You occasionally hear whispers about Ridley Scott not suffering fools gladly. This has not been my experience. He has always endured the current halfwit with enormous good spirits. On a crisp late-autumn day, the director, now an implausible 85, bustles into a London hotel room with the energy of a man half his age. Compact and grizzled, a russet scarf tied about flexing neck, he hasn’t changed much over the past decade or two.
“What’s this thing U2 are doing?” he snaps by way of greeting. “Is it a show or is it a musical or what?” I talk him through what I know of the band’s Las Vegas extravaganza. “I know him a little bit,” he says. (I take “him” to be Bono.) “My eldest son did some videos with him years ago.”
Anyway, never mind Jake Scott. We are here mainly to talk about the elder Scott’s careering, cacophonous take on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Joaquin Phoenix makes a neurotic loon of the dictatorial general in a film that, as well as the expected battles, is much at home to spiky humour. The key coup d’etat is played like a Marx brothers routine. I laughed.
“Thank God! We went for funny,” he says, visibly cheered.
We may as well get quickly to the question every smart-alec journo is putting his way. The parallel between general and film director is often drawn. The larger the project the more that comparison resonates. Both must marshal huge bodies of subordinates. They must work under enormous pressure. Both professions are prone to accusations of megalomania.
Scott’s tireless drive certainly echoes that of the Corsican who bludgeoned his way to power in the blood-drenched aftermath of the French Revolution. He didn’t start directing features until he was nearly 40, but since then he has completed 28 full-length projects. As we speak, he is finishing up the still-untitled sequel to his 2000 smash Gladiator (featuring one P Mescal of Co Kildare).
There have been ups and downs. Raised in South Shields, near Sunderland, Scott began his film career, after a hugely successful stint as an advertising creative in the 1970s, with three undisputed bangers. The Duellists, a gorgeous Joseph Conrad adaptation starring Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine, won an award for best debut at Cannes in 1977. Alien, a smash, and Blade Runner, indifferently received at first, followed straight after.
He then struggled a tad with audiences and critics, but Thelma & Louise, in 1991, was a hit and an Academy Award nominee. Gladiator won best picture at the start of this century – though the still Oscar-free Scott lost best director to Steven Soderbergh – and he has not stopped working. I count another 18 in the can since Gladiator. Blockbusters such as Black Hawk Down, The Martian and American Gangster. Period yarns such as The Last Duel and Kingdom of Heaven. Now Napoleon. Soon Gladiator redux.
So anyway, that comparison with his latest protagonist?
“It goes further back,” he says. “When I was 26 or 27 I was doing so well in commercial advertising. I worked for a company for one year and realised I was the hotshot. I warned them I was going to start my own company. And it just took off. Once you run your own company you have to get sensible. You have to ask who does what and when and how. I start that process early on of having mini board meetings.”
He still works that way?
“I carry that forward into the logic of movies, because movies are so clearly dangerous, so precarious. You’re casting a lot of people you’ve never met before. You’re going to put together a story in a given amount of time. So you had better know what you’re doing. And so must everyone else.”
Prodded further on parallels with Napoleon, he inevitably rubs up against the “strong man” leaders of today. Late in the picture, as the fallen emperor declines on the island of St Helena, he discusses his invasion of Russia with a child. He misremembers. Or he dissembles.
“He is not unlike a present-day politician we know just across the pond who lives on misinformation,” Scott says. “Even at the end he says, ‘Who burned Moscow? I did.’ She says, ‘I’m sorry, sir, the Russians did. It’s public knowledge.’ He’s already into his own sense of victory. Even when he was coming back from Moscow he was writing letters, in the face of starvation and disaster, saying, ‘We’re winning.’”
One thinks of Donald Trump declaring victory after his loss in 2020. “Definitely. And yet he didn’t win. But he had to propagate the idea of being a winner. And you think, Does the politician f**king believe it? They can’t be that stupid.” Well, intelligent people can talk themselves into the wildest delusions. “If you’re that stupid you wouldn’t even get near the f**king Senate.” So is Napoleon the archetypal strongman leader? He has some competition. “Napoleon is the beginning of the real powerhouse – in touch with the real world. He’s not royalty. He’s f**king working class. And he turns himself into royalty. But he never loses that contact.”
