Interview: Ridley Scott on Returning to Sci-Fi, Hollywood, 3D & More
by Alex Billington
June 8, 2012
"All I was doing was turning the chapter, not opening the door." There is nothing like an interview with the master himself, legendary director Ridley Scott. I was nervous going in, but did my best to come up with some good questions, and fired away. Last week I was invited to sit down for a solid 20 minutes with Ridley Scott, director of Prometheus, who's out doing interviews for the film. The topic on my mind was one that I had been curious about for a while - why return to sci-fi now? Not only did we talk about that, but we talked about science fiction in general, his opinion on 3D and the R rating. I've split the full video into two.
It's still unreal to even think that I just came from an interview with Ridley Scott, the man behind Gladiator, Blade Runner, Alien, American Gangster, some of my all-time favorites. Honestly, even 20 minutes wasn't enough, as I barely got through a few of my questions and I felt like we could've kept talking for hours. I just wanted to hear what he had to say about various elements of Prometheus, and he even drops a few hints about what he's doing with the new Blade Runner movie part of the way through the second video. In the start of the first one, he was already talking about the global film marketplace, and we continue from there…
Watch my first video interview segment, Part 1, with Prometheus director Ridley Scott, shot in London:
Watch my second interview segment, Part 2, with Prometheus director Ridley Scott, shot in London:
Both of these were shot on my Flip, apologies for the framing. They're mostly spoiler free. A big Thank you to Ridley Scott, Katherine Rowe and 20th Century Fox for this incredible opportunity, I am very lucky and humbled to even be able to speak with him. Of course, I wish I had even more time. We covered as many of my questions as I could, and I enjoyed hearing his answers. I wanted to ask him about other projects, more about his involvement in the viral marketing, as well as visual effects; hopefully in a future interview I'll have time to cover more of this. Prometheus is undeniably a visually spectacular and engaging movie, and I think that's due in large part to Ridley and the vision he brought to it. Happy to talk with him about it.
Ridley Scott's Prometheus, his first science fiction since Blade Runner in 1982, finally arrives in US theaters on June 8th, this weekend. It's definitely worth seeing in theaters even in 3D. Once you see it, Sound Off!
Provided here is the full text transcription of Alex's video interview with Ridley Scott, as seen above:
Ridley Scott: What I was saying in there, that I really believe the globality of the world marketplace is really changing. It's changed. It is now an acceptable 60%. That's what it is. Then out of that I think there's a lot of new money in Europe. There's a lot of money around still, even though everything's collapsing. There's still a lot of investors wondering what to invest in. And, of course, I think entertainment looks attractive when you read the few films that make these insane amounts of money. What they don't know is they don't always do that.
I was going to say, I see a lot of investments that go into big projects that don't go anywhere.
Scott: But that means you've got to get, if you can, the right group. There's a level, in talking about it as a business side, that sometimes is not necessarily the box office. If it does fine at the box office, that's okay. But if it's good, it will play for years on television, reissuing of DVDs… So there's an industry just in that. To a certain extent, a lot of [the studios'] revenue comes from that over the years.
Even Blade Runner wasn't a box office success, but I mean look at what it's done since!
Scott: I don't know who made the money? I never made nothing. I gave it all away. I had to, to make it. The important thing to do was make it.
I want to ask, and that's sort of the perfect segue, why now for you to return to sci-fi? What was it that made this the right time and this the right project?
Scott: Honestly, I didn't really… Well, initially, I was very disappointed with the performance of Blade Runner, in terms of it didn't play, people were confused. So when they are confused en mass, you start to think that actually they're right. Therefore, I occasionally would look at again thinking, "This doesn't age. This is Dorian Gray. It just keeps sitting there…" and I think, actually, it's pretty good. So every time I re-looked at it, in those days this was beyond video tape, occasionally I would be asked to check a print because they are trying to keep it alive. Then I was told, ironically, that actually this was a film that was going to go into the Library of Congress, and would I go in and actually supervise the reprint for them. And in Library of Congress, I was told, you will be able to look at this film in 200 years time. But what you have to do is keep supplementing or renewing the technology.
So that was the first clue. I went, "Ah, Library of Congress!" I said, "Yeah." Then I learned it was actually the second most requested in the Warner library. I think we are right behind… Maltese Falcon!
You guys are right behind Maltese Falcon?!
