What Ridley Scott Has Learned: “We Don’t Know S***”

·18 min read

Ridley Scott keeps sliding his thumb over a prominent lump on the palm of his left hand.

It’s the hand Scott uses to draw the storyboards for his films in pen and ink, to operate a camera on his shoots and to do oil paintings on weekends. It’s also the hand that Scott had just put down on a thick, rusty screw jutting from a piece of driftwood in early December, when he slipped on some rocks on a beach in France while scouting locations for his next movie, Kitbag.

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“The worst thing about it is when you’re my age they think, ‘Oh, the old guy’s fallen down,'” Scott says. “I say, ‘Get off. I’m fine. Get off. You go on, I’ll see you later.’ So I went up to the hospital, bleeding hand, and got stitches and things. I heal like a shark. So I’m healed. Now, my mother would say, ‘You’ll be fine.’ And that’s why I’m fine, and I’m fine.”

At 84, Scott is a bit better than fine. Over 20 months during the pandemic, he shot two ambitious and wildly different movies, House of Gucci, a melodrama about dynastic excess in the fashion world in late 20th century Italy, for MGM, and The Last Duel, an epic about misogyny and justice in medieval France, for Disney. In 2022, he’ll direct Kitbag, a Napoleon movie starring Joaquin Phoenix, for Apple, and produce Death on the Nile, an Agatha Christie adaptation, for Disney, as well as Boston Strangler, a drama starring Keira Knightley as a journalist covering the 1960s murders of 13 women in Massachusetts, for Warner Media, and A Chronology of Water, Kristen Stewart’s writing and directing debut.

“I’ve never examined how and why I’ve been so busy, but I won’t let the downtime get on top of me,” Scott says. “I keep flying. That’s why I always work, because I’m afraid I may miss something.”

Given Scott’s steady productivity and workmanlike approach over a 45-year film career, it’s easy to forget that he is responsible for a remarkable string of culture-defining movies, from genre groundbreakers like Alien and Blade Runner to the intimate female buddy picture Thelma & Louise, to epics like Black Hawk Down, Gladiator and The Martian. In an era when Hollywood’s idea of big-screen cinema is narrowing to a single genre, comic book movies, it’s not just the volume of Scott’s work that’s unusual, but the breadth of it. “The industry is constricting creatively,” says producer Peter Chernin, who first met Scott when Chernin became president of Fox in 1989. “People are becoming more conservative and taking fewer chances, and he’s going in the opposite direction. He should be celebrated for that. It’s a beacon for the industry to have a guy with such an appetite, willing to take such broad risks, willing to stretch.”

The unpredictable pandemic box office hit one of Scott’s movies hard — The Last Duel, which cost $100 million and starred Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck, earned just $30.6 million worldwide. House of Gucci, which cost $75 million and starred Lady Gaga, Driver, Al Pacino and Jared Leto, has fared better, earning $126.7 million worldwide. “We just did two very good things the last 20 months, and partly because of COVID and partly because we’re losing cinema, which is desperately unfortunate, the one should have done much better,” Scott says. “I hope to God [moviegoing] is going to return. I just hope to God that we don’t let it go. One thing’s for sure: We don’t know shit. We are guessing. After my experience, I don’t know, so all I can do is make the best I can.”

Ridley Scott was photographed Dec. 21 at his production studio in West Hollywood. “I heal like a shark,” says the director, who needed stitches after a recent injury while scouting a location. “So I’m fine.” - Credit: Photographed by Ryan Pfluger
Ridley Scott was photographed Dec. 21 at his production studio in West Hollywood. “I heal like a shark,” says the director, who needed stitches after a recent injury while scouting a location. “So I’m fine.” - Credit: Photographed by Ryan Pfluger

Photographed by Ryan Pfluger

It’s the week before Christmas and most of Hollywood has shut down — for the holiday and the omicron variant — but Scott is up and running, prepping a 2022 Kitbag shoot from his offices in West Hollywood, a three-building compound that houses the U.S. side of his film, TV and commercial business, the Ridley Scott Creative Group. The director is wearing an N95 mask, khaki pants and Gucci loafers, a rare nod to luxury for a man who can afford a fleet of Bentleys, but prefers to drive a Prius. “I don’t worry about scratching it,” he says of his car. “And I hate being noticed.”

Scott’s speed and productivity owe to the unusual way in which he works. He started drawing his own storyboards while directing commercials in the 1960s, as a way to show agencies he had a vision for an ad, and he continues today, boarding roughly five pages a day with colored felt-tip pens once he’s decided to make a script. “Boarding, for me, is filming on paper,” Scott says. “As I’m reading, I’m seeing the scene, the geometry, the physical movement. I’ll imagine the room, the location.”

