There’s a certain anxiety that goes with sitting in the presence of a Movieland legend, a trepidation that can either dissolve after a comfortable opening few minutes, or grow like an abscess if the reception is frosty.
As totalfilm wanders into a top-notch London hotel suite, Ridley Scott immediately sets us at ease. He is standing, his eye on the HD TV, sipping a cup of tea. He enthusiastically shakes TF by the hand, mutes the box and insists we have a cuppa with him – he even pours.
The Geordie lenser is here to chat about Kingdom Of Heaven, the tale of a 12th century French blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) who is unexpectedly drawn into the crusades and the battle between the Christians and the Muslims. The epic arrives on a pumped up 4 disc Director’s Cut DVD on 25 September and there’s one fella who he’s sure will be happy with the outcome – Brit actor Michael Sheen.
“Sheen plays Orlando’s brother and he is great, just great and I hope he’s seen this longer version. There was a lot of thinning out of Michael, in the original version, he was shaved back, which consequently removed the evil side of his nature. So by the time he has the confrontation with his brother, played by Orlando Bloom, you think it’s a bit over the top. When you see the extended version, it flushes out the character more. I hope he sees it because he must’ve gone to the premiere and thought, ‘Jesus, half of my part disappeared!'"
If Sheen feels aggrieved, TF can only imagine what it must be like for a director to shoot a movie and then have to slice large, meaty chunks of it away.
“The thing is, I know I’m a bit long because of the things I add to it while I’m shooting,” Scott smiles. “I’ll suddenly see something and want to put it in there. I’d always rather go for more than less, because then I have the choice in the editing room.” Despite this, Scott admits it’s a tempestuous inner struggle when it comes to losing scenes he’s become attached to.
“Oh yeah, of course,” he says before draining his cup. “It becomes a hard choice because you fall in love with certain things and you don’t want to lose them. That said, I’m pretty good at standing back and being pragmatic. I know what’s a sidetrack and what’s needed. It’s a weakness but you have to focus on the dramatic narrative and keep everything moving forward, giving enough but not too much.”
The Scott empire was built on the back of crafting adverts, before moving on to Hollywood megastardom and more than 30 years at the top. He can now add another accolade to his long list of impressive achievements – getting a gritty and convincing leading man performance out of Orlando Bloom. The Lord Of The Rings star is surrounded by thesping talent in Kingdom Of Heaven, with Liam Neeson, David Thewlis and Jeremy Irons turning in masterful performances. However, it’s the casting of the shrouded leper King, Baldwin, that intrigues the most. His face hidden for the entire movie, the quietly imposing monarch requires an actor of subtlety and force – step forward, Edward Norton.
“He’s superb, I love his work,” Scott says, pouring more tea. “I didn’t even know he had seen the script but he approached me and said ‘I’ve read this thing, I thought it was terrific. Wouldn’t it be cool if I did the King?’ I said, ‘You want to do it? You’ve got it.’ Two minutes on the phone and that was it.”
Phew, if only all casting was that easy, eh?
“Oh, it is,” the lenser nods. “Casting, very often for me now is done over the telephone, I just call them up. I say, ‘I’m going to do this thing, do you fancy it?’ That’s how I got Eric Bana in Black Hawk Down. I just called him in Australia and he said ‘Who?’ I said ‘It’s Ridley Scott, I’m doing a film, do you want to be in it?’ And he said yes. I like casting that way, it saves a lot of time.” That is until you’re dealing with someone like Robin Williams.
“Oh yeah, that was funny,” Scott tips back in his chair with a chuckle. “I was talking to Robin about a project once and he was working up in Scotland, so I called him at his hotel and was stuck talking to this strange night clerk for about ten minutes before I realised it was him. He was speaking in this perfect Scottish accent.”
In true Scott style, the DVD bundle is loaded with his trademark extras and insights into the world of creating film.
“You have to look after your DVD audience, it’s as simple as that. You’ve only got to look at Gladiator. I bet DVD sales were more than the box office, financially, and that is a perfect example of how many people watch DVDs.”
Ridley Scott is clearly one of the pioneers of the Director’s Cut - with Alien and Blade Runner getting the treasured treatment long ago – it’s no surprise that the lenser has a passion for stretching the boundaries of moviemaking when it comes to DVD. In fact, he sees the advancements of the medium as just another challenge, another audience to reach out to and another direction for him to explore.
“It’s great, as a director, you have another area to play to. You’ve kind of got a public, the same as an actor and I don’t mean that in any egotistical fashion I just mean you have a responsibility to the DVD audience because there’s a different mindset. When you’ve got a DVD you want to watch, you’re going to go home, have a beer and take some time out to sit and watch it, right? A good DVD is like taking a good thin book from the shelf, you plug it in and if it’s three hours, who cares? You can pause it, get another beer and come back to it. So I think it’s different from cinema in so many ways.”
Despite being an early purveyor of CGI, Scott admits that relying on a computer to create half your movie is a slippery slope for a director – and one which he doesn’t intend to stumble down.
“You have to work out what is actually worth it because the danger with CGI is to try to show off; when you show off, it’s immediately not real. You show off in violence or explosions and the audience will think, ‘that explosion is way too big, they couldn’t possibly have done that.’ So I think that’s the danger of all these special effects, it undermines the real drama. There’s no CGI in Alien, that was a guy in a rubber suit and we got by pretty well.”
With the days of rubber-suited six-footers and painstakingly painted backdrops consigned to the distant past, Scott has become one of those directors who likes his CGI scenes to blend so seamlessly, that the audience don’t leave the theatre commenting on it – positively or otherwise.
“The CGI is pretty good in Kingdom Of Heaven I think,” he says in a tone that’s half enquiring after TF’s thoughts on the matter. “I think it’s to do with the storyboarding because I’ve got a mind that boards the film. I’m visually orientated, that’s the way I work. So I can draw a board in a flash. So if the sequence involves CGI then the board is drawn and I know what is needed – but it has to be very subtly integrated into the scene.”
The subject of subtlety seems like a good point to quiz the helmer on his handling of the movie’s meaty plot. Christians versus Muslims, West meets East (in a decidedly non-Rocky 4 way) – the pitfalls and opportunities to inadvertently piss off a lot of powerful people aren’t exactly difficult to spot.
“Well exactly and this was a consideration,” he states seriously. We did a lot of research because we knew we were walking on thin ice with Saladin, the leader of the Muslims and a man who is held in such high regard. The slope was especially slippery with me being an infidel. I knew I had to have a Muslim in the part, I couldn’t possibly think of anything else. Then when I saw the tapes from the casting agent in Egypt I was so impressed. I thought, ‘you know what, everyone in Saladin’s army is going to be Muslim,’ which is the right thing to do, no regrets about that at all.”
No regrets but Scott has received plenty of slaps on the back for his even-handed portrayal of the colossal and bloody battle over the sacred lands of Jerusalem.
“I’ve actually been thanked by Muslim societies,” he says, a little embarrassed. “One big one in New York want me to go and collect a prize for the handling of the Muslim views in the film, so that’s really good. At the time we were nervous because of the political conditions in the Middle East but fundamentally the movie has a positive message about accepting other philosophies and religions and being able to deal with it alongside each other.”
Sounds like a plan…