A Paragon of Calm: Ridley Scott
You’re eighty-three years old – and still you keep on releasing one film after another . . .
It’s my mom. It’s the genes.
Do you ever think about your age?
I never think about numbers. It’s my engine. It keeps me running.
Can you remember when that engine really got going?
My dad was in the army, so we traveled a lot. That took me through ten schools between the age of seven and fifteen, which often left me feeling confused and made me more introverted. So I was really bad at school. I was a bit backward, in a way, because of moving so often. At sixteen or seventeen, one of my art teachers said to me: “I’d leave if I was you. You should go to art school.” And that’s what I did. And it was like lifting a lid off. I started to read and listened to different forms of music. I started to paint. I was into lithography, photography . . . Fantastic! To any parent who’s got a kid, I’d say send them to art school. It teaches you to think differently. It focuses you. That what it did for me.
You had your first professional achievements directing commercials. What did that do for your career as a filmmaker?
I learned to work fast. Doing commercials was fast, furious and highly competitive. It’s the best film school. Schools don’t teach it, but there is a clock. It’s all about getting in and getting out. And by doing that I discovered that actors love that. They love to move fast. I’ve never met an actor who is happy getting just fifty seconds done in a day. I don’t love to do forty takes. My rulebook comes down to this: fewer takes, maybe two.
What if an actor doesn’t get it right the first time and needs more takes?
The casting is the thing. I try to get to know the person within twenty minutes or so, find out who are they. There needs to be an exchange. I need to know how they think, how they evolve. I feel like I’m a coach, like I’m looking who does what well all the time. Of course, I also have my casting directors who help me.
"Doing commercials was fast, furious and highly competitive. It’s the best film school."
Though your films are not just about the actors. You’ve always directed lavish epics and action spectacles, from Gladiator to Black Hawk Down and most recently The Last Duel. Where does this fondness for larger-than-life productions come from?
I love to explore and research and say, “Can we do that? Yes, we can!” And then people go and see it and say: “Oh my God, that’s what it was like!” But it’s very important to get it right.
Sounds like that could become pretty stressful . . .
I’m calmest when I’m working. Like I said, I went to art school. And in a way, making a film is like painting a large canvas. But I don’t think of that as a challenge. I just think of how much I enjoy doing what I do, what needs to be done, and get on with.
I love to explore and research and say, “Can we do that? Yes, we can!”
Do you have a sort of Zen feeling when you do that?
I’m not Zen. I believe in it absolutely, and I believe in yoga, but I don’t practice it because I don’t have any time. Although they say the point of yoga and Zen is to make time. But I think I’ve found my own Zen. When I’m approaching the set, and I have three thousand people staring at me, all waiting, then I have to exactly focus on what I am going to do. I get out of the car, run over there and shout: “I want sixteen cameras, three over there!” Everyone gets going, and that gives me time to think.
Does the size of a film make your job more difficult?
Even with my first film, which I made with just $900,000 and one camera, I don’t think I had any less or more time than with my larger productions. You are still racing. Because (…)