A perennial fixture on the short list of Hollywood’s top-tier directors, Ridley Scott redefined sci-fi early in his career, forging a signature as an expert shaper of grandeur. But he’s also amassed a quieter, more sinuous body of work, made up of mysteries and crime stories. His latest, The Counselor, is a lurid, sexy tale of drug-deal double-crossing and predatory behavior.
Time Out New York: For a while you were trying to do a film of Cormac McCarthy’s Western Blood Meridian, right?
Ridley Scott: That’s true. Bill Monahan [screenwriter of The Departed] adapted it. But somehow, they didn’t want to make it. The book is so uncompromising, which is what’s great about it.
Time Out New York: Do you think your version would have been rated NC-17?
Ridley Scott: It would have been rated double-X. It’s Hieronymus Bosch, the way McCarthy describes the first time you see several hundred horses with bones and feathers on them, and you can’t see a rider until you’re staring at the Comanche. It’s horrific. He writes in visual images which are spectacular, so it suits me down to the ground.
Time Out New York: Meanwhile, with The Counselor, you have McCarthy’s first original screenplay, a prize in itself. What do you look for in a script?
Ridley Scott: It’s highly intuitive. I tend to try reading everything, and you know whose hands you’re in within a page and a half. The thing about Cormac: I sat down with great excitement, but a half an hour in, I started to sweat. I thought, Please don’t drop the ball. And he never did. I got to the end and went, Wow. I never get wow. Ever.
Time Out New York: When I watched it, I was reminded of some of your more intimate crime movies, Someone to Watch Over Me and Matchstick Men. Your lush style works well with these real-life thrillers, creating an alluring surface that the characters are drawn to.
Ridley Scott: It’s interesting that you should mention that, because I looked at Someone recently and [had] forgotten it—it’s pretty good! I was a great admirer of Sidney Lumet. He’s one of the great director heroes for me. I’m not sure he’s appreciated enough in the United States, just his absolute status and the work he did. Jesus Christ: Network, Serpico, and that thing with Paul Newman was amazing.
Time Out New York: The Verdict?
Ridley Scott: Oh, yeah. Someone was more than a little influenced by him.
Time Out New York: You seem very hands-off with your actors. Do you prefer it when they come to the set with their game?
Ridley Scott: Not anymore. I was hands-off because I never went to drama school or anywhere, really. I went to art school. I never made a feature until I was 40!
Time Out New York: So you’re saying you had other priorities than giving Sigourney Weaver her motivation.
Ridley Scott: Sorry, I didn’t answer your question properly. Because I was thrown into the deep end, I’d never done a rehearsal in my life. So I’m suddenly standing there in this giant church hall with chalk marks on the ground representing sets. And I’m trying to talk to the actors, and I have no idea what the fuck to say. I used to tend to hide behind the camera; I had an eye and visuals. I acknowledge now that I was very uncomfortable talking to stars. I gradually started talking to people during Blade Runner—no, actually, during Legend. Tom Cruise was then a youngster, 21 years old. I started to find my way there. For Blade Runner, I was partly there, but Harrison and I didn’t always hit it off. Now we do, of course.
Time Out New York: Your cast for The Counselor is one of your best, especially Cameron Diaz, who has a scene-stealing moment in the film writhing on a sports car like a model in a Whitesnake video. How’d you get her on that windshield?
Ridley Scott: The embarrassing thing was for me to say to her, “Um, how do you feel about this?” [Laughs] She said, “Eh, it’s fine. But I’m not sure I can do it.” I said, “Well, I can get someone who can, because you’ve got to be a bit of a contortionist.” Actually, she was great, a fantastic sport. Cameron’s got a very precise and incisive mind. People only know her as this jolly, beautiful comedienne, but Any Given Sunday and Being John Malkovich show her other side.
Time Out New York: I loved Michael Fassbender in your Prometheus—he’s back here. I like how his character is pointedly called counselor. Would you say he’s a half-smart guy?
Ridley Scott: Maybe too smart for his own good. He’s warned twice, by Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem. They both look at him, hoping he does know what he’s doing, because if it goes wrong, it could kick back to them.
Time Out New York: Is The Forever War, Joe Haldeman’s time-travel allegory about the Vietnam War, still on your radar?
Ridley Scott: It’s written and sitting right here! It could be next.
Time Out New York: What’s your obsession with it?
Ridley Scott: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was the door that opened up the possibility of science fiction for me. Everything else up to then was fine, but didn’t quite work for me. Then George Lucas did the one and only Star Wars, which absolutely blew me away because it was also romantic and a fairy story. The elegance of The Forever War fits in with that. I don’t want it to slip sideways into being a “spacey” movie. I’ll go back to the reality of 2001 and let normality be a part of the story.
The Counselor opens Friday, October 25.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf