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Ridley Scott Blog A Thon-Profiling Ridley Scott(IV)

September 23, 2010
Continuing with the series Profiling Ridley Scott, by Trevor Hogg. For earlier parts please check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. This is the 4th Part of the series originally written at Flickering Myth, that looks at Scott’s career in the first part of the Noughties, his sword and sandal epic Gladiator,the war drama Black Hawk Down and the comedy Matchstick Men.
Producing an historic epic about a disgraced Roman general who seeks to reclaim his honour by becoming a Coliseum fighter was not originally Ridley Scott’s idea. “I was approached by Walter Parkes [WarGames] and DreamWorks,” recounted the British director. “Walter, one of the great story pitchers, preceded his remarks by presenting a reproduction of a nineteenth century painting by the artist [Jean-Léon] Gérôme. It showed a Roman arena from the level of the sand, where a gladiator holding a weapon was standing over his vanquished foe, looking up at an emperor who was staring down at them and preparing to give the thumbs down gesture. Walter really had me the second he showed me the painting.”

Impressed with the footage from Jake Scott’s feature film debut, Plunkett and Macleane (1999), the British moviemaker recruited his son’s cinematographer who had been working for Black Dog (a music video company owned by the Scotts). “I didn’t want to just shoot the battle sequences for Gladiator in a traditional manner, so we adopted various styles which John [Mathieson] and I talked about. We used various techniques in terms of cameras and camera speeds. When you’ve got two thousand soldiers in the field at any one time and you’re planning to experiment, you’d better make sure you’re right, because you can’t go back and reshoot it.” The reason for adopting an unconventional shooting approach for the fighting sequences was a pragmatic choice on the part of the director. “People get tired of watching [the same kinds] of medieval battles, or any battle scenes that have run dry. I think Steven Spielberg did an incredible twelve minutes [in the opening scene] of Saving Private Ryan [1998]; that sequence felt absolutely real and documentary. He raised the stakes in terms of the film interpretation of what that experience might be like.”

“[Sir Lawrence] Alma-Tedema, who was painting Greek, Roman and Egyptian environments with great perception and accuracy, was a big reference,” answered Ridley Scott when asked about the look of the movie released in 2000. “It then fell to me to say, ‘Rome was the Golden City, but it was probably dirty and grim in parts, despite the architecture.’” Following in the footsteps of Hollywood classics Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) was a creative challenge for the South Shields-native. “The question is, when you bring a different eye to the time period and [shoot in a] different decade will the picture look different than previous films? Absolutely. I think through production design, we got an interesting view of Roman life that I’m very happy with.”

Gladiator Ridley ScottSelected to play the title character of General Maximus Dacimus Meridus was Australian actor Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential). “Russell is a collaborator,” enthused Scott. “He brings a great deal to the table when he takes on a role, really gives it his all and has a lot of ideas. As soon as we cast him as Maximus, he started reading Marcus Arrelius’ writings and familiarizing himself with the history of the Roman Empire. He’s very well read on a lot of other subjects, as well.” Cast in the part of the mentor Antonius Proximo is British acting veteran Oliver Reed (The Three Musketeers). “Oliver was what I’d call a charming scoundrel. He was a wonderful actor, incredibly intense. I knew for that role I needed a Robert Shaw-type actor who was as tough as nails, but also had a sensitive side.” With three weeks left in principle photography Reed died causing the director to improvise with the aid of digital technology. “I had to shoot most of his scenes at the end of the film using his body double, then for close-ups we superimposed Oliver’s face onto the body double.” Ridley Scott went on to add, “Oliver went out the way he would have wanted to, I should think, with a pint glass in his hand.”

