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.
This story first appeared in the May 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In July 2010, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof was summoned to a private meeting with Ridley Scott to discuss a top-secret project the director had been developing for the past two years. Lindelof had never met Scott, but the filmmaker called out of the blue asking him to read a screenplay hand-delivered to his home in Studio City. The script had no cover and no title, yet it was precisely the one Lindelof -- a sci-fi geek with A-list television credentials -- was hoping for: the much-rumored, massively pursued manuscript known variously as The Alien Prequel, Alien Origins, Alien Engineers and Alien Zero.
Now Lindelof was ushered by the director to a building adjacent to Scott's sleek Los Angeles offices. "Ridley walked me up a stairwell, and there was a great big metallic vault door," recalls Lindelof. "It was a foot thick with some kind of locking apparatus, and he opened it carefully." Inside was a beehive of activity. "He introduced me to production designer Arthur Max and four 20-year-olds sitting at computers, designing stuff."
That "stuff" was the future as seen through Scott's eyes, his vision for a world set in the years 2089 to 2091, which would return him to themes that had swirled through his mind since Alien more than three decades earlier. It was the incubator for the movie now known as Prometheus.
"All around the walls was conceptual artwork -- for the planet and the ship, as well as 'the creature,' " remembers Lindelof. "I got to step behind the curtain."
The curtain will be lifted June 8, when 20th Century Fox releases Prometheus domestically. Almost four years in the making, with a budget of $120 million to $130 million covering 1,300 CGI shots and an 87-day shoot that took its crew from London to Iceland to Jordan's Wadi Rum desert, the picture -- named for the mythological Titan who stole fire from the gods -- is one of the most anticipated in years.
For Fox, which co-financed with Dune Capital Management and Ingenious Media, the R-rated movie is crucial to revitalize a now-extinct franchise and replicate the success of the $8.4 million Alien; that seminal film not only earned $81 million at the domestic box office -- a huge sum at the time -- but also led to three sequels and two prequels, culminating in 2007's desultory Alien vs. Predator: Requiem.
For Scott, a revered helmer who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003, it would add to a significant body of work that includes Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise -- and give him his first mega-blockbuster since 2000's best picture Oscar winner Gladiator. It would also allow him to remain one of the highest-paid directors in Hollywood with a multi-million dollar fee. (He cuts his salary substantially for passion projects, including his next film, The Counselor.)
Scott's new movie has gone from being a prequel to a self-contained story starring Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Noomi Rapace. It only makes passing reference to its 1979 inspiration and pays heavy tribute to author Erich von Daniken's ideas in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? -- which argued that we are not alone and another sentient entity might have spawned us.
The movie has been under wraps for years: Fox would not even confirm it was related to Alien and refused to show more than a trailer to any significant number of viewers until mid-April. But on a gray April 3 in London, under relentless rain, I approach the squat Abbey Road Studios -- home of Sir Edward Elgar and The Beatles -- where Scott has promised to unveil long portions of the film for the first time.
A security guard checks my ID; a receptionist scrutinizes me. I follow an assistant into a small mixing room -- and there is Scott, 74, redheaded with a small goatee. He hunches his compact body like a pugilist, scans me for danger and then suddenly, with disarming gentleness, pulls up a chair for me and points to a TV-sized monitor dangling from the ceiling.
Even on this tiny screen, the images are breathtaking.
A spaceship travels comet-like across the universe, traversing planets and stars in a desaturated world. Next we see a barren landscape with traces of water, then a hooded figure standing by a magnificent waterfall, staring out at a spaceship that hovers above it.
A third sequence shows a cave-exploring couple, Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green (Devil). Their flashlights illuminate primitive drawings; in one, a human figure points toward spherical objects in space, leading Rapace to observe, "I think they want us to come and find them."
Then, in a scene likely to be memorable, the severed head of an android speaks as it lies on the floor. It's the moment most reminiscent of Alien and Ian Holm's decapitated robot.
