Hollywood’s Best Film Directors


Ridley Scott

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: April 20, 2020 | 0:27:21



Narrator: This great Hollywood director has been nominated

for the Academy Award three times.

He began his career at the BBC, and at the age of 27,

launched his own commercial production company,

which very quickly became an international success.

12 years later, he would direct his first movie,

"The Duellists," starring Harvey Keitel,

and then follow that up with the monster hit "Alien"

and the cult classic "Blade Runner."

Then came another string of successes --

"Thelma & Louise," starring Susan Sarandon,

Geena Davis, and a young Brad Pitt;

"Hannibal," with Anthony Hopkins;

"Black Hawk Down," which won two Oscars;

"Kingdom of Heaven," with Liam Neeson and Orlando Bloom;

"American Gangster," with Denzel Washington;

"Robin Hood";

and "Prometheus."

But he might always be best remembered

for the character of Maximus in "Gladiator,"

which received five Academy Awards,

including Best Film and Best Actor for Russell Crowe.

This great Hollywood director is Ridley Scott.

I'm here in my office in London,

and this is the office of RSA in London,

and also Scott Free. And which...

I started this company 42 years ago --

that's a long time ago --

thinking that, eventually, advertising would leave me

or I'd leave advertising, and I didn't.

I'm still very much involved in advertising,

I'm pleased to say.

And so the Scott Free side of things, obviously, has grown

into a pretty established, feature film production company.

And I'm in here today 'cause I'm shooting a film

of, actually, a relatively short schedule for me -- nine weeks.

I'm shooting a film here in about three weeks' time,

and I'm preproducing out of here.

I had a pretty conventional childhood

in terms of -- and a conventional family life.

My dad, when I say he was in the army,

he was only in the army because the war broke out,

and then got attached to the Royal Engineers,

and then eventually got fairly closely attached

to the planning of what eventually would be called

Mulberry Harbour, or D-Day.

At the end of the war,

my dad was asked to take off his uniform

and put on a suit and be taken out to Germany

to join in with what was the tail end of the Marshall Plan

and what would be called the CCG,

which is the Control Commission for Germany.

So I was going out to Germany in 1947 on a troop ship

with a label attached to me in case I got lost.

And we went and lived in Hamburg

and then Frankfurt in the American zone,

and then I was sent to school in Wilhelmshaven,

which is fundamentally a U-boat barracks

for the Baltic command

for the U-boat part of the German navy.

And so I used to walk past 200 U-boats every morning,

so cocooned in that -- we'd discovered spray plastic,

so they're all bobbing up and down the harbor.

I then stayed there until right through,

managed to get into a secondary modern school.

And I missed the --

I could never have passed the class anyway,

because I'd been to 10 schools,

so I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

And there's always this expectation of adults,

say, "Well, you'll catch up." You don't.

You don't know where the hell you are.

So, over 10 schools, I had no idea where I was.

But I was in a secondary modern school in Stockton.

Cut a long story short,

the best thing I could do fundamentally was art.

And I was quite special at art, really,

and my interest was unusual.

And so I'd paint a lot at home, draw a lot of home,

didn't go out to dances,

so I think my parents thought I was peculiar.

And I just tended to paint all the time,

and that got me into art school.

So I went to the West Hartlepool College of Art.

From there, I went to the Royal College of Art.

And that -- now, I'm starting to really move

because I got an expectation of the fact that I...

Whilst I adored art and fine arts

and all the aspects of design,

my obsession came with film by whatever was local.

My fodder of, you know, film stuff to look at

was all Hollywood 'cause that's all there was.

There was no alternative cinema then.

There were no schools for directors,

and I hadn't really thought about that,

ever thought about the idea

of how on Earth I could become a director.

I came out the Royal College with a really good...

I was a first-class honors student

and got a travelling scholarship,

and so I was able to jump into New York

for the first time and enter the world of madmen.

You're wrestling with yourself every day if you're a painter.

I felt that was -- I was uneasy with that.

