Ridley Scott: from Alien to Exodus, a Cecil B DeMille for the digital age

He has never won an Oscar, but is routinely described as one of the greatest film directors working today – and his credits attest to his monumental contribution to cinema over five decades.

Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Prometheus are just the highlights of Ridley Scott’s directorial career, which stretches back 37 years to The Duellists, released in 1977, and which is about to enter a new chapter with the biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Remarkably, Scott has managed to stay relevant, producing at least one major, influential film a decade, and responding to periodic downturns with commercial hits that have kept his hat permanently in the ring. Now 76, Scott can be bracketed in the same league as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg as a veteran director in as complete control of his powers as he ever was.

How has he done it? For Leslie Felperin, film critic at the Hollywood Reporter, “the thing about directors with longevity is that they never sit still; they keep diversifying, trying different things”. That’s true of Scott, who has turned his hand to horror, sci-fi, war films and road movies with equal proficiency. “As a director, it’s hard to get a read on him,” Felperin says. “In one way, he seems like a very capable journeyman: he clearly has always had a perfectionist streak, but it’s hard to say the dramatic material he picks is particularly distinctive, compared to Scorsese, Spielberg, or even James Cameron. His ability has always been to deliver what’s best for the material.”

Scott’s pre-eminence in the British film industry was underlined when in 2003 he was knighted for “services to the British film industry”; another indication, you may have supposed, that he was in his twilight years. But instead of retiring to the committee room, he has kept working: in the decade since his knighthood he has had some of his biggest hits – American Gangster, in 2007 which grossed $265m worldwide; Prometheus in 2012, took over $403m – as well as some of his most underwhelming mis-steps: his Peter Mayle adaptation A Good Year from 2006, was vocally criticised by Rupert Murdoch, owner of the studio that produced it.

Most recently the much-anticipated The Counselor – based on an original script by novelist Cormac McCarthy, and with a cast including Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz – received some of the worst reviews of Scott’s career and a dismal box office performance in 2013.

But bouncing back from The Counselor, Scott’s new film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, demonstrates that he still has clout: a $200m budget production for 20th Century Fox, part of the Hollywood studios’ current dash for the faith market which earlier in 2014 saw Paramount release the $125m Noah, with a cast led by the notoriously truculent Christian Bale.

This is no grace-and-favour project. Exodus has not been without controversy, either, with vocal complaints over its ethnically questionable casting. Scott recently addressed the issue in an interview with Variety magazine, asserting: “I can’t mount a film of this budget … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” This hard-headed attitude is a constant in Scott’s career, when he has found himself working with tricky material. On Black Hawk Down, his account of US marines’ misadventure in Somalia, he insisted to the Observer’s Lynn Barber, “I just wanted to stick as closely as I possibly could to the facts.”

It’s fair to theorise that Scott’s early grounding in advertising has coloured his approach to his material as much as the visual style with which it is rendered. As Felperin suggests: “Maybe the need to service the client, in an eye-catching way, has stayed with him.”

After growing up in an army family in South Shields, and following stints at West Hartlepool art college, the Royal College of Art and the BBC, Scott spent the late 60s and early 70s running a successful commercials company with his brother Tony (with the famous 1973 Hovis advert arguably the best remembered of their work). The British film industry was in catastrophic decline in the mid-70s, so Scott – and other ad men such as Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson and Adrian Lynem – was forced to look to the US to make the step up to features. Scott’s first film, The Duellists, was a studied, Kubrickesque adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story, and won him the best first film prize at the 1977 Cannes film festival.

However, he saw which way the wind was blowing and after the success of George Lucas’s Star Wars in the same year, he quickly signed up for his own effects-driven sci-fi thriller. The resulting film, Alien, spawned five follow-ups (the most recent of which, Prometheus, Scott took charge of himself), won an Oscar for visual effects, and is still the most commercially successful of the series. Scott then went on to establish his reputation as one of Anglo-American cinema’s premier visual stylists with his next film, Blade Runner, which, despite its disappointing box office results, suggested Scott might be an auteur in the making. Partly, as he told Barber, because it was his “most complete and personal film”; but also because rumbling dissatisfaction over producer-imposed elements – a heavyhanded voiceover, a “happy” ending – led to the then-novel release of a “director’s cut” in 1992. (Scott later released a third official version, the so-called “final cut”, in 2007.) Despite – or perhaps because of – his fondness for the film, Scott has recently backed away from directing a a mooted sequel.

Over time, however, the film world caught up with Scott’s floridly conceived baroque visuals, and it’s fair to say it has become the industry norm, in this era of superhero fantasies and effects-driven thrillers. Other than the relatively small-scale Thelma and Louise, Scott spent the 1990s struggling to reinvent himself. It wasn’t until Gladiator, in 2000, which fused glistening CGI (computer generated images) with old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle, that he found a successful path out of the woods. Gladiator’s success triggered a latter-day predilection for classical and medieval-era epics – Robin Hood and crusades drama Kingdom of Heaven, as well as Gladiator – and Scott now has some claim to being the Cecil B DeMille of the digital era.

In parallel to his own directing work, Scott is also developing a quiet reputation as an influential producer of other people’s films: recent credits include the Nicole Kidman thriller Before I Go to Sleep, the Christian Bale drama Out of the Furnace, and the forthcoming comedy Get Santa – all made with involvement from Scott Free. Felperin suggests that “proximity to younger film-makers and new ideas” may also be a factor in Scott’s film-making longevity. “There’s a generosity of spirit there, which I think is laudable, and the British film industry ought to be very grateful.”

Scott also has had to grapple recently with the shock of sudden personal tragedy. His brother Tony killed himself in 2012, and Scott chose to speak publicly about it for the first time to Variety. Although the coroner’s report discounted rumours of illness, Scott confirmed that his brother had been undergoing cancer treatment prior to his death. “Tony had been very unwell, actually … I’d go to him even when he was doing his recovery, and I’d say, ‘F— the chemo, have a vodka martini.’”

One has the sense that, despite everything, Scott will work for as long as possible, seemingly unwilling or unable to quietly fade away. He’s already well into production of his next film, The Martian, a drama starring Matt Damon about an astronaut stranded on Mars. And his listing on the Internet Movie Database says he has 54 titles in development.

Potted profile

Born 30 November 1937, South Shields, Tyne and Wear

Career Made his first short film, Boy and Bicycle, starring his brother Tony, while a student at the Royal College of Art. Trainee designer at the BBC; founded Ridley Scott Associates in 1968 and made more than 2,500 commercials before moving into features in the late 1970s. Bought an interest in Shepperton film studios in 1995, and was knighted in 2003.

High point The stratospheric hype around his Alien prequel, Prometheus. The trailer got 3m internet views in three days.

Low point Being passed over for the best director Oscar for Gladiator, even though the film won best picture. You could see the irritation on his face.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Andrew Pulver, for The Guardian on Friday 28th November 2014 20.27 Europe/London

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