“I haven’t seen you since Los Angeles — it was like a year and a half ago?” Cooper wonders aloud. “It must have been, because you’ve done both movies since then.”
The Oscar-nominated actor-turned-director of “A Star Is Born” is referring to 84-year-old Scott’s Herculean efforts in filming “The Last Duel” and “House of Gucci” back to back during the pandemic, plus editing them in a mad dash to have both primed for this year’s awards race.
Scott tells Cooper that in the early days of COVID-19, he found himself shacking up in France’s Dordogne region to film “The Last Duel” — an action movie set in the Middle Ages starring Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver — which was “less than a kilometer from where I shot my very first film.” That, coincidentally, was called “The Duelist.”
“The whole experience was terrific, but it was this thing called COVID lurking in this romantically dark landscape,” Scott says of his latest sword-fighting saga. “It was kind of spooky.”
Next came “House of Gucci,” for which Scott cast Lady Gaga in her second lead role in a film (after “A Star Is Born”); she plays Patrizia Reggiani, an Italian social climber who marries into the Gucci family. So naturally, Cooper — who is prepping to direct himself in “Maestro,” a biopic about Leonard Bernstein — traded notes with Scott about working with Gaga.
Bradley Cooper: All those fight sequences in “The Last Duel,” which I find to be just exquisite, that is not a COVID-friendly thing to shoot. How did you pull that off?
Ridley Scott: Matt Damon and Adam Driver were tested constantly. I was tested daily. I made the battle sequences very simple and short because they are purely to say what kind of monster [Damon’s character] Carrouges was for a living. He was a fucking Viking, who went to war to fight for the king of France because he was paid. He needed the money because he was constantly living on the edge of bankruptcy. This is all fact.
I’m working four cameras, which fundamentally will capture any scene in a space. If it gets bigger, I’ll do six. If it gets huge, I’ll do 11. You’ve got to know where to put the cameras, but it means everything is constantly fresh, so you do it four times as opposed to 20. Adam was saying he loves the freedom that the four cameras gave him. He’d never experienced that before. I am continually puzzled about why people don’t embrace that.
Cooper: Certainly, in a scene like that with two people talking, I don’t understand why you don’t do simultaneous coverage. You just take away the element of having to fabricate a moment that already occurred, because it was a good moment and it’ll never happen again.
Scott: I’m neither film trained nor actor trained. My film school was television commercials. I did two and a half thousand commercials, personally. But good ones like Steve Jobs’ “1984” [first Apple] commercial: I always noticed we’d rehearse, and the actor would usually nail it on take one and I wasn’t turning — and that would drive me crazy. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to roll on this.” And we roll and invariably it happens in take one or two.
Cooper: I was talking to a friend the other day, and my friend said this thing very simply — “All we’re trying to do is explore the mysteries of the human experience.” Does that resonate with you at all?
Scott: You come at it from an 180-degree angle [as a] very accomplished actor. I came at it blind, fundamentally not knowing what I was doing, because I was a designer. My big selection would be which table and chairs to choose for the dining room set.
I suddenly got an opportunity to direct celluloid, a television commercial, this thing with Gerber baby foods. I had a little baby sitting there in a rocking chair. I just loved the day, and the child didn’t behave and sputtered porridge all over me, all that shit. But I thought, “This is for me.”
And my next 20 years was doing television advertising. I was 38. I’d been so successful, I could now pay for a screenplay and afford to do a film for nothing but the completion bond. So I simply developed “The Duelists.” I carried it around personally with me, finding a home at Paramount Pictures, who then, that was [Barry] Diller and [Michael] Eisner.
Bradley, you took on a monumental task as a first film. Were you incredibly nervous on that, even though you’re such a practiced actor? Do you listen to people or not when you’re in the driving seat?
Cooper: I spent two years not working on anything other than that movie prior to shooting. Right now, at least in my life, I only know how to do this by taking a lot of time. And also, I saw the movie in my head. I knew the story I wanted to tell deep down, and as long as you have that anchor — you’re really never untethered, and there’s a freedom in that.
What was it like, going from “The Last Duel” to “House of Gucci”? That must have been unique, having Adam in [both].
Scott: I think I gained trust. We trusted each other on “The Last Duel.” It’s not a spoken thing; it’s intuitive. And I think he liked the speed.
Cooper: He’s so impressive. Wow. What an actor.
Scott: I know. I think he was putting on a suit of armor. I said, “I’ve got a script for you to read this weekend.” He said, “What? All right.” So I had him before he finished the movie. He just fits the role — apart from the fact he’s just fucking great, he’s also six-foot-four. So you’ve got Maurizio Gucci, who’s six-foot-four, and you’ve got Patrizia Gucci, who’s five-foot-two or -three, so the yin and the yang of it was perfect.
I love it when he says, “Don’t call me a cretin, sweetie.” And she says, “I didn’t call you a cretin; I said don’t act like a cretin.” Already, she’s vulnerable. Then he says, “It’s my family.” She says, “So am I” — and points at the ring. So you’ve got two massive cracks right there. That’s the beginning of the end.
Cooper: There are so many wonderful moments in “House of Gucci.” Is there one that stands out with you and Stefani [Lady Gaga]?
Scott: There was a moment I thought, “My God, she closed it up.” That was the scene in the schoolyard. Jack Huston turns up in his Porsche to inform her that [Maurizio] is proposing divorce. And she lost it so well and so real that I felt it had to be reflective of something that had happened to her, because it definitely hurt her. And from that moment I was watching her, I felt, “My God, she just owns it.” I think that was one take with a handheld camera. I was saying, “I think you just did it, don’t you?” And she said, “Yes, I did it.” That was it.
Cooper: That’s awesome. For me, with working with her, I remember the thing that blew my mind. It seemed simple but I thought it was a tall order, when my character brings [Ally] onstage for the first time. I truly believed that that person had never been on a stage before.
Scott: That’s right.
Cooper: And I remember thinking, “How is she pulling this off?” That I actually believe on every level — as the director, as the character — that this person has never been in front of 20,000 people before. That was really kind of mind-blowing.
Scott: But you know, for yourself, the hardest thing to do is play a rock star. You actually did it, man. You pulled that off brilliantly. When do you start shooting “Maestro”? You are going to play a conductor; I’m sure you’re definitely going into the physicality of that, right?
Cooper: Oh, man. Yeah. And we’re going to do it all live. We’re going to do the “Adagio.” We’re going to do Mahler’s No. 2, “Resurrection.” We’re going to do “Make Our Garden Grow.” It’s been incredible. I can’t wait.
Scott: And the guy was like a fucking chimney. He’d smoke all the time.
Cooper: He started smoking at 13, Ridley. He had the ashtrays on the bathtub ledge.
Variety Directors on Directors presented by MGM Studios and United Artists Releasing