Ridley Scott: ‘I wanted to scare the shit out of people. That’s the job’

With Alien: Covenant hitting cinemas and Blade Runner 2049 due this year, the prolific film-maker talks entertainment, his first meeting with Sigourney Weaver, and losing his brother, Tony

For reasons opaque and entangled, I am meeting Ridley Scott in Berlin, crashing the German junket for his new film Alien: Covenant. The location is a grand hotel in the old east of the city and I know I’m in the right place because of a large poster sitting on an easel. It shows the silhouetted image of a xenomorph – the classic “big boy” from Scott’s 1979 original Alien – with drool cascading from its unnerving gnashers. Only one word is written on the poster in block capitals: “LAUF”. Nope, Scott has not decided to make a zany space comedy. The injunction is a scream: “RUN”.

Covenant is, rightly, being touted as a strong, terrifying return to form for the 38-year-old Alien franchise, now in its sixth incarnation, and there’s certainly a buzz among the German handlers and journalists as we wait for our audience with Scott. “He’s a huge director here,” explains one. “It is Spielberg and him, really, that people know about. But you are from the UK, it must be the same there.”

This makes me think, and leaves me a little unsure. It’s certainly not hard to make a case that Scott is Britain’s greatest living director. His work is era-defining, stylistically pioneering: Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator are all in the canon. And as he’s got older – he’ll turn 80 in November – he’s kept working at a demented pace, rarely letting his standards slip. His last film, The Martian, from 2015, starring Matt Damon as a homesteader on Mars, was actually his most successful: banking $630m worldwide and winning a Golden Globe for best comedy or musical (an exceptional feat, given that it was neither).

Scott, who grew up in Stockton-on-Tees, was made a Sir in 2003 and Peter Blake honoured him a spot on an updated lineup of his Sgt Pepper’s cover in 2012. He’s a long way from underrated or starved of appreciation. But somehow he doesn’t receive the fond affection reserved for Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, or the reverence that Stephen Frears or even Danny Boyle get. “Most people in Britain don’t even know what Ridley looks like,” Alan Parker, the director of Bugsy Malone and The Commitments, once told me. “He doesn’t frequent the usual watering holes – he wouldn’t be seen dead there, wasting his time.”

Mulling this over, I get the nod that Scott is ready for me. Walking into the suite, I find him rearranging the furniture. “I can’t have those soft chairs,” he explains, his accent a bit Stockton, a bit Hollywood. “They’re no good for my back.” If, as Alan Parker suggests, you are struggling to place the face, Scott has something of the Bryan Cranston about him. His hair, once rusty red, is gradually turning metallic silver, his moustache holding out longest. He’s 5ft 7in, give or take, and is dressed today in his standard film-set attire: black fleece jacket and sensible shoes.

Why, I wonder aloud, don’t we see more of Scott? He looks perplexed by the inquiry, perhaps understandably, but answers gnomically: “I do enough.”

It’s a reasonable point. Already this year, Scott has been executive producer on Tom Hardy’s BBC drama Taboo and now there’s Alien: Covenant. Before the end of 2017, we’ll have the long-awaited follow-up to his 1982 film Blade Runner, based on a concept by Scott and writer Hampton Fancher. He says, “Alcon Entertainment were about to buy the title and they said to me, ‘Look, we’re about to pay God knows how many millions – do you think there’s a sequel here?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ They said, ‘What is it?’ And I said, ‘I’ll tell you when you pay me!’”

Blade Runner 2049 is set 30 years on and follows a new LAPD blade runner – the special police operatives charged with “retiring” rogue replicants, androids indistinguishable from humans – played by Ryan Gosling. He sets out to track down the disillusioned, long-vanished blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, reprising his role from the original). Scott couldn’t find the time to direct – Denis Villeneuve, who made Sicario and last year’s Arrival, has been anointed – but his fingerprints are all over the reboot. “It’s good,” he says, “very good.”

Is it funny, wry-not-haha, that there’s so much excitement about the new Blade Runner when the first one… “Bombed?” Scott says. “Yeah, I know, but I knew it was good. This goes on to what I learned from getting beaten up. Pauline Kael, do you know who that was?”

Alien: Covenant trailer: Ridley Scott returns with sci-fi thriller

The New Yorker film critic from the 1970s and 80s, right? “Exactly. She spent three pages destroying Blade Runner and me. Even to the fact that I had a beard. I couldn’t believe it, it was personal. I never met her in my life and it was really distressing.”

