The ideal place to meet Ridley Scott would be on a raging battlefield, in the furthest reaches of outer space, or in the midst of any of the other vast canvases on which he creates his movies.
Instead, we’re sitting in a basement salon at London’s trendy Ham Yard Hotel, where the 76-year-old director has parked himself, however briefly, to discuss his new biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and to ruminate on his long career.
“You’re probably going to be sitting down, so you’re not going to get a proper sense of him,” actor Christian Bale, who stars in Scott’s new film as Moses, warned this reporter a few days earlier. “You’ve got to see Rid on the move to understand him. He’s totally kinetic. I’m absolutely sure he springs out of bed at 10 times the speed I do.”
Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who plays Moses’ adoptive brother-turned-nemesis Ramses, likens Scott to a shark — not in the predatory sense, but rather because of his need for perpetual motion. “He’s been using his brain in that way for so long, that to him, that equates to normal life,” Edgerton says. “I think he would be uncomfortable if he wasn’t always making stuff.”
So there is something incongruous about the image of Scott, dressed in a plain black T-shirt and khaki trousers, calmly sipping coffee at the London hotel on a recent Sunday morning, the day even God (another prominent character in “Exodus”) found fit for a little R&R. But Scott, true to form, has just flown in from Budapest, where Saturday marked his first day of shooting on “The Martian,” a sci-fi drama featuring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig and Jeff Daniels. By the end of a full day of “Exodus”-related press for his movie, which bows Dec. 2, he’ll be ready to resume production Monday morning.
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Where Scott is concerned, life is lived as if Newton’s First Law was one of the Ten Commandments: “If I stop, what am I going to do? Walk a spaniel?” huffs the charmingly brusque director, who says he’s congenitally disinclined to take vacations, and personally reads every script and gives notes on each producer’s cut of all projects produced under his Scott Free Prods. banner. In his peak years as a television commercials director, Scott made as many as 150 spots annually, a pace of work that made dawdling or second-guessing next to impossible. “It was almost like being in sport,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘How many tournaments can I play?’”
By that measure, “Exodus” may qualify as his Olympic Games: a gargantuan 3D event movie made at a cost of $140 million (closer to $200 million before European tax credits) on a shooting schedule (74 days) more befitting a modestly scaled biopic or costume drama. But in working industriously, Scott hasn’t made any compromises. His “Exodus” is at once a work of massive, David Lean-like scale — with dazzling crowd and battle scenes that rival or eclipse Scott’s own 2000 Oscar-winner “Gladiator” — and also a serious-minded moral drama that renders Moses’ journey in more complex emotional and psychological terms (and arguably more in line with the actual biblical version of Moses) than any prior screen version of the tale. That’s especially true with regard to Hollywood’s most famous Moses movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956), in which Charlton Heston played the character as a square-jawed, self-confident action hero to Yul Brynner’s sneering, vindictive Ramses. (An Easter perennial, DeMille’s film still manages to win its timeslot during its annual broadcast on ABC).
For “Exodus” producer Peter Chernin, whose relationship with Scott dates back to his tenure as head of 20th Century Fox (the studio that financed and is releasing the film worldwide), there was only one filmmaker for the job. “I would argue there’s no one in the world who could handle this scale and scope, plus bring out the kind of performances that the roles call for, at the level Ridley can,” he says.
Bale felt invigorated by the director’s speed of production and preference for shooting with multiple cameras, thereby reducing the number of times an actor had to repeat a given scene. “Rid marries an absolute artistry with a total meat-and-potatoes practicality,” Bale says. He also gives high marks to Scott’s crew of many longtime collaborators, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates. “There’s no doubt about who’s in charge and who has the final say, but there’s a nice sense of collaboration, even on a film as large as this. Usually, collaboration is inversely proportional to the size of the film, in my experience.”
