Trevor Hogg profiles the career of filmmaker Ridley Scott in the third of a five part feature… read part one and part two.
Inspired by the title of a George and Ira Gershwin song (sung on the movie soundtrack by Sting, Roberta Flack, and Gene Ammons), filmmaker Ridley Scott produced his first modern-day picture Someone to Watch Over Me (1987). Filming an American thriller was not a daunting task for the British-born director, “There are a lot of things that Americans live with that they will never really see, because they are such a part of their culture, because they are so ingrained in their lives.”
Vincent Canby of The New York Times summarized the storyline, “Beneath its elegant mask, Someone to Watch Over Me is a commonplace melodrama about Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger), a happily married New York Policeman who has an affair with Clair Gregory (Mimi Rogers), the beautiful Manhattan millionaire whose body he’s been assigned to guard. Claire has had the misfortune to witness a murder while attending the opening of a fashionable downtown art gallery, and the murderer (Andreas Katsulas) wants her dead before she can testify.” Canby’s film critic colleague David Denby, from New York Magazine wrote, “Ridley Scott holds back on the erotic tension between Berenger and Rogers. And he loses himself in the décor and visual clutter – the steam hissing onto Manhattan streets, the Disneyland of crystal, mirrors, and windows in Rogers’ apartment. He keeps shooting into the deluxe glass as if the mystery of all the ages could be found in its reflections.” Earning $10 million at the U.S. domestic box office, the movie was a third consecutive commercial misfire for Scott.
“I read a lot of newspapers and the movies I am drawn to both as an actor and as an actor-producer tend to have a current-events mode,” explained Oscar-winner Michael Douglas on why he attached himself to the Ridley Scott-helmed Black Rain (1989). “I’m thinking about The China Syndrome  and Wall Street . I felt that there was something between us and Japan that was unresolved, that was a mixture of hostility and admiration on both sides – really confused. It involves Japan’s cultural imitation of the United States, followed by its economic supremacy over the United States, all of which are coloured by lingering memories of World War II.” Douglas saw the thriller, which is named after the combination of ash and precipitation that fell on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were nuclear bombed, as the cinematic means to address the complicated relationship between the two countries. “I thought this particular picture, as a cop-action picture, could explore some of the differences in customs and behaviour – explore some of the hostilities that our two cultures and societies have for each other.”
Two American law enforcement officers (Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia) transport a mobster (Yusaku Matsuda) to stand trial in his homeland of Japan only to have him escape their custody. “The way in is the conflict between police methods,” stated Ridley Scott as to how he portrayed the cultural differences between the East and the West. “Michael – as Conklin – is a New York homicide detective with a certain disgruntlement, a certain dissatisfaction with the system and a certain renegade quality. It even suggests that he’s on the take in a minor way. Ken [Takakura], on the other hand, is a thorough, by-the-book, hardline bureaucrat who is part of what seems to be this wonderful machine in Japan.” Over the course of the story, the two opposing figures experience a profound transformation. “Michael, I think, reestablishes some lost values in himself – traditional values, which somewhere along the line have been lost in the West but which I think still exist in Japan, such as a sense of honour and a sense of family – through his experience with this Japanese character. And Ken – who plays the Japanese Everyman, the salaried man, the bourgeois, what we think is the automaton – loses his rigidity and opens up through his contact with Michael and Andy Garcia. For Ken Takakura – both as a character and as an actor – to stand up and sing is an incredibly alien and painful thing.”
A major difference between the nations during the selection of the Japanese cast for the movie. “In Japan, actors do not audition,” revealed associate producer and Japanologist Alan Poul. “The idea of having to put yourself in a position that’s potentially humiliating is very disagreeable.” Recalling the experience, Scott chuckled, “Each actor would arrive with his manager. The manager being fairly angry at having to be there at all. But because we were so well promoted, they were torn between not coming at all and coming to see what was going on.” The director’s first choice for the Yakuza villain Koga Sato was Jackie Chan (Rush Hour) who turned down the role out of fear it would adversely affect his positive film image. Initially, Ridley Scott had some doubts about finding the right actors in Japan. “When you’re dealing with a good actor, you known what’s going on,” observed the filmmaker. “I found the Japanese actors were brilliant. I thought I was going to get Kabuki Theatre, and I didn’t get that at all. I got very good, very balanced, very contemporary, very real performances.”
