Ridley Scott Blog A Thon- Profiling Ridley Scott(II)
“I think the crew members of the Nostromo seem spirited only because of their argumentative nature,” observed Scott, “which is due to the fact they can no longer stand the sight of each other.” Casting the picture, scripted by Dan O’Bannon (Total Recall) and Roland Shusett (Freejack), required the South Shields-native to adopt an unusual tactic. “I knew I wasn’t going to get much from having actors come in and read,” remarked Ridley Scott, “because Alien isn’t the type of film where there are going to be prolonged speeches. Here the dialogue was so abbreviated and staccato that it wouldn’t be fair. So I researched the actors who were being considered by seeing their films. Once we narrowed the list down, I had the actors come in for a meeting. I tend to cast my actors as a group, getting a physical balance between their types.”
To help Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl), Tom Skerritt (Contact), Veronica Cartwright (Barry Dingle), Harry Dean Stanton (The Green Mile), John Hurt (The Elephant Man), Ian Holm (Chariots of Fire), and Yaphet Kotto (Brubaker) with their performances, Scott constructed a past for them. “What I usually do, even if it’s only for my own peace of mind, is draft a short bio of each character and give it to the actors before I go to work with them,” said the moviemaker. “The bios did help, because they immediately started the actors thinking about their characters.” The performers embraced the idea. “We had about five days of continuous discussion in my office with the seven actors of the original cast, which at the time included Jon Finch [Death on the Nile] instead of John Hurt. In that time we pretty well managed to iron out and agree on the various characterizations, and managed to get some satisfactory reads out of the script.”
“‘If you have women up there, how come there’s no love interest?’ It’s a pity that the one scene we had in the screenplay that had sex in it had to be cut,” revealed Ridley Scott. “It showed that you can’t afford to have love affairs in deep space. If you do, you immediately have two groups aboard, the pair who are in love and the rest of the crew. That’s the beginning of problems unless you are a space pioneer and settle down with your family.” A far more serious and lethal threat appears in the story. “What gave us the cocoon concept was that insects will utilize others’ bodies to be the host of their eggs. That’s how the alien would use Dallas (Skerritt) and each of the crew members it kills. This explains why the alien doesn’t kill everyone at once, but rather kills them off one by one; it wants to use each person as a separate host each time it has new eggs.”
Introducing the title character required going beyond normal horror genre conventions. “We wanted to do something so outrageous that no one would know it was coming,” said Ridley Scott. “It’s not a door being wrenched open with the monster behind it, or the monster coming roaring through some metal sheeting or grabbing somebody from behind.” The end result was the notorious chest-burster scene. “We had to make a living creature spring out of a man’s chest and keep it from being hokey. Well, we did it, and that’s why it’s so staggering. From a technical point of view I think we worried more about it than any other effect in the film. If we hadn’t gotten it right, we might as well have forgotten the whole thing.” The sequence accomplished what Scott had hoped to achieve. “The film took on a more serious identity.”
“The original concept was constructed around the notion of Ten Little Indians . In the planning and writing stages there were to be seven major sequences, one of which was the chest-burster,” recalled Ridley Scott. “As the script was reworked, and as we shot the film, however, other sequences that were equally powerful, such as the airlock depressurization, the flamethrower death of Parker [Yaphet Kotto] and Lambert [Veronica Cartwright], and the cocoon scene with Dallas [Tom Skerritt] were cut altogether or changed.” The design of the alien was revised numerous times. “We had gone through various sketches in the preproduction phase, and I’d seen drawings that other people had tried as well. They always seemed to be of scaly bodies with claws or huge blobs that would move across the floor. There was no elegance to them, no lethalness. What emerged was an H.R. Giger-designed humanoid with distinctly biomechanoid tendencies.”
“The sets were difficult,” confided the filmmaker, “because I wanted to create an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere of low ceilings.” Adding further to the onscreen tension are the sound effects, such as the opening and closing of the iris-type cutoffs in the airshaft sequence. “The idea was to make you feel uneasy. We tried to use something that reminded you of a guillotine, something that wasn’t pleasant so maybe you’d start thinking, ‘Is the beast coming this way?’” The camerawork assisted in setting the tone for the picture. “If you ever analyze a shot, everything is always slightly moving. It’s never still, which I think makes the audience slightly uneasy.” There is one thing which Scott regrets about the film. “There were no speculative scenes or discussions about what the alien was…I believe audiences love those, especially if they’re well done. They give the threat much more weight.”
“With Alien we had big arguments over the last three reels of the film. Some people felt they were just too much,” said Ridley Scott. “I know it’s never too much, not when you get the proper balance. You’ve got to keep topping yourself. So if you start at a level that’s already pretty heated, you’ve got to keep going and going. That is the nature of this film.” The reaction at the Dallas, Texas screening left film editor Terry Rawlings (Entrapment) stunned, “It was the most incredible preview I’ve ever attended. I mean, people were screaming and running out of the theatre.” Audiences flocked to see the science fiction-horror picture causing the $11 million production to gross $105 million worldwide, thereby, turning unknown Broadway actress Sigourney Weaver into a female action-hero star.
