Toronto Interview: RocknRolla's Mastermind Guy Ritchie
by Alex Billington
October 8, 2008
It may have been a few months back that I screened RocknRolla, but I definitely haven't forgotten it. It's one of my favorite films of the past few months and that's all thanks to Guy Ritchie - the mastermind writer and director behind such previous cult classics as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. After the film premiered up in Toronto, I was lucky enough to catch up with Guy Ritchie for a chat about making movies, RocknRolla, Sherlock Holmes, and even Beowulf. Even if you're not that interested in RocknRolla, delving into the mind of a brilliant filmmaker is always an interesting experience.
One of my favorite aspects of Ritchie's films is always the music, which is why at one point I made sure to ask him about his inspirations. I wanted to focus on his filmmaking style and what he brings to the behind-the-scenes experience that always makes his movies so distinct in their look and feel. I'm a huge Guy Ritchie fan and loved RocknRolla (read my review). I really can't get enough of his movies. I'm even expecting Sherlock Holmes to be fantastic as well. Without any further delay, let's dive in to the interview.
Starting at the base - how did you come up with the idea for the story in RocknRolla?
Guy Ritchie: It was inspired by an amalgamation of ideas. I suppose the real character of this film is London itself, because it's changed so much over the last 20 years. I read an article about some New Yorkers that lived in London for five years and said, "Golly, hasn't London become New York? Someone should make a film about it." At the time I was writing about these different characters. They conspired to work into one film. It was an amalgamation of reasons.
Are there actual people like that that you've met over the years?
Ritchie: I'm always rather surprised. Anyone that lives in an urban environment - how is it that they don't come into contact with characters like this, even if it's arm's length?
Right. What made you decide to turn this into a trilogy?
Ritchie: Because there were so many interesting characters and so many interesting stories that I enjoy telling. People seem to get rather excited about the telling of them. There seems to be a market and enthusiasm from me. It just seems to make sense. As long as people come see them, I'll keep making them.
Did you write it that way to begin with?
Ritchie: No, actually, I don't think I did. I realized as I was writing about it and people kept asking, "Tell me about this character and that character." I came up with the idea of these guys and those guys. Then I realized, let's just make another one. As I was writing out the second one, I went, "Let's just do three." So that's where I was at.
With that cast for RocknRolla, I'm wondering how you came up with Gerard Butler and Tom Wilkinson and everyone in it?
Ritchie: They're all the people that I found most interesting in that world. At the time they were the most interesting actors I thought were most appropriate for the piece.
Was it hard for them to get into the characters that you had written? Did they just naturally go into it?
Ritchie: They seemed to pretty much naturally fit into it. I, as a director, try and steer out of the way and only get involved if I think things are going awry and I don't think the audience is going to be able to enjoy or appreciate what it is that they're doing.
Is it a challenge for you, as the director, to manage so many actors?
Ritchie: To manage the stories, yes, not the actors.
I can imagine - you're shooting out of order and there's all kinds of things going on and it's hard to keep pulling the scenes together.
Ritchie: It is. I think it's impossible to do that without narration. There's just too much going on. Unless someone holds your hand through that, I don't think you'll get through it.
Narration - I guess Gerard Butler was doing it in this one, right?
Ritchie: No. Archie was doing it in this. That was Mark Strong.
You have that in the script, right? That's how you're working through scenes? Or are you working it out during editing?
Ritchie: Yes. It's in the editing that I realized the size of the battle which I've set for myself.
On set is it a challenge when you're shooting specific scenes to keep things together?
Ritchie: No. That's not a challenge. The challenge is making sure they all ducktail together in the end.
How often do you make changes when you're shooting, since this is your own script and story? Is it just scripted and you shoot exactly as you've written?
Ritchie: Pretty much. I'll allow the environment or the circumstance to inform me if any changes need to be made. Often there's happy accidents because of that. I'm not too religious about exactly which route I'll take. As long as I've got a map, that will be my fundamental route. But then if it's informed by detour then as long as I think the detour can work in its favor, then I'm more than happy to embrace it.
Does that go for improv a well?
Ritchie: Absolutely, yes. As long as they give me the road map first and then improvisation thereafter is a welcome input.
Was there a lot of improv in this?
Ritchie: Not a lot, no.
I felt like Gerard's scenes had a lot of that. It just was natural comedy then? Straight from the script?
Ritchie: Mostly from the script, yes.
I have to admit one of my favorite parts of your films is the music. I'm curious how you get into your choices and how you make those choices and where the inspiration comes from?
Ritchie: It's simply me going through loads of DVDs and a nostalgia to the tunes I used to listen to in my youth.
Is it tough to find the right song for the right moment? Do you rotate through a couple?
Ritchie: Yes, it is. Oh, yes. I'll put 10 to 20 songs up to each scene before I find one that I like.
Is there ever a time when you're shooting and you've got the song in mind?
Ritchie: Yes, there is. I've probably done it on 20 percent of the songs - where the songs, I knew I was going to put in there.
Probably the scene with Gerard Butler when he's being attacked in his house. Is that one of them?