Scott: Yeah. They were one, we were two. I said, "Wow." I realized that something was up. So, what had happened, it became a classic before it came out by accident on a Santa Monica Film Festival, where somebody had asked for a print of Blade Runner by request, because there was a lot of underground movement to actually see it. And somebody at the studio took it out and looked at it and just sent it, never checked it. Does that tell you anything?
When it arrived… it was a 35mm print. It arrived without titles on the front, and its got some of Jerry Goldsmith's music on it. Its got some of Vangelis' music on it. And what it was was a longer cut, of my version.
That they had just found?
Scott: They just didn't check on the shelves and just took it off the shelves… wasn't even labeled properly. And from that, it was like an earthquake of a reaction. That's what actually reset it and brought it to life. That's now 10, 14 years ago.
And that sort of reignited your sci-fi interest in a sense?
Scott: In a way, yeah. Because I always thought, I was right, I liked it, but okay, so I'm wrong. Then I started to rethink about it… and people kept saying, "Why don't you do a science fiction movie?" And then I had thought about Alien, thinking, "If I do Alien again, which it seemed to be a good thing…" The franchise itself has now had enough. It's done. And I believe the alien is cooked. You can't show that again. He's no longer frightening. That's why, to me, the first one was always the most frightening, because he was remarkably unique. He was wonderful.
So there was one huge question in the very first one that I'd been concerned about at the time… so I tried not to answer all the questions… Who is the big guy in the seat? No one ever asked the question. So I just kept thinking about that, thinking, "You know, if that wasn't a skeleton, it was something else. We can actually have it open…" And suddenly, you open a door. So I went and saw Tom Rothman, actually pretty recently, about three years ago saying, "You know what? We can re-reopen this door, if you like." He said, "Of course." So then we get into it, we had R&D, and suddenly, this is where we are right now.
I would say sci-fi, to me, gives filmmakers a chance to explore the technological elements of filmmaking and push them in a sense. Even just looking at Avatar and the way that that pushed technology.
Scott: Oh, he raised the bar.
Yeah. And I feel like sci-fi particularly allows you to do that.
Scott: Should do that. If you can, it should do that. I think it should also… because it's enabling. It's an enabling gift. And being able to say, "Well, anything goes," that's also very dangerous. "Anything goes" becomes rubbish if you don't watch it. And, therefore, you've still got to create your own parameters for the three act play. You've got to step up and create your rulebook, because otherwise it's silly.
That's always been my problem with most films, unless they are reality based. And funny enough, a reality based film, oddly enough, is a little more easier. Doing science fiction at a high level is tricky. It's really tricky. History is straightforward, because I'm probably retelling a story and I've got points of reference. Science fiction, there's no points of reference; it's all brand new. But that's also what makes it interesting. That's what makes it fabulous is that anything goes.
You mentioned this, the idea of the space jockey, asking the question about it. Sometimes people think with certain sci-fi movies, even Blade Runner, that the ambiguity of it actually makes it better. That the fact that the question exists and isn't answered makes it interesting.
Scott: Yeah, more interesting.
Were you concerned about answering that question and it being too much of an answer?
Scott: In this one?
Yeah, with Prometheus and answering the Alien question.
Scott: No, because all I was doing was turning the chapter, not opening the door. Because why would that creature have a cargo like that? What was his intention? I always used to call it a "battleship". You know, the old beautiful ship, the croissant. I call it the croissant. But it's kind of unique; it's pretty cool. I was never happy about the layout of the eggs on the floor, but that's where it was when we did it at the time. And when we actually built the eggs, they were kind of sitting in rows, a bit like pineapples. It was a specific layout. So, clearly this was a hold for some reason.
And so, you may as well open it up and say, "Well, it's that and it's deadly." Then the biggest question becomes why and who would conceive of these things, and where were they going? It's a whole new story.
Well, I have to compliment the writers as well. They sort of crafted the whole new story and also introduced a number of new questions which can be thought out in many different ways, planted new pieces…
Scott: Well, I think what's pretty good about it is the fact that we don't… we tell enough but not too much. So, at the very end when she says to… David says to her, "I think I can find our way to go home." And she says, "Well, I don't want to go back to where I came from. I want to go where they came from." That is kind of in a funny kind of idealistic, simplistic storytelling in film terms, I think honestly, in the best sense. You don't want to elaborate any more than that. And then they're off and running, because it's taught by what I think is a terrific moment when she says, "Do you mind?" and she puts his head in the bag. She's never going to put his head on top of that body. Because when she does, he'll become deadly again.
