No project is off limits to Ridley Scott. Over the course of his 35-year filmmaking career, the English auteur has dazzled audiences with his thrillingly diverse oeuvre, tackling everything from science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner) and sword-and-sandals epics (Gladiator) to modern warfare (Black Hawk Down). He is probably the closest thing to this generation’s Kubrick.
Another thing that sets Scott apart is his reliance on strong women. He created the modern Hollywood action heroine with Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, in 1979’s Alien, and has continued to champion strong female protagonists in films like Thelma & Louise, G.I. Jane, and Hannibal.
After 30 years, the acclaimed director has decided to return to the genre where he made his name with one of this summer’s most anticipated films, Prometheus. The film follows the crew of the spaceship Prometheus as they explore an ancient alien civilization in order to trace the origins of the human race and, in fitting fashion, a kick-ass female character, the archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), takes the lead. Accompanying her on the mission is David, an android (played by Michael Fassbender), and Meredith Vickers (played by Charlize Theron), a villainous Weyland Corporation employee sent to monitor it.
In an in-depth interview with The Daily Beast, Ridley Scott opens up about why it took him so long to return to sci-fi, the mysteries of Prometheus—and its connection to the Alien franchise, why he loves featuring bad-ass women, his upcoming biopic with Angelina Jolie, and much more.
This is your first go at sci-fi since Blade Runner in 1982. Why did you finally decide to return to the genre?
Funny enough, the reason why I didn’t do sci-fi sooner is I was engaged in other things, and I would’ve always been involved if someone came around and had a good idea. For Prometheus, I came back to a very simple question that haunted me that appears in the first Alien, and no one answered in subsequent Alien films: who was the ”Space Jockey”—the big guy in the seat? If you really go into that, it becomes the basis for a pretty interesting story. When I went to the studio, we didn’t know if it was going to be a sequel or a prequel.
Were you initially reluctant to make another Alien film considering how the brand’s been treated in the years since, with films like Alien vs. Predator and Alien: Resurrection?
Listen, you do whatever you gotta do to keep something going, and I don’t do that. I tend to make the film and move on. Ironically, here we are over 30 years later and I think you might not even argue it’s a prequel. Once you start into the evolution of the story, it moves so far away from Alien that there’s only the mere DNA of the original in Prometheus.
Are there any similarities between Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the protagonist in Prometheus, and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from Alien?
The similarity between Elizabeth Shaw and Ripley is only by definition—that there’s a female in the lead. I wasn’t looking to repeat anything. I came across Noomi by accident when I was watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo about two years ago and was pretty taken with this little punk in the lead who seemed to own the street. As a protagonist, she’s a very physical woman who’s almost as agile as an acrobat and keeps herself enormously fit. She’s also got a real brain in her head. No one’s going to be disappointed in this one. It’s odd because Sigourney is about six feet and Noomi is about five-foot-five, but you don’t notice the difference on screen! And she sure does kick some ass in this movie—again and again. Her character evolves in a very clever way.
You’re often credited with giving birth to the modern Hollywood female action hero with the Ellen Ripley character in Alien. She was a new breed of woman onscreen—an androgynous ass-kicker.
Ripley was androgynous, and she didn’t emerge until she shouted at Yaphet Kotto to “Shut the f--k up!” and that was well into the second act. This rather pretty woman who everyone assumed in the first act was going to be one of the first ones to cop it gradually starts to take up the mantle, and the weapon. To me, it’s always organic and not a specific decision to make her female, but afterwards, there’s always 20/20 hindsight, isn’t there? I read with slightly raised eyebrows the surprise and the power about having a female lead instead of a male lead, and it refocused my awareness about what we’ve done. It was a calculated risk as well in a film that’s fundamentally a traditional “who’s going to be the last one standing in a big, dark house.” In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was significantly frightening for me at that particular point cause I looked at it just prior to making Alien, that girl was still standing at the end covered in blood, but she’d survived rather than won. The difference with Ripley was that she had won and survived.
What draws you to these strong female protagonists?
I’m used to very strong women because my mother was particularly strong, and my father was away all the time. My mother was a big part of bringing up three boys, so I was fully versed in the strength of a powerful woman, and accepted that as the status quo. I think there are a lot of men who feel they’re being emasculated by having the woman be in charge; I’ve never had that problem. All the relationships in my life have been with strong women, from childhood. The relationship I’ve had in my life for the past 30 years is with a very strong Costa Rican woman. Oddly enough, I find it quite engaging to be working with a female when I’m directing. It’s kind of interesting.
There’s such a rich history of female leads in your films, from Alien and Thelma and Louise all the way to G.I. Jane and Hannibal.
The evolution of taking the side of the woman, as far as my career’s concerned, is epitomized by Thelma & Louise. The budget was very slender—about $15 million—because nobody wanted to make it. I first came on as producer, and I was selling the notion to four or five male directors—this was made over 20 years ago, so there weren’t many female directors to do it—that the movie should be an epic about two women on their journey for freedom. One director who turned me down said, “I’ve got a problem with the women,” and I said, “Well you’re meant to, you dope!” So I thought that I should direct it myself.
Have you found it more or less difficult to get a project green-lighted with a female lead these days?
It’s far more considered normal to have a female in the lead, and yet, studios will always look at the bottom line and the value of a female lead versus a male lead globally, because none of the budgets for these films are getting any smaller, so they have to take into account the bottom line from a business standpoint. For Prometheus, it was already written in there that the lead probably ought to be female, and that the two central characters in it would have a relationship—Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall Green. They have two headsets in terms of the way they look at life and evolution, in that: one believes in God and the other doesn’t and one believes we were a petri dish at some point in time, and another believes we were somehow created. That’s the yin and the yang of it.
And your next project, after the Cormac McCarthy adaptation, The Counselor, also boasts a strong female lead.
I’m working on a project with Angelina Jolie called Gertrude Bell, which is a very interesting period piece of a woman in the 1900s whose tramping ground was very much part of Mesopotamia, which we now know of as Iraq. She’s involved with a person called King Faisal, and she was partly instrumental in seeing him to the throne of Iraq. She’s an important political figure.
What about the rumored Blade Runner sequel?
Funny enough, I started my first meetings on the Blade Runner sequel last week. We have a very good take on it. And we’ll definitely be featuring a female protagonist.