When I talk to Sir Ridley Scott, he’s bobbing on a lilo in Crete, sipping a pina colada and mulling over his forthcoming gap year. Not really! He’s getting ready to make two more enormous films. "I start Napoleon in January," the South Shields-born director, 83, tells me via Zoom from a hotel in Paris. "Then straight after that, it’s Gladiator 2."
Scott has already "fully prepped and cast" the former: a sweeping period piece starring Joaquin Phoenix, which will follow the French emperor’s rise to power. His Gladiator sequel, set a generation after his Best Picture-winning 2000 original, is being written now, and should be ready to shoot as soon as Napoleon concludes. He storyboards his films in advance, drawing every shot by hand, and also edits them while he’s filming: "When I come out of a film and say ‘That’s a wrap,’ my director’s cut is usually [ready] within three weeks or four weeks," he says, before fixing me with a look. "With most people, it’s 14."
If all goes to schedule, he’ll have polished off two more historical epics by his 85th birthday. Isn’t this pace getting, you know, a little arduous? "Easier than ever," he fires back. "I start the engine, my brain starts working – and fortunately the brain is still working – and it’s all quite simple."
Scott is, without question, one of the greatest living filmmakers: the ad-land wunderkind turned buccaneering builder of worlds and forger of myths.
It was his exacting eye and expansive vision that gave rise to Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, The Martian and so many others – Scott works at scale, but also at speed. Though almost four years have passed since the release of his most recent film, All the Money in the World, he’s made another two during the pandemic, neither one of which exactly screams ‘low-key lockdown project’. One is House of Gucci, a slinky, ripely accented true-crime melodrama, starring Adam Driver as the assassinated fashion kingpin Maurizio Gucci and Lady Gaga as his ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani.
Filmed in Italy this year, it is, says Scott, "dramatic but also very funny, even kind of satirical". (He’s also an avowed Gaga fan, describing her as the ‘perfect Patrizia’: not bad for a role that was once earmarked for Angelina Jolie.) But it’s the other film, The Last Duel – shot around lockdowns in the Dordogne last year – that feels like the bigger risk.
A rollicking 14th-century period piece, it returns to a theme that has grown increasingly prominent in Scott’s later work: what happens when men give free rein to their darkest impulses. (Dark enough for the British Board of Film Classification to have stamped the film with an 18 certificate.) Adapted from a book by Eric Jager, it dramatises the final legally recognised judicial duel to be fought in medieval France.
The combatants were the squire Jacques Le Gris (played here by Driver) and the Norman knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon); the subject at issue was the honour of Carrouges’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), who accused Le Gris of rape.
It was Damon and Ben Affleck who dug up the tale and presented it to Scott in 2019. The two wanted him to direct a screenplay they would write, contrasting the protagonists’ differing accounts in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
Nicole Holofcener, writer of the literary hoax drama Can You Ever Forgive Me?, was enlisted to script a revelatory third act, which unfolds from Marguerite’s perspective.
Scott was immediately drawn to the prospect of depicting "the life and times of a woman at that particular point in history". Despite the incendiary sexual assault allegations rocking Hollywood at the time, Scott says he didn’t set out to make ‘a #MeToo film’ – "though if people’s reactions to it skew in that direction, that makes sense".
Scott’s own brush with #MeToo was tangential but dramatic. In late 2017, six weeks before the release of All the Money in the World, one of the film’s stars, Kevin Spacey, was hit with multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.
Many directors would have gone into meltdown, but within 72 hours, Scott had arranged to reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer in the role. The film opened on time, and Plummer’s performance was nominated for an Oscar.
Since then, he says, he recognises "a whole lot of guilt and a whole lot of fear" in Hollywood’s writhings of indignation and contrition.
"It’s a cheap shot to say things haven’t changed in the past 600 years, but frankly, when you look at who’s in trouble right now, they haven’t changed much."
The Last Duel was initially a 20th Century Fox project, but was acquired by Disney when it swallowed the studio in 2019. Were the film’s new owners at all concerned by its content?
"Are you kidding? Of course they were," Scott splutters. "But my hat comes off to them because while they were very concerned, they were very supportive when they saw what we were doing. Honestly, much to my surprise, they love it."
Scott can’t claim to feel the same about the current craze for superheroes, on which Disney’s Marvel arm has savvily capitalised.
"They’re made for a seven-year-old’s brain, but people are enthusiastic about them because they can just sit there and watch the visual effects," he laments. Does he worry that the appetite for his brand of big, smart, provocative movies is waning?
"I hope to God not," he says. "The films that I do – I hope they’re not the end of a time and a period. It can’t all be about visual stuff and flying cloaks."
The Daily Telegraph