NEW YORK — Ridley Scott, one of the supreme stylists of contemporary cinema, has tackled everything from the ancient past (Gladiator, which won five Oscars, including Best Picture) to the distant future (Blade Runner, Alien). But Scott, whose credits also include Black Hawk Down, Thelma and Louise, Legend, Matchstick Men and the recent Crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven, has rarely ventured into the laid-back world of romantic comedy.
Now he's jumped in the deep end with his new film A Good Year, which reunites him with Gladiator actor Russell Crowe. The film tells the tale of Max Skinner, a driven London banker (Crowe) who chucks it all when he inherits a small vineyard in Provence from his late uncle.
Based on the best seller of the same name by Peter Mayle, whose storyline was initially suggested by Scott over "a boozy lunch," A Good Year was shot on location in Provence where the director spends part of every year. Here, in an exclusive interview conducted while the director was in Manhattan shooting American Gangster, Scott talks about making his new film, his love of post, and his long and illustrious career. The film opened on November 10.
POST: This is the first film you've shot in France since your feature debut, 1977's The Duellists. How was it different this time?
RIDLEY SCOTT: "I shot my first film in the Dordogne and it rained for 58 days, so that's how I got that wonderful, soft, misty light as it was pissing down. On this one, we caught the cusp of autumn in Provence, which is a totally different experience because the weather is just fabulous. The serious summer heat is gone and you're into a very pleasant time when you can still swim in the pool, so it was perfect for this story."
POST: Was it difficult shooting on location in Provence?
SCOTT: "We shot for nine weeks at this chateau and vineyard in Luberon, and it was pretty straightforward. We got all the camera gear through Arriflex, as usual. Some gear came from Paris, some direct from Munich. If I'm shooting something in North Africa, Arri sends me brand-new cameras."
POST: Your DP was Philippe Le Sourd, who had never shot a big studio feature before. How did that relationship work?
SCOTT: "We worked very well together. He's done a ton of music videos and commercials, and he happens to be the main DP in my daughter's life. Jordan's a director and she'd worked with him on several spots, including a big project for Prada in Berlin, which I saw. And I was very impressed with his work, and I also liked the fact that he's also an operator-cameraman, like Bob Richardson.
"With DPs I'm involved in everything from stocks to lens choices and lining up a shot, and all my boards are very specific. I was a camera operator, and I can't separate myself from that, and I still like to operate. I did operate on all my films, right up to the monster shoots like Gladiator or Kingdom. On huge films like those, with six to eleven cameras, it's just not practical for me to operate, though. It's faster for me to sit in 'the video village' and I can talk to the operators and go, 'You're too wide. You're too tight,' and so on. If I operate, I have to keep going back to the video village, checking out what everyone else shot, and it takes too long. On this, Philippe was a very good operator, and shoots in a way that almost gives it the quality of stills, though everything's on the move the whole time. But he's also a very good still photographer, and we got a very beautiful look."
POST: Let's talk about post. Do you like it?
SCOTT: "I love it, and I love editing. I love the whole experience of adding the music and audio and then mixing. In fact, to be honest, I'm beginning to enjoy post more now than actually filming. Shooting is always a pain in the ass one way or another. But I think that post and the mix, when the pressure's all over — and provided you've got all the coverage you need — is really great. I always look forward to post now, and I'm very excited about cutting my next film, American Gangster, which I'm doing now."
POST: Where did you post A Good Year?
SCOTT: "We did it at my offices in LA where we're all set up with editing rooms and so on, and we did it very quickly. We had a cut to show the studio very soon after shooting, and they liked it a lot — to the extent that we didn't even bother doing previews."
POST: Your editor Dody Dorn also cut Kingdom and Matchstick Men. Why do you like using her so much?
SCOTT: "She's like Pietro Scalia, who I'm working with again on American Gangster. They're both very creative editors, and they both really take care of business. You want a nice tough, strong editor working with me [laughs] as usually there's such a massive amount of footage, and neither of them take any prisoners, which is good. So it all moves along like lightning, which I like, and I like the creative discussions we have. Dody came on location with us in Provence, and set up her whole Avid suite in the next village. Basically with all the technology today, even on a big film all you need is four or five rooms, max. So we had a rough assembly before we even left France to shoot the final eight days in London. I like them to get on with it, as I'm watching rushes every evening and basically seeing sophisticated assemblies as we go. Then you put all those assemblies together and you're seeing the total film. At that point, if it's well-assembled so all the scenes work, it's way too long, then you decide what you have to nibble away at, and the rest of the edit is a nibbling process."
POST: Compared with most of your films, this has very few visual effects shots.
SCOTT: "Yes, but there are still a few, mainly teeny-weeny silly stuff, like the screen running in the trees when they go out on the date. You can't project stuff like that properly. Invisible Effects in London did them all."
POST: The Mill, obviously, got out of feature film VFX. Now you have others do your VFX.
SCOTT: "Here's the truth: I'm still vaguely part of Mill, but they basically got out of the business of doing visual effects for movies, even though their first film job, Gladiator, won them the Oscar. Why? Because there's no bloody money in it! The bottom line is piracy! It's stolen; it's so hard. Everyone dreams of these vast budgets you have to play with but at the end of the day, everyone is bidding against everyone else, so it's like advertising — there's no bottom line anymore. But Mill does really well in advertising as they have a major market share, but movies? Forget it!"
POST: Did you do a DI on A Good Year?
