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– Ridley Scott’s Unlikely Challenge: Surpassing Cameron Diaz in Ferrari Romance

Legendary director talks ‘Napoleon,’ his movies getting hornier, his AI fears, missing his brother …

Ridley Scott is chuckling. The renowned producer commenced sharing an elaborate anecdote about his experience at an international award ceremony following his graduation from London’s Royal College of Art upon discovering I hail from New York.

When questioned about his desired relocation, he reminisces, “I want to go to New York,” recalling his response at 22 while residing in London.

Upon his arrival in the Big Apple, Scott was advised that the YMCA offered the most budget-friendly accommodation option back in 1960.

Thus, he lodged at the YMCA on 34th Street and 9th Avenue, quipping, “I’m not going to elaborate further on that,” with a laugh.

The 85-year-old director of cinematic classics such as Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Amidst the promotional tour for his monumental film on Napoleon Bonaparte, Scott had already fielded some challenging inquiries regarding the movie’s historical precision, responding with sharp retorts like, “The French don’t even like themselves,” and “Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Shut the f*ck up next, shall we?”

There is a certain literary quality to this scene, particularly given Scott’s reverence for the late Stanley Kubrick, his cinematic idol. Kubrick’s ambitious but unrealized project—_Napoleon_—was meticulously researched, planned, and scouted. The film was intended to star Jack Nicholson as Napoleon and Audrey Hepburn as his wife Joséphine. Despite securing 40,000 soldiers from the Romanian People’s Army for battle scenes, the project was abandoned due to budget constraints and the lackluster box office performance of Waterloo, a 1970 film featuring Sergei Bondarchuk.

Nonetheless, Scott is nothing if not efficient, and his rendition of Napoleon is well underway. The cast includes Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine, a woman as renowned in the boudoir as Napoleon is on the battlefield, and Joaquin Phoenix as the French prince. Their relationship is portrayed as edgy and bordering on BDSM, with the sexually inexperienced Napoleon under Joséphine’s firm control. Spectacular battle sequences, including one where the diminutive French leader fires cannonballs at the pyramids, are featured in this Ridley Scott epic.

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In a conversation with Rolling Stone, Scott delved into topics ranging from Napoleon to provocative imagery and the inclusion of killer rhinos in Gladiator 2, which is currently in production.

What inspired you to tackle Napoleon Bonaparte?
The Emperor is truly a remarkable figure in history. Was it Alexander the Great? Was leadership simpler in the past? I have no definitive answer. Napoleon effectively established his European Empire. Later in his career, when his nephew, Colonel Bonaparte, was stationed in New York, he gazed at the United States.

How did Kubrick’s fascination with Napoleon influence your unique approach?
Kubrick’s influence on my career has been profound. He often positioned himself at the center of the metal table that served as the backdrop for his films. The overarching narrative was consistently compelling. I believe he contemplated Napoleon while working on Barry Lyndon, set during the Napoleonic era. Following Kubrick’s demise, I had access to his notes on Napoleon. The script I reviewed hinted at a tragic end. Stanley was meticulous, spending years refining the script to perfection. It’s akin to Bruno, a tad. Martin, whom I am not acquainted with, exemplifies a similar meticulousness in his work, taking the necessary time to achieve precision, especially in grand productions. Several years ago, I contemplated this project, realizing that battles can become monotonous, intimate scenes can lose their allure, and the dynamic between a couple often propels the narrative. Despite his formidable persona, Napoleon displayed vulnerability in his relationship with Joséphine, the love of his life.

However, Napoleon possessed all these facets. These courtesans, typically patronized by French nobility, were esteemed as elite courtesans, akin to “free women” or even harlots. What captivated him about her, posing the central question? And what drew her to him? She discerned his exceptional qualities—his drive, ambition, and above all, his commitment to his word. Before love blossomed, she grew to admire him, holding him in high regard. In honoring his obligations as her former spouse, settling her debts, and ensuring her well-being until her final days, he displayed kindness. His offspring with the Princess of Austria is a poignant moment in the film, particularly when he entrusts the child to Joséphine’s care, treating the child as her own.

Their on-screen marriage exudes a distinctly sensual essence.
Indeed. His loss of her was profoundly felt. Perhaps he visited her while she was in captivity. I believe there was no impropriety during that period. He was genuinely concerned for her welfare.

