon did a phenomenal job.”

Crane has worked with Jolie on films dating back to 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” “I know very well what she’s capable of, so I could tailor the action to her,” Crane said. The biggest challenge was dealing with the lead’s gender switch; stunts originally written for a male were rewritten for a woman. “We wanted to show she was clever — very skilled and using more brain than brawn.”

But in addition to some cerebral MacGyver-like exploits, throughout “Salt,” Jolie’s character performs breathtaking feats like leaping from one speeding truck to another, commandeering careening cop cars, grappling along the wall of a high building — even rappelling down a tunnel into a bunker deep beneath the White House where a world war is about to be launched.

Crane takes an old-fashioned approach, staging real stunts for the camera rather than relying too much on computers. “You need a combination of CG, practical effects and good-old stunt work to make a great film.”

Jolie, he said, is well suited to the physical work required. “She did 99% of all the action. Often I shot with the unit on Saturday, and she would give up her weekend.” That availability made Crane’s job easier, allowing him to do close-ups and the wide shots at the same time. “We tried to do as much as possible in one shot, filming it in a way that you can clearly see that it’s her — there was no trickery involved.”

The dedicated actress even slightly injured herself during filming. “One day she bumped her head,” di Bonaventura recalled. “It was classic Angie. We were like, ‘Let’s go to the hospital and make sure you don’t have a small concussion.’ She said, ‘No, let’s keep going,’ and was back on the set in two hours. She doesn’t want to be pampered.”

Di Bonaventura is now in production on “Transformers 3″ and in post-production on “Red.” Crane is working on “Men in Black III.”

Bookings & Signings

Montana Artists has signed production designer Mayling Cheng (“Ghost Whisperer”) and 1st a.d. Phil Patterson (“A Dolphin’s Tale”).

GSK & Associates bookings: d.p. Andy Strahorn on Gabriela Tagliavini’s “Without Men”; production designer Alicia Maccarone on Lifetime’s “Lies in Plain Sight”; sound mixers Steve Nelson on ABC’s “No Ordinary Family,” Mark Ulano on Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys and Aliens,” Geoffrey Patterson on Will Gluck’s “Friends With Benefits” and Richard Lightstone TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age”; costume designers Jennifer Soulages on Paul Johansson’s “Atlas Shrugged,” and Luca Mosca on David Koepp’s “Premium Rush.”

GSK also booked editors Robert Florio on CBS’ “NCIS: Los Angeles,” Elena Maganini CW’s “90210,” Glenn Farr on CBS’ “The Mentalist,” J. Kathleen Gibson on HBO’s “In Treatment,” Shannon Mitchell on Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and Scott Vickrey on CBS’ “The Good Wife”; UPM’s Jim Behnke on Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” and Ed Tapia as co-producer on A&E’s “The Glades”; vfx supervisor Mark Kolpack on ABC’s “No Ordinary Family.”

Sheldon Prosnit bookings: editors Cindy Mollo on Ami Canaan Mann’s “The Fields,” Debbie Chiate on Amy Heckerling’s “Vamps,” Joe Bini on Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Miklos Wright on Chris Fisher’s “Street Kings 2″ and Mark Manos on CBS’ “The Defenders”; costume designers Caroline Duncan on J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” Pierre-Yves Gayraud on Paul W.S. Anderson’s “The Three Musketeers,” Michele Michel on NBC’s “Law and Order: Los Angeles” and Carol Beadle ABC Family’s “Greek.”

Sheldon Prosnit commercial d.p. bookings: Shawn Kim on Bud Light, Matthias Koenigswieser on Nike, Marco Mazzei on Pantene, Christopher Probst on Lincoln and Stoeps Langensteiner on Jimmy Dean.

peter.caranicas@variety.com

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