Ridley Scott: "I find most of my inspiration from low-budget movies now"
When Sir Ridley Scott called ‘action!’ for the first time on the set of Prometheus, it brought things full circle for the legendary British director. After all, he started the Alien franchise in 1979 with the terrifying, claustrophobic original and now, 30 years later, he has returned to the series, eager to explore new ground and new ideas.
The 74 year-old director has worked in a plethora of genres since Alien — filming a war movie, a feminist road movie, an historical epic and even a gentle comedy — but Prometheus marks his return to science-fiction for the first time since Blade Runner in 1982. Like Alien, that movie is a seminal work, which goes some way to explaining why there is so much anticipation about Scott’s decision to return to the genre he helped define.
We spoke to Sir Ridley in the London offices of his company, Scott Free, about Prometheus, returning to sci-fi and arguably the biggest question of them all: why are wehere?
U. W.: Can we say you have returned to science-fiction after all these years?
Science-fiction is a wonderful universe, sorry about the pun, for another much-overused word, creativity. It’s an arena where anything goes, but you have to make sure it’s a good story and is not abused. There’s a serious lack of originality in many science fiction films in that often, they are mostly dressing. Many filmmakers do not really utilize the science-fiction idea which the arena itself presents. You can fundamentally do anything you want, provided you draw up the rules of your drama first. Within that universe, you have to stick to your own rulebook. The hardest thing to do is to get the bloody screenplay right.
U. W.: When you first came on board, the film was described - correctly or incorrectly - as a prequel to Alien. Is that still an element?
That leads me to the $64,000 question which I’m not going to answer. You’ve got to see the film. You won’t get an answer until about eight minutes from the end, and that is the answer. When it happens, people will think ‘Christ, of course!’, What it does do is open up a whole different door. A much bigger door, away from monsters and demons.
U. W.: It’s interesting, for example, that the word ‘Alien’ doesn’t appear in the title.
Well, this movie didn’t really have anything to do with it except for some tiny elements. It takes off on its own direction. When we analyzed it for a title, we thought, why not? It has a certain depth and ring to it. As long as you can say it, Prometheus is a good title, and it looks good on the trailer!
U. W.: So what is Prometheus?
I’ve got to tread very carefully here. You know who Prometheus was (the figure in Greek mythology who stole fire and gave it to man), and the idea is that if we’re given a gift from the gods, we must not abuse it—and we must never think that we can compete with them. He stole fire and they had his entrails torn out every day in perpetuity by an eagle as a punishment. Every night, they’d repair him and an eagle would come back and rip his kidney and liver out. It’s perpetual purgatory. Basically, don’t fuck around with the gods.
U. W.: So it’s about tackling major themes.
It is about the beginning of life. It’s a giant ‘what if?’This ball we’ve been sitting on right now has been around for a long fucking time. I think it’s three billion years. There was a very nice quote by someone whose name I can’t remember right now, which fundamentally said that if we haven’t been pre-visited, what on earth has this planet been doing for all this time? It’s only our arrogance that says that’s impossible, that we’re the first ones. Are we the first hominids? I really really doubt it. Race memory, or legend, can say that we keep talking about wonderful and weird things like Atlantis. Where does that come from? Was it real? Is it a memory? Did it exist? If it didn’t exist, did it exist three quarters of a billion years ago? How was that created and who was it? Is there a guiding force into this process? Is it a much larger idea, or an entity that we can’t fathom?
U. W.: In Alien, the characters were at each other’s throats. They were very much a blue-collar crew. Is that the case here?
Not really. The problem in the original Alien script was that there was no motivation. That’s why I was so unpopular with the actors. They kept asking for motivation and eventually I said in exasperation, ‘your motivation is that if he catches you, he’ll rip your fucking headoff.’Eventually I sat down and wrote out their biographies and gave each of them one of their own. They loved that because it was something they could hook into. That’s what they need to privately do their own work and create their own characterizations. I did that. I was so bent on the crew in a funny way being slightly dysfunctional and not wanting to communicate with each other. You have a below deck situation, you have politics and Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton saying ‘it’s anti-social, they don’t want to come down here,’ (that was ad-libbed, that wasn’t in the screenplay). But the group turned out terrifically well. Here, the journey is slightly different so we came at it from a different direction. On a journey like this, everyone would be scientific.
U. W.: On Prometheus, they know what they’re getting into.
They have a different thesis, which is being pre-visited. I think it comes from a good place. It’s entirely a good question. Is there a God? Is there not a God? Are we a petri dish here? Or not? And if we are a petri dish, then whose? What is the force? What is the entity that we can’t possibly even fathom because it’s something that we haven’t crossed the line to understand yet? Scientists will pooh-pooh that idea but at the back of their minds, I think they do think about it.
U. W.: Let’s talk about the characters in Prometheus. David, Michael Fassbender’s character, is an android.
There’s nothing new about that.