Opening at the start of a very crowded holiday movie season, “Exodus” represents a significant gamble for all parties, who are clearly hoping for a four-quadrant smash closer to “Gladiator” (which grossed $458 million worldwide) than to Scott’s last historio-religious epic, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which earned only $212 million on a reported $130 million budget. The box office gold standard for Bible movies, of course, remains Mel Gibson’s 2004 drama “The Passion of the Christ,” which grossed $612 million globally, and forced Hollywood to take note of a vocal and underserved Christian audience.
But where Gibson’s film was a story of Christian martyrdom made by a true believer for a like-minded public, “Exodus” attempts something riskier and more ambitious: to render, in the most plausible historical terms possible, the life of a man who occupies a vaunted place in each of the world’s three major religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Although Scott’s filmography attests to an ongoing fascination with ancient, God-fearing civilizations and even the origin of the species (the subtext of 2012’s “Prometheus”), the director has called himself an atheist more than once. And while he now prefers the term agnostic, he came to “Exodus” as anything but a convert. Rather, he was compelled by the notion of Moses as a reluctant hero — a nonbeliever like himself who only gradually comes to accept the circumstances of his birth and prophesied destiny, and even then finds himself actively questioning God’s plans and his own role in them. It was also a story rife with contemporary echoes, from the revolutions of the Arab Spring to the latest wars for control of the Holy Land.
For Scott, the process of making the film was akin to walking a mile (or, rather, several hundred) in Moses’ sandals. “I always try to place myself in the position of the central character, and try to come at it from my own logic,” he says. With “Exodus,” that meant fundamentally accepting the existence of Moses and the key events of his life, culminating in the liberated Israelites’ long march from Egypt toward the promised land of Canaan. Says Scott: “Once I accept that, how do I proceed, with the greatest respect to the story? It’s so easy to (give the finger) to religions, and we’ve kind of got to stop that. If you believe, you believe; if you’re faithful, you’re faithful. I don’t care what your religion is. The same if you’re agnostic. That should be accepted too.”
Scott enlisted scribes Jeffrey Caine (“The Constant Gardener”) and Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) to further develop an original script by the team of Adam Cooper and Bill Collage. That included the addition, at Scott’s suggestion, of Malak (the Hebrew word for angel or messenger), a young boy (played by 11-year-old British actor Isaac Andrews) in whose form God appears to Moses — a bold and potentially controversial decision that allowed the director to avoid depicting the Almighty as “voices from the rocks with thunderous clouds and lightning.” For the most celebrated episode of Exodus lore — Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea — Scott imagined a kind of uber-tsunami, inspired by actual evidence of a massive underwater earthquake off the coast of Italy circa 3000 BC.
Like most high-profile religious pictures since Martin Scorsese’s 1988 “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Exodus” became the subject of intense media scrutiny before Scott had ever exposed a frame of (digital) film on stages at London’s Pinewood Studios and on location in Spain. Much of the outcry online stemmed from his decision to cast white American, European and Australian actors in most of the key roles, no matter that the same could be said of “The Passion of the Christ,” “Noah,” “The Ten Commandments” and virtually any other big-budget Bible movies. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
The director stopped reading his critics long ago, around the time Pauline Kael eviscerated his 1982 “Blade Runner” in the New Yorker. But Kael wasn’t alone in her invective. In its initial release, with its now infamous studio-imposed voiceover narration and “happy” ending, “Blade Runner” earned lukewarm reviews and failed to recoup its then-exorbitant $30 million production cost. By the time Scott’s rehabilitated director’s cut surfaced a decade later, the movie had come to be enshrined as a modern sci-fi classic on par with his own “Alien” (1979).
“I don’t think there’s a filmmaker of my generation or subsequently who wasn’t vastly influenced by Ridley,” says James Cameron, who followed in Scott’s footsteps when he directed the sequel “Aliens” in 1986. “To see ‘Alien’ on opening night in 70mm was to feel you were on that spaceship, and no one had ever done that in science fiction before.” Years later, when Cameron was preparing the first, low-budget “Terminator” movie, he told his team that if you put “Blade Runner” and “The Road Warrior” in a blender, the result would be the movie he hoped to make.