It is interesting to hear Sir Ridley, a knight of the British Empire, deliver that last line in a largely unreconstructed Tyneside burr, liberally decorated with dockside language. He has remained a proud son of northeast England. Would the family have seen themselves as working class?
“Well, no. My parents were penniless middle class. Middle to working class. Listen, I do 120 hours a week. So what do you think I am? I think I’m f**king working class, right? In France they say, ‘We have a 33-hour week.’ And you call yourself working class? I did 120 hours this week. So what do you do? That terminology should be thrown away and dropped in the waste-paper basket.”
He goes on to talk me through his father’s complicated professional life. He began working as a shipping clerk for a “man who couldn’t sign his own name”. Scott snr ended up with half the business, and the family moved to a nice semidetached house. Rising to be a brigadier general in the second World War, he later worked on the Marshall Plan in Germany.
“I got this from my dad, being very organised. He was a brilliant movement-control person. He was involved in D-Day. How do you get 250,000 troops through three feet of water? Dad did all that. I watched all that and took it in.”
Scott jnr studied at the Royal College of Art in London with contemporaries such as David Hockney. He moved into set design and, with a borrowed camera, shot a short film featuring his brother Tony – later to direct Top Gun and Crimson Tide – before securing a job at the BBC. He did some set work. He directed early episodes of the influential cop soap Z Cars. But he wasn’t happy.
“The BBC didn’t pay anything,” he says. “After tax, for a live-action TV show, I am earning £80 a week. Even then that was a bit tight. And then I discovered I could do commercials. I could get more in a day than I would get from a month at the BBC.”
There is an argument to be made that, during the arid 1970s, the British film industry retreated to TV and advertising. Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears strived on plays for the BBC. Future Hollywood heroes such as Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker joined Scott making glossier work for the likes of Pepsi, Chanel and – most famously in our interviewee’s case – Hovis. The little bread boy puffing up the hill to Dvorak’s New World Symphony was the most lusciously shot thing on British telly in 1973. Eleven years later, now a star, Scott shot the famous “1984″ commercial for Steve Jobs’s Apple Macintosh.
“So there’s Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and the rest,” he says. “But we were in the front. There really was an invention of style. I think the commercial was an art form at that point. I can run you a reel of commercials that are beautiful – and not just things like Hovis. I did the work for Steve Jobs. My theory is it was a marvellous period of time, because not only were you making money, you were being successful.”
I wonder if he ever resented the fact that critics came to use that background against his generation. Their films were too slick. It was all surface. Such were the arguments. Twenty years later, directors such as David Fincher and Mark Romanek, who began in pop videos, received much the same treatment. What would you expect Scott to say?
“We invented a look for feature films and for the way they were cut,” he says. “Yeah, we changed the look of everything. And so we let that go. Why would we care? I didn’t give a shit.”
I watched Normal People, which is not normally my kind of show, and they were both great. Daisy Edgar-Jones is great too. Reminded me of Debra Winger. Paul Mescal? Look, I am just good at casting. I mean, Sigourney Weaver? I’ll go through the list
Nonetheless, the negative response to Blade Runner in 1982 must have stung just a little. The dystopian epic, starring Harrison Ford as a gumshoe in search of artificial humanoids, wasn’t exactly slammed, but the consensus tended to the lukewarm. The critic Roger Ebert said Blade Runner was “a failure as a story”. In the New Yorker, Pauline Kael parenthetically ventured that “Scott seems to be trapped in his own alleyways, without a map”. It had a healthy enough opening but couldn’t compete with Steven Spielberg’s less fraught, contemporaneous ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Scott won in the end, of course. Blade Runner built up a following and is now established as an unshakeable classic.