Conversing with the one hundred and twenty Japanese working alongside forty-five Western production crew members was not a problem for Ridley Scott. “We communicated through interpreters but I found there’s an international language in filmmaking. Once they know how you’re functioning, they all move very quickly, like an army – they were great.” One issue that did emerge during the principal photography in Osaka was residential resistance towards the Hollywood film. “People thought that having their store or their house used as a place frequented by yakuza would reflect badly on them,” recalled Alan Poul.
As for incorporating a moment which harkens back to a previous effort, Scott readily admitted, “We needed a clue in Black Rain, and somebody on the crew who’d seen Blade Runner  suggested the sequin. And, I said, ‘No, we can’t. We’ve already done this once.’ But we couldn’t think of another goddamn clue!” At the box office the two pictures were polar opposites as Black Rain easily surpassed its $14 million production budget by earning $134 million worldwide. Ridley Scott’s first collaboration with music composer Hans Zimmer resulted in Oscar nominations for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound; and was dedicated to Yusaku Matsuda who died shortly after the completion of the film.
Presented with a script from first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri (Something to Talk About), the South Shields-native wanted to produce the project so he interviewed a variety of directors. “I was getting marginally alarmed by the fact that they all wanted to fix it up,” said Scott of the Khouri-penned Thelma & Louise (1991), “and I didn’t think any of it needed fixing. And they all wanted to know why I wasn’t doing it myself. So I did it.”
Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) abandon their husbands in search of a better life; trouble ensues when they become fugitives from the law after Louise kills a man who attempts to rape Thelma. “Because of the nature of the material, the two actresses not only had to be great, they had to be great together,” said Ridley Scott who talked to Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs), Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer), and Goldie Hawn (The Sugarland Express) about starring in the $17 million production. “We had Geena [Davis] first – she’d gotten hold of the script and called up to say she wanted to talk to us – and the chemistry she and Susan [Sarandon] had together was extraordinary.”
“I don’t think there’s any difficulty in Hollywood for female-driven scripts,” reflected the moviemaker. “I think it’s just that there aren’t any. People haven’t sat down and dealt with it. I also don’t really think of Thelma & Louise as a women’s film; it’s a men’s film as well. I think there’s something for everybody.” Attempting to classify the story, Ridley Scott stated, “This is a comedy, and the characters are rather broad generalizations, but that’s not to say there isn’t truth in them.” Asked whether the road picture was a departure for him, the director replied, “I feel all the films I’ve done have been character-based. But the events in my films have been a bit larger than life, and those events, and certain exotic elements, have been the engine behind the movie.”
“What I originally wanted to do was to have one of the subtexts of the movie be the changing face of America,” said Scott. “I wanted to shoot in around mall stopovers, modern ghastly hotels, and these freeways that go straight across the country and look exactly the same every mile of the way. But that became so depressing I decided that if I wanted to hit this note of Thelma & Louise being about an almost mystical “last journey”, then it had to be more like the idea of Route 66. So we consciously set out to show that landscape at its most beautiful and expansive.”
Emulating the famous freeze-frame conclusion of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is the dramatic last shot of Thelma & Louise. “We were never pressured for an “up” ending,” declared the director. “I think the ending was just extending the journey. It’s an emotional choice, and you either fly with it or you don’t. The alternatives are impossible: Thelma and Louise could have taken out that gun and started to fire, in which case they would have been shot at by this army of very hostile men. Or they could have got up and negotiated, and they would have ended up doing ten to fifteen, maybe got out after seven if they were good girls.”
Moviegoers embraced the film which grossed $45 million at the American domestic box office. Critical accolades were plentiful, with the picture winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and receiving nominations for Best Actress (Davis and Sarandon), Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Director. At the BAFTAs, Ridley Scott was a contender for the David Lean Award for Direction, while the picture was nominated for Best Actress (Davis and Sarandon), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Original Score, and Best Original Screenplay. The Golden Globes lauded the movie with nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Picture – Drama, and Best Actress (Davis and Sarandon). In France, Thelma & Louise competed for the César Award for Best Foreign Picture while in the U.S, Scott received a Director’s Guild of America nomination. The Writer’s Guild of America ranked the script #72 on its 101 Greatest Screenplays List.
