Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof talk tech

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The legendary Alien director and twist-happy Lost writer talk to Matt Hill about revisiting sci-fi with Prometheus, embracing 3D and Twitter virals, and why most Hollywood scripts are shit

[Originally published on T3.com in June 2012]

From Alien to Gladiator via Blade Runner, Sir Ridley Scott knocks out classic cinema for fun. Yet it’s his return to science fiction after 20 years with Prometheus – in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D, no less – that has captured the public’s consciousness.

T3 caught up with Scott and co-writer Damon “Lost” Lindelof in Claridges Hotel amid London’s Jubilee celebrations to get the low down on how changing technology and society influenced the film’s production and marketing – and, of course, to probe them on Prometheus’s many unanswered plot questions.

Funny, focused and forthright, we came away with more answers than we expected, and there’s also no getting round it: THIS INTERVIEW IS CHOCK-FULL OF SPOILERS.

You have been warned…

When you made the original Alien film it was all models and matte paintings, but things have obviously changed dramatically since then. What were the major technical differences in creating the two?

[Ridley Scott] You know, the original Alien still looks pretty bloody good. I’ll show you a huge print in the IMAX right now and you’ll be shocked: the backgrounds, the universes, were a guy with a toothbrush who does that… *mimics flicking a brush*… and goes, “How many do you want?” And I say, “Well, just do it,” and he goes… *flick*… with the toothbrush, and splatters and speckles on to this shiny black screen, on to the artwork.

[Damon Lindelof] That was for the stars?

[RS] That was it. The beginning of the movie is flat artwork. You just pan across the flat into the universe. I’m a camera operator, so I operate the whole thing. There was one camera – I’m on the dolly now, we get wind machines, storm, sh*t, filth, blowing straight up at me, of course, and I’ve got a mask on and all that sh*t – and I’m looking through and I’ve got dolly-grips behind me on two scaffold poles, which are the actual tracking lines. He’s walking round saying, “Action!” and I’m saying, “Stop, back up, I can see the way you’re walking.” So that’s how it was all done and when you look at it, it’s pretty good. The sets are fantastically good and the lighting was beautiful.

In a funny kind of way it’s a lesson: in Blade Runner, those backgrounds, the cityscapes when he’s climbing around the side of the building, you can see they’re paintings but they’re really quite good. Today, you’d never even attempt to do that, you’d sample architecture and drop it in, on absolute lens and perspective, so it’s absolutely seamless, there’s no join. But in those days it was hand-painted. It’s a big lesson, because the most important, significant thing in all films – I don’t give a sh*t whether it’s science fiction or a western or whatever – is the goddamn screenplay. Get the screenplay right and all this technology enhances it. But when the screenplay is weak… The technology is the means to the end, the screenplay is the end. If you get that right first, the rest is relatively straightforward.

Consequently the hardest single thing to do is get it on paper, and that’s why today there are many, many more movies being made than, say, 20 years ago. I’m just going to say it flat-out: the screenplays, the stories are mostly pretty sh*t. That’s why people who are coming [to cinemas] yearn for better content. Now we’ve got prime-time television in England running a Scandinavian show called The Bridge. I’ve watched nine hours of it. It’s subtitled: “Prime-time British TV”. What does that tell you? A massive audience has built up because it’s good, has great characters, and this is gradually going to shift into movies. At the moment we’re still getting away with it, but I think people are getting impatient, particularly in what I’d call the majority part of the world – which is now two-thirds of the world audience and is everything outside of the domestic market, i.e. outside of the US. Get the story right.

[DL] I would just add to that, very briefly, from the outside looking in, I was really impressed when I came to the set by the commitment to practical on Prometheus. While I was there they shot the scene in the lab where the head explodes and they were taking off the elephantine helmet and there’s the head in there. I was like, “Wow, you’re not doing this CG?” And Ridley said, “No, we’re just gonna blow that f*cker up.” And I looked over and saw the 7.5ft-tall actor, who basically played the Engineer, over in make-up and I said, “Where are his mocap dots?” “No, no, that’s what we’re gonna shoot.” There might have been some visual effects on his eyes, and obviously we did not make the actor disintegrate down to the genetic level, but I do think that very few directors will say, “What parts of it can we shoot practical?” because anybody will come forward from visual effects and say, “We can do the entire thing for you.” There’s a tremendous temptation.