Scott was something of a late bloomer, already 40 when his 1977 debut feature “The Duellists” was released, 44 at the time of “Blade Runner” — one possible explanation for why he’s spent the next three decades seemingly making up for lost time. “I think it’s encouraging to a lot of others who haven’t made films yet,” he chuckles. Of his 22 feature films to date, 12 have been made just since 2000.
Scott was born in 1937 in the northeastern English town of South Shields, the second of three sons to Elizabeth and Francis Percy Scott, his father a colonel in the British army’s Royal Engineers, his mother a “five-foot-tall dynamo” who took the lead in raising the boys when their father was away on military business. Scott credits his mother with inspiring his lifelong attraction to strong women, both onscreen and off, from Ellen Ripley and G.I. Jane to his two ex-wives, Felicity Heywood (mother of his director sons, Jake and Luke) and Sandy Watson (mother of his director daughter, Jordan), and his current partner, the Costa Rican actress-producer Giannina Facio. To that roster, Scott adds Kai-Lu Hsiung and Jules Daly, the women who head the London and American offices of Ridley Scott Associates, the prolific commercial production company he formed in 1968.
Young Ridley was a poor student who ranked last in his class for most of his primary and secondary schooling, despite trying to apply himself. But he could draw — a skill noticed by a sympathetic art teacher, who suggested that the teenage Scott transfer to the West Hartlepool College of Art. “I went to art school, and the sun rose,” Scott recalls.
From there, he gained entrance to the prestigious Royal College of Art in London, where his classmates included David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj. Returning home on vacation in 1962, he set to work on “Boy and Bicycle,” a semi-autobiographical, impressionistic short film about a lad from the dreary industrial North who plays hooky from school and escapes into Joycean, stream-of-consciousness reveries as he pedals his bike around the Teesside coast. For his lead actor and equipment-carrying lackey, Scott chose his teenage brother, Tony, who would eventually follow him into the film business, where he would rival Ridley’s box office success. For visual inspiration, he turned to David Lean’s 1946 film version of “Great Expectations,” a movie that had a profound impact on Scott, as Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” would later in ’62. “It was two brothers together all day for six weeks, and you could see it sinking in,” he remembers of the experience. “It was an education for Tony. Suddenly, he had a direction in life.”
If “Exodus” is, at its core, very much the story of two brothers, then so is the life of Ridley Scott. Around the time of “Boy and Bicycle,” he recalls, Tony, an avid mountain climber, invited him on an expedition in the nearby Cleveland Hills. It was a foggy day, and within moments of setting out, Tony had easily scaled a 200-foot cliff face and disappeared into the mist. “Then a rope came down, and I could hear his voice saying, ‘Tie it ’round, up you come,’ ” Scott remembers. He began the ascent but quickly felt his elbows going numb. “I said, ‘I think I’m going to peel off.’ ” He did, at about 100 feet, flipping backward and getting entangled in the rope like a fly in a spider web. “I could hear Tony at the top saying, ‘I think I’ve got you.’ He lowered me to the ground, and he had burn marks on his hands.”
That, says Scott, was the last of his own mountaineering adventures. But his brother kept climbing, including three summits of El Capitan peak in Yosemite National Park. Then, on a Sunday afternoon in August 2012, Tony climbed to the top of the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles and leapt to his death. Ridley was at his home in France’s Luberon Valley when he first received a panic-stricken phone call from Tony’s wife, Donna, reporting that his brother was missing — the start of what he calls “the worst weekend of my life.”
Speaking publicly about those events for the first time, Scott calls his brother’s death “inexplicable,” while acknowledging that Tony had been fighting a lengthy battle with cancer — a diagnosis the family elected to keep private during his treatments and in the immediate wake of his death. (Scott previously lost his elder brother, Frank, to skin cancer in 1980, at age 45.) “Tony had been very unwell, actually, and that’s the moment I realized I had to get very close to him again, though we were always close,” says Scott, who ends “Exodus” with an onscreen dedication to his younger brother. Most of all, he says, “I miss a friend. I’d go to him even when he was doing his recovery, and I’d say, ‘F— the chemo, have a vodka martini,’ and he and I would go out.”