I also like that point of humor at that point in the story. Then it ends with: "I'm still searching." You don't ask, "How is she going to live? She isn't going to sleep? What's she going to feed on? What's she going to drink?" You can get into all that, but that becomes Robinson Crusoe, that's another film.
How much did you edit this down? I recognized at least one scene in the trailer that I didn't see. I'm wondering if there was more to it, if it was a longer movie, if there are more of these questions that you're saying are in it that were answered but you made sure not to answer.
Scott: Longer scenes. They were longer… I mean fundamentally, they were longer scenes, and where we got in too deep… I think the running time… It's not so much the running time. It's the… fundamentally, you've got one hour introducing elements and everything and this and that before anything then significant physically kicks in. So I thought, "That's enough." Because in the original Alien there was 47 minutes where nothing happened until John Hurt looks into the egg and says, "I think…" And then you say, "Don't look in the egg!" And then it kicks off and starts into its own engine.
There's about an hour on this one. And I thought that was time enough. When you are philosophizing about the reason for life, faith, God, it's always tricky, because you don't want to get into long dissertations. And the trick of filming, which I think is really sort of wonderful about filming, you can actually have a conversation between a father and a daughter, and she says, "How do you know it's beautiful?" He says, "It's what I believe, Ellie. What do you believe?" And she looks off at this guy who is in her cyber-sleep that shouldn't be there. Then you are off and running. So now you know there's a person who fundamentally has faith in the hereafter, or certainly has faith in her maker, that she believes in God.
Well the idea of faith and how it plays into this story is very important, especially in relation to the world and what the audience that you are going to be playing to believes in.
Scott: Interestingly, everyone picks up on that. They like it. They like the question that's laid in there because it's a bit like sidestepping the question of God; like God is a dirty word. "Oh do you believe in God?" He says yes. "Well how does that work?" How do you mean? "Well, you're about clarity - crystal clear thinking. And God is amorphous and comes under the guise of faith. What does that mean? You simply believe? Where's your proof?" "I haven't got proof." That's a counterpoint to science.
That's almost getting into what makes science fiction as a genre so fascinating in general, is that it deals with sort of futuristic, big bold ideas but also grounds them in a reality of what normal people think about…
Scott: Yeah, as long as you make it really work when you come up with a big idea… I mean, I'm working on Blade Runner right now and we have a very good three act notion of what we're going to do. But in that, there's already some big single ideas. It's not even do with the story, except saying "What happens if you have…" I can't say what it is because it will give away the… But, if I can pay for this and I can have it in the room, and it's completely cyber, how deep can that relationship go? In my world—anything you want—it just becomes more expensive. Can the cyber thing have feelings for you? We don't know because it depends on how sophisticated it is. And it also depends on how well you treat them.
So you are re-polishing the whole notion of artificial creation, and that can become a serious relationship. So suddenly I'm thinking the end of the movie, and a guy goes off with somebody who completely doesn't exist. It's spooky, but you know. That's the way I think. And they go, "Oh, that's a good idea." So that goes down vaguely at the end of the first act. We don't know how or why, but he's got to go home. And when he goes in he has a bottle of Scotch and away he goes.
I think in this one, the idea to have David was not just essential… it was not just useful, it was essential. And, therefore, don't hide the fact that he's a… don't make him a revelation. Robots aren't revelations anymore. Better to say, "That's a really strange fella. What the fuck is he?" And finally, Weyland says, "My favorite son, but he has no soul. He'll have endless life…" So in a very matter of fact way, we are talking about a creation. So now you are comfortable with that, and that's when he starts to… so that's all dramatic planning.
Going into this, did you feel you needed to make it R rated? Did you feel that rating was essential to sci-fi, in a way, not being limited by some sort of rating?
Scott: No, no, no. I think sci-fi can easily be PG. Just that the elements that are starting to come in it, which are very strong things - what happens to her? She becomes pregnant, etc. How do you deal with that? I mean doing Hannibal, that was just truly a little bit sick. But it was in the book. And I thought it was actually, honestly, really funny.
