Ridley Scott didn't start making films until he was 40, but he's been cranking out a hugely varied list of hits ever since, from Thelma and Louise to Gladiator. As his new film American Gangster is released on the eve of his 70th birthday, he tells Stephen Moss why he's far from done yet
Rudely, I wanted to begin by asking Ridley Scott about his age. He is 70 this month, but would pass for a gnarled, grizzled, folk-singerish fiftysomething. He emits a curious high-pitched sound when I remind him of the approaching milestone: "Ahhhheeeeeuuuuughhhhhh ..." Without making a song and dance about it, he doesn't think this is a great starting point.
"I'd rather not make too much of it," he says. "It's a youth-orientated business and I seem to be kicking butt more now than I ever was. I'll probably do three films now in 20 months, which is shocking. That's why I don't really want to talk about the milestone. Milestones don't really mean anything to me anyway."
Each of these three back-to-back projects is a massive undertaking - enough, taken together, to keep most directors busy for a decade. He has just completed American Gangster, which opened strongly in the US at the weekend and arrives here next week; he is currently shooting Body of Lies in Morocco "with Leo [DiCaprio] and Russell [Crowe]; a 90-day shoot would be usual, but I'll do it in about 76"; and he is planning Nottingham, a revisionist take on the Robin Hood story to be shot next year, with Crowe (who is becoming a Scott fixture) starring as the sheriff, upholding the law against a dubious bandit hiding out in the woods.
To keep those three multimillion-dollar plates spinning is a remarkable achievement, though Scott managed something similar in 2000-2002 when, outrageously, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down appeared in rapid succession. "I started late," says Scott, by way of explanation. "I didn't make my first movie until I was 40."
Scott has a reputation for grumpiness, but he displays none today, even though he has taken a day off from the Moroccan shoot to fly to London to do this interview. He has both increased his speed of work in the past 10 years - American Gangster is his ninth film since 1996, compared with eight in the previous 25 - and calmed down.
"There are a lot of egos in this business, and I think I've got my ego firmly in place," he says. "The ego is there, but I'm learning to channel it." He is talking specifically about how to handle actors - "I'll always ask them if they want to do another take. They love that. I never say, 'Cut, darlings, new set-up' and all that bullshit" - but it applies more generally. He has survived as a film-maker for 30 years because he knows that good films are a volatile mix of art and diplomacy, vision and production nous, individual idiosyncrasy and studio savvy.
When he arrived in Hollywood to shoot Blade Runner in 1982, after making The Duellists and Alien in Britain, he was edgy and uncertain, he says, as well as ultra-competitive. The Blade Runner shoot was testy - the American crew gave the Limey newcomer a hard time, the studio panicked when the film previewed badly, and Scott allowed them to impose a disastrous voiceover. "There was an insidious deterioration into a platform of jelly," he says. "I got paranoid; I joined the club. It just shows you have to keep your head. That's experience. Now I have to sit and look at this thinking, 'This is not wrong, it's right. They're wrong and I'm right.'"
It has taken him a quarter of a century to get back to his original conception of Blade Runner - a "final cut" is being released on DVD this month to mark the film's 25th anniversary. But he had learned an important lesson which he applied when the less-than-uproarious ending of Thelma and Louise - his heroines plunge to their death in the Grand Canyon - came up for discussion. "Laddy [studio boss Alan Ladd junior] said, 'Can you think of another ending?'" says Scott. "I said, 'No, can you?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Fine.' He said, 'But they drive off the cliff.' I said, 'Do you like it?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'So what are you mucking about for?' He said, 'That car goes down, the hat comes off, it's really depressing.' I said, 'Tell you what, we'll freeze it.'"
A clever adjustment that kept everyone happy without, as on Blade Runner, damaging the film. It is trademark Scott, walking the line between artist and artisan. "I'm very interactive with studios," he says. "I think that's why I'm still there."
On American Gangster, the true-life story of the 70s Harlem drug baron Frank Lucas and the cop who nails him and at the same time cleans up New York's corrupt police department, there was again an issue with the ending. Preview audiences loved the film, but questionnaires showed they would have loved it even more if the ending had been more redemptive - there was an implication in the original that Lucas would offend again. Scott allowed a tweak - the ending is now more neutral - but only, he says, because the test scores "rang a bell" in his head and alerted him to a doubt he already had. On the DVD, he says, the original ending will be included in the extras, so the audience can trace the evolution of the thought. He assumes everyone is as buffish about film as he is.