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In recent projects like The Counselor, The Last Duel, House of Gucci, and the ongoing Napoleon, your exploration of power dynamics is evident. What drives this fascination with physical power dynamics in your filmmaking?
My mother, who claimed to be five feet tall but was truly four feet eleven, exemplifies the strength of women in my life. This is not to diminish my father, a kind-hearted individual. Through her dominance over myself and my brothers—my brother Tony Scott, the creator of Top Gun, and another brother who achieved the rank of sea captain at 28, navigating the South China Sea to Shanghai before succumbing to MiG Jets—she assumed the role of the head of the household. She instilled in us the values of perseverance and unwavering diligence. She was resolute in her demeanor, and I was convinced she would live to be 102, but she passed away at 98.

Is your affinity for strong female characters like Ripley, Thelma & Louise, G.I. Jane, and Patrizia Reggiani influenced by your upbringing in a “domineering” family?
Over the 50-year history of my company, RSA Films, I’ve had five or six female CEOs, selected based on merit. In many respects, they exhibit greater strength than their male counterparts. Sigourney Weaver played a pivotal role in shaping my perspective. G.I. Jane is a film that deserves more recognition. Upon revisiting it recently, I realized its profoundly pro-female stance. Thelma & Louise is an obvious choice. The text needed a touch of humor, as I inscribed. I aimed for the audience to view the film because a documentary-style approach would have alienated the male demographic. Have you encountered this scenario? I inquired of Callie Khouri, the screenwriter. To which she responded, “Every day!” My admiration for my mother extends to individuals of the opposite sex as well.

Do you anticipate any scenes in The Counselor rivaling Cameron Diaz’s encounter with a Ferrari?
Unlikely. I sought Cameron’s approval before proceeding. She inquired, “So what?” and I retorted, “Okay!” I refrained from elaborating and simply advised her to peruse the script, to which she chuckled. Cormac McCarthy is, in my opinion, a master wordsmith. The Counselor is among my favorites, exuding a dark undertone from its foundation in reality. Its stark realism contributes to its darkness. It was met with mixed reviews, and I’m uncertain who to attribute blame to, as I find the film truly compelling. It’s both captivating and jarring. The audience’s reception often irks me, as my films are typically discovered belatedly. Blade Runner, a prime example, found success unexpectedly at the Santa Monica Film Festival after numerous setbacks.

I’ve always perceived America as the epitome of politics. And my friend, presently, you are also—solely. Indeed, at this juncture, you are the singular individual in the entire world. There’s nowhere further left to shift. No, there isn’t.

What’s the most valuable advice you’ve received?
My academic journey was tumultuous. As a military child, I attended ten schools, encountering varied grading systems. In the UK, grading spanned eight to nine subjects. I excelled solely in art due to my proficiency in drawing, while the rest of my grades faltered. “Enroll in art school,” my uncle suggested. And so I did. That pivotal moment marked the commencement of my seven-year tenure honing my skills as a painter, designer, and photographer.

What’s the current status of Gladiator 2?
I recently perused the edited version and have the entire blueprint in place. Progress is swift and decisive. Following nine months of filming, an unforeseen event necessitated a pause. After a hiatus of nine days, spanning an hour and forty-five minutes, I concluded the review of the grand cut. The final touches are underway. Within this cinematic realm, a charging rhinoceros wreaks havoc, adding to the spectacle.

What prompted your return to the world of Gladiator?
I hold a profound appreciation for classic cinema. The Duelers, Kingdom of Heaven, and Gladiator rank among my favorites for their efficacy and enduring appeal. The allure of a compelling narrative often prompts me to explore parallel timelines discreetly. History offers valuable lessons, yet we seem reluctant to heed them. The cycle of distressing news persists. Christ Almighty.

In America, we often witness such occurrences.
Indeed. I’ve always regarded America as the pinnacle of political dynamics. And my friend, currently, you stand as the sole individual—truly. At this moment, you represent the solitary entity on the global stage. There’s no further descent to be made. It’s untenable.

