Is Ridley Scott the most macho man in movies?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

His cinematic CV is unparalleled. Yet the Alien director is still obsessed with beating his rivals, he tells Tim Walker.

Sir Ridley Scott starts his day like a CEO. Wherever he is in the world, he's on the phone at 6am, to his offices in London, Los Angeles, New York and/or Hong Kong. If he's in LA, he talks to London for two hours. If he's in London, say, making a movie, he calls LA for an hour in the morning from the back of his chauffeur-driven car, customised to contain the essential fixtures of an executive suite.

When the shoot wraps for the night, he's back in the car, on with LA again. He gets home, he eats, and he's tucked up by 10pm, alarm clock set for 5.30 the following morning. Now 74, he's a great believer in the importance of sleep; he never goes out on weeknights while he's in production. "I'm very diligent about that," he says.

His company, Ridley Scott Associates (RSA), employs 60 directors: commercial, music video and movie directors, of course, not corporate ones. He's a major shareholder and co-chairman of the consortium that owns Pinewood and Shepperton studios. There are currently four RSA-backed shows on television, including The Good Wife and Numb3rs. He's produced four films in 2012, directed one of them, and his next project is already deep into pre-production. At this precise moment, he's busy pulling the promotional strings for what's probably the most feverishly anticipated film of his career: Prometheus, aka "the Alien prequel".

Besides the usual hyperbole that accompanies a Hollywood summer blockbuster, the Prometheus marketing campaign includes three intriguing viral ads, each produced in-house by RSA: a fictional TED talk with Sir Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the multi-trillionaire entrepreneur who funds the film's mission to a distant planet, in search of the origins of life on Earth; an advertisement for an eighth-generation Weyland android, 'David' (Michael Fassbender), who accompanies the crew of the Prometheus on that mission; and a clip of archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) being interviewed by Weyland for a position in that crew.

"I'm involved in everything you see," says Sir Ridley, who might just as well be the model for Sir Peter. In fact, I wouldn't put it past him to have personally organised this press junket at a hotel in Soho. The two of us are eating cupcakes, home-baked by one of the publicists – at Scott's instigation? Not inconceivable. Forget for a moment, if that's possible, his onscreen achievements: the meticulously crafted worlds, the epic stories, the formidable characters like Ripley, Deckard, or f Maximus Decimus Meridius. Off-screen, his career has been driven and defined by money, expert management, and fierce competition. "I'm a dyed-in-the-wool businessman," he admits. If he weren't a filmmaker, Scott would be Alan Sugar.

His directing career began in television during the 1960s, where he helmed episodes of the police procedural Softly, Softly, and a pair of Wednesday plays for the BBC. But he was, he recalls, quickly seduced by what he could earn in commercials: "Fourteen times more than as a television director! I thought, 'There's something seriously wrong here'." Before long, he was making 100 ads a year. "Today, you're thought to be busy if you do 12." The discipline taught him efficiency: he rarely shoots more than three takes of any scene ("Anybody who does 90 takes has a problem"), and he's proud of his capacity to create blockbusters on modest budgets. He brought in Gladiator, for instance, at $106m (£66.5m). "Some people would have spent $250m (£157m), in a heartbeat. Just by sheer inefficiency. Unbelievable. Shocking."

In 1967, he and his younger brother Tony established RSA, and began to represent some of their fellow ad directors. Thus he made money not only from his own ads, but from Hugh Hudson's and Alan Parker's, too. It was fear of being outdone by his frenemies, however, that finally spurred him to sacrifice his advertising income, and develop his first feature film, The Duellists (1977).

"I have a healthy competitive nature," he says. "And Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne got films going before me, the fuckers. When someone told me Alan was doing Bugsy Malone, I couldn't sleep for weeks. Then Adrian started doing Foxes, and I couldn't sleep for weeks again. I thought, 'I'm 39, and I'm never going to get to direct a film'. So I stopped making commercials completely for almost a year and a half to get The Duellists going. It cost me a fortune."

Scott self-funded the screenplay, which was based on a Joseph Conrad short story about two duelling French officers in the Napoleonic era. And when he found a studio willing to produce it, he waived his directing fee to get it made. The financial risk paid off. The Duellists won the award for Best Debut at the Cannes Film Festival, and its director was recommended to 20th Century Fox for their latest science-fiction project. He was the studio's fifth choice, behind celebrated veterans Walter Hill and Robert Altman. They declined the offer. Scott leapt at it. The film was Alien.

Fox wasn't entirely confident about its new employee. After Scott persuaded studio head Alan Ladd, Jr to spend an extra half a million dollars on a new final sequence – in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is attacked by the titular monster in an escape shuttle – he announced that he planned to kill off the film's gutsy heroine.

"I thought that when the alien went for her in the shuttle, he should actually slam his fist through her helmet and kill her. Then you cut to the desk, and a shadow of the alien's head comes over, and the finger of the alien starts tapping out coordinates, with obvious intelligence... But when I suggested that to the studio, they had an executive out there on set within 24 hours, saying, 'You will not do that!'. And I guess they were right, because Sigourney made a great run of Ripley."

The film established Scott's reputation for masterly mise-en-scène. He worked with the designer HR Giger to create the iconic alien, but he had once been a designer at the BBC himself, where, but for a scheduling conflict, he would have designed another iconic species of space monster, the Daleks.

"I wanted Alien to be all about claustrophobia," he explains. "I remember going round measuring the heights of the ceilings, saying to the set-builders, 'I said seven-foot-four, you've got these at seven-foot-six. I want you to drop the ceilings another two inches, otherwise I won't see them in the bloody camera!'. I was always a camera operator in commercials. It was faster – one less person to have to communicate with. So I was the operator on Alien, and I took a camera body on set with a lens and said, 'You're lying! Measure it!'. And they had to drop the ceilings."

This close attention to visual detail, however, led to a perception that Scott was more interested in his sets than in his performers – not exactly an actor's director.

"It's bullshit." He spits the word, along with some cupcake crumbs. "Bullshit. There was this idea that the actors were really unhappy on Alien. But it didn't half work, did it? When has Sigourney been better? When has Tom Skerritt been better? Harry Dean Stanton thanked me at the end of it. I climb into the arena with the actors. I cast really carefully, and then I join the club. If Fassbender says, 'How do you want me to do it?' I say, 'Do you want me to show you?'. I don't care. I'm fearless. I'll fucking do it."

Alien has since been subjected to the ignominy of three sequels, a corresponding decline in quality – and, worst of all, a pair of Alien vs Predator films. Of these, Scott (and everyone else) prefers the first: James Cameron's Aliens (1986). But he maintains his original was the scariest: "Some audiences were so incensed by that kitchen scene [in which, famously, the alien bursts from John Hurt's chest] that they got up and left. It was distressing. I loved that. There are some moments that are pretty distressing in Prometheus. In fact, the last hour is pretty distressing."

James Cameron – who has his own fire engine for tackling blazes in the hills above Malibu, and recently dived alone in a one-man submarine to the deepest point on earth – is one of Scott's closest friends in Hollywood. His other buddies, he says, are his brother Tony, director of Top Gun and a clutch of Denzel Washington action movies, and Michael Mann, whose testosterone-fuelled filmography includes Heat and Miami Vice. Sounds like a pretty macho poker game, I suggest.

"Macho? Tony's very macho. He'll still climb bloody El Capitan; I tell him he's a fucking idiot. But I prefer the tennis court. I've got a knee replacement because of the tennis." Naturally, Scott's friends are rivals, too, and it was a visit to the set of Cameron's Avatar that convinced him to shoot Prometheus in 3D. "I said to Jim: 'You've gone and raised the fucking bar again! I've got to do something about this...'."

The 3D footage shown to journalists on the morning of our interview is genuinely stunning – certainly the best live-action 3D I've seen (the majority of Avatar was CGI). Scott's new movie started life as a straightforward Alien prequel but, he explains, as he developed it with writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts, they strayed further and further from the source material. The film will, however, reveal the origins of the so-called 'Space Jockey', a giant, skeletal space being found dead at the beginning of Alien. Might he hold the key to the origins of life on Earth? That's what the crew of the Prometheus hope to discover on their ill-fated mission.

The film's mysteries are derived from Scott and co's research into myth and ancient civilisations, and he asserts a genuine belief in their possibilities.