When he made 1991’s Thelma & Louise, he began shooting with multiple cameras, one of which he operated, for intimate scenes that he didn’t want to ask his actors to perform over and over, including the love scene between Geena Davis and Brad Pitt that launched Pitt’s career. “I thought, ‘My God, this is efficient,'” Scott says. By the time he got to Black Hawk Down in 2001, he was up to 11 cameras. “When you’re in his little video village with him, he generally has six cameras going at the same time,” says Chernin. “He knows the name of every cameraman, and he’s got a headphone and he’ll go, ‘Tommy, up in the upper left-hand corner, move down, move down. I don’t want to see that over there. Billy, pull back, pull back.’ He can hold the equation of six cameras in his head, know what each is capturing, how he’s going to use it in the edit. His ability to come in on time and on budget is a function of just how insanely well versed he is in filmmaking.”

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Actors are drawn to Scott’s sense of assurance, which means he has faith in his casting decisions and mostly leaves them alone. When Nicolas Cage was working with Scott on Matchstick Men, “I went into his office and we had a cigar together and I said, ‘Ridley, I’ve been reading this script, and I think it’s OCD, but a little of what I know about obsessive compulsive disorder, there’s also a Tourette’s component. So I really just want to explore the different outbursts, the different twitches, whatever, so that we can have that component.’ He said, ‘You know what, Nick? You find it and bring it.’ That was it. That’s confident.”

For Lady Gaga, Scott became a father figure on the House of Gucci set, emotionally capacious when she was mining painful personal experiences for her performance as murderous Patrizia Gucci. “I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone that’s as precise as Ridley from an artistic perspective,” Gaga says. “But I never once felt any rigidity from him. He’s incredibly adaptive and malleable. He’s got the technical piece worked out so perfectly that it’s like giving a bird wings to fly. It’s like saying, ‘The wings are perfect and here they are, and now you can fly if you choose to do so.’ It’s a real freedom and gift to get from your director.”

Scott attributes a filmography of complex women to being raised by a strong-willed mother. From left: Lady Gaga in House of Gucci; Sigourney Weaver in Alien. - Credit: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.; 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection
Scott attributes a filmography of complex women to being raised by a strong-willed mother. From left: Lady Gaga in House of Gucci; Sigourney Weaver in Alien. - Credit: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.; 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.; 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Critics were divided on some of the performances in House of Gucci, particularly Leto’s as a flamboyant Paolo Gucci, The New York Times calling his delivery not just hammy, but “the full mortadella.” Asked about Leto’s choices in the film, Scott smiles and says, “There’s a moment where, as a Formula One driver, you might want to take your hands off the wheel, close your eyes when you go around the bend. So, Jared’s doing that, Al [Pacino]’s doing his thing, and Lady Gaga’s doing her thing on set, and I’m going, ‘Fuck, I’m going to have to take my hands off the wheel and just go around the bend.’ If I’m wrong, it’s going to be one hell of a long ADR session. At the end of the day, do I like it? Yes. If anyone else doesn’t like it, tough luck. I think it’s really great.” It seems other actors agree —House of Gucci just collected three SAG Awards nominations, for Gaga, Leto and the ensemble.

Scott says he respects critics but mostly uses his own taste as a barometer, a view of criticism that extends back 40 years, to when he released Blade Runner to some blistering reviews, including a four-page pan in The New Yorker in which Pauline Kael wrote that “Scott seems to be trapped in his own alleyways, without a map.” Blade Runner would go on to inspire a generation of filmmakers and be selected for preservation in the Library of Congress. Scott would go on to be nominated for three Academy Awards for directing, for Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, and to be knighted at Buckingham Palace in 2003. Yet Kael’s scathing 1982 Blade Runner review still hangs in a frame in a conference room at Scott’s company. “The worst thing to do is read your critique and it’s great,” Scott says. “That’s very dangerous, because you think you’re walking on air. What I’ve learned is you’re never walking on air. You’re always slightly dotty. I always think, ‘I don’t quite know everything.'”

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner (1982), which received blistering reviews and is now regarded as a sci-fi classic. - Credit: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection
Harrison Ford in Blade Runner (1982), which received blistering reviews and is now regarded as a sci-fi classic. - Credit: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Scott may have private doubts about his work, but publicly he displays a mix of cockiness and candor that feel rare in an era when many Hollywood figures are verbally tiptoeing for fear of offending someone and ending up as a trending topic. When the Gucci family criticized the casting of his movie last fall, Scott scoffed, “You probably have the best actors in the world, you should be so fucking lucky.” A video interview from his Last Duel junket went viral in early December after Scott told a journalist to “go fuck yourself.” The reporter was delivering a backhanded compliment, telling Scott The Last Duel was “more realistic” than his previous work. “If it just rings not right, I’ll say ‘That’s not right,'” Scott says, explaining his response. “This guy was being pretentious.”

