Return of the 'Alien' Mind
One of Hollywood’s greatest (and most elusive) directors, Ridley Scott breaks his silence on his complex 3D space odyssey "Prometheus," revealing never-seen footage — and a rarely seen candor.
The carapace is shedded when he talks about his past. "We were living in Ealing [a London suburb], and they were bombing the streets," he recalls. "I was 2 ½, 3, and we hid behind the stairs. I remember I had a little lamp, and we'd sing songs while we heard the bombs."
The son of a docks manager from a coal-mining background who later turned down lofty posts in Germany and New Zealand to remain in England, Scott was born in South Shields in 1937 (and named after a family doctor). He was shaped by a peripatetic childhood when his father became an army officer, and it is tempting to see his natural authority as emanating from Scott senior. In fact, says his brother Tony (the director of Top Gun): "Dad was a very gentle, sweet man. Mum was the matriarch and the patriarch. She ran the roost with a steel fist. There was a real big, sweet heart to her and at the same time a determination and toughness" -- like Ridley.
In the midst of his family's upheavals, Scott says, "My safety valve was art. My parents thought I was a bit strange because when someone else would have gone dancing, I was always painting." Girls were nonexistent in his life. He was "shy, very shy," possibly dyslexic, and showed no promise whatsoever. "I never thought about the future at all," he admits.
After getting Cs and Ds in nearly every subject except art, a caring teacher got him into the local West Hartlepool College of Art, without which, in England's hidebound class system, career prospects would have been bleak. " 'You'll find a career,' is the way he put it," says Scott. "He said, 'There's money in posters, and you could be a very good poster designer.' " In fact, he was much more -- so much that after Hartlepool, he was accepted by the prestigious Royal College of Art.
Arriving there in 1957, Scott was "a country bumpkin. I wore a tweed jacket and sensible shoes, and I would look at the others' long hair thinking, 'Wow, that's weird.' " England was on the brink of the vast social upheavals of the 1960s, but they were lost on this northern kid, whose accent made him feel as out of place as a Southerner in Andy Warhol's New York. And yet when he graduated in 1960, he and David Hockney alone obtained First Class Honors, a rare distinction.
At the RCA, he fell in love with photography and film. As a child, he had loved going to the local Odeon theater and watching films from Lawrence of Arabia to East of Eden; in London -- where he survived on £3 a week, taking vacation jobs shoveling cement and cleaning trucks -- he now discovered the work of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, whose Throne of Blood "overwhelmed" him. Bergman's influence is apparent in the hooded figure by the waterfall at the beginning of Prometheus. His pregnant silences influenced Scott's first short, 1965's Boy and Bicycle -- a Ulysses-like riff on a teenager's day of meandering through his town that stars Tony.
Whatever Ridley's gifts as an artist -- which he abandoned until returning to paint five years ago, when his brother bought him a full-scale easel -- he now had a different dream: making films.
He had won a yearlong Schweppes scholarship to the U.S., where he rode around America, traveling 11,000 miles on a Greyhound bus; stood next to John Wayne at a urinal ("He staggered out, drunk"); and tracked down documentarians Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, needling them to give him a job.
Upon graduation, he was employed as a set designer at the BBC, then got his first directing break with the classic TV police series Softly, Softly. He was paid a substantial £1,100 a year, but it was dwarfed by the £14,000 he was making as a freelance art director in commercials. After three years with British television, he broke out on his own, creating RSA Films, which would become one of the U.K.'s leading commercial companies.
For the next decade-plus, Scott worked ceaselessly, joined by his brother and future filmmakers Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne. Having married his first serious girlfriend, Felicity Heywood, and with two sons to support (Jake and Luke, both now directors, as is daughter Jordan from a second marriage), he shuttled between London and a manor in the English Cotswolds, remorselessly driven.
"I was an ambitious little f--er," he says wryly.
At his peak, he was making a staggering 150 commercials a year. But his desire to direct features dominated everything. When Parker struck gold with 1976's Bugsy Malone, Scott burned with envy. "Commercials were a kind of dirty word," he says, explaining why he was stymied.
Absent other offers, he developed a movie with the Bee Gees. Then, he says, "I wrote something called Ronnie in Rio, where I managed to get Michael York and Ernest Borgnine together in a heist." Both failed to get off the ground, as did a script he commissioned from writer Gerald Vaughan-Hughes about the historic Gunpowder Plot, a 1605 attempt to overthrow the British government.
Finally, he stumbled on The Duel by Joseph Conrad. Adapted by Vaughan-Hughes, The Duellists told the story of two Napoleonic-era officers whose enmity carries them from one fight to another. Everyone turned it down until Scott brought the script to a wily producer named David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire), who took it to Paramount executive David Picker. Picker agreed to fund it on one condition: that Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel star instead of Oliver Reed and Michael York. Scott acquiesced.
A year later, the $1 million movie was named best first feature at Cannes. It was 1977. Scott was on the brink of turning 40.
Few directors have begun their careers that late; even fewer have gone on to earn three Oscar nominations.
Perhaps it's because of this that Scott works compulsively, segueing from one project to the next, as if afraid time will run out on him. Perhaps it's also to fight the fleeting depression he hints at: "When I find it sneaking in at the edges, I push it back. If you can control it, you must control it and not allow it in."