Trevor Hogg profiles the career of filmmaker Ridley Scott in the final installment of a five part feature… read parts one, two, three and four.
Reuniting with Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), Ridley Scott produced A Good Year (2006). “I like to work with Russell,” said the British filmmaker, “we get on very well and that makes my job a lot easier. Some actors – you work with them once and don’t even think about working with them again. I always feel that there is an endless depth to what Russell is capable of doing in his work.” Crowe chuckled upon reading a magazine quote where Scott described their relationship. “He believes that we’re both marginally grumpy men,” recollected the notoriously cantankerous actor. “But our mood significantly lightens in each other’s company.”
“I’ve a little vineyard in Provence, and after five years I discovered that the writer Peter Mayle [A Year in Provence] was my neighbour,” explained Scott. “We started talking about my experiences and he said he would put it in a book and out of that I got the film rights.” Inheriting a chateau and vineyard in Provence, British investment banker Max Skinner (Crowe) revisits the days of his childhood and discovers romance (Marion Cotillard), a laid-back lifestyle, and a young woman (Abbie Cornish) who claims to be the illegitimate daughter of his deceased uncle (Albert Finney).
“What you see on screen in this film really is Albert [Finney],” enthused the moviemaker who has worked with the veteran actor four times, both as a director and a producer. “He’s full of joie de vivre and I couldn’t think of anybody who could play the part [of Uncle Henry Skinner] better. Freddie Highmore [Finding Neverland], who plays young Max and spent a lot of time with Albert, adored him too.” No extensive research was required for the role of Max Skinner. “There’s a lot of stuff about Max that I already knew and had already experienced,” stated Russell Crowe who is well known for getting into character through method acting. “In life’s big curve ball I’ve met guys like him. Funnily enough, when researching other films like The Insider  when I had to go and find a bunch of corporate sharks, I met a lot of people who reminded me of Max.”
“I live fifteen minutes from anywhere you see in the movie,” stated the director. “The region has been a haven for me. I spent five months there making the movie.” As for what he envisioned for the movie, Ridley Scott remarked, “I wanted to make an edgy, romantic, [and] comedic story about this area.” The South Shields-native added, “I do like to make films with a political theme but sometimes it’s nice simply to make people laugh. That’s the hardest thing to do in fact. The film is fun; it’s about lightening up and enjoying life.” Reflecting further, Scott confessed, “As I’m getting older, I want to make sure every film I do really counts…I want to make films about the human condition, what we’re doing to the world or ourselves.” Unfortunately for Ridley Scott theatre audiences and movie critics did not find the picture as irresistible as a fine bottle of wine; A Good Year which cost $35 million to make grossed $42 million worldwide.
Unlike filmmakers Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers) who were unable to cinematically adapt the New York Magazine article The Return of Superfly by Mark Jacobson, Scott was able to revive the project which was to star Oscar-winner Denzel Washington (Training Day). “It’s a great script about Frank Lucas who had a very successful business in Harlem in the early 1970s bringing in retail heroin from Vietnam in army transportation,” said the director who reworked the original screenplay for his seventeenth effort American Gangster (2007). “It was more about Frank Lucas and less about [New Jersey Police Detective] Richie Roberts. I felt it should be more equally balanced. But great material is great material, so when I was in the middle of Provence doing A Good Year I called [Steve] Zaillian and said, ‘What’s happening with that thing?’ It began then. I passed it on to Russell and once I had him interested I realized I could get Denzel back in.” The two Academy Award winners were familiar with each other as Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington had previously co-starred together in the science fiction thriller Virtuosity (1995).
“Tony [Scott] has always said Denzel is one of the best,” remarked the director in reference to his filmmaking younger brother who has consistently worked with Washington. “He’s a method actor who absolutely gets into his role.” Ridley Scott added, “I think being a method actor just means you do your homework and go deeper into the character.” Denzel Washington is well versed in the personal history of Frank Lucas. “From a very early age he began to steal and he worked his way up the line,” began Washington. “He came to New York and the most notorious gangster in Harlem [Bumpy Johnson] recognized the talent, if you will, in this young kid, and continued to train him. He was on the wrong side of the tracks, but he was a brilliant student, and became a master of the business he was in.” Asked about his opinion of Lucas, the actor replied, “It’s not for me to judge him. Basically, Frank’s a human being who’s done some awful things and paid the price for it.”
