Back to the future
He doesn’t do regrets, even when his flops are epic, and insists there will never be a Blade Runner sequel. So why has Ridley Scott returned to the Alien universe that made him a star
YOU WOULDN’T CALL Ridley Scott grand. Now 74, the director of Prometheus, the summer’s most anticipated film, still has the bearing – and the accent – of a Tyneside boy on the rise. He looks just a little scruffy. He seems beaten by the wind. But let us not forget that, as of 2003, he is Sir Ridley Scott. It hardly needs to be said that he snorts when I address him by his title.
“Ah, I don’t really care what people call me,” he says. “Of course I was honoured. But I am a little uncomfortable when somebody says that. I don’t know why. It’s a nice reward.” His dad, a military man, would surely have been proud. “Oh, no doubt about it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Scott got the award for his work on such durable pictures as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator. Emerging through the world of advertising, he brought a new sheen and a fresh suavity to mainstream film-making. His movies have always been events. But the hype surrounding Prometheus is really something else. The film is not quite a prequel to Alien, but it is set in the same universe. Do you remember that huge, calcified creature the crew encountered at the beginning of the 1979 classic? The new film sets out to answer the many questions the so-called Space Jockey has generated over the years.
Fair enough. But might it not have been nice to leave us with our mysteries? “I don’t think that’s a problem,” he says. “That character just opens up the next door. That’s the only thing left from the original. He opens up a door and we go somewhere else entirely that has almost nothing to do with Alien. It asks bigger questions. Who were these things?”
Starring Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, the picture follows members of a space expedition as, after discovering an ancient star map, they seek out the origins of civilisation. It would be unfair to say too much more. But we can assert that it sounds like a job for Ridley Scott. He is, after all, one of the key science-fiction directors of the age. Isn’t he? Well, yes and no. Profiles still describe him in those terms. Scott has, however, directed only two films in that genre, Alien and Blade Runner, and it has been 30 long years since that last classic. We’ve had Thelma Louise, his flash feminist romp; 1492: Conquest of Paradise, featuring Gérard Depardieu as Christopher Columbus; and Kingdom of Heaven, another period piece, but he has stubbornly refused to return to the future.
“I think I had other fish to fry,” Scott says cautiously. “I love period films. I did 1492, which I loved, with Gérard. It didn’t really play. But I loved doing it and loved all the cast and I was very proud of it. I loved Kingdom of Heaven. I have done three medieval films, one Napoleonic film and just two science-fiction pictures. What I really want to do is a western. It’s just what comes up.”
SO WHAT DREWhim back? “It’s funny. People kept saying, ‘Revisit Blade Runner.’ But it’s so complete. What are you going to do with it? And, with four films, Alien itself was played out. There was one question, though: who is the skeleton in the seat?”
Born in 1937, Scott came of age during the second golden age of science fiction. In the 1950s, the genre elbowed horror aside to become a key mode of expression for film-makers alarmed by McCarthyism, the bomb or environmental catastrophe. I assume he was an enthusiast. “No, no. Remember, I didn’t make a film until I was 39. As a kid, I didn’t really like science fiction . . . I didn’t get on with it. I thought it was all hokey until I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Day the Earth Stood Still was all right. But Stanley Kubrick opened the door. After that I did think I’d want to do something in science fiction. And George Lucas was also an inspiration. But that was later.”
Scott had an interesting upbringing. His father was an ordinary working-class geezer who, after joining the British army as an engineer, rose to become a senior officer. Scott snr was one of the boffins behind the mobile Mulberry harbours that helped facilitate the D-Day landings. His son seems similarly driven. While contemporaries such as Alan Parker have slowed down, Scott still makes almost a film a year. He also produces yards and yards of high-quality television.
“Actually, my mum was the dynamo. My mum was a five-foot dynamo. Dad enlisted and, because of his experience at the docks, they gave him a commission and he became an engineer. We were working-class. But by the end of the war he was an acting brigadier general. He ended up working in Eisenhower’s office at the control commission in Germany.”
Scott remembers walking past U-boats on his way to school. He attended 10 institutions as a kid and maintains that he performed badly at all of them. Nonetheless, he managed to secure a place at the Royal College of Art. An excellent draughtsman, he gained a first-class degree and ventured into the world of advertising. Clearly a young man of ambition, Scott made his way to Madison Avenue in New York. “I got to the US during what we now know as the Mad Men era. I was arriving there, after the Royal College, wearing this weird Edwardiana. And that was very dodgy.”
The road towards feature films took in many byways. Scott worked as a trainee designer at the BBC, where he helped out on such memorable shows as Z Cars. In 1968, he and his younger brother, Tony, set up their own film and production company. By the middle of the 1970s, he had become one of the most respected commercials directors in the world. He was responsible for that Hovis commercial featuring the kid on the bike. To that point, few commercials directors had made it into films. But, along with Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne, both English ad men, Scott managed to batter down that door. In 1977, his first feature, The Duellists, an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad story set in the Napoleonic wars, won a major prize at the Cannes film festival.