A sequence with a ship hurtling on a collision course with another ensues. Finally, there is a riveting moment in a cavernous corridor when Rapace and her colleagues encounter giant humanoids -- made of shimmering lines that resemble X-rays -- who race toward them and pass straight through, as nebulous as neutrinos.
Scott gazes at this, mesmerized by the sheer beauty of it all, just as he must have been in his teens when he first contemplated life as an artist.
Prometheus dawned when Scott told Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman Tom Rothman that he wished to revisit the territory that had been under his skin since he was bypassed for 1986's Aliens, the sequel that propelled James Cameron's career. "I was really pissed off, frankly," he says about the old wound.
That oversight, after his success with Alien, taught him to read a contract "like a lawyer" -- which subsequently allowed him to amass a fortune, with homes in Los Angeles, London and the south of France; a production company behind movies such as Body of Lies and American Gangster and TV series including Numbers and The Good Wife; and commercials that account for more than $100 million in annual billings.
Making Prometheus, however, meant persuading Fox to pay several hundred thousand dollars for research as Scott hired conceptual artists to probe what a future eight decades from now might resemble.
In late 2008, the studio hired Jon Spaihts to script the film after the neophyte had drawn acclaim for another screenplay, Shadow 19, set in a future where two remaining superpowers fight for remaining resources.
"I would go and write my draft, and then Ridley and I would sit for weeks, wrestling the story into shape," Spaihts says. Scott frequently dug up pictures that captured his imagination. "He has a fascination with the uglier forms of parasitism, dark examples of anatomy from subterranean creatures with staring eyes and jaws."
After two years and five drafts, Scott started to rethink the project. It was then that he contacted Lindelof, who, in a lengthy e-mail, argued against making the film a direct predecessor to Alien: "I don't like the word 'prequel' because it communicates to an audience that they already know the ending."
Now he in turn spent three to four hours a day with Scott. Initially, Rapace's character was called Elizabeth Watts (she became Elizabeth Shaw to avoid confusion with Fox executive Emma Watts). And in the Spaihts draft, Lindelof notes, the ship was the Magellan. They considered the names Paradise and Icarus before opting for Prometheus.
The new ship is quite different from Alien's, with its tall, refinery-like towers that Scott says he sketched rapidly, thinking of a floating tug. By contrast, the Prometheus is massive and resembles a Hawker Hunter jump jet, which is "pretty interesting in the way the engines tilt and fold," the director observes. As to the film's creature, it takes on at least four different forms as it grows and changes, sometimes "organically" in a way that Rapace calls "every woman's worst nightmare."
Scott began casting in late 2010. Rapace was at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont when she received the screenplay. "It took my breath away," she says. "I felt I was holding a diamond for 1 ½ hours."
Fassbender had impressed Scott in Hunger (2008), after which they'd had tea. Now the director asked him to play the android David. "Ridley told me: 'This guy is a sort of butler. Have you seen The Servant?' " Fassbender recalls, referring to the 1963 drama starring Dirk Bogarde as a malevolent valet. "He just gives you flavors, a hint of something, and lets you go away and work with that."
At Theron's suggestion, Lindelof and Scott refined the actress' role as the villainous Weyland Industries representative Meredith Vickers. "Vickers had a specific corporate agenda, which is very familiar in the Alien movies: someone representing the interests of the company," Lindelof explains. "But Charlize said, 'Can there be more to her?' And then we wrote three scenes just in service of that character."
With MPC Film and Peter Jackson's WETA Digital leading the effects element, shooting in 3D got under way March 21, 2011, at England's Pinewood Studios. Scott opted for his characteristic use of multiple cameras (usually four), though for the first time he filmed with the Red digital camera. "I loved it," he says.
Rapace, arriving at Pinewood before the rest of the cast, was stunned to discover a huge set had been built for the ship and the giant caverns leading to cathedral-like rooms on another planet when she'd been expecting greenscreen: "I felt we had a whole village, that we took over Pinewood." She became a "guinea pig" for costume designer Janty Yates, testing various spacesuits that would allow the actors to run and fight. "They were quite heavy," the actress adds. "I was dripping sweat."
