If Ridley Scott and Danny Boyle wind up facing off against each other for awards this season, it may present a singular event in Oscar history. After all, has one Oscar contender ever figured as prominently in the work of his competitor, especially to the extent that Scott does in Boyle’s “Steve Jobs”?
It was Scott’s fabled “1984” Apple ad — the epic spot in which hammer-thrower Anya Major blew up Big Brother during halftime of Super Bowl XVIII — that announced the arrival of the Macintosh computer and its mastermind, Jobs. While Boyle makes no appearance on the hostile Red Planet of Scott’s “The Martian,” Boyle never worked for NASA. Scott, on the other hand, was a hugely successful and pervasive force in TV advertising, long before “The Duellists,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner” or any of the other pictures that mark his singular career in cinema.
All movies sell their audience something — and not just the dubiously placed commercial products so prevalent in contemporary blockbusters. More fundamentally, audiences are required to buy into a narrative, a character, a universe: If the viewer isn’t persuaded, the picture’s never going to pay off. Few filmmakers can sell a story world like Ridley Scott: Whether it’s nightmarishly futuristic corridors of the “Alien” spacecraft, the mighty ancient colosseums of “Gladiator” or simply the bustling, hustling recreation of 1970s New York City in “American Gangster,” Scott’s films alternate styles and milieux with consistent conviction and visual lustre.
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It’s a facility Scott attributes to his background in television advertising, which the director — himself a graduate of London’s prestigious Royal College of Art — refers to as his own film school education.
“I was out of the era of ‘Mad Men,’” says Scott, who worked in both New York and London during a particularly explosive moment in the history of creative salesmanship. “We were really inventing modern advertising and modern communications. The big question always to me when making a movie now is, ‘Am I communicating?’ And if you’re not communicating you won’t have a film do business and our business is about commerce, not art.” He learned that, he says, from advertising.
Scott started making commercials while moonlighting from the BBC, where he was began his career in 1963 as a trainee, worked as a designer and then, in the late ’60s, became a director of episodic series.
In 1968, with his late brother Tony, he founded the highly successful Ridley Scott Associates. The ads Scott created over the years include Chanel’s classic “Share the fantasy” campaign — one iconic spot, known as “Pool,” was elliptical and suggestive; another, featuring “Charles” and “Catherine,” was equally enigmatic; both suggested the dreamy intentions of “Blade Runner.”
Scott — whose collaborators included directors-to-be Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson, as well as cinematographer Hugh Johnson — also created the enormously popular (in the U.K.) Hovis bread ad called “Bike Round”; and, of course, in 1984 there was “1984.”
“People at that time said TV commercial breaks were better than the programs,” Scott recalls. “In doing that, I learned to address the most basic question: Am I communicating, or am I going over your head? And that’s what all filmmakers face.”
Scott says prior to his feature debut with the Cannes-honored “The Duellist” (1977), he probably made 2,000 commercials; he was 42 before he made “Alien.”
“I stayed in it for 20 years because I just loved it,” the director says. “I was working in film, working on celluloid, I was working in quick time. They were very competitive days. Today you’re considered busy if you’re doing 12 bits a year; in those days I would be doing, personally, 100 commercials a year, averaging two a week. And they were big.”
Scott says he produced every kind of ad, and acquired much from them — including, he informs, a sense of confidence.
“You don’t get to make 2,000 films in a lifetime,” he explains. “And I was obsessed with commercials. And the ones we made 30 years ago are pretty good today. They don’t age. I would obsess over details, not just who the actor was, or how beautiful the model was.” Among his Chanel models was the actress Carole Bouquet.
“But I also learned about process, which is everything,” he says. “You can talk yourself blue in the face at film school, you can talk yourself blue in the face at drama school, but you’ll never learn till you go out and do it. You can converse all you want about the mountain, but till you get on it, and start climbing, you don’t know shit.”
If Scott was part of a generation of visually distinctive British filmmakers who emerged from the ranks of advertising, critics often took them to task for prioritizing style over substance, beginning with “The Duellists.”
“At that time, we were influencing the way feature films looked, but I was always criticized for being too visual,” Scott says. “They said it was too beautiful, too image-driven. And I thought, ‘What the f— does that mean?’ Just because I could shoot better than most people — which is what made me such an employable commercial director — didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in story. I still feel that way. I’m not making a radio play, I’m making a movie.”