Adrenalized: At 80, veteran director Ridley Scott keeps challenging himself
Ridley Scott spent his 80th birthday doing what he loves best—working.
"Anyway, I'm not 80, I'm 40," he says with a laugh.
As has been well reported, he spent nine days over Thanksgiving and his birthday reshooting scenes from All the Money in the World, replacing the disgraced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the role of wily tycoon J. Paul Getty in the TriStar kidnapping drama.
It was a task that to any other director would have been incredibly stressful, but Scott laughs it off. "Nothing stresses me," he contends. "After 4,000 commercials, 40 movies and 200 productions, I can hit the ball from any direction.
"I am so experienced that somebody would say, 'The roof is falling,' and I would say, 'Okay, let’s fix the roof and move over here.' You have to. You are making films and that is about the unforeseen happening, and when you get a very experienced filmmaker like I am, you see a problem coming up and you have got to deal with it immediately before it gets near you.
"You need to talk to yourself and think your way through it and follow your intuition. I trust my intuition wholeheartedly, and based on my own experience I can listen to my intuition and just go for it."
Never known for his modesty, the feisty director, who can sometimes be abrasive and brusque, was in a jocular mood when we talked in New York.
Not one to linger on his laurels, Scott has already moved on to other projects. He soon begins shooting the drug smuggling drama Cartel while preparing a sequel to Alien: Covenant and looking ahead to a possible Battle of Britain feature. "I move on," he says. "I never dwell. I am already looking down the road. I don't really stop. We're not here for that long. I’m lucky in that I'm in good health and the brain is still going. So working, in a funny kind of way, is a health factor.
"I really, really enjoy working and people say I am a workaholic but I’m not. I just love working. I love it. I adore it."
Michelle Williams, who stars in All the Money in the World as Getty’s determined daughter-in-law Gail Harris, says of the shoot: "He made it exciting and I just felt like I never knew what was going to happen; I never knew how it was going to go or what he was going to want or to do to put something in my way and make it a little bit difficult.
"It felt like we were playing; it felt like we went to work and played. I would give him an idea and then we would sort of wind up in a totally different territory than where we thought we would be at the beginning of the day. We were like partners."
Ridley Scott is known for his affinity for visually spectacular films such as Blade Runner, Alien and Gladiator, and of the 40 films he has directed, only a few like A Good Year, Body of Lies and 1492: Conquest of Paradise—none in his preferred métier of science-fiction—could be classified as flops.
Scott has been fond of science fiction ever since first reading H.G. Wells as a child. "The science-fiction films I saw around then were things like Them and The Day the Earth Stood Still," he recalls. "They kind of got me going a little, but nothing ever really caught my attention until I saw Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Once I saw that, I knew what I could do."
Born and raised in South Shields, a depressed part of Northeast England, his chances of getting to Hollywood were, he surmises, "not one percent but zero point one three six five two percent."
"My parents were great, normal, not quite working-class people who didn’t have a lot of money, but what they gave me was encouragement to do anything I wanted to do. And that kind of support is everything," he says. "So whatever I decided to do, they would listen and they would take great interest and they would support me. That was my legacy from my parents. So they let me loose in London and that was it. They were always very passionate and interested about what I was doing, but they didn’t have the kind of money to support me." He smiles. "But I found a way."
He attended the Royal Academy of Art and branched out into filmmaking with the short film Boy on a Bicycle, which featured his younger brother Tony. He joined the BBC as a set director and began his directing career on the “Z Car” series before turning to production of commercials. He and Tony spent ten years making some of the best-known and best-loved commercials ever shown on British television.
His first feature film, The Duellists, was five years in the making and was something of a triumph of style over substance, but he moved into the forefront of contemporary filmmakers with the stomach-churning space thriller Alien and then with his bleak vision of futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner.
Although Alien was his passport to the big time, he says he was fifth in line for the job and only got it after the four others, including Robert Altman, rejected it. Even then, he was passed over for the job of directing the sequel, which went to James Cameron.
"Welcome to Hollywood," he says wryly.
Scott's first hit of the 1990s, Thelma & Louise, earned him an Oscar nomination and then came his first teaming with Russell Crowe on Gladiator, a massive hit which was credited with reviving the "sword and sandals" genre and which earned 12 Oscar nominations, including one for Scott’s direction. (It won Best Picture.) He was nominated again for Black Hawk Down and was knighted in 2003. A fourth nomination came for producing the 2015 hit The Martian.
He describes himself as a risk-taker. "Every time I do a movie, I take a risk," he declares. "I like to take on things that I haven’t done before, like a musical, and I have got to do a western and I want to do a pirate movie.
"People will you give you their plan and their philosophical view and all that bullshit. With me, the plan is that there is absolutely no plan. I'm like a child in a toyshop going, 'Oh, I like that, I think I can do that well.' Because that is a real challenge. That gets you up in the morning, fully adrenalized and gets everything going."