Alien won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects; it was introduced into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002, and the American Film Institute listed the picture 7th on the Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of All-Time in 2008. Three sequels were subsequently released, Aliens (1986), Alien³ (1992), and Alien Resurrection (1997); for film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, they do not compare to the original version, “The 1979 Alien is a much more cerebral movie than its sequels, with the characters (and the audience) genuinely engaged in curiosity about this weirdest of life-forms…Unfortunately, the films it influenced studied its thrills but not its thinking.”
For seven months Ridley Scott developed a science fiction classic by author Frank Herbert for the big screen. “Dune was going to take a lot more work. And I didn’t have the heart to attack that work,” confessed the filmmaker of the picture which was released in 1984 under the direction of David Lynch (Blue Velvet). “I felt I couldn’t sit around for another two and a half years on Dune, which is how long I thought it was going to take…I needed immediate activity, needed to get my mind off my [older] brother’s death. So I went to Dino [DeLaurentiis to tell him] I had to depart Dune and that the script was his.”
Not leaving behind the science fiction genre, Ridley Scott shifted his attention to Dangerous Days, an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by novelist Philip K. Dick. “In the book, he’s [Rick Deckard] a bit of a renegade, a freelancer, with a bonus for each job,” stated the director. “But in the film he’s part of bureaucracy. We thought it would be nice to see this character gradually emerge as a very efficient exterminator who is almost Kafkaesque.”
Rick Deckard is dispatched by the government police force to hunt and eliminate a group of androids called replicants who have illegally come to earth. As the story evolved with screenwriter Hampton Fancher (The Minus Man), Scott came to a conclusion, “I finally said to Hampton, ‘You know, we can’t keep calling Deckard a goddamn detective.’ And he said, ‘Why not?’ I replied, ‘Because we’re telling a story in 2019 for Christ’s sake. The word ‘detective’ will probably be around then, but this job Deckard does killing androids, that requires something new. We’ve got to come up with a bloody name for his profession.’” Fancher’s solution was to use the title Blade Runner: A Movie from a book written by William Burroughs. The rights to the title were subsequently purchased for a nominal fee. “I thought the words ‘Blade Runner’ very well suited our needs,” approved Scott. “It was a nice, threatening name that neatly described a violent action.”
“Sci-fi presents a wonderful opportunity, because if you get it right, anything goes,” observed the filmmaker. “But you’d better have drawn up your rule book for the world you’ve created first. Then you’d better stick to it.” A critical decision was made in regards to the futuristic tale. “We drew a line [in the screenplay development]. We wouldn’t explore the laboratory details, the genetic explanations. Instead we asked, ‘What if large combines in the next few decades became almost as powerful as the government?’ Which is possible. They’d move into all sorts of industries – arms, chemicals, aerospace – and eventually they’d go into genetics.”
Describing the environment of Blade Runner (1982), which takes place in the Los Angeles of 2019, Scott remarked, “Our vision was really of a clogged world, where you get a sense of a city on overload, where things may stop at any time. Services may give out – in fact, they already have ceased in at least some parts of the city. Everything is old or badly serviced, and the bureaucratic system running the city is totally disorganized.” Selected to play the main character of Rick Deckard was Harrison Ford (Witness) who performs alongside Rutger Hauer (Ladyhawke), Sean Young (No Way Out), Daryl Hannah (Splash), Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver), M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple), William Sanderson (Coal Miner’s Daughter), and Joanna Cassidy (Under Fire). “Batty’s [Hauer] death scene is in a way the final demonstration of his superiority over Deckard [Ford],” said the moviemaker. “He could have taken Deckard’s life – Deckard had just killed Pris [Hannah] – but decided as a gift to let him live. The white pigeon that he sets free into the sky is, of course, a symbol of peace and life.”
In the July 24, 1980 draft of the script by Hampton Fancher there is a sixth escaped replicant. “The woman is pretty, a touch of grey in her hair, kind and blue-eyed. Mary looks like an American dream mom, right out of Father Knows Best.” Cast to play the part was Stacey Nelkin (Bullets Over Broadway) who was subsequently devastated to learn that the role had been eliminated due to financial reasons. “I still feel a bit badly about that,” confessed Ridley Scott. “Mary was going to be the only replicant that the audience would have gotten to see naturally fade away. What we’d come up with was a situation that took place early on in the film. In a dark room, with the other replicants watching, Mary dies. That’s how we were going to introduce the replicants.”
For Fancher and co-screenwriter David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven), the idea of Rick Deckard being a replicant was a result of their work being misinterpreted by Ridley Scott; their intention was to invoke empathy by emphasizing the similarities between humans and the artificial creations through the main character. In reference to the dream sequence featured in the Director’s Cut, Scott said, “I’d predetermined that the unicorn scene would be the strongest clue that Deckard, this hunter of replicants, might actually be an artificial human himself.” Harrison Ford disagreed with his director on the origins of the government-sponsored assassin. “[Ridley] wanted the audience to find out that Deckard was a replicant,” stated Ford. “I fought that because I felt that the audience needed somebody to cheer for.”