Scott shakes his head, July 1982 suddenly seeming like a couple of hours ago – though, to be fair to Kael, reading her review now, while she clearly didn’t like the film, she kept any opinions she had on Scott’s facial hair to herself. “But after that moment, I never, ever read press again,” he continues. “Even if it’s glowing, best not read it, because you think you own the world. If it’s killer, best not read it because you think you’ve failed. You have to be your own critic.”

And, in a way, I’ve got my answer as to why Scott makes his films and then keeps his head down.

Scott has a fractious, on-off association with the Alien films. When the original script – about the crew of a spaceship who get picked off one by one by an extraterrestrial with anger-management issues – was doing the rounds in Hollywood in the 1970s, Scott found out that he was fifth in line to direct it. “I remember reading it: it took me an hour and 15 minutes, because I kind of speed-read – voom, voom…” says Scott, who at that time had made just one feature (1977’s The Duellists, set in the Napoleonic wars). “Then I had to wait four hours till Hollywood woke up to say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ And I was anxious at that time because I knew there were others before me, including, for some bizarre reason, Robert Altman. But there was a gong in my head and I went ‘Daaaaamn! I know what to do.’”

The script that Scott read had an all-male crew, but there was a change of heart at 20th Century Fox and two of the characters were switched to women, including Ellen Ripley, the last surviving member of the ship. “I cast Ripley really late,” says Scott. “Two weeks out, we still hadn’t found her. Then somebody came up, I think it was Warren Beatty, and said, ‘There’s this woman, on off-Broadway, on the theatre boards called Sigourney Weaver, you should meet with her. Interesting.’ So I called her, went to New York, she walks in, she must have been 6ft 6in, with an afro, so she’s 7ft 2in. And I was like a midget, and I had dinner with her. That was it!”

Neither Scott nor Weaver, apparently, realised it, but Ripley would become an iconic heroine. “It hadn’t dawned on me,” admits Scott. “After the event, I went, ‘Oh, OK, yeah, absolutely,’ but I never thought about that.”

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley with Jones the ship’s cat in the original Alien (1979).
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley with Jones the ship’s cat in the original Alien (1979). Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar/20th Century Fox

Empowered female leads have since become a trope in Scott’s work. Sometimes the results have been spectacular (notably Thelma & Louise, which led to the first of his three Oscar nominations for best director) and other times they have been less successful (the 1997 Demi Moore vehicle GI Jane). And it is part of the Alien DNA now, too. Scott returned to the franchise in 2012 after a long hiatus – Fox, to his annoyance, chose James Cameron to direct the first sequel, Aliens, in 1986. In the prequel Prometheus, Scott cast the Swedish actor Noomi Rapace as the archaeologist Dr Elizabeth Shaw, who, memorably, gives birth to an alien by C-section and survives. In the new film, Alien: Covenant, Ripley’s spiritual heir is Daniels, played by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s Katherine Waterston. She even wears the famous singlet.

“It’s gratifying when people mention that,” says Scott, of the feminist undertones in several of his films. “I remember reading Thelma and the executives were saying, ‘Well, it’s two bitches in a car…’ And I said, ‘Actually, it’s a little bit more than that.’ Originally I was supposed to produce, and I offered it to four directors. One said, ‘I’ve got a problem with the women.’ And I said, ‘That’s the point, you dope! Clearly, you have big problems with women.’”

With Alien: Covenant, Scott set out to reprise the spirit of the original film (tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream”). “I wanted to really scare the shit out of people,” he says. “Totally, that’s the job. It’s like if I’m a comedian, I want to make you laugh like hell. My day job is to be an entertainer. Some of it is art, but fundamentally I entertain – never forget that.”

Scott was convinced that it made sense to resurrect Alien both artistically and, crucially, commercially. “Franchise always sounds like a vaguely not-very-nice word, because it means making money. And there’s nothing wrong with making money in the film industry – in fact it’s what it’s all about. If there’s a big film that’s a disaster, it’s bad for everybody. If there’s a little film that’s a huge success, it’s good for everybody. That’s the industry we’re in.”

