Ridley Scott Talks Sci-Fi, 3D, and the Demands of Art and Commerce

on October 02, 2015


by Phil Contrino

At the age of 78, Ridley Scott makes filmmakers half his age look downright lazy. Scott has directed a movie a year since 2012, and they haven't been small or easy. He's jumped from sci-fi (Prometheus) to a drug-trade thriller (The Counselor) to a biblical epic (Exodus: Gods and Kings). With The Martian, Scott challenges himself once again in a genre that he's already conquered with two major classics: Alien and Blade Runner.

BoxOffice spoke with Scott the morning after The Martian premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

Congrats on the great reaction to the film. Was this the first time you saw it with a big audience, or did you sit in on test screenings?

I have to sit in on the test screenings. It's part of the process. We did five, actually. In the five screenings we had, we rated in the 90s, which is almost unheard of. That usually happens with riotously funny comedies, but we're a drama with some amusing stuff. It was an indication that we were in good shape.

How did you first become interested in The Martian?

I learned years ago that a great script ain't gonna land on your desk. When I'm not working I'm also constantly developing material. But this came to me in one of those rare occurrences. I've been with Fox more than 12 years now, and there's a first-look deal. They came to me and said, "Look, we've got this script and you might want to look at it." I read it and was highly entertained and also impressed that it covered all four quadrants of emotion. 

It's far more uplifting than your other sci-fi films. Was it a relief to do something less dark?

I'm a Brit, so positive/negative is about tonality. It becomes academic. It's a very American trait-and I'm not being negative here-to have a fun, uplifting ending. It makes sense because it helps put bums on seats and that's what we're all about. We are here to entertain, and if you don't put bums on seats then you don't have a business.

Do you feel, then, that filmmakers today are not as concerned as they should be with the commercial aspect? Are there too many who are just going to make what they make and not worry about recouping the money?

I'd say the opposite. This is probably going to be unpopular, but I think there are too many [who are overly concerned with the commercial aspect]. People come up with a marketing plan, and that's why we're seeing a lot of mediocre movies that are sometimes blatantly there for commercial reasons, and when you do it, too often they fail. 

There's this notion that directors can't always have art and commerce, but I look at you or someone like Stanley Kubrick -who cared a great deal about commercial success- and it's obvious that you can have both. Do you agree?

I do. You try to hit that bar. To certain people it's all about art, and sometimes they fly. It's perfect if something is agreeable and raises the bar artistically but also works commercially. It doesn't happen very often.

Did making the movie in 3D change your approach as a director?

Not at all. I'm blessed with a great eye, and I always have been. It even got in my way because I used to be criticized for being too visual. I would say, "Well, hold on. I'm not making a bloody radio play! I'm making a movie." What I have is an advantage, and I'm constantly looking for a way of evolving and avoiding what I've done before.  

What are your thoughts on the current state of 3D filmmaking? 

The truth is that technology is moving so quickly that the high-end 2D [high-dynamic range] nearly makes 3D redundant. We shot and edited The Martian on 3D and it was pretty straightforward if you've got the right team, and [cinematographer] Dariusz Wolski is great. From my point of view, I can just have fun making 3D pictures. But now with 2D becoming so great, you really have to ask yourself if you need it.

Matt Damon is secluded for a big part of the film. Was there any method acting coming into play? Did you try to separate him from the rest of the crew?

Not at all; I never do that. I think it's very much a choice of the individual actor as to how they want to get the work done. Do they want to be miserable for 16 weeks or do they want to have fun? 

Did Matt nail some of the film's big emotional scenes quickly or did he need a lot of takes to get to the heart of it?

He got it quick. I cast carefully. If I cast very well, the actors are going to help me on the day we shoot and I'm going to help them. It becomes a partnership. I don't do days and weeks of rehearsal. What I tend to do is when we walk on the floor, I literally shoot the first rehearsal and rehearse on camera. Because then you get the energy of coming in prepared but not rehearsed, and then you get a reality. If you over-rehearse it goes dead when you shoot, and you spend time getting back to what you found in rehearsals. I'm not unusual that way. Clint Eastwood does it, and so does Martin Scorsese. 

It's a workmanlike approach. It's making sure you get things done as efficiently as possible. 

Yes, and more actors like it than they care to admit. If it's well written, you don't have to rehearse. In this case we had a great script from a great book. 

As a director you're not one to shy away from releasing directors' cuts. Did this version come out exactly the way you wanted it to?

Definitely. I never do the long versions for theaters. The one that goes out is the one I like. 

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