U. W.: It links back to Ash in the original Alien.
If I had a giant piece of metal and I was sending it off into deep space with only computers monitoring it, I don’t care how clever they were, but I’d have a man on board, and that man would be a company man. And the company man, as Ash was, is David. We don’t make any pretence about that from the get-go. We know exactly what he’s doing and what he is. He walks around there in his own world and he can switch off if he wants to. He’s the housekeeper.
U. W.: Is he similar to Ash, whose intentions were ambiguous to say the least?
No. He’s the antithesis of Ash. Very jolly and pleasant. He’s very sweet. He even says, ‘why did you make me?’Holloway [Logan Marshall Green] says, insensitively, ‘because we could’. So how would you feel if your maker said that about you? So, does he have feelings? You fucking bet he has feelings!
U. W.: And then there’s Shaw, the heroine of the movie. Who is she?
We were determined to come from a different direction on her character, because Sigourney [Weaver, who played Ripley in Alien] was a non-specific junior officer. In this one, Shaw is a scientist who comes not from the direction of pure science, but of faith. She believes the foothold of everything is bound in the idea that we were created by something. Otherwise we’re such an accident of biology—we’re mathematically impossible. Unless there was something else…
U. W.: Noomi Rapace, who plays Shaw, has starred in Sherlock Holmes 2 since, but she’s best-known for the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Is that where you first saw her?
I find most of my inspiration from low-budget movies now. There are not a lot of big ones I look at and get a lot from anymore. So if there’s a big movie that’s a) good and b) plays, it’s a huge relief. There’s a rash in the output of Scandinavian film. The chilliness of them and the coldness of the characters appeals to me because I’m a Geordie from the North East of England and I think we’re half-Scandinavian. My great-grandfather was actually Swedish, and I’ve got a bit of Viking in me, probably. I like where they come from because the appearance of things is a bit gruff, but they have their own sense of humour. I was watching The Killing, Wallander, and then saw Dragon Tattooover a year ago. I thought I’d look at it and was absolutely taken by the film and by Noomi, who was this very special little punk actress. I thought she was definitely the real thing and wondered where they had found her—from the street? I heard she was in town, in Los Angeles. I asked to meet her and what walked in was this very elegant woman. I realized that I was dealing with a real actress, the real thing,who can literally change her spots. I got to know her and I knew Prometheus was going to happen, even though we hadn’t got the screenplay quite right at that moment, and she told me that she had watched Alien when she was a child. That’s how it started. We kept in touch and as it evolved, I sent the script to her. Fox were curious about that idea because she was a brand-new person on the scene, just as Sigourney was. They were concerned about her accent but she didn’t speak any English at all three years ago and now she’s pretty word perfect.
U. W.: Shaw is British, correct?
There’s a slight inflection, which is interesting.
U. W.: You have said before that you would like to tell the story of the Space Jockey, who is briefly glimpsed in Alien. Is that part of Prometheus?
Not really. It started off that way, and then I thought it was a bit too obvious. We have to come at it from another direction. It’s a much grander idea, a much grander notion. It evolved.
U. W.: The sets on this movie are enormous, and represent your commitment to shooting as much of this movie practically as you can. Was that a response to Avatar?
I think Jim raised the bar both with what he did in the story and then in pulling it off. God, he’s got patience. Four-and-a-half years. I knew I wasn’t even going to get into that area. The actual truth is, if you know what you’re doing, it’s cheaper. Digital effects are not cheaper. We did this film for a very good price.
U. W.: You extended the 007 stage at Pinewood - the biggest in Europe - by 25%. Was it not big enough?
It never is. It’s never big enough.. I worked on it for Legend, and I burned the stage down! I like the actors to have their proscenium and see where they are and what they’re doing. I don’t know how to do that blue-screen thing and say, ‘now the monster’s coming down the corridor!’
U. W.: And you’re shooting in 3D for the first time. How was that?
Not a problem. Absolutely straightforward. Why not? I’d seen tests and I’d seen the Red. I saw a lot of the tests that [David] Fincher had done and how you could light with no light and what you could capture. Technically, it saves a lot of time. I’ll never be the same again, because I really enjoyed it. Even with a dialogue scene, the arena in the room grows a little bit. There’s no question you get drawn in more by feeling that you’re there.
U. W.: There’s been some debate about the intensity of the film and its ultimate rating, whether it’ll be PG-13 in the US or an R, like the original Alien.
I’m not sure about that. Essentially, it’s kind of R. The little bastards will still get in anyway, so what’s the difference?. It’s not just about blood, it’s about ideas that are very stressful. I’ll do everything I can to offer the most aggressive film I can.
U. W.: Alienwas famously described as a haunted house movie in space. Is Prometheus along the same lines, then?
More than that. It’s not entirely what you expect, but what I’m saying is that the film’s going to be scary.