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He's worth £60m, he's made four of the biggest box-office hits of all time (Alien, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and Hannibal) and a masterpiece of modern cinema (Blade Runner). And to think it all started with an ad for Hovis. Lynn Barber talks to Ridley Scott about why he prefers battlefields to bed scenes
Sunday January 6, 2002
Which British film directors would you recognise if you passed them in the street? Michael Winner, probably, Ken Russell or Guy Ritchie, maybe even Ken Loach. But Ridley Scott? He has the sort of nondescript looks that are hard to recall even when you've met him - pepper-and-salt hair, freckled skin, small features, short compact body. His accent is equally indeterminate - part Teeside where he grew up, part Hollywood where he mainly lives, plus a hint of antipodean which he must have caught from Russell Crowe. He is valued at £60m, but you would never guess it from his clothes - only the fat Monte Cristo cigar betrays his wealth. I was expecting a larger-than-life Hollywood big shot but he is quiet, contained, wary, dour and I suspect gives interviews over his dead body.
There was a period in the mid-90s when his career seemed to be in decline; after the huge success of Thelma & Louise in 1991 there was a run of box-office disappointments - 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), White Squall (1996) and GI Jane (1997). But when he turned 60 in 1997, he made a decision to make more films, faster - 'Just to get on with it. For the first 10 years of my career, I used to spend too much time waiting or developing or being too critical about what I would take on next, and at the end of the day it's a movie, it's not a cure for cancer. So I learnt to lighten up.' He duly came bouncing back with Gladiator, which mopped up the American box office and won a clutch of Oscars, including best film. So the release of his next film, Black Hawk Down, is a big event.
It is based on a true incident - the shooting down of an American Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993, and the resulting firefight which left 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead. It's a big boys' film, with almost continuous explosions and thrilling helicopter sequences, but quite startlingly free of any moral context or concern. We see some Somali baddies at the beginning disrupting a delivery of aid to Mogadishu - we are told they are doing it on General Aidid's orders and therefore the goodies (America) plan to kill General Aidid. But, rather cumbersomely, they plan to do it by sending helicopters to bomb his headquarters, which happen to be in the middle of town. Filmically, it looks lovely seeing swarms of helicopters buzzing down densely populated streets - morally and, I would have thought, tactically, it seems like a bad idea. And so it proves, as one helicopter is shot down, and more and more American troops pile in to rescue their buddies and get shot at, injured and killed for the next two hours on screen - l8 hours in real life.
The Mogadishu incident was seen at the time as one of the most embarrassing and disastrous episodes of American foreign intervention, and the reason they were so keen to stay out of any subsequent foreign conflict. But Scott's film is entirely concerned with the firefight and not with its causes or consequences. For an interesting sidelight on the affair, I recommend John Simpson's A Mad World, My Masters which suggests that one of the reasons the American plan failed so badly was that General Aidid's son was one of the US Marines. He had grown up in America, and was chosen to go to Somalia because he spoke Somali, nobody apparently noticing or querying the coincidence of his having the same surname as the enemy. Now that would have made an interesting film - the torn loyalties of a boy raised in America and sent with his American buddies to bomb his old dad in Somalia - but it is not the film Ridley Scott made.
Black Hawk Down is bound to be controversial - but that is nothing new for Ridley Scott. What is funny is finding this very inarticulate man whose trade is pictures not words having to defend issues which probably never even occurred to him while filming. He just makes the screenplay as given - but then people come at him with all these questions about what does it mean? He must have been terribly embarrassed to find himself a feminist hero for Thelma & Louise. But then he made GI Jane which was guilty of 'toxic feminism', whatever that might be, so the burden was lifted. This time, he complains, everyone keeps asking whether the message of Black Hawk Down is whether America should or shouldn't intervene (in Afghanistan), but he has found the perfect answer - 'Well, what do you think?' Basically, he's in favour of a strong military presence in the world, as a deterrent, but I don't think you should look to Ridley Scott for deep political analysis.
Black Hawk Down was shot last spring, in Morocco, and was due to finish post-production by the end of the year, ready for release in March. As usual with Ridley Scott films, everything was running on budget and on time. But then Sony suddenly decided to rush its release forward to January, which meant that Scott had to work 24 hours a day to get the mixing finished. Why?
Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer, said it was because they wanted the film to be eligible for the next Academy Awards. But presumably 11 September must have had something to do with it, too. That date has had an odd effect on Hollywood. The first assumption was that nobody would want to see war films in the wake of the terrorist attack, and several films in pre-production were immediately cancelled. But, in fact, the opposite seems to be the case - audiences are more keen to see war films, especially if they are serious, and seriously patriotic, like Black Hawk Down. Although it recounts an American military fiasco, it manages to do it in a sort of Dunkirk spirit that magics defeat into victory.
