The greatest British film-maker of all time, Ridley Scott has made some of the most memorable and successful films in the last 40 years, such as Alien, Blade Runner, Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain, Thelma & Louise, G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, Body of Lies and The Martian. But the real questions remains, how did Ridley take his fascination for film to the grandest scale? What enabled him to find his calling and what allowed him to turn those dreams into a surfaced reality?
As a young boy, Ridley Scott saw Citizen Kane and was hooked on film. He began going to the cinema each week unaccompanied to remain focused on the big screen, he sat for hours watching the same film over and over again.
Less academically gifted and more creatively and intrinsically motivated, Ridley Scott admits to struggling in school and being slightly dyslexic. He claims it was because of the lack of focus resulting from the absence of passion “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.”
Understanding himself was a major key piece to the puzzle. What he enjoyed, how his mind absorbed information, his insane attention to detail, and without knowing it at the time, the importance of having a mother who taught discipline.
“I always believed in self-fixing. I was brought up stiff upper lip by Ma – very tough, my Ma.” – Ridley Scott
After school was finished and much experience was garnished from a travelers program that allowed him to visit and learn in New York, Ridley set his course for TV. Upon working for BBC, and earning very little money, he decided to trek a new avenue. Ridley Scott spent 10 years in advertising before becoming an accomplished film director. For Scott, the beauty of television commercials is that each production is a small film, each second counted and every detail mattered. Scott’s 10 years as an ad man were marked with awards and accolades; to this day he remains a legend in British television advertising.
Scott ensured his success in advertising by starting his own production firm, and thus guaranteeing him operational control over all the particulars of each shoot. Ridley Scott Associates is still operating today as a successful advertising firm.
Scott Ridley directed the famous Superbowl television commercial “1984” for the launch of Apple’s Macintosh which was filmed where Scott had earlier filmed his landscapes for Alien.
One of the most powerful traits of all, that Ridley Scott possessed, was, and is, his ridiculous eye for perfection. His films are meticulous in detail and cover several different genres.
To this day Scott does not socialize with his actors and works on story boards when there is downtime while shooting a film to remain focused on getting the job done right.
Growing up in an army and fine arts household, he is an absolute stickler for detail and operates his directing like that of a general, in order to tackle his battles. His persistent trivial details on the Alien even made actor Sigourney Weaver complain that he cared more for props and sets than the actors.
James Cameron has claimed that he immediately sees any new Ridley Scott film because “he is such an artist, he’s such a filmmaker. I always learn from him”.
On the flip side of the good times, Ridley Scott also endured the hardships of losing two brothers. His older brother Frank died in 1980 of cancer at the age of 45. This had an almost debilitating effect on Ridley Scott; however Scott kept his emotions in check to ensure he himself did not become a distraction to anyone. He spent the next two years sorting out his reactions to his brother’s death despite enduring bouts of insomnia and phobias. Two years later Blade Runner was released, a film that is underpinned by paranoia and in which the main character played by Harrison Ford appears in dire need of a good night’s sleep.
“Never be put off by anything because failure teaches you something.” – Ridley Scott
Big-budget directors such as Ridley Scott earn the trust of big-money producers like Jerry Bruckheimer not just because they can deliver compelling narratives but equally as important they can get the work done on budget and on time.
Scott’s single-minded determination and scrupulous nature are not the only key hallmarks of his success. He is also a “self-fixer” who has evolved after a spectacular run of landmark films. In 1997 Ridley Scott set out to make his films in less time despite his reputation for running a set on time. “… at the end of the day it’s a movie, it’s not a cure for cancer. So I learnt to lighten up.”
The American Film institute lists Citizen Kane by Orson Welles as the greatest American film of all time in its 100 Years 100 Films 10th Anniversary Edition, this is the film that inspired Scott at an early age. In the same list holding the 97th spot is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. When Blade Runner was first released it was panned by critics and largely ignored at the box office but has since been rehabilitated as a cult classic. Oddly enough, Citizen Kane did poorly at the box office and Orson Welles was booed at the Oscar ceremony when Citizen Kane was nominated nine times. Both films languished after their release and over time were eventually recognized as great cinematic achievements.
“I like the competition. You create a competition with yourself. I’m very competitive. Very. I look around and think, I’ve got to raise the bar. That’s what we do. If we can all raise the bar in everything we do, isn’t that better? I try and raise the bar every time I do a movie, and a part of that is not to repeat yourself. It’s an internal ego, not an external ego.” – Ridley Scott
Author: Phil Zavackis
Phil Zavackis is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He has recently finished a screenplay titled ‘105 Degrees & Rising’, which is about the Fall of Saigon in 1975. https://www.quora.com/profile/Phil-Zavackis/blogs
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