|Original caricature by Jeff York of filmmaker Ridley Scott (copyright 2017)|
Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,
This is my fourth in a series of five open letters intended to place certain worthy candidates on your radar for this year’s Governor’s Award. In the past weeks, I have presented the following who are long overdue for some Oscar love: filmmaker David Lynch, actress Catherine Deneuve, and actor Kurt Russell. My fourth candidate is a man who truly stands as one of the greatest multi-hyphenates in all of show business. He’s a director, producer, writer, production designer, and also, one of the biggest game-changers that the film world has ever seen. He is Sir Ridley Scott.
Scott has been nominated three times for the Best Director Oscar, yet hasn’t won, even though one of his epics won Best Picture – GLADIATOR. With 40 plus film-directing credits to his name, three writing credits, and 123 producer credits listed on his IMDB page, Scott is clearly one of the giants in the industry. He’s thrived all over television too, producing all sorts of shows, specials, movies, and documentaries. (He’s won two Emmys there and been nominated an additional seven times.) And as if all of that isn’t enough for this over-achiever, Scott has given us one icon after another onscreen, from the Xenomorph to Ripley to Replicants to Maximus to Thelma and Louise.
Scott is now 79, yet he is still going strong. He has no fewer than 59 projects in development according to IMDBPro.com. Whew! ALIEN: COVENANT, just out this summer, is the third movie he’s directed in that franchise and the series is almost 40 years old now. Scott’s name on any project makes it a big deal and ensures attention, even a series in its 38th year. And just watch the renewed attention that BLADE RUNNER will get later this season when the eagerly awaited sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens. Scott directed the former, now considered a classic, and he executive-produces the latter.
Science fiction isn’t the only place he’s thrived of course. Few directors have had as vast a resume as he does, nor have they directed as many different types of films as Scott. He’s directed dozens of impressive films and in just about every genre too, from science fiction (THE MARTIAN) to action/adventure (BLACKHAWK DOWN) to thrillers (BODY OF LIES) to character studies (AMERICAN GANGSTER) to historical epics (GLADIATOR).
One of the great things about Scott as a director is how he has toiled in genre without ever condescending to it. And with ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER, he created extraordinary works at a time when science fiction films weren’t prestige films the way they are today after the impact of STAR WARS and STAR TREK on the big screen. In fact, the sci-fi genre was still considered the realm of B-movies back in the ’70s and early ’80s, but Scott’s artistry helped change all that. He approached the genre with his A-game, and the world of movies was immeasurably better for his devotion and craft.
In fact, what Scott did with ALIEN usurped so much of what one expects from sci-fi-fi or horror. For starters, Scott strove to cast his monster movie with established and respected character actors, not cheap talent, and thus he chose the likes of Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright and Harry Dean Stanton. He also put John Hurt and Ian Holm, theatrically trained UK actors, in key parts too. Most significantly, he cast an unknown for the lead of Ripley – newcomer Sigourney Weaver. Because she was a newbie, audiences didn’t know what to make of her character. Was she good, bad, what? Scott wanted to keep us guessing and out of sorts. He clearly loved that Dan O’Bannon’s script screwed with storytelling conventions left and right, even killing off the stalwart captain so early in the film. Scott enhanced that great conceit even further by casting handsome, well-known leading man Tom Skerritt in the part.
Another brilliant move of Scott’s was how he treated the space ship in ALIEN. Gone was the gleaming futuristic sterility of Kubrick or Roddenberry. Scott’s spaceship looked used and even grimy. He gave it all a lived-in look and it helped to ground things and make it all more relatable. He also shrewdly contracted artist H.R. Giger to create the alien creature and design the interiors of the Nostromo ship as well. Giger’s monster was complex, yet streamlined. It had a simple dolphin-esque snout but then when it opened its mouth two sets of vicious, gnashing teeth were revealed. No one had seen anything quite like it. And Giger’s ship interiors were just as menacing as the monster. The ship’s passageways were dark, ornate and full of claustrophobic, creepy corridors. Even the exposed bric-a-brac looked similar to the alien’s skeletal structure. It made for a perfect camouflage that the intrepid and sinister villain could disappear into.
Scott also amped up the film’s sound design, replacing typical orchestral underscoring with something more guttural, animalistic, and unsettling. Gone were orchestral melodies and recognizable strings. Instead, he instructed veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith to unleash a cacophony of harsh noises, synthesized tones, and repeating rhythms. The score is also just as impressive for its silences. If no one can hear you scream in space, then it was clearly Scott’s conceit that silence was just as terrifying while you waited for something awful to happen.
And what Scott gleaned from others only enhanced his efforts in ALIEN. Wisely following the “less is more” example that Steven Spielberg so brilliantly employed in 1975’s JAWS, Scott chose to show very little of his alien during the story, despite Giger’s elaborately detailed vision. We never get a full shot of the alien until the very end, and while it’s terrifying, the parts of his whole were just as effective.