Seeking a break from making three consecutive contemporary movies, Ridley Scott wanted to do a picture about a “larger-than-life character whose efforts change the world forever.” Commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, the British moviemaker directed the historical epic 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). French journalist Roslyne Bosch (Animal) wrote the screenplay for the $45 million production about the legendary Genovese mariner whom she described as being “a complex person like all of us.” Recruited for the pivotal role was a renowned French actor. “Gérard Depardieu [Cyrano de Bergerac] was my first and only choice for Columbus,” stated Scott. “His natural character seems to dovetail into my perception of who Columbus may have been; a strong, physical man, driven by his emotions and instincts, a strong orator with the personality to persuade men to follow him.” To better understand Christopher Columbus, Ridley Scott turned to the period in which the historical figured lived. “Clearly the socio-political background plays an enormous part in forming his character and his views, like it does to all of us today,” said the director. “In that respect, people don’t change much; they are the production of their own environments.” Featured in the supporting cast are Armand Assante (American Gangster), Tcheky Karyo (La balance), Ángela Molina (Carne trémula), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), and Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist).
“It was extremely difficult to find appropriate locations which would afford me all the elements I required for Columbus’ experiences in the Indies,” revealed Ridley Scott. We location-hunted in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Columbia before finally settling for Costa Rica.” One hundred and seventy Indians from Costa Rica’s four tribes participated in the principal photography. “I feel that the people we are portraying are both noble and dignified,” remarked Alejandrino Moya (The Mission), a Waunana Indian who plays one of the tribesman who accompanies the famous explorer on his return trip to Spain. Initially communicating with and coaxing performances out of the native extras was a “nerve-racking” experience for the director. “With the help of Claudia Gomez from Columbia,” acknowledged Scott, “they became marvelously uninhibited actors who never held back – ever – and portrayed some of the most authentic Indians I have seen on screen.”
Lacking major studio interest in financing the picture, French producer Alain Goldman (La môme) pre-sold the foreign rights, allowing the project to commence. “Historical films have always been difficult to mount,” observed Ridley Scott, “because of the inherent resistance to the cost and modern audiences who seem to be more concerned with escapism than realism today.” The attempt by the director to create a story that was both entertaining and educational, like Dances with Wolves (1990), Amadeus (1984), and Dangerous Liaisons (1988), failed at the U.S. domestic box office, earning $7 million. “Why 1492 didn’t play, I really don’t know,” reflected Scott. “But I learned not to let anything overwhelm me. You can sit and dwell on something and let depression consume you, or you can just shut it out. You don’t allow doubt in. You can’t.”
Drawn to the best-selling nonfiction book The Hot Zone written by Richard Preston, the filmmaker worked on bringing the bio-thriller about the near outbreak of the Ebola virus in Washington, D.C. to the big screen in 1993. At one point Oscar-winners Jodie Foster and Robert Redford (The Sting) were to star in the production which was scrapped when 20th Century-Fox withdrew its financing. The newly-established Scott Free Productions, formed by Ridley and his younger brother Tony Scott (Man on Fire), had better luck releasing The Browning Version and Monkey Trouble a year later. 1995 saw the Scott siblings purchase a piece of British cinematic history by buying the legendary London-based Pinewood Shepperton Studios.
“I never thought I’d go back and do another sea story after 1492, because that was a pain in the ass,” declared Ridley Scott. “Then the script [for White Squall] came floating past, and we picked it up. It was the strength of the story that brought us back to revisit the sea. On 1492 we never got out on rough seas, but in this instance, I would have to explore every avenue of water.”
A summer school sailing trip led by Dr. Christopher B. Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) turns fatal when the brigantine sinks upon encountering a sudden and violent windstorm. “The rite of passage has evaporated today, so I felt it was worth refreshing people’s minds that this did once exist,” explained the director in reference to his 1996 picture which is based on the story The Last Voyage of the Albatross. “It’s like a micro-burst,” remarked Scott when detailing the natural phenomenon that caused the tragic 1960s incident. “In essence it’s a tornado or a hurricane over a short distance that pushes everything in its path flat. During the actual event, they went over in ninety seconds and sank in ninety seconds.” Aside from the cast, which includes Caroline Goodall (Hotel Sorrento), John Savage (The Deer Hunter), Scott Wolf (Go), Jeremy Sisto (The Movie Hero), and Ryan Phillippe (Stop-Loss), the director had to concern himself with another element to ensure that the story remained believable. “If there are seven characters in the film, I treat the environment as the eighth character – or the first. After all, it’s the proscenium within which everything will function.”
