Even though he didn't make his first film until he was 40, Ridley Scott has become one of the most iconic and revered filmmakers in the world. At 77, he shows no sign of slowing, and still speaks with passion and curiosity about the medium he so greatly influenced. (Also, why to never bring notes into a pitch meeting.)
After winning the Palme D'or with his first film The Duelists in 1977, Ridley Scott continued to lead a charmed career. Despite Blade Runner (1982) being a critical and financial failure, it's now considered one of the most influential films of the 1980s. His latest film The Martian just surpassed Gladiator as his most successful box office to date. Hosted by Variety critic Scott Foundas, Ridley Scott imparted his life story and advice to a packed theater at AFI 2015. Listen to the full hour long discussion or read excerpts below:
On GoPro use in The Martian
The humor is derived from fundamentally his predicament, how he deals with his life and where he has to stay alive for four years. Having Matt Damon is an advantage; he has amusing, acerbic, dry humor. The whole body of the humor lies in what was written as voice over. A lot of voice over can wear out, so we had to invent how he speaks, he can’t just speak to himself. So we brought out 30 GoPros. So if I’m Matt Damon reading data, working out how the hell I’m going to stay alive for a year, the GoPro could be in front of me, behind me, etc. Like any black box on an aircraft, a GoPro is going to record the moment you died and why. Suddenly the GoPro becomes a buddy and the voice becomes alive, not as a voice over but as a second character.
On Working very fast (averaging almost a film per year)
Practice. My career was no film school, no drama school, but art school was everything to me. I still use every day what I learned in art school all that time ago. I was gifted with a very good eye, and a good eye works great in commercials. I had a significant career in commercials for almost 30 years. But during that time I was sharpening my skill of speed camera operating — I operated all the commercials — it makes you think on your feet, it makes you think visually. Combine that with being able to draw.
On The Power of Storyboards
Never take your notes into a pitch, because you’ll turn a good film into a development deal. Once you’re green lit you can change it then. I storyboarded the entire film, right through everything. they aren’t stick figures, they are wide shots, mediums, etc. With the power of the board — we doubled the budget [of Alien] — we went to 4.2m to 8.4m.
A critic’s job is really tough, but so is a filmmaker’s. I was so beaten up early on by critics who criticized The Duellists -- killed me on Blade Runner, absolutely slaughtered me, and it got personal -- suddenly accused me of growing a beard because I had a weak chin. I will never forget it -- that was Pauline Kael. And I thought I’m never going to read another critique again. I learned from it. I’m a painter, and every morning you walk in and look at the painting, you have to analyze what’s wrong with it — or if it’s good, why — and move on.
So when you make a movie, you have to be your own critic, if you’re not you’re not doing your job.
On Working with Actors
I was frightened of actors because they were doing this mysterious thing called acting. It took me 10 years to get over that. Then I realized the best arrangement with an actor is a partnership. In the partnership someone actually has to know what he’s doing. What film schools don’t teach students is that there’s a second hand [ticking] and at the end of the second hand is a dollar sign. If you’re not turning by 9:30am you need a butt kicking. You’ve got to move and you better move on knowing exactly what you are doing. I learned that by storyboarding, it’s defined. I’ve shot it on paper in my head before I get to the shoot.
Actors will say that won’t leave me any room to move because you’ve pre-decided what I’m going to do before I get there. And my answer is: Absolutely. It’s better that somebody knows what we’re doing, because the second hand is ticking. I’ve also discovered that actors love to have people in charge to be decisive, to come in and know what you want. They can sense confidence, if you’re not confident you’re going to have a horrible time. Particularly from Russell. He’s a buddy of mine now. I’ve done 5 movies with Russell, so we can each honestly just say 'fuck off' and that’s it.
Getting his First Job
I knew there were two great documentarians called Donn Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. When people say it's so hard to get a job, I say, "Shut up and go and get the job." I tracked their offices down on 42nd street -- in those days it was really horrible. It was smelly, it was nasty. I stood there with my 7 years of work, my portfolio in this narrow hallway. I stood there for two mornings. The [second] morning, I saw these two guys get out of a cab and I knew it was them. I hopped out, got this huge portfolio, struggled down the corridor behind them, and there's an elevator about the size of this chair. And so I got in, and I’m standing there -- By the time I got to the third floor, I had a job.
I never did a film until I was 40 — I thought “Jeez, I better do something or it will be too late.” At that point I could afford to look around, pay for a writer myself.
Writing is the single hardest thing to do. If you can get it on paper, the rest for me is easy and fun. If you haven’t got it on paper and you start, God help you. Writing doesn’t cost anything. You’re only wasting your time writing it down on a lump of paper, and if it doesn’t work who cares? If you say give me a million dollars to make a movie, that’s a lot of money. Those who float to the top, who are lucky enough to get films going -- you’ve got to really have thought through the plan. I was meticulous at doing that because I was so practiced on my 2,000 commercials. So by the time I got to Blade Runner I knew exactly what it was gonna be.
Passing The Bechdel Test
It comes from my Mum. My Mum was the one who brought up 3 boys, use the belts, the cane, all that. She was tough. She was 5’ tall. As I got older I would argue with her, but consequently I respected her, and we turned out pretty good. Because of that all my offices are run by women. I always say the best guy got the job, I [don’t want to be able to say], "God damnit! I am speaking, listen to me." I want somebody who will argue with me.
On Intimacy in an Epic
It’s difficult. Lean did it every time. Great Expectations is absolutely a perfect movie. In its own 1:85, it was perfect and epic in its scale and vision of it. It’s all about the vision. My job is to put bums in seats and entertain people, fundamentally. Therefore I think everything should be epic -- me getting up in the morning is epic. Everything should be epic, or else it’s boring, isn’t it?
On Being 77 and What Keeps him Moving
I just love doing it. One this is for sure that’s come out in recent years. For sure -- There is no plan. I’ve got no plan. I just go from pillar to pillar randomly like a child in a toy box. So I have this childlike fascinating and thrill of doing it.