I saw the film at a BAFTA screening at the Empire, Leicester Square last month. Afterwards, Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, Mark Bowden (author), and three of the actors - Ewan McGregor, Jason Isaacs and Josh Hartnett - took questions from the audience.
It was funny to see actors in that context, suddenly diminished to unimportant puppets alongside the masters who pull their strings. Ridley Scott was definitely in charge - and he was quite snappy with some of the questioners. He is not a man who takes criticism easily.
Next day there was a publicity circus at Claridges where Ridley Scott and the actors were holed up doing 'international publicity', mainly for Japanese television crews, and then he stayed on to talk to me. He said he'd found the screening helpful - it was the first time he had seen the film with a big audience and he was watching backs of heads and was pleased to see that nobody moved. Normally he previews his films several times but with the rush release of Black Hawk Down there was no time for that. Anyway, he says, 'It was the right thing to do because we're dealing with a story that I tried to make as accurately as possible, and the danger with a preview is that you can easily unpick what you've done, start a whole process of self-examination, whereas in this particular incident I just wanted to stick as closely as I possibly could to the facts.'
They filmed it in Morocco, with Sale near Rabat standing in for Mogadishu. Scott loves Morocco because it offers spectacular terrain and also, nowadays, an experienced film community - Black Hawk Down was one of 20 films made there last year, and he had pre viously made a large chunk of Gladiator in the desert round Ouarzazate.
This time he was based at the Rabat Hilton where the tennis pro gave him a game every Sunday. Tennis is the one relaxation he allows himself on a shoot. He has said that the secret of being a successful film director is first passion and then stamina - and I imagine, at 64, stamina must be the harder to maintain. He doesn't socialise with the actors because he's filming all day and looking at rushes all evening - 'I'm a good boy. I don't drink - well, I don't get drunk. I like to keep my eye on the ball.' In lulls between shooting, he keeps himself busy by storyboarding the next scenes - hence the sketches shown here.
He had full US military co-operation on this film - which he didn't have for GI Jane - and is very happy in the company of soldiers. He admits he is a bit of a 'neatnik' who likes military discipline and order. He comes from a military background - his father joined the Royal Engineers at the beginning of the war, rose to acting brigadier, and stayed on afterwards to help in the rebuilding of Germany. So Ridley spent part of his childhood in Willemshaven, Frankfurt and Hamburg before the family returned to Stockton-on-Tees. School was a wash-out - he was only interested in drawing and painting. Finally, his art teacher advised him to leave and go to art school, 'So I went to Hartlepool and that's where the world began for me - I adored it.'
He was already hooked on film - he remembers his mother taking him to Citizen Kane as a boy, and him not really understanding the plot but realising that 'everything in the screen from left to right, and right to left was considered'. From then on he would go to the cinema every week, always alone because he didn't want any distractions, and often staying to watch the film over and over from two in the afternoon to 10 at night. He always read the credits diligently and noticed that there was a job called 'art director' that sounded possible for him.
But there were no film courses in Britain at the time, so he studied theatre design at the Royal College of Art, which he figured would get him into television. He made his first film while he was a student in 1965, a short called Boy on a Bicycle, using a borrowed camera and his father and brother as actors. The film was lost for many years, but Bafta recently unearthed it and he was pleased to see that it stood up well. On the strength of that, the BBC offered him a designer's job as soon as he graduated, at the then impressive salary of £1,100 a year. But he kept nagging the BBC to promote him: 'I was such a bloody nuisance for three years as a designer, always complaining, that the BBC finally gave me a director's course and out of that I did a show that got me a programme. Within three years I was directing Softly Softly.'
He had no training at all in handling actors and he found it hard at the beginning. 'I learnt to talk to actors simply by being handed two books, which were Spotlight Male and Female [the actors' casting directories], and I was given an office at the BBC with an experienced PA and told to get on with it because my show would be up in three weeks. And so I would sit in my room flicking through pages and saying 'What do you think of him?' and then I'd meet them and somehow learned the process of putting a cast together. Of course, the shooting was easy for me, but talking to the actors was tricky, because I had no idea where they were coming from.'
Anyway, he soon moved on to advertising commercials, first as a designer, then as a director. He liked the precision of the advertising brief - and the generosity of the budget. So in 1968 he left the BBC and started his own advertising production company, Ridley Scott Associates, which still thrives today. He was the first of that brilliant generation - David Puttnam, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne - who transformed the look of British advertising. Up till then, most commercials were made by clapped-out film directors who thought they were slumming it. But he set a new standard. He loved the fact that every second counted, every detail was considered, every frame storyboarded. 'I was able to be the insane perfectionist, controlling all the elements - photography, design, direction - in one neat capsule.' By the time he made his first feature at 40, he had already made 2,500 commercials. He still occasionally makes them even now - there was one last year for Orange mobile phones.