Other members of the cast included Richard Harris (A Man Named Horse), Connie Nielsen (Basic), Derek Jacobi (Gosford Park), Djimon Housnou (Blood Diamond), David Hemmings (Last Orders), and Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line) who portrays the ruthless and scheming Emperor Commodus. “I had a very specific interpretation of the way I wanted to play it,” said Phoenix, “but at first I didn’t know if that would fit in with the rest of the characters in the film as a whole. Commodus is certainly a man-child, and he was a neglected child. It was very important for me to illustrate that in certain ways. His reactions to the combats in the arena – it’s almost as if he doesn’t comprehend what human life is; people are merely toys for his enjoyment.”

Gladiator was a global sensation, quadrupling its $103 million production budget by earning $458 million in worldwide box office receipts. The Academy Awards lauded the film with Best Picture, Best Actor (Crowe), Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound; other nominations included Best Supporting Actor (Phoenix) and Best Director. The Golden Globes awarded the historical epic with Best Picture – Drama, and Best Original Score, and at the BAFTAs, Gladiator competed in fourteen categories winning for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Film, and Best Production Design; for his work behind the camera, Ridley Scott was nominated for the David Lean Award for Direction.

Hannibal Ridley Scott“Each time, I search for a fresh experience and a fresh meaning,” explained the director about his method of selecting projects. “They say that nothing’s really new anymore, that there are only seven stories in the world, which sounds rather depressing, but I’ve got a funny feeling it’s more or less accurate. Fundamentally, you still have the good guy or the bad guy. So it’s got to be about the way you look at things.” Turned down by American moviemaker Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia), Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis (The Bounty) approached Scott who agreed to provide his own perspective on the iconic villain reprised by Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins (Howard’s End). “The Silence of the Lambs [1989] was so good I couldn’t forget it. But Hannibal [2001] takes on a life of its own. It’s not really picking up right after Silence left off. It’s ten years later and the character [of Hannibal Lecter] is entirely different. I don’t even think of it as a sequel. It goes in such a different direction.”

Serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) is hunted by Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), a sadistic pedophile whom he disfigured but failed to kill years ago. Ridley Scott had issues with the “love story” conclusion in the six-hundred page novel which sees Lecter slip away romantically with FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling. “We adjusted the ending, while capturing the essence of the book,” declared the filmmaker. “I couldn’t take that quantum leap emotionally on behalf of Starling. Certainly on the behalf of Hannibal – I’m sure that’s been on the back of his mind for a number of years but for Starling, no. I think one of the attractions about Starling to Hannibal is what a straight arrow she is.”

Screenwriter Ted Tally who had worked on The Silence of the Lambs with Jonathan Demme declined the offer to work on the sequel; so did Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) who reconsidered his stance when he was approached a second time. “I found out that David Mamet [Glengarry Glen Ross] was working on it, recalled Zaillian, and I started to feel like, ‘What sort of jerk am I?’”; he agreed with one condition. The ending had to be reworked. Steve Zaillian, Ridley Scott, and author Thomas Harris spent four days brainstorming at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I think the ending is more tonal as to what could possibly be in her [Starling’s] mind at that moment,” said Ridley Scott who soon found himself having to recast the role which was embodied by Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate).

Foster’s rejection to participate in the sequel led to speculation that not enough money was being offered to lure her or that she simply disliked the book. Universal’s president of production Kevin Misher found himself faced with an awkward situation, “It was one of those moments when you sit down and think, ‘Can Clarice be looked upon as James Bond, for instance? A character who is replaceable. Or was Jodie Foster Clarice Starling and the audience will not accept [anyone else]?’” A-list actresses Cate Blanchett (The Shipping News), Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted), Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), Ashley Judd (Double Jeopardy), and Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights) were seen as possible replacement candidates. Scott selected Moore because she had “a certain kind of gravitas, an intelligence which is very similar [to Jodie Foster’s]”.

