Ridley Scott on Napoleon set with Joaquin Phoenix
Director Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan

Ridley Scott has brought us a chest-bursting alien, a Black Hawk down, Thelma and Louise in a convertible, and Hannibal Lecter in posh Italian exile. He has made enough great films and TV shows for 10 illustrious careers — from The Duellists to Alien to Blade Runner to Gladiator to Hannibal to American Gangster.

His lack of an Oscar reflects poorly on the Academy, not on him. And at 85, he is hard at work on a slew of new films, including Gladiator 2.

As we celebrate the release of his new Napoleon, Ridley Scott graces Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker by tracing his path through art school, directing television at the BBC, advertisements, and creating some of the most stunning visuals in film. 

He believes nothing is outside of the scope of cinema. He would know. —M.M.

As told to Joshua Encinias

1. Taking a circuitous route to making movies will still give you tools to use as a moviemaker. There was no real film school when I was dreaming of making movies. There was no pathway in, so I went to an art school instead. It turned out to be really good for me. I spent seven years at art school. When you’re a painter you have to stand being alone by yourself in a room for most of the time. I decided I couldn’t.

I moved into graphic design because it more intuitively led me to visuals. I adored photography and I discovered with my camera I had a good eye. I was born with a good eye. I still had no idea this would lead to film, because it was such a dream that’s inaccessible. 

2. Having a vision is essential. Even if you’re not No. 1 on the call sheet. The vision is terribly important. I didn’t realize I had it, because my strongest asset is my eye, but I also have a good vision. I can draw the film before I even find locations, and frequently, I’ll personally do a board for the whole movie and from that board, they’ll go looking for the location. So it’s kind of a reversed action. 

3. The path of least resistance can be your direct path to becoming a director. Today people ask me, “How do you become a director?” I say, “I don’t know, just go for it and do it.” Take the least challenging path and just go up that path and adjust as you go along, which is really what I did. 

Ridley Scott on Overcoming Obstacles

4. Funnel frustration with your peers into making better work. I was highly frustrated with directors at the BBC who were not terribly visual and they became a bit intimidated by working with me. So I was asked if I wanted to do the BBC’s director’s course. I jumped into their two-month course, and from that was given a show. 

Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott, from Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures. Courtesy of Apple

5. Stay calm. Embrace stress. My BBC show was live action, in black and white, and you had to work with six cameras. You’re sitting in a gallery, which is like a huge room with seven monitors all moving and shifting and changing focus. That’s where I learned to, fundamentally, stay calm and embrace stress.

6. Mistakes are part of the filmmaking learning curve. The scariest thing at the beginning of my career was suddenly being turned loose, without any warning, into a rehearsal room with people called actors. I had no training with actors at all but I took the reins on a show that was quite popular at the time.

This room full of actors who stared at me like I just walked off the moon because I didn’t know what to say. I felt my way forward making many mistakes and blunders. But the continual thing is the learning curve. That’s the way. 

Ridley Scott on Vision

7. Paintings — even pictures of paintings — can be your greatest teacher. I think, because I’m a visualist, I tend to look at pictures like a child. I’ll go through books and books and books of paintings, replications of the time. To me, a picture is more than a thousand words — it’s everything. You can read all you want, but I think the paintings to me were the formidable instruction, a song sheet for me. 

8. Your camera operator needs a vision, too. I think one of the most critically important things a camera operator needs is a vision. They need to have a good eye in case the director doesn’t. The director needs to have a guy with a good eye.

Frequently, the cameraman has it, but the cameraman will frequently also have very good operators, his favorite operators. It’s really a team thing. The relationship between a director, operator and the lighting cameraman becomes a partnership that moves like lightning. [Editor’s note: “lighting cameraman” has historically been used synonymously with cinematographer in British TV and film.]

9. Don’t be afraid of making commercials. After the BBC, I very quickly entered the world of advertising, which I preferred to working for an institution. I felt free and I worked on celluloid. Through that I became a very efficient and proficient camera operator. 

Those were the days when we used one camera at a time. The Duellists was made with one little Arriflex 35-IIC, a crew of 45 people and my friend, Frank Tidy. 

Alien was shot by a man named Derek Vanlint, who had never done a film before in his life. It was his first one up. But he did a lot of work as a commercial maker.

Napoleon is now in theaters from Sony Pictures Releasing, and will stream soon on Apple TV+.

Main image: Director Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of Napoleon. Photo by Aidan Monaghan, Courtesy of Apple.

Editor’s Note: Corrects typo.

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