Scott is a portrait of the artist as pragmatist. On the one hand, he says: "Studios don't put up $100m for me to go and have a good time. I'm going to absolutely bloody respect that, and not say, 'Don't cross that line.'" But he also makes a heartfelt plea for serious film-making to continue at a time when a lot of Hollywood movies increasingly resemble video games. "I try to make films, not movies," he says. "I've never liked the expression 'movie', but it sounds elitist to say that. In England, we used to call them films - or fil-ums where I was from [the north-east]. Movies came over with the GIs. Movies sounded cool, but now movies seem to have taken the place of what constitutes the worst form of ephemera, and that's where you can apply the term, 'It's only a movie'. A good film can sustain its own magic, like a good book, like a good piece of music."
Film can aspire to be art - Scott would make that claim for Blade Runner - but, equally, art must show awareness of its audience. "When a conductor stands in front of an orchestra, that's also entertainment," he says. Film critic David Thomson calls him a "crowd-pleaser", but Scott wants to be more than that. "The warhorses who are really running the Hollywood studios know what is good," he says, "but they also know that they have a bottom line, and they have to address the bottom line. They will, though, occasionally let someone like me go out and do [serious films], so I try to keep my head above water and keep the standard up. I mean it. That's serious. It's very important to me."
American Gangster, a film that grips unrelentingly across its 150-minute span, is far more than just Hollywood pap. Having been written off by some as a mere stylist earlier in his career, a creator of fabulous worlds, Scott is now dealing with this world. But while he says he hopes he is evolving as a director - "I like to think I'm moving, changing all the time, that's part of the job" - he doesn't want to draw a line between the two Scotts. "I can now take a normal world and make it epic," he says.
Scott's ego may now be held in check, but his drive and his obsession with film burn as brightly as ever. He has said he will carry on making films until he drops dead, and he tells me he can never go to sleep until he has watched a film. "I start at 11 and if I'm still watching at 1, that means it's a good film," he says.
Of the golden generation that emerged from the ad business in Britain in the 1970s, he has proved the most durable. "People have no idea how physically tough doing a film is," he says. "I do pretty big movies and you have to drive the bus - that's the job. A lot of people can't deal with all the personnel. My crews average anywhere between 400 and 500 people, but I never even think about it. It's like walking in to an army camp every morning. You have to go, 'Right' [he claps his hands], and everybody moves. You've got to embrace the manpower and embrace your department heads." He makes himself sound more like a CEO than a film director, pushing a large organisation forward while all the time thinking creatively.
He says he strives to make life in the camp exciting as well as strenuous. "If I'm excited, it tends to leak out. I think that's what I'm good at - I'm good at pushing the pace and suddenly everyone is running. It's very easy to do only 10 shots a day. On American Gangster, we were doing 50 set-ups a day. We wouldn't have got through it otherwise. I'd have to do two takes and say, 'That's it.' Denzel or Russell would go, 'One more,' and I'd say, 'OK, let's go.' It's faster to go again than talk about it. I was always fast. Now I'm really fast."
Scott is strangely inarticulate - or, rather, the articulacy comes and goes. He proceeds not through rounded sentences, but via shafts of verbal light. He is clearly a brilliant judge of a script, however - his key contribution to American Gangster was to beef up Crowe's part as the lummox of a cop in pursuit of Denzel Washington's pin-striped drugs baron - but he is not a writer-director. He is a realiser of other people's words and worlds, moving effortlessly between genres. What other director could have made Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal and Matchstick Men?
Scott is a throwback to the studio system in which directors such as Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz, working fast on projects they hadn't originated, could nevertheless produce terrific films. He is not an auteur, but he is far more than just a technician.
"Everyone in this room ought to be in the business of making entertainment," Scott once told an audience at Bafta. But his emphasis has shifted. "I'm uneasy about the word 'auteur'," he says now, "but I do wonder why film-making isn't as legitimate [an artform] as painting. I used to say, 'It's just a movie,' but actually it's not really. A lot of artistic decisions have gone into it."