And I felt that was much easier, having a target,

and advertising established that for me.

Give me a target, you know, and problems to answer,

and I'm kind of good at that.

Now at 25, 26, and I'm thinking...

I'm working very, very hard at BBC.

I love them dearly, but after tax,

I'm taking home about 75 quid a week

for doing live TV and half killing myself.

When I'm doing a television commercial,

I'm receiving £100 in my hand at the end of the day.

There's something dramatically wrong here.

And I had formed RSA when I was 27.

And I formed RSA, and it went -- Whoa, it just took off.

And so I was in the business of advertising.

I never thought about it for 10, 12 years,

because when you're having a good time and you're doing well,

you don't really think about it. And it's only 10 years later

I suddenly realize I haven't done a film.

Francis made a film called "Apocalypse Now."

And I tracked down "Heart of Darkness."

I wanted it for my first, but I'm not completely unrealistic.

But I think, "That's what I want to do."

And we tracked it down, found that it was --

it had already been taken.

by a person called Francis Ford Coppola.

So, I didn't really know who that was at that point.

So then, damn, so we've got to find something else.

So we then found a sketch for a much larger novel,

which was called "The Duellists."

I'd been told that Gerald Vaughan-Hughes,

that I'd found and met with and got on very well with,

had written a beautiful screenplay

called "The Duellists."

He'd already done another one for me,

called "The Gunpowder Plot."

We pushed that to the limits, almost running dry,

couldn't get it going.

"The Duellists" seemed to be a little bit less ambitious.

And so I traveled.

And I was told to go to Hallmark Hall of Fame, Chicago.

They look on this as a very interesting TV piece.

They love the script. I flew out there, met with them.

When I got in, they said, "But it's not for us."

He said, "Why don't you make this into a movie?"

So I thought, "Okay."

So I flew from Chicago to Los Angeles,

checked into one of the hotels,

and just picked up the phone and started.

That's what I did. And then got so far,

and got a little bit of interest,

and then couldn't get any further,

and I had to return to England, but I got two cast members.

I then picked up the phone and asked David Puttnam to help me.

David Puttnam, who was the man,

the producer in England at that particular moment,

had got Alan Parker going, "Bugsy,"

and got Adrian Lyne going, "Foxes."

Right, so I was now absolutely riddled with anxiety.

So I called him up. We met, and he was

quite surprised, I think, the script was so good.

And, fundamentally, he made a call to help me.

Paramount finally said yes.

Ironically, someone at Cannes -- this is how it works --

had seen "The Duellists," and how he connected the fact

that I might be a good idea for "Alien,"

God only knows. But "Duellists" impressed him.

And then he'd called Fox, and they looked at it

and liked it a lot.

But they didn't know how to handle it, how to release it

because there's no star and it's, you know --

it could be perceived as a bit of an art movie.

I never thought it was an art movie at all.

It was a very straightforward, you know, narrative.

It's a Western.

And I watched it fade away pretty quick and thought,

well, you know, maybe the enjoyment,

the thrill is in the doing of it,

not in the end result, not in the aftermath.

Because it's bloody hard work, and at the end of it,

all I did was lose money, 'cause as a completion bond person,

I had to fork out a little bit of money

because it rained for 58 days.

So that was another lesson.

And then, out of the blue, came this thing called "Alien."



And being an art director background,

I knew exactly what to do,

'cause I was kind of edging in towards a bit of "Heavy Metal,"

the very good comic strip by Jean Giraud, Moebius.

"Métal hurlant," or "Heavy Metal."

And that's why I first became aware of Moebius.

And so, I connected the idea of "Alien" with Moebius.

That kind of makes sense, to the extent that

as soon as I knew I was going to get "Alien,"

I read the script,

And I knew immediately, "I want to do it."

I waited for 5:30 that afternoon,

called 20th Century Fox 9:30 in the morning their time,

said, "I love it. I'll do it."

And there was this long silence. Said, "Hang on."