Ritchie: That was 22-20s. No, actually. I had put salsa on there originally. But that didn't quite work.
I like the choice that was made there. I think it set up that whole--
Ritchie: That dynamic.
Ritchie: It's funny. I was watching it at the premiere the other night and I realized that was the right choice.
Definitely. Another inspiration question – are there any particular movies that inspire your style or is it just something you do on your own?
Ritchie: I think it's an amalgamation of all the different things that I was influenced by, be that music videos, because that was in my film school, and be that commercials, which was also in my film school, and be that short films, which was also in my film school. Just the directors who were around at that time. I pinched and proliferated concepts from wherever I could.
Say you're here in Toronto - do you see any other shorts or anything?
Ritchie: No. I'm not going to be here long enough.
You're moving on I guess to go shoot Sherlock Holmes, right?
Ritchie: Right. I'm in the middle. I start shooting Sherlock Holmes a month from now. He has no prisoners, I'm afraid.
I can't even suggest anything to you from the festival yet. The only one I've seen that was good was a short from Sam Taylor Wood.
Ritchie: Oh really? I know Sam Taylor Wood.
It was Love You More, if you've heard of it.
Ritchie: No, I haven't.
It was just a 15-minute short about this Buzzcocks song and these kids in 1978. I saw it at Telluride. Out of all the films I saw, it was one of the most memorable things I saw.
Ritchie: Was it really?
Ritchie: She lives a couple streets down from me. I should inquire.
You should. I actually just wrote about it today.
Ritchie: Is she here?
I don't know. I don't know if that short is going to be anywhere in Toronto, since I saw it previously at another festival. I'm not sure. Sorry I don't have the answer.
Ritchie: No, but thanks for telling me. I like that tip. I like to get something out of these interviews as well.
No worries. If I may jump to Sherlock Holmes briefly.
I've been curious whether it will be hyper-stylized and energetic like RocknRolla and your other films.
Ritchie: It will probably be energetic. I think it unlikely to run at the same pace as RocknRolla. But the action, I hope to deliver a fresh approach to some action scenes.
Will it be more character driven? Will it be more action?
Ritchie: No. It's highly motivated by both. In that respect, it will be quite intense, because there is lots of character and lots of action.
Interesting. I'm looking forward to it.
Ritchie: Good. A lot of people seem to be. There seems to be a good following for Sherlock Holmes.
I think you've addressed this previously, but you obviously are not concerned about the comedic version that they're working on as well?
Ritchie: No. Probably quite funny. They're a couple of characters, those two.
Definitely. Do you find it easier to work independently or with a studio?
Ritchie: So far, with a studio.
Ritchie: Yes, so far. It's like having a big brother.
Are there more limitations or do they step in a lot?
Ritchie: Not yet. I suppose, working with Joel -- he allows me my independence anyway. I think I have the best of both worlds.
Exactly. He's the kind of guy that would let you do that, obviously, with his films. What's your take on the independent cinema world at the moment?
Ritchie: It's funny, isn't it? What's your take?
When I was coming up with this question, my original inspiration to ask this was that there was an editor at Variety who wrote that independent cinema is dead.
Ritchie: I don't think it's dead, but its taken a beating.
I don't think it could die, because we wouldn't have film festivals. Things like this wouldn't exist.
But I think it's changing and developing.
Ritchie: Yes. But there's no question it's taken a beating. Independent films don't break out like they used to break out. I don't know why that is. Do you know why that is?
If I had to pitch an idea, I think the big factor is the theatrical world. I see films at festivals that I love and I want to promote them and turn them into the next hit. We do as much as we can. But then their release is limited to New York, LA, something like that. The marketing budget is really low. It doesn't have the ability to take off, even though it should.
Ritchie: It's tough, but it's a significant issue.
I wanted to bring it up, because I think for you and your films, you're on the borderline. I want this to be a wide release, but they're almost saying it shouldn't be. Who determines it?
Ritchie: I don't know. I'm not sure. You're right. I'm on the borderline, because I'm not hot and I'm not a conspicuous commercial film in the obvious sense. So I'm on the borderline. We'll have to wait and see what happens.
Would you return to finish this trilogy after Sherlock Holmes? Do you have a plan for it?
Ritchie: Sure. I've already written it, so as long as people go and see this one I'll be making the next one.
What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
Ritchie: Making the film, directing.
Like shooting on set?
I hear a lot of people tell me editing.
Ritchie: No, directing for me.
If you can, what are your five favorite movies of all time?
Ritchie: I can't.
You can't even name a top one?
Ritchie: Oh, no, no. I change my mind every week. By the time I read this article I'll be thinking, “Oh, I wish I hadn't have said that. I should have said this.”
You can name at least a couple?
Ritchie: No, I can't. That will give me trouble, trouble with me.
How about films that have inspired any part of your life?
Ritchie: You have to ask me some films and I'll have to nod.
Ritchie: Yes, Sergio Leone influenced.
Ritchie: Not an influence. Star Wars is not my cup of tea.
The Pixar film?
Do you like all the Pixar films?
Ritchie: Pretty much, actually.