Speaking about Richie Roberts who defended Lucas as a criminal defense attorney, Crowe remarked, “I think Richie is a great patriot because he went into the Marines Corps, and it wasn’t quite what he thought it would be. So he went into the police force, and it wasn’t quite what he thought it would be. Then he worked his ass off and became a lawyer, and then a prosecutor. And he was like, this doesn’t satisfy me either. So I’ll do this thing that I know you’re allowed to do in America. I’ll stand here, and I’ll be an advocate for somebody who has no defense.”
“If I’m excited, it tends to leak out,” stated Ridley Scott. “I think that’s what I’m good at – I’m good at pushing the pace and suddenly everybody is running. It is very easy to do only ten shots a day. On American Gangster, we were doing fifty set-ups a day. We wouldn’t have got through it otherwise. I’d have to do two takes and say, ‘That’s it.’ Denzel or Russell would go, ‘Once more,’ and I’d say, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ It’s faster to go again than talk about it.” Commenting on Crowe’s attitude towards the high-pace filmmaking environment, the veteran moviemaker said, “I think he loves the fact that I move really fast and that I know what I’m going to do before I’m there.” Other actors in the picture include Chiwetel Ejiofer (Dirty Pretty Things), Josh Brolin (Mimic), Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs), Carla Gugino (Snake Eyes), Armand Assante (Q & A), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), and Rudy Dee (Do the Right Thing).
American Gangster easily recouped its $100 million production budget earning $266 million worldwide. The picture was an Oscar contender for Best Art Direction and Best Supporting Actress (Rudy Dee); and received BAFTA nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Music, and Best Original Screenplay. At the Golden Globes, the movie was up for Best Director, Best Picture – Drama, and Best Actor (Denzel Washington).
A thriller written by author David Ignatious about CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) who hunts down an Islamic terrorist leader operating in Jordan required a name change to Body of Lies (2008). “I quite liked the title Penetration, but that’ll be confusing,” admitted Ridley Scott. “Everyone sniggers when you say it. The film is about where we are today in the Middle East and the crossroads of politics and intelligence.” Expressing his view of Ferris, DiCaprio stated, “I saw my character as an operative in the Middle East who was trying to do his job in a higher moral context than his boss [played by Russell Crowe] wanted him to.” Ignatious was impressed with the cinematic personas of Roger Ferris and his manipulative CIA handler Ed Hoffman. “They obviously re-imagined the characters in a hundred different ways, and that’s now who these people are,” said the novelist. “I’ll never be able to read the book and read about Hoffman and not think about Russell, and the same thing with Ferris and Leo.”
“Inevitably, the screenplay had to cut a lot of material to make a two hour movie out of a three hundred and fifty page book,” realized David Ignatious. “But the screenwriter, Bill Monahan [The Departed], found a way to draw a straight storyline through my material and I think all of the main themes of the book are captured well in the film. I am really happy with the way it turned out.” One of the significant changes was in the ethnicity of Ferris’ love interest. “The book started off with Aisha [Golshifteh Farahani] being a national,” said Ridley Scott. “In fact, she was a French girl in the embassy. I asked David how he’d feel if she was local.” The revision to the story was a wise one. “It started to underscore Ferris’ attachment and liking for the region that he was in.” Despite the alterations, David Ignatious was satisfied with the end result. “Something I’m really happy about is how faithful the movie is to the book,” observed Ignatious, “both in the interaction of the characters, [and] in its picture of the CIA struggling around the world against a very difficult adversary.”
Leonardo DiCaprio (Shutter Island) had previously co-starred with Russell Crowe in The Quick and the Dead (1995); however, he was embarking into unfamiliar territory having never worked with Ridley Scott. “The pace in which he shoots is really intense, really fast paced, and you have to be prepared for anything in any given moment,” marveled DiCaprio. “He literally has helicopters on standby circling around, ready to get an overhead shot of you running through an entire city.” The actor could not help but be impressed by the director whom he refers to as “a human editing bay.” “It’s amazing to watch him behind the monitor or in the tent with six different monitors and cameras from every different angle and he’s just snapping from monitor to monitor, switching and knowing exactly…and really efficiently saying, ‘This is exactly what I’m going to use in the movie and everything else is a profound waste of time.’” Scott’s professionalism contributed significantly to Leonardo DiCaprio’s confidence in the project. “You go in every day and feel like you’ve done a day’s work and everything that you put effort into will wind up for the most part as a part of the movie.” Costing $70 million to produce, Body of Lies grossed $115 million at the worldwide box office.