“I just learned the lines and showed up and walked around as Hannibal Lecter,” stated Anthony Hopkins who divorced himself from the preproduction turmoil; he was concerned about a more pressing creative challenge. “I thought, ‘Do I repeat that performance, or do I vary it?’”, revealed Hopkins. “Ten years have passed so I changed it a bit because I’ve changed.” Dr. Hannibal Lecter may be “a bit mellower” in the words of the acclaimed British actor, however, his methods remain brutal as with the brain eating scene involving Starling’s nemesis Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta). “He seems to be a popular cult figure,” amused Anthony Hopkins. “I don’t know if that makes the whole world crazy, but…there are dark sides to human nature.” Despite the absence of Ted Tally, Jonathan Demme, and Jodie Foster, Hannibal was a worldwide success grossing $352 million in box office receipts, while costing $87 million to make.

Black Hawk Down Ridley ScottJournalist Mark Bowden’s chronicle about the fatal misadventures of a group U.S. Special Forces units assigned to capture two lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid served as the source material for the second film released by Ridley Scott in 2001, Black Hawk Down. “I never do anything that I can’t repeat,” confessed the filmmaker when describing his trade secrets in cinematically faking an explosion. “When you see those RPGs fly – that’s a rocket-propelled grenade – they’re basically a cylinder that is turned on a lathe in polystyrene with a small weight in its nose and a radio-controlled rocket on the back…It runs along a wire [which cannot be seen] like a model.”

Getting the permission to shoot in Morocco as well as the necessary U.S. military equipment was not a simple task. “You go through the king first, and the Defense Department,” began Scott. “It got as high up as [American Secretary of State] Colin Powell at one point to get those helicopters. So we’re dealing with a very high level to start with. And then you go through the governor of the town and then the mayor of the district. And then that melts down into the local committees and…permission.” The whole process took four months. Other things happening simultaneously were the selection of the street locations, and casting auditions in the Congo, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia for two thousand extras.

“One of the reasons to do the film was to make it as accurate as I could possibly understand it to be,” said Ridley Scott. “Those Black Hawks as you can imagine, with their full load and compliment of technology, are very valuable, as are the little birds with their compliment of gear, which includes mini-guns [like Gatling guns].” An American military condition arose which almost scuttled the project. “They wanted one hundred and thirty personnel to accompany the machines. Thirty five of them are actual [U.S. Army] Rangers,” groaned the moviemaker. “Suddenly, the wrinkle that comes into it is that it has to go through the king’s departments of whatever his bureaucracy is at that moment and they’re saying, ‘You mean we’re going to have one hundred and thirty-five armed troops in here and thirty five are Rangers? And I’ve got eight fully-armed attack helicopters?’ This is getting embarrassing.”

“Those pilots that you see [in the film], none of that is special effects,” remarked Scott about the dramatic helicopter footage. “All that happens, where they go down the street, land in the street and take off. That’s all real. And those big birds hanging over the top of the buildings and holding their position then moving off, and then even the big birds when they’re in trouble and they’re spinning backwards, that’s all flying.” The Black Hawk crash sequences were not entirely without special effects. “It only kicks in with CGI [computer-generated images], which is the tricky stuff, from the moment it [the helicopter] clips the top of the building.”

“There’s an absolute line of where you will not have somebody in front of a gun being fired with a certain kind of blank in it,” stated the filmmaker of the safety precautions taken during the principal photography. “There were absolutely no accidents whatsoever. The only thing that drove me crazy was when you would shout, ‘Cut, cut, cut!’ and anybody who had a full magazine of brass casings wouldn’t stop. They kept firing because they just loved to fire the guns. It’s spooky how people like to fire guns.” Featured in the large ensemble cast for the picture are Josh Hartnett (Lucky Number Slevin), Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!), Jason Issacs (The Patriot), Tom Sizemore (Heat), William Fichtner (Strange Days), Eric Bana (Munich), Sam Sheppard (The Right Stuff), Orlando Bloom (Ned Kelly), Jeremy Piven (Grosse Pointe Blank), and Hugh Dancy (Adam).

