Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Ridley Scott.
Of the directors we’ve covered in this feature, Ridley Scott might be the most forward. He’s brash and unorthodox, and when speaks, you get the sense that he threw his filter in the trash years ago. At this point, brass buttons are well-deserved. Alien, Blade Runner, Black Rain, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, and a popcorn bucket-full more prove the man’s vision as a storyteller.
A movie fan from a young age, Scott first found success as a commercial director. His first flick, The Duelists, was hailed at Cannes but made it to few screens beyond. It was a science fiction journey featuring a seven-member crew woken from stasis to explore a strange signal that made him a major name, and this weekend he dives back into that world with Prometheus.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a bloke from South Shields.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Ridley Scott
1. Be Prescient
Being able to see the future can definitely help. For Scott, there are at least two ways in which prescience aided his work. One scientific, one story:
“I mean I had new ground to address: the idea of doing a film that is not necessarily futuristic in the sense of the, futuristic science fiction, but actually more as a look into the future, and the future possibility, which can be more interesting. Because then you’re touching on various possibilities of, like, replication, which now are quite commonplace, but 25 years ago they were barely discussing it in the corridors of power where you have to ‐ you know, like the Senate and things like that. They hadn’t even gotten to that point. I’m sure it was firmly in biological institutions and laboratories, but they hadn’t yet gone for permission. It was almost 10 years or 15 years after Blade Runner that I read about replication.
Now, the film is not really about that at all, it’s simply borrowing that possibility and addressing it and putting it to making a sort of unusual protagonist or antagonist that will be leveraged into a Sam Spade or one of those detective, film-noir kind of stories. So people will be familiar with that kind of character, but not at all familiar with the world I was cooking up.”
Is there any doubt that he has a subscription to Wired now? Or some crazy science magazines that mere mortals aren’t allowed to know about?
Perhaps even more interesting than his peering into the future of our development is his ability to translate past storytelling modes into the future. Reading it, the method is beyond simple, but it takes a great mind to see it first.
“People either want a pigeonhole or have a comfortable preconception about what they’re sitting and seeing. It’s a bit like 20 years of Westerns, and, now, 45 years of cop movies. People are comfortable with the roles, and even though every nook and cranny has been explored, they’ll still sit through endless variations, permutations on cops and bad guys, right? In this instance, I was doing a cop and a different bad guy. And to justify the creation of the bad guy, i.e., replication, I had to justify that the outside world would support that idea. So, then, it has to be in the future.
So, the future that I had seen portrayed to that particular point ‐ without being specific or mentioning names because that means I’m getting really critical ‐ all of the urban films until that moment had been pretty ordinary to not very good. So, it was a challenge to say ‐ it’s the same as trying to do a monster movie it’s, like, Aliens is a monster movie. Alien is a C film elevated to an A film, honestly, by it being well done and a great monster. If it hadn’t had that great monster, even with a wonderful cast, it wouldn’t have been as good, I don’t think. So, in this instance, my special effect, behind it all, would be the world.”
2. Rehearsals? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rehearsals
3. Don’t Conform
“It doesn’t matter how they try to influence the market, certain kinds of films still get by that don’t conform. I don’t conform and I never have done.”
Quick ‐ name all the kinds of movies that “could never get a greenlight today.” It’s probably a long list, but while it’s easy to see what studios might be biased against, it’s important to remember that quality knows no specific genre. Make quality the priority, and no matter what you’re passionate about making, you can make it resonate. What’s more, if you don’t conform, when the story makes an impact it’ll be a complete surprise. A nice little bonus.
4. You Can Use Technology to Beat Death
“[Oliver Reed] still had three weeks left [of filming Gladiator when he died]. I had to shoot most of his scenes at the end of the film using his body double, then for the close-ups, we superimposed Oliver’s face onto the body double’s. Eerie, eh? I also was able to use some shots from earlier scenes and outtakes. But thank God for digital technology…Oliver went out the way he would have wanted to, I should think: with a pint glass in his hand.”
We can pretty much do anything now. Don’t be afraid.
Preserving the past is important (especially considering the benefits of 35mm), but Scott is unafraid of digital:
5. Pretend You Know What You’re Doing
In the same interview linked above, Scott names The Searchers as the movie that made him fall in love with movies, and he gives aspiring filmmakers a key piece of advice:
“Even when you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, give a direction, give an order to the crew, then very calmly go into your trailer, sit down and say to yourself “What the fuck am I going to do?” [Laughs] You can never know exactly what you’re going to do at any given time during a shoot. You have to be open to changes, to accidents, many of which are happy ones. Just remember: even after you’ve been directing a long time, there are going to be days when you still feel like you don’t know what you’re doing! [Laughs]”
In other words, even when your head is underwater, take a deep breath.
6. Avoid Indulging Yourself
So you’ve just finished writing a fantastic scene our capturing a really tricky shot. That’s all well and good, but does it fit in with the rest of the film? If not, ditch it. No matter how painful. That’s what Idea Piles are for. Save the scene for something else or keep those shots for a sizzle reel (or simply a learning experience). No matter how nifty, a scene out of place can hurt the overall product.
“Yes, I love to be able to [present different versions on DVD]. Because if you ask, ‘at what moment in his career is a director allowed to be indulgent?’ The answer is never, right? Because it costs too much ‐ it’s art against commerce, art against money, cash, what the film is costing. And also that would mean what it would cost the movie if it doesn’t play. Someone up there pays. So I’ve always got half an eye on that -it’s in my DNA. Fundamentally I’m a practitioner, I’m quite practical-minded, both on a creative level and on a business level.
So it’s always a cross-collateralization between the two. There are scenes I wish I’d put in, but I just knew that if I did, the film would be taking a right-hand turn when it should have been going straight on at that moment, that’s all. These are really fine-tuned decisions if you know what I mean. Like if you are writing a book or an article and you’d love to put this paragraph in, but you know you can’t because everything stops while you get the paragraph over.”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Ridley Scott does not screw around. He’s half-businessman, half-storyteller. That’s a shrewd mindset that can’t be achieved by everyone, but his style seems to come from his hip. Or his gut. Or slightly lower.
Rehearsing? Lame. Knowing what you’re doing at all times? Overrated. Conforming? Toss it out the window.
At the same time, the second half of his brain seems to keep that artistic passion in check ‐ molding it in terms of what can still be sold, what can be loved by a bigger audience. There’s a great lesson in that, even in the abstract (after all, if there were a specific lesson/rule, everyone would be making unique films that gross $300m).
Also, enjoying life with a pint in hand is a hell of a way to shuffle off your mortal coil.