Re-imagining an English folktale resulted in Ridley Scott tackling a cinematic staple – the legend of Robin Hood (2010). “I think there’s been eighty [versions] made over the years and it’s the kind of thing I used to enjoy as a kid, but when I revisit them, they’re not very good,” revealed the British filmmaker. “Everyone sniggered because I was going to do a sandal and toga movie. But I knew exactly how to do it and I know how to make Robin Hood. You step back and make it real for a start.” Initially Russell Crowe was to play both the title character and the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham but the plan was abandoned. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) stated, “The whole thing was to try to strip away the goofiness of Robin Hood. What I tried to do was make it feel like this is a real story and the myth rose out of this, rather than seeing the myth. He’s not quite running around, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but you can see how it evolved into that.” Helgeland acknowledged that knowing ahead of time that Crowe was playing the role assisted him with his writing. “Everyone has their strengths. Johnny Depp [Alice in Wonderland] as Robin Hood would be a different Robin Hood than Russell Crowe as Robin Hood. With respect to them both, they do different things well. So, knowing who it is helps a lot.”
A significant modification to the tale results in the major adversary being not the Sheriff of Nottingham but the country of France. “I play a traitor who basically is trying to stir up enough trouble to create Civil War so that he can encourage the French to land and consequently achieve power,” said actor Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) who plays the fictional character of Sir Godfrey. “[For] the final battle scene we were on the beach in Wales for two weeks…We had 72 trailers, 1500 people [to be catered for] lunch, 500 extras, 120 horses and stunt riders, as well as that there were an extra 200 stuntmen. There were 8 boats landing in the surf. A helicopter. 15 cameras. It was just amazing. So it was old-school filmmaking of the first order and in the middle of that was Ridley, like a general conducting his troops.”
The $155 million Hollywood production is already being compared to the picture which was Crowe’s and Scott’s original collaboration. “It doesn’t matter what we do, everybody always compares it to Gladiator ,” concedes Russell Crowe. “We do a little comedy set in the south of France [A Good Year] and half of the reviews had references to Gladiator. We do American Gangster and Body of Lies and there’s Gladiator references, so you’re not going to win either way once you’ve made a movie like that. It’s ten years old and it still gets played on primetime television; it’s just one of those films you have once in a career if you’re really, really lucky.”
Cast in Robin Hood are Max von Sydow (Snow Falling on Cedars), Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There), Danny Huston (The Constant Gardener), Matthew Macfadyen (In My Father’s Den), Kevin Durand (Legion), and William Hurt (One True Thing). Ridley Scott is open to the possibility of returning to Sherwood Forest. “Why not have a potential for a sequel, particularly if it is a genre that you absolutely love and has never been fully explored?” asked the director. “If there were to be a sequel to Robin Hood, you would have a constant enemy throughout, King John, and you would follow his reign of seventeen years, and the signing of Magna Carta could be Robin’s final act.”
“Eventually, you come up against the marketplace,” declared Scott. “The reality is that filmmaking is an increasingly expensive proposition and while I’m not saying you should trade what you feel are legitimate concerns for an increased box office, you do have to keep in mind that what you’re involved in is a business, as well as a creative enterprise.” The director clarified his remark, “If you’re going to end up in an art cinema you should stay within the confines of a small budget movie, which will allow you to explore most any esoteric idea you wish. But if you’re going to attempt to follow the path of a [Steven] Spielberg, then your choice of subject matter and the way you’re going to explain and communicate your story to that larger audience is, of necessity, going to be on a slightly more simplified level.”
Future projects for Ridley Scott include a two-part prequel to Alien (1979) and a cinematic adaptation of the crime-thriller novel The Kind One by Tom Epperson about an amnesic who falls in love with a violent mobster’s girlfriend in 1930s Los Angeles. On the subject of directing, Scott declared, “A film has to have a guiding mind, otherwise I think it flounders. Of course it is a team effort, but in the final analysis it should cohere round one person.” Life behind the camera is not easy. “You are expected to be an expert on sound, cameras, wristwatches, shoes, contact lenses, lighting, casting, you name it. When you’re making a film, everyone asks you every conceivable question all the time, because you’re the conduit which everything goes [through].”
Pondering what fascinates him as a filmmaker, Ridley Scott concluded, “Because I’m European, because I think I have one foot halfway into the truth behind documentaries and non-mainstream movies, I can’t quite shake that mud off my feet. Some people call it perversity. It’s not perversity. Life isn’t a bed of roses. People die. People get cancer. And therefore one is always reminding the audience that there’s a dark side to life. That attracts me because it’s the truth.”
Watch the Robin Hood trailer and visit the film’s official website.
Five Essential Films of Ridley Scott
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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.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.