Filming out on the open water, Ridley Scott wanted to emulate a Hollywood classic. “The original Moby Dick  was really good,” began the filmmaker, “particularly the sea footage of the whalers with their harpoons in the long boats; I could never work out whether it was real documentary footage or whether they’d shot it. I compiled documentary footage and started to watch the water, just to see how it behaved, to try and get around the curse of [shooting in] a tank. Because in the tank, even with a wind machine, you’ve only got three foot waves.” There were safety concerns that needed to be addressed. “The biggest problem at sea was all the actors on board. You’re on the high seas, and if somebody goes overboard, you just never pick them up. By the time you turn around there’s just this little head bobbing around in the water. We were very careful about that.”
Cinematographer Hugh Johnson (Chill Factor), who made his feature picture debut with White Squall, stated, “Early on, Ridley and I felt that the film should not be cosmetic in any way. We wanted to shoot in the hard light, in the weather we had, so you had the feeling of heat and warmth around the film. It’s quite raw, especially during the boat sequences.” The seventeen minute storm sequence was a combination of footage staged at a huge tank facility situated in Malta and “big sea” shots captured when the topsail schooner used in the movie traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. “I’d done a commercial just before we started shooting,” recollected Ridley Scott of his time spent at Mediterranean Film Complex, “and my special effects guy had turned up with an engine from a Navy jet, which gave me a wind of six hundred miles per hour! We found two in Europe and rigged both so we could pan and tilt them. That force took the waves, which were only three and a half feet high, and whipped them up into this white foam I’ve never seen before.” Even with the innovative storm solution, the $38 million production failed to generate a box office frenzy, grossing $10 million in the United States.
“When Demi [Moore] offered me G.I. Jane  to direct, I was drawn to the military subculture it took place in,” stated Scott. “I also liked the fact that Jane’s subject matter was so provocative. A woman entering combat training in a very rarified area of the military, and how she fares against the obstacles placed in her way, seemed a challenging topic.” The British filmmaker had a personal connection to the story about Lt. Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore) who becomes the first woman to undergo training for the U.S. Navy Combined Reconnaissance Team. “I almost joined the Royal Marines. I was very curious about them when I was about twenty. But then, my dad who had been in the British army, stepped in and said that although it was all up to me whether I went into the service or not, I really should go to art school.”
Current affairs made the military action-drama a timely project. “When we were began prepping G.I. Jane,” remarked Ridley Scott, “the Tailback Affair was only about ten months old. [A group of female Naval pilots-in-training had accused their male counterparts of sexual harassment.] Then, a week before principal photography started, another story broke about the resistance a young woman was encountering after she’d tried to enroll in the Citadel, this all-male military academy in Charleston, South Carolina.” As much as he is known for his stunning visual imagery, the director acknowledges that it alone cannot ensure commercial success. “It’s always been my feeling that one of the hardest things to get right in filmmaking is the script,” said Scott. “David Twohy [Pitch Black] was the writer I worked on the film with. I think it would be fair to say that Danielle Alexandra came up with the plot, drama, and the characters. David Twohy came up with the action, as well integrating my concerns into the script. He did a great job of grafting all of that onto a good story with humorous and intelligent dialogue.”
“When I start making a film,” revealed Ridley Scott, “it’s as if there’s this little, invisible computer in the back of my head that switches on and presets the overall look of the film at the very beginning of the process. It’s not easy to articulate. I tend to think pictorially. Something just drops into place and rolls down the chute, and I follow it. If you pressed me on it, I guess I’d have to say that because of its military context and because the subject matter of G.I. Jane was rather somber and austere, we decided to make the film look somber and austere.” Scott stills utilizes the skill he developed as a college art student and production designer for the BBC – his ability to draw; he communicates to his film crew through storyboards nicknamed “Ridleygrams” because, “It’s a way of maintaining visual control, so there’s no dispute over any point; everybody knows exactly what the end product should look like and is working towards it.” Certain liberties had to be taken when shooting the picture. “One of the first production design decisions we made regarding G.I. Jane was to use as many authentic locations as possible,” recalled the moviemaker. “But then, when Arthur [Max], and I started looking at reference photos of real naval bases and buildings, it became apparent that these facilities looked dull. So we were constantly trying to make the locations and the few sets we built visually interesting, while not making them excessively unrealistic.”