Scott attributes his no-nonsense temperament to his mother, Elizabeth, who shouldered much of the parenting for Scott and his two brothers while their father, an army engineer, worked. During World War II, it was Elizabeth who shuffled the boys to shelter under a steel table in the kitchen as bombs rained down on their home in North East England during the Newcastle Blitz. Her parenting style was to say, “Get out in the fields, come back at 5, and do not fall in the sea,” Scott says. “She was hard-core. She should have been in business. I could see it, as the three boys got older and there was less for her to do, she became frustrated.”

Scott’s mother’s character is also to thank, he says, for one of the signatures of his career, an extraordinary number of dynamic and groundbreaking female roles, starting with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien in 1979, and also including Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise in 1991 and, this year, Gaga in House of Gucci and Comer in The Last Duel. “Thelma & Louise had a massive impact on me when I was younger,” Gaga says. “Linking all of his films together, it’s clear that Ridley cares about the life of the woman. What he really devours as a filmmaker is this idea that we are complicated and complex figures.”

Scott, known for giving actors creative freedom, directs Ben Affleck and Adam Driver in The Last Duel. - Credit: Jessica Forde/2021 20th Century Studios
Scott, known for giving actors creative freedom, directs Ben Affleck and Adam Driver in The Last Duel. - Credit: Jessica Forde/2021 20th Century Studios

Jessica Forde/2021 20th Century Studios

Scott’s family moved frequently because of his father’s work, and switching schools constantly meant he was often bewildered by the curriculum. “I never caught up,” he says. “I never knew what the hell I was doing, where I was going next.” He did, however, find a passion in drawing and attended art school, first at the West Hartlepool College of Art in a shipbuilding town in North East England, where “the air smelled like toast, because of the smelting,” and the industrial landscape inspired the look of Blade Runner. He went on to study photography at the Royal Academy of Art in London at the same time as artist David Hockney, and among teachers who included Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. In 1962, when he was 24, for his final show at the Royal Academy, Scott made a 27-minute, black-and-white 16mm film, Boy and Bicycle, starring his brother Tony, who was 18 at the time. “We had no idea we were forming a lifelong career,” Scott says. The brothers would go on to work together first in advertising and then in film, with Tony directing such movies as Top Gun, True Romance and Man on Fire. (Their oldest brother, Frank, joined the Merchant Navy and died in 1980.)

Tony was treated for testicular cancer at age 21 with an early and extremely strong form of chemotherapy, Ridley says, and recovered spectacularly, going on to become an avid mountain climber, climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan twice. The cancer recurred in his 60s, requiring the removal of half of Tony’s pelvis. “There was no way he could climb anymore,” Ridley says. “I think he felt something had been removed psychologically. I was watching him very closely and I was aware, and that’s when I lost him.” In 2012, at age 68, after undergoing treatment for cancer, Tony jumped from Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles’ San Pedro, and died. Ridley was out of town, and seems to feel a sense of responsibility for the tragedy. “He may not have done it if I had been here,” Ridley says. “I was only away for a month. We were very close.”

Scott’s wife, his third, is Giannina Facio, a Costa Rican actress and producer whom he met when she played Russell Crowe’s wife in Gladiator; Facio developed House of Gucci before Scott came on as director, and produced it. Scott’s sons, Jake and Luke, from his first marriage, and daughter, Jordan, from his second, all direct. Scott has had his children on his sets since they were small, casting them as smaller versions of his lead actors in shots that call for miniatures — the boys in Alien, his daughter in Legend. In 2017, he put Luke in charge of his company, which fluctuates between 60 and 80 employees, depending on production needs, and has branches in film, TV and advertising. “At the time I came on, this was a 50-year-old company,” Luke says. “The brief was to think about the next 50 years. One of the objectives was to blur the lines between the advertising and the entertainment sides of the business.” Scott sees involving his children and his grandchildren in his business as both inevitable and fun. “I always let them into what I’m doing,” he says.