“I was doing something that hadn’t been done before,” Scott says. “And I got fed up of explaining what I’m doing. ‘Why is it always dark? Why is it always raining?’ Eventually I just said, ‘Because that’s the way I want it.’ By the time I got to Hollywood I was very successful in my own world. I had done one feature film, which won a prize at Cannes. I had done Alien. I am now in Hollywood and I am getting questioned on all this basic stuff – like I’m a learner. I lost it. I didn’t like it at all. And so I gave as good as I was given. I was certainly not popular. But, you know, at a certain point you don’t really care. I’m not in it to be a friend. I’m in it to get it right. And Blade Runner was probably the best experience I’ve had working on a script.”
By the end of the 1980s, Tony Scott, his younger brother, had arrived in Hollywood and looked in danger of eclipsing Ridley. The latter’s Legend and Someone to Watch Over Me struggled to interest audiences. Top Gun, in contrast, was the highest-grossing film of 1986. The two look to have maintained a fruitful partnership right until Tony’s suicide, in 2012. Scott Free, their production company, is one of the busiest units in Hollywood. As well as producing the brothers’ films, it was behind hit TV series such as The Good Wife and The Terror. Still, there must, at least, have been friendly rivalry back at the start.
“He and I would never conflict,” Scott says. “He would never do a certain kind of film. He would never do a period piece. He would never do science fiction. I was trying to get him to do science fiction. He did Top Gun and he did Beverly Hills Cop . I did The Duellists. I did Alien, Blade Runner and Legend. My first four movies. Only one of them was successful. The other three are as good as anything anyone’s ever made – in my opinion. Blade Runner is the most significant science fiction ever made, because it’s been the most influential. Everywhere still it’s an influence. So you don’t look on box office necessarily as success.”
And Tony didn’t resent that Ridley was the one who ended up with the Oscar nominations?
“Oh, no, no. I made a film with Tony called Boy and a Bicycle that cost £65,” he says wistfully. “I ruined his summer. I said, ‘Get out of bed. We’re going to make a movie.’ Making movies was a universe we couldn’t understand. But for some reason I felt I had it in me to make a movie.”
So here we are. It is hard to think of another mainstream director who has been so prolific for so long. Woody Allen springs to mind, but he makes films on a much smaller scale. There is (for all his sweary lack of pretension) something of an old-school showman about Scott. Deep into his ninth decade, he still has the swagger of a John Ford or a John Huston. He does a decent job of analysing the motivation behind his drive. There is obviously a lot of his dad in there. It matters that he didn’t emerge from the southern-English establishment. He enjoys proving detractors wrong. All that noted, he surely could afford to slow down a little. Eighteen films in this century alone?
He chuckles as he jumps in to remind me of all the TV shows he’s done in that time. I point out that I really wasn’t questioning his work ethic. How could you? He is already back working on the film that won’t actually be called Gladiator 2. What does he make of Mescal?
“Fantastic, fantastic!” Scott says. “I watched Normal People, which is not normally my kind of show, and they were both great. The girl” – Daisy Edgar-Jones – “is great too. Reminded me of Debra Winger. Paul? Look, I am just good at casting. I mean, Sigourney Weaver? I’ll go through the list. When I cast Harrison Ford, ‘the money’ said, ‘Who the hell is Harrison Ford?’ I said, ‘He’s the guy flying the Millennium Falcon.’ ‘Oh, yeah.’ ‘But, more than that, he’s now doing a film with George Lucas called Indiana Jones.’ Ha ha!”
How did it take him so long to get around to making a film about Napoleon? The Duellists was set during the Napoleonic wars. The reach and ambition of the new film are very much what we expect of Scott. Magnificent battles. Grand heroics. Another strong female performance (following Weaver in Alien, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise, and Jodie Comer in The Last Duel) from Vanessa Kirby as Josephine. It seems it was indeed a glimpse of his first film that edged him in this direction.
“I’m like a kid in the playpen: ‘I like that green toy. Now I like the pink one.’ The plan is there is no plan. It is intuitive. I saw The Duellists was running on some platform and I thought I’d watch it. And it’s beautiful.”
The wistful final scene finds Keitel gazing at a wide landscape like the subject of a Caspar David Friedrich painting.
“I saw that and thought, Napoleon! I just go for it. I just get stuck in.”
Napoleon is in cinemas from Wednesday, November 22nd