When it came to selecting the cast which includes James Caviezel (The Thin Red Line), David Vadim (Exit Wounds), John Michael Higgins (A Mighty Wind), and Scott Wilson (The Ninth Configuration), Ridley Scott was happy to be collaborating with his leading lady, “I thought it was a good film for Demi. I’d also always wanted to work with her – I think she’s one of the best actors we’ve got.” Lt. Jordan O’Neil was not the only major role in the movie. “After Demi, my two major casting concerns were [Senator Lillian] DeHaven and Master Chief Urgayle, the SEAL instructor. I didn’t want either of these characters to be caricatures. That’s why Anne Bancroft [The Miracle Worker] was always my first choice for the senator, who’s a representative of strength and intelligence and women’s rights. Anne’s very good at that. She’s quite capable of pulling off the tricky balance of being sympathetic while, on the other hand, being tough.” To play the brutal taskmaster and poem-quoting Urgayle, Scott recruited Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises). “The reason I went with Viggo was because I’d been very impressed after seeing him in a film Sean Penn [Mystic River] directed called The Indian Runner . Viggo was designed never to say much in that film, but I loved his presence.” Helping to cement the casting decision was the fact that Ridley’s brother Tony Scott had enjoyed working with Mortensen on Crimson Tide (1995). Ridley Scott does not look upon the character of the Master Chief as a sadistic. “These guys who seem to be bullies, the instructors on the SEAL courses, are really the candidates’ best friend. They’re preparing them for something which is going to be much tougher later on.”
“I actually thought the eventual ending of the film, the one where O’Neil lived and Urgayle gave her his Naval Cross medal, was a pretty good one,” said the filmmaker. “It signified his respect for O’Neil’s perseverance and abilities and Urgayle’s gratitude for her pulling him out of a lethal situation. It was a nice wrap-up.” G.I. Jane was a worldwide box office disappointment, grossing $80 million while costing $48 million to produce. “I thought we’d do better with a story highlighting a woman in the lead doing a man’s job; I felt that sort of thing would generate high curiosity in women and hyper-curiosity in men, who’d go into a film like this thinking, ‘A female SEAL? Right – prove it.’”
A cinematic adaptation of the post-Apocalyptic I Am Legend by novelist Richard Matheson, which served as the basis for The Last Man on Earth (1960) and The Omega Man (1970), paired Ridley Scott with action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator). “The parameters of the book and the script [written by Mark Protosevich] contained a fascinating idea,” recollected the director. “That man’s arrogance in dealing with genetics and disease and success with research had backfired on him and resulted in a mutated airborne virus that got loose and couldn’t be controlled. That virus then spread to the point where it essentially devastated the world. Now, part of the beauty of this central idea, where Matheson really came up with something, was the fact that Legend’s story starts after the fact. You come in after the plague, into a whole different world. That really appealed to me.”
Ridley Scott associated the sole survivor tale with a literary classic. “I connected I Am Legend most strongly with Robinson Crusoe , the story of a man who suffers terrible isolation until he meets his Man Friday. That was the strongest parallel for me, and that’s why I was eager to work with Arnold on this. I felt I could take usual screen persona into a new area, one that dealt with this suffering.” The filmmaker set about reworking the tale with John Logan (The Aviator); the story is situated in a hostile and desolate environment overrun by vampires. “I felt we had licked the first two acts. We were still working on the third one. There was a lot of talk, of course, of coming up with an ending where Neville would find his Eve, or another group of normal human beings. I resisted that. I wanted the ending to emphasize the idea that, among other animals, the human race is unique – whatever the problems, it will always carry on. So even though Neville has an awareness that he may be the last normal person, he perseveres. I liked ending on that.”
Contending with the major blockbuster failures of Batman and Robin (1997), and The Postman (1997), Warner Bros subsequently cancelled the ambitious project. “I think they had some bad experiences,” hypothesized Ridley Scott, “and our project came along when they were going through a nervous point of low confidence.” The picture was later revived in 2007 by actor Will Smith (Ali) and Austrian moviemaker Francis Lawrence (Constantine).
Approaching the new millennium, Scott produced a sword and sandal epic which captured the adoration of film critics and moviegoers around the world.
Continue to part four.
Five Essential Films of Ridley Scott
DVD Giveaway – Blade Runner: The Final Cut
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.