The Total Film Interview - Ridley Scott

IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT AT TOTAL FILM HQ and Ridley Scott is late. The Oscar-nommed director of Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down should have phoned from Los Angeles an hour ago; instead we’ve been stuck cooling our heels while a PR makes frantic calls to his office, trying to bring him to the blower so he can talk up the DVD release of A Good Year. You remember A Good Year, don’t you? That film he made with Russell Crowe that wasn’t Gladiator? The one that was crucified by the critics, buried at the box office and branded a flop by the head of its studio?

None of which changes one simple truth: Sir Ridley Scott is an extraordinary director. With three remarkable decades as one of cinema’s most visionary and influential filmmakers behind him – and some heavy-duty projects in the pipeline – there’s plenty to talk about once he’s finally patched through, gruffly oblivious to any inroads he’s made into our weekend boozing time.

Born in South Shields in November 1937, the future Knight of the Realm started out as a set designer at the BBC before leaving Auntie for the lucrative world of advertising. By this time, of course, he’d already made his first film, a black-and-white short called Boy And Bicycle starring his younger brother Tony. The boy and bike motif would later figure in Scott’s best-known advert, his 1974 campaign for Hovis; it wasn’t long, though, before he’d made the leap to features, first with daring Napoleonic War saga The Duellists, then with seminal sci-fi psycho-horror Alien. Blade Runner followed, then Legend, singular fantasies that cemented his status as Britain’s foremost visual stylist and the natural successor to such autocratic auteurs as Kubrick and Lean. And though he’s had off-days since – flashy thriller Black Rain, bloated Columbus epic 1492, compromised Silence Of The Lambs sequel Hannibal – he’s always kept working, tirelessly developing new material while cannily using DVD to give his earlier efforts the sustained afterlife they deserve.

Newly recovered from knee surgery (“I fell doing GI Jane. I play a lot of tennis, so I haven’t helped it over the years”), the 69-year-old is approaching his seventh decade with a zest and vigour that would shame a filmmaker half his age. Crime yarn American Gangster, his third film with Mr Crowe? Body Of Lies, shooting this autumn with Leonardo DiCaprio? How about that Blade Runner Special Edition? All will have to wait. First there’s a certain unloved romcom that needs to be dealt with...

A Good Year is out on DVD. The critics gave you a rough ride over it last year. Were you disappointed with how the film was received?

Of course I was. Frankly I didn’t like the critique at all – I thought they were vicious and very unfair on Russell. So I wasn’t just disappointed, I was fucking pissed off! When it gets that vicious, I just switch off and don’t bother reading the rest. You know, we try to do the best we can and I thought it worked out pretty well. What I find most irritating is when critics absolutely bury something like that – they forget that if there were no movies they wouldn’t have a job. So yeah, I was kind of angry.

It can’t have helped, though, when Rupert Murdoch called it a flop just a few days after it opened...

I didn’t really hear about it, but I was kind of baffled because I don’t think he even saw it. The irony is I’ve had so many people since then saying they really loved the movie. I think the film stands for itself and already it’s showing the test of time – the DVD sales where it’s been released have actually been pretty big.

A Good Year marked the second time you have worked with Russell Crowe and the pair of you have just done American Gangster together. Do you have some special director/actor connection, like Scorsese and De Niro or Burton and Depp?

Russell has to be one of the best actors of his generation; I think he’s great. And yes, we have developed a getting-to-know-each-other relationship over three films now. But then he is one of the brightest, most intelligent actors I’ve ever dealt with.

American Gangster also stars Denzel Washington, who was last seen in your brother Tony’s film Deja Vu. What it’s been like having these two heavyweights acting in the same movie?

No question: getting Russell and Denzel in the same film is a nice coup. [It’s also a reunion: Crowe and Washington previously co-starred in duff 1995 sci-fier Virtuosity.] And it’s a coup for the material, written by Steve Zaillian. It’s a great script, about this man called Frank Lucas who had a very successful business in Harlem in the early 1970s bringing in retail heroin from Vietnam in army transportation. That’s the guy who Denzel plays; Russell plays Richie Roberts, the guy who pinpointed who was supplying this massive amount of heroin over five years.

The film has a rather messy development history – Antoine Fuqua was attached with Denzel only for Universal to pull the plug. Terry George was involved after that, but he got no further. What did you do to crack it?

It took a long time coming. I was shown it before Kingdom Of Heaven. At that time there was a bit of an imbalance – it was more about Frank Lucas and less about Richie Roberts. I felt it should be a little bit more equally balanced. But great material is great material, so when I was in the middle of Provence doing A Good Year I called Zaillian and said, “What’s happening with that thing?” It began then: I passed it on to Russell and once I had him interested I realised I could get Denzel back in.

You and Russell are also attached to Nottingham, a revisionist take on the Robin Hood legend. What do you hope to bring to that story?

The idea is to make the Sheriff of Nottingham a little less of the villain – to clean up the character a bit and make him more interesting. It’s very early to talk about this in detail; we’re kind of going through an evolution of writing right now so this won’t happen until next year. But yeah, it’s definitely in the works.

As is Body Of Lies, which you’re making in the autumn with Leonardo DiCaprio. Isn’t it based on the David Ignatius novel Penetration, about a CIA agent on the trail of an Al-Qaeda leader in Jordan?

I quite like that title Penetration, but that’ll be confusing: everyone sniggers when you say it. The film is about where we are today in the Middle East and the crossroads of politics and intelligence – incredibly topical, which is why I’m doing it. People call it a thriller, but it’s more interesting than a thriller. It’s real.