SCOTT: "Yes, at Modern Videofilm in LA, with colorist Skip Kimball [who used da Vinci Resolve]. He has great artistry and endless patience. The big advantage for me of doing a DI is if, say, you're shooting a natural interior with a window and you want to play it moody — and the exterior is still going to blow as in Provence it's going to be six stops difference — you can actually pull the exterior of the window back a bit. Film stock is wonderfully across-the-board at 500 ASA, and we were using a lot of that, and it has great tolerance. But it doesn't have that much tolerance, and so you lose a lot. So it's good that today, with the DI, you can just do a little diagram and then pull the exterior down a bit. It's very helpful and a very good tool."
POST: What are the biggest technical changes you've seen over the years?
SCOTT: "Digital, obviously… Avid, digital sound. That's huge, like the advent of sound in silent film. And as technology changes, you have more options, but you've got to be careful you don't overuse and abuse it. CGI's a tool. I don't think it's an end in itself, and I think you can get films that are just driven by tricks and visual effects, and my films try to be driven by material and characters."
POST: You mentioned earlier that you love the music and audio aspect of post.
SCOTT: "I do. Marc Streitenfeld, who did the score on this, was my music supervisor on many of my films before, like Kingdom and Matchstick Men, and he was the music editor on Hannibal and Black Hawk Down, and during that time I began to notice just how talented he was. He's very catholic in his tastes, which I like. He used to work with Hans Zimmer, so I offered him the score on this. And while it was a bit of a risk, as it was his first, I also thought it'd be no risk because of his great musical taste. And I get very involved in all that, and now he's doing the score for American Gangster. We scored all the music at Abbey Road in London, and then mixed on the Fox lot."
POST: Talking of backlots, how's the Shepperton-Pinewood complex doing?
SCOTT: "It's up and down. Since Tony [my brother] and I bought it [as part of a consortium], we've had a lot of production, but there's been a lot of competition because of cheap pricing in middle Europe. But right now we're doing damn well, as finally we're getting more assistance from the government who're putting their hands in their pockets and encouraging filmmakers to come in, and who are finally acknowledging that there is a film industry — not an art form, but an industry. It employs a lot of talented people, and we're back up to speed now."
POST: Scott Free Productions, which you formed back in 1995 with your brother Tony, is doing a lot of TV production, like CBS's Numb3rs. Are you going to do more?
SCOTT: "Yes, and I love it. Right now I'm also doing this new series called The Company, out next year on TNT, which follows five characters and how they get recruited into the CIA in the late '50s. We're about halfway through the shoot, directed by Mikael Salomon, who's excellent. He's shooting for five months in Russia, Prague and Toronto, and I visit the sets whenever I can. And we're doing another project for CBS, and maybe an episode of Churchill, so there's a lot going on."
POST: How do you view the state of Hollywood today?
SCOTT: "Budgets are getting very tight, and it's all being run more and more by accounting because budgets got so high. But then the studios let that happen. The average film now costs over $40 million, which is crazy!"
POST: How has your filmmaking style evolved over the years?
SCOTT: "Not much. I was nearly 40 when I first started directing movies, and my only regret today is that I didn't start sooner. I arrived with no formal training, other than art direction in TV and 16 years of very competitive advertising and commercials. I must have done over 2,000 — about 100 a year, and that was film school for me where I learned to light and operate fast, and shoot in every possible set and location. I'd use just one camera back on films like The Duellists because that's all we could afford — one Arri and a backup body. It was a very beautiful film although, I got beat up because of that. But that's what I feel I bring to all my films, a certain kind of visual beauty, so I shouldn't be ashamed of it. Alien was also just one camera. Blade Runner was just one camera, and the DP Jordan Cronenwerth was a total classicist. It began to shift into two on Legend, and then I realized it made great sense, especially when you do a movie with a lot of dialogue. So it was very logical, and also a great way to capture those magic moments between actors. By the time I did Black Hawk Down I knew I had to change gear to get that documentary look, and we used 11 cameras simultaneously."
POST: What's the status of Gladiator 2?
SCOTT: "I don't know. Where there's a will, it could happen, and happen with Russell. There's a way of doing it."
POST: Tell us about American Gangster.
SCOTT: "It's a true story about two characters who are both still alive and who visit me on the set. One was the overlord of the heroin industry in New York in the early '70s until he was finally caught by the other, a cop now turned prosecutor. It's a great story, and it's going really well. I'm shooting at 176 locations all over New York, so it's very complicated, and Pietro Scalia is cutting as we go. When we finish shooting in a month, we'll take it back to LA and finish posting there. I like to post either there or in London, and with this it makes sense in LA as it's a Universal release.
POST: Do you think film as a medium is dead?
SCOTT: "Yes. The fact we're still trying to capture an image with a piece of celluloid that can break and get dust damage and so on is nonsense. So its days are numbered. Looking ahead, I'd like to shoot something with Viper, but I would miss working on a set. I'd find it very hard to just work with greenscreen all day long, every day, so it'll be a hard transition for me. Half the fun for me is finding a location or building a great set. I'm actually a classicist in terms of my views, and I always hang onto what Doug Trumbull said, 'Keep it real if you can — it's cheaper and better."
POST: What are the high spots in your
SCOTT: [Laughs] "Getting employed each time! I accepted Gladiator on the spot, without even having a script, because the bell rang and I thought, 'I know what to do with this.' Same with Alien. On paper it's really a B movie — big monster kills people, but I knew I could make it work, with great sets and sound editing and so on. I got such a thrashing after Blade Runner that I thought I'd really screwed up, although in the making of it and mixing and editing I knew I'd made a good movie. Looking back I feel that at that particular moment in time, the movie was too dark and the visual information was too dense, and one of the problems was that the world we created was so different that it overpowered what was a fairly straightforward story. But then after seven or eight years, I noticed that it started to leak into other movies and into music videos, and then it took on this life of its own. I've never regretted any film I've made. They're all equally important."