Although technology and effects have moved on drastically in the four decades since Alien, Scott’s approach in many ways hasn’t. He uses computer-generated imagery and green screen only as a last resort. The Covenant spaceship, which contains a crew of settlers leaving Earth to make a new life on the far side of the galaxy, was effectively built from scratch on a soundstage in Australia. There were hundreds of switches and dials, more than 1,500 electrical circuits, and Scott insisted that they all work. The reason? If you really want to scare an audience, then he believes you need to create characters they care about and an atmosphere that feels real. That’s why many of the most enduring horror films are the age-old classics.

“I was always put off from swimming ever since I watched Jaws,” says Scott. “I quite liked swimming, actually, and I’d occasionally dive, but once I saw Jaws there was no way I was ever going to learn to surf – no way! Because I can imagine my legs, my little pinkies hanging underneath the surfboard and I know I’m going to be the one.”

Michael Fassbender as ‘synthetic’ android Walter.
Michael Fassbender as ‘synthetic’ android David in Alien: Covenant. Photograph: Mark Rogers/Fox Film

Being in Berlin seems to have put Scott in a reflective mood and, without much prompting, he starts to talk about his childhood. His father Francis was a colonel in the Royal Engineers and the family spent five years in West Germany after the war as part of the Marshall plan. They lived in a house so grand it had a library and Scott went to boarding school in Wilhelmshaven, where he used to watch U-boats in the North Sea: “I loved it.” Francis was offered the prestigious position of head of port authority for the Elbe, based in Hamburg, but Scott’s mother wanted to return home to be near her relatives. Scott smiles, “I remember saying, at eight-and-a-half: ‘Take the job. You’re making the wrong decision.’ But it wasn’t to be, and we went back to Stockton-on-Tees and ended up on a council estate.

“My dad was a great guy, he did the right thing for the family, but he was not a happy man for the rest of his life,” Scott goes on. “And the interesting thing is that nobody said anything. We just looked at the house, pebble dash, move in and that’s it, dude. You’d get on with it.”

Back in the north-east, Scott went to a secondary modern school. He struggled academically; only later did he think that he might be slightly dyslexic. “After being bottom for five years, I decided that I wasn’t academically sound – for anything, truly. And I was really trying. I wasn’t lazy. I just couldn’t retain anything that I wasn’t interested in. If I’m interested, I’ve got a photographic brain. I could walk out of this room and in a year, I could draw it right down to the paintings on the wall.”

Scott painted and he played tennis: “a sissy’s game in those days”. His skill at the former earned him a place at the West Hartlepool College of Art and then the Royal College of Art, where he was a contemporary of David Hockney. “We have literally the same birthday, same year,” says Scott – though this, sadly, turns out not to be the case: Hockney was born in July 1937, Scott in November. “Have you seen his exhibition at the Tate? Fuck! David today, you have to compare him to Matisse. I know you can’t compare artists… he’s an entity now. Spectacular.”

It was at the Royal College that Scott made his first film: a black-and-white short, shot on 16mm, called Boy and Bicycle. “My brother, Tony Scott, was the actor and chief equipment carrier,” Scott smiles. “I remember it cost £65, and I took six weeks to bugger about on Redcar and Hartlepool beach to make this movie. Tony must have been 14, 15 and I ruined his summer holiday, but it was sinking in to him, so we were doing a thing that would inject lifelong dedication to making films.”

Ridley Scott, right, with his brother Tony, at the Britannia awards, 2010.
Ridley Scott, right, with his brother Tony, at the Britannia awards, 2010. Photograph: Todd Williamson Archive/Getty Images

The Scott brothers could have been rivals: Tony, almost seven years younger, also became a director and his films include Top Gun, True Romance and Crimson Tide. But, in reality, they were close and rarely, if ever, went up for the same projects. “Ridley was tough but very protective, like an older brother should be,” Tony Scott told me in 2007. “We are very competitive, but this inspires us to do better and different work. I find myself stealing from Ridley a lot. He’s remarkably focused and immovable in terms of his vision, while I’m continually swayed by looking left rather than right. But we inspire each other.”

Tony Scott killed himself in 2012, jumping from a suspension bridge in Los Angeles. Ridley later revealed that Tony had cancer. “Being an elder brother, if ever there was an argument about anything, I’d back off, always,” says Scott now. “Nothing’s worth losing a relationship over. So I’d always back down, say, ‘OK, then.’” He laughs affectionately, “He was like the spoiled brat really.