He used the profits from advertising to fund The Duellists, in 1977. It was a costume drama based on a Joseph Conrad short story, and did nothing at the box office but it won him the special jury prize at Cannes. After that, it was just a question of waiting for Hollywood to call. Unfortunately it called first on Alan Parker, to make Bugsy Malone, and Scott admits he was 'ill for a week' with envy. But then it was his turn, and he was invited to direct Alien in 1979. When he read the script, he didn't even realise that Ripley's gender was important - the studio had to spell out for him: the hero is a woman. But he dealt with it as he would later deal with Thelma & Louise, by treating her exactly like a man.
Then he made Blade Runner, which he regards as his 'most complete and personal film', though it was neither a box-office nor critical hit at the time.
It is an extremely dark film, both literally and metaphorically, with an oddly masochistic feel, but he explains that he made it in the wake of his elder brother's death and 'I liked the idea of exploring pain.' He barely knew his brother when he was growing up, because Frank went to sea at 16 as a midshipman, and then lived in Singapore for 14 years. But Ridley was just getting to know him when he was diagnosed with skin cancer. 'When he was ill, I used to go and visit him in London, and that was really traumatic for me. But I didn't discuss it with anyone. I'm of that generation that was brought up, you know, look after yourself, pull yourself together. And it was only afterwards I realised...' After Frank's death, he became phobic and paranoid and couldn't sleep for almost two years. But, typically, he didn't seek help because 'I always believed in self-fixing. I was brought up stiff upper lip by Ma - very tough, my Ma.'
His mother died at the beginning of this year, aged 96, just before he started filming Black Hawk Down. He says, of course, it affected him, but not like his brother's death, 'Because - at 96 - you get into the preparation for the inevitability of the event - even though I was convinced she was going to last till she was 105, actually - she was really tough. I can't even remember the last time she had a cold. And it was a very simple minor operation - and the operation was successful, but her heart gave up.'
There is just the slightest catch in his voice when he says this, which I imagine is the closest he ever comes to showing emotion. He once said, 'As an Englishman, I'm aghast at emotional intensity', and, despite all his years in California, he still hasn't learnt the first elements of letting it all hang out. Perhaps that is why his oeuvre, though covering so many different genres, still doesn't include a sex scene. He says it is unlikely that it ever will. 'I find sex scenes actually - uh - embarrassing. I think I'm probably a bit prudish. I was brought up at a time where parents didn't talk about it, they just assumed you'd find out. Tony [his younger brother, who directed Top Gun, Enemy of the State and the recent Spy Game] likes sex scenes. But I find when I watch sex scenes in films, it's like ho-hum or it's flapping curtains and gauzy pictures, which is kind of boring.'
Ridley Scott is, by all accounts, too driven, too workaholic to have much of a private life. He has been married twice, with two sons by his first marriage, and a daughter by his second, and has recently been going out with Gianina Facio, the Costa Rican actress who played Russell Crowe's wife in Gladiator. But he is not a party animal, he seldom wastes time on socialising. Perhaps that is why an Oscar for best director has so far eluded him though two of his films (Thelma & Louise and Gladiator) have won best film. Might it be true to say that he is admired but not liked in Hollywood? 'Possibly,' he snorts. 'But that puts me on the cutting edge, which is useful!'
So what will he do next? There was talk last year of him filming Popcorn, the Ben Elton novel, but he says though he likes Elton and the book, 'Everyone seems to be terrified of it in Hollywood.' In fact, what he plans to do next is take a good long break, 'Because in less than three years I've done three fairly large films, so I'm just going to sit and think. The problem about making movies is, when you go away, your life stands still so I'm going to try and get my life back in order a little bit, then think about what I'm going to do next.'
He is also going to do something he has never done before - look back at his old films. Normally, he never sees them once they're released - 'I'll do the premiere and that's the last time that I'll ever look at it because I've wrung it dry by then.' But now he is having to remix and reprint his old films for release on DVD. He is currently doing Blade Runner for distribution next year, but his main hope is that Legend, the fantasy he made in 1985 which completely bombed, will finally find an audience. 'Universal now say, "You know that half an hour you took out? Can we find it and put it back in?" So - it's interesting. Thank god for DVDs because then we can reshow the films the way they were meant to be.' Will Legend prove to be another Blade Runner ? A phoenix rising from the ashes of its initial failure? We shall see. Meanwhile, if you like a good simple-minded shoot-out, go and see Black Hawk Down.
· Black Hawk Down opens in cinemas on 18 January.
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