"Right!" says Ridley Scott, ushering me into his suite at London's Dorchester hotel. "Let's get going.'' Scott has the forthright language, verbal and corporal, of a man who is at the top of his tree and knows it.
|Surprise twist: Ridley Scott has swapped epics for comedy in his new film, Matchstick Men|
Since making his first feature film, The Duellists, in 1977, the alumnus first of the BBC and then the advertising industry has grown into one of the greatest and busiest directors of populist cinema, as well as one of Hollywood's biggest "players" (he owns Scott Free Films with his similarly successful younger brother, Tony, and divides his time between LA and London). Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) are modern classics; even such lesser-known thrillers as Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989) would be career-highs for most. And, although there have been duds (GI Jane and 1492: Conquest of Paradise), 2000-2002 alone saw the arrival of Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down, the first an unchallenged critical hit, and all three box-office behemoths.
But, like Alien – rereleased next month in a new "director's cut" – Scott's recent films have all been big and violent, which may explain why the recently knighted mogul thought it time to explore gentler territory. "I'm always looking for a change of speed," he says, "always trying to avoid being pigeon-holed.''
And so, he opted for Matchstick Men. This lighthearted and engaging scam drama, which opened yesterday, stars Nicolas Cage as Roy, a small-time, long-divorced, obsessive-compulsive con artist who, with accomplice Frank (Sam Rockwell), wrings cash from housewives by selling them useless water coolers. Roy is twitchily content, until he learns that he has a daughter (Alison Lohman), and the wheels of his ritualised world start to come off.
Watching Cage, in particular, you are struck by a sudden thought: that Ridley Scott has, at long last, made a comedy. Is this how he sees it?
"Yes," he says, "I mean, I thought that Thelma scratched around the area of comedy. A lot of people read the script as a dark piece with a strong message for women. I didn't - I always thought of it as being amusing at the expense of all the boyfriends and husbands. And the same with this, I thought it was funnier than anyone else. I thought the Nicolas Cage character was a very interesting and amusing study in anal compulsive behaviour.''
In the light of Scott's renowned professional meticulousness, I wonder if he and Roy are similar. "Am I anal compulsive?" he asks, laughing. "I think I am, actually. I think it's very much easier to be neat. I find there's a place for everything, and so that's probably a bit of my ma rubbing off.''
It may be lighter than his previous work, but Matchstick Men is every inch a Ridley Scott movie, not least in the design and cinematography. Both are crisp, clean and beautiful, with Scott exhibiting his trademark delight in capturing the light filtered through Roy's cigarette smoke and reflected off his swimming pool. It looks so good, in fact, that one wonders if such props are there only because of their light-altering properties. Is this so? "No," says Scott. "I usually find I get very much inside the character. I don't discuss it particularly with the actor, but it's an extension of what I'm thinking. And I learnt that from making commercials. I learnt to trust your intuition, to trust the voice inside you, because I was doing so much that eventually I had to rely on my own judgment. Somebody told me I've made 3,000 commercials - I think that's impossible. I may have done 2,200, though, and if that's not a learning process…''
In fact, Scott's learning process began long before advertising loomed. He was born in South Shields in 1937 (his Geordie accent remains, beneath a drizzle of California). His father's Army career meant that his childhood was fragmented between the North, west London, and Germany, and between some 10 schools. Like his father and uncle, he was drawn to painting, and he wound up at the Royal Academy of Art, but not before seven vital years studying at West Hartlepool.
"After grammar school," he says, "art school was like the goddamn door opening - seven years in constant study of form and light. And then, I see things in a certain way. It probably goes back to industrial England, and, a lot of people would say, that's why you get Blade Runner. There were steelworks adjacent to West Hartlepool, so every day I'd be going through them, and thinking they're kind of magnificent, beautiful, winter or summer, and the darker and more ominous it got, the more interesting it got.''
His unusually three-dimensional women characters also owe much to his early years. "My ma really was my father," he says, "because my dad was always not there. He was a workaholic, so everything was dealing with Ma - Ma laid down the law, Ma was very strong. We were just turned loose during the mornings and afternoons, but she'd give you hell if you weren't back in time for meals. I must have really looked up to her.''
However, over and above Scott's wild, fractured but disciplined childhood, and all his training, perhaps one single factor has made him so successful: the clarity with which he perceives his job. "I once made a speech at Bafta, and I said, everyone sitting in this room ought to be in the business of making entertainment: if you think you're doing anything else, you're wrong. Very, very occasionally, one of them will hold fast in time, and might be called art. But, for the most part, you're dealing in pulp, fiction." He places heavy stress on both words. "That's what we do! It's a movie, for God's sake, OK? Lighten up, and move on. Right?"