“Tony was made for commercials: he was high-energy, fun, people loved him. We started our company together, Scott Free, and my biggest thing was to tell him, ‘Please don’t go for a job somewhere else, come with me. If you come with me, I guarantee you won’t be riding that bicycle in a year, you’ll be in a much better car. And if you really want a Ferrari, come with me.’ And he got several Ferraris.”

Family is Scott’s one great concern outside of films – his other big passion in life was tennis, which he played very competitively, always singles, well into his 70s, until he blew his knees. He is married to the Costa Rican actor Giannina Facio, his third wife, and they move between houses in Los Angeles, London and the Luberon in Provence. He has three grown-up children – Jake, Luke and Jordan – all of whom have followed him into the business, either in films or advertising. It is little surprise then that Scott has felt the loss of his brother keenly. He often called Tony the one person in Hollywood he could trust – and he still thinks of him every time he finishes a project.

“He’s the only one I’d show the film to,” says Scott. “I’d say, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he’d go, ‘Make it shorter.’ And I’d go, ‘Oh, OK. So it means he didn’t like it.’ I always remember showing him Legend” – a fantasy adventure made in 1985 and starring Tom Cruise (it crashed at the box office but went on to attain cult status) – “and I thought, ‘What am I going to do with Legend?’ It wasn’t his thing at all, but he was very polite, which means he really didn’t like it.”

Watch a trailer for Blade Runner: 2049.

Ridley Scott often says: “My plan is no plan.” He came to film-making relatively late: The Duellists, his debut, was released when he was 40. He’d already worked in advertising for almost 20 years, and he has made, by his estimate, something like 10,000 commercials, including the famous Hovis ad. This delayed start perhaps explains the furious work rate that he sustains to this day. When we meet in Berlin, Scott is itching to get back to Rome where he is about to start shooting his next film, about the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III in 1973; Kevin Spacey plays the boy’s father, who received an ear in the post (delayed by three weeks, because of a strike). After that, he wants to make a drama about the Battle of Britain. He also has to somehow fit in another Alien prequel, provisional title Alien: Awakening, and he has sketched out plans to make another three Alien films after that.

“It drives me crazy that an actor can do four movies in a year and I can’t,” he sighs. “I was saying that to Michael Fassbender.”

Scott and Fassbender have made three films together (Prometheus, The Counsellor and now Alien: Covenant, where the actor plays two androids: sneaky David and benign Walter). He is becoming the director’s right hand in much the same way that Russell Crowe was in the 2000s. “Yeah, the two buddies really long-term are Michael and Russell, who I’ve made five films with,” says Scott. “You know whatever shouting and yelling and quarrels you’ve been through, after five movies, you’re definitely buddies. There’s nothing to hide, all the crap’s out the way.

“They are quite different as people, but they are both very smart. You better do your homework. Or you better have your point of view, because if you don’t, they’re going to stomp on you. When they say, ‘Why would I do that?’ you better have a bloody good answer.”

This, Scott believes, is the lesson that 40 years in Hollywood has taught him: you have to be decisive. He never makes cheap films, but he has earned a reputation for bringing them in on time and on budget. “It’s fatal to turn up on set and say, ‘What are we going to do?’” he says. “Fatal to discuss where the cameras are going to go. You cannot do that. That’s where it comes unhinged. A film like Alien: Covenant would normally be 100 days; we did it in 74. We made it for $111m, as opposed to $180m or $260m. It’s insane the amount of money spent. When you’re spending $250m on a movie, you should have been fired a year ago.

“It all comes full circle to starting out as a painter. You walk in the room in the morning, where you spent all day yesterday by yourself. You stare at the canvas and you go: ‘Bloody hell, I hate it.’ Painting is all about what you did yesterday, how you’re going to recorrect it, improve it, or go: ‘Holy shit, I got it.’” He pauses, perhaps remembering Pauline Kael and her real or imagined slights against his beard. “It’s being your own critic, that’s it. That’s the most important thing.”

Scott is well known for his time-keeping and, today, ours is up. After the current round of press requirements, he will again disappear. Back to his films, until the next time. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy the attention, he just doesn’t need it. “Thanks,” he says, as I get up to leave, “but you know I won’t read it, don’t you?”

Alien: Covenant is out on 12 May


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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