Trevor Hogg profiles the career of filmmaker Ridley Scott in the first of a five part feature…
“I spent three fantastic years at the Royal College [of Art],” reminisced British filmmaker Ridley Scott of his student days in London. “I went in specifically as a graphic designer. But what was particularly good about the RCA was that it allowed you to move around and investigate different areas. I used to build a sculpture, do some photography, and look in on the school of industrial design. Do a bit of this, and a bit of that. The RCA was an incredibly stimulating, well-rounded environment.”
Chosen as one of six students to make a short film on the budget of $600, Ridley recruited his younger brother and future Hollywood director Tony Scott (Crimson Tide) to star in Boy and Bicycle (1961). “It was a fictional piece, about a half hour long, about kids growing up against an industrial yet somehow romantic landscape in a town on the Northeast coast of England,” recalled the South Shields-native of his directorial debut. “The film really didn’t do anything – it was shown at a few festivals – but a gong went off in my head and I thought: That’s what I’m going to do.”
Rewarded with a traveling scholarship in 1961, Ridley Scott headed to New York to observe the advertising and fashion industry; while there he worked as an editing assistant at Time/Life Inc. for documentary filmmakers Richard Leacock (Tread) and D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back). A year later, Scott returned to England and was hired by the BBC. “Those days in the early sixties were a terrific time for a TV designer,” stated the filmmaker. “I was building elaborated double-decker sets with cameras on the second story, but I eventually discovered that there were only a few good directors and I became very frustrated by what I considered to be mishandling of my constructions.”
Enrolled in a four month director’s course, Ridley Scott began his quest for a new career path. “I knew I had to do something fairly remarkable. Otherwise, it would be back to the design department.” The project that the young filmmaker had in mind was a ten minute condensed version of Paths of Glory which was adapted into a feature length picture by Stanley Kubrick in 1957. “TV, by encapsulating, often has the effect of making mediocre things seem really good,” observed the director. “It worked, it clicked, and as a result I was offered the direction of a couple of episodes of a popular police-action series called Z Cars [1962 to 1978]. After that, the hierarchy said I had to go back to the design department, so I resigned – a frightening decision, because during my three years at the BBC I’d married, become a father, and gotten a new house.”
Fortunately, within a short period of time, Scott was offered the opportunity to direct a few episodes of The Informer (1966 to 1967, ITV) which he described as being “a very intelligent semi-detective series starring Ian Hendry [Get Carter] in the role of a disbarred lawyer.” The reprieve did not last long, as frustration soon set in again. “You can’t ever totally control what you’re doing in episodic TV.” Having art-directed a number of commercials, as well as directing a half-dozen of them, the moviemaker established Ridley Scott Associates (RSA); he hired his brother Tony as the first of five other directors to work for the fledgling production company which specialized in television ads. “[I] loved the idea of being able to play around with details and really present, even if it was only for thirty or sixty seconds, something I could totally control.”
Proving himself with spots for Benson Hedges and a series of period costume ads for Hovis Bread, Ridley Scott and his group of directorial talent were receiving assignments from Paris, Berlin, and Munich. “If you’re a filmmaker and you’re not filmmaking that’s a fallow period. It’s like being an athlete. If you’re not running around the track, you’re losing your edge. It is like doing a pocket version of a feature film. The advantage with advertising is that you don’t have to live with something for months on end.” There is also another benefit. “My training in commercials was really my film school. It helped build my awareness of how to present suspense and – ‘manipulation’ is a bad word – fascinate the audience and hold it in a kind of dramatic suspension.”
During the late 1960s, word spread to North America resulting in RSA producing ads for Diet Pepsi, Ford Motor Company, Schaeffer Beer, and Pit Stop. “There’d be a preliminary transatlantic phone conference, the storyboard would be air-freighted over, followed by another call to discuss it, then I’d fly over on a Sunday night, spend Monday in conference with the agency and looking at location or studio facilities, usually start shooting the next day, and be back in England by Friday night. The change of pace was exciting but there were drawbacks, too,” recounted Scott of his routine business visits to New York and Los Angeles. “In England, I was used to controlling the project to completion through my own company and being in on the dub and the editing. The agencies in the US were perfectly happy about my disappearing as soon as the shoot was over; they’d put it together their own way after I left.”
Recognizing that the heyday of TV commercials was dissipating, Ridley Scott wrote a screenplay “a very black, very violent comedy-heist somewhat influenced by Performance , which I greatly admired.” A second script co-written with Gerald Vaughan-Hughes (Sebastian) was about the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot. The heist project, Running in Place, was to feature Michael York (The Four Musketeers) until it was aborted in preproduction. “‘You really ought to go back and do a little more filmed TV,’ they [major British studios] kept telling me,” said Scott in reference to the attitude he encountered with the major British movie studios. “Which I felt – I’d pushed through more celluloid in the previous ten years than say, Roman Polanski [Chinatown] – was a bit like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs. I knew they were wrong – these blue-suited assholes – but I figured: If that’s the name of the game, okay, I’ll do some filmed TV.”
