When we met Ridley Scott in a plush London hotel one September afternoon, the director was relaxed and jovial. And well he should be; his latest film, The Martian, has already garnering glowing notices, and for our money, it’s Scott’s best film in years. The story of astronaut Mark Watney, and his struggles to survive alone and hungry on the hostile surface of Mars, is full of humor, drama and eye-popping visuals.
As the film is set to open this week, we were lucky enough to talk to Scott about all kinds of movies from his voluminous body of work, including Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, The Counselor and lots more, all leading up to his plans for the three Prometheus movies he wants to make, and finally, his thoughts on director Denis Villeneuve’s belated follow-up to the classic Blade Runner.
Congratulations on a great film.
Fun, isn’t it?
What I liked is that it has such a humane, uplifting tone. There aren’t any villains in it as such.
Well, Mars is a killer – but that’s it.
Yeah, it’s a cold, uncaring universe.
It’s a beautiful, beautiful monster. I wanted Mars to be as spectacular as possible, in that you think you can walk outside. But don’t try it!
I was thinking about your other movies: Prometheus, The Counsellor, even Exodus; there’s a certain existential angst in those.
Fearing death, trying to cheat death, and not always succeeding.
I think The Counselor is particularly stressful, but that’s the point. It’s one of my favorite movies. I’m not like that. I can do it, and Cormac McCarthy is a little like that. But it’s the best screenplay I’ve ever had, in a way. Other than this one – but this one’s different. This is optimistic. Cormac is the real dark side of the moon. It’s about loss, tragic loss. You pay for everything.
The lead character, the Counselor, he reminds me of Roy Batty in Blade Runner. He wants more time, he wants more time.
Sure. It’s almost Kafkaesque. But I loved it. Fassbender got it in three seconds. He said, “Christ, this is the best screenplay I’ve ever read.”
I just spoke to Drew Goddard, and he says this film [The Martian] really sums you up in terms of its positivity.
Yeah. I can do dark things, but I’m pretty cheerful. That’s why I was able to do Thelma [And Louise] – I think the writer expected something different. Something more serious. I read it – same material, I didn’t alter it or anything – but I just thought it was really funny. Comical. But by doing that, you reach more people. If you do dark and serious, you lose 50 percent. I felt it was a film that needed to be seen. Get out there. We got a Time Magazine cover, which I thought was very interesting. Way more reaction than I was expecting, because I was taking the problems of male-female, feminisation, as normal, natural, I’d never even thought about it. So when I was doing it, I was a little bit naive. But yeah. I like Matchstick Men. That’s funny. I like A Good Year.
But [The Martian] sums me up in a way, because it’s dramatic, it has action, but it’s amusing above all things. The most important thing is the power of the humor, and the humor leads to, connects very directly to [Mark Whatney’s] control of his fear. Therefore, that control of fear is the ultimate sign of courage, really. That’s the right stuff, isn’t it?
If you’re fearless, you’re either a bit of an idiot. If you’re fearful, but you control it, then you’re truly courageous.
That makes sense! Did you see something of yourself in Mark Watney, in his ferocious work ethic? You’re clearly a hard worker yourself.
Yeah, I don’t really stop. Whatever I do, I’m on. But it’s life isn’t it? We’re not here for that long. I don’t feel vulnerable in any way. I’m lucky in that I’m in good health and the brain’s still going. No, seriously! A lot of it is how you look after yourself, but a lot of it is also luck. Flat out luck. So working, in a funny kind of way, is a health factor. I think it’s healthier.
My dad retired five years younger than me. Retirees are retiring at 50. 60. What the hell are you going to do? I don’t know. Pff! It’s unthinkable for me to retire. That’s why I love Clint [Eastwood], who’s in his 80s and has already finished his next movie. God, he’s faster than I am! Woody Allen – love it.
I still sense a huge amount of creative glee in your films.
There is! Yes.
The plagues in Exodus, for example. I got the sense that your imagination was running wild there.
Yes! I like the competition. You create a competition with yourself. I’m very competitive. Very. I look around and think, I’ve got to raise the bar. That’s what we do. If we can all raise the bar in everything we do, isn’t that better? I try and raise the bar every time I do a movie, and a part of that is not to repeat yourself. It’s an internal ego, not an external ego.
Drew was telling me about how much he loves Alien and Blade Runner. How he wanted to pick your brains about how you made them and things like that. I wondered what it’s like for you working with people who’ve grown up loving your movies.
I try to make it as normal as possible! And it is normal, because I’ve sat there thinking, one evening, “What am I going to do?”
I think I’m blessed by the fact that I can draw. I’ve got an inner eye, definitely. At first I wasn’t aware of it, and then after 2,000 commercials, there was a reason I was so busy. I was the most visual of all directors. That’s why I was so flat-out successful, frankly. That’s why I never did a film until I was 40.
I didn’t start filming until I was 40. I certainly appreciated what I had, and I started to acknowledge it, embrace it, and use it. I think visually. But I’m good with words, and I’m helpful with writers because I’ll talk to them visually when I’m working. They love the fact that I’ll be discussing the visual possibilities, because there may be something they hadn’t thought of.
Do you think we’ll see a book of your Ridleygrams one day?
Yeah. Funnily enough, I give a whole bunch of stuff to the USC. That’s 400 boxes of stuff. And they keep it in their archives, and it’s there foreever, you know? But I keep all my storyboards. The storyboards for one film will be this thick [indicates a six-inch pile on the coffee table]. I always keep continuity scripts because they are the final document. I’ve got the continuity script from Alien which is covered in blood!
