Ridley Scott on going back to the source with Prometheus and Blade Runner

Britain's most celebrated director tells Danny Leigh how he conquered Hollywood – and lived Mad Men for real

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Ridley Scott still remembers where his creative life began: “You know, it was the Radio Times that got me started,” he says. “Back when I was a kid, it always had these marvellous black-and-white illustrations that would decorate the pages, which I loved, and that’s how I learned to draw – trying to emulate these incredible drawings in the Radio Times back in the 50s.”

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As one of the world’s most successful film directors, now 74 and long settled in the US, Scott’s youth in post-war Teeside might seem a distant memory. But he has been looking back a lot lately. His darkly spectacular new film Prometheus is, after all, rooted in his past – a prequel to his 1979 B-movie masterpiece, Alien.

Uncovering events before the ill-fated spaceship Nostromo arrived on a mysterious planet in the first film, it features a cast including Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, and carries the feeling of conviction you might expect from a man who says: “I think it’s entirely ridiculous to believe we’re the only life in the universe. It makes no sense. It’s downright silly.”

Gruffly affable with a neat grey-red beard, the director is diplomatic about the various Alien sequels made by others. There is, however, paternal pride when he mentions the infamous creature itself: “By the fourth film, it really wasn’t scary – whereas mine had been indestructible.” The key with Prometheus was, he says, “battling not to do the same thing again”. But he knows the shadow of the original falls long indeed.

In the three decades since he made it, he’s turned out other great movies – the rousing Thelma & Louise, the sturdy Gladiator – but Alien always had a special place in his career. Part of that, he agrees, is down not just to its famous shock tactics, but the chilly vision it and his sci-fi classic Blade Runner shared of a world run by corporations. Having returned to that idea with Prometheus, how much does he thinks it’s come to pass?

“Completely. That’s exactly what’s happened. Look at a business like Academi [the private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater], doing God knows what on behalf of western governments. If those same governments turn around and try to rein them in, it would be like ‘excuse me?’ Corporations have the power now. That’s been the revolution.”

It was one he got in on early. A notable Scott project of the early 1980s was a lavish TV commercial for a young company called Apple, about to launch the first Macintosh home computer. Did he have any inkling then of what he might be witnessing? “Nope. Steve [Jobs] did, though. He told me it was an ad for a computer people would use in the house. $2,500. I said ‘What’s it for? Writing shopping lists? Who’s going to buy it?’ And he said ‘Oh, a lot of people.’ And he was right. But I told him $2,500 was too much, and I was right about that.”

His grasp of business is, he says, central to his relationship with Hollywood. “It makes me sound boring, but I’m a good employee. If someone gives me millions of dollars to dick around with, I’m going to be respectful. I stay on budget.”

Yet he’s a strange kind of elder statesman. Awarded a knighthood in 2003, he asks not to be called “Sir Ridley”, explaining it makes him feel old. Up-and-coming directors seeking avuncular advice, meanwhile, may want to look away as he recalls his debut as a director, 1977’s The Duellists (Friday Film4): “When I hear young film-makers now say ‘Oh, it’s so hard to get a film made,’ I think–f***you! My first film, I got no fee and if I went over budget I paid for it myself. That’s hard!”

He was 39 at the time, having already established himself in advertising at a New York agency. It was the early 60s – the era of TV’s Mad Men. “Oh, I remember Mad Men for real. I got a scholarship from the Royal College and ended up working on Madison Avenue. I literally stepped into that world, with the side parting, and the suit and the tie. So Mad Men is very amusing to me.”

How realistic is its portrait of rampant sexism and endless liquid lunches? He smiles dryly: “Well, I never really got to do that because I was only there for a year. But it definitely immersed me in another world.”

He would return to Britain, designing sets for the BBC, before directing the likes of Z Cars and moving into commercials, but professionally the US has long been home. “It’s like Wall Street. I have to be there. You can’t really function from here. But my commercials office is still in London, so I speak to them every morning from 6–8am just to get my heart started. The thing is, I love travel. Love motion. Always have.”

In another life, he would have been an architect himself: “Oh God, yes. Architecture is beautiful to me.” Enthused by buildings and objects, he admits he’s not the kind of director who naturally bonds with actors. “At first I had no experience with them. I came from art school. Then one day, someone at the BBC said to me ‘Do you want to direct an episode of Softly Softly?’ So I was given two offices at the BBC in White City, and I flicked through headshots of actors and cast them purely on how they looked.

“And then it was straight into rehearsing in some bloody church hall, with PAs everywhere calling everyone darling, and me, I’m used to talking furniture. And I spent a long time wading through this morass of embarrassment until… well, your vision adjusts. Now I’m very good at casting. I’m careful with it. Me and the actors are on the same team.”

His energy is unflagging. The list of projects he has lined up is endless – and placed near the top is another return to the past with a follow-up to Blade Runner. “We’re doing it again, but as of now I have no idea what it’s going to be. But Blade Runner was my most personal film, and it was important. It was a movie about being kind to each other. Now 30 years later that ain’t happening, so we should do another one to remind ourselves.”

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And 30 years from now, he won’t rule out another reminder if necessary. “Oh, I’m going to live to 106,” he insists, his tone that of a man only half-joking. “The only way they’re going to stop me directing is shooting me.”

This is an edited version of article that was first published in the Radio Times (26 May – 1 June)