HEAT VISION

How a Painting Wooed Ridley Scott into Directing 'Gladiator'

Twenty years after its release, Oscar-winning producer Douglas Wick reflects on the script changes, the film's alternate ending and "the deadly challenges" the production faced.
'Gladiator' (Inset:   |   Paramount Pictures
Twenty years after its release, Oscar-winning producer Douglas Wick reflects on the script changes, the film's alternate ending and "the deadly challenges" the production faced.

It’s been 20 years since Gladiator asked one of the most famous questions in cinematic history: “Are you not entertained?” According to Oscar-winning producer Douglas Wick, Ridley Scott was born to make their historical epic from 2000 that collected five Academy Awards including best picture. Because of Scott’s knack for world building and visual storytelling, the project arrived at the perfect time, especially as CG was redefining what filmmakers could achieve in combination with location set builds. Looking back, Wick still remembers the unusual way that he and DreamWorks executive Walter F. Parkes wooed Scott into committing to the film.

We brought Ridley a painting from the late 1800s of the Roman Colosseum,” Wick tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was beautifully shaded, and because it was sort of in the blush of the British empire, it was slightly idealized. Ridley looked at the painting and said, ‘I’ll do the movie. Wherever the script is, we’ll get it right. I’m doing this movie.’”

A Gladiator sequel has been in the works for at least a couple years now, but despite its prolonged development process and doubts from fans and industry creatives, Wick insists that the project has the very best intentions and will only move forward if the script is worthy of succeeding the original film.

“Yeah, we’re working on the sequel. I think everyone’s so respectful of how well the first turned out,” Wick explains. “By the way, many writers I’ve spoken to say, ‘I’m afraid to touch it,’ or ‘I don’t want to do it if it’s just going to be a piece of product,’ which, of course, none of us would ever consider. So, we are working, and we just all have the feeling that if we can get something good enough on paper, we will proceed.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Wick discusses Ridley Scott at the height of his powers, the challenges of CG in 1999 and the current status of the Gladiator sequel in development.

20 years later, this film has aged quite nicely which isn’t the case for every blockbuster of this era.

Oh, thank you. Yeah, every so often, everything goes right.

Do you remember the circumstances surrounding the first time you sat down with Ridley Scott and pitched him the project?

A writer came to me and said, “Let’s do something in the Roman arena.” And he basically showed me in the research that the Roman arena was equivalent to the space program. It was such a focus of the culture that so many resources were piled into it. There were so many technologies created, like animal husbandry and water control. It was also such a gigantic political tool, which is in terms of distracting the masses from more serious issues through entertainment. So, anyway, it felt very relevant. That writer, David Franzoni, did a draft. We then pitched it to DreamWorks, who instantly said they wanted to do it. By the way, the first studio we went to said sword and sandal was dead, and it would never work. The second one was DreamWorks, which instantly said they were on board. So, Franzoni did a draft. Then, I went to Ridley with Walter Parkes, who was the studio executive. And we brought Ridley a painting from the late 1800s of the Roman Colosseum. It was beautifully shaded, and because it was sort of in the blush of the British Empire, it was slightly idealized. Ridley looked at the painting and said, “I’ll do the movie. Wherever the script is, we’ll get it right. I’m doing this movie.” I wouldn’t say the beginning because we were already moving, but it was one of those extraordinary hurdles in what went right to actually end up creating a great movie.

I recently spoke to Connie Nielsen, and she praised the immersion that the location set builds created, specifically the Colosseum set. Since CG was really taking off at this point, something your VFX Oscar proves, was it a major battle to get the budget necessary for the various set builds?

Well, first of all, we were making the movie with DreamWorks. So, from the very beginning, Spielberg was completely on board, and it was a very unusual relationship with the studio. He and Walter Parkes were completely partners in the process. The other thing that was unlike 95 percent of all other productions was having Ridley Scott because most directors will say, “Give me the world, and then I’ll go in and figure it out.” There’s always those people who say, “I’m going to come in on that day, and I want to be creative.” Ridley could tell you a month in advance, “I’m only going to look at the Colosseum this way. I only need to build this piece of it.” So, that allowed us to have what was a relatively manageable budget all because of his sort of visual discipline. And by the way, that would become among the many challenges that were frequently solved by just having one of the best directors in the world at the top of his powers. There were many challenges like that, and it was like watching Michael Jordan hit a shot from mid-court. For example, Oliver Reed’s death. Each time, there would be a new hurdle. He had done extraordinary work, and it could’ve been catastrophic for the movie since he was two-thirds of the way through his performance. In addition to having a really great writing brain to help solve how to retell the last third of the movie, it was also Ridley’s ability, visually, to say, “I can take two scenes from Oliver much earlier in the movie, repurpose them visually, have them as if he’s speaking behind a prison door and we can pay off his character.” So, yeah, the CG was a challenge, but having a visual master made us armed and dangerous to face the challenge.

If Gladiator was made today, do you think you’d be relegated to digital environments for the most part? Unless you’re Chris Nolan, massive location set builds seem few and far between these days.