And then, of course, there is BLADE RUNNER, Scott’s brilliant meditation on man, machines, and the future of humanity. The film was widely panned and misunderstood upon its release in 1982, considered far too bleak and depressing. But now, audiences and critics have caught up to Scott’s vision and it’s recognized as a masterful accomplishment.
Scott again created a complete and complex world in BLADE RUNNER. His landscape was full of rich details and crowded layers of buildings and skyscrapers. He imbued his setting with a bleakness, constantly under the threat of rain. And he buttressed the glamour of neon and giant, alluring outdoor advertisements up against the city’s gloomy citizenry moping around underneath. It was an awful world, rendered even worse by a false narrative of beauty hawking pills and getaways. The film is a tragic poem really in its way, mourning the loss of humanity in a too crowded and too technically obsessed society. It was prophetic and moving, and it may very well be Scott’s finest achievement.
There were many others that shone too. BLACKHAWK DOWN stands as one of the most lauded war films of the last 30 years. WHITE SQUALL and G.I. JANE play as tense, character studies that are only becoming more and more appreciated with each new year. Even THE COUNSELOR, a film that many hated when it came out in 2013, looks better with repeated viewings. (It’s certainly one of the tensest examinations of greed and gullibility ever to appear on the screen.) And of course, GLADIATOR not only won tons of prizes, but it reinvented the sword and sandal epic, spawning a host of imitators on the big and small screen. Did you also know that Scott, in the middle of his burgeoning film career in the ’80s found time to direct the most popular Super Bowl commercial of all time? That’s right, he is the man who brought us the game-changing spot “1984” from Apple.
Scott has received all sorts of acclaim throughout his career, and two years ago many pundits and Oscar experts expected him to be the frontrunner for Best Picture and Best Director with THE MARTIAN. His ticking clock thriller about a man lost in space not only was one of 2015’s most critically lauded films, with a fresh score of 92% at RottenTomatoes.com, but it was also a humongous hit. It racked up $228 million in the USA during its theatrical run and $552 million overall worldwide. And even though it won big at the Golden Globes and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, Scott was passed over in the Best Director category. He did receive a nod for producing THE MARTIAN, as it was a Best Picture nominee, but when the film failed to garner a directing nod for Scott, the film’s shot at the top prize diminished and it finished an Oscar-less also-ran.
The Academy did show him some big love when GLADIATOR took Best Picture of course, but the award for Best Director that year went to Steven Soderbergh (TRAFFIC). Interestingly, in the three times that Scott has been nominated for a Best Director Oscar, all the genres have been different. He was nominated for BLACKHAWK DOWN in 2001, and 10 years before that, for his exemplary character study THELMA & LOUISE.
On the face of it, THELMA & LOUISE probably seems the least likely to be a Ridley Scott film. After all, it was a small character piece, a two-hander really, and its two main characters were women. Scott’s films often overflow with testosterone, but not here. This film was about friendship and women fighting for their rights in society. In picking such a project, Scott boldly treads into new waters. Yet, even as different as this project was for him, the results he mined were again spectacular. Both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were up for Best Actress, and the film was an instant hit, striking a true chord in society. It also started a crucial dialogue in the nation about women, their right to say “no”, and their stature in a modern world still filled with far too much prejudice and patriarchy.
Callie Khouri wrote a bold and daring Oscar-winning script, and Scott’s direction matched it the whole way. His direction combined the tension of a chase picture with the heartfelt examination of the tender friendship between the two female characters. And despite the exceptional cinematography and production design on display here once again, as after all, this was a Ridley Scott film, this outing played differently. Scott kept everything very close to the actors, using his camera to concentrate on their faces. That was his story here and Scott reigned in his showmanship for some of his most affecting work.
And at the climax, when Thelma and Louise make their uncompromising choice to end their lives by driving into the canyon rather than surrender, Scott heightened its shock and poignancy. He shoots their suicide as heroic, in slow motion, with the music rising to underline their unwillingness to kowtow. Khouri’s script was a brilliant middle finger to the tropes of typical Hollywood narrative, let alone male-dominated society, and Scott went right along with her over that cliff. It was a big ending, outrageous really, and boy, did it play. It still is one of the greatest and most audacious finishes ever to a film.
Throughout his forty years, Ridley Scott has been an artist and filmmaker pushing the boundaries of what the medium can do, where stories can go, what genre means, and how characters act in their environments. He is an impeccable craftsman, and few can match his talent to frame, light, edit, or choreograph characters in their surroundings. Scott could still easily win an Oscar outright in competition, yet as he approaches his 80th year it’s time to honor him for his lifetime of brilliant work. He’s already been knighted by the Queen. Isn’t it time the Academy bestowed a career-capper of their own upon this incredible filmmaker?
Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle