Ridley Scott: 'I'm doing pretty good, if you think about it'

As Ridley Scott prepares two new Alien prequels, he tells James Mottram why, at 72, he isn't ready to slow down yet

The epitome of self-made success, Ridley Scott is talking about his career. And, as you might expect from the 72-year-old director, he's not one to hold back. "Alien is a landmark," he says of the film that launched his Hollywood career. "One of the really good science-fiction films. Then Blade Runner's pretty good, too!" He reaches the 1985, Tom Cruise-starring Legend, a monumental flop at the time. "That I thought was [a landmark] but I jumped the gun and simply started doing fantasy 25 years too soon. But it's a pretty good movie."

He continues, clean forgetting Black Rain, Thelma & Louise and 1492 as he rattles through his CV. Someone to Watch Over Me and White Squall "are both really nice little movies", he adds, before understandably skipping over GI Jane to get to his most recent phase. Alighting on the Oscar-winning Gladiator, American Gangster and "the best war film of the last few years", Black Hawk Down, he allows himself a wry smile. "I'm doing pretty good, if you think about it."

While some might flinch at this un-British boasting, the South Shields-born Scott is one of the few home-grown directors of his generation to have wrestled with Hollywood and come out on top. In the last decade he's made nine films, from Gladiator to this year's Robin Hood, which took a chunky $300m globally. Of those, only the con-artist tale Matchstick Men and the Provence-set A Good Year could be considered small-scale. "I've gradually realised that what I do best is universes," he says. "And I shouldn't be afraid of that."

Even when he has fallen foul of the system, he has often won out in the end. While Twentieth Century Fox trimmed his 2005 Crusades drama, Kingdom of Heaven, by more than an hour, only to see it flop, an extended Director's Cut of the film was later released on DVD to much acclaim. It wasn't the first time. Scott famously re-edited Blade Runner (initially for a 1992 Director's Cut) after poor test screenings of the 1982 original saw him forced to add an explanatory voiceover and a "silly ending".

Scott gives the same treatment to Robin Hood. The DVD and Blu-ray release will see a Director's Cut, featuring 17 minutes of unseen footage, sit alongside the theatrical edition. Partly, no doubt, this is to counter the mixed reviews the film met with; Variety, for example, said it played like "a joyless corrective to Robin Hood's prior screen adventures".

As is typical of the bullish Scott, he's rather dismissive of these "prior screen adventures", in which the likes of Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner played the Nottingham outlaw. "There have been 80 [Robin Hood films] made over the years. It's the kind of thing I used to enjoy as a kid, but when I revisit them, they're not very good. I'm trying to think of the last good one." He pauses before selecting a surprising choice. "Mel Brooks's Men in Tights! I thought that was the best one."

By casting Russell Crowe as a straight-arrow Robin Longstride, Scott was clearly hoping to repeat some of the magic they conjured on Gladiator. Robin Hood is now the fifth film they've made together, making the gruff Australian Scott's preferred leading man. "He's a bit of a buddy, really," Scott says of the actor, with whom he shares an agent. "He's Australian and there's something akin to British – particularly northern British. They were convicts, after all."

Though proud of his northern roots, Scott has rarely attached himself to projects set in Britain, which makes Robin Hood a novelty in his career. While he and Tony Scott, his younger film-maker brother, purchased a controlling interest in Shepperton Studios in 1995, Ridley seems set apart from the British film industry. Certainly, it's hard to imagine he shed many tears over the recent announcement that the UK Film Council is to be dismantled. Since making his 1977 debut, The Duellists, Scott has never been the sort of British director to go cap-in-hand for funding.

Scott began his career at the BBC, working as a production designer and helming episodes of Z Cars and Adam Adamant Lives!. He left in 1967 and, within a year, formed Ridley Scott Associates (RSA), a company dedicated to producing high-quality commercials. Scott estimates that he has directed more than 2,700 spots, the Hovis ad being fondly remembered. This earned him a financial freedom that helped his film career flourish. "In a way that was a huge advantage, because I was able to take my time choosing my film subjects. I wasn't relying on having to work."

Shortly after founding RSA, he recruited his brother Tony (whose 1983 feature debut was the vampire flick The Hunger) with a promise of riches. "I said, 'Come with me and you'll get that good car.'" Which was? "A Ferrari. Seriously dangerous." This willingness to keep it in the family has ensured that RSA, which now has more than 50 directors on its books working out of offices in New York, LA, Hong Kong and London, still thrives. Scott's three children – Luke and Jake, from his first marriage, and Jordan, from his second – all cut their teeth at RSA.

Scott, who has been divorced twice and now spends his time with the Costa Rican actress Giannina Facio, takes some credit for the fact that his offspring have become directors. "They watch me do what I do. They see me sitting in my study at 5.45am, working over a script. So they see it's a passion, not a job. Of that, they've taken to that passion." While Jordan saw her feature debut, Cracks, released last year, Jake recently completed his second feature, Welcome to the Rileys, starring Twilight's Kristen Stewart. Does Scott ever offer advice? "Are you kidding me?" he spits. "I wouldn't dare."

Perhaps he doesn't have the time. Scott Free Productions, the film and television production outfit he formed with Tony in 1995, has branched out lately to make films outside the family circle. This year alone, aside from Robin Hood and Tony's upcoming thriller Unstoppable, it has backed The A-Team and the wry comedy-drama Cyrus. Written and directed by another sibling team, Mark and Jay Duplass, Cyrus is about a divorcee (John C Reilly) who must contend with his new girlfriend's grown-up son (Jonah Hill). A million miles from the spectacle of Scott's own work, it proves his tastes are wide.

One only has to look at Scott Free's films in development for further proof. Alongside an adaptation of the Monopoly board game sits a new version of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a Gucci biopic with Angelina Jolie attached as the female lead, an adaptation of Justin Cronin's vampire novel The Passage and a remake of television's Red Riding trilogy. Boasting the energy of a man half his age, Scott says he has no intention of slowing down. "I think there's nothing worse than inertia. You can be inert and study your navel, and gradually fall off the chair. I think the key is to keep flying."

The anticipation for his next project is building to fever pitch: it will be a two-part prequel to Alien, shot in 3D. Scott was never asked to make a sequel to Alien; that honour went to James Cameron, before a further two sequels and two Alien vs Predator spin-offs milked the franchise dry. But with the Lost co-creator Damon Lindoff polishing the first prequel's script, you can sense the competitor in Scott, desperate to put his stamp back on the film series that launched him. "Jim's raised the bar and I've got to jump to it," he says, in a friendly jibe at Cameron. "He's not going to get away with it."

Set 30 years before the 1979 original, so with no room for Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, the prequels will explore the origins of the deadly aliens. "The film will be really tough, really nasty," he notes. "It's the dark side of the moon. We are talking about gods and engineers. Engineers of space. And were the aliens designed as a form of biological warfare? Or biology that would go in and clean up a planet?"

It's a bold move, one that could taint Scott's earlier contribution to the series if it goes wrong. But Scott loves a gamble, whether it's taking on the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, or resurrecting an unfashionable genre with Gladiator. "Everyone sniggered because they thought I was going to do a sandals and toga movie," he remembers. Given the success he's had since, Scott has had the last laugh.

'Cyrus' opens on 10 September. 'Robin Hood: Director's Cut' is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 20 September

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