It’s all a far cry from Alien, your first big success. In the past you’ve described it as a near flawless film...

I never said that. I think other people have!

Well, we agree with them. Do you think it would be greenlit as is now? Few modern movies boast such a slowburn build-up.

I think it stands up now as well as ever. When did you last see a good print – a proper screening with proper sound? You can’t judge it on a ratty old videotape or on a small screen. I think Alien is as good now as it was then and I’m always surprised how it stands up. It doesn’t matter how they try to influence the market, certain kinds of films still get by that don’t conform. I don’t conform and I never have done.

What are your feelings about it becoming a franchise?

I think it’s a pity! But listen, it’s all about revenue at the end of the day. The studios have to do the things they have to do to drive revenue. I’m not naive. I know that’s why they do it and that’s what they have to do. If you have a business, you have a bottom line. And the bottom line is getting harder and harder because the cost of movies is getting bigger and bigger. That’s what we don’t realise in England: if we’re going to have a film industry we’ve got to have enough money to spend on it. Because it is an industry – it’s not a lot of blokes having jolly good fun going to nightclubs all the time!

There was some talk about you and James Cameron making another addition to the Alien series. How serious was that really?

I think Alien Vs Predator put that to bed. I can’t knock it though: I’ve lived out here for 25 years and I’ve always respected the fact they can put money into a film I want to make – believe me, you’ve got to have respect for that.

What’s the latest with the Blade Runner Special Edition?

It’s finished. A five-disc set in a Deckard briefcase comes out in the autumn. We’ve got a reconformed, state-of-the-art digital print, which we haven’t really had for about 15 years. It’ll probably be shown at the Venice Film Festival.

Have new sequences been shot?

Not really: we’ve gone back into the original negative, taken some stuff out and popped stuff back in. There’s a little bit that’s new, but generally it pretty much stands up.

We hear you’ve touched up the scene where Joanna Cassidy gets retired...

Originally it was a stunt girl because they didn’t want Joanna running though fake plate glass. I didn’t want her to get hurt so I got a stunt person to do it. We figured today you could remove that stunt gal’s face easy and replace it with Joanna’s, so they did it against a greenscreen. We’ve just improved that little bit.

Has Harrison Ford contributed anything?

Harrison’s fully on board; he’s already done his interviews. Everyone’s been interviewed, which is nice. It’s nice that everyone’s still alive!

And still speaking to each other, given the tricky shoot...

No, it wasn’t; this has been way overcooked. People keep winding up this bullshit – it’s total bullshit! For me, the Blade Runner shoot was business as usual. OK, I’m a fairly demanding person in terms of getting what I want. And because I was the new kid on the block over there, it was a little tricky that way. But really, all that has been way over-pumped. A film could not be that specific if it was made under such harsh circumstances.

After Blade Runner came Legend, another film which didn’t really find an audience until its DVD release.

Maybe I do a lot of films too soon. Legend is fundamentally a fantasy and every damn film that’s happening right now is a fantasy – I just think I did a fantasy too soon. It was an idea I developed with a writer called William Hjortsberg. I said to him, “Look, I watch Walt Disney movies every Christmas…” Even as an adult I’ll sneak in and see Pinocchio or Snow White or Fantasia, particularly when they issue a nice print. I love animation and what I wanted with Legend was to do a live-action animation. Don’t forget in those days there was no digital and no CGI – it was all real. So that was what we went for.

The film was drastically cut on original release but has since resurfaced in a variety of different versions. Do you have a particular favourite?

Every cut I do, mate, I’m happy with! I’m never forced to do anything. I’m pretty user-friendly with the studios. That’s why I’m still here. I respect them and I think it’s fair to say they respect me.

Still, there have been times when you’ve released versions of films you have later been dissatisfied with. Kingdom Of Heaven, for example...

Yeah, we made a mistake there; it should have released at three hours and eight minutes, so the DVD is no question the best version of the movie. That was unfortunate – I think we over-tested it. The problem with testing is it can be valuable, but it can also undermine what’s fundamentally already there.

After Legend, you seemed to be stuck in thriller mode with Someone To Watch Over Me and Black Rain. Thelma And Louise, though, took you to another level...

I was going to produce it. I don’t tend to be in the front line and go around offering ideas to directors, but with this I thought it was special enough for me to do that. So I offered it to five directors who all turned it down. One of the actresses who wouldn’t do the movie, a big star, she said, “Why don’t you come to your senses and do it?” So I said all right.

Up to that point your films had primarily been assessed for their visual aspects. Was it a relief to have a film where you could prove your worth as a dramatist?

You know what – isn’t that what we deal with, pictures? Isn’t every movie today visually driven? A lot of plots are pretty thin. I’ve seen all these plots before, haven’t you? At least the plots we try to do are original and I think that’s why we get copied a lot. How many times have you seen the plot of Alien in the last 25 years? Time and time again. What you try to do is to do something original and if you do that then what is both always marginally irritating and marginally amusing is they become very influential.

If you had a dollar for every film that’s copied Alien and Blade Runner’s visions of a grungy, dystopian future...

...I’d be very well off! But I don’t find it galling, it’s more amusing really. At the end of the day it’s about the legacy. One does care about the quality of the work.

You got your first Oscar nomination for Thelma; since then, though, you’ve had your fair share of ups (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) and downs (Kingdom Of Heaven, A Good Year). Is it hard for you to keep motivated?

You know what? They all make money! At the end of the day I’m happy that I’m sitting here doing what I want. No one’s stopped me from doing that, which is really good because that’s what I do for a living. When I watch them back, I never regret any of my movies...

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.