Film: Scott of the arch antics
Jake Scott, son of Ridley, has just made his first feature film, Plunkett & Macleane. It's MTV meets The Scarlet Pimpernel. But that wasn't the plan.
Thursday 01 April 1999
"Good," he says. "That's good."
Jake Scott is hunkered on a settee in his office, waiting to see where this is going. He knows that, whenever his name is mentioned, it will be followed by the fact that he's the son of Ridley (Alien, Blade Runner) and nephew of Tony (Top Gun, True Romance). The Scotts are just about the only cinematic dynasty the UK has, and this generates expectations, as well as irritation in the envious world of movie-making. And Jake's admits that doors that might be locked to others have opened for him, though his debut was made not for his father's company but with the Polygram- owned Working Title.
The picture that resulted is a speedy swashbuckler, a crowd-pleaser, not a brain-teaser. As with any newcomer lucky enough to be given a budget and great actors (Robert Carlyle is Plunkett, Jonny Lee Miller plays Macleane, Liv Tyler and the redoubtable Ken Stott are in there, too), Jake had to recoup the money invested, which meant fulfilling certain commercial requirements. For example, much of the music is upbeat, funky house, a come-on for the Nineties audience. Baz Luhrmann's acclaimed Romeo & Juliet pulled a similar time-clash trick, but had Shakespeare on its side. And even Jake's father had complaints. Jake was called up by Ridley, a man famous for having the nerve to underlight his work (last scenes of Alien: unrelieved shadow) and told: "It's much too dark."
Jake roars with laughter at this point. "I said: 'It's not too dark, Dad. You just got old'."
Still, it all means the boy is sitting here beating himself up over what makes a good first film.
"What I was trying to do was make a punk movie, something anarchic, as well as wildly anachronistic." He sighs. "Listen, I know the thing has its problems. But it's not a deep human drama. It's a romp, it's a western - highwaymen are our native cowboys. I love cinema and I wanted to make something really cinematic, and I think I achieved that. Yeah, I want to make The Thin Red Line one day, or Nil By Mouth. But I couldn't have managed it as a first feature, and that's the truth."
If he sounds defensive, it may be because something closer to those is what Scott originally had in mind. The music he'd planned was a far cry from the current hip-hop soundtrack.
"I'd started working with Nick Cave... We wanted to use an out of tune violin stringed with catgut, penny whistles, the bodhran and distorted electric guitar. Cave has fantastic Gothic melodrama, and exactly the right folklore touch - the blood on her dress, the moonlight.
"But Working Title began to feel they were spending $15m (pounds 9m) on an art movie, which is when I realised I had a responsibility. I was persuaded to change my mind." He looks at his feet and shrugs. "They're probably right, Nick Cave doesn't have mass appeal. So I met with Craig Armstrong, whose work I love (Armstrong has written for Massive Attack, and collaborated on the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack). Now the tone is lighter, and people have a good time. But the whole thing was a powerful lesson."
Rumours remain rife about head-to-head confrontations between the director and big-shot producer Eric Fellner. "I was a pain in the arse for him. You'd hear us in the editing room at Goldcrest on Dean Street - shouts of: 'Fuck you, man!'"
Still, Scott is a modest fellow, and concerned not to seem to be bellyaching. He tugs at his beard.
"There were battles, but that's the world you're in. I'm grateful I was given this opportunity."
It wouldn't necessarily have come automatically, though people tend to think otherwise. Jake's parents separated when he was six. He and his siblings were brought up by Ridley, who remarried. Father and son sound like hard work; but their common ground was a love of celluloid.
"I was expelled from public school for all-round bad behaviour. I wasn't academic, and I wanted to get on with working in film - I thought of Chaucer as Bergman's Seventh Seal."
Ridley wasn't blameless here, having given Jake a walk-on in The Duellists in 1977; a little later, he let Jake appear in Alien. ("All the wide shots when the crew leave the Nostromo and go inside the alien spacecraft were us kids.")
Scott senior set exacting standards by example. "He's from the north of England, and he's got a strong work ethic; it didn't matter what we did as long as we applied ourselves. Sometimes he didn't think I was doing that. He'd say to me - I was a punk, and I dressed quite outlandishly, I suppose - he'd look at me and say (slight sneer): 'Man, you sure do dress famous.' My family's all very competitive. Dad doesn't offer compliments, either. You do something good and he'll go: 'Yeah, it's all right.'"
Jake stirs his coffee. "But he never stood in my way. Never forced his opinions on me. He's a man who leaves you alone to figure things out, but if I ask, he'll give advice. I showed him a post-production cut of Plunkett and he suggested things. I'm very lucky. I tried all of his ideas. Some worked, and some didn't."
Jake may be speaking like a guy with limited experience; in fact, he spent years making award-winning ads before turning to award-winning rock videos (for REM, U2, the Stones, The Verve).
He has homes in London, New York and LA, which is where he's principally based with his French girlfriend and their baby daughter. He's intelligent and humorous and spends 15 minutes of his interview time talking about the situation in Kosovo. Returning to the matter at hand, he lets me in on his initial paralysis around actors he admires.
"The first day I directed a scene with Ken Stott, I was absolutely terrified. Did you see him in the West End in Art? God, he's brilliant. So you're standing on the set, and you're, like, really prepared," He demonstrates teeth-gritted tension. "And Ken said quietly: 'It's all right, Jake. Don't worry, it's all right'."
Jake Scott will probably worry anyway. But that's not a bad sign at all.
'Plunkett & Macleane' is reviewed on page 10
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