In April 2011, when director Ridley Scott was a third of the way into principal photography on “Prometheus” at London’s Pinewood Studios, the producers faced a critical decision.
With the Arab Spring uprisings spreading across North Africa and the Middle East, it had become too risky to shoot the film’s alien landscapes outside Ouarzazate, Morocco, as planned. Just 125 miles away in Marrakech, a suicide bomber had blown up a well-known tourist cafe, killing 16 people. The advance team gearing up with local crew in Ouarzazate would have to pull up stakes.
For most film companies, this would have been the terrestrial production world equivalent of the poster tagline for Scott’s original “Alien” (1979): “In space, no one can hear you scream.” But the “Prometheus” team handled it with calm efficiency, moving the film’s alien exteriors 2,400 miles to the north to the colder climes of Iceland.
“We were already filming, so we flew up to Iceland on one of our weekends with our department heads,” says Mark Huffam, the film’s executive producer, who was part of the eight-person scout team that also included Scott, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max, first a.d. Max Keene and Fox creative exec Steve Asbell.
Using helicopters and “super trucks” modified to travel across rugged mountains and glaciers, they surveyed areas around the Mt. Hekla volcano and the Dettifoss waterfall.
“Five weeks later, we’re shooting there,” Huffam says.
The ability to turn a multimillion-dollar production around on a dime doesn’t just occur by happenstance. Over the past decade and a half, Scott has cultivated a trusted team of regular collaborators — including Max and editor Pietro Scalia, who have each worked on eight films with Scott beginning with 1997’s “G.I. Jane,” and costume designer Janty Yates, a veteran of seven Scott films since 2000’s “Gladiator.” All are equally adept at working independently, anticipating the boss’ needs, sparking his imagination, and taking orders.
“One of the advantages with Ridley is he’s incredibly well-prepared and knows what he wants and is very good at communicating that to everybody, so you’re very efficient as a unit with him,” Huffam says. “Often (when you go on location) it’s ‘let’s take everything because we’re not sure what’s going to happen.’ With Ridley, if you say, ‘This is a very difficult location and we need …,’ and he’ll just say, ‘Right. Well, we don’t need this or that, but I do need this.’ ”
“Prometheus” does feature one significant new collaborator in d.p. Wolski, who was already familiar to Scott having shot 1995’s “Crimson Tide” and 1996’s “The Fan” for his brother and fellow director Tony Scott.
” ‘Prometheus’ was Ridley’s first experience with 3D,” says Huffam, “and Dariusz had already done a couple of films in 3D.” The d.p. had shot 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” and 2011’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”
“Prometheus” was a humongous undertaking even by Scott’s epic standards. At the height of production at Pinewood, a construction crew of nearly 350 people labored on the giant sets spread across five soundstages and the backlot.
“It was the most challenging of all the things I’ve done, for sure,” says Max, whose lone previous sci-fi experience was his first collaboration with Scott, a 1985 commercial for New Coke set in a dystopian future inspired by the director’s 1982 film “Blade Runner.” “(It was) partially because of the scope of Ridley’s fantastic vision of the galactic realm, and also because of his preoccupation with the minutiae of everything.”
As exacting as the filmmaker can be, Huffam says no one on his sets sports “I Survived Working for Ridley Scott” T-shirts.
“Yes, it’s challenging and demanding, but it’s a pleasant experience because everybody knows he appreciates what they do,” Huffam says. “Even when there are newcomers, they very quickly become his crew.”
Despite some hiccups — including malfunctioning 3D camera rigs that caused delays early in the shoot — Scott managed to finish “Prometheus” on time and on budget and lock the print well in advance of today’s bow, a rarity for a vfx-heavy film these days.
“He is the most efficient director I’ve worked with, as well as incredibly creative, so it makes my job easy,” Huffam says. “Or I should say easier.”
Great Scott’s go-to crew
The production designer | The cinematographer | The cosutme designer | The editor