The Visionary Filmmaker Reflects on his Career and Looks Forward to the Future

Ridey Scott is one of the most influential stylists of contemporary cinema, as such often imitated works as Blade Runner, Alien and Gladiator (which won five Oscars including Best Picture) make abundantly clear. But Scott, whose credits also include Black Hawk Down, Thelma & Louise, Legend, Matchstick Men and the recent Crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven, hasn’t limited himself to features. He’s directed more than 2000 commercials, including such memorable campaigns as Chanel’s “Share the Fantasy” and the Apple Mac spot that aired during the 1984 Super Bowl. As a partner in Scott Free Productions with brother Tony, he has also produced many TV shows, including the new drama Numb3rs. Scott is co-chairman of both digital post house Mill Film and the Pinewood-Shepperton studio complex. Here, in an exclusive interview, he talks about making his latest film, looks back on his long career, and explains why he still likes to operate the camera.
F&V: How big was Kingdom of Heaven‘s production?
I think the set of Jerusalem is the biggest built since Ben-Hur. We used 30,000 extras, shot in Morocco and Spain, and shot 1.2 million
feet. We had to start principal photography in January 2004, so we only
had five months of pre-production.
F&V: How much pre-vis did you use to recreate huge sets like
12th Century Jerusalem, and how many visual effects did you end up
using in the film?
We went in with just under 200 shots and I knew it was going to be
thin. At the end of the day we had close to 800 visual effects shots,
with about 350 seriously important shots. The rest are little tidy-ups,
sometimes skies. When we shot the fight in the dunes, we still had
winds, unfortunately, so we had to put the dunes in digitally later.
But somehow we ended up on budget and significantly cheaper than the
other recent epics like Alexander and Troy.
I do it by being involved on every level. I never just order the shot.
I say,‘Why? When?’ and I’ve probably already storyboarded it down to
the last detail. So for a scene with the siege and the siege towers,
when I arrive on set I know I’ll be shooting alongside a wall [and] the
big 17-ton towers are prepped and on steel tracks, with a bulldozer
ready to haul them. That’ll become a plate beyond which you see two
real towers and then another 12 that are all digital.
F&V: You co-chair Mill Film, one of the biggest digital post
houses in London, which won the Oscar for Gladiator. Why did Moving
Picture Company (MPC) do most of the effects work?
Because there’s no money in it. It’s so hard. Everyone dreams of these
vast budgets you have to play with, but the bottom line is not
attractive, to be frank. Also, I believe in going for the real thing
first, so [for the siege scene] we built the three towers weighing 17
tons, and then you can clone them much easier. The basis of what you
see is three real towers, so when you see all the close ups and the
towers come down, it’s all real – 17 tons going over, and it’d better be
right. I’m not going to make that stand up again. Then I made four
catapults, the arm swinging 56 feet. They’d flip a 100-pound ball about
400 meters and do serious damage. They were surprisingly accurate.
F&V: What was the most complex visual effects shot?
A lot of the battle scenes – in particular a helicopter shot flying past
two burning towers. I had 650 extras, and that doesn’t go anywhere in a
shot like that. I spread them out knowing later we’d digitally add the
rest in. We partly cloned them later at MPC using this software they’ve
developed that’s based on what Weta did for Lord of the Rings. We did all the post in Soho, London, and it’s great as everyone’s so close. In Hollywood, you have to drive bloody miles.
F&V: Your DP was John Mathieson, who shot Gladiator for you. How does that relationship work?
I’m involved in everything from stocks to lens choices and lining up a
shot. All my boards are very specific. I was a camera operator, and I
can’t separate myself from that. I still like to operate. But on a huge
film like this, with five to 11 cameras, it’s faster for me to sit in
the video village – I can talk to the operators and go,‘You’re too wide,
you’re too tight,’ and so on.
I like to work with the same DPs if they’re available. John’s got a great eye for the big stuff like this and Gladiator. But he also did Matchstick Men, which is a far more intimate film and look. Hugh Johnson, who shot G.I. Jane and White Squall, was an assistant cameraman on my first film, The Duellists, back in 1977, and then he worked on The Hunger with Tony and then did second unit on 1492
with me, so we’ve had a very long association. Hughie’s also an
operator, and I like that in a DP because all the magic happens through
the viewfinder. So I try and operate wherever I can, and if I do a
small comedy with just two cameras, I’ll definitely climb back on.
F&V: How has your shooting style evolved?
Not a lot. I was 39 when I first started directing movies, and my only
regret today is that I didn’t start sooner. I arrived with no formal
training, other than art direction in TV and 16 years of very
competitive advertising and commercials. I must have done over 2000-
about 100 a year, and that was film school for me where I learned to
light and operate fast and shoot in every possible set and location.
