For a British guy, Ridley Scott has crafted a career with a surprisingly Hollywood arc. Years spent making flashy commercials. A major film breakthrough, complete with attendant praise. A painful fall from grace. And now, with back-to-back Best Director nominations for Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, redemption. At age 64, Scott has evolved into one of the premier directors of his generation — known for beautiful, risky movies that can transport audiences anywhere from the ornate past to the immediate present to the grim near-future.
Chewing on one of his trademark Montecristos in the Beverly Hills office of his commercial production company, the director reflects on his eclectic filmography.
THE DUELLISTS (1978) Originally conceived as a TV movie, this adaptation of a Joseph Conrad story was pitched by Scott at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. On the Riviera a year later, he accepted best first film honors for the vivid period drama, starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as Napoleon-era military men locked in a blood feud. ”Funnily enough, the thing I wanted to do was [Conrad’s] Heart of Darkness, which I naively went after. Oops! I quickly had an avalanche of people telling me ‘Uh, Ridley, [Francis Ford] Coppola already has that one.’ In the end, Paramount didn’t know what to do with the movie. I think they only made seven prints. But what did I know? I thought that was great.”
ALIEN (1979) Not only did the terrifying sci-fi horror movie launch Sigourney Weaver’s career, a major franchise, and countless imitators, but the beastie conjured up by conceptual artist H.R. Giger would leave an indelible mark on movie culture — mostly due to the infamous scene in which it explodes out of John Hurt’s chest. ”None of the cast knew what it would look like, except John. And poor old John was bent in an S shape under the table while we were prepping the scene. He was miserable and we kept feeding him white wine to keep him happy. By the time we shot, he was plastered! We screwed a fake chest on top of him, and somehow our tech guy squashed under the table with [the creature] ready to pop up. After I called ‘Cut!’ and all the screaming and yelling died down, there was just dead silence and a few whispered ‘motherf — -ers.’ I never went back to it. That was the one take.”
BLADE RUNNER (1982) After an abortive attempt to mount Dune, Scott turned to an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? starring Harrison Ford. Now it’s considered a cult classic, but 20 years ago, test audiences hated Blade Runner, prompting Warner Bros. to request a new ending that would have Ford’s Rick Deckard escape into pristine wilderness with his ”replicant” lover (Sean Young). Scott added some footage he assumed the studio would hate. To his horror, the test scores increased with the new finale, which was added to the theatrical release. ”Stanley Kubrick would just call me out of the blue back then. I didn’t really know him at all, but he called about Duellists and later Alien. So I called him up and asked for help. I said, ‘I know you don’t fly.’ And he said, ‘That’s absolutely right.’ And I said, ‘So I know you didn’t set foot in Utah or whatever for The Shining.’ And he said, ‘That’s right.’ And I said, ‘All that helicopter footage — I know you had someone shoot every mountain and glade in the damn state for that.’ And he laughed and said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘I need magnificent scenery to tack on for about two minutes at the end of my new film.’ And I explained why. And he said, ‘That sounds daft!’ And I said, ‘Well, it is, but I want to prove that it is. Otherwise I’ve got to shoot something, tack it on for previews, and end up cutting it. That’s a pain in the butt.’ And a day later I had 17 days of Shining footage. And all he told me was ‘Just make sure that you don’t use anything that I used. Oh, and in most of the footage there’s a Volkswagen.’ In one of the shots you can actually see it, though due to [the two movies’ different aspect ratios] it’s distorted. You can just imagine Jack Nicholson in it.”