"There's a famous Inca carving of a guy sitting on his back, in a frame, and underneath him is fire. He's wearing a helmet and looking up at the universe. To me, that's a goddam spaceship. A lot of Asian and Indian drawings are obsessed with the notion of fire coming from the skies in the form of chariots or vehicles. There are constant references in Egyptian artwork to a very large figure with a lot of small figures in worship. Is that a pharaoh, or a visitor? Why is he helmeted? The drawings of a head with one big eye: that's a man in a space suit.

"All these things are considered mumbo-jumbo, but they were written about by Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods [1968], and a lot of Erich's shit is now being reconsidered. Scientists are saying: now we know a lot more, we believe we're not the only life-form in the galaxy. I've always intuitively thought that, while everybody was laughing at Erich."

Much has been made of Scott's return to science fiction, three decades after he redefined the genre. After Prometheus, he has a follow-up to his other futuristic masterpiece, Blade Runner, in the works. It will be a sequel, he suggests, not a prequel or a remake – but Harrison Ford is unlikely to feature prominently. "I don't think it'll be Harry [starring]. But I've got to have him in it somewhere. That'd be amusing." In the meantime, he's set to direct The Counselor, a "morality tale" about a lawyer who foolishly dabbles in the drugs trade. The script is the first by celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy, and the cast list already includes the names Fassbender, Pitt, Diaz, Bardem and Cruz.

In returning to not one, but two, of his best-loved classics, it seems Scott has started to consider his legacy. Not just as a filmmaker, but as a businessman, too. The directors represented by RSA include his daughter Jordan, and his sons Jake and Luke. Jordan and Jake have already made their first feature films; Luke directed the TED viral for Prometheus.

When Scott retires, if he ever does, he plans to hand them the reins of the firm. "It's a family business. They didn't want to be part of RSA originally, but now they are. I told them, 'Fundamentally, it's your company'. If I was an actor, then I wouldn't encourage my child to be an actor, because it's really hard. Being a director is not quite so bad although, honestly, it's nearly as bad. But they decided to follow me."

And what would Sir Ridley, CEO, have preferred them to do? "I'd have loved my kids to have been merchant bankers, or international tax accountants; that would have been terrific."

'Prometheus' is released on 1 June

Sets appeal: The other worlds of Ridley Scott

Alien (1979)

"I like to create universes," says Scott, who is celebrated for his painstaking production design. While filming Alien, he decided the 'Space Jockey' set, and the exterior of the spaceship Nostromo, were too small for his tastes. To achieve his desired sense of scale, he had his two young sons stand in for the actors, both wearing child-sized space suits, to make the sets seems larger.

Blade Runner (1982)

The dystopian noir of Scott's Los Angeles, c2019, was inspired by a number of sources and realised by concept artist Syd Mead to the director's specifications. Scott credited the influence of Edward Hopper's famous painting Nighthawks, and the work of French comics artist Jean Giraud, aka 'Mœbius'. He also said the cityscapes were based on modern Hong Kong, and on his childhood memories of industrial West Hartlepool.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

For his take on the tale of Christopher Columbus, Scott built working replicas of the three ships the explorer sailed to the New World, then had them delivered to the set in Costa Rica. "Two sailed from Bristol, and one from Argentina. They all arrived the day we started shooting, two hours late. I stood on the quay and said, 'Don't they have radio on these fucking things?' And then someone said, 'I can see a sail...'."

Gladiator (2000)

Scott prefers to build his own sets than use CGI, but Gladiator contained pioneering digital effects. A 52ft-high replica of a third of Rome's Coliseum was built in Malta, then transformed to full size using CGI. Around 2,000 extras were digitally enhanced to make a crowd of 35,000. Post-production company The Mill also created a digital body double for Oliver Reed, to complete the actor's scenes after he died during filming.

American Gangster (2007)

For his biopic of crime boss Frank Lucas, Scott filmed at more than 50 locations in Harlem. Having shot commercials in the same neighbourhoods in the years when the film is set, he was keen to avoid romanticising the district. "I kept being told what Harlem was really like, and I said, 'You say that one more fucking time... I was standing here in 1959, photographing people lying on the street in their own vomit. This is what it was like. Where the fuck were you? You weren't even born!'."

TIM WALKER

Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines