Ridley Scott: The Hollywood player

Elaine Lipworth meets the movie director who still sees himself as a northern lad
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The Independent Culture

His gritty Blade Runner (1982) set the style for a new era in science fiction. He turned the buddy movie on its head with Thelma and Louise(1992) casting Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. The Oscar-winning blockbuster Gladiator (2000), with Russell Crowe, sparked a box office revival of historical epics. He saw his last film, Kingdom of Heaven(2005), as a western set in 12th-century Jerusalem and shot in Morocco.

But for Scott's next project he is enjoying a more low-keyexperience, filming a comedy, A Good Year, starring his pal Crowe. It's based on the Peter Mayle bestseller A Year in Provence, about a British businessman who inherits a vineyard and goes to live in France. Scott happens to own a Provence vineyard and for the next few months he will be working from home.

"I've lived in Provence for 14 years and love it, so I've always wanted to do a film there," he says. "This is a comedy, something I've been looking forward to because it is a really funny book."

We're chatting on a sunny afternoon in Pasadena, California, where he has flown for a series of meetings. Dressed in a bottle-green pullover and baggy khakis, he looks more like a retired solicitor than a powerful Hollywood player. Now 67, his wavy hair is still thick, red flecked with grey; his beard is grey and there are bags under the eyes. His features have softened a little with age.

He is often described as the greatest British director since Alfred Hitchcock; when I remind him he laughs. He cheerfully admits to having an innate confidence.

"I have always got lost in my own fantasy," he says. "I never get intimidated. I've had a lot of practice and the job requires tremendous stamina; you have to be awake longer than anyone else. Directing, half the time, is saying 'NO. NO!' I'm good at that."

Some of his films, such as White Squall (1996) and the Demi Moore vehicle GI Jane(1997), were critical and box office disasters. Scott says he never wallows in depression.

"You have to keep bouncing around," he smiles, "or else you'll drown. People always ask me what's the plan? There is no plan. I go to what fascinates me next."

His instincts are usually good. Alien(1979), Gladiator, Hannibal(2001) and Black Hawk Down(2001) were great successes and Scott has amassed a reported £100m fortune. But for all the wealth and Hollywood clout, even after a knighthood, Sir Ridley sees himself as a northern lad.

Born in South Shields, his soft regional accent remains. "I had a pretty good upbringing and a supportive family who encouraged anything we wanted to do," he says.

"My mother and father were unusual because I told them I wanted to go to art school and most parents would throw their hands up in horror if you said that."

He launches into a caricatured accent and shakes a finger. "They would say: 'You'll go to a solicitor's office, starting on Monday.' I didn't want to be a lawyer and my ma didn't mind. She was pleased."

Scott didn't start making films till he was 40. He was too busy with commercials and directing the classic TV show Z Cars.

"I began my company at 27 years old and we were doing so well financially that I didn't even think about making films for 13 years. I was good at selling my ideas and fantasies and I really enjoyed creating worlds," says the man who made unforgettable ads for Hovis and Chanel. "Then I suddenly thought 'My God, I'm approaching 40, I'd better get a movie going'."

The Duellistsappeared in 1977. "At the time the dollar was dropping so I said, 'Take my fee, I will be the bond.' And I never actually got paid anything." The gamble paid off. His next film was Alien.

Scott says the crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom, was his greatest personal challenge. The film is still the subject of heated and emotional debate among theologians and academics. It has been attacked as anti-Muslim and "dangerous to Arab relations" by some; others claim it distorts history by portraying Arabs in an unduly favourable light. Scott is unperturbed.

"We tried to show both sides in a very balanced light. And I think the reaction from the Muslim community was pretty good actually. I think I will be able to go on holiday in the Lebanon any time I like. The way we portray Muslims feels accurate to me. In fact, I know it's accurate because I cast guys who are Muslim."

Like Gladiator, Kingdom of Heavenpits a humble hero against heavyweight historical figures. Bloom plays a blacksmith who becomes a knight and journeys to Jerusalem, where he leads the Christian army against the famous Muslim leader Saladin.

"I think its very relevant now because it is about tolerance and understanding," says Scott. "I think it's about doing the right thing and deciding whether to be a good man or not. I had moral values drummed into me by my mum," - he bursts out laughing - "and that sticks forever!"

Scott talks about his mum a lot. Born in 1937, the middle of three brothers, he runs Scott Free Films with his younger brother Tony, who directed Top Gunand the forthcoming Keira Knightley action film Domino.

"My ma had a fist of iron, she had her rules and standards, but she wasn't over protective either. I think I have a good understanding of women because of my ma," Scott says. "She was like father and mother because my dad was in the military and he was away a lot."

As a teenager at the local grammar school, Scott considered acting. Instead, he became captivated by film-making. Home from art college for the summer, the 19-year-old, who had written a script, roped in his younger brother and set to work

"I knew there was no help I could get from anyone else," says Scott, unwrapping a boiled sweet and crunching it slowly before continuing. "So I had to get Tony. I got hold of a 16-millimetre Bolex camera and I said to Tony, who was still in bed, 'Get up, and let's make a film'. For six weeks we made a movie called Boy on a Bicycle. Tony hated doing it every inch of the way because I ruined his holiday. I would say, 'Go and get the cigarettes and sandwiches', and order him around. And then we'd shoot some scenes. And something sank in at that time for us both that was very important in our lives."

The other life-changing event was a trip to America. Scott left the Royal College of Art and was awarded a travel scholarship. He spent $70 on an 11,000-mile Greyhound bus trip around the States.

"I stopped in Las Vegas and walked into The Sands Hotel, got a cheap table and had a full front view of Elvis sitting there in the crowd. When you're from Hartlepool you think these people are digitally enhanced. I watched Sammy Davis Jr do his show for three bucks and then I saw John Wayne walking through the hotel, head and shoulders above the crowd, and I saw Dean Martin looking very happy playing craps. It was amazing, magical. Then Sammy Davis got Elvis to come up on stage and do two bars of 'Blue Suede Shoes'. I'll never forget that." He pauses.

"Then I went to Hollywood for a week, San Francisco, Salt Lake City and across the Great Plains. It was fantastic, it completely inspired Thelma and Louise."

Part of Scott's success stems from his knack of discovering actors. Crowe was doing well before Scott cast him in Gladiator, but the film led to the A-list and an Oscar.

"When they walk through the door I know whether they are interesting or not," says Scott. "I knew immediately with Sigourney Weaver in Alien. She's so tall, how could she not be right? I thought 'Wow, she's definitely the one', because Sigourney has this intelligence and authority. She's definitely 'Alpha'.

"Same thing happened with Brad Pitt," he adds, referring to the star's small but memorable role in Thelma and Louise, in which he has a fling with Davis. "I could see he was charming and basically a great actor, very relaxed. That scene in the film was very nice, because it was complete." He bangs his hands on the table.

"There was a beginning, a middle and an end. Then gone. He left a huge impression." Scott also cast Harrison Ford in Blade Runnerand Bloom in Black Hawk Down.

Scott is currently planning a drama about the Cold War called Companyand has several TV projects in production. He has passed on his passion to his two sons, Jake and Luke, from his marriage to Felicity Heywood and his daughter Jordan, from his marriage to Sandy Watson.

"Film-making is my passion but the family goes along with it," he says. "I saw my eldest boy Jake last night and he made dinner. All my kids are great cooks and all my kids are directors. Jake has done one film [Plunkett & Macleane, 1999]. My daughter Jordan has just finished a film for Unicef with David Thewlis. And Luke does rock videos and commercials."

Scott and his partner, the Costa Rican actress Giannina Facio, own houses in Hampstead and Los Angeles as well as in Provence. I wonder if they spend much time together, given his schedule.

"We do, because I cast her in all my films," he chuckles. "She was Russell Crowe's wife in Gladiator; in Matchstick Men[2003] she plays a bank teller; she's Saladin's sister in Kingdom of Heaven; and she'll be in A Good Year. She's my good luck charm.

"When I'm making a movie I don't want anyone around me, apart from Giannina, because I have tunnel vision. She does come to visit me on the set, but not a lot because it gets boring for her. Does it get boring for me?

"Film making is never boring for me," he says. "Never."

'Kingdom of Heaven' is available on DVD now