Well, somebody else came on, and then they said,

"Where are you now?" Said, "I'm in London."

"Hm. When can you be here?" I said, "You send me a ticket,

I'll leave tonight."

I said, "I just want to make it."

"Any changes?" Said, "Absolutely not.

This is -- I know exactly what to do here

and knock it out the ballpark. And no change, no changes."

They all looked at each other.

They loved the fact that I wanted no changes.

So I think you can turn your first conversation,

you don't watch it, on a go project

into a development deal.

Just shh. Just said, "I love it."


I think it was tricky because I didn't realize

I was coming in with something which was an oddball world.

And it was an evolution from "Alien," as well, oddly enough.

And it was definitely an evolution

where I was influenced by Moebius, I think.

And I really took on board what he did

and was completely influenced

by everything from the characters, the clothes.

He was definitely an influence on me on "Blade Runner."

And I think by doing that, it was my first film in Hollywood

where I wanted it raining, I wanted to be at night,

I wanted everything to be moody.

And it just irritated the shit out of them.

And me trying to do it and say, "Well, that's what I want" --

at least I stuck to my guns.

And got thrashed regularly.

I, as a director, want to be surprised in a good way.

And so I've evolved very much in that direction.

So now I'm coming up on a film

that I'm going to produce, called "Thelma & Louise."

And again, I am in, now, the driving seat,

so I asked five directors to do it,

and five directors turned me down.

Three of them said, "I've got problems with women."

I said, "Men have problems with women.

That's the whole point of the goddamn movie."

[ Laughs ] I said, "'Cause these women have a voice,

and the voice may make you feel uncomfortable,

but that's your problem, not theirs."

So it was one of those kind of discussions.

And then, eventually, one day,

an actress that was being interviewed,

an important actress, said to me,

"Why don't you come to your senses and you direct it?"

And after that, I went, "Hmm, she might be right."

So then I went away, and that's when I decided to do it.

And at that moment in time,

Thelma had been pursuing the office

saying, "I want to come read. I want to do this role."

And I met with her, and I could see she was clearly it.

Then I met with Susan, who is, you know,

a marvelous American actress, and Louise was born.

And out of that, I think I had probably one of the better times

I've ever had making a movie, making a film.

I cast very, very carefully. I cast really well.

And part of the process when I'm casting is,

a read, for me, doesn't mean anything.

What's important is who they are as a person.

So when I'm actually interviewing someone for a film,

I usually talk to them for an hour

before I even mention the role or go to the read.

I just want to know who they are.

By the time, once you've done that, you've relaxed them.

Then they know it's playtime. You can actually experiment.

And therefore they feel free to show you stuff.

The casting process was always difficult for me then

'cause I didn't really know who was out there

and I'd want to see everybody in the box.

I think I saw everybody in America for "Alien,"

which drove my producers crazy.

Because they were suggesting people, frankly,

I'd never heard of -- people from television,

like Yaphet Kotto and people like that.

And Harry Dean Stanton, who I wasn't really that aware of,

but when I met him, I loved him. Yep.

And then Sigourney. We had to find a new person.

And Sigourney was a real find, actually.

She was really impressive.


And then from that, in the casting process,

I was again looking at new people,

and even Harrison Ford, to me, was kind of new.

And I knew that Ford was now with Steven and with George

doing "Indiana Jones."

So I figured these two are closing on this guy

who's going to be called Indiana Jones.

I guarantee he's going to be a star.

So I met him one night, still in his gear.

He came into town and met me, and he actually came

straight off the set, so he has the hat, the leather jacket.

And I said, "Do you want to do the movie?"

That's how I cast him.

To the extent that, in those days,

when the people I was with said, "Who's Harrison Ford?"

I said, "Well, Harrison Ford is the guy

flying that round space vehicle in..."

What was it called? Millennium Falcon?


I said, "But he's gonna be Indiana Jones."

So that was good choice.

Then "Blade Runner" didn't play too good -- too well.

So that's the next lesson.

