Back to the future
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.”