But our brains are very sophisticated, and we know the difference between what’s real and what’s fake, especially if you’re doing a level of grounded science fiction about “we came from them”. Your brain will essentially say, “But that’s a CG being, it doesn’t exist, it’s not real, there’s not a man in there, anywhere, even if it’s mocap.” And I think that those decisions, and the commitment to, “Can I make it the same way that I made it 30 years ago, just because I don’t have to any more,” I just admire it tremendously. I think it’s a huge lesson to be learned and the voracity of it bleeds through.

Did you see shooting in 3D as a challenge?

[RS] It was really straightforward. The idea of 3D being useful to this kind of subject is absolute – the fact that I had a cameraman like Dariusz Wolski, and I’m pretty good at knowing what I want, visually and everything else, by the time you put the two of us together, it was pretty straightforward. We shot this in 82 days. Shooting 3D, editing 3D and it comes out in 3D; it’s not a problem.

Problem is, you get a screen, and in the screen you have something hanging in the foreground. You then have a f*cking committee of 40 people – including the leading actor – saying whether or not to show what’s there or not. I say, “I hate them, get rid of them,” or, “I’ll leave them, f*ck off.” And that’s it, because otherwise you have a long conversation about this. It’s bizarre. You’ve got to know what you want.

Your movies often have very specific, physically horrific scenes – in Hannibal the brain-eating sequence, in Alien the chest-bursting of John Hurt, in Prometheus it’s the medpod. Is this something you always plan?

[RS] I’m a sick f*cker… No, it’s a challenge. With the John Hurt scene, I read the script and was told in no uncertain terms by [screenwriters] Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett that it’s not subtle. “Wow, what the f*cking sh*t is coming out his chest?! Holy sh*t, it’s a worm!” So, I’m going, “That’s disgusting.” But actually it was the crossroads of information in the play which this had to be.

Where’s he going to give birth from? I can think of other places, but it’s going to be less attractive. For it to burst out of his chest was a gobsmacking, shocking experience, and my thought was always, “He’s going to split sinew, bone and separate the ribcage into a birth.” That’s what the birth is. So when the storyline insists – because the good engines insist – when you get moving on a track like that, you know you’re on to something. You don’t want to change it.

That’s why I think dropping that stuff in earlier, with Shaw saying, “I can’t conceive,” was absolutely the right thing to do. Because they then relate to each other, consummate and the following day, by god, she’s pregnant – and once she’s pregnant, I have to see it, I have to see what that is. It’s extreme, galloping DNA, whatever that is that’s creating this monstrous thing growing inside of her. David says, “You look three months’ pregnant”; in 25 minutes she now looks eight months’ pregnant – that’s inconceivable for us, because we don’t understand it. But I think it’s probably way up there somewhere, it’s entirely feasible. You’ve got to show it, you’ve got to do it.

With the secrecy surrounding Prometheus, do you have a favourite rumour that popped up over the time that made you laugh?

[RS] No – I mean, we anticipated that there might be. Because the film was so important 30 years ago, we knew that when we started doing the movie it was going to create some definite groundswell. And therefore you want to be secretive, because why do you want to know the play before you see the play? So that was all kind of fairly logical and pretty easy to control. Today, if I hand you a script, your name’s going to be right across every page, so if it comes out and your page is there, you’re going to get your knees whacked in the carpark.

[DL] That’s not a euphemism.

[RS] We don’t f*ck about. I think we also were pretty professional at anticipation and rather than putting out the usual form of advertising – because I’m deeply entrenched in advertising still – we started thinking we should be using viral TV and Twitter. There’s all those people on Twitter and if we put out stuff that doesn’t mention the movie, that’s going to be really interesting – all of Twitter’s going to go, “What the… agghhh?!” Then suddenly some bright spark goes, “Wait a minute, biking! Weyland Yutani!” and then you’re off and running. So we anticipated stuff rather than closing it down.

We really liked the Weyland TED talk that Guy Pearce did. Where did that idea come from?

[DL] Originally in the draft there’s a scene in the movie where we see David with his headset on and he’s talking to someone, and we don’t know who it is, and he gets confronted by Vickers [Charlize Theron]. There’s a scene in the script that we decided not to shoot, where we see the inside of that dream, and basically David takes a jet ski out with a beautiful woman in a bikini, to a yacht, and on the yacht is Weyland – played by Guy, without old-age make-up: this is his dream. They have a scene together and in it David says, “The engineers are dead, they’re all gone, mission failure,” and Weyland says, “Go back and try harder.” We rewrote it so that we were going to play Weyland’s identity closed, give the audience a sense that David was talking to someone on the ship but not view them.