Just when you think you've got it, you ain't got nothing.

[ Gunfire ]

My life has been traveling backwards and forwards,

backwards and forwards, of wherever I do film,

that takes me.

I've got this thing about North Africa.

I think I've done four films, big ones, in North Africa.

We did "Black Hawk Down." I did "Kingdom of Heaven."

I did "Body of Lies."

I did the first act, or the middle act of "Gladiator."

And was that when it was still a relatively quiet place.

I go back on everything I learned

at art school every day. I still use it.

I'm upstairs right now with the production designer

planning what I'm doing in three weeks' time.

And it's all about white sheets of paper, pens, and drawing.

Because the script's done, Cormac McCarthy screenplay,

and so that's a given. The actors are all cast.

So now it's, what's it gonna look like?

And I use everything I learned, every day, at art school.

Interesting. When I'm doing a movie...

And the way we planned "Prometheus" was,

before we got the big unit together

and the big art department, I persuaded Fox, wisely, said,

"Look, you give me an R&D budget" --

a research and development budget --

you know, a couple hundred grand --

"...to hire my production designer

and four digital artists.

We'll sit in that room in my office over there

and actually design the whole film and the way it looks

before we get to the expensive part,

which is suddenly crewing up with 300 personnel."

And that's what we did. So we planned it there.

So every day was in drawing what the landscape would be,

therefore where will it be, even to designing and looking

at the way people, what they wear,

or what the ship looks like, inside the ship and outside.

It's all drawn on digital work today.

It's like photographs. You can look at it as like

a photograph of the finished thing.

And that was one of the most -- it was a new direction for me.

And I really loved doing it. I loved the re-engaging

with special effects and digital effects.



Well, my process has always been visual.

I've come from a visual direction or a visual angle

of being an art director.

And I used to think that,

'cause I was always getting criticized

for the films being too visual...

Till I realized, well, actually, that's what we're doing.

We're dealing with pictures.

And so, you know, eventually, I realized

that I had an advantage by having an eye,

rather than it being a disadvantage.

And, consequently, I think it was thought

that I neglected actors a little bit,

and maybe because I also operated.

I was the operator on "Alien," "Duellist."

Wasn't allowed to on "Blade Runner,"

because I was in Hollywood, and I was a new kid on the block,

so they wouldn't let you do that.

The union wouldn't allow it,

but I had a great cameraman with a very good crew,

so I was very happy with what I got with that.

Coming back to the UK, I did "Legend," so operating on that.

Yeah, operating, to me, was very important.

I like to operate 'cause it gets you there fast, quick.

And contrary to what people say,

because you're behind the camera, the actor is cut off --

that's absolute horse shit. Every actor adores it.

If you've got your eye on the viewfinder,

it's a bit like working as a still photographer.

I'm on you like that, and I'm talking to you.

I'm seeing right into you. Actors like that.

So I started to evolve my own style

in terms of how I deal with actors,

how I rehearse, how I pull into the process,

because to me, I think my job as a director,

the way I do it is as a partnership.

The most digital film I didn't rehearse on

was probably on "Robin Hood."

Oh, sorry -- "Gladiator." He doesn't bother with that.

And I don't bother him with that.

I can explain to him that when you walk in this Colosseum,

it's only gonna be 40% there.

But we built 40% of the Colosseum.

I didn't do five stories, but I did four stories.

So it's full-scale. And then you track it.

And then that first spin around, we'll show the whole arena,

which is a pretty marvelous digital event.

It's amazing what they actually pulled off --

The Mill in London.

And he doesn't need to know that.

An actor's an actor's an actor. And actor will look at it and...

You know, don't forget,

they're looking at the film crew most of the time.

They're not looking at the rest of the set.

Well, if they're looking at an actor

and they're looking at the film crew,

they're out of it. Or they should be.

Well, I paid for the screenplay as a completion bond

and hunted in Hollywood, gone, flown out there

met with Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel.

Well, Keith was very amenable to that

and said he was very fascinated by, you know,

what that was, what the character meant.