In one storm sequence shot outdoors at Pinewood, she got hurt. "I was hanging in a harness and thrown around. There were so many cuts and bruises, I don't even remember them. When I finished, my knees were filled with liquid, and I had some nasty thing hanging from my elbow."
After months in the studio, the Arab Spring forced a shift from Morocco to Iceland. There, Scott filmed at the Dettifoss waterfall and near the live Hekla volcano -- where an earthquake erupted as the crew was right beside it. Having grown up in Iceland, Rapace wasn't scared. Nothing fazed her until the movie wrapped July 22, 2011, and she discovered that a mass murderer had gone on a shooting spree in Oslo. Until then, "I felt I was on this spaceship with Ridley."
Scott once joked that he was similar to his frequent collaborator Russell Crowe: "He's angry all the time, and I'm angry all the time. We don't mean to be irritable, but we don't suffer fools gladly."
None of that is evident at Abbey Road, where there is an ease to the half-dozen technicians around him as they record some 40 choristers' unearthly sounds. But Scott has formed a thick carapace, developed early in the industrial north of England, where men were from Mars and he, a pure artist, was from Venus.
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."
Even as we sit in the control room at Abbey Road, he already is in the advanced stages of preparation for Counselor, about a lawyer who gets sucked into the world of drug trafficking. It's an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, whose violence makes it look like "No Country for Old Men on steroids," Scott jokes. Brad Pitt, his Thelma discovery, is set to star alongside Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.
Scott also is developing Gertrude Bell, about the British writer, adventurer and spy who teamed with T.E. Lawrence in then-Arabia -- possibly starring Angelina Jolie -- all while considering Prometheus 2, which he hopes will come next, and developing a Blade Runner sequel, which the original's co-screenwriter, Hampton Fancher, is penning.
He has a rich family life, with five grandchildren and a longtime girlfriend, actress Giannina Facio, "a beautiful Costa Rican firecracker," as Tony describes her. But what drives this brilliant man is as much a mystery to him as to everyone else, especially in these later years, when he has achieved the recognition -- even idolization -- that eluded him early in his career.
"He never got approval from his own people, from BAFTA or the queen for years," says a friend. "Then he started to get some respect, and it changes you as a person. You get comfortable in your own skin."
And yet despite that comfort, the drive persists. It dominates everything: his schedule, his other interests, his relationships. Intimacy with those outside his immediate family is lacking; friends are largely absent. The drive is ferocious and makes him push down the softness within.
"He is a really tough man," says Lindelof. "Not in terms of being hard on other people: He is just made of really hard stuff. He doesn't want you to see through it; he doesn't want to show you what is in there. And I have no desire to chip away at the bark around Ridley's heart and unleash the sap within."
RIDLEY ON RIDLEY
The Duellists (1977) I flew from London to Los Angeles for meetings. I didn't dare be more than six feet from the phone. I stayed at the Sunset Marquis, on my wallet. I went with clothes for a week and I was there two f--ing months. That's how I learned the thoughtlessness of that side of Hollywood.
Alien (1979) Artist H.R. Giger helped create the creature. The studio had turned him down because his designs were way too extreme, even obscene. But I said, "He's f--ing astounding."
Blade Runner (1982) It felt like a Humphrey Bogart movie. Harrison Ford was doing Raiders. I thought, "If Spielberg and Lucas want him, I'd be insane not to."
Thelma & Louise (1991) In the shot at the end of the movie over the Rio Grande, the car took off 300 feet, then spookily stayed upright as it started to fall. The only thing that happened to the dummies was one of their hats flew off. I thought, "Jesus, that's incredible." But when we watched it during the rushes, it was depressing. So I froze the shot at its peak, then started the song. Rather than making it romantic, it was a reminder of what they were really doing.
Gladiator (2000) On a Sunday morning during the shoot, Oliver Reed was in a pub, sat on the floor with his pint, said, "I don't feel well," and then died. When you see him talk with Russell Crowe through the bars of the cage, that's a fabrication: He already was gone.