Ritchie: But The Incredibles is genius.
I hope they make a sequel, for that matter.
Ritchie: Me, too. It's set up for one.
Ritchie: It's the mole, the Underminer or whatever that is.
I thought they put him into a game or something. I don't know.
Ritchie: It was genius. It must have made about a gazillion dollars, too.
Pixar has their whole idea about not making sequels except for Toy Story.
Ritchie: Oh really?
Ritchie: Screw that. Make a sequel!
I know! Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Ritchie: Okay, good. I enjoy doing this game. Keep going.
Ritchie: Interesting, there's some good stuff in there, good set pieces in there. Okay, I'm enjoying this game. I could play this game for hours now.
What about 300?
Ritchie: I thought 300 was great.
Does it inspire much with you?
Ritchie: I like their world, I must say. I thought their world was genius. I thought it was good. Madame du Source and Jean de Florette. Class. All had bad ass movies. Have you seen those two bad boys?
I haven't, no.
Ritchie: Oh, they are fuckin' treats.
Did you like The Dark Knight?
Ritchie: I loved The Dark Knight.
Really? I only could enjoy it in 3D.
Ritchie: I'm telling you, you missed the movie, man.
I saw it in 3D and I saw it a couple times.
Ritchie: You didn't see the movie.
I would have to see it in 2D to see it?
Ritchie: No. You didn't see the movie. That movie is about you. It's about your ego and the dragon is your ego. It's about the hollow victory of the material world. Get into it, brother.
I'll have to watch it again, then.
Ritchie: It's a bad movie. That movie is serious. I've seen it three times. Each time I realize, "Oh, that's deeper." That's deep. That's just about the psychology of man. What movies do you really like right now?
The only two recent movies I saw that I really liked were Slumdog Millionaire and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. Those were both at Telluride.
Ritchie: That's the Korean movie?
Yes. Kung Fu Hustle?
Ritchie: Yeah, I did like Kung Fu Hustle. Then I saw it again. It tickled me the first time.
What about Fincher's movies, like Seven and Fight Club?
Ritchie: Seven was good. Fight Club was pretty fuckin' good, yeah.
Did you like Zodiac?
Ritchie: I didn't see it.
Ritchie: No. It's a good game to play, this game.
I'm trying to think of everything. It's tough.
Ritchie: Beowulf is the bad boy. That's the film I've enjoyed most in the last couple of years. Because it is fucking deep and everyone missed the point. Now I remember why I've seen it twice in IMAX 3D. That was the whole point. The whole point was first of all, King Hrothgar, he's obviously made a deal with his own conceptualized self and Grendel is the consequence of that. Then he realizes that his own vanity is Grendel and he wants to kill his own vanity, because he's hostage to it. It's a hollow victory.
Once he gets rid of that, he passes the horn to the next man with the biggest ego who's also very capable. His ego is proportionate to his ability. He's just more than happy to pump up his own pride and the dragon represents his pride. Going into the bowels, he's going into his own psyche. He makes a deal with his own pride that "I want stories to be told of me for 1,000 years." That is the illusion of victory, that you own nothing and then he has everything but nothing. I loved it. Of course, his ego or his pride comes back to haunt him, the consequences of that. He realized the whole thing was a hollow victory. Then he has to kill himself because he became the dragon.
Now that you explain it that way...
Ritchie: Oh no. I'm telling you, it's unbelievable. It's completely uninteresting until you understand it that way. That's why he jumps off the cliff in the end and because he was the king. The dragon destroys all his subjects. And then his best mate, who's going to become king, then also has temptation come to him in the shape of what's her name with the big tits and the nails -- Angelina Jolie. She is the temptation of pride. So now he's going to be the big maca. Temptation comes to him and says, "Listen, make a deal with me and I'll give you everything." He was the next to be screwed. It's the human dilemma.
That's Neil Gaiman for you I guess.
Ritchie: Neil Diamond?
Gaiman. He wrote--
Ritchie: Yes. The graphic novelist. Apparently. Someone told me he's clever.
He's the one who co-wrote that.
Ritchie: Right. Someone told me he was clever. But also the original story is that story. I take my hat off to those boys.
That's a good inspiration. Or was it just a good movie and it didn't inspire you?
Ritchie: Yes. I think it inspired me. For me, I like Vikings for a start. People running around with big swords and horns on their head.
Were you ever going to make a Viking movie?
Ritchie: Yes. I wanted to make a Viking movie.
Did you have anything on your mind?
Ritchie: I thought I'd tell you. I thought that was the best Viking movie ever.
I seriously enjoyed it, even though a lot of people didn't.
Ritchie: Yes, because they missed the point.
This should be published for people. Now they'll be able to understand that.
Ritchie: You have no idea how many people I've converted to rewatching that movie. If you watch it in that light, it takes on a whole new meaning.
Thanks to Guy Ritchie and everyone at Warner Brothers for putting together this interview. RocknRolla hits theaters this weekend and will spread to more theaters throughout the month of October. It's a fantastic British gangster film that takes us back to Ritchie's roots and is truly an entertaining experience. Be sure to check it out!