Scott directs Jared Leto in House of Gucci. “I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone that’s as precise as Ridley from an artistic perspective. But I never once felt any rigidity from him. He’s incredibly adaptive and malleable,” says Gucci star Lady Gaga. - Credit: Fabio Lovino/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Scott directs Jared Leto in House of Gucci. “I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone that’s as precise as Ridley from an artistic perspective. But I never once felt any rigidity from him. He’s incredibly adaptive and malleable,” says Gucci star Lady Gaga. - Credit: Fabio Lovino/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Fabio Lovino/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

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After finishing art school and a stint designing sets for BBC shows and directing commercials, Ridley had opened his own commercial production company in 1968 with Tony and hired seven or eight other directors. Ridley alone has directed more than 2,000 ads over the course of his career, and he credits his experience in that industry with shaping his appreciation for budgets and schedules. “In advertising, the budget is my wallet, and when I go past 5 [p.m.], I’m paying,” he says. “The second hand on the clock always had a dollar sign on it. I can smell a budget being too high, too low. ‘Why do we need that? I’ll be through this by lunchtime. I don’t need a day and a half.'” His most famous ad is Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl spot introducing the Macintosh computer, regarded as one of the most influential ads of all time. When the agency, Chiat/Day, pitched Ridley on directing a spot for Apple, he thought they were talking about The Beatles. “They said, ‘No, no, no. Apple is this guy called Steve Jobs.’ I went, ‘Who the fuck is Steve Jobs?’ They said, ‘It’s probably going to be something.'” Scott read the script and thought, “My God. They’re not saying what it is, they’re not showing what it is. They’re not even saying what it does. It was advertising as an art form. It was devastatingly effective.” Today, “Advertising is changing dramatically. And the problem is it went onto this,” Ridley says, holding up his iPhone, “which was both genius and the enemy. It’s now in segments, where you’re trying to find an article and there’s 19 little snippets of it. Is it effective? I very much doubt it.”

Scott (center) was joined by son Luke, daughter Jordan (far right) and then-girlfriend (now wife) Giannina Facio for his knighting in 2003. - Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Scott (center) was joined by son Luke, daughter Jordan (far right) and then-girlfriend (now wife) Giannina Facio for his knighting in 2003. - Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

One potential solution is integrating brands into film and television, a task for which the Scott family is particularly well equipped. There is a way in which House of Gucci might be considered an absolutely spectacular, two-and-a-half-hour ad for a brand. There are other, more direct ads that have sprung from the film as well, including a Tanqueray Gin spot that Jordan Scott shot, which begins with a nightclub scene in House of Gucci, but doesn’t use its characters.

The TV branch of Scott’s company, which is run by David W. Zucker, is just as busy. They signed a first-look deal with Apple TV+ in 2020, and have produced such shows as The Good Wife for CBS and its offshoot The Good Fight for Paramount+, as well as The Man in the High Castle for Amazon Studios. The company is now mining Ridley’s catalog for shows, developing a live-action series of Alien at FX, with Noah Hawley attached as showrunner, and a series version of Blade Runner. Scott is also preparing a feature sequel to Gladiator, his best picture winner, which will follow Lucius, the son of Russell Crowe and Connie Nielsen’s characters, in North Africa as a 20-something.

Ridley Scott with brother Tony Scott (left) in 2010. - Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Ridley Scott with brother Tony Scott (left) in 2010. - Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

When it comes to choosing projects, Scott says, “I feel like I’m a child in a playpen with lots of toys, and I’ll go, ‘Oh, that looks nice and red and shiny. I’ll go for that.'” The director has strong ideas about what makes something a Ridley Scott movie, however. “The older I get, the more I look for things which are about something, aren’t just entertainment,” he says. “It must have an effect on somebody.” When Disney bought Fox, for years his home studio, he says, “They wanted me to do a wizard film, and I don’t do wizard films. It wasn’t a good idea.” Kitbag, he says, appealed because of the relationship between Napoleon and his wife, Josephine, who will be played by Vanessa Kirby, and it returns Scott to the milieu of his first film, the 1977 Napoleonic drama The Duellists. “You’ve got to serve battles, and action, and sex with great restraint. Otherwise, it all gets boring,” he says. “What is it about Napoleon that makes him fascinating? Very simply this: a man who was one of the most powerful men in history, yet is so reliant on a woman.”

Studios, Chernin believes, will continue to back Scott’s choices. “He’s so reliable,” Chernin says. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bad Ridley Scott movie. Some of them are better than others, and he strikes real magic on a pretty regular basis. The Martian was an amazing fucking movie. If somebody came to you and said, ‘The guy who made Martian wants to make this movie,’ any studio in the world would say, ‘Let’s go.’ And he’s got 15 of those movies on his résumé.”

Scott has a successful vineyard in Provence and enjoys painting for pleasure, but he says he has no intention of retiring from making movies, that he wakes up every day at 5:30 a.m. eager to get going. “It’s nothing to do with it financially, because I do well enough,” he says. “I don’t need anything else. I’ve discovered you can only drink one bottle of red wine in the evening. If you drink two, you feel sick.”

At 84, Luke says, his father is as productive as he was when Luke was a child. “What you have to understand is that what he does is not work,” says Luke. “When he is shooting, that’s his form of relaxation. That’s the sustenance that keeps him moving forward.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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