"The light is wrong," grumbles Sir Ridley Scott. “What’s wrong with the light?” Over 35 years of ambitious world-building, during which he’s transported us from the glorious vistas of New Mexico, to the opulence of ancient Rome, to the dust and blood of the medieval Middle East, to the dystopian murk of future America, Sir Ridley has probably got to the stage where, when he asks for light, he bloody well gets as much as he needs.
Not today, though. Today, he’s being thwarted by real light and the real world. Empire is in a conference room at the London offices of his production company, Scott Free (co-run with his brother Tony), where posters for Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, appropriately enough, adorn the walls. It’s 10.30 in the morning, it’s overcast, and the 74 year-old knight has, apparently, taken it as a personal affront that The Almighty has not deigned to bathe the office in a warm, magic-hour glow. “How do we get more light in here?” he asks, before taking matters into his own hands and fiddling with the blinds. It helps. Not much, but it helps. Satisfied, he sits down with a bemused Empire and talks — passionately, knowledgeably — about his long-anticipated return to perhaps the
most impressive and influential world he’s ever created, with Prometheus.
This interview first appeared in issue 275 of Empire magazine. Click here to subscribe to Empire today
You’ve been away from sci-fi for 30 years. Why come back now?
I never really had the urge before. I was too engaged in doing other subjects I hadn’t touched upon. I’d always had this idea hanging in the back of my mind relating to the original Alien franchise. I raised that question, starting off as the possibility of a connection, but now it’s moved away from that and is independent,
in a funny kind of way. If this were to be successful, we could easily be looking at a sequel. What this film does do is open
up a whole different door. A much bigger door, away from monsters and demons.
You’ve come close to doing sci-fi again, though.
I Am Legend, specifically. I Am Legend was taken right to the wire and it was only brought down because the budget was too high at the time. It was a mere $106 million, which to me now seems a medium-sized film, but it was shot down because I said I couldn’t reduce it any further. So I crossed the street and made Gladiator instead. It was a good move.
You’re working on a new Blade Runner as well…
That has kept tapping on the door frequently. But it was always tied up, and now it’s less tied up. Alcon bought it and we’re moving forward into planning what
to do. It’s not a remake at all. If you’re
going to go in and do Blade Runner, do
you do a sequel? A prequel? What exactly would it be about and what exactly was
the world that everyone seemed to fall in love with?
With that and Prometheus, is there a sense that you’re protecting your legacy?
I really don’t give a shit, honestly. What makes a good film? That’s where I come from. I’m a yarnteller. My job is to engage you as much as I can and as often as I can. I love the process and still continue to adore the process, actually. I don’t get attached to anything. I’m like a good antique dealer. I’m prepared to sell my most valuable table.
Are you impressed with modern sci-fi?
It’s mostly dressing. With science-fiction you have the opportunity of being able to do anything you want, with the digital assistance, and it’s up to you to not do anything foolish or silly or daft, or non-credible. Within that universe, you have to stick to your own rulebook. That’s what’s happening, we’re not drawing up enough rules when we start.
Are you tired of seeing films that have so clearly been influenced by Alien and Blade Runner?
No. It’s always amusing. But you can tell who’s trying to hide it. Now they don’t even hide it.
You made Alien and Blade Runner consecutively. Were you a sci-fi fan at that time?
|Blade Runner and Alien were more by accident than plan. |
No. Blade Runner and Alien were more by accident than plan. I had done a film called The Duellists, so I was baffled why some bright spark would ask me to do a science-fiction movie. The Duellists won Cannes, but Paramount didn’t know how to release a film about two guys in bizarre breeches, waving swords around. I actually think it’s a pretty good Western. But the idea of science-fiction came out of the blue. I’d seen Star Wars and that had knocked me sideways with all my plans. I was planning to do Tristan And Isolde in France, and I thought I would try to convert it into another arena. So I sat down for about five weeks and redrew a plan to do Tristan And Isolde as futuristic. When I was doing that, I was already carrying myself forward into science-fiction, partly to do with the inspiration from Jean Giraud Moebius and his marvellous original illustrations in magazines such as Métal Hurlant, and all those publications which I used to look at and hide from my children, because they were so violent and sexual. They were adult comic strips, but they didn’t pull any punches. I thought, that’s the way to go. Moebius designed my spacesuits for Alien. (This interview took place before Moebius’ death in March.)
How did you go from that to Alien?
Well, I was the fifth choice. I think Robert Altman was even on the list ahead of me. How the fuck do you ask Bob to do that? Crazy! I think it was random. I called them and within 32 hours I was standing at Fox. “What do you want to do?” Nothing. No rewrite. You can make this film right now. We were catapulted off. I never changed a word. It was spartan in its writing, which is what I thought was good. It was a B movie done in an A way with an A+ cast. It took a long time to cast. I drove them crazy with casting. I didn’t cast Sigourney Weaver until almost two weeks before principal photography. Laddy (Alan Ladd Jr., then-head of Fox), who is normally a paragon and absolute representation of calm and cool, lost his cool and said, “Where the fuck is the leading lady?” I was ten days off. I tested her in the sets I was building for Alien, that’s how close I was, and it worked out.
|Ridley on the set of Alien with Sigouney Weaver in 1979.|
You’ve always been a world-builder, creating these all-encompassing universes on film. Was the chance to do that again, on an epic scale, what drew you back to Prometheus, where you could build giant sets?