Forming a new organization with his brother Tony to develop television series ideas, Ridley Scott soon discovered that the British networks were resistant to accepting independently-created programming. Approached by a French TV company, the siblings set about adapting The Author of Beltraffio for the classic literature series Nouvelles de Henry James (1976); the episode directed by Tony Scott was so successful that the Scotts were sought after for a second collaboration with a production budget of $250,000. “Somehow I’m going to make a feature out of this,” remarked Ridley Scott who had not given up on his big screen ambitions. “It was the same thing as with my first TV exercise: you’ve got to make people aware of the fact that you’re good and give yourself creditability.”
Exploring various literary classics which had entered into the public rights domain, the director found a Napoleonic War story to serve as the basis for his feature film debut. “To be truthful I am not an admirer of [Joseph] Conrad,” confessed Ridley Scott. “I find him heavy going, because I think that generally he has a low level of humour. But The Duel is very tongue-in-cheek. I love the humour, the idiocy of two men dueling over a period of twenty years.”
Collaborating on the screenplay with Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, Scott presented the project to British producer David Putnam (Chariots of Fire). Putnam passed on the script which had been renamed The Duellists (1977) to Paramount president David Picker; the Hollywood studio executive suggested a pair of actors who shared the same agent for the roles of the two feuding French Hussar officers – Keith Carradine (Nashville) and Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs). “They were the baseline of my pyramid,” remarked the filmmaker. “The rest of the casting was simple: you simply began to stockpile talent. Albert Finney [Under the Volcano], who’s tremendously constructive in the sense that he will help if he thinks the project is worthwhile, did a one-day cameo in exchange for a framed cheque for twenty-five pounds inscribed ‘Break glass in case of dire need.’” Other notable British performers who joined the production were Robert Stephens (The Inspector), Edward Fox (A Bridge Too Far), Alan Webb (King Rat), and Jenny Runacre (Goodbye, Mr. Chips).
Often compared to the big budget period picture Barry Lyndon (1975), The Duellists was created on a much smaller scale. Shot over a period of fifty days in France and Scotland, Ridley Scott began his tradition of storyboarding the entire script before the filming commenced, and he served as his own camera operator. “In general, I found there was far too much time wasted pontificating and politicizing with [camera] people who really didn’t know what you wanted.”
A year after the principle photography, Scott began to question the chemistry between his American and British cast members. “The English actors took to their roles more naturally than Keith and Harvey,” observed the director who also wanted to avoid making the picture seem like a theatre stage production. “Possibly because he was slightly intimidated by the material, Keith was more prepared than Harvey to approach it ‘classically,’ that is play the script. Any improvisation that Keith and Harvey did had to do with the physical action rather than dialogue.” Addressing complaints by Harvey Keitel that his role was being significantly altered in the edit suite, Ridley Scott commented, “He tended to milk things; at one point he touched a child on the cheek, apparently to make his character more sympathetic. But I don’t feel that character was changed substantially and there were certainly no ‘big’ scenes of Harvey’s that were cut.”
Having ten weeks to assemble the picture for its Cannes Film Festival premiere made for a hectic post-production schedule. “Two editors worked on the film, splitting it roughly in half and working simultaneously,” revealed Scott. “It’s a great way to work, even without time pressures, because one doesn’t always have to be waiting around for footage to look at. The editors gave me a perspective on pace and kept me from falling into a standard commercial director’s trap, that is, from feeling that you have to have a payoff every thirty or sixty seconds.”
Famed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael speculated in her review that the scene where the horses nuzzle one another while Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines (Russian Roulette) kiss was “the luckiest shot a beginner movie director ever caught or the most entranced bit of planning a beginner ever dated.” Responding to the remark by Kael, Scott replied, “The mare was in season, so we knew the animals would be a handful, but both Keith and Cristina were Robert Altman [Short Cuts] veterans and I trusted their ability to get through it okay. We did three takes and all three times the horses nuzzled each other. So it was a combination of planning and fantastic good luck.”
Made on a production budget of $1.5 million, The Duellists won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Best First Work; it also competed for the Palme d’Or. The BAFTAs nominated the picture for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design; and in Italy, Ridley Scott received the David di Donatello Award for Best Director – Foreign Film.
“After the completion of my first film, The Duellists, I prepared to do another period piece, Tristan and Iseult,” recalled the director. “While this was in progress, I was in the United States and saw the opening of Star Wars . It impressed me so much! It was innovative, sensitive, courageous – I saw it on three consecutive days, and it didn’t diminish at all.” The epic space odyssey caused Scott to have an artistic epiphany. “Star Wars convinced me that there was a great future in science fiction films. So I decided to terminate my development of Tristan and Iseult.”
Around the same time he cancelled his sophomore project, the moviemaker received a script which allowed him to find out whether or not his belief in the science fiction genre was well-founded.
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The profile has also been republished as part of the Ridley Scott blogathon at Seeti Maar – Diary of a Movie Lover.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.