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Ridley Scott On 'The Martian,' Loving 'The Counselor' And 'Sweetheart' Matt Damon's Recent Gaffes

The director also talks NASA, success and the end of "Thelma & Louise."

When you've made as many movies as Ridley Scott has, there's no option but to divorce yourself from the criticism your projects face. And there's no doubt Scott has faced a lot of it over the years, despite three Oscar nominations for Best Director. Fortunately for him, critics are on his side this time. "The Martian," which opens Friday, premiered to kudos at the Toronto Film Festival a few weeks ago and has spun that buzz into what is expected to be a lucrative box-office orbit. Based on Andy Weir's popular, NASA-approved debut novel, the film follows a skilled astronaut (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars and the earthbound NASA team working to bring him home. The supporting cast (Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig, to name a few) is impressive, and maybe -- just maybe -- "The Martian" will rocket its way to more Oscar glory for the 77-year-old British director. 

The Huffington Post sat down with Scott earlier this week to discuss the film's reception, how his moviemaking process has (or hasn't) changed over the years and what he thinks of Matt Damon's recent Internet controversies. Beware vague "Martian" spoilers.

How do you feel about people saying this is your best movie since “Blade Runner”? I’ve heard that a few times.

Since “Blade Runner”? It’s like, where were you? Because I would go, well, “Legend” still runs now, “Blade Runner” just resurrected itself. I’m going to jump a few films, even though I don’t regret anything at all. “Thelma & Louise,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Hannibal,” which was pretty brutal but interesting. “American Gangster.” And I’m forgetting the other ones. Oh, “Exodus” last year. A lot of people didn’t get “Exodus,” but it’s a little bit like being a writer or a painter. When you do what I do, you have to have your own opinion about what you’ve just done. That opinion is private and whatever anyone says after that is kind of irrelevant, in a sense. With respect to critics, et cetera, I have to move on. I look at it, deliver it, finish it, say, “I’m really pleased with that,” and move on. I wouldn’t deliver it until I say, “I’m really pleased with it.”

This is maybe the first film in a while that’s had all four cornerstones of success: emotion, action, humor, drama. And, above all things, it has optimism at the end. Now, “Blade Runner” had no optimism at the end -- it was what they call a film noir. In those days, I’d say “film noir” to a critic and he’d go, “Film what?” And I would say, “OK, let’s move on.” So you’re dealing with a lot of naiveté and a lot of -- how do I call it? -- it is politically incorrect to call it a white-bread attitude? It’s a bit lightweight. I just have to move on, because I don’t agree with that at all. But I mean, I hate to say that. Whatever generates interest is part of my job. That’s what I have to do.

When were you able to develop that mantra of automatically moving on after you're done?

It’s very important. If I ever come back, I’d like to come back as a professional tennis player. You cannot think about the last point you just lost; you have to move on to the next one. So I haven’t regretted anything. Actually, what I’d add to that list of my favorite films is “The Counselor.”

If you think people didn't understand "Exodus," they certainly didn't understand "The Counselor."

That was so challenging because it was quite dark. It was surprising -- there was only one moment of violence and that was it. But the mantra evolved for me. I didn’t do a film until I was 39 or 40. I was very successful in advertising. Very. At 23 or 24, I owned my own company that became one of the biggest in Europe, honestly. By the time I did a movie, I was kind of a businessman and by no means naïve. Therefore I’d already got that mantra in my head, which is fundamentally out of -- I don’t know how many -- two and a half thousand commercials, including the big one for Apple. "Am I communicating?" I ask that question all the time. I don’t give a shit if you’re doing theater, if you’re doing a book or if you’re doing film. Am I communicating? Am I making this clear to you? And those stories don’t always have the four quadrants to make everybody feel cozy. I don’t do cozy movies, so maybe this is the first cozy movie I’ve done.

It’s a survival story, and because it ends on a bright note it leaves you feeling happy. Yet some of those movies you named that are beloved, like "Thelma & Louise," are pretty dark. 

Well, yeah, but the film is a comedy. I could not allow them to go down and explode on the rocks. I had to freeze them in the air so it was metaphorical and philosophical.

Had they gone down in the rocks, would the movie’s reception have been different?

I don’t know, that’s the call. You just don’t know. Besides, it felt right to freeze. I didn’t freeze because of that choice -- I froze because it was the right thing to do. If you like, the journey continues for them. That’s what makes you walk out feeling, “Well, what would I have done?” The choice would mean 10 years inside, or worse.

Something that "Gravity" did for the sci-fi genre was to illuminate how movies set in outer space are made now. And then along came "Interstellar" a year later. Did you use similar technology? Or did you even pay attention to those movies' techniques?

I’m familiar with all those films, and I think “Interstellar” and “Gravity” were great. Even the one with Chris -- the comedy -- with Chris … Chris …

Chris Pratt? “Guardians of the Galaxy”? 

Yeah, I loved that. That was a relief. It was like, let’s get off this heavy superhero gig. But what they used to do that in “Gravity” was to use a technology that is very tried and trusted and infuriatingly frustrating because you’vve got one actor on four wires and you say, “Bring him in.” There’s no gravity and he’s floating in and if he comes in a little too far, you have to say, “Cut! Can you bring him in slower?” And then he’s going to come in and be acting and then you overshoot the mark and you say, “No! Cut! Let’s go again.” It drives me nuts. But that’s the only way of doing the idea of gravity, and then afterwards you have to remove the wires. You see the wires, so digitally you come in and paint the wires over. It’s awful. 

How easily do you visualize the finished product?