I’d use just one camera back on films like The Duellists
because that’s all we could afford – one Arri and a backup body. It was
a very beautiful film although I got beaten up because of that.
But that’s what I feel I bring to all my films, a certain kind of visual beauty, so I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Alien was also just one camera. Blade Runner
was just one camera and the DP Jordan Cronenweth was a total
classicist. He’s one of the greatest DPs I’ve ever worked with. It
began to shift into two on Legend, and then I realized it made great sense, especially when you do a movie with a lot of dialogue. By the time I did Black Hawk Down,
I knew I had to change gear to get that documentary look, and we used
11 cameras simultaneously. That makes editing a nightmare, but you have
all the material.
F&V: How do you see the role of the digital timer and his relationship to the director and DP?
It’s very important, especially with effects. On [Kingdom of Heaven],
we could have just timed it normally, but we had so many effects shots.
The original plan was to shoot Super 35, as it’s a spherical lens
instead of anamorphic- that helps with all the digital work as the
spherical lens is cleaner and simpler to conform into with the digital
shots. Then, because I wanted widescreen anamorphic, and the anamorphic
process is one stage as opposed to two where you start to lose quality,
I had to time digitally. But most of the live footage we graded. It was
all there in camera.
The truth about digital timing is that it’s slower, not quicker.
Technology can make the process slower and more expensive. As for a TV
show like Numb3rs, I’ll time it myself as I know how it should
look. I went in and talked with colorist Eric Johannessen after [ DP ]
Ivan Strasburg did his own timing first. It’s real fast if you know
what you’re doing.
F&V: What are the biggest technical changes you’ve seen and used in filmmaking over the years?
Digital, obviously. That’s huge, like the advent of sound in silent
film. And as technology changes, things become not so much easier, but
you have more options. You’ve got to be careful you don’t overuse and
abuse it. CGI is a tool. I don’t think it’s an end in itself. You can
get films that are just driven by tricks and visual effects, and my
films try to be driven by material and characters.
F&V: Is film as a medium dead?
Yes. The fact we’re still trying to capture an image with a piece of
celluloid that can break and get dust damage and so on is nonsense. So
its days are numbered. Looking ahead, I’d like to shoot something with
Viper. That’s imminent.
But I would miss working on a set. I was talking to Spielberg about all
this, and he’s the same way. I’d find it very hard to just work with
green screen all day long, every day, so it’ll be a hard transition for
me. Half the fun for me is finding a location or building a great set,
and I built a lot of huge, real sets for this, and it was cheaper than
doing it all digital. I’m actually a classicist in terms of my views
and I always hang onto what Doug Trumbull said,‘Keep it real if you
can- it’s cheaper and better.’ That’s why when I did Legend we
built this entire forest on the Bond stage and I could look in any
direction and it was totally real in the context of a fairy story. I
was making a live action cartoon, and all the early Disney cartoons
were a big influence on me. I loved them.
F&V: Are you surprised that a film like Blade Runner still infuses so many videos and features?
In a way, because I got such a thrashing after Blade Runner that
I thought I’d really screwed up, although in the making of it and
mixing and editing I knew I’d made a good movie. Looking back, I feel
that at that particular moment in time, the movie was too dark and the
visual information was too dense. One of the problems was that the
world we created was so different that it overpowered what was a fairly
straightforward story. But then after seven or eight years, I noticed
that it started to leak into other movies and into music videos, and
MTV really clarified it. Musicians got it, and all these rock videos
used rain or some other image I’d recognize. It was always bloody
raining in these videos [laughs]. Now I’m amused by it.
F&V: What do you remember about Alien, another influential film?
The biggest challenge was trying to keep it flying for those 17 minutes
at the end when there’s only Sigourney Weaver on screen, and no
dialogue except for‘You bitch!’ So it was a ballet of her, I was the
operator, and I worked out anything I could to keep her and the
audience excited.
There hadn’t been many really good science fiction films then. There was 2001,
which was the threshold. Before that there were a few l liked, but they
were always a bit wobbly on the effects, and I could never get past the
lack of reality. It has to be real, and that was the stunning
achievement of 2001, which is probably still one of the best ever made. Then Star Wars gave me a jolt and woke me up, and I loved Close Encounters, which I still think is one of the best things Spielberg ever made. So Alien was my dark-side-of-the-moon answer to his optimism.
F&V: Do you still shoot commercials?
Rarely, although I might do one in the future.
F&V: So what’s next?
I’m going to do a western. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now.