×

Ridley Scott Honed His Craft in Commercials for Apple and More

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.

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.”

More Film

  • For web story

    'The Burnt Orange Heresy,' With Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland, to Close Venice

    “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” starring Mick Jagger as a reclusive art dealer alongside Elizabeth Debicki (“Widows”), Claes Bang (“The Square”) and Donald Sutherland, has been selected as the Venice Film Festival closer.  The English-language art heist movie marks Italian director Giuseppe Capotondi’s first time back at Venice since 2009, when his debut feature film, the [...]

  • A woman prays at a makeshift

    Kyoto Animation Death Toll Rises to 34; Suspect Still Too Injured to Be Questioned

    Shinji Aoba, the man suspected of setting a fire that killed 34 people at the Kyoto Animation studio, remains hospitalized and too injured to be officially arrested and questioned. Police in Kyoto have obtained an arrest warrant for Aoba but cannot serve it because of his condition. Police sources have raised the death toll from [...]

  • Azania Muendane

    Locations Africa Expo Sends Message in Durban: ‘Africa is Ready’

    DURBAN–The first edition of the Locations Africa Expo and Conference was held this week during the Durban FilmMart, with an eye toward identifying and growing the opportunities to lure incoming productions to the continent. “Locations Africa is trying to service a need on the continent to discuss the physical production…on the ground, highlighting film commissions, [...]

  • The Lion King

    China Box Office: 'Looking Up' Is Surprise Weekend Winner Ahead of 'Lion King'

    Actor and comedian Deng Chao underlined his enduring popularity with mainstream Chinese audiences by delivering a surprise No. 1 box-office hit in “Looking Up” over the weekend. It scored $38.6 million in its opening frame, according to data from consultancy Artisan Gateway, and displaced “The Lion King” from its perch. “Looking Up” is a family [...]

  • Unathi Malonga

    Report Urges South African Media to ‘Step Up’ Against Gender Violence

    DURBAN–In a country with some of the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the world, South African media must step up and play a greater role in the fight against gender inequality and gender-based violence. That was the conclusion of a report, “Gender, Diversity and Gender-based Violence in South African TV,” that was [...]

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Leaders Approve Proposal for New Film-TV Contract

    The SAG-AFTRA national board has approved proposals for a successor deal to its master contract covering feature film and primetime television — a key step in the upcoming negotiations cycle with companies. The board approved the package Saturday with the performers union declining to reveal any specifics — its usual policy. The board established the wages [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content