While he’s just as prolific at age 83 as he was decades ago, Ridley Scott is still having a good year. He directed two high-profile films this year:the last duel and House of Gucci—and he makes headlines (again) his brutal comments about the state of cinema today. We sat down with the legendary director to ask him about Adam Driver, his swirling work schedule and the subjectivity of art.
The AV Club: You’ve got some big movies this year and you’re a busy, busy man. Does it ever feel like a lot?
Ridley Scott: Never.
AVC: Do you just like to be busy?
RS: What am I going to do? Walking the dogs? No, I have to work. And as long as they want me to do it, I feel privileged, but I’ve earned it.
AVC: You’ve made so many movies in your career. Are there certain movies that you have loved over time or that you thought were overlooked at the time?
RS: Well, I think a few have been overlooked and to a shocking degree actually. But when you talk about prices, prices don’t mean much to me.
I think it’s more important to me that I’m allowed or that they want me to keep working. Then it all has to do with “Do you have material that people want?” I have to get through the door with material because years ago people stopped offering me movies because I’m usually the hardest person to pick a topic for and that’s why they don’t try. For the most part, I say, “Not really, but thanks for thinking of me for that,” when the time comes.
Every now and then something comes in, like the Martian landed on my desk and they said, “What do you think? This has been on the shelf for two years.” So then I can come in and say, “But this is a comedy!” And they say, “What?” I said, ‘Yeah, it’s a comedy. And that’s why it was never made.” So I make such big adjustments, right?
Alien landed on my desk. I was the fifth choice. The man in front of me was, bizarrely enough, a great filmmaker named Robert Altman. But what on earth would you offer Robert Altman? Alien in front of? He must have gone to the breakfast scene and started thinking, “What??” But because of where I come from, which is being a pretty good art director, I could immediately see what I could do with it. So I said, “I’ll do it.” So, you know, they’re horses for courses.
AVC: In House of Gucci, there are some scenes that I really like that seem very real. For example, there is a scene in the bathtub with Lady Gaga and Adam Driver that seems spontaneous, natural and true. How do you create an environment on set to help actors get the best out of themselves?
RS: you to make they work to their best potential.
AVC: Well, ask them?
RS: No, I forced them. It’s a big problem for me.
I just got pretty good at casting. I won’t go into the medium and smaller parts because I have a lot to do when we start making a movie. But I almost always have in mind who the protagonists in the film will be. So if I’m reading it or preparing it, I’m preparing for so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so based on the fact that they’re going to be the first part we get to to go. .
So once I get that in line and I get who I need, the rest is going to be forming a friendship and partnership with the actor. Because to me I don’t believe in the Svengali process unless you cast a 6 year old boy who has never done anything before and then you try to convince this boy to do his thing.
With actors, you’ve cast great actors so they don’t have to be stars. There are many great actors who are not stars. Once I have a great actor, I tend to talk to them about everything but the script. I want to know who they are, how they think. I want to know how fast they are mentally on their feet because I’m pretty fast and I want them to evolve and grow with me on set.
AVC: Do you consider yourself loyal to a variety of actors, or do you just want the best actor for the role, period, whoever it is?
RS: Well, I guess you tend to pick who’s best for the particular character. But I’ve worked with Russell Crowe five times and I’ve worked with Michael Fassbender four times, so sometimes once you work with someone and it’s A) it has to be fun. If it’s like a mountainous, difficult climb, forget it. You don’t want to go there anymore.
So, partly it’s how well you’re doing and how well it’s evolving. The better you know someone, the easier it is to say, “You know what? That wasn’t quite right. Can we do it this way?” So you have a real dialogue instead of a polite exchange, you have to get real and have a real dialogue pretty quickly.
AVC: This year alone you’ve worked with Adam Driver twice.
RS: There you go.
AVC: What do you like about working with him and how did you develop that dialogue?
RS: Well I was planning Gucci and i was making the last duel. I think Adam literally tried the chainmail and I said, “You know what, I have a screenplay you need to read this weekend.” He said, “What?” I said, ‘I have a very interesting role. You may want to do it. I think you should read it.” And he read it that weekend and said, “Damn it, okay.”
AVC: You caught him at just the right time. He had the right gap in his schedule.
RS: I’m overlapping or else I’ve found you have terrible holes.
When you’re done with a movie – and not everyone does the same trick. You are going to find your own technique. But while I’m done and I’ve said, “It’s a wrap,” I’ve been in that movie for weeks or even months. I ran my editor – and you have to have a really good editor to do this. I fully trust the editor I have, Claire Simpson. So she already cuts it and has been the whole movie.
I’ll say, “How fast to a director’s cut?” She says maybe two weeks. Normally it would be 14 weeks. In three weeks she says, “I’m ready,” and I walk in. I’m really nervous because I’m divorced and fresh now. I am clear in my head. I’ve actually been working on something until we sit down.
I have an assistant sitting next to me because once you start the screening you won’t be able to look away. If you’re going to write a note, that won’t work. You’re missing something. My movies are organic, so I just sit there watching and yelling, ‘That! Which! Which! That!” and my assistant will write the number on the screen.
Then, after the screening, she’ll say, “So, you said something about the bathroom scene,” and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah.” I’ll give my critique of things I’ve seen, because I’m fresh and [Claire’s] been editing. It is clearly less fresh and that makes me feel a bit like a computer. So far it seems to work quite well. But it means I can overlap one film with the next project.
AVC: I really liked the last duel, and I’ve been in rooms of female critics where they just raved about it, but we’ve also all talked about how if we’re going to look at most of the reviews they were written by men, and they didn’t like the movie or just didn’t see what we saw there. Did you experience that?
RS: You know, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I realized that many, many, many, many, many years ago. There are many, many, many different layers. There’s a layer I call the big unwashed, which is my favorite expression. It’s very rude and it’s fucking meant to be because I don’t make movies for that couple.
I was honestly mistreated by a critic called Pauline Kael for a movie called Blade Runner. Her review was systematically destructive and I had never met her. I haven’t met her. It took her four pages The New Yorker, which is a very decent magazine. I was so shocked. I mean, it was a personal shock.
I framed those four pages and have them hanging in my office today, and they remind me, with the utmost respect for journalists and critics, that I never read my own criticisms. Once I’ve left production, I need to have my opinion of what I’ve done and move on.
When you get a lot of criticism, you think you are walking on a cloud. When you get bad criticism, you want to kill yourself. So it’s best to avoid both.
Heart attack: That brings me to another topic. You are known for having strong opinions about all different types of movies. Do you think taste is subjective? As in, some things just aren’t for you, or are there good movies and bad movies, period?
RS: No, there are clear pillars of intent. Studios will have a certain level of content that they want because they think they will. What they forget is that there is no certainty, but you can design a movie that is sentimental and melodramatic, full of visual effects and without any real story. And the visual effects support the fact that there is no story. And so for the most part, you’re targeting someone who sits there with a giant bag of popcorn and Pepsi cola and looks at it and doesn’t understand what’s happening, except it’s noisy and colorful and there’s a lot of visual effects.
am i rough?
AVC: No, but I think sometimes you just want to go and watch things explode.
RS: No, I never do and I never did, not even as a child. I remember seeing it for the first time, and I think I was a teenager, but I remember the first time I ever saw what I thought was a pretty serious movie. I think it was Orson Welles. He made it at the age of 19, burger Kane. I knew that’s where the difference was and that’s who I wanted to be. David Lean, same thing. Every now and then you just see something and you say, “That’s what I want to do.”