Yes. It’s still practical to be able to build and design everything, rather than trying to fit it in digitally. As planned as a screenplay can be, so are the visuals. I really worked with Arthur Max and four other absolutely brilliant designers — the best, maybe, in the business — in LA before we even knew we had a film. Fox were smart enough to fund the visual prep process while the film was being written.
That must have been fun.
I loved it, yeah. I’m still a designer at heart and I loved getting in there with designers with pads and papers and pencils. I’ve just learned how to start an iPad. I hope it was the right thing to do.
Was it challenging integrating designs with the Space Jockey’s world, but coming up with fresh stuff like the Prometheus itself?
It’s all challenging now, because there
have been so many science-fictions done that we’re almost designed out. It’s trying to find something that doesn’t become too outrageous, or so outrageous that it becomes fantasy. I try to keep these films in an area of reality, so it has to feel real. The design challenge is, if I think I’ve seen that before, I can’t do that.
And you extended the 007 stage, the biggest in Europe, because it wasn’t big enough for your purposes…
|They all missed one of the biggest questions of all, which is: who’s the Space Jockey?|
I worked on it for ...Legend, and I burned the stage down! (Chuckles) It never is big enough, you know. You stand at one end and put a viewfinder on and get someone to go down and stand at the other end. You go, “Uh, it’s not that big.” I’m a great recycler. I wanted to recycle spaces so the more big spaces I’ve got, the bigger my film will appear to be. I’ll recycle every goddamn space. I’ll reshoot a corridor 13 different ways and you’ll never recognise them. It’s like in Gladiator, to give you an example. The Senate, where they stood talking and Joaquin (Phoenix) spun his sword on the marble, that is later his office, his bedroom, his living room, and her quarters. That was simply by moving around dressing, changing the angles, and changing the drapes. If you look carefully, you’ll realise the columns are the same on all those sets.
How long have you had the notion to revisit the story of the Space Jockey?
Years. Years, years, years. I always wondered when they did 2, 3 and 4 why they hadn’t touched upon that, instead of evolving into some other fantastic story. One was set on a prison, wasn’t it? Jim’s (Cameron) was more military, going back
to what happened to the people... what was it? Whatever happened to the space station and the pioneers that were on it. That was all logical at the time, and yet they missed one of the biggest questions of all, which is: who’s the big guy? Who’s flying the ship, basically? And where were they going? And with what? Why that cargo? There’s all kinds of questions.
The search for our makers, the dawn of mankind, the nature of God... these are big themes.
They’re old questions, which have been
asked many times and presented in various forms in quite imaginative fashion. In the ’60s, there was a guy called Erich von Däniken who did a very popular book called Chariots Of The Gods?, and he proposed previsitation, which we all pooh-poohed. But the more we get into it, the more science accepts the fact that we’re not alone
in this universe, and there’s every feasible chance that there are more of us, not exactly as we are, but creatures that are organically living in other parts of this particular galaxy. (Stephen) Hawking said he thinks that there are and that he hopes they don’t visit. Because if they do, they’re way ahead of us.
Do you believe in previsitation?
I think it’s entirely logical. The idea that we’ve been here three billion years and nothing happened until 75,000 years ago is absolute nonsense. If something happened here two billion years ago, if there was a civilisation at least equal to ours, there would be nothing left after two billion years. It would be carbon. We talk about Atlantis and cities under the water that have long gone, long submerged, but they’re in the relatively recent past. I’m talking about one-and-a-half billion years ago — was this planet really empty? I don’t think so.
|On set with Harrison Ford in the 1982 classic, Blade Runner|
It’s been 33 years since Alien, 30 years since Blade Runner. How has the filmmaking landscape changed for you in that time?
It hasn’t really changed. The bottom line
still is: what’s your story? How good are your characters? How good is the dialogue? Then I also say, it doesn’t matter how good the thoroughbred is; you’d better have a good jockey. And that’s us — we’re jockeys.
In 1978, when you were shooting Alien, you didn’t have to contend with the internet and people analysing your every move.
I don’t get where that comes from. It
annoys the shit out of me, actually. So we started to do advertising in a different form. We thought it would be a good idea to advertise and never mention the name of the movie. That’s why we opened up to TED (the global Technology, Entertainment and Design conferences) and did that piece with Peter Weyland where he says, “We are the gods now.” That went down extremely well, and we never mentioned the film! That’s a good trick we learned from advertising. The next one will go out and talk about David, the Michael Fassbender character. Again, it’s utilitarian advertising on a laptop where suddenly this guy is talking to you about being a robot, and you don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. At the very end he has a fingerprint that he puts onto the screen and in his fingerprint, in his natural skin, is a ‘W’, which is for the Weyland Corporation.
You’re working with Fassbender again...
...On The Counsellor, Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay.
It’s fantastic. There are five wonderful characters with honestly some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. It revolves around the world of a cartel, but you never go into it, you never meet a member of the cartel. It’s really frightening, and it’s really saying don’t play with the devil, don’t step across the line, don’t think you can do it and get away with it because you can never get away with
it. It has a classic Cormac McCarthy darkness to it which makes you sick to the pit of your stomach. We start that in mid-June, a week after this comes out.
It’s interesting that the title doesn’t have the word ‘Alien’ in it.
It’s Tom Rothman’s title. It’s a good title.
Is part of you perversely proud that you’re releasing a mammoth summer blockbuster with a title people will struggle to say, let alone understand?
If you’ve got a lisp, it’s pretty tough. Prometheus. (Chuckles) I can barely say it, actually.
This interview first appeared in issue 275 of Empire magazine. Click here to subscribe to Empire today