Though the $93 million production of Black Hawk Down could not compete with Hannibal at the worldwide box office (earning $173 million), the film excelled in the awards circuit; it won Oscars for Best Editing and Best Sound along with receiving nominations for Best Director and Best Cinematography. At the BAFTAs, the film was a contender for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Sound. The American Film Institute nominated the picture for Cinematographer, Editor, Movie, Production Designer and Director – of the Year. Scriptwriter Ken Nolan contended for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Writer’s Guild of America Awards, while Ridley Scott received a Director’s Guild of America Awards nomination.

Boy and Bicycle (1961) was released in a video collection known as Cinema16: British Short Films (2003) and its creator attended a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace where he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. “As a boy growing up in South Shields,” marveled Ridley Scott, “I could never have imagined that I would receive such a special recognition.”

Matchstick MenVenturing into the genre of comedy, the director adapted the novel Matchstick Men (2003) by Eric Garcia for the big screen. Con-man Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage), who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, has his organized existence turned upside down upon learning that he has a daughter (Alison Lohman). Commenting on the abilities of his Oscar-winning leading man, Scott stated, “He definitely has a chameleon quality that not too many have. They try, but Nic really succeeds at extremities from shooting guns to rolling cars to playing an alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas [1995] or comedy in Adaptation [2002].” Making Waller’s mental condition believable in the picture was not a stretch for the filmmaker and his star. “Nic has had some personal experience with it through friends, and I’m a neatnik,” confessed Ridley Scott. “I find neatness comes out of being lazy. It’s actually much easier to be neat than a slob. With a slob eventually you’re going to be walking all over everything. I’m obsessive because it’s easier. I just do it at the moment and get it done.”

“This to me was more like doing Thelma & Louise [1991],” said the moviemaker. “During Thelma & Louise I only left L.A. for three weeks when we went to Moab, Utah; the rest of the time we were in Bakersfield. I loved the script for Matchstick Men and asked [co-screenwriter and producer] Ted Griffin [Ocean’s Eleven] if he had any objections to moving the locations from Philadelphia to the Valley in California.” Scott went on to observe, “Doing what you haven’t done is the key. Shifting gears. Some people always like to do a study of the same thing. John Ford [The Searchers] tended to do a career of Westerns. My career seems to be of nonspecific subjects which are all over the place.”

“Casting is everything,” declared Ridley Scott. “Alison Lohman [Big Fish] and Sam Rockwell [who plays Waller’s grifter partner Frank Mercer] were the best candidates for the roles. It’s a visceral choice. I know if an actor is right for the role from the second they walk through the door.” Alison Lohman, who was in her early twenties at the time, had serious doubts about portraying a teenager. “When I first read the script I was like, ‘No. No way, I’m playing fourteen. You can just pass on this,” confided the actress. “Usually, it’s the first fifty pages and you know. But then reading the whole script for me was like, ‘Okay, I can definitely do this.’” Lohman had nothing but praise for Scott. “He has an energy that lifts you. Any doubt that you had is just gone. You just do it – it’s really simple. It was so easy to work with him.” Other performers featured in the movie which grossed $66 million worldwide are Bruce Altman (Quiz Show), Bruce McGill (Runaway Jury), Jenny O’Hara (Mystic River), Steve Easton (A Man Apart) and Beth Grant (No Country for Old Men).

Kingdom of Heaven“I find that history tends to be more exotic than fiction,” admitted Ridley Scott who chose to explore the era of the medieval Holy Wars in Kingdom of Heaven (2005). “I met the writer Bill Monahan [The Departed], and proposed doing a Crusades film, to which he replied, ‘That’s my subject and my passion. I know all about the whole three hundred years of the Crusades.’ So Bill came back with this idea about the wedge between the first and second crusades where there was this uneasy truce until Saladin was forced to come back and take Jerusalem. We found that the man who surrendered Jerusalem was a local Lord, a Jerusalem citizen called Balian, so we worked fiction backwards into the foothills of the Pyrenees.” Ridley Scott was pleased with the performance of Orlando Bloom who portrays Balian of Ibelin in a cast featuring renowned actors Liam Neeson (Batman Begins) and Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune). “I think he did great in this, it’s a big film to walk into.”

