Interview: Ridley Scott - Film director
RIDLEY Scott has seen better days. True, he is at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, while studio types flutter about making sure that the fruit platters are just so.
• Director Ridley Scott. Picture: Getty/AFP
But he is about to be press-ganged, fed to roomfuls of reporters who will ask him how his latest film, Robin Hood, compares to Gladiator (It does and it doesn't) and whether he and Russell Crowe bickered on the set (Not really, theirs is just a full-contact collaboration).
But before that ritual begins, English-born Scott is getting to warm up with … another interview. We had been scheduled to meet at his Los Angeles office the day before, but he had been up all night, in extremis from one of his extremities, specifically his recently installed knee replacement. "They tell you you will be up and about in no time, and that is just pure…" um, nonsense, he says, easing his way into a sofa and, very carefully, placing his new joint on to a table.
For the moment, he looks very much the 72-year-old veteran of more than 20 feature films, including Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down and American Gangster. But a single question about the provenance of Robin Hood, and he is up in a flash, moving about the room and using a cane as a field commander might to plan his next campaign.
"Without realising it, we devised a story that is about the forming of Robin Hood, the beginning of the legend and how he came to be as opposed to what people already know," he says.
With a romance between big Hollywood stars – Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett – and lavish medieval sets that were built, pillaged and burned down over the course of many months, Robin Hood is a spectacle very much in the Ridley Scott tradition. There are lots of swashes buckled, swords clanked and, just in case that doesn't do the job, a shirtless and chiselled Mr Crowe.
Scott is frequently damned and praised as a stylist, a genre-driven filmmaker whose aesthetic – the steampunk look of Alien and Blade Runner is now aped in the decor of various boutique hotels – is often seen as more influential than his films. Frequently lumped in with Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay as a concocter of large, sometimes vacuous entertainments, he is up to something more serious thematically. The dystopian worlds of Blade Runner and Black Rain remind that human ambition creates mortal collateral damage, while Gladiator and Black Hawk Down are tutorials in the limits and pitfalls of imperialism. Even The Good Wife, the CBS series starring Julianna Margulies and produced by Scott Free, the company he owns with his brother and fellow director, Tony Scott, draws DNA from the corruption that often accompanies power.
Robin Hood, like Gladiator, allows Scott to use his modern visual and sound technique to make ancient combat brim with menace. And he plays with the Hollywood archetype embodied over the years by Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner by making his Robin Hood, in effect, a prequel.
Scott's film is an origins story of how Robin Longstride, a journeyman archer in service of the king, became Robin Hood. Spirited away to a French monastery at a young age, his path is changed when King Richard is mortally wounded, and Robin decides to head out for the French coast with a newly formed posse of merry men to make their way to England.
They happen upon an ambush, and Robin is tasked by a dying man to return a sword to Nottingham, a once-proud village now forced into a hand-to-mouth existence under oppressive taxation. There, he meets and clashes with Marion Loxley (Blanchett), the widow of the man who owned the sword. With steady nudges from the father (Max von Sydow), Marion and Robin fall in love and fight both for and against a country they cherish, now led by the feckless and narcissistic King John. In this version of the story, Robin is a loyal, if conflicted, subject, and it is gradually revealed to the archer that fate has put him exactly where he belongs.
Scott explains as much as he settles back on the couch, but then Hollywood's taste in films is mentioned and he is up again, gesturing and declaiming. "One studio head said to me, 'I make movies I don't even want to see'," he says. "I find that entirely depressing and told him as much. I only want to make movies that I want to see."
Lately, however, his choices have not always been embraced by movie-goers. Of his past five films, only one (American Gangster) took in more than $100 million at the domestic box office; others, such as Body of Lies and A Good Year, tanked.
While commercial success is not always a given, critical reaction is much more of a constant: some critics line up to point out they think the big vessel is a little on the empty side. Throughout his career, though, Scott has brushed aside criticism like so many rubber-tipped arrows, in part because he has supreme confidence in every aspect of his craft. He has been a set designer, camera operator and art director. He directed hundreds of commercials before the release in 1977 of his first British feature, The Duelists, and his first Hollywood effort two years later, Alien, which created not only a franchise but also a reconsideration of the sci-fi genre.
Scott has great relationships with the actors he has had great relationships with, and little time for others. Sigourney Weaver has said he showed more concern for the props and sets on Alien than the actors working amid them. But Crowe has made it his business to keep signing up to work with Scott. Robin Hood is their fifth collaboration: in addition to Gladiator, they have made American Gangster, Body of Lies and A Good Year.