Ford’s misgivings were well-founded as the picture was a commercial flop, earning $33 million worldwide while costing $28 million to make. “Blade Runner taught me that the American public tends to favour a high-fiber diet which infers that the American system is one containing a certain degree of optimism,” stated Ridley Scott. “I, on the other hand, tend to be a bit darker…Not because I’m a manic-depressive, but because I find darkness more interesting.”
Blade Runner was nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Direction and Best Visual Effects at the Oscars; while the BAFTAs saw the picture win Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design-Art Direction as well as receive nominations for Best Editing, Best Make Up Artist, Best Score, Best Sound, and Best Special Visual Effects.
After the failure of its theatrical screening, Blade Runner experienced a rebirth in the home video marketplace, causing the American Film Institute to list the picture 6th on its Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of All-Time in 2008. “Blade Runner works on a level which I haven’t seen much – or ever – in a mainstream film,” declared Scott. “It works like a book. Like a very dark novel, which I like. It’s definitely a film that’s designed not to have the usual crush-wallop-bang! impact.” The director added, “I think Blade Runner is a good lesson for all serious filmmakers to ‘stand by your guns.’ Don’t listen to acclaim or criticism. Simply carry on. Hopefully, you’ll do some worthwhile work which stands the test of time.”
Though he had established himself as a feature film director, Ridley Scott produced his most celebrated commercial in 1984. The sixty second spot introduced Apple Computer’s Macintosh personal computer and it was only aired once during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. Borrowing the name as well as inspiration from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, Scott created a dystopian tale starring a nameless athletic heroine (Anya Major) who carries a large brass-headed hammer while chased by four agents of the Thought Police; she breaks into a private assembly and tosses her weapon at a large screen image of a Big Brother figure (David Graham), thereby shattering the picture in a blaze of light and smoke. “One of the problems was to find a girl who could throw a hammer and look business-like,” remarked Scott. The ad was so successful that in 1999 TV Guide called it the “Number One Greatest Commercial of All-Time” and in 2007, 1984 was named the best Super Bowl spot in the game’s forty-year history.
Not wanting his next project to be “profoundly European”, Ridley Scott contacted the American author responsible for Angel Heart and Gray Matters about writing a screenplay centred around “a young hermit [Tom Cruise] who becomes a hero when he battles the evil Lord of Darkness [Tim Curry], rescues a beautiful princess [Mia Sara] and frees the world from its icy winter curse.”
“The characters really came from left field,” recollected novelist turned screenwriter William Hjortsberg. “We discussed the hero in many forms before deciding on Jack O’ The Green [Cruise]. Then Ridley decided we should have a quest. He also wanted unicorns and thought there should be magic armor and a sword. I came up with the idea of having the world plunged into the wintry darkness. So we had all these elements which had to be woven into a story.” In describing Legend (1985), Ridley Scott stated, “It is not a film of the future, or of the past. It is not even a story of now. The conflict between darkness and light has been with us since creation…and will remain with us through eternity.”
To devise the villain of the story, the director turned to a picture he saw during his childhood. “The beast in [Jean] Cocteau [version of Beauty and the Beast] is never horrible. When I was a kid, the beginning of the movie made me very afraid, but very soon you realize there is something else. I wanted that with Darkness. I didn’t want to put a barrier between the audience and him…I wanted Darkness to be healthy, not disgusting psychologically and physically, because I had a feeling that Evil treats itself better, more often than not, than Good.” For the part of Darkness, Scott considered casting Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) whom he concluded lacked the right physique for the role; he then set his sights on hiring Tim Curry who had garnered acclaim for his performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). “I like the control he has over himself,” remarked Scott on his reason for selecting Curry. “He is very physical and powerful, theatrically speaking. He knows when he needs to stop. It was great to work with him.”
“What I am trying to do, even if I start with a complicated story, is to bring it back to its primitive linearity”, revealed Ridley Scott. “In fairy tales there is always an element of the nightmare.” Fifteen hundred icicles were added to the set varying from one foot to eight feet; they were made from resin and hot wax. Just two days before finishing the principle photography, a fire broke out on the famous 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios, destroying the forest set. The art department had to rebuild the section of the forest which was needed to complete the filming at a separate location.
“It was a huge risk,” admitted Ridley Scott. “Did I think that the film worked? Absolutely I thought the film worked. Did people get it? Again, no, they didn’t, even though there was an enormous amount of absolutely brilliant work in it.” Part of the story confusion for moviegoers may have resulted from the American theatrical version being severely shortened. Legend proved to be an even bigger worldwide box office disappointment than Blade Runner had been as the movie earned half of its $30 million production budget.
Venturing into new cinematic territory, the British director selected a contemporary thriller as his next project.