But we had already shot the scenes with Guy in the old-age make-up. So we were like, “Are people are going to wonder why we cast Guy Pearce to play an old man, unless we represent him as Guy Pearce?” So that basically tapped into a piece of viral we had already been talking about, which is that I said it would be really cool to introduce the title of the movie – because people were asking “Prometheus, what is that?”, “How does the myth have context in the context of this movie?” So I said we should write this TED talk, and then Ridley basically handed it off to Luke, his son, who is an incredible director, and we got together with Tom Rielly at TED and said, “Can we use your branding?” because if we can’t call it a TED talk we’ll have to call it a “FRED talk” or something. Everyone will know, it’ll cheapen it.

And he said not only can you use our branding, but we’d like to unveil it at TED, and portal it through our website. So suddenly we realised we were on to something. But cool virals don’t happen unless the director completely and totally gets it, and Ridley’s entire background is in advertising and marketing, his brain works that way. So he made the calls to Fox. They immediately understood it and got on board – they were like, “What else do you have?” which a studio almost never asks you.

[RS] They usually say, “We’ve done that!” But actually you haven’t. “No. We do that!”

There was also the viral of Noomi Rapace as Dr Shaw. Were there any other ones you had planned?

[RS] That was part of her screen test. Then Johnny Hardstaff did the David one, and also played around and took the Noomi application for the job to an eye in the wall. She’s not talking to Mr Weyland – she’d never meet Weyland, she’d never be allowed to, wouldn’t even meet the secretary – it’s like a HAL eye, she’s applying to a job to the eye, which in turn is being watched by a minion, who gets a secretary, and finally gets to Rupert Murdoch, then actually to Weyland.

[DL] It was three pieces of viral: the David 8 ad, the Weyland TED talk and then the quiet eye with Noomi. There was one other piece, which was going to be the transmission, that we ended up not doing. It’s in the movie. There’s a message that they’re transmitting to the Engineers, with the girl playing the violin, and David and Holloway have the scene where they haven’t responded to the message. That’s another piece of viral which we may or may not release.

[RS] We may use it in the US when it opens [8 June]. Did you get what the message was about? From take-off you’d be constantly replaying that, hoping that somebody’s going to say, “Don’t come any further, I’m going to blow you out of the sky.” In there, there would be every conceivable form of mathematics equation and anyone who is superior is going to look at that for three seconds and say, “We’ve got chimpanzees on the way.” So, it’s an assessment of who’s coming, basically, it makes sense.

Is that a reference to the original Voyager probe, which obviously had Bach records, drawings, etc?

[RS] Yeah.

[DL] Like in Starman.

You’re known to dabble in the director’s cut. Are we going to see one when Prometheus comes to DVD chock full of these out-takes?

[RS] No, I think this is a good length, the dynamics are about right, all you’ll really see is extended scenes in the menu. That said, I think that the fashion of actually putting out a couple of discs is here to stay, which will comfort you on all other kinds of conversation about how the movie was made. The only real regret I’ve ever had over the years, funnily enough, is the cut on Kingdom of Heaven.

I removed 17 minutes which I thought at the end of the day were emotionally essential. They weren’t really part of the narrative, which was the problem, and when you’re editing, you’re editing and then suddenly the film goes off on a tangent for 17 minutes, and you’ve seen the joke several times, so the joke’s no longer funny or interesting. It was wrong, really, to take it out, because it was all about the demise of the young king, and therefore it was also a very nice thing for Eva Green. I always regretted that. The three-hour version of that was somehow more complete.

The black liquid in the “weapons” the Engineers have created seems to act in vastly different ways dependent on who it comes into contact with. Was this contrast purposeful?

[RS] No, not necessarily. That person at the beginning, if we are created by gods or monsters – and there’s no gods, it’d be singular, probably, because every religion today – which creates more problems for us today in the entire global system than any other single thing – they’re all actually worshiping one dude, really. I don’t give a damn whether it’s muslim or you name it: in theory, it’s one person. I believe that we were pre-visited. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise.

I don’t know whether it was Updike who said it, but there’s a great quote: “We’ve been here four billion years, what happened? Why did it take so long? Nothing happened until about 750,000 years in.” In four billion years that is a blink. There’s two rules of thought. You’re either going to believe in the fact that we’re here by genetic luck entirely, so from day one where you have atomic storms – inconceivable storms that will go on in this nucleus, in which the dirt bowl will find some reason to start growth on everything. Was that created? That may have been accidental, because I think there are many of those out there.