"He comes prepared to work," Crowe says in a telephone interview. "He can tell you exactly how many horses he has, how many severed heads he has on hand in the props department, how many cameras he needs for a shot. He is the boss, and, by having that command of infrastructure, he is able to create entire other worlds."
Crowe says Scott is actually a shy person, who enjoys spending quality time with oil paints, which is a bit of a surprise, and a warrior on the set, which is not.
"We were at Fresh Water beach in England, filming a massive scene where the French army was landing and the tide was coming in furiously," the actor says. "We are setting and resetting, and there are, I don't know, 14 barges and 500 extras as French infantry, and one of the backs of the boats kept swinging into the frame where it wasn't supposed to be. And Ridley jumps into the waves and grabbed this 15-ton barge with both hands, bum knee and all, and starts trying to push it out of the shot. When it was clear he was not going to win his lone battle against the barge, he looked back at the beach and the hundreds of extras and said, 'Well, what are you waiting for?' That's leadership."
Even now, the peripatetic Scott does a lot more than direct, serving as producer on a variety of film and television projects. Scott Free, with headquarters in both London and Los Angeles, has a lot of Scotts: brother Tony (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide) is in post-production with Unstoppable, starring Chris Pine and Denzel Washington, while sons Jake (Welcome to the Rileys with James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart) and Jordan (Cracks with Eva Green) are in the mix as working directors.
The company is also producing Cyrus, a film directed by Mark and Jay Duplass about a frustrated suitor at war with his girlfriend's son. In addition to The Good Wife, it produces Numb3rs, currently in its sixth season on CBS, and has the independently financed mini-series The Pillars of the Earth, based on the best-selling novel by Ken Follett, in post-production.
There was talk recently that the directing brothers would take a shot at owning and running MGM, but Scott decided that it would take him away from "the best job in the world, which is making sense of the puzzle that is before me as a director every day that I am on set".
"I like working on all kinds of things, whether it's producing or directing," he says. "I was working on the script of Alien at six this morning because I woke up with this leg throbbing, so I get up at five and go to my office and go through a ritual. I'm actually a good morning person."
He adds that he likes to try to stay on a pace of about a movie a year – Robin Hood took a year and a half – and producing for Scott Free fills in the blanks. But that's as far as it goes. The MGM talk didn't get very far.
Soon enough, the knee will feel more like his own, and he will be back at it, most likely finally revisiting the Alien franchise (albeit with a new heroine not played by Weaver). Brian Grazer, an executive producer on Robin Hood and co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, describes Scott as a general, adding: "Nothing stops him. Nothing."
Grazer says the revisited Robin Hood concept had been knocking around for a while and that he took it up with Crowe several years ago on the set of American Gangster. Once they decided they had a shared interest in the project, it was not a long walk to find a director. "The whole thing was more or less settled in a matter of hours," Crowe explains.
For Scott, Robin Hood offered a chance to tackle once again the life of a soldier, and the mud, filth and mayhem in Robin Hood does not make it look any more enticing than the world of Gladiator, which won a best picture Oscar and a best actor statue for Crowe. "There is nothing glorious about it, is there?" asks Scott, the son of an officer in the Royal Engineers. "It is always miserable, and technology won't keep you safe. Do you really think that the soldiers that Black Hawk Down was about were any better off? They end up as soldiers because they have no other options, but all that changes when you end up with a rifle in your hands."
Issues of class and station in life, always a pertinent concern for the British, are woven throughout Robin Hood. Given that Scott is also Sir Ridley, it's a complicated business in his hands. King John is an ineffectual greed head in Robin Hood, but Robin Longstride and his merry men go to war on the king's behalf because he is what stands between England and the condescending French.
"Could the country run without a monarchy? Certainly, but the monarchy is part of our institutional history," he says, adding that "in a way, the royal family is a business now and must be managed as such".
The royals in Robin Hood are mostly in the business of using factotums such as the sheriff of Nottingham to grab their subjects by the ankles and shake them up and down until every last penny falls out of their pockets. Which is, of course, where the Robin Hood of myth and legend comes into play. Without getting into spoiler terrain, Robin's final arrow in the film is aimed at the corruption of the monarchy.
Scott says the corrupting force of power is a persistent theme in his films, because it is how history is often made. "In a sense, you are watching Robin beginning to understand the corruption around him, whether it is King John or Philip of France," he says. "And watching that forming of Robin Hood is the beginning of the legend, of how he came to be." Our work done, Scott gets up and goes down the hall, girding himself for further inquiry.
• Robin Hood is in cinemas from tomorrow.
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