Talk to enough people about Ridley Scott, and you begin to hear some constant refrains. One is that he knows what he wants and how to get it. Another is his fastidious, almost Kubrickian attention to the smallest details of both design and performance. At his first meeting with Scott, on the stages of London’s Pinewood studios, Edgerton found himself being whisked by the director from one department to another as Scott transformed him into his vision of Ramses, instructing a hairstylist to shave Edgerton’s head, and personally applying black liner to the actor’s eyes.
Gary Oldman, who played a disfigured child-molester in “Hannibal,” Scott’s underrated, darkly funny 2001 sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs,” remembers feeling uncertain about his performance in one scene, only to have Scott assure him that they’d gotten a good take. “He said, ‘No, no, we do have it. I was listening,’ ” Oldman says. “Normally, you would expect a director to say, ‘I was watching,’ but he said, ‘No, I was listening, it’s good, we’ve got it.’ ”
It’s what Scott likes to call “the school of everything” — a certain all-encompassing artistic vision that drew him to the films of Lean, Kubrick and Orson Welles when he was first discovering cinema. “In other words, everything was important, not just the script and the story and the actors, but everything on the screen was suited to the subject,” he says. Little wonder, then, that when he talks about his next project, “The Martian,” he does so with an intricacy of architectural detail that suggests he’s visited the red planet itself. “Oh, I have!” he says, meaning another of the film’s locations, in Wadi Rum, Jordan, where he previously shot scenes for “Prometheus” and where, fittingly, Lean filmed much of “Lawrence.”
Few directors have been plugging away so industriously at or near Scott’s age (he’ll turn 77 on Nov. 30), let alone on projects the size of “Exodus.” Yet it’s one of the curiosities of his career that, for all his success and influence, he has remained something of an outlier with critics and industry tastemakers, who have tended to laud individual films (“Thelma & Louise,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” “American Gangster”) while regarding his body of work with a certain cautious distance — the perception that Scott is more of a highly capable craftsman than a capital-A auteur on par with the masters who inspired him, or his generational contemporaries: Woody Allen, Francis Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese.
It’s been an uneven run for sure — what Hollywood career isn’t? — but if one is to judge Scott by his best work, then he is a filmmaker with few equals. As comfortable in the ancient past as in the distant future, he is the creator of expansive cinematic worlds that, even in his least successful ventures (like 1985’s outre storybook fantasy “Legend”), stretch the imagination and envelop the senses. These are movies in which, as Christopher Nolan recently told the New York Times, “you never feel like you’ve gotten close to the edge of the world.” And they are suffused with images that have burned themselves into our collective cultural consciousness: a chest-ripping stowaway announcing its arrival to the beleaguered crew of the starship Nostromo; spinner cars descending through the rainy, neon-choked vistas of 21st-century Los Angeles; two rebellious travelers in a powder-blue Thunderbird suspended in flight above the Grand Canyon; and, now, 400,000 desert pilgrims of an earlier era trekking toward salvation.
When “The Martian” wraps later this winter, Scott already has a fair idea what he’ll be doing next, though it likely won’t be the much-anticipated “Blade Runner” sequel he developed with the original film’s co-screenwriter, Hampton Fancher. “We talked at length about what it could be, and came up with a pretty strong three-act storyline, and it all makes sense in terms of how it relates to the first one,” says Scott, who adds that fans can expect to see Harrison Ford back in the saddle as the futuristic gumshoe Rick Deckard. “Harrison is very much part of this one, but really it’s about finding him; he comes in in the third act.” Per Scott, that Alcon Entertainment production should go before the cameras within the next year, but with someone else directing (he’ll produce).
Cameron, for one, is eager to see whatever Scott turns his attention to next. “Ridley has continued to be someone I admire more than almost any other director out there,” Cameron says. “Even his minor films I’ll see as promptly as I can, and his major films — his spectacles, or whenever he deigns to do something again in science-fiction — I’ll be first in line. Here’s a guy who’s been vigorous across five decades, and is still going strong. Ridley is who I still aspire to be.”