Well, look at the budget on those Marvel movies. Our budget is still very reasonable compared to other big movies. So, I think it would still be a combination of real and fake as long as it adds up to the same number. By the way, the only thing that we weren’t able to do but really wanted to do — which I think is a little bit easier now — was a CG rhino. When we talked about the different exotic animals in the movie, we called an animal trainer and said, “Hey, can you show up in Malta with a rhino?” And he said, “Yeah, we can definitely do that and work with them. There’s just one problem. When they start moving, you can’t stop them.” (Laughs.) So, then we got a budget for the CG rhino, and that was just too expensive. So, there were practical considerations.

The script evolved during production as there were several voices adding to it. Obviously, things worked out in spectacular fashion, but did you have a lot of sleepless nights during filming since the story was still in flux?

Absolutely. You’re always looking at something that works and trying to figure out how you replicate those circumstances. And in retrospect, somehow, with everyone involved, we got their best work. So, as the first script was evolving and John Logan came in, we had challenges with Maximus. We had challenges making him sympathetic since he’s going to be killing people for most of the movie. Some of those people were relatively innocent, too. So, that’s where the revenge motive was strengthened, and his family was killed. We were having trouble with our ending because Maximus used to escape from Rome only to come back with an army to take out Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). It worked, but it wasn’t really fulfilling the story of the character. Then, Walter Parkes actually had the idea of having him injured and staying in the arena. To kill a leading man is a very difficult venture. You have to have the support of the studio, and Bill Nicholson was very helpful at finding a way to lay breadcrumbs of the afterlife into the story. And then, most importantly, it was Ridley at each juncture, saying, “To make that work visually, this is how I’ll set it up, and this is what it will look like.” Obviously, it’s one thing to put the idea on paper; it’s another thing to deliver it. So, there were so many places where — I won’t say disaster — but deadly challenges were before us. And each time, someone in our team stepped up. Every movie is a combination of talented and complicated people, and when I look back, I just think how it’s the great experience of the end product being greater than the sum of the parts.

Once best picture was announced at the Oscars in 2001, was it all a blur until you were backstage getting your statuette engraved?

It was completely a blur. I was mostly trying to remember who to thank and get up there without tripping. It was a great night, but of course, the limo driver had wrong directions. We were in the car with our statues on the way to the first party, and suddenly we looked up and we were almost in Long Beach. He had gone the wrong way since he was from out of town, and there was so much limo business that night. But the place it became real was really the next day. I took my daughter to her first grade class, and when I came into the class with her, all the kids applauded. That was always the highest of the highs.

A Gladiator sequel has been bandied about for many years now. Has the development process moved the ball up the field at all?

Yeah, we’re working on the sequel. I think everyone’s so respectful of how well the first turned out. By the way, many writers I’ve spoken to say, “I’m afraid to touch it,” or “I don’t want to do it if it’s just going to be a piece of product,” which, of course, none of us would ever consider. So, we are working, and we just all have the feeling that if we can get something good enough on paper, we will proceed.

I’m a big fan of John Hillcoat’s Lawless, which you produced. Did the combination of Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf remind you at all of Russell and Joaquin since each actor is relentlessly committed to their roles as well as combative at times?

No, it didn’t really, but I see why you say that. The Tom Hardy performance in Lawless is so brilliant; it was dazzling. By the way, the Joaquin performance, there were a lot of other people bandied about for Commodus. Ridley had a very strong gut instinct about Joaquin for the complexity he wanted. In real life, Commodus was a tall, handsome, athletic man whose insides were all twisted, but Ridley had a very strong instinct about Joaquin. Again, there were studio questions, but on this movie, it always ended up being a great collaboration. And we got Joaquin, and that’s one of the performances that completely elevates the movie. Speaking of casting, another thing I’ve learned is when movies really break out, you sometimes get lucky as an actor breaks out in their performance. When we were looking to cast Maximus, the obvious names came up, and everyone sort of thought, “Well, if we put Mel Gibson in a leather skirt, that’s just going to be distracting. Everyone’s going to go, ‘That’s Mel Gibson in a leather skirt.’” Had Russell not existed at that point, I don’t quite know what we would’ve done. This is where you just get lucky, sometimes. I mean, he wasn’t a movie star yet. He’d just done The Insider, but he had such the exact skill set and gravitas to portray Maximus. And this is a movie that Ridley was born to make. If you try and imagine it with another director, it’s hard. His first movie, The Duellists, was a fight movie. And after that, he proved himself as one of the most gifted filmmakers at world creation. So, this allowed him to fully utilize that extraordinary skill set.

Between the existing threat of streaming and the massive losses caused by the global pandemic, how worried are you about theatrical presentation in the long run?

Not that worried in the long run, and the analogy I would use is when people were afraid theater was going to be over. As it turns out, people like the experience of being with a group of people and sharing that experience on the big screen. I think the problem that we’ve experienced these last few years is that it’s no longer the habit it used to be. You have to create something that they feel urgency to see, but that’s not a bad fire to light under the people who make movies.

By the way, I’m really looking forward to your update on The Craft. I’m a big fan of Cailee Spaeny.

She’s so talented!

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A limited edition 4K Blu-ray steelbook of Gladiator is now available from Paramount Home Entertainment.

  • Brian Davids
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