What led you to cast Paul Mescal as the warrior-leader in Gladiator 2?
My daily routine involves absorbing news updates before bedtime. CNN serves as my primary source, delivering news with a semblance of accuracy. Normal People caught my attention, featuring authentic performances by both Mescal and the child actor. Contemplating the future, I envisioned Mescal as a potential successor to Russell Crowe’s legacy. When queried, Paul Mescal responded affirmatively. Lucilla’s nephew assumes the role of Commodus. Lucilla, the child’s mother, conceals the truth to safeguard their alliance. Is it a tale of “What became of Lucius?” Gladiator may have had its flaws, but overall, it resonated profoundly. While not a historical exposé, the film navigated the final days of Marcus Aurelius, whose son, Commodus, and daughter, Lucilla, played pivotal roles.

Your films have explored artificial intelligence across various narratives. Does AI evoke any apprehension in you?
I’ve long harbored the belief that eventually, two corporations would govern the world—a trajectory we seem to be hurtling towards. In Blade Runner, Tyrell Corporation likely wielded control over 45 to 50 percent of the globe, delving into DNA synthesis among other ventures. Tyrell’s endeavor in the original Blade Runner to create a replicant imbued with emotional depth underscored his godlike aspirations. The proliferation of AI poses a grave threat, potentially curtailing humanity’s existence. Regulating AI is imperative, but the means to do so remain elusive. The notion of containing AI sparks debate within the realm of technology. Are you jesting? Confining AI proves a Herculean task. Once unleashed, its prowess could extend to manipulating global systems, posing a dire threat. The implications are staggering.

Given AI’s pivotal role in the contentious writers’ strike, what impact do you foresee it having on Hollywood? There’s concern that studios might exploit AI to adapt literary works, rebranding them as “adaptations” and engaging screenwriters solely for embellishment.
This practice warrants immediate cessation, yet the method to enforce such a halt remains elusive. We are teetering on the brink of hysteria, as another AI expert opined. My computer effortlessly bested a grandmaster in chess within an hour, analyzing 1,900 moves in seconds to predict the subsequent move. The essence of statistics lacks originality. While AI may produce a painting, I harbor doubts whether it can evoke a sense of uniqueness or infuse art with soulful or emotive depth. That being said, trepidation lingers.

Could you shed light on your shelved rendition of Dune? It’s intriguing that Denis Villeneuve helmed both Blade Runner 2049 and Dune.
Dino De Laurentiis and I were poised to embark on an adaptation of Dune. Rudy Wurlitzer, known for crafting scripts like Two-Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, collaborated with me on this project. As we delved into the adaptation, contemplating the logistics, Dino remarked, “Given the projected expenses, we might have to film in Mexico City.” Despite Wurlitzer’s commendable narrative and meticulous preparation, the prospect of a year-long stint in Mexico City failed to appeal to me during that juncture. The locale boasted earthen surfaces back then! However, I ultimately demurred. The project was shelved due to Dino’s unavailability. Wurlitzer’s scripting prowess shone through in the narrative.

I had the privilege of conversing with your late brother Tony during his interview. What aspect of him do you miss the most, and how have you coped with his absence?
Indulging in whiskey martinis. I could barely manage one at the time. I could knock back three with ease back then. That’s no longer the case. At 20, while enrolled in an art class, I coveted a brand-new Bolex lens stashed away in the closet. The office manager overheard my musings on the impending summer break. “May I have the lens, please? I wish to craft a film, for reasons unknown to me,” I articulated. To which he quizzically inquired, “You? A film?” Undeterred, I penned a script over the weekend and secured the lens. Joyce’s evocative prose captivated me, leading to a reimagining of Ulysses, where a lad embarks on a futile quest for liberation, only to realize he’s ensnared in an illusory prison. Forever concealed, the lad grapples with a reality contrary to his aspirations.

Such a profound concept to impart to students.
The camera was at my disposal for a fortnight. Tony was inclined to linger in bed until afternoon, but I roused him, announcing our intent to craft a film with the newly acquired lens. Thus, my brother assumed the roles of the artist and the equipment handler for the short film Boy and Bicycle. Weighing 65 pounds and spanning 30 minutes, the film endures in the BFI archives. And lo and behold, it succeeded! At that juncture, I harbored a deep admiration for Chinese cinema, particularly Kurosawa’s works, renowned for their striking monochrome aesthetics. The film exuded elegance, featuring voiceovers or streams of consciousness by Tony, culminating in a captivating piece. My product is my attention, I suppose. His patience wore thin during the production phase. I disrupted his summer vacations, unknowingly forging a lifelong partnership. His absence is keenly felt.

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Last modified: February 16, 2024
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