And Keith was more of a classical actor,

was already able to cross that boundary

and say, "Well, will you work on the accent?"

We'll come down, middle kind of ground, on English.

And Harvey was still in the street with Scorsese and DeNiro

because he'd already done "Mean Streets."

And the first thing that Harvey said to me when I walked in,

he said, "You must be out of your fucking mind."

Okay, okay, Keith.

Could you just hit the mat, please?

Okay, just boom, crunch.

Okay, there's a rush, general rush.

Won't be there yet, so it'll be a beat later, okay?

"You want me to play a Hussar?

How on Earth can I play a Hussar?"

But the upshot was, at the end of the day,

I got him, And that's why that, by now,

I know that determination is everything, really.

Whatever -- you just don't take no for an answer.

I just didn't take no for an answer.

I went out there with a week's clothing.

I was there two months in Hollywood, waiting.

So it was my introduction to the process in Hollywood.

You're never going to get a straight answer immediately.

And that's part of the process. That's what it is.

And you've got to sit it out or argue it out,

and that's what I...

It was a whole new learning process gonna happen

once I'm in Hollywood.


And as soon as I've closed out "Alien,"

suddenly I've got everybody and their mother

looking over your shoulder.

So now you're witnessing and feeling the real pressure

of what will be a possible film for a studio

where they have high expectations.

And in those days, the budget was only $4.2 million.

But the most valuable thing I did,

drawing from what I could do -- I went home.

And I storyboarded the whole movie in three weeks.

Then I flew back with the boards.

I've still got them. It's this thick, and big boards.

And they stared at the boards,

and I think they suddenly realized

that they had something much bigger here,

because the budget went from $4.2 million

to $8.2 million. It jumped $4 million.


And initially, they weren't going for stars, actually,

because I think they felt

that the science fiction film may be the star.

And also, being introduced to Giger,

and I know they'd been afraid of Giger

being a little bit too extreme and obscene.

And I said, "Well, actually, H.R. Giger is,

I mean, at this moment in time, a little touch of genius.

I'll go and see him."

So I flew down to Switzerland and met him.

He didn't want to do it. He didn't want to fly.

Said, "We'll bring you in by train."

Upshot was, we got him in to come in by train.

He lived in the pub in Shepperton Studios

for 10 months.

And he said, "This is fine for me."

Lived in a little room above the pub in Shepperton.

For the most part, I loved everything,

because it was all Hollywood.

And the best of it would be, you know, James Dean.

Would be...Dean did two or three pretty good movies.

And John Wayne.

I adored Westerns. I've never done a Western.

I adored almost any Western.

Some great Westerns done those days, or there seemed to be.

'Cause it was all kind of new and magical.


I never got to see alternative cinema

till I came to Royal College.

And that would be 1957, maybe '56,

where I suddenly discovered the National Film Theatre.

The standout guys were Kurosawa, Orson Welles, Bergman --

everything way back to "Summer with Monika,"

not just "Seventh Seal" and all that stuff.

"Virgin Spring," those things.

And, of course, Hollywood is the big business,

and the rest is alternative cinema.

And I had no idea what I wanted to do,

and I felt that Lean, David Lean, straddled the fence.

He kind of did both.

You know, "Great Expectations" is kind of a perfect film.

I don't know anyone who doesn't really want

to see a good movie.

I think they get tired of seeing bad movies.

So that's the wear-out factor when you go and see rubbish.

And I think that the problem today

is that we're making so many movies.

We're making more movies than ever, ever, ever, ever before.

Which, so, to keep the standard up

is pretty tricky, pretty difficult.

So, filmmaking and getting bums on seats,

which I still consider as what I have to do,

I go, with the budgets of today,

I want to make sure I put bums on seats,

so I've got to tell a good yarn.

If you're gonna bury yourself in your own private attic,

a lot of people ain't gonna go and see it,

and you're not gonna last that long.

So I do tend to come from the school of that direction.





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