One of the more widely accepted Hollywood truisms is that directors do not improve with age. Whether it’s due to the lack of desire brought on by material wealth or loss of libido, they lose their artistic edge. From Charlie Chaplin’s A Countess From Hong Kong to Billy Wilder’s Buddy Buddy, a filmmaker’s late-career efforts are typically better left forgotten. It’s what led Quentin Tarantino to declare, “I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker… When directors get out-of-date, it’s not pretty.”
The Martian might change QT’s mind.
At 77, Ridley Scott has somehow managed to helm his best movie since Blade Runner—which came out all the way back in 1982. Boasting eye-catching lensing by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, impeccable production design, and anchored by a towering central performance from Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut presumed dead and left behind on Mars by his crew, The Martian is one of the best films of the year so far; an expertly crafted crowdpleaser that gainted the approval of a particularly tough critic.
“Elon Musk saw it, and he liked it a lot,” recalled Scott. “He told me, ‘Now I’m really determined to go to Mars.’”
When you mention the name “Ridley Scott,” you think of two things: science fiction and kickass heroines. This is, after all, the man who brought us Alien (and Ellen Ripley), Thelma & Louise, the list goes on. The Daily Beast sat down with Scott to discuss his new film and his myriad upcoming projects, including what’s next for the Alien franchise and Blade Runner 2.
I imagine you’re quite selective with your projects these days, and you get sent a ton of screenplays to direct. What attracted you to The Martian?
It’s intimidating as a screenplay, because there’s a lot of voiceover and that can easily get boring. You’ve got to decide how you’re going to do it, and it was a pretty easy solution: If you’re on a habitat, like any good airline you’ll have what’s equivalent to a black box everywhere. So on a habitat you’re going to have the equivalent of fifty GoPros—bathroom, kitchen, sleeping area. If anyone went wrong and you died, they’d want to know how and when. All those GoPros become a companion and it’s like talking to someone instead of a piece of equipment. The other mode of talk is where you do the Captain Kirk ship’s log. So we were able to divide it up.
I’m usually very turned off by 3-D—in particular 3-D transfers. I view it as price-gouging, and usually the transfer ruins the color and clarity of the film. But The Martian looks fantastic. It’s one of the few true 3-D films, along with Gravity and Avatar. I thought the 3-D in Prometheus was pretty good. I just love it. It’s partly a visual thing—if you know what you’re doing, it’s not complicated. If you don’t know what you’re doing, everything turns into a nightmare. I would never do this, but it’s more successful now to shoot in 2-D and then apply the visual effects, and then you do a transfer. It’s cheaper and more efficient. But I would just shoot in 3-D.
Right. I saw Mad Max: Fury Road in 2-D and was blown away, and then I saw it in 3-D and was disappointed by the poor quality of the transfer.
I was surprised, yeah. It was a bit tacky.
You’re one of those rare male filmmakers who’s always championed female heroes onscreen, and in The Martian we see that again in Jessica Chastain’s character. She’s the female mission commander, and that’s not something you’d see in a lot of films.
She’s the captain of the ship. And it’s totally acceptable today—you’d better have it, actually. It’s not a gendered industry now. With NASA, it’s like having a female or a male golfer where it’s not so much about strength, it’s about accuracy or intellectual capability or cleverness, and that’s neither male nor female. I always saw Commander Lewis as a woman. I saw it immediately.
Did being raised by a strong mother foster this love of cinema heroines?
My Mom was very strong. My Dad was away often in the army. When we didn’t follow him around, my Mom was the one who was the leader of the pack in this house of three boys. And she was tough. I got a belt and I got the stick. To me, it was a medal of honor—if I had a bruise on my ass from a cane? It was normal. But I’m very comfortable with women, and I’m in business still in commercial advertising in New York and London. Funnily enough, the best man got the job and they’re all women. With Alien, it was a fairly fresh idea at the time. Ripley was supposed to be a man, so I said, “Well, let’s make her a woman.” That was seen as fairly revolutionary. But to be fair, the studio really went along with it. And then I had to find the woman, and I found Sigourney [Weaver]. She came along in high heels with this afro and was like seven-foot-two. I thought, “This is it.”
You mentioned your career in commercial advertising, and you’re responsible for directing arguably the most famous commercial in history: Apple’s “1984” commercial introducing the Macintosh.