Asked about the historical accuracy of the picture, the filmmaker responded, “Many historians are basing their findings on a priest in France in the fifteenth century writing about events in the thirteenth century. He wasn’t there. So what was he basing his writing on? History is only conjecture.” Working with William Monahan, Ridley Scott attempted to depict an authentic story. “We went to great pains to get this right. All these characters had to be real. Reynald [Brendan Gleason] was a warmonger. Guy de Lusignan [Marton Csokas] was married to Sibylla [Eva Green], the sister of Baldwin the Leper King [Edward Norton], who got leprosy at fifteen. Instead of being asked to step down, he insisted on becoming king. He became impossible to look at by the time he was eighteen and had silver masks made and wore gloves because he was rotting from the inside out. He functioned until he dropped dead at twenty-four. The boy king [Sibylla’s son] was then crowned and Sibylla became the Princess Regent. We know the boy became ill within ten months of being crowned and history states that he was murdered by his mother.” Questioning the theory that Sibylla had killed her own child, Monahan and Scott looked to resolve the issue. “We looked at the possibility he had leprosy,” revealed the moviemaker. “She would have euthenased the boy because of the hideous life that her brother had had over nine or ten years and she was not ready to let her son suffer. That made more sense to us.”

“In all there are about 800 [visual effects] shots,” stated the director who prefers using practical effects. “We built three siege towers. Those [in the end battle] are real. Once you build it, you can clone it much easier. So when you see all that stuff in close-up, and they’re coming up the back, and I’m pulling the towers down, that’s all real – that’s seventeen tons going over. I made four catapults, the trebuchet arms of which would swing fifty-six feet and would flip a hundred-pound ball about four hundred meters.”

Utilizing eleven cameras for the battle scenes as well as two or three cameras for the smaller scenes generated a lot of footage. The first cut of the film was three hours and fifteen minutes long; 20th Century-Fox had Ridley Scott cut it down to two hours and twenty-three minutes for the theatrical release. “The enemy of filmmaking is the preview screening, which influences the final cut,” reflected the director. “It is a tool, but you should use it wisely. The danger is that by the time we reach the preview we have all seen the film so many times we have lost our ability to judge.” Scott regretted complying with the Hollywood studio’s request to significantly shorten the picture; restored in the DVD Director’s Cut version were treasured scenes such as the “whole sequence with the boy king and his mother, Sibylla.”

Kingdom of Heaven was positively received by the Muslim community which pleased Ridley Scott as he views the overlying message of the film to be about tolerance. “In a sentence it’s about accepting another man’s philosophy and religion,” declared the filmmaker of the picture which had a production budget of $130 million and earned $212 million worldwide.

Returning to the world of short films, Ridley co-directed with his daughter Jordan Scott (Cracks) one of the seven segments for the anthology about childhood and exploitation called All the Invisible Children (2005); their effort Jonathan is about a British war photographer (David Thewlis) who looks back on his youth. Other contributors to the project which premiered at the Venice Film Festival were John Woo (Windtalkers) and Spike Lee (The Inside Man).

Next on the cinematic agenda for Ridley Scott was a reunion with an Oscar-winner who traded his signature ancient Roman sword and sandals for a contemporary life on a French vineyard.

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One Comment
  1. there's nothing i can say about gladiator which has not already been said and moolah and accolades, oscars included. this movie has got and deserved everything it came its way. superb.I have been a BIG fan of Silence of the Lambs and Anthony Hopkins, before this movie came by and I still remember I was very apprehensive about "Hannibal" when it released. I never saw Silence of Lambs as a franchise venture and I was sure this sequel would suck too, but I had a small hope that it would not take a sequel route and have its own character projections and stuff. and I loved to see that very same thing happen. I really liked Hannibal. and thx RS, about the notes on prod details and scripting Hannibal. Black Hawk Down, MatchStick Men were commendable.I didnt quite like Kingdom of Heaven, mostly because I could not stand to see Orlando Bloom in that role.

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