From the chestburster sequence.
From the chestburster sequence. The burster hit the continuity editor, she dropped the book. There was blood everywhere. We managed to unstick the pages and we kept it. Fantastic. Also, every page has got polaroids stuck in it of the moment. Wow! It’s amazing. So I keep certain artefacts, just out of memory now. But they’re worth something.
I should say so. You did two classic science fiction films, then you took a lengthy break from the genre, and now you’re back. Are you glad to be working in the genre again?
Yeah. I did what I thought was a normal, Napoleonic film. Then I did sci-fi, sci-fi. The second one, Blade Runner, was a disaster. It didn’t play. People didn’t get it. I was way ahead, is what I think it was. I knew it was really good. I just thought, “What the hell? They just don’t get it.” That was when I learned to move on and not read press. Don’t read press. You can’t read press – it’ll destroy you.
So then I did Legend. Legend wasn’t good either! Yet Legend still plays today. And again, I was ahead. But at the end of that, somebody said to me, “Why don’t you come to your senses and do something normal?” [Laughs] I said, “I thought that was normal!” So I went off and did a very nice little film called Someone To Watch Over Me.
Yes, with Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers.
Then I did various small movies. The one about the sea… White Squall. I really loved that. And then I gradually started to drift back in. Thelma And Louise was me dipping my toe into the water of normality, but with a real cause there. But I started to expand what I really knew, so I started to trust my visuals. I knew it had to be an odyssey. Because technically it’s the last journey of these women. So it’s an odyssey, to be pretentious about it. But that’s why it’s kind of epic in a funny kind of way, you know? It’s my job to make things epic if I can, because people like that. They like to be taken out of their seats and follow you into the script.
I heard yesterday that Prometheus 2 is actually called Alien: Paradise Lost. That’s the final title, is it?
It’s a subtext. Because where we go to is Paradise Lost, really.
So it’s Miltonian…
Yeah. Did you ever read it?
Yes, I did.
Wow. The handsome guy gets all the fun and all the girls, doesn’t he? And he’s the evil son of a bitch! He’s the good-looking one who gets all the girls and goes to all the nightclubs. The good one is kind of dull and depressing! [Laughs] So in a funny sort of way, it touches on that. It’s too simplistic to call the bad element in [Alien: Paradise Lost] evil, but it’s closer to answering the question, who and why would any being create such a monster, and for what reason? There was a reason for that, right?
And you’re directing that yourself?
I’m starting at the beginning of March.
Are you going to direct all the sequels yourself, do you think?
[Mischievously] This time? Definitely. Last time I should have done it.
You did want to do Aliens, didn’t you.
Well, I didn’t know that it was happening. I was fine with it. I just thought, “Welcome to Hollywood” and got on with it. I didn’t know. I was the last to know! Funny, isn’t it?
It’s the way things go in the industry I guess. You said with Blade Runner, it wasn’t accepted at the time, but it’s built and built. You can’t predict.
It grew out of rock and roll bands, definitely. It grew out of MTV. Isn’t it musicians and those kinds of guys who get things more quickly than other people? I always remember seeing videos for various groups and going “Oh!” Because I used to watch MTV. I used to prefer it then, because they would film things, where they’d find an interesting director who’d partner with the band. The band would be in it, but it wasn’t just performance. Of course performance is wonderful, but I think people in bands are often quite good actors. And I suddenly thought, “Oh, that looks like Blade Runner,” but it wasn’t. It started to happen – I realised it was a huge influence on other filmmakers. It was finally voiced when, about 20 years ago, the Santa Monica Film Festival asked for Blade Runner to open it.
I went, “Ehh?”
They asked Warner Bros for a print, and Warners had lost the print. They didn’t know where it was. They’d lost the negative. Then someone opened a draw and found a copy. What it was was a cutting copy without titles on it, and half the music was Jerry Goldsmith’s, because I’d just worked with Jerry on Alien. There were also bits of temp track from Vangelis. It was without voiceover, and with no silly ending driving into the mountains. It was the cut where I really thought I’d got it; it ends with Harrison gazing at the piece of origami, then joining Rachel.Close the door – it’s film noir. And it went wild. The whole thing woke up.
That was 1992, wasn’t it?
That’s it. I spent the last two years writing what will be a sequel, and it’s done. I’m not doing it. Denis Villeneuve’s doing it, which I think is a good choice. Harrison [Ford] is in, and the other person – I’m not certain yet, but… I shouldn’t say who. But there’s somebody else who’s very good, very interesting. I think Ryan Gosling is probably going to do it, with Harrison.
Right. So Ryan Gosling’s the central character, and…
Yeah, yeah. I can’t really say more than that, because it’ll give away the story. But Harrison’s definitely in it. In an important way.
I love Denis Villeneuve’s films, but I just wondered what specific quality makes him right for this.
I saw Sicario recently. I thought that was the best so far. I like some of the stuff he’s done: Prisoners was really interesting. The film before that… I can’t remember what the hell it was.
Yeah, Incendies. I thought that was interesting. It’s a hard one. I asked somebody before, who I thought would be right [to direct the Blade Runner sequel] – I would rather not say who it is. He just said, “I’m not going to do that. I’m never going to follow through on that.”
It’ll be a tough act to follow, won’t it?
Yeah, it’s a tough call. We’ll see! But I’m being as helpful as possible.
With that, our time is sadly up. Ridley Scott, thank you very much.
The Martian is out in cinemas on October 2nd.