And look how far they’ve come! Now they’re the company at the top of the Fortune 500. They’ve just finished the film [Jobs] that sounds pretty interesting. They wanted to play “1984” in it, but of course Apple wouldn’t agree because they’re not happy about the direction that the film takes. It’s about his daughter, which is an odd choice because he was a genius designer and visionary. I think he was difficult. I never met him, although I knew Woz. They didn’t get the commercial because I never showed the product, never mentioned the product, and never said what the ad was about. All it was was “Apple.” I asked [Jobs], “What is this? The Beatles?” and he said, “No, it’s for a computer.” And I said, “What for? The wife’s gonna have a computer at home to write a bloody shopping list?” And he said, “Yeah.” Then I said, “How much is it?” “$2,500.” I said, “It’s too expensive.” And it was. That was his first problem. But Jobs was unique. It was fun doing it.
Were you ever offered to direct, say, a Star Wars film or a superhero movie?
It does seem like we’ve entered this crazy, oversaturated era of superhero movies.
Well, you know it’s the hardest thing to write—to take a comic strip and adapt it into something that’s cohesive and makes sense, instead of just relying on visual effects and otherwise it’s bloody silly, you’re reinventing the context, and reinventing the truth of that particular subject. I did it once because I thought Blade Runner was a terrific comic strip.
I saw the restored Blade Runner in theaters recently in London. It looked fantastic.
Oh it did, did it? We made that for I think it was $19 million, which wasn’t a ton back then. Harrison [Ford] had just done Indiana Jones. Harrison turned up at night with the hat on, unshaved, and in a leather jacket to have dinner with me in London. I said, “What are you doing?” and he said, “I’m doing this Indiana Jones gig.” And I cast him. Oddly, Star Wars hadn’t made him a big star at that point, and my partner even said, “Who the hell is Harrison Ford?”
I’m curious why, with the Blade Runner sequel, you decided to pass directorial duties on to Denis Villeneuve?
I had to because I’ve got other business. I have to do Prometheus 2 now, otherwise it’s getting too long away from the previous one. If I put it off it’ll be another two years. And I think Denis is a good choice.
Where does your fascination with science fiction come from?
It’s a different universe. I like to raise the bar in whatever I do, and I think science fiction is a different arena for theater—sort of like a western, and I’d love to do a western. But the actual theater of westerns was very much run dry by television and film through the ‘40s and ‘50s, and then it started to disappear in the ‘60s when cop stuff took over, and now the cops have become the cowboys. Will we ever return to westerns the way they were? No. Will I ever see a good western again? I hope so.
You haven’t seen a good western recently? Well, I adapted Blood Meridian with Bill Monahan, and Cormac McCarthy is one of the more unusual writers that I think the world has; unforgiving narratives where you don’t explain any of the bad news—violence is what it is. Blood Meridian is about how this land was taken from the indigenous peoples with no mercy. But I don’t think it will ever happen. I found it very hard to get it financed. It’s so bloody. I did The Counselor, and I was very, very happy with The Counselor. I think it was very cynical and too nihilistic for some people, but I like nihilistic. What the fuck! Apocalypse Now is nihilistic. Godfather is nihilistic. There’s no way Al Pacino is ever a nice guy, and they made the mafia king.
It’s all over television as well, with shows like Breaking Bad.
Yeah. That’s why I thought it would really fly as a film, but it’s got its fans. A very good Spanish director has seen it 34 times. He keeps writing me and saying, “I study it because of its minimalism and its drama.” I’m actually going to be working again with Michael Fassbender in February on Prometheus 2. It’s written, so I’m not chugging along and trying to work out where we’re going to do it. With something like that, it’s six-month prep. We’re going to call it Alien: Paradise Lost. We’re getting closer and closer to the creation of the beasts—how and why they were created—and the first Alien film that I made over thirty years ago. And we have Neill Blomkamp’s Alien, which will be out in 2017. We just have the first [screenplay] draft in so far but it looks pretty good.
You have so many upcoming projects you’re attached to, it’s hard to keep track.
There’s a very good book called The Cartel, which is sort of The Godfather of it all and gets down to the conditions of what’s going on with the Mexican drug cartels, and we bought that. I’m very interested in that. There’s a new show out right now, Narcos, that’s not too bad. I think I need to go there, because The Cartel is very definitive. And we bought Flashman. He’s a character who’s the bad guy from Tom Brown’s School Days, and he’s called Flashman. The writer took it on and wrote 10, 12 books that began in the ‘50s and are beloved with a big fan base. That’s a good one for Fassbender. The guy is a rotter and ne’er-do-well, but inordinately handsome and shags everything, but is actually a coward and a liar. You’ve got a perfect rascal.