“Advertising men were still pooh-poohed in the film industry,” he says. “Now Mad Men has made them heroes. Hollywood couldn’t grasp how somebody coming from the world of 60 seconds could handle a whole 90 minutes. Now the whole business is people from that world. Alan, Adrian and I really were the first ones up. And I was the third one in. But I found The Duellists quite easy to do. I was so prepped. I’d done hundreds of hours of commercials. We were like those rock bands who had practised for 10,000 hours in the garage.”
It still comes as shock to recall that Alien was a mid-budget movie launched with few expectations. Based on a script by Dan O’Bannon, the picture could have turned out as a crass exploitation piece. But Scott had the good sense to hire such outre designers as HR Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. The picture became a sensation. “Well, I thought The Duellists was a western,” he says with a laugh. “And I thought Alien was a nice little B-movie. We made it well and we suddenly had an A-plus movie.”
We think of Scott as being a huge money-maker. But his CV is peppered with commercial failures: 1492: Conquest of Paradise; White Squall; A Good Year. On its release, in 1982, Blade Runner, a dreamy adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was also considered something of a catastrophe. The film has, of course, come to be regarded as a hugely influential advance in cinema of the fantastic. “Oh yeah, that film was a failure,” he says. “I knew that Blade Runner was special. As mainstream movies go, it’s about as arty as you can be. I didn’t quite intend that. I didn’t know that when I was making it. I just did what I did.”
The film’s underperformance must have dented even his formidable self-confidence. How does one rally oneself for the next battle? “You know what? You learn. I think I am a bit like a sportsman. If I had been a sportsman I would have loved to be a tennis player. In singles you can blame only yourself. You can’t blame the weather. You can’t blame the racket. It’s down to you. Or maybe the [other] guy is just better than you. You analyse how he plays and try and beat him. But, in my case, I am really playing myself.”
RIDLEY REALLY DOESappear to have the assurance – some might say arrogance – of the self-made man. No setback seems to shake him. I hardly need to ask if he was jealous when his brother began scoring megahits with defiantly vulgar films such as Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II. Tony was the baby, after all.
“We’re not so competitive,” he says. “Being the older brother helps a bit. I think the elder brother always backs down if he’s smart. We’ve been partners for 40 years. I was at the Royal College when he was at college and I said: ‘Don’t look for work. Come to me and I will give you work.’ It made sense to give him half the company. Two are stronger than one.”
There doesn’t seem much chance that – financially, anyway – Prometheus will join Scott’s catalogue of disappointments. The chatter around the film is furious. He sees the project as an attempt to address the spiritual side of science. The character played by Noomi Rapace is a rare thing: a scientist who believes in God. “Yeah. She is driven by this fundamental engine of faith. Mathematics is laboratories and proof and all those things. But nevertheless some scientists believe there is a God. Why do you believe? That’s one of the questions.”
Let’s hope Prometheus works out for Scott. Despite the film’s epic proportions, he appears to see it very much as a personal project. Mind you, he doesn’t come across as the kind of guy who, if it were a flop, would retire to the basement for a long weep. He doesn’t do regret. “No. I analyse why something hasn’t worked. But I have no regrets over anything. I always look back and say: ‘That was a very good movie.’ Every single time.”
Great Scott: key moments in Ridley’s reel
The wee boy in the Hovis commercialA young baker’s boy toils to the top of the hill while Dvorák’s New World Symphony surges. Then he joyously freewheels back down. The ad inspired dozens of parodies and, with its cinematic production values, helped propel Ridley towards features.
The chest-burster in Alien (1979) Let’s get one myth out of the way. Of course the cast knew a creature was going to burst from John Hurt’s blameless chest. But they weren’t quite prepared for the blood. Veronica Cartwright’s shock looks genuine.
Rutger Hauer’s final speech in Blade Runner (1982)Hauer improvised the dying lines of android Roy Batty in Scott’s sleeper science-fiction classic. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.” If you say so.
The ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ Apple Mac commercial (1984)Even Mac evangelists find the tone of the commercial, ‘Apple will free you from slavery’, a bit over the top, but it was carried off beautifully. Younger viewers often mistake the supposed totalitarian enemy for Microsoft. The target was IBM, which made the industry-standard PC at the time.
Our heroines drive off the cliff in Thelma Louise (1991)The gender politics never quite made sense. We fight back by killing ourselves? But the scene was a memorable payoff to Scott’s first financial hit in some years. The inspiration for many parodies.
Russell Crowe identifies himself in Gladiator (2000)“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, general of the felix legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius.” Shut up and chop somebody’s head off.
Prometheus opens on Friday