When you think about it, because Ray Liotta did a great job in that, he starts singing days, he's got the top of his head off… then you've got to go the next step. You've got to take a piece, cook it, and feed it to him. That, I'm sorry, that's funny. People go, "Oh my God!" But I thought it was pretty funny. I think quite eloquently funny. It's not even violent, because when you go further and he sits next to a kid on a plane. He says, "What do you want?" The kid says, "That." He says, "My, my, you are an interesting child" and gives him the brain.
It's hard writing screenplays.
I also want to compliment you on your use of practical sets, especially in relation to sci-fi, because it's the trend nowadays to do CG everywhere. But I love what we see in this movie. Visually, I think it's fantastic, and breathtaking. Do you think this could possibly inspire Hollywood to go back in that direction, go back to the roots of what made sci-fi so great to begin with, your original sets?
Scott: Well, Hollywood is… because of the nature of the beast… and I'm not being denigrating in anything I say. I'm not being bitchy, I'm just saying it as it is. I think people copy.
Scott: They're going to do a film, they actually have one of Tony's film running in a prep meeting saying, "We're going to have it like that." Seriously. So it's like, "What?" So if you tend to be an originator, which I think I am… I try to be… because that's in my nature. It's not competitive. It's just like I can't do that again, I've got to do something else. So you're always trying to think of another field. Then you set that up, it becomes, to a certain degree, a standard. This is not showing off, it just is what it is, because Blade Runner was so copied over the years in every rock ‘n roll video forever, you know. And it set the state and pace of grunge, really. It affected fashion, architecture, etc. And that's really cool. That's good to do that. I think you've just got to keep doing it. So yeah, of course it's going to be emulated.
What about 3D and if you feel like that's… trying to push technology and do something original, but apply it to this story and this world…
Scott: No, 3D to me was just a curiosity. I've seen enough of 3D to make it, "Yeah, that's interesting." I mean, specifically Jim Cameron's, which is the absolute use of 3D in the best possible way. Everything else the story tends to flag a little bit. So the 3D becomes the actual reason to see it rather than the story. What Jim got right was the reason to see the film was the story, which is enhanced by novice digital work. That should be the way around it, otherwise you will get bored. You will get bored.
You know, because going to the cinema is expensive, when you take the kids and everybody. In a heartbeat it costs a couple hundred dollars, right? I'm not being—a couple hundred dollars is a lot of a lot of money! Then they walk out having not really enjoyed it. It was okay… It's a pity. I think we should be much more leaning in the direction of get it written, get it written, get it written. Be specific about it.
I wanted to ask about, specifically with Prometheus, balancing of the ensemble cast, and how many different characters you have, and how you focus on the strong females, yet also have an android character, yet also have the strong captain character, and everyone who plays into it, how you balance from a directing standpoint.
Scott: You get there eventually. I started by having no formal training whatsoever. There's no film school. My film school became… I just got ahead of the evolution in this country of television commercials. So in a way I was lucky. And I was also one of the big ones. I think I must have done 2,000 commercials, personally, in my time. Therefore, so by the time I get to do my first film, I mean it's pretty straightforward. I'm so relaxed about doing The Duellists, I'm able to really address the narrative because I'm very aware now that I'm not doing 30 seconds, I'm not doing a minute, I'm doing two hours or thereabouts. Therefore, I'm really into real performances.
I had had enough taste at BBC of doing a tiny bit of directing drama; I did two TV shows and then two TV shows at independent television. Then I discovered advertising and I went for the money. Advertising paid so much better. It was like 14 times more than I was getting paid at BBC. So I learned doing it. When you are doing commercials, you're not really talking about performances ever. It's very much a physical thing and you are talking such short visual bites. So there's not really much chance to practice.
So I didn't really start practicing with actors till The Duellists. So it was… in the evolution of where I am today, I found the best thing to do is actually: cast it really, really well. And then once you cast it really, really well, then hopefully you've created a situation where you are able to talk to the person, the actor/actors. Once you talk to the person, you better have some kind of bond with them, because then once you hit that floor where you've suddenly got 300 people staring at you every morning, you're going to need all the help you can from your cast. So I kinda tend to work as a team with them, but I cast them really well.
Of course. I would say it works. I love the cast in all of your movies.
Scott: By the way, they love it as well. They feel part of it, rather than saying, "Ready, darling, action." "No, let's do that again." I don't do that. No.
Thank you for your time. I very much appreciate it.
That's all for the complete transcript. Thank you for reading the interview, I hope you enjoyed what Ridley Scott had to say about Prometheus! It was amazing to interview him, and I felt like we covered great topics.