Scott, who also paints, knows his art. Born in the north-east of England - his accent fuses Geordie with west coast America - he studied graphic design at West Hartlepool College of Art and then the Royal College of Art before joining the BBC as a set designer. "I knew I wanted to be a director when I was about eight," he says, "but I didn't know how on earth I'd get there. Where did they come from? Did they land from Mars? I figured that by getting to be an art director I was halfway along the route, and once I became one I was staring at the reality of these insecure, four-packs-a-day, jugs-of-water-and-beer guys called 'director'. Not all of them were very good, but one or two of them were brilliant."
He bullied the BBC into letting him do a director's course, and was let loose on Z Cars, Softly Softly, The Informer and Adam Adamant, but says he shot himself in the foot at an interview for a director's job on BBC2 by admitting he knew nothing about Shakespeare. The BBC, he implies, was still very Oxbridge and theatre-oriented. Blocked at the Beeb and irritated to be earning only £75 a week, he switched to advertising - "commercials were my film school" - building Ridley Scott Associates into a global player and marrying Hovis to Dvorak with award-winning results.
Ridley Scott shoots a commercial for Chanel on the French Riviera.
The glittering commercials career delayed the move into features, but meant that once he did arrive he was technically fully formed. He still trumpets his first film, The Duellists - "I knew it was a good film. It was criticised for being too pretty, but I didn't really give a shit" - and his second, Alien, was a monster hit that propelled him into the arms of Hollywood. There have been ups and downs since, but he's never gone away. "Life's a river," he says. "It has its bends and overflows; it comes back and shrinks. If you enjoy doing what you're doing, you've just got to keep doing it."
The downs have included several critical and/or commercial failures. Legend, starring Tom Cruise, proved an epic disaster in 1985, but as with Blade Runner, Scott has breathed DVD-inspired life into it by issuing a director's cut and releasing a version with the original score, which had been junked when it tested badly. "People said Legend didn't work," he says, "but I think it does work. I think it's kind of beautiful and spectacular. I just made it 25 years too soon. Now all these films which go under the banner of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter [are like Legend]. I've gone away from that and I thought, 'Damn, I should have made that now.'"
Scott hit another rough patch after the success in 1991 of Thelma and Louise, which won him one of his three best-director Oscar nominations. His other three movies in that decade - 1492: Conquest of Paradise, White Squall and GI Jane - all under-performed. Some suggested that he was on the slide, but the monumental success in 2000 of Gladiator, which won the Oscar for best picture, changed his fortunes, restored the confidence of the studios, and made possible the startling film-a-year run he has enjoyed during this decade.
Gladiator also established his fruitful relationship with Crowe, though the pair got a mauling last year when they essayed the romantic comedy A Good Year. "We had some fun on A Good Year, and even though we got beaten up for it, I still think it's a good movie and I think Russell was excellent in it," says Scott. "He's one of the best, and we seem to know exactly what to do without much exchange now. The waltz is over. The waltz was on Gladiator. We've got the measure of each other now."
Personally, too, the river has not always flowed smoothly for Scott, with two marriages ending in divorce. He had two sons with his first wife and a daughter with his second; all three of his children - Jake, Luke and Jordan - are directors. He is now married to the Costa Rican actress Giannina Facio, who played Mrs Maximus in Gladiator. She doesn't crop up in our conversation, but his younger brother Tony does, on several occasions. Tony, who is six years younger than Ridley, followed his big brother into commercials and then to Hollywood, breaking through with Top Gun in 1986. Tony is "still flying", according to Ridley, who is part admiring, part protective. It is an interesting relationship: highly competitive - "I'm kept on my toes because of Tony, and I know I'm competition for him. He's thinking, 'Holy shit, Ridley's doing another film in March'" - but also very close. They are partners in the film production company Scott Free, and Ridley has in the past described his brother as his first and best critic.
My time is almost up and the Universal publicist keeps coming in trying to call cut. I have managed about two dozen of the hundred or so questions I had drawn up, so I never do get to ask him if seeing Citizen Kane when he was six was his Rosebud moment, whether the Harrison Ford character in Blade Runner really is a replicant, or if the Queen showed any knowledge of his work when she knighted him in 2003. I had planned to make a four-hour masterpiece, but the studio want it brought in at well under an hour and a half. Nothing changes. I console myself with the thought that I will be able to catch Scott again on his 80th birthday, when, no doubt, he will be plugging another half a dozen movies. Sorry, fil-ums.