Ridley Scott reveals Prometheus secrets to T3
From Alien to Gladiator via Blade Runner, Sir Ridley Scott knocks out classic cinema for fun. Yet it's his return to science fiction after 20 years with Prometheus – in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D, no less – that has captured the public's consciousness this week
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron at the head of a star-studded cast, Prometheus has been the film on everyones' lips over the last week.
T3 caught up with Scott and co-writer Damon "Lost" Lindelof in Claridges Hotel amid London's Jubilee celebrations to get the low down on how changing technology and society influenced the film's production and marketing – and, of course, to probe them on Prometheus's many unanswered plot questions.
Funny, focused and forthright, we came away with more answers than we expected, and there's also no getting round it:
THIS INTERVIEW IS CHOCK-FULL OF SPOILERS.
You have been warned...
When you made the original Alien film it was all models and matte paintings, but things have obviously changed dramatically since then. What were the major technical differences in creating the two?
[Ridley Scott] You know, the original Alien still looks pretty bloody good. I’ll show you a huge print in the IMAX right now and you’ll be shocked: the backgrounds, the universes, were a guy with a toothbrush who does that… *mimics flicking a brush*… and goes, “How many do you want?” And I say, “Well, just do it,” and he goes… *flick*… with the toothbrush, and splatters and speckles on to this shiny black screen, on to the artwork.
[Damon Lindelof] That was for the stars?
[RS] That was it. The beginning of the movie is flat artwork. You just pan across the flat into the universe. I’m a camera operator, so I operate the whole thing. There was one camera – I’m on the dolly now, we get wind machines, storm, sh*t, filth, blowing straight up at me, of course, and I’ve got a mask on and all that sh*t – and I’m looking through and I’ve got dolly-grips behind me on two scaffold poles, which are the actual tracking lines. He’s walking round saying, “Action!” and I’m saying, “Stop, back up, I can see the way you’re walking.” So that’s how it was all done and when you look at it, it’s pretty good. The sets are fantastically good and the lighting was beautiful.
In a funny kind of way it’s a lesson: in Blade Runner, those backgrounds, the cityscapes when he’s climbing around the side of the building, you can see they’re paintings but they’re really quite good. Today, you’d never even attempt to do that, you’d sample architecture and drop it in, on absolute lens and perspective, so it’s absolutely seamless, there’s no join. But in those days it was hand-painted. It's a big lesson, because the most important, significant thing in all films – I don’t give a sh*t whether it’s science fiction or a western or whatever – is the goddamn screenplay. Get the screenplay right and all this technology enhances it. But when the screenplay is weak… The technology is the means to the end, the screenplay is the end. If you get that right first, the rest is relatively straightforward.
Consequently the hardest single thing to do is get it on paper, and that’s why today there are many, many more movies being made than, say, 20 years ago. I’m just going to say it flat-out: the screenplays, the stories are mostly pretty sh*t. That’s why people who are coming [to cinemas] yearn for better content. Now we’ve got prime-time television in England running a Scandinavian show called The Bridge. I’ve watched nine hours of it. It’s subtitled: "Prime-time British TV". What does that tell you? A massive audience has built up because it’s good, has great characters, and this is gradually going to shift into movies. At the moment we’re still getting away with it, but I think people are getting impatient, particularly in what I’d call the majority part of the world – which is now two-thirds of the world audience and is everything outside of the domestic market, i.e. outside of the US. Get the story right.
[DL] I would just add to that, very briefly, from the outside looking in, I was really impressed when I came to the set by the commitment to practical on Prometheus. While I was there they shot the scene in the lab where the head explodes and they were taking off the elephantine helmet and there’s the head in there. I was like, "Wow, you’re not doing this CG?" And Ridley said, “No, we’re just gonna blow that f*cker up.” And I looked over and saw the 7.5ft-tall actor, who basically played the Engineer, over in make-up and I said, “Where are his mocap dots?” “No, no, that’s what we’re gonna shoot.” There might have been some visual effects on his eyes, and obviously we did not make the actor disintegrate down to the genetic level, but I do think that very few directors will say, "What parts of it can we shoot practical?" because anybody will come forward from visual effects and say, “We can do the entire thing for you.” There’s a tremendous temptation.
But our brains are very sophisticated, and we know the difference between what’s real and what’s fake, especially if you’re doing a level of grounded science fiction about “we came from them”. Your brain will essentially say, “But that’s a CG being, it doesn’t exist, it’s not real, there’s not a man in there, anywhere, even if it’s mocap.” And I think that those decisions, and the commitment to, “Can I make it the same way that I made it 30 years ago, just because I don’t have to any more,” I just admire it tremendously. I think it’s a huge lesson to be learned and the voracity of it bleeds through.