One of the most promising directors of the late 1970’s, British-born Ridley Scott displayed stylistic flair and remarkable storytelling abilities in such films as the 1977 Napoleonic war film “The Duellists” and his own landmark 1979 sci-fi/horror feature “Alien”. Despite making a number of film classics in the following two decades such as 1982’s Harrison Ford sci-fi drama “Blade Runner” or 1991’s female road comedy “Thelma & Louise”, his career suffered with a series of critical and commercial missteps. Amongst them the Tom Cruise fantasy project “Legend”, the Michael Douglas Japanese thriller “Black Rain”, the Columbus epic “1492: Conquest of Paradise”, 1996’s “White Squall” and the Demi Moore starrer “G.I. Jane”.
Then it all turned around in 2000 with the release of “Gladiator” which earned him five Oscars, not to mention a large box-office hit at last. Scott has followed that success up with a series of films that have divided critics but for the most part been well-received by audiences. Amonst them the controversial “Silence of the Lambs” sequel “Hannibal”, the Somalia-set “Black Hawk Down”, and the grifter comedy “Matchstick Men”. He has also been heavily into producing a number of films, many alongside his brother Tony Scott (“Top Gun”, “Crimson Tide”), and television series such as “Numb3rs” and the upcoming mini-series remake of Michael Crichton’s famous novel “The Andromeda Strain”.
Now he’s back with “Kingdom of Heaven”, an epic adventure set against the backdrop of the Crusades in the late 12th century. In a time when the world is so divided over the Middle East and arguing over wars of faith, especially between the Christians and the Muslims, “Kingdom” is an admittedly quite brassy attempt to recreate one of history’s most famous and darkest chapters. He recently sat down with me and a few other fellow journalists in Los Angeles to talk about the project and what drew him to it.
Question: Was this film easier or harder to make after 9/11?
Scott: We planned it before. I was doing “Black Hawk Down” before 9/11. As I was finishing, literally about to decide when to put the film out, 9/11 occurred. At that moment, literally having breakfast with Bill Monahan [writer], talking to him about something else, “Tripoli” which is a great story in 1802 Morrocco with Thomas Jefferson. While we’re talking, we were talking about the fact that his passion is the Crusades.
Scott: I think ever since Charlton Heston rode away dead on horseback in EL CID, I always wanted to make a knight movie. If you’re gonna do a knight movie, as Bill said, you kinda gotta really consider the Crusades. Because he said you’ve got every conceivable plot imaginable there, which is far more exotic than fiction.”
Question: Could you talk about the idea of doing the longer cut – was it built in to your plans?
Scott: You never know. People say “if you knew you were gonna be that much longer, why do you shoot it?” I say you never know. Ever since I did advertising a lot, I would always try and go for more, to squeeze it into the glass. I was always amazed about how much I could finally squeeze into a thirty second commercial. And then a minute was an epic, and a carousella which is like three minutes, was a super epic. Same thing with film, by the time you’ve finished shooting and you’ve really been into everything, you’ve touched up everything in the editing room. You’ve gone in there and taken little bits from everything.
Question: Is the longer film a different experience?
Scott: Yeah, I think the DVD world is a different experience. I think a theatrical audience goes out to see the movie, and I think to a degree, I’m talking about pure dramatic dynamics, there’s a tolerance… Do you think operas tend to be a bit long? Do you think theater tends to be a bit long? They tend to be a bit long, they need to be edited. Who thinks that? Who really believes that? Do you think “oh my god is this going to go on for a fourth act?”
Question: Is “Lawrence of Arabia” too long?
Scott: Have you seen it recently? If you’ve seen the extended cut, you can tell why he didn’t have the scenes in the extended version. The one that went out is the best version, no question about it in my opinion. And then this, is this the best version? What do you think, I don’t know, you tell me.
Question: What about Ghassen Massoud, who plays Saladin, what was he like?
Scott: He was my advisor during the movie on the behavioral patterns and processes of Muslims, so that’s why certain things got done, like I said… there’s a cross in a room lying on the floor in the bureaucratic office of Tiberius, Jeremy Irons, they’ve ransacked, they don’t destroy any religious symbols. I think symbols is a better word than icon. They respect other denominations in the Muslim faith. How do I show that respect?
Question: Why did you chose that particular window of history, the more comfortable 100-year-truce period, rather than say King Richard’s bloody campaigns to set the film in?
Scott: I wouldn’t do Richard. The whole point of having him at the end is to say it didn’t stop. You wouldn’t want to do the first Crusade.
Question: How many visual effects shots were there?
Scott: In all there’s about 800 shots. There’ll be probably about 350 seriously important shots, they rest are just tidy ups, bits and bobs, and sometimes skies.
Question: Who did the effects?
Scott: MPC, Moving Picture Company, they’re really excellent, they did the majority of the effects.
Question: Why didn’t your company do it? Don’t you have a great effects company?
Scott: There’s no money in it. It’s so hard, it is so hard. Everybody dreams about these vast budgets these people have to play with. At the end of the day, it’s… the bottom line is not attractive. Sorry to be frank, but there it is. I’m only a very small part of it now.
Question: You prefer using practical effects though?
Scott: Always. We built three siege towers. Those [in the end battle] are real. Once you build it, you can clone it much easier. So when you see all that stuff in close up, and they’re coming up the back, and I’m pulling the towers down, that’s all real – that’s seventeen tons going over. I made four catapults, the trebuchet arms of which would swing to 56 feet and would flip a hundred pound ball about 400 meters.
Question: What’s the status of “Gladiator 2”?
Scott: Nothing at the moment. We’re trying to find a good solution for a sequel.
Question: Logan wrote a script, are you happy with that?
Scott: Not quite, it’s not quite there yet. Remember, there’s no Maximus anymore. So I think the task is more difficult.
Question: You said you had a next generation idea?
Scott: Yeah, yeah, there was a next generation idea, but I think it’s very loose at the moment.
Question: Orlando mentioned that you’re sort of enigmatic as a director. How do you guide actors if you don’t talk to them a lot?
Scott: I do a pretty good job at casting actually. Half the job is reigning in, saying I would do this, I would do that. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Because I know exactly what I want, and when I’m going to set I know exactly what I want from the scene. One of the tricky things is how you hold that back. Let them feel that they have a certain kind of freedom. And that’s the trick, it’s sleight of hand. And I think you only learn that through experience.
If I have to, I’ll go and direct theater and talk till the cows come home. But you can’t do that with film. And I think, this is a movie, not theater, therefore a lot of it is behavioral. Once you’ve got the material, the script, I work a lot on the script, by the time I’ve gone through the process of the script with whoever the writer is, it’s indelible.
He also confirmed an hour longer version will hit on DVD next year.