But then the idea that, “Is there a higher force in the universe?” comes the question, “Is it god, or are there superior beings out there?” You stand and look at the stars at night in the galaxy out there, it’s entirely ridiculous to believe that we are it. You mean this is it? We’re sitting in this room, I’ve got this f*cking cappuccino, and up there there’s no one else? I don’t think so.

[DL] This is referred to as the “F*cking Cappuccino” theory of astrophysics.

[RS] I’ve had nine very high-end scientists sitting at a table, ranging from NASA astrophysicists, I don’t know what you call a serious mathematician, but a serious mathematician at a scientific level. And I’ve said, first question, “Who believes in god?” And it’s a bit like looking at a bunch of nine kids and saying, “Who masturbates?” There’s a total silence.

[DL] Then you get arrested.

[RS] And one guy says, “I believe.” It’s a weird problem. So I say, “You’re a believer in distilled facts to get you through your day, because you’re in science, but on the side you believe in this guy up there, standing on a cloud with a beard, who actually is your god, which is entirely mystical. So you have a split brain in intention.” And he said “Yep.”

So I said, when you meet your wall, having a bad day or a bad month, and you’ve been working on an equation for 18 months, you can’t get through whatever that equation is, what do you think? Are you thinking, “This son of a b*tch is really clever, and I can’t break through the barrier,” do you think of god then? He said, “Yeah, in simplistic terms, yes.” So when you start there, that was, as far as we’re concerned, the right to then start doing fiction, doing movie entertainment, to step out and say, “Were we created or was it god?”

And therefore there’s two questions in the film: the guy at the beginning is simply donating himself – no stranger than the Aztecs or Incas would choose some poor bugger, at the beginning saying, “Right, you’re it, in the year you get all the girls you want, all the food you want, blah blah, and at the end of the year we’re going to take your heart, take it out, squeeze it, and we’re going to get jolly good crops and good weather next year.” It’s no more than that, he’s into a form of donation, except his DNA is so powerful, each molecule is like a timebomb.

We only set our standards by what we know here, which makes us essentially naive. We can’t conceive of galloping DNA – I release that on the desk and in a second I’ve got a cotton-wool ball going black. We can’t conceive that because it’s not in your frame of experience. So you’ve got to take your brain, put it on the side, and when you enter the movie just let yourself breathe.

[DL] I think another version of the question could be interpreted as, “What does the black goo do?”

[RS] Three things! Cleans your teeth…

[DL] Exactly. And I think that one of the things that I love about Ridley’s movies, and have loved long before I worked with him, is 30-some odd years after Blade Runner we’re all still talking about whether or not Deckard is a replicant. So there’s a speculative part of it – the question becomes, “What does the black goo do?” That is the question that you’re supposed to be asking coming out of this movie.

The movie demonstrates what it does in certain circumstances. So, here’s what it does if it gets on worms; here’s what it does if it gets on your face; here’s what it does if someone just puts a little bit of it in your drink. Now we see that that lots of this is headed to Earth. Now, you used the word “weapon” – you’re extrapolating that based on the theory Janek [Idris Elba] has, because it looks like a payload to him; all these ships are loaded with this stuff, and they’re headed for Earth. The intent has to be to wipe us out, or is it to evolve us, or is it for something else?

These are all hopefully questions and points of debate – frustrating for some – but ultimately the kind of science fiction. Why the two movies that Ridley did decades ago are still being discussed is this idea that when you walk out of the cinema that you have to go into a community and start to discuss. “Well, wait a minute, this is what I think happened.” And you’re hopefully mirroring the conversation that the characters are having in the movie, and more importantly this is why Shaw says what she says at the end of the movie. Which is, “I’m not going back to Earth and calling it a day, I need to know a little bit more about what’s happening here.”

Usually prequels, or movies that precede the original, close down the universe – so now we know everything we needed to know about Anakin Skywaker. We wanted Prometheus to open up the universe, so it’s not a prequel at all. It has two children, one of those children grows up to be Alien, and the other child is hopefully growing up in this other direction and, god willing, will grow up into an entirely different line of films.

[RS] And by the way, that black stuff is terrific Viagra.

[DL] Toothpaste, now Viagra.

[RS] You have a meltdown next morning.

Picture courtesy of Slashgear. For the original piece with picture galleries and trailers, head to T3.com

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