After a hiatus of 30 years from making science fiction movies, the director of Alien and Blade Runner is back with another visual masterpiece: Prometheus.
“I’ve been quite busy over the last 30 years, doing other things,” laughs Sir Ridley Scott, when I met him at London’s Dorchester Hotel.
Indeed, during his illustrious career, the prolific filmmaker has explored a wide gamut of subjects, spawning some of the most memorable movies of all times, including Gladiator, Thelma and Louise and Black Hawk Down, each garnered him an Oscar nominations.
Until recently, Scott thought that Science Fiction movies were as dead as westerns and there was nothing original left to explore in them. But he changed his mind when a new idea about the creator of man began bouncing inside his head.
“No one has actually questioned that one single question, which has always stayed in my mind. I think there’s a base of a film here,” he enthuses.
After receiving the green light from Twentieth Century Fox studios, the British director promptly embarked on a long journey of decoding yet another cosmic mystery in Prometheus, in which a team of explorers discovers a clue to the origin of mankind in a Scottish cave, leading them on a thrilling journey aboard the eponymous spaceship to a galactic planet in search of our creators. There, the explorers (Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce) have to fight a terrifying battle to save themselves and the human race.
Having been obsessed with drawing since the age of 11 and later graduated from the Royal College of Art, Scott invariably draws his visual ideas before he commences production. In fact, visual elements of the film are designed ahead of the screenplay, so writers can see what a character or a location would look like.
“It’s good, because it focuses the writer so he can take that on board. It actually affects his writing,” Scott explains. “By the time I got the script, these visuals were publishable like glossy photographs of absolutely what you see on the film.”
But writing a script that dares to ask such fundamental metaphysical questions that challenged theologians, philosophers and scientist since the dawn of civilization was a formidable task.
“You do that little by little,” Scott reflects. “There is no grand plan. You just start writing and then you get there and say that’s terrible, let’s go back. Or this is good, let’s go here. It’s a very interesting process writing particularly a screenplay of this kind of thing that you start to shove around big pieces on the chess board until they make sense.”
What makes sense, however, is subjective matter. Scott, who began his life as a choir boy in his parent’s Protestant Church, knows that Prometheus’s presumptions about the identity of our God amount to blasphemy in the eyes of the religious. Ironically, in spite of his ungodly theories, the agnostic director is still influenced by the religious values that he absorbed in his childhood.
“I am not sure it’s a good thing, because it leaves an inherent sense of guilt even when you haven’t done anything wrong,” he muses. “Bizarrely, like a retarded adolescent I still feel guilty. I think it keeps me on the straight and narrow path so whether God or Christ has a part of that, the most important thing I got out of religion was right and wrong.”
Scott is also aware that the conjecture that humans were created by super intelligent aliens would probably draw sneers from scientists and evolutionists.
“At the premiere of Aliens, Carl Sagan [the author/cosmologist] said to me ‘Hmm, the premise is entirely ridiculous of course,’ and I said to him ‘Lighten up, Carl, it’s only a movie,’ but later he wrote a bloody good book called Contact, which ended 12 years before the Aliens would arrive. It meant that deep down, he really believed that is possible,” he laughs.
Although Scott admits that his science education is confined to flicking through American Scientific and National Geographic magazines, he believes that filmmaking and science are more compatible than different. In fact, NASA scientists, who occasionally come to see him, have told him that their scientific work was quite often influenced by movies.
“Working on a theory, they are going to come against a series of barriers all the time. So in a crude parallel it’s like me trying to work out a screenplay. I’m coming against constant problem walls and you got to get through that wall,” he explains.
However, unlike scientists, who support their theories with empirical proofs, Scott relies on conjecture and logical thinking in his quest to unlock the mysteries of the universe.
“I think extraterrestrials become logic rather than scientific because to look into the galaxy and think that we are the only life form here is ridiculous. There has to be a million forms of life out there,” he gruffly exclaims.
Prometheus, which is named after the mythical Greek demi-God who challenged the Gods by handing fire to the human that he created from clay, is imbued with the ingredients of its predecessor, Alien, from suspenseful horror to hideous creatures exploding out of a human chest.
At the age of 7, the north-of-English-born was introduced to horror films at local cinemas, where he watched Them And It and Monsters From The Black Lagoon.
“I always sat there thinking, that’s crap,” he laughs. “So I didn’t get to start mending that ‘til I was 42 when I made Alien.”
But he soon discovered that the scary parts of the movie are the most challenging to create.
“I thought how the hell do I do that,” he exclaims in wonderment. “I think it’s probably easier to make people laugh that it is to really, really scare them. I don’t mean Saw 1, 2, 3 and 4, just a blood fest. That’s not scary, it’s sick. To dramatise something that’s genuinely scary and evolves out of a structure of a story is tough to do.”
Indeed, even with the limited budget of Alien, Scott succeeded in producing some of the most terrifying scenes in science fiction movies. The budget was so scant, he couldn’t even show the Alien. But he confesses that the limitation worked to his favour.
“You want to do anything when you got everything, which is almost harder than having limitations,” he reflects.
Nonetheless, had he had the money, “You’d probably seen a little bit more of the alien,” he adds laughing.
Alien was a landmark in its genre and a massive commercial success, spawning 3 sequels and inspiring a multitude of subsequent movies. Scott followed it with Blade Runner, which, in contrast, was a commercial disaster and a critical failure at the time, but later would be regarded as one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made. Scott insists that he was not bothered by being misunderstood and misjudged.
“I think that what keeps me going is the fact that I have in me, without being pretentious at all, a lot of artist, which actually makes it dangerous for me, so in other words, it’s not always commercial. I may be ahead of the game, and Blade Runner is ahead of the game and Legend [another box-office flop] was ahead of the game. That’s why I’m still sitting here.”
The 74-year-old is contemplating a Blade Runner sequel, but making Prometheus has fired up a new question in his curious mind, that he is tempted to explore.
“The next question would be where did they [our creators] come from. This Prometheus has kind of opened up the door to another freeway to somewhere else,” he wonders with glowing eyes.