Ridley Scott is no stranger to historical epics, from 1492: Conquest of Paradise to Gladiator – which single-handedly revived the swords-and-sandals genre – to Kingdom of Heaven. And he’s back staging huge-scale battles against a period backdrop in the upcoming Napoleon.
This take on the French leader, played here by Gladiator actor Joaquin Phoenix, covers his rise and fall in the context of his relationship with Empress Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), looking as much at politics of the bedroom as the battleground.
In the new issue of Total Film, which hits shelves next week, Scott talks in-depth about Napoleon (as well as digging into the biggest films of his career). At 85 years old, he’s showing no signs of slowing down – literally, in terms of how quickly he can prep and shoot a movie. And there’s no shrinking of his ambitions when it comes to spectacle too. Here’s an exclusive shot of Scott on set with Phoenix from the new issue of Total Film:
Scott announced that he’d be turning his attention to Napoleon on 14 October 2020, the same day that The Last Duel wrapped filming. He works fast, and had begun the 62-day shoot – yes, just 62 days, ridiculous for a film of this scale – by February 2022.
As Scott points out, Napoleon took part in 66 battles over the course of his career, which would be impossible to put on screen. In the film, there are six battles, and each is staged differently, and each one wows.
Scott puts his prowess with shooting action down to his background in commercials (having shot a lot of sport) and also, particularly, his time at art school.
"The best thing for my career I could ever have done was to go to the art schools I went to. I can really draw. After seven years of art school, you bloody better well be able to. I’ll draw all my own storyboards. Every frame is drawn from close-up to medium shots. The locations I haven’t found yet – I’ll imagine the location. So we’ll look for that location. Visual narrative is my strength. I find it very easy, therefore, to handle eight or 11 cameras at once."
Scott used to shoot two commercials a week and would operate the camera on all of them. He took that into his filmmaking. "I was the only operator – one camera – on Alien," he says. "I was the only operator – one camera – on The Duellists. Legend. Thelma & Louise. On all these things, I operated the camera. And so I know exactly what a lens will give me. Today, that has evolved into six to eight to 11 cameras. So I’ll sit in my trailer. I’ll have monitors like this [spreads arms to indicate a bank of screens]. I’ll be sitting there, talking to each operator.
"Every scene is geometry. By having 11 to 14 cameras, we shot Napoleon in 62 days. I’m doing Gladiator 2 now in 54 days, because I’m not doing 50 takes with one camera, on one shot, and then turning around. This normal fight [scene] that could take anything up to a month, I’ll take six days. So the savings are colossal."
Napoleon opens in cinemas on November 22. For much more on the film and Ridley Scott’s career, pick up a copy of the news issue of Total Film when it hits shelves on October 12. Check out the covers below:
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