I’ve got one gift: I’m blessed with a good eye. And I now say that because I used to be criticized for my films being too beautiful or too visual. I’m going, “Huh? Well, we’re not doing a radio play, dude, we’re actually doing a movie.” 

Which films were criticized for that?

“The Duellists,” my first film, got hammered because it was too beautiful. And I'd just followed two years after Stanley Kubrick’s film with Ryan O’Neal, which I adored. [Editor's Note: He's referring to "Barry Lyndon."] I had got a lot of business because my commercials were very, very, very visual. So I developed this visual inner eye that I trusted. The inner eye could go to “Blade Runner” and work that one out. I was at a very, very good art school -- the biggest and the best, at the Royal College. After seven years, like doctors’ training, I could really draw. I could do a very good portrait of you right now. So I could storyboard very easily. I’ve got the real technique now of getting it down, and I now find, by the time I start a movie, that I’ve already filmed it on paper. I’ll put it down in front of me -- wide shots, close shots, medium shots, reverses, all that stuff. What I’m doing is, I’m being made to make a decision early on, and I think a lot of people make no decisions until they get to the set. That’s when the clock starts racing and it costs a lot of money. You cannot get on the floor and go, “What are we doing?” You have to go on the floor and say, “Right. Everyone over here, we’re going to do this.”

Were you capable of doing that back when you made “Alien”?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. “The Duellists,” particularly. That was my first film, but because I could afford it, I found the book [by Joseph Conrad], which was a sketch for one of his big volumes on the Napoleonic era. It was a very nice writer called Gerald Vaughan-Hughes who penned the screenplay. It was a beautiful screenplay and off that, I got a completion bond and was going to take a hit if we went over financially. That whole film cost $800,000, all in, and then we got a prize at Cannes and I was off and running.

How much did "The Martian" cost?

Actually, way low. [Ed. Note: $108 million, according to Variety.]

Good job making it look expensive, then.

I did this in 72 days, not 130. That could have easily been 100 days. I move really quick by prepping the way I just described. Right now, I’m prepping and storyboarding, in my spare time, the “Prometheus" sequel, which is probably going to be called “Alien: Paradise Lost,” for February. I’ve already done, like, 20 or 30 pages. By the time we get to Christmas, I’ll have done 160. Even when I’m on the phone, I’m drawing. I should keep a book of telephone doodles.

You could sell that. What's impressive about "The Martian" is how clear the scientific plot points are. Did NASA's involvement help with that?

No, Andy had done his homework with scientists, and I think he’d even communed with NASA and some experts, who gradually got the message and became a fan of the book as the chapters were rolling off. So by the time the book was published, it became a book to read at NASA because I think they were impressed, amused and bemused. Therefore, when I decided I was going to do this, the first thing my production designer and I did was we called up NASA and we got them immediately because they said, “Oh yeah, you’re going to do the book? Oh, fantastic,” and because they like the spacesuits I do and stuff like that. They asked for my designs, and I said, “Well, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” So they’d show me what the habitat was going to be like, or what they think, in the 2020s and what they think the suit will look like in the 2020s. It looks like the Telebubbles. [Ed. Note: He means the Teletubbies.] I said, “OK, no, I’ll send you my suit.”

But they were charming. Their enthusiasm was everything. [Drew Goddard, who wrote the script] said, and I keep repeating this because I think it’s a nice way to put it, “The film, the script, the story, the book, really, is like a love letter in science, because in it, a layman should get it, which is key." We don’t want this to be just for the nerds. It boils down to information: "Are they getting this OK?" You put the audience on a learning curve -- that’s when it’s most successful. It’s quite like separating yourself from all your artistic inclinations of description and saying, “What is this description? Get rid of this shit. 'He walks into a room, the room is red.' Get on with it. Don’t describe the room and what’s outside the fucking window. You’re boring the shit out of everybody.” 

Before we wrap up, I want to ask about Matt Damon, who has landed in some hot water online over the past few weeks. 

What's he done now?

He made a comment on the show "Project Greenlight" about diversity being something that happens in front of the camera instead of behind it. And today an interview with The Guardian is circulating where he said it would better for gay actors' sexuality to remain a mystery. 

Who said that?

Matt Damon. 

No!

He did. And the Internet has not been kind to him in response, as expected. 

Sure. I shall call him up immediately and twank him. [Ed. Note: We're not quite sure what "twank" means, but multiple HuffPost editors listened to the audio and we're fairly confident that is the word Scott used. He's British.]

Could that sort of thing affect the opening of the movie?

No. I think when you’re on camera and live, it’s really tricky. I was just watching Putin and I got so lost in the wilderness of what he was saying. I think it was deliberate. I was going, “What?” I think when you’re live, it’s tricky because of what you just described. And the world has got constipated -- I don’t want to say something terrible now -- with political correctness. Of course we should care, and in fact that’s the message of the movie. The message of the movie is not about action and NASA and the science of it all. What settles into it is helping each other. You can’t be on your own. Everyone needs somebody, and in this instance, everybody needs a group. That’s why I thought it was very healthy putting in the idea of the Chinese coming in to say, “You know what, let’s do it,” because really, the only way we’re going to get to Mars, I think, is if you get a coalition where you share the cost. To go to Mars now would be $200 billion. To share the cost and also share the crews, you take the best of the best. We should do that for governments, too.

I think Matt just got his knickers in a twist. I think he’s probably reading it, saying, “Oh, shit.” He’s not like that. He’s one of the greatest, most user-friendly guys I’ve ever worked with. He’s really a sweetheart. Besdies, I should get pissed off. What do you mean, diversity doesn’t happen behind the